Robbie Erlin is learning quickly the difference between pitching in the minors versus the big leagues. Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports
WASHINGTON DC: Ask anyone who has been around the minor leagues for some time and they will generally tell you the second hardest thing to do in baseball is to reach the major leagues. Roughly 90 percent of players drafted will never play an inning of Major League Baseball.
But the hardest to do is to stay in the big leagues.
Pitchers Burch Smith and Robbie Erlin, both top prospects in the organization, have found out first-hand about the difficulty of translating minor league success into big league careers.
“Both of them have the ability to miss bats, which is always something that you want to see on the major league level,” said Darren Balsley, the Padres’ pitching coach about his two young arms.
“There are things they need to do to get better, but I think both have bright futures in the game.”
Smith, who was sent back to Triple-A Tucson before the beginning of the Washington Nationals series, is one whom Balsley sees as making the classic transformation from a thrower to a pitcher.
“Burch can throw 95 MPH pretty consistently and most guys in the minors just can’t catch up to his fastball. So down there, he was throwing 90 percent fastballs and if you do that up here you are going to have a tough time.
“What was surprising to Burch was, in one of our bullpen sessions, he discovered that he had a pretty good change. And when he started to mix that in with his curve is when he started to pitch better.”
Smith, a six-foot-four Texan by way of the University of Oklahoma was drafted by the Padres in the fourteenth round of the 2011 draft after a year as a Sooner and two at Howard (Texas) JC. According to Baseball America at the time, he was considered very much a work in progress with good velocity but suspect command and rudimentary secondary pitches.
However the Padres’ scouting department saw something different and gave him above-slot money to sign. They aggressively started him in High-A Lake Elsinore after an impressive showing in spring training the following year, bypassing a more typical assignment to Low-A Fort Wayne.
At Lake Elsinore last year, Smith was 9-6 with 137 strikeouts in 128.2 innings pitched against only 27 walks with a 3.85 ERA in the very hitter friendly California League. Evidently he found his command somewhere between the draft and his first pro season.
This season in between San Antonio and Tucson, he has been even better with a 1.83 ERA in 11 starts. But the minor league numbers can be a bit deceiving.
“As I said, Burch can throw nearly all fastballs and get people out in Tucson. But we want to see him go from a mix of ninety percent fastballs to around sixty percent, which is what good major league pitchers do,” said Balsley.
Smith, in his brief time in the big leagues, has learned that while the development of his secondary pitches is crucial, a more important factor is location. For regardless of how hard the velocity is hitters will send a ball down the middle a long way.
“Here pitches need to be located. At other levels, it wasn’t as important,” Smith said on the differences between pitching in the big leagues as opposed to the minors.
“It’s also a matter of learning when to throw something and when not to.”
His counterpart Robbie Erlin, who came over with Joe Wieland from the Texas Rangers in the Mike Adams trade in 2011, lacks Smith’s size. So locating and mixing his pitches is even more important.
While Smith’s game revolves around power, Erlin‘s calling card in the minors was his ability to command his pitches to all four quadrants of the strike zone. The 5’11” Erlin relied on his ability to place his four-seam fastball, as opposed to velocity, to go along with a very good change-up. In five minor league seasons, he only walked 72 batters in 385 innings against 422 strikeouts.
“Robbie is really a very quick learner and his bullpens here have been very productive,” Balsley said on the young left-hander from the Santa Cruz area.
“He gets a lot of swings and misses with guys swinging under pitches when he pitches up but he has to be careful because sometimes they will barrel it up.”
Erlin also concurred about his biggest challenges at the big league level.
“You have to really execute pitches here and they don’t miss that much.”
Another major adjustment from the minor leagues is the amount of information available both on your opponents and yourself. At Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson there is no one in the visiting locker room looking at video of Erlin pitching and conversely there are few, if any, scouting reports on the team he will be facing.
In the major leagues, with advanced scouting and video, it is a different game. For any young player, learning just how much information to process is as big an adjustment as any.
“Darren Balsley gives us a scouting report and it will have all the information on it and you can pick and choose what information you need,” said Erlin.
“I like to look at how aggressive guys are, but don’t worry about memorizing every stat because out there I have to be focused on executing the pitches.”
Erlin, after a rough outing against the Washington Nationals, was sent back to Tucson at the conclusion of the road trip. But for both Smith and Erlin, the experiences in the big leagues - good and bad - is part of the development process of learning what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
“You have to take it in stride,” said Smith on being demoted, “because in the end, it’s all about getting better.”