Familia Leads Resurgent Power Pitchers On Mets' Farm

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Three of the liveliest arms in the Mets organization have aligned their natural talents with tangible results early this season for Double-A Binghamton. A year earlier, Jeurys Familia, Brad Holt and Robert Carson ventured so far off the grid that their glowing scouting reports read as pure abstraction.

As a thumbnail sketch for that trio's ineffectiveness in 2010, consider that in a combined 75 appearances they went 17-34, 6.36 and worked around an average of 1.8 baserunners per inning. A common refrain among scouts who watched Familia, Holt and Carson pitch last year centered on the overly-mechanical nature of their deliveries.

So in response to the lost developmental year for that trio (and others), the Mets in February promoted Rick Tomlin to roving minor league pitching coordinator. He had served for two years as pitching coach for short-season Brooklyn, but his late appointment to coordinator meant that he had limited looks at Familia, Holt, Carson and most of New York's pitchers.

And if not for a personal invitation to last year's instructional league from field coordinator-turned-big league manager Terry Collins, Tomlin might have entered spring training completely cold. Running the instructs pitching program, though, allowed Tomlin to get to know his star pupils, introduced here by contrasting their scouting reports with actual 2010 performance.

All In On Familia

The report: Familia, a righthander, "scatters the lower half of the zone at 94-97 mph and can sniff triple digits," we wrote in our most recent Prospect Handbook. "He keeps his velocity deep into games" and "buries his 86-87 mph slider as a chase pitch."

The reality: Familia ran up a 5.58 ERA, issued 5.5 walks per nine innings and threw 25 wild pitches in 24 starts for high Class A St. Lucie in 2010. 

The 21-year-old Familia began rounding into form late last summer for St. Lucie. He walked just 16 batters in his final eight starts, all while enhancing his strikeout rate. Surveying his game logs from August and September one finds a 12-strikeout performance in among a 10, two nines and an eight. All five head the list of his highest punchout totals of 2010.

Familia has carried forward that success this season as he leads the Binghamton arms race, ranking sixth in the minors with a 1.46 ERA and 11th in both opponent average (.178) and WHIP (0.89). He breezed through St. Lucie in six starts this season and has been even more effective in his three Double-A turns, striking out 14 and walking seven in 19 innings while allowing five runs (three earned) on 13 hits.

Tomlin believes Familia, who is universally lauded for having a strong work ethic, has benefited from a tweak to his pitching motion.

"The biggest thing with him is we got him down in instructional league and we worked on some delivery issues," Tomlin said. "We wanted him to have the ability to use his athleticism, to be natural and not be so inhibited. We didn't want him to think in terms of being a mechanical clone (of another pitcher).

"The biggest thing we did was we stood him up tall. He's a big, strong, tall guy (listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds), but last year he had a bit of a crouch in his delivery. He was bent over, so we concentrated on getting his arm on a better path. He really bought into what we were trying to do."

"We got him to stay taller through his delivery. When it comes to pitchers, I like big, strong guys who stand tall in their deliveries and take advantage of their height. That way they're coming at the batter downhill and at an angle. Before, Familia would crouch over a bit and the path of his arm would get wide and swing away from his body. Now he's standing taller and he's got his arm on a better plane. He's really enhanced everything about his game."

While Familia always has been able to go get 96 mph when he needs it, he lost control of his fastball somewhere between low and high Class A. His release point wandered and his walk rate jumped from 3.1 with low Class A Savannah in 2009 to 5.5 per nine innings a year ago.

Most encouraging for Familia's development, though, is the fact that his power slider and changeup have improved along with his fastball. "His breaking ball is 100 percent better," Tomlin said.

"I know (Binghamton manager) Wally (Backman) really well, and he called me to say: 'Rick, the changeup is outstanding.' He's staying taller than before, so he no longer comes around the side of his (circle) changeup. The switch enables him to get his arm up through the ball on all three of his pitches."

Progress On Holt

The report: Regarding righthander Holt, we wrote: "he has the stuff to profile as a No. 3 starter," throwing a "92-94 mph four-seam fastball down in the zone." His curveball featured occasional sharp bite, while his changeup showed sinking action.

The reality: In 2010, Holt worked around more baserunners per nine innings, 19.6, than any pitcher with his 95 innings. The results were disastrous—his ERA settled at 8.34 after a demotion to St. Lucie.

Pitching With New Purpose

The Mets replaced more than their front office following the 2010 season. They also parted ways with roving minor league pitching coordinator Rick Waits, who spent 15 years in the organization, the past seven as coordinator.

Rick Tomlin, formerly pitching coach for short-season Brooklyn, took over for Waits in February. He set the groundwork for the organization's shift in pitching philosophy during last year's instructional league, and the early results for New York's power-pitching prospects has been encouraging.

Jeurys Familia, Brad Holt and Robert Carson have hit the ground running in Double-A; Matt Harvey has carved up the Florida State League in arguably the most successful debut by a 2010 draft pick this side of Bryce Harper; and Erik Goeddel and Greg Peavey are learning the rhythm of pro ball (and throwing changeups) in low Class A.

Tomlin describes the Mets' new pitching philosophy in his own words:

"I asked our pitchers to buy into some things. No, that's not true. I demanded they buy into this new direction, and nobody balked. For the most part they've carried over tremendous spring-training results into the season. It's been a fun time for me because so many guys have flourished.

"The foundation of the new approach is commanding the fastball. We're going to stand on that principle as an organization because it's the only way a pitcher can get to the big leagues and stay there. I know everybody emphasizes fastball command and that every organization is saying it, but it's something we won't take for granted. Everything we're trying to do is based on commanding the fastball, and that includes improving the breaking ball and incorporating quite a few more changeups.

"I also gave our pitchers two words we wanted to stress this season. One word was 'clutter' and the other was 'vague.' As pitchers, we get so much information from so many different people that all the clutter in our brains gets in the way of our natural ability. What we're trying to say is that we'll simplify things and remove as much clutter as we possibly can. We want our pitchers to go back to being athletes and to get away from that clutter that can bog them down.

"Lots of principles in this game are vague. That's why we're going to eliminate as much vagueness as possible. A pitcher might ask, 'Why do I have to do this?' If I don't have the answer offhand, then I promised them I'll get that information. What we're trying to do is open the lines of communication to make sure we're all on the same page. If something needs to be cleaned up, then we'll clean it up.

"I believe that pitching coaches have to be teachers because if you can't teach, then you run into trouble. You have to learn how to remove some of that clutter. It's not so much that our information is different—it's all about how our pitchers perceive that information. Often I'll just say one thing to them, and it's really the same thing as the pitching coach has said. It's just that I said it in a different way. We have to find a way reach each guy on a more individual basis, as opposed to creating clones and setting out absolute principles."
The 33rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, Holt mastered the short-season New York-Penn and high Class A Florida State leagues before stalling at Double-A in '09. He ran up 6.21 and 10.20 ERAs in 21 appearances with Binghamton the last two seasons.

With the B-Mets this year, the 24-year-old Holt pitched effectively in April before backsliding in May. He walked eight batters over four innings of a May 19 start, with that being heralded by a pair of five-walk outings. All three bad starts came in Eastern League road games, where Holt has performed dismally in the past two seasons.

(File it under incidental info for now, but in 13 road appearances for Binghamton in 2010-11, Holt has run up a 9.21 ERA with an improbable 29 strikeouts and 44 walks. In a scant five home starts for the B-Mets in that time, he's more than quartered that ERA to 2.10, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 21-to-7.)

Holt has been difficult to hit this season when he's in the zone. EL batters have gone just 27-for-144 (.188) with two home runs. Tomlin believes the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Holt has the stuff to succeed, and that the only piece missing from the puzzle is improved focus.

"I had never been around him until instructional league," Tomlin said, "but since then he's done a nice job of grounding himself, of gaining maturity and growing up. He really bought into the simplicity of what we were saying, and I think it affected him to the point where he can be more effective."

"He's much more mature than he was in the past—he's grown up a bit. What we tried to do was calm him down, to settle his emotions and sharpen his focus. The stuff is there. The ability is there. With some guys, their mechanics need to be straightened out. With others it's their direction to the plate or their pitch usage. And for some (like Holt), it's all about how they handle the mental side of pitching."

Most prospects, especially pitchers, endure rough stretches in the minors where their stuff lacks crispness or their control wavers. Tomlin believes those perilous times are beneficial to a pitcher's long-term development—plus it provides a glimpse at one's competitive makeup.

"I feel like our staff here in Double-A is very good," Tomlin said, "but they've all had one or two starts where they've struggled. I don't mind that for future development. I like to see how they pitch the start after the one that wasn't very good, especially if they're facing the same club. I want to see what they do when (the opposing club) sees them again.

"You're going to struggle occasionally—face it, it's going to happen in the big leagues—so how do you handle it? Do you move on? Or do you beat yourself up?

"(Holt has) had a couple of bumps in the road, sure, but I've seen him three times this season and each time he was as polished as you want to see."

Fortified Carson

The report: Carson piqued the interest of opposing clubs because he "ranges from 92-95 mph" from the left side and "shows the potential for two average secondary pitches," we wrote. Though he fought his mechanics, he possessed the athleticism necessary to refine his game.

The reality: Carson made 10 Double-A starts in 2010, but Eastern League batters hammered him with .343/.415/.571 averages in 228 confrontations.

The 22-year-old Carson has notched a pair of eight-strikeout games this season for Binghamton, but still he doesn't attract the attention of Familia or Holt. That might change if the 6-foot-4, 230-pound lefty reels off a few more performances like May 14, when the 2007 14th-rounder fanned eight Trenton batters and limited the Thunder to two runs on six hits in seven innings. 

The rare lefty who pitches with more conviction to his glove side, Carson likes to work away from lefthanded batters and in on the hands of righties with hard sliders and cut fastballs. This is the opposite tack taken by most young lefthanders, so Tomlin emphasizes to Carson that to hasten his development he needs to command his fastball and throw more changeups, both to his arm side.

"We wanted to get him using both sides of the plate," Tomlin said. "In the past he was a little more one-side-of-the-plate dominant (to his glove side). We like to see our pitchers use both sides of the plate, and now he believes he can do that. Now the emphasis will be on the changeup and not being afraid to use it.

"His breaking ball has always been pretty decent. It's really just the ability to use both sides of the plate better. He was opposite arm-side dominant, and you just don't see that too much with lefties. That side (of the plate) was an area of strength for him because he's going to face more righthanded hitters, but he also needs to be proficient to his arm side."

Summing Up

Adding intrigue to the development of Familia, Holt and Carson, New York must add all three to its 40-man roster this November, if not sooner, or else risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.

Taking a larger view, Tomlin says he's pleased with a Binghamton rotation that features both depth and diversity of pitching styles. He believes younger pitchers in the organization, such as 2010 draft picks Matt Harvey, Erik Goeddel and Greg Peavey, can learn by example from the Double-A group.

Familia, Holt and Carson bring the heat, while 23-year-old lefty Mark Cohoon oozes pitchability. "He can refine his breaking ball a bit more, as far as its consistency, and he can refine the mental side of pitching, as far as controlling his emotions" Tomlin said, "He's not blessed with an overpowering fastball—how many of us are?—but he's a smart guy who uses what he has."

Righthander Brandon Moore, 25, has relied on a slurvy breaking ball to generate swings and misses against minor league competition (299 whiffs in 294 innings), but the Mets would like to see him improve his fastball command and make it central to his repertoire.