A 5.32 earned run average in Triple-A will discourage just about anyone, especially if he's just spent the past year in the majors with a 7.07 ER, but for Zephyrs starting pitcher Brian Stokes, all it takes is a little tinkering with the stats to see the bright side of things.
Looking at the 38 innings he's pitched so far, he's given up 24 runs and struck out 38 batters. While that strikeout rate is good, no one is going to smile about those runs but take away his road starts on April 22, when he gave up 11 runs in 3.1 innings, and on May 4, when he gave up 6 runs after recording only an out, and you're left with a pitcher that has a 1.85 ERA.
Of course, one can't just discredit two starts just like that; after all, he pitched in the games and he was lit up in both of them. But even with a pretty huge discrepancy, Zephyrs pitching coach Dan Warthen is confident Stokes is closer to the sharp, 1.85 ERA pitcher than the sloppy, 47.81 ERA.
"I'm not certain that he has [had such a bad start]. He's had two bad outings, but [six] of them have been more than quality," Warthen said. "As a starter, I think he has four quality pitches that he can throw for a strike. And that's what you look for in a starter. He's got a plus fastball, he can locate, so his arm is made for starting."
Those hiccups can be excused because he's coming off of a season in which he was used in relief, instead of the starting that he did throughout his entire career. That transition could have been a factor early on, causing him to cough up more runs than you'd usually expect as he tinkers with his approach.
Now, he's back in the more comfortable position of starting, and he's made some changes to ensure that he'll be in that position for good.
Mixing up his pitches was a big problem for him last year, Stokes said. He wasn't forced to use all of his pitches since he was only facing a batter once a game.
"You learn, and as you get older you learn to use all your pitches," Stokes said. "Definitely, when you're young, you say you've got a pretty good arm and you try to challenge hitters. Now, it's more when you get to the higher levels you've got to pitch. You can hit 105 and these guys are still going to hit it."
So now he's working with Zephyrs pitching coach Dan Warthen on taking his three pitches – a fastball, curveball and changeup – and adding a slider to give him another option.
"We've tried to harden up on the breaking ball for him, so we add more of a slider to add to his curveball. He already has a plus changeup," Warthen said. "Having to turn over the batting lineup a little more often is something he has to learn a little bit more about. Maybe not giving every hitter every pitch you have the first time around, saving something for later in the game."
One of the heralded aspects of Stokes's game has been his ability to throw in the mid-90s with regularity, but Warthen isn't satisfied with that. He's trying to get Stokes to scale back a bit and worry more about getting hitting the corners of the plate.
He said that when Stokes pitches in the low 90s, it gives him more movement and control, something he considers better than barreling down the plate with a 95 or 96 mile per hour fastball. Now he's better at getting on top of lefties by grinding the inside of the plate and at attacking righties head-on.
"Major League hitters, Triple-A hitters don't care about velocity. You can throw 100 miles an hour, and if it's in the middle of the plate, they'll hit it," Warthen said.
But none of that is going to do him any good if he doesn't focus on one thing: consistency. He needs to make sure that the bad days don't turn into terrible ones, and keeping your head up if they do. That's something he learned from last year, when he stayed with the big league club from start to finish.
"You just tell yourself to keep battling. You never want to give in," he said. "It was ups and downs, but you can never show that it affects you. So, I went out there each day and battled."