By Jack Etkin
Riley Pint received a $4.8 million singing bonus after selecting him as the fourth player in the 2016 draft, equaling the bonus Jon Gray received, which is the biggest bonus the Rockies have given a pitcher.
And the Rockies are convinced it is money well spent.
Alarmists will look at the statistical bottom line and shudder, certain that something must be wrong with Pint. But the numbers belie the ability and mentality of Pint.
Pint is 6-foot-5, still growing into his body and this year went 2-11 with a 5.42 ERA in 22 starts at low Class A Asheville with 59 walks and 79 strikeouts in 93 innings. He allowed 96 hits, albeit only three home runs and none in 12 starts in Asheville’s hitter-friendly McCormick Field.
The numbers, however, don’t add up.
“The results weren’t even on our mind,” player development director Zach Wilson said. “It was a roller coaster in terms of what his stat lines looked like every time out. But he made strides in the area that he needed to, and he continues to do that. With a guy this young who’s got this type of stuff, you don’t worry about results right now. You just keep the process moving forward.
“If all guys are doing is failing, they’re at the wrong level. If all they’re doing is succeeding, they’re at the wrong level. And Riley had bouts of both this year, and he learned lessons through both. And that’s all you can ask, especially in your first full year out.”
Wilson was speaking from Scottsdale, Ariz., where Pint is participating in the Rockies’ instructional league program that ends Sunday at their complex. Pint pitched well enough in spring training to break with the Asheville club before encountering difficulty. Is he likely to begin the 2018 season there? Very possibly, since player development is not linear. For recent proof, consider Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who like Pint was drafted out of high school in 2011. Story, who turns 25 on Nov. 15, repeated both the high Class A and Double-A levels before reaching the Rockies at the outset of the 2016 season.
Wilson said of Pint, “The great thing about him is he’s extremely coachable. He’s starting to turn into a man from a maturity standpoint in all the ways that you have to in his game. And when all of that clicks together, and it could be four or five years from now, but when it all come together, there is a bona fide No. 1 long-term ace in there.”
Wilson’s is not a minority organizational opinion by any means.
Mark Wiley, the Rockies’ director of pitching said, “He’s got one of the best fastballs I’ve ever seen. He’s got one of the best breaking balls I’ve ever seen. He’s got one of the better changeups I’ve seen. Once we get him consistently into the strike zone and commanding the ball, he has other weapons that are as good as his fastball. He’s such a young guy. He’s a real puppy. We just got to take time and be patient.”
Doug Linton, who oversees the lower levels of the farm system as one of two Rockies minor league pitching coordinators, said of Pint, “Barring injury, he definitely has the makings of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher in anybody’s rotation.”
For Pint to reach these heights, he’ll have to improve in several areas. His arm slot varies, so Pint has worked on having it the same, no matter what pitch he throws. The bigger mechanical flaw has to do with his balance over the rubber.
“He had a tendency to really leave the rubber and not separate his hands on time,” Linton said, causing Pint’s pitches to be “up in the zone. Riley’s a big kid that should be able to create easy downward angle. By separating late and getting down the mound too early, he was inconsistent in creating any kind of downward plane in the zone.”
The Rockies began working on this with Pint last year in instructional league. Wiley said Pint is much improved, recalling how “his leg lift was even kind of in front of his body instead of back a little bit to keep him balanced.”
In his first full professional season, the Rockies took steps to allow Pint to work on his mechanical issues and assure that he could withstand the rigors of his first full season as a teen ager. He was limited to five innings early in the season, a ceiling that was altered to about 90 pitches for nearly the final two months of the season. Pint hit the 90-pitch mark in three consecutive starts, the last on Aug. 9, when he threw a season-high 96 pitches in 5 1/3 innings.
The Rockies took one start a month away from Pint, resulting in about a 10-day period to work on his mechanics. But in that period, Pint didn’t just throw bullpen sessions. He faced hitters and threw 20-25 pitches in a simulated game.
Wilson said the Rockies limited Pint to throwing between eight and 10 curveballs a game, allowing him to choose when to use that pitch.
“It took his mind away from ‘I want to punch everybody out,’ to, ‘I want to focus on one pitch at a time and take a deep breath and have a repeatable delivery here,’ ” Wilson said. “Young players can get caught up in trying to keep proving things to people. It’s not about proving things to people, it’s not about putting up numbers, it’s about making a stride so that five years from now, you’re putting up numbers at the big league level. And eventually, he was able to wrap his mind around that, and I think he’s gotten better because of it.”
Around the middle of the season, the Rockies had Pint shelve his slider in an effort to have him be most comfortable to concentrate on establishing his delivery, which comes off the fastball, and concentrate on strike throwing and command.
Pint regularly hit 100 mph with his fastball in his starts, occasionally hitting 101 mph and sitting at 96-97 mph with the pitch. At St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., Pint didn’t have to command his fastball and secondary stuff. And he didn’t need a killer instinct since he could simply overpower hitters, many of whom got themselves out.
“Pint doesn’t know how to put hitters away yet,” Linton said. “He’s got the stuff to do it. And he shows flashes, and he shows the reason why he’s a No. 1 pick. But the consistency to go after guys when he had a chance to put them away, put them away as soon as you can with your plus stuff _ he’s got to to learn and get better at that. And that’s some of the things we saw with Jon Gray.”
One difference being, of course, Gray didn’t vault from high school to professional baseball but pitched in college at Oklahoma before the Rockies took him third overall in the 2013 draft.
To be sure, Pint had some memorable outings this year. Like on July 15 against Augusta, a game Linton saw and where Pint had “wipeout stuff” and was the winning pitcher in Asheville’s 2-1 victory. He pitched six innings for the only time all season and gave up three hits, one unearned run and three walks with six strikeouts and threw 54 of 89 pitches for strikes. Linton recalled Pint “getting backed into a corner” while protecting a one-run lead in the sixth.
He gave up a leadoff walk, followed by a single and a sacrifice, putting runners at second and third. Then came a strikeout and a ground out to end the inning and Pint’s outing.
Linton said after watching Pint bury the final two hitters, “It was like, ‘Wow, there’s a big step in the right direction.’ The guy’s got really, really plus stuff across the board. From start to start, you really see why he was a No. 1 pick.”
Of course, there were missteps, too. Even though Pint threw 54 strikes and 35 balls in that impressive July outing against Augusta, that’s not close to the ideal two-to-one ratio of strikes to balls, and Pint was much closer to one-to-one as the season wound on, inefficiency that mirrored his efforts to refine and consistently repeat his delivery.
“He’s got four plus pitches right now,” Wilson said. “Plus action, below average consistency. And when the consistency catches up with the action and the delivery becomes a little more compact and he understands how to repeat it, especially as he continues to grow into his body, it’s game over once all that comes together.”