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Forrest Whitley Dominates In First AFL Start

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Forrest Whitley (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—In 2017, the Astros added Justin Verlander just in time for their run to the franchise’s first World Series championship. To help the defense of that title, they added a second ace, righthander Gerrit Cole, to the mix, giving them one of the sport’s most fearsome one-two punches.

If Forrest Whitley’s performance Tuesday night in the Arizona Fall League is any indication, even more pitching power is right around the corner.

For three innings, Whitley was just about as dominant as possible. This was a sledgehammer versus an ant kind of stuff. He made a hot knife through butter look like a butter knife trying to saw through brick.

In fact, the most success any Mesa hitter had the first time through the line was was when eight-hole hitter David McKinnon grounded weakly to second base.

Everyone else struck out. Three hitters went down on four-seam fastballs, which touched as high as 97 mph. One waved at a cutter. Two swung through changeups. One more swung and missed at a curveball.

Afterward, Whitley said he knew very early that he had everything in his arsenal working at full strength.

"Probably after that first batter,” he said. "The fastballs were coming out really well, and when I threw that changeup to (Tigers prospect) Daz (Cameron), it was good that I was able to time up that first offspeed pitch, because that usually doesn’t happen.”

Of the eight strikeouts Whitley recorded, the last one was the sweetest. It came against Tigers catching prospect Jake Rogers, who for the first part of their careers was the one in charge of sitting behind the plate and calling the pitches Whitley would use to cut down hitters. 

Rogers, along with Cameron, was shipped to the Tigers in the trade that sent Verlander to Houston, and on Tuesday both were in the lineup against their former system-mate.

"Really bad,” Whitley said, when asked how much he wanted to whiff Rogers. "He’s caught me a bunch and he knows my stuff and I feel like would have been a really tough out just because of how well he knows me. And we have a pretty good friendship, so that was pretty fun.”

The wheels came off a little bit for Whitley in the fourth inning, when he allowed three of the first four hitters to reach before yielding to Phillies prospect Luke Leftwich

It was Whitley’s first competitive outing since Sept. 7 for Double-A Corpus Christi, and he had a long layoff between the third and fourth innings while his teammates put together a two-run rally. 

Whitley was unwilling to use either factor as an excuse for the hiccup. 

"I probably need to work a little bit harder with runners on base,” he said. "Granted, I haven’t pitched in a competitive situation with runners on base in a month, but that’s no excuse. I’ve got to get better at that.”

Now comes the scary part. As excellent as Whitley’s raw stuff was an amateur, it’s only gotten better since he’s become a pro. 

The Astros, one of the most analytics-driven organizations in the game, have used video, TrackMan and a host of other data to help their prized prospect fine-tune his pitches into their current, dastardly forms.

"There’s so much, but the way that they utilize TrackMan is very good and I’d say that has helped me a ton with my pitch development,” Whitley said. "And I am very, very fortunate to be a part of the Astros’ organization.”

Specifically, he’s used the technology to help maintain the consistency in the shapes of each of his pitches. The data, which shows how his measurements in a variety of categories vary from start to start, are constantly available to utilize as part of his development of the course of a season. 

His changeup, he says, spins at an average rate of 2,200-2,300 revolutions per minute. His curveball, on the other hand, has peaked at better than 3,000 rpm. 

Of his four pitches, his cutter has made the most progress over the last year. The shape has stayed roughly the same, but he’s done a better job locating the pitch. 

The AFL season got started on Tuesday night, but before it got underway Whitley spent time watching his parent club cut through the Indians on its way to a meeting with the Red Sox with their second straight pennant on the line.

Plenty of AFL graduates find their way to the major leagues the next season—Ronald Acuna was the league’s MVP last year and was one of the Braves’ best players all season long — and some even get to experience the bright lights of October.

"It’s very exciting,” he said. "I think they’re the best team in baseball. They’re in a really good spot as far as where they are now and what they have in the farm system coming up. It’s, in my opinion, the most exciting team to be a part of.”

With the way he threw Tuesday night, it’s fairly easy to envision Whitley taking the ball for Houston next October with a lot more on the line.

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Baseball America Prospect Report -- October 18, 2018

Updates on Buddy Reed, Daulton Varsho and Jordan Yamamoto, plus stats from various winter leagues.

NOTES: Elsewhere around the league, Blue Jays' top prospect and BA's reigning Minor League Player of the Year Vladimir Guerrero Jr. kicked off his AFL campaign with a bang.

The third baseman went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles. His final at-bat of the day was particularly impressive. Against Salt River reliever Justin Lawrence (Rockies), a righthander who slings heat from a lower slot, Guerrero slashed a 97 mph heater into the left-center field gap as if it were batting practice. ... Guerrero's teammate, shortstop Cole Tucker, was particularly impressive as well. The Pirates prospect notched a pair of hits, made several twitchy plays in the field and showed off a well above-average arm.

There were three triples hit in that game, including one apiece from Rockies teammates Sam Hilliard and Josh Fuentes and another from Cardinals prospect Andy Young. ... The first home run of the AFL season belonged to A's prospect Luis Barrera. His inside-the-park blast in the ninth inning untied the Scottsdale-Mesa game and gave the Solar Sox their margin of victory. ... Mesa reliever Brett Hanewich took the top velocity honors Tuesday, when he touched 99 mph with his fastball in the eighth inning of his team's win.

D-backs teammates Pavin Smith, Drew Ellis and Daulton Varsho formed an enviable trio in the second half of the Salt River lineup. The group combined to go 6-for-13 with a double and four RBIs. Varsho also showed a very strong arm behind the plate, putting forth pop times of less than two seconds.

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