Extra Heat Helps Astros' Tropeano Blast Off

Selecting seasoned college arms in the draft can be a double-edged sword. They have track records against tough competition and can ascend quickly through an organization. But after college careers that resulted in heavy innings totals, teams have to wait and see what type of pitcher walks off the proverbial bus and into the nurturing arms of their player-development system.

Often, these heavily worked pitchers' velocities regress once they have to pitch more frequently, leaving scouts swearing the player he recently signed used to throw harder.

But sometimes a pitcher's velocity increases, and his stuff improves quickly after getting drafted. That has been the case with Astros righthander Nick Tropeano, who has been one of the top starting pitchers in the minors this season.

"We get first-year guys coming off college and they have pitched extensively, and their velocity falls as they adjust to throwing every five days," Astros pitching coordinator Jon Matlack said. "But Nick has shown a lot of improvement. His velocity has jumped anywhere from 5-6 mph and there may be more upside because he has room to fill out."

Tropeano was a workhorse during a distinguished career at Stony Brook, pitching 11 complete games in his first two seasons. He was statistically one of the best pitchers in the country his junior season, ranking fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (11.52) and wins (12) with a 1.84 ERA, before the Astros selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.

Scouts viewed Tropeano as a competitive college performer with good command and a plus changeup, but saw limited upside because of his 86-90 mph fastball. He was sent to short-season Tri-City and performed well against age-appropriate competition (Tropeano was a rare 20-year-old junior draft pick), striking out better than 10 hitters per nine while going 3-2, 2.36 in 53 innings.

Pressing The Accelerator

The New York native had one of the best changeups in the 2011 draft, but Tropeano could become too reliant on it. Astros coaches got him to use his fastball more and changeup less, and Tropeano's velocity began to increase with the additional usage, jumping to 91-94 mph.

"My velocity increase started at the end of the short-season and continued throughout the whole offseason," he said. "In the winter, I focused on getting more flexible in my lower half. Getting on a workout regimen every day is what really changed my ways."

He studied video of Felix Hernandez and other top pitchers and made minor tweaks to his lower half. Team officials say Tropeano was sound mechanically and did not need to alter his upper body mechanics or arm path upon entering pro ball. By the start of spring training, the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder's fastball velocity had improved another grade, touching 95 mph.

Tropeano struck out 27 against five walks and yielded one run in 19 innings over his first three starts this season for low Class A Lexington. While his velocity climbed, Tropeano retained the above-average movement on his fastball, which he throws from a three-quarters arm slot.

"Nothing he throws is straight, and that's what makes him so tough," Lexington pitching coach Dave Borkowski said. "Even his four-seamer isn't straight; it's got action on it." 

Out of school, a knock against Tropeano was the absence of a reliable third pitch. The road to the major leagues is littered with command-and-control pitchers with plus changeups that failed to develop breaking balls. So Astros brass made developing his slider a priority.

"We've created an environment in which he finds more places to use the breaking ball," Matlack said. "We are teaching him to pick places where he would throw the changeup and substitute the slider so it will become as much of a weapon as his changeup."

Tropeano says about 15-20 percent of his pitches this seaosn have been breaking balls, and the organization is pleased with its development.

"The slider is coming; he will throw some good ones that are short and sharp late," high Class A Lancaster pitching coach Don Alexander said. "He gets around it some, so it gets a little flat, but just needs tightening up."

Tropeano also added a hard-biting, 80-82 mph split-finger that he deploys as a strikeout pitch, and Brokowski calls it "nasty."

Going West

With his improved arsenal, Tropeano went 6-4 2.78 with 97 strikeouts and 26 walks in 87 innings with Lexington before earning a June 29 promotion to Lancaster. At his promotion, Tropeano had a 2.78 ERA, thanks to his strong strikeout (10.0 per nine) and walk (2.6 per nine) numbers.

The Cal League is a tough pitching environment, and Lancaster in particular can be a nightmare for pitchers.

"Going to the Lancaster ballpark with the breezes is going to be a challenge," Matlack said. "He just has to not be affected that a checked swing can go 300 feet and to continue to pitch his game."

Tropeano did just that in his Lancaster debut, winning Cal League pitcher of the week honors for his one-run, nine-strikeout performance against Modesto on July 1. Through his first five Cal League starts, he maintained a solid 2-2, 3.30 mark in 30 innings.

"I have seen him for two starts and I am very impressed with what I've seen," Alexander said. "He has a strong body and good stuff. I could see him as a solid major league starter."

When the scouting reports support the numbers, a prospect has a legitimate chance to fulfill that potential of becoming a major league starter. So how do Tropeano's full-season debut stats compare to his fifth-round contemporaries?

Of all 210 pitchers selected in the fifth round from 1993-2007, 33 started a game in the majors, and 11 became major league starters (minimum 50 starts with an exception for recently-converted Jeff Samardzija), including Javier Vazquez, Brad Penny, and C.J. Wilson.

Analyzing pitchers' ability to efficiently strike out hitters (strikeout percentage) while limiting walks (SO/BB) in their full season debut (min. 50 IP), Tropeano's strikeout percentage of nearly 27 and 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio best every future major league starter except Giants righthander Ryan Vogelsong.

The study showed that Tropeano's strikeout percentage and strikeout-walk rate each placed fourth in the group of 210, behind only Vogelsong, Rays lefthander Jake McGee and righthander Matt Lorenzo, the only one of the three who never made the majors. His performance portends a bright future that could be in a major league rotation.

"He is a talented individual that given time and opportunity will not allow himself to be anything less than what he is capable of becoming—he ultimately slots into the middle of a rotation, maybe a number three guy," Matlack said.