PORTLAND, Maine — Even with nearly two decades in professional baseball, Mike Rabelo still couldn’t hide his giddy enthusiasm for his current team’s stacked pitching rotation.
The manager at Double-A Erie and former big league catcher gushed over the talents of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Tarik Skubal and Joey Wentz, who, along with Triple-A Toledo starter Beau Burrows, are at the forefront of the Detroit Tigers’ rebuild.
“I'm not moving the chess pieces, but if I had to say, this is the group. And rightfully so,” Rabelo told Yahoo Sports. “They're right around the corner from pitching in Comerica [Park].”
The Erie pitchers themselves know it’s a long process and are focused on the here and now. But Rabelo said they know that all eyes are on them, and they’re thrilled about it.
“We're all hoping that we can keep advancing and improving to try to go to the next levels,” Faedo said. “Looking at it now hopefully we can continue this.”
‘The professor’ Casey Mize’s appetite for data
Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, possesses a devastating splitter to put in front of a plus fastball-slider combination. He surrendered only one run over 26 innings in his first four starts at Class A Advanced Lakeland and made it to Double-A less than a year after being drafted.
The next encouraging sign that the Tigers made the right choice came in his Erie debut -- a nine-inning no-hitter in which he allowed a walk, hit a batter and struck out seven. He missed about a month with shoulder inflammation but has since returned to Erie where he holds a 3.22 ERA in 72 2/3 innings.
“We know what we're capable of, and why we're selected there, and kind of what we were expected to do, but we can't really worry about all that right now,” Mize said. “We can’t look too far ahead, we've got to do things for that to even happen.”
— Erie SeaWolves (@erie_seawolves) April 30, 2019
Rabelo has taken to calling Mize -- no stranger to TrackMan and Rapsodo, two services that provide data on spin rates and pitch movements, among other things, after his time at Auburn University -- “the professor.” The name is fitting not only because of his appetite for the technology that the Tigers and his Nashville-based Bledsoe agency provide, but his self-described “serious” demeanor.
“I lean on [the data] for certain things. I don't think it's everything because there's still human nature to this game,” Mize said. “But there's definitely things you can learn from the pitch development standpoint.
“Just to track how you're doing compared to last month, or if your velocity is dipping, or if you're spinning the ball better -- things like that.”
Friendships not interfering with competitiveness
Rabelo said the entire rotation is committed to their craft and open to the TrackMan and Rapsodo data. But he also described a side of Manning and Faedo that’s more like the Hanson brothers playing with their toy cars than a mad scientist pouring over spreadsheets on the road.
Their goofy, fun-loving nature has helped cultivate the type of friendships that create a comfortable atmosphere in which the players have thrived.
“The part I like the most is kind of how they all became friends in helping each other. They all push each other,” said pitching coach Mark Johnson. “They're a great bunch of guys and they all compete well and want to learn.”
Though they’ve gotten close as friends, the competitive nature still exists among them.
“If you look back and see somebody do well, and you're like, ‘I want to do that too,’” Mize said. “I think just having success is going to be contagious for us, and that's kind of the competitive thing. Is just the success, just trying to repeat that on a constant basis.”
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) August 10, 2019
The Tigers were deliberate with Manning, the 6-foot-6 son of former NBA big man Rich Manning, after the draft but amped up his production last year. He’s compiled a 2.57 ERA with 134 strikeouts in 119 innings this season.
He gets great extension from his large frame and can run his fastball to the mid-90s with easy power. Manning’s curveball drops off the table and his changeup is a solid third offering. They don’t all have nicknames, but Rabelo’s labeled him, “The Beaut.”
“I learn a lot with all my starts,” said Manning, who’s lowered his walk per nine from 3.9 last season to 2.72 this year. “Trying to find something I can improve on every time, and just clean up some of my flaws, and just try to be an all-around pitcher.”
Faedo’s clock started late too and his debut was delayed to 2018 because of his heavy workload at the University of Florida. He made it to Double-A after 12 starts in Lakeland but finished with a 4.95 ERA. He’s lowered that to 4.01 this year but was recently placed on the injured list with a back strain.
It’s a setback that, this late in the season, shouldn’t derail the ideal path for the entire rotation.
“They all move at their own speed,” Johnson said. “They're going to tell you when it's time to move. I think it's in their hands to develop and become consistent and the organization will move them as they show they're rightfully ready.”
Joey Wentz’s arrival and outlier Tarik Skubal
Wentz came from a similar situation in the Atlanta Braves organization. The 6-foot-5 left-hander was in a rotation with Anderson and Kyle Muller at Double-A Mississippi. He fit right in on a staff that feeds off each other’s talent.
“They came right in like they've been here the whole year,” Johnson said.
For a second-straight start, Joey Wentz went five innings against NH. This time, he walked none and racked up nine K's (career-high is 10).
At one point, Wentz retired nine in a row and 11 of 12. #RoadToDetroit
Here was his final strikeout 🔊: pic.twitter.com/KnGoGiscRR
— Evan Giddings (@egiddings10) August 11, 2019
Wentz has a 4.54 overall ERA in 22 starts between Mississippi and Erie this season. He and Manning are the youngest on staff, but he’s recovered nicely from an oblique injury in 2018 and is averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
Skubal is the outlier and, oddly enough, he’s performing better than anyone on staff. The 2018 ninth-rounder from the University of Seattle has a 1.86 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 29 innings in Double-A. He forced his way into the rotation with a 2.58 ERA in 15 starts in Lakeland.
“At Auburn, we had walk-ons start, we had really high scholarship guys not play,” Mize said. “It doesn't matter when you get to go out there and compete ... [Skubal’s] having a spectacular year, and I sure am happy he's here.”
The southpaw Skubal leads a four-pitch mix with a fastball he can pump up to 98-mph. His swing-and-miss numbers remain eye-popping even as he outgrows his sample size.
“He has definitely risen to the occasion with what he's done here. His stuff is really good and he's fitting right in with these other guys,” Rabelo said. “Every manager is always as good as their pitching, and when these guys throw well, I always joke, it makes us look like we know what we're doing.”
Last night, LHP Tarik Skubal became the first @erie_seawolves pitcher in franchise history to strike out 10+ in each of his first three starts. #RoadToDetroit
Here's how S-ꓘ-ubal's career-high 13th strikeout sounded: pic.twitter.com/P1eG3KO3py
— Evan Giddings (@egiddings10) July 20, 2019
Will Detroit’s drafting strategy actually work?
At 35-80 entering Tuesday, the Tigers have the worst record in MLB, a position in which they finished two seasons ago.
They traded outfielder Nicholas Castellanos and closer Shane Greene, which netted them Wentz and right-hander Alex Lange at the deadline. The deals were the latest in a long line of trades -- in which Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson, and Ian Kinsler were shipped out of Detroit -- confirming that the rebuild was very much in motion.
Mize was the prize for the first of Detroit’s second 64-win season in a row. It was the fourth consecutive draft in which the Tigers went pitcher-first in the opening round. He was preceded by Burrows (22nd) in 2015, then Manning (9th) in 2016 and Faedo (18th) in 2017.
“There's a lot of, like, top-rated guys here,” said Lange, who entered the season as one of the Chicago Cubs’ best pitching prospects but has been relegated to a swing role in Erie. “It's good to be around a bunch of guys that are like-minded. They work hard, and they're very talented.”
There have been 18 instances -- three by the Tigers -- in which a team selected pitchers with their first pick in the opening round of four straight drafts.
This strategy recently unearthed top pitching prospects for the Braves (Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright) and Toronto Blue Jays (Nate Pearson). Mike Mussina, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Kerry Wood were all selected during these types of streaks as well.
The Oakland Athletics weren’t exactly in a rebuilding phase when Zito, Mulder and Tim Hudson burst onto the scene in 2000 -- they won 87 games in 1999 but finished under .500 in five years prior.
But it was important for the trio of young pitchers to blossom at the same time in the majors. Zito, Mulder and Hudson being all together at Triple-A Vancouver in 1999 was a very good sign they might bloom at least somewhat simultaneously.
The team won at least 90 games each of the five seasons they were together from 2000-2004. There was obviously more than three players that contributed to that string of success in Oakland, but the rotation was a good place to start.
It’ll be a long time before comparing what the Tigers have in Erie to the A’s young pitching core of 20 years ago becomes appropriate. And it’ll be even more work for Tigers general manager Al Avila to bolster a lineup comparable to Oakland’s.
But having that much talent on one minor league team is unique, and it’s a good sign that if the talent can advance to the majors it will could plentiful.
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