There were flashes of brilliance, featuring eye-popping fastballs and knee-buckling off-speed pitches. There were also missed locations and seven runs accounted for by Chris Stratton and Kyle Crick, two of San Francisco’s top pitching prospects during the Giants’ 10-4 loss to Cincinnati during Cactus League action on Monday, March 16.
Stratton, a right-hander, got the call to start the game for San Francisco, taking the place of intended starter Tim Lincecum, while the former two-time Cy Young Award winner deals with a sore neck. The 24-year-old Stratton, who was drafted by the Giants during the first round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of Mississippi State University, made it through the first two innings unscathed – despite allowing four hits.
The third inning proved to be somewhat difficult for the former Bulldog, as he allowed three straight singles to Kristopher Negron, Joey Votto and Marlon Byrd – whose single was sun-aided as center fielder Justin Maxwell lost sight of the ball. As a result, Negron was able to score the first run of the game. Tyler Rogers came on in relief of Stratton, uncorking a wild pitch that allowed Votto and Byrd to advance one base each. Bruce then hit a sacrifice fly, driving in Votto with the Reds’ second run. Rogers was able to escape the inning, thanks to catcher Hector Sanchez picking Byrd off of second base. It was the second outstanding throw that Sanchez made during the afternoon as he also nabbed Negron trying to steal second base during the first inning.
Stratton, who is participating in his first big league camp with the Giants, finished the day with a line of two innings pitched, seven hits, two runs (one earned) and one strikeout. While the box score does not reflect an impressive outing, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy seemed pleased with what he saw from the right-hander.
“The kid can command the ball on both sides of the plate, and he has good secondary pitches,” said Bochy, adding that Stratton looks comfortable during his first big league camp.
Stratton showing an ability to command both sides of the plate is something to look for in the future as his minor league statistics show that the right-hander struggles with his command. Over the course of his three years in the Giants’ system, Stratton has averaged 3.5 walks-per-nine-innings, a number that will need to significantly decrease if he hopes to one day join the San Francisco rotation. Stratton did see an uptick in his strikeouts-per-nine-innings during 2014, recording 9.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings, which was up from 2013’s mark of 8.9.
Stratton uses his slider to get most of his strikeouts, especially against right-handed hitters. The pitch, which is usually thrown in the low-80s, displays good tilt with excellent horizontal action, making it the perfect swing-and-miss pitch against right-handed batters. Stratton can struggle at times throwing it to left-handed hitters as it can enter the wheelhouse for power-hitting lefties.
Giant reliever Sergio Romo, who knows a thing-or-two about sliders, was impressed with Stratton’s off-speed offering saying, “That breaking-ball combo he’s got going on seems like it can be effective up here.”
Just like Romo, Stratton can at times struggle to throw his slider to left-handed hitters. To combat the use of the slider to lefties, Stratton has been developing a changeup. The pitch is still a work-in-progress, but Stratton showed that the pitch is progressing by striking out Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce with it to end the first inning.
Crick, who is rated as the Giants’ No. 1 prospect by some scouting services, entered the game to start the bottom of the fifth inning. The talented right-hander had previously appeared in two games for the Giants, allowing no runs in 4.2 innings.
His third outing of the spring would prove to have different results, although everything that makes Crick an intriguing prospect was on display.
The former Texas High School star possesses all the tools necessary to be a frontline pitcher for years to come. With a mid-90s fastball that the right-hander seems to think he can throw by anyone and a wicked hammer, Crick has easily averaged double-digits strikeouts-per-nine-innings during his time in the minors. He has averaged 11.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings during his four minor league seasons, including a career-best of 12.5 back in 2013 with High-A San Jose.
The question is whether he can concentrate enough to harness his stuff and improve upon his ability to throw strikes, which allows him to work deeper into games. Crick has struggled to get past five innings throughout his minor league career because of his inability to consistently control the strike zone. Although he has fantastic strikeout numbers, he allows a significant amount of baserunners due to walks, as evident by his minor league average of 5.7 walks-per-nine-innings. He struggled at Double-A Richmond during 2014, averaging 6.1 walks-per-nine-innings.
In the minors, Crick relies on blowing his fastball by batters. Against the Reds, he learned that getting ahead of hitters and not always relying on his fastball are key ingredients to making it to the next level.
The fifth inning began with Crick retiring Negron on a groundout to short. But the right-hander walked Votto before bouncing back with a strikeout of Byrd. This set the scene for a showdown with Bruce, who deposited a Crick offering over the fence for a two-run home run. Crick ended the fifth by getting Cincinnati catcher Devin Mesoraco to fly out to center.
Things did not improve for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty during the sixth inning. Again, the inning started with Crick retiring the first batter. But the youngster fell into trouble after that. Brayan Pena singled. Crick then fell behind light-hitting Skip Schumaker, who, knowing the young right-hander needed to come with a pitch in the strike zone, teed off on the prospect’s offering.
Crick struggled to get things back on track as Eugenio Suarez followed the Schumaker home run with a double. Negron drove in Suarez with an RBI single for the fourth straight hit off of the right-hander. He finally concluded his outing by inducing Votto into a 4-6-3 double play.
Crick’s box score for the day read two innings, five hits, five runs (all earned), one walk, one strikeout and two home runs.
Some things that the Giant prospect undoubtedly learned during his outing were the importance of concentration, location and not falling in love with his fastball. Bochy said that Crick probably didn’t mix up his pitches enough during his outing against the Reds.
Also, continually falling behind hitters does not bode well for a pitcher, no matter how good his stuff is. Crick must continue to work on his ability to locate pitches within the strike zone early in the count, which will allow him to entice hitters to chase his secondary offerings.
While Stratton and Crick did not have the best of days, it is important to remember that neither pitcher was expected to make the 25-man Opening Day roster this season. The youngsters are supposed to go off to their minor league teams soon and perform at a level that hopefully forces the Giants to think about promoting them within the system, maybe even a call-up come mid-summer or during September.
Although Monday’s performance didn’t spark any promotion discussions, they were hardly the only ones struggling against Cincinnati as the Giants managed just four hits on the afternoon. San Francisco was held to four runs, all of which came on home runs. Utility man extraordinaire Joaquin Arias hit a two-run home run during the top of the fifth inning, bringing the Giants to within a run at 3-2, while Carlos Triunfel hit a two-run home during the top of the ninth.
San Francisco squares off against Arizona in Cactus League action Tuesday. The teams will feature their opening day starters as Madison Bumgarner takes the hill for the Giants, while recently named Opening Day starter Josh Collmenter toes the slab for the Diamondbacks.