15th of Jun | Story

Four of a kind


PEARL, Mississippi | Every March, Mike Alvarez roams the Atlanta Braves spring training complex at Wide World of Sports near Disney World and watches pitchers too young to grow a good mustache stretch and warm up and fire bullpen sessions. Some of them fit the mold of what so many general managers and scouts think a starting pitcher should look like in 2012, all tall and strong, filled with long muscles and strong shoulders. 

And some of them look like something else.

“It’s crazy to see 25 guys, most of them starters, most of them projected to be the starters for the season, most of them different, and every one of them has some value,” says Alvarez, who pitched seven seasons in the minors during the 1980s and is in his second season as the pitching coach for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. “We don’t have a prototype.”

Take a look at the four starters Alvarez has helped coach this season who landed on the Southern League all-star team. On paper, Sean Gilmartin, David Hale, Gary Moran and Zeke Spruill have all pitched their way to similar statistics — ERAs between 3.19 and 4.26, WHIPs between 1.16 and 1.25, between 5.98 and 7.52 strikeouts per nine innings and, because of a consistent lack of run support, fewer wins than their standard performance would otherwise merit — but numbers often lie. Consider the differences.

“You want offense, but you can’t win without pitching.” — Mississippi Braves pitching coach Mike Alvarez

— Three of the four are righties. The other, obviously, is a lefty.

— Two are 22 years old. The others are 24 and 27.

— Two measure in around 6-foot-2. The others are more imposing at 6-5 and 6-8.

— One was drafted in the first round. Two others were drafted in the second and third round. The last was drafted in the 41st round.

— Before they started their professional careers, one pitched in the Atlantic Coast Conference — the cream of college baseball — one in the Ivy League, one for a junior college and one for his high school in Georgia.

— None has the same mix of three or four pitches.

— All wound up among the dozen or so top pitchers in the 10-team Southern League over the first half.

“That’s not really surprising to me, especially with the guys we have,” says Gilmartin, the only left-hander and first-rounder in the group and the starter with the lowest WHIP (1.16) and the highest number of strikeouts per walk (3.23). “We’ve got a pretty good staff here. We all have a pretty good idea of what we want to do. 

“We understand what our job is as a starting pitcher.”


Selected in the first round of 2011 draft out of Florida State

5-8, 3.59 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.71 K/9, 3.23 K/BB, .248 BAA


DAVID HALE, 24, RHP, 6-2, 210

Selected in the third round of the 2009 draft out of Princeton

6-4, 4.26 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 7.52 K/9, 1.88 K/BB, .226 BAA


GARY MORAN, 27, RHP, 6-8, 255

Selected in the 41st round of the 2009 draft out of Sonoma State

3-8, 1 save, 3.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 6.22 K/9, 2.62 K/BB, .259 BAA


ZEKE SPRUILL, 22, RHP, 6-5, 190

Selected in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Kell High in Marietta, Georgia

6-10, 4.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 5.98 K/9, 2.38 K/BB, .257 BAA

And so continues the long lineage of dominant Braves starters that opened in 1992 when Greg Maddux opted for the Braves over the Chicago Cubs in free agency and joined John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery. Over the next 20 years, potential aces like Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood and Tim Hudson have pitched for the team. Now new workhorses like Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor fill the rotation, among plenty of others. “That’s the way the Braves are,” Alvarez says. “You want offense, but you can’t win without pitching.”

Even with pitching, Mississippi has had trouble winning this season. The Braves lead the league with a 1.30 team WHIP, meaning they keep runners off base better than anybody else, and are fifth with a 3.87 ERA, but their inability to score runs, to even get on base — eighth in batting average, ninth in runs scored, last in home runs by a wide margin — has led to losses. 

The Braves finished last in the South Division during the first half, the only team in the league with 40 losses, and haven’t budged a bit since the break, already eight games under .500 after a month. “We hope to have more collective success,” says manager Aaron Holbert, in his first season with the organization after a handful of seasons in various Cleveland Indians minor league outposts. “But the individual success is showing.”

And not just from one pitcher. Hale, who pitched for Princeton and has spent much of his free time the last month on his Kindle — he has worked his way through a Bob Dylan biography and military game theory analysis, among other reads — leads the all-star quartet with 7.52 strikeouts per inning and a .226 batting average against. Moran, first in the group and second in the league with a 3.19 ERA, has prepared for his wedding and smiled at the fact that, after four years at junior colleges, three shoulder surgeries and three drafts, he finally has a chance to prove his arm and mind are good enough. Gilmartin leads the league with three complete games. Spruill who is a workhorse who turned in six complete games last season.

“Pitching is pretty much what the Braves value,” Spruill says. “They breed pitchers. I’m not part of it yet.”

Mississippi sent four starting pitchers to the all-star game last season, too. Three are now out of the organization, traded away during the offseason. The fourth, Randall Delgado, has shuffled between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett. “In the end,” Alvarez says, “you really don’t know.”

These four are all learning how to really pitch, all attentive during bullpens and impromptu side lessons, though none of them says they have learned anything close to everything yet. 

“You almost have to step back and look from the outside,” Alvarez says. “The expectations here are so high, and they know it. To be a pitcher in the Atlanta Braves organization goes a long way. We have to savor their abilities.”

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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