Much has been said about the lack of pitching in the Arizona Fall League. On the surface, the lack of pitching is simply a result of an innings cap that many teams now employ for their top prospects. However, there are always quality pitchers that don’t get enough innings during the year because of injury or other miscellaneous issues. In fact, Humberto Sanchez made a name for himself during the ’05 season when he put up a 2.15 ERA while making up for lost time.
So why is the pitching so consistently bad, you ask? Well, the problem is two-fold. On one side, teams have been hesitant to send there best pitchers to a notorious hitters league. The pitching has actually improved since the 2004 season, when the AFL Executive Director Steve Cobb demanded that the quality of pitching needed to change. However, teams are only willing to accommodate on their own terms because they’re each responsible for subsidizing the cost of running the league. So the best pitching you’re likely to see will be from players that missed significant time during the regular season or possibly even a late signing from the draft.
On the other side of the argument, I’ve heard a few interesting theories that blame the high scores on the climate in Arizona. I’ve heard certain pitchers and coaches say that it’s very difficult to learn off-speed pitches in Arizona and Colorado because of the low humidity and relatively high altitude. They say there’s no such thing as a get-me-over curve ball in Arizona, because you need to really ‘snap it off’ or it simply won’t break when it reaches the plate. So you can imagine that minor league pitchers would have some trouble refining their pitches in a climate like the Arizona Fall League, where the relative humidity is around 22% in October. The few pitchers that are fortunate enough to have a great curveball still need to get past the fact that balls travel much farther in Arizona because of that same thin air. The outfielders routinely play much deeper in Arizona because the ball carries much more than you would expect. This was the reason that Jordan Schafer ran full speed into the wall in Peoria a couple weeks ago, as he explains here.
In theory, the pitchers that should have the most success in the AFL are power pitchers that can throw different varieties of fastballs (split, two seam, and cutter) and sliders. The harder the ball is thrown, the less feel a pitcher needs when he releases the ball. Many of these pitches rely on less break and are thrown lower in the strike zone, which is more conducive to the league. During the ’06 season, T.J. Beam used his extreme downhill plain and mixed in a hard biting slider in route to leading the AFL with a 0.60 ERA.
The AFL is not a place where most pitchers feel comfortable, but it can be a very valuable experience in preparing them for the major leagues. It offers two of the most important prerequisites for every major pitcher – being able to finish off every pitch and being able to execute against a line-up filled with All Stars.