Rangers' Erlin Displays Poise Beyond His Years
This wasn't the plan.
The Rangers expected Robbie Erlin to start the season in extended spring training as a prelude to an assignment to short-season Spokane in June. After all, the 19-year-old was entering his first full professional season.
Erlin had other ideas. The lefthander earned a place on Hickory's roster in spring training.
When he otherwise would have been working back at the Rangers' complex in Surprise, Ariz., Erlin got to make his first professional start on May 18 in Kannapolis.
"Just watching the way he went about his business in spring training and the command that he has of his pitches," Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman said, "we opted to bring him here and challenge him a little bit. Obviously, he rose to the challenge."
Just look at that first start. Erlin opened the season in the Crawdads' bullpen, making eight appearances before joining the rotation. The outing against the Intimidators marked the first time he'd started a game since his high school finale a year earlier. Yet Erlin pitched like a seasoned veteran, calmly disposing of all 15 Kannapolis hitters he faced, striking out nine of them.
"I was just executing pitches like I've always done," Erlin said. "That's been my mindset all season. I was just doing that and getting a good read on the hitters and what their tendencies were and just countering those and keeping them off balance."
Erlin hardly slowed down over the next month. He posted a 2.06 ERA over his next seven starts, holding opponents to three runs or fewer in all but one of them. Erlin went on to capture the South Atlantic League's ERA title with a 6-3, 2.12 line and also led the league in WHIP (0.92) and ranked second in opponents' average (.213)
Consider that decision to send him to Hickory validated.
If the Intimidators' hitters were skeptical of Erlin as they watched him stride to the mound that night in Kannapolis, they wouldn't have been the first ones.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Erlin hardly casts the most imposing figure on the mound. In fact, size remained an issue even as he drew more and more interest from teams during his senior season at Scotts Valley (Calif.) High in 2009.
"That's what I was hearing the whole time from most of the scouts," Erlin said. "That's what my advisor ended up telling me—that the feedback they got was just that I was a little bit undersized.
"But I knew that once you go into professional ball, it doesn't matter how big you are or how hard you throw, really. It's just what you do with the baseball. I kept that in mind and just kept doing what I was doing through the high school season."
Some scouts believed Erlin could have been a first-round pick if he were a couple inches taller. As it was, he lasted until the third round, where Texas snapped him up with the 93rd overall pick and signed him for a $425,000 bonus.
What the Rangers got for their investment was a pitcher who might not have the flashiest repertoire, but one whose demeanor and feel for his craft belie his age.
"(Hitters) look at his stature and they think of him as a soft lefty," Hickory manager Bill Richardson said. "I don't think of it that way."
Erlin might not blow opponents away with overpowering heaters, but he locates his fastball at 89-91 mph exceptionally well. The pitch, which he can throw in two- or four-seam varieties, gets average sink at times and he's able to command it to both sides of the plate, despite throwing slightly across his body from his high three-quarters delivery.
But Erlin's biggest weapon has been his changeup. He's been able to achieve as much as a 15 mph differentiation between the change and his fastball, according to Holman, and has helped him limit righthanded hitters to .179/.219/.281 averages through 285 at-bats.
While that changeup is one of Erlin's tangible strengths—though Sally League hitters might beg to differ—he's got another one that doesn't show up on a pitch chart.
"He never breathes hard," Holman said. "He's out there and regardless of the situation, you just get that sense from him that he's got it. 'I've got this.' That, to me, is an uncharacteristic characteristic for guys his age. Just to watch him on the mound, the confidence that he exudes out there is tremendous."
Cool Under Pressure
Richardson had seen that confidence before.
When the Rangers signed Erlin in late July 2009, they sent him to make his pro debut in the Rookie-level Arizona League, where Richardson served as manager. Erlin made just three appearances, but one moment stuck out for Richardson: When Erlin faced a situation with a runner on third base with two outs.
"There's a runner on third and he's jockeying down the line," Richardson said. "Well, in rookie ball, that creates a whole bunch of havoc. (Erlin) was never in harm's way. He just took a glance and threw to the plate and got the hitter. He pitches way beyond his years."
That's not to say Erlin's a finished product.
He's still working to refine his curveball, which has tilt and shows above-average potential at times. Then there's the usual things a young pitcher has to hone, like controlling the running game and managing his own effort level. On that note though, Erlin actually had been impressively efficient, completing at least five innings in 11 of his first 15 starts despite being on a limit of around 75-80 pitches.
Erlin still has to get through a full season of starting. There wasn't room in the Hickory rotation at the start of the year, and the Rangers wanted to control his innings anyway, preferring to keep his load light early and enable him to pitch the whole season rather than shut him down later on.
Erlin expected to head home to California at the end of Hickory's season rather than go to instructional league. Unlike many prospects though, going home wasn't Erlin's first choice.
"He wants to go and hear some of the preachings of Nolan Ryan and (pitching coordinator) Danny Clark and (do) the classroom work," Richardson said. "He's a student."