Young Savannah Staff Mixes Control With Power Stuff

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Youth, power and control are ingredients that seldom mix well together in the low levels of the minors, but this year's low Class A Savannah pitching staff is shaping up to be an exception.

Sand Gnats pitchers average 21.1 years of age, making the Mets' lowest full-season farm club the third youngest staff in the South Atlantic League, but their collective walk rate of 2.5 batters per nine innings leads the pack by a comfortable margin. They don't rely on finesse pitchers to produce results, either, not while averaging a strikeout per inning as a team.

"At all levels of baseball, once you get ahead with strike one it becomes advantage pitcher," said Frank Viola, Savannah pitching coach, 15-year major league veteran and 1988 American League Cy Young award winner. "It opens things up for you to throw whatever you want to."

Sure, the Sand Gnats feature a trio of experienced college arms from last year's draft in righthanders Logan Verrett (third round) and Tyler Pill (fourth) and lefty Alex Panteliodis (ninth), but most evaluators would agree that the most promising arms in Savannah's six-man rotation belong to a trio of young righthanders.

Viola saw Domingo Tapia last year in extended spring training and then for one start with short-season Brooklyn in August, but the novelty hasn't worn off yet.

"This guy is an incredible talent," said Viola, who served as Brooklyn pitching coach last year. "He's regularly 98 (mph) with life, and it's a heavy ball with plus sinking action. During his April 14 start against Augusta he threw seven innings, and not one of his 77 pitches was hit in the air."

Tapia, a lanky, 6-foot-4 Dominican, struck out a career-high eight opponents that day while surrendering just three hits and walking none. He upped the ante in his next start versus Hickory, fanning nine Crawdads batters compared with seven baserunners in 5 2/3 innings.

The 20-year-old Tapia has shown strong control in the past—that trend has continued this year with a mere two walks in 17 2/3 innings—but he's generating more swings and misses early this season thanks to an improved arsenal.

"He's just now getting an idea of his changeup," Viola said. "I mean, he's throwing a 98 mile-per-hour sinker and backing that up with a 90 mile-per-hour change. (Pitching coach) Jonathan Hurst in (Rookie-level) Kingsport last year really preached attacking the zone and pitching to contact . . . and Tapia has just bought into the idea."

Tapia still tends to get around his slider a bit too much, but it's an effective pitch when he uses the same release point as his two-seamer. Viola said that when Tapia stays on top of the slider he gets plenty of late action.

"He still has spells of wildness, but they're fewer and far between, and that has a lot to do with his experience level," Viola said. "You do most of your work in bullpen sessions, but once you buy into attacking the zone and using the changeup—and you see how effective it is—you no longer need my help (as pitching coach)."

Michael Fulmer
, taken 44th overall in last year's draft, was almost the forgotten man in a pitching-rich Oklahoma prep draft class headlined by the Orioles' Dylan Bundy (fourth overall) and the Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley (seventh). The 19-year-old Fulmer has notched 12 strikeouts while allowing 17 baserunners through his first 14 innings for the Sand Gnats.

"This kid is mature beyond his years," Viola said. "He wants to take everything in, he wants to hear all kinds of angles. It's incredible watching his mind work to figure out what pitching is all about. He's 94-96 (mph), touches 97, and has an improving slider. It seems like his changeup gets better each time I see him."

With one walk in 16 2/3 innings, Rafael Montero joins Tapia as one of the Sally League's foremost control artists in the early going. And like Tapia, the 21-year-old Montero marries power stuff with his fine control. He signed with the Mets as a 20-year-old in January 2011.

Viola rattled off the things he likes about Montero in quick succession: "He has a very good idea how to pitch, he's a strike thrower, he's aggressive in the zone, he pitches to contact."

What he doesn't have at this point is a feel for his secondary stuff every time out. "He throws three pitches: a fastball he spots terrifically, an improving slider and a changeup that's getting better. He's around the plate at 93-94 (mph), so for him it's about figuring out the game more, taking more in as far as people giving him feedback.

"When he came over from the Dominican Republic he didn't speak a lot of English, but he's learning that and also learning how to pitch."