Third Pitch The Charm For Padres' Sampson





WASHINGTON, D.C.—Much has been made of the Padres' recent trade deadline acquisitions of Robbie Erlin and Jon Wieland to go with the offseason pickup of Casey Kelly from the Red Sox. But the best pitcher in the organization this year may be Fort Wayne righthander Keyvius Sampson.

Last season with short-season Eugene, Sampson went 3-3, 3.56 in 10 starts despite facing mostly older competition. He struck out 58 batters in 43 innings, allowing just 35 hits and 17 walks in 10 starts before a shoulder injury ended his season.

This year, the 20-year-old has dominated Midwest League competition, going 11-2, 2.54 through 22 starts. He held opponents to a league-best .178 average, while striking out 133 and walking 44 in 110 innings. His strikeout rate, 10.9 per nine innings, ranked third among MWL starters.

Sampson, who last year credited improved fastball command and a better curveball for much of his success, believes that the emergence of his third pitch, the changeup, is the biggest reason for his continued improvement.

"It's been a big key to me and I've been able to throw it in any count," Sampson said. "That and just building on what I did last year has really helped me."

The 6-foot, 190-pound Sampson generates tremendous arm strength and deception with a fastball consistently in the low 90s.

"He's a thin guy but is pretty broad across the chest and (that), combined with his legs, is where he generates easy velocity," Padres assistant general manager Jason McLeod said.

"He can touch 95 (mph) and sits around 92 or 93 without much effort because his arm works really well. He has come up with a very good change, but to me one of the biggest keys for what has been an outstanding development year for him is his ability to take the ball every fifth day."

Putting In The Work

With a little under a month left in the season, Sampson had already thrown more than double the number of innings than he did in 2010 and had yet to miss a start.

Some wondered if Sampson would be able to handle a full-season workload because the organization shut him down in mid-August last season as a precautionary measure. Those shoulder issues had not resurfaced through mid-August.

"I think my offseason workouts really paid off this year," Sampson said. "My first year, I did some offseason training in New York, but kind of neglected my arm. This time I went back home and got together with Randy Holland and Roy Silver of the Winning Inning, going six days a week with a lot of work on the muscles around my shoulder.

"That as much as anything is a big reason why I have been able to stay healthy."

So far the only hiccups in 2011 were two bad starts in June, the worst coming after the MWL all-star game. After not pitching for 14 days, he returned to the hill on June 28 and surrendered seven runs in two innings to Lake County.

"The all-star break kind of threw me off.  The break was just too long and I really had to knock some rust off," Sampson said.

He bounced back in July with a 1.07 ERA, giving up just three earned runs in five starts,  striking out 31 batters against 11 walks in 25 innings.

Take It Slow

Before Sampson came along in 2009, the Padres hadn't signed a high school righthander in the top 10 rounds since 2001. He spurned Florida State to sign with the Padres for $600,000 as a fourth-round selection and was considered more an athlete with a dynamic arm than a pitcher.

Establishing a consistent delivery to take advantage of his talents, in addition to building up his strength in his lower body, has been key to Sampson's development.

"His delivery is much better as far as his direction to the plate," Padres minor league pitching coordinator Mike Couchee said, referring to Sampson's season in Eugene after staying in extended spring training to work with San Diego's development staff at their Peoria, Ariz. complex.

"He had a tendency to get across his body and kind of go side-to-side but now he's improved."

As with most high school arms, the Padres are taking a relatively slow development path with Sampson. Nearly all of San Diego's teen pitchers spend the first half of their first professional season in extended spring, refining their pitches and slowly stretching out the number of innings they throw. The second half is spent in the Northwest League with Eugene. 

After instructional league in October and a full spring training, the organization will then start them in the Midwest League and get them on track to throw 100-plus innings.

By moving pitchers along at a slower pace, the Padres hope to instill a feel for the rhythm of pro baseball and starting every five days. They also learn to command the fastball and develop secondary pitches, two areas that have greatly benefitted Sampson's development since being drafted.

"In terms of limiting my innings, it did get me to develop a little more," Sampson of his time in extended spring last year.

"In the long run, I know it will help me, and that is what they do with all the young guys here, just move us along one stop at a time."

John Conniff covers the Padres system for 619Sports.net