My continuing conversation with Nationals minor league pitching coordinator Brad Holman got to the point where I asked him if the coaching staff had used the World Series success by Nats starters when working with their future prospects.
Holman said they did. Back in January he brought the pitchers together and showed them strategies and pitch selections that Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer and others had implemented all the way to a title in 2019. After all, when you have the No. 1 rated starting rotation in baseball, you might as well use it as an example of what to do to get batters out, especially in extremely high-leverage situations.
I referred to it as showing the prospects how the “best of the best” got it done, like Strasburg’s use of his curveball and changeup instead of his fastball to get guys out in critical moments.
“Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, we put together a seminar, so to speak,” Holman confirmed. “We had a minicamp in mid-January and one of the topics was command over stuff, the importance of commanding the baseball. Along with that we used video of our guys in the playoffs and World Series and how the execution of said pitch can change the dynamic of the baseball game in some regards. It is really useful to have those guys to draw information from and support what we are trying to get these guys to do.”
I next asked Holman how the Nats’ No. 4 overall prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, Wil Crowe did with him at Triple-A Fresno in 2019, and how he looked in spring training this season. Holman said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound, right-hander is close to breaking through to the majors.
“Wil is a competitor. He wants the baseball,” Holman said. “He’s got the pitches to pitch at any level. Last year he came to Fresno and initially really thrived, really did good. He started getting spoken of regarding options as a major league candidate. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition. He struggled a little bit. With Wil it’s just experience, he just needs reps. He’s going to get a chance to pitch there, and maybe for a long time.
Holman was impressed with Crowe’s ability to remember an exact sequence of pitches from an outing, even if he had thrown upwards of 80 or 90 during a game.
“He’s a cerebral guy who really has an ability, when you talk to him after he pitches, to recall his pitches,” Holman noted. “And he knows why he tries to do things and he has got a plan. He’s not afraid. With that I think the biggest detriment is that he has a tendency to try to be too good and get nibble-y with his pitches.”
So Holman’s focus with Crowe this February and March was to trust his stuff, don’t get too cute, and go after the hitter. Holman said Crowe has the stuff to get guys out at any level.
“Basically, getting him to challenge guys a little bit more and trust his stuff,” Holman said. “He’s a special one as a starter. He’s not far behind the (Erick) Feddes and the Joe Rosses and the (Austin) Voths of the world.”
Crowe demonstrated his growth from 2018 to 2019 at Double-A Harrisburg. Remember that 11-0 start for high Single-A Potomac and then an 0-5 ending for the Senators? In 2019, he took all the knowledge he got from his first foray into the Eastern League and made a big step forward: 7-6 and a 3.87 ERA in 16 starts after 0-5 and 6.15 ERA in 2018.
Then it was on to the Pacific Coast League, where Crowe ended up 0-4 with a 6.17 ERA in 10 starts. Crowe, 25, again had to learn a new league, a new brand of better hitters, all with the backdrop of the unforgiving high altitude band boxes found in the western league.
“There’s some legitimacy to that in terms of the high altitudes,” Holman said. “When we are on the west coast in Fresno, we get a little bit more of that than most because we will play in Reno, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and El Paso. All those places are significantly higher than sea level. It really affects your breaking ball and affects the movement of your two-seamer, if you have one, and then add the major league baseball to that equation last year. You really saw some home run numbers spike.”
Holman said it was a supreme test for his pitchers. But he thinks that kind of test in the PCL, where it’s a video-game-type haven for the offense, makes his pitchers better in the end. It forced his pitchers to be more precise and selective in which pitches they decide to go with.
“It is a great growth time for guys,” Holman said. “Quite honestly, getting your butt kicked a little bit isn’t bad for you for the big picture, for your humility. You have to learn how to trust more of your fastball command and your changeup, which are two that aren’t affected by altitude. You got to kind of gravitate towards those things that don’t get affected in a negative way.”
Crowe again faced another test in major league spring training the last four weeks before the shutdown. He made three appearances and one start, going 0-1 with a 1.35 ERA over 6 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking four, allowing four hits and only one homer. Getting a shot to pitch at every level, including this spring training with the Nats, shows the club has high hopes and expects a lot from Crowe. If and when 2020 commences, Crowe can show what he has learned.