Rarified Air

Young Mariners learn to pitch in unforgiving High Desert

When people talk about the high Class A California League as a hitter's paradise, they're talking about places like High Desert, where high altitude and strong winds contribute to increased home run output and, thus, more runs scored overall.

In the past two completed seasons, High Desert batters have clubbed 54 percent more home runs at home (148) in Adelanto, Calif., than on the road (96). Mavericks pitchers have allowed 44 percent more homers at Stater Bros. Stadium (217) than in the other nine Cal League venues (151).

This two-year window encompasses the Mariners time at High Desert, since they moved from San Bernardino, Calif., following the '06 season. But the previous tenants found the conditions just as harsh. Royals farmhands, in 2006, both hit and allowed roughly 54 percent more home runs at home.

The good news for the Mariners' promising, young High Desert rotation is that they're in good hands with pitching coach Jaime Navarro, a righthander whose 12-year big league career placed him in a few hostile pitching environments of his own. He pitched for both the Cubs and White Sox from 1995 to 1999, and pitching in those parks produced five of his top six home runs allowed totals.

"The first thing is, when you're playing in High Desert or in Lancaster, you've got to pitch down," Navarro said. "Move the ball up and down, not sideways. You've got to change eye level up and down, not work the corners."

So in the context of their environment, the early performance of High Desert's pitching staff is particularly impressive. Four-fifths of the rotation is making the jump together from last year's low Class A Wisconsin club. The fifth member of last year's Timber Rattlers' rotation, Phillippe Aumont, has converted from starting to relieving and sports a 1.23 ERA in seven Cal League appearances thus far, having allowed just three hits in 7 1/3 innings.

And while the 20-year-old Quebec native's bullpen conversion has garnered much of the early attention—he was the 11th overall pick in '07, after all—the Mavericks' team ERA sits at a respectable 3.89, sixth best in the league. Oh yeah, and they're off to a sizzling 11-3 start as well.

"They have been working their butts off," said Navarro, who also worked with many of the pitchers last year as pitching coach for Wisconsin. "But this is just the beginning. They know I make them feel comfortable, and I'm really comfortable with them. We talk all the time about how to pitch. I believe strongly that to make it to the next level, you've got to pitch inside, you've got to be in command and you've got to compete like it's your last game."

Granted, the season is young, but contrast the early returns with High Desert's showing in each of the past two seasons. The club ranked dead last in ERA both times—at 5.88 last year and 6.44 in '07. And in each case, the Mavericks came in almost a full run higher than the No. 9 team.

The central figures to the turnaround have been young righthanders J.C. Ramirez, Michael Pineda and Nathan Adcock, the club's fifth-round pick in '06 from a Kentucky high school and an old man on the staff at age 21. The two others are just 20 years old. Dominican lefty Edward Paredes, 22, rounds out the quintet.

"I tell my guys, 'I don't want you to walk guys,' " Navarro said. "I want them to locate their pitches down in the zone, because once you walk guys in this league, a pop fly can be a home run. Most hitters in this league want to hit the long ball because of the wind. The ball is going to carry, so I'd rather my pitchers challenge hitters and give up a solo bomb than walk guys and give up a two- or three-run homer.

"I tell them that if you give up one run every three innings in this league, you're going to be a winner every time. That's the attitude you have to have. You have to help the kids relax and have confidence in their pitches—keep them nice and loose. It's hard, but you can't get frustrated with the 35 mile-per-hour wind blowing out all the time."

J.C. Ramirez

On the heels of five strong innings on April 20 at home against Rancho Cucamonga, in which he allowed two runs while striking out six, the flame-throwing Ramirez sports a 1.65 ERA, eighth-best in the league. He has compiled 10 strikeouts to go with six walks and two home runs allowed in 16 1/3 innings of work.

"He really threw the hell out of the ball last night," Navarro said of Ramirez's most recent outing. "He was up to 97 (mph), averaging about 94. He threw strikes. He struggled only in the fifth inning when he got lazy—that's what I call it—and left a first-pitch fastball up and in that (Quakes left fielder Anthony Norman) hit out of park.

"The guy has a true major league fastball, no doubt. My work with him has been mostly with his breaking ball. He has good spin on the pitch, but it doesn't have that short, hard tilt yet. When he throws it, he sometimes drops his hands and slows down his body a bit. It's the same thing with the changeup. Once he (finds consistency with his arm speed and motion)—watch out."

Navarro said that Ramirez's slider typically resides in the 79-80 mph range, and that he could benefit from being more aggressive with the pitch. The same is not true of the fastball.

"His fastball he can throw inside, and he also cuts and sinks the ball. It moves so much that it reminds me of that Kevin Brown sinker—just hard and down. He has that. Felix (Hernandez) has great movement on his fastball, and a great breaking ball. That's what Ramirez is trying to do.

"He's been making amazing progress."

In case you're wondering why Ramirez here is referred to as J.C. and not the more familiar Juan or Juan Carlos, it's because of a desire on the part of the young Nicaraguan to feel more enmeshed in American culture. He finished the Mariners' English language program last offseason and, according to Navarro, he wishes to have a name that sounds more familiar to American ears.

Nathan Adcock

Adcock busted onto the prospect scene last season with a strong first half in the Midwest League—he went 2-5, 3.72 with 82 whiffs in 77 innings—but an elbow strain trimmed his season to 15 games. Then on April 17 he did the unthinkable: He pitched a complete-game six-hitter in Lancaster, perhaps the most inhospitable pitching environment in A-ball, if not the minors. Best of all, Adcock needed just 83 pitches to finish the game, in which he fanned six and didn't walk anybody.

"That day was impressive," Navarro said. "In his previous start (a six-run shellacking by Lancaster over 5 2/3 innings at High Desert) he was missing a little with his pitches. We had worked on a new grip for his changeup in between starts, but still he surprised me. He threw the ball well, kept the ball down and mixed his pitches well.

"He used his changeup for an out-pitch that night. A lot of those hitters were swinging at the first pitch, and Adcock was averaging seven or eight pitches per inning, getting ahead on every hitter, quick."

Navarro said that Adcock's fastball averaged 90-92 mph and featured good sink. It's a borderline plus pitch, which he locates especially well to his arm side—or inside to righthanded batters and away from lefties. Adcock's slider, thrown in the 80-82 mph range, showed both tilt and sink. But the righthander has made the largest stride with his 81-83 mph changeup, which features a separation of 8-10 mph off the fastball.

"His throws a changeup that sinks and just drops. It looks like a splitter coming out of his hand," Navarro said. "I had a hard time charting the game from the dugout. After the inning I'd ask our catcher (Travis Scott), 'Was that a slider?' No, it was the changeup."

Credited with having the organization's best breaking ball in our '09 Prospect Handbook, Adcock adds and subtracts from the pitch, making it appear shorter or longer. We identified it as a curveball in the book, but to Navarro, it's a slider all the way.

"He makes it look more like a slider when it's short. He's over the top most of the time, so if you look only at his arm angle, it looks like a curveball. But his ability to change speeds with his breaking ball is impressive."

Michael Pineda

Pineda was last seen toying with Midwest League batters in 2008, ranking second in both ERA (1.95) and opponent average (.216). He has picked up this season right where he left off. The 6-foot-5, 180-pound Dominican ranks among the Cal League leaders in innings (18 1/3) as well as strikeouts (18), all while walking just four batters.

"He's a pitching machine—he just throws strikes," Navarro said. "He's a big, tall horse. He challenges you. Last year he was more 90-91 (mph), but so far this year he's gotten up to 93. Like my other pitchers, he's just gaining maturity. They're all getting stronger and competing a lot better at this level."

Navarro notes that Pineda's slider looks more like a cut fastball because of its short break. But occasionally he'll break off a true 77-78 mph breaker. But for now, the young righthander is focusing more on spotting his 86-91 mph cutter for strikes on the outer half of the plate against righthanded batters, aiming it middle-out, and then coming back inside with his two-seamer—which is a strength of Pineda's.

"In his first start (April 9), he hit three guys," Navarro said. "He told me, 'I was only trying to throw my sinker inside.' I told him, 'Then keep pitching inside. The hitter is going to stand there and take it, and I want you to throw the ball under their elbows. If you hit him, there's nothing you can do. Go get the next hitter. Play the game hard.' You've got to keep throwing inside to keep them off balance. And his ball runs so much, from the middle of the plate to the right corner, that he's probably going to keep hitting guys."

Navarro on Edward Paredes

"He's having a bit of a hard time breathing up there (in the high altitude of Adelanto). He had a hard time locating his fastball in his last start because he's jumping a bit, working a bit too fast. But once he gets it going, he's going to be fine. He throws strikes with a 90-91 (mph) fastball, and he's not afraid to challenge hitters. He gets good spin on his (mid-70s) curveball, but he needs to be more aggressive with it. I have to remind him to slow down his motion because it affects his release point. Otherwise, he's fine."

"His changeup is a good one—when he can throw it for strikes. But he tries to work too quick, and he leaves it up in zone at times. But when he slows down his delivery, he's got a good one at 76-77. The slower, the better. When he gets on top of the ball, (the changeup) is kind of like a screwball. When he gets his delivery and tempo, he can spot that anywhere and fool hitters. But he's full of adrenaline—he wants to get it going."

Navarro on Phillippe Aumont

"In my opinion, this kid has all the tools to move quickly and to be a future closer. He throws 94-95 with hard sink. The ball moves so well out of his hand, and he throws it so hard, that he gets a lot of movement. He pitches inside. He loves to challenge batters. And from what I've seen, he's had more fun in the bullpen than he did starting last year (for Wisconsin). He's more aggressive out there—he's very cocky—and yesterday (April 20) he broke two bats and was pitching in."

"His curveball has hard 12-to-6 spin. It's crisp and just hard. He's got those two pitches plus a good changeup that sinks away—but it's a little bit hard now. It looks more like a splitty; it breaks like a split. The change needs to be more consistent. But those two other pitches are big league pitches."

"He's just a horse out there. He hates to walk guys, and he competes so well that he tries to be too perfect. That adrenaline starts to kick in out there. I tell him to be aggressive, but be smart."

Bonus Material
Navarro on 24-year-old righthander Jake Wild, a 26th-round pick in 2007 from Pacific:

"The guy can be a long man or short man or even a closer. He throws strikes, he's smart and he knows how to pitch. He's got a good sinker at 89-90 (mph) and a good splitter. He doesn't walk anybody and you can use him any time, in any role. He's got a good slider, too, and he uses it well with his two-seamer. If I need a win in a game where the starter goes four or five innings, then Wild's going to be my guy."