Erlin Is a Teenager, He Just Pitches Like A Veteran

If Robert Erlin was Dominican, we'd all be questioning his birth certificate.

But since the records in the States are pretty airtight, we can safely assume that Erlin is 19, he just pitches like someone much older.

Less than a year out of high school, the Rangers lefthander should be struggling to keep his head above water in the low Class A South Atlantic League, which is filled with players older than him—he's the seventh youngest pitcher to pitch in the league this year.

Instead Erlin has allowed one earned run in his first 30 1/3 innings—a 0.30 ERA. He spent the first month and a half of the season working out of the bullpen as the Rangers try to limit his innings. But once he moved into the rotation last week, he threw five perfect innings with nine strikeouts in his first pro start. This weekend in his second start he allowed two unearned runs in five innings, striking out six. He's struck out 18 batters since he allowed his last walk.

"In spring training we realized leaving him in extended spring training wouldn't have challenged him," Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman said. "We moved him here to challenge him, but this hasn't really challenged him either."

It's not just the results that make Erlin seem like he's older than his birthdate. It's how he does it.

"It's obvious he's had quality instruction in the past," Holman said. "He can command three pitches. He's extremely stoic on the mound—amazingly mature for his age. He's almost a complete pitcher right now.

"Honestly as far as his upside, he may be able to do what he does all the way to the big leagues."

That doesn't mean that Erlin's anywhere close to ready to pitch in the big leagues, but it does mean that most of the things on a teenage pitcher's to-do list are issues that Erlin has already worked out.

He throws his changeup and curveball for strikes, and he throws them at any point in the count. He fields his position well.

When he came to pro ball, one of the knocks on Erlin was that his high leg kick would make it too easy for baserunners to run on him. So what did he do? He added a slide step that has given baserunners something to worry about—although 19 baserunners in 30 innings hasn't given him many chances to work on holding runners.

Erlin's 90-92 mph fastball is average for a lefthander, but it's not enough for him to simply blow hitters away. It's effective because he's able to spot it to both sides of the plate and also because he is willing to use his changeup and curveball throughout the count.

Erlin's scouting report coming out of high school was that his curveball was his strikeout pitch. It's living up to expectations as a solid hammer, and Erlin has shown that he can vary its spin and bite. But his circle change has proven to be a real revelation this year—it's a good 15-17 mph slower than his fastball.

"It's well above-average," Holman said. "Typically guys at his age take an obvious approach to their pitch selection. Robbie doubles and triples up on pitches."

A lot of that credit can be handed to Erlin's individual pitching coach, Dave Felter, who has been working with him since he was 13. One of Felter's key points of emphasis is to read hitters' swings for clues as to what to throw next.

Erlin isn't the only Hickory pitcher who has had a very good start to the season. Holman gave some thumbnail assessments on a few of the other arms on what's a very talented Hickory staff.

RHP Wilmer Font (4-1, 5.16, since promoted to high Class A Bakersfield): "His stuff is exceptional. He's been as high as 95-98 on the radar gun. He hasn't been quite there this year with his velocity. But he has come a long way with his changeup and his breaking ball. His curveball is not quite there on a consistent basis. He's developing as a strike thrower. He has a power arm, but he has learn to stay in pitchers' counts and attack the zone."

RHP Braden Tullis (1-0, 2.25): "He's a sinker/slider guy. He sits at 90-91 mph and throws all his pitches for strikes. It's a plus changeup and his slider has improved. He's now using it as a tool to get outs."

RHP Joe Wieland (3-2, 3.35): "Joe is another guy like Erlin who is just mature beyond his years. He commands three pitches. He's hungry for information. He'll do different things with his fastball. He'll add and subtract. He likes to elevate in the zone and he'll sink it. He pitches inside well. And then has also has an average curveball and changeup."

RHP Josh Lueke (2-1, 0.46 ERA, 10 saves, since promoted to Double-A Frisco): "He's 94-96 and he commands it with a well above-average slider and split. He can put away righthanders and lefthanders (with his secondary pitches). He can finish the hitter with a fastball too."

And for more on one more Hickory pitcher, check out today's Daily Dish.