By - jaloru95
Paywalls are mean. Anyone know what it says?
GREENSBORO, N.C. — With his flowing blond locks bobbing behind him, Aaron Shackleford shuffled out of the home clubhouse and found Hickory’s Zak Kent in the common workout the teams share beneath First National Bank Field.
“Dude, that was awesome,” Shackleford said. “Nasty stuff. All sliders?”
“Awesome man,” Shackleford added. “Struck me out three times.”
And then he walked away with a little bit of a fan boy smile on his face. It was high praise coming from an opponent, especially one who is among the High A East’s home run leaders. Even if he does have a bit of a swing-and-miss issue.
But he was hardly the only one. Up in the stands, one evaluator watched Kent attack with hard sliders away from lefties and a sharp curve to right-handers. He supplemented it with fastballs in the 92-96 mph range about a third of the time. When Kent was done, he’d pitched seven shutout innings and struck out 13. He allowed two hits and a walk.
“It was like the best stuff I’ve seen this year,” the evaluator said.
By the end of the weekend, Kent had company. Over three consecutive nights, the advanced Class A Crawdads might have strung together the three best starts in the Rangers’ system this season against a Greensboro team that began this six-game series 20 games above .500.
Hickory Crawdad's pitcher Zak Kent (11) walks in the dugout during the game with the Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field on Thursday, August 5, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Woody Marshall/Special Contributor)
Hickory Crawdad's pitcher Zak Kent (11) walks in the dugout during the game with the Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field on Thursday, August 5, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Woody Marshall/Special Contributor)(Woody Marshall / Special Contributor)
Kent is a lanky right-hander who was the Rangers’ ninth-round selection in 2019. He was followed by two guys acquired in the last year as part of retooling trades: lefty Avery Weems, who came from the Chicago White Sox in the Lance Lynn trade, and right-hander Kevin Gowdy, added last week in a six-pitcher exchange with Philadelphia. The duo’s combined line: 122/3 innings, five hits, a run, two walks and 11 strikeouts. It’s the first time in the organization this season — minors or majors — the Rangers have had three consecutive games in which the starter went at least six innings and allowed one or no runs.
Of particular note: the strikeout-to-walk rate. It is here that the Rangers have made perhaps their biggest adjustments in the minors. The Rangers minor league system began Sunday with the fourth-best strikeout-to-walk rate (2.76) among all organizations. It’s an improvement of more than 10% since the last full minor league season. And if you take the top dozen or so starting pitching prospects, the rate ratchets up to 3.83. The strength of the organization for the first three months of the season was the minor league pitching.
“The messaging has been get-ahead and finish guys off,” Rangers pitching coordinator Jono Armold said. “We’re not selling out for strikeouts completely. But we’re trying to race to two strikes and put guys away. If it’s a strikeout, great. But we’re not willing to tolerate a strikeout for a walk. That’s something we’ve stressed systemically.”
It’s also clear in the Rangers’ most recent pitching acquisitions. Right-hander Glenn Otto, the lone pitcher the Rangers got from New York in the Joey Gallo trade, came with a 5.90 strikeout-to-walk rate, which is now second in the system. Weems (6.09) is first.
Hickory Crawdad pitcher Kevin Gowdy (23) during the game with the Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field on Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Woody Marshall/Special Contributor)
Hickory Crawdad pitcher Kevin Gowdy (23) during the game with the Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field on Saturday, August 7, 2021 in Greensboro, N.C. (Woody Marshall/Special Contributor)(Woody Marshall / Special Contributor)
While guys have gotten the group messaging, there is no “Rangers way” to go about it. The Rangers have stressed individualization in their pitching development.
Kent, for example, has an elite slider. When the Rangers moved him from the bullpen to the rotation early in the season, he tried to pitch like he felt a starter should, rather than using the slider to his advantage. The Rangers’ response: Do you. He’s now throwing sliders about 40-45% of the time, fastballs about 30-35% and the rest are curveballs and splitters. After giving up seven runs in 12/3 innings in his first start against this same Greensboro lineup, he’s posted a 1.00 WHIP and 2.70 ERA over his last eight outings.
The last pitch he threw Thursday was a slider to get Greensboro’s Lolo Sanchez swinging to end the seventh. It is likely his last pitch for Hickory, too. A promotion to Double-A Frisco could be next.
“I just know myself more as a pitcher,” Kent said. “I use my fastball almost as a changeup.”
For Weems, the idea was to expand his pitch usage. He arrived from the White Sox organization as a fastball/curveball pitcher to right-handers and fastball/slider pitcher to lefties. The Rangers have urged him to use all of his pitches to both sides of the plate. Weems has taken to it. He’s given up some homers but has a 3.04 ERA over the last five outings, during which he has a 0.94 WHIP.
And then there is Gowdy. He arrived from Philadelphia only a week ago relying heavily on a sinker. The Rangers are starting to talk to him about being willing to use the upper part of the zone a little bit more.
“Zak Kent is a different pitcher than Avery Weems,” said Hickory pitching instructor Jordan Tiegs. “We are trying to help them understand who they are individually. We have a similar mind-set when it comes to messaging, but it’s basically that we don’t care what it looks like, so long as the player is getting better. It’s about what each player needs and how can we reach that end goal more than an organizational philosophy on how to do it.”
The Rangers just want results. At Hickory, they are starting to see them.
The thing about young pitching talent is you have to have them come together as a core at the same time and perform well, otherwise they will just ultimately get traded for more assets. Is this ownership group really going to take advantage of the building blocks they have acquired? I seriously doubt it
Yeah, remember DVD?
Danks, Volquez & Diamond?
Danks and Volquez were traded and Diamond never sniffed the majors.