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The Texas Rangers recently rewarded Robbie Erlin’s outstanding success at the Low- and High-A levels by giving him a promotion to Double-A Frisco. He is set to make his Texas League debut on Sunday afternoon against the Tulsa Drillers.
Erlin initially joined the Rangers’ organization as a third-round selection in the 2009 MLB Draft. After logging four innings over three appearances with the rookie-level AZL Rangers in ’09, Erlin impressed the club with his overall polish during his first spring training last year.
The left-hander, despite being fresh out of high school, earned a rare opening-day assignment to Single-A Hickory––immediately going to a full-season club. With the Crawdads, he posted a 2.12 earned-run average while striking out 125 and walking 17 in 114.2 innings.
After making the jump to High-A Myrtle Beach this season, Erlin has continued his dominance by posting strikingly similar numbers. In nine Carolina League starts, he permitted one earned run or fewer six times. He didn’t issue more than one free pass in any of his outings.
Overall, Erlin went 3-2 with a 2.14 ERA for the Pelicans. He logged 54.2 innings, giving up only 25 hits, walking five, and striking out 62. At the time of his promotion, he leads the league in WHIP (by a mile) at 0.55, ranks second with 62 strikeouts, and fourth in innings pitched.
Perhaps Erlin’s lone statistical blemish is his seven home runs allowed in nine starts––a product of his strike-throwing, aggressive nature on the mound. But because he has been stingy on the base runners, five of the long balls have been solo shots.
While Erlin tore through the Single-A South Atlantic League last season, fellow southpaws did hit him at a .309/.342/.473 clip. The prospect chalked it up to using mostly just his fastball and curveball to attack lefties, while he consistently mixed all three of his pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) to righties.
This season, Erlin has begun using his advanced changeup against both left- and right-handed hitters, and with plenty of effectiveness. In the Carolina League, he limited lefties to a much-improved .208/.240/.438 slash line.
The 20-year-old doesn’t have an overpowering arsenal, but he has success because of his across-the-board polish. Erlin attacks hitters with three pitches that he can throw in any count––an 87-91 mph fastball (touching 92 on occasion), a big curveball, and a changeup. He displays advanced command of his repertoire and sequences his pitches effectively.
In a recent interview with Myrtle Beach pitching coach Brad Holman, he praised Erlin’s hunger for pitching knowledge.
“(Erlin) has worked through his pickoff and worked in understanding game situations and hitters’ tendencies,” Holman said. “He is hungry for knowledge. He comes and seeks me out as well as others. He reads books. He studies the game. And he wants to be great. That’s why he is, I think, having the success that he’s having.”
The 6-foot-0 hurler doesn’t turn 21 until this October––after the 2011 minor league season concludes. He now becomes the second-youngest pitcher in the Texas League, behind fellow Frisco lefty Martin Perez.
Erlin’s next start will surely provide his biggest challenge to date, as he faces off against a Double-A Tulsa Drillers lineup that includes slugging prospects Wilin Rosario and Tim Wheeler.
Lone Star Dugout caught up with the Santa Cruz native during the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ recent series at Wilmington.
Jason Cole: As you finished up your first full season last year and went into the offseason, what did you come away with? What were your overall thoughts?
Robbie Erlin: I was mostly happy with just adapting to a full season and a full 140 games. It was being able to fall into a routine and throwing 115 innings in one season. I was happy with that. And I was just happy with how much I learned and adapted to this level of play.
Cole: Obviously there is always room for improvement, but I think it’s also fair to say your first full season couldn’t have gone much better. What were the areas that you saw the most room for improvement?
Erlin: The running game. Definitely the running game. I knew, at some point, the leg kick wasn’t going to get the job done. So that was definitely it. Holding runners and mixing times––you can always improve on that.
I think, this year, cutting out the leg kick kind of built off what I saw last season. And, to go along with that, you can always improve on locating pitches and being sharp with everything. Looking back, that’s something that I still need to work on and dial in.
Cole: Have you completely cut out the leg kick, or are you mixing it up?
Erlin: No, I cut it out.
Cole: How much did cutting out the leg kick cut down on your times to home plate?
Erlin: With the full leg kick, I was 1.7 to 1.8 (seconds). Which, even with a left-handed pitcher going that slow, it’s still going to be a close play at second. So we just took that out altogether and just shortened it up. It’s like an abbreviated leg kick. I think, now I’m about a 1.3 to 1.4, which gives the catcher more time on a runner stealing. And also the first baseman on a pickoff. It gives him time to transfer and get the ball to second.
Cole: I’ve heard a few scouts talking about how major league pitchers seem to be getting slower and more deliberate to home plate. It seems like the Rangers have put an emphasis on getting their young pitchers’ times to home plate down. Have you noticed that?
Erlin: Yeah, I think altogether. I can’t tell you specifics, but we definitely talk about it and work on it––like in spring training. Just from my standpoint, I know it has been an emphasis ever since I’ve been in the organization. And it has always been something where I’ve known––and the coaches have known––that I’m going to have to cut it out at some point.
So I think there is definitely an emphasis in our organization on being quick to home and giving the catchers and first base a chance. It even cuts down––like secondaries and stuff like that––so it gives you a chance to roll a double play and all that. I definitely think it’s an emphasis.
Cole: Did you cut out the leg kick in spring training this year? Or was it after?
Erlin: No, I actually did it this year. Once I got here.
Cole: How has the transition gone? Has it affected you in any way when going out of the stretch?
Erlin: It was a little different at first––just because, with the leg kick, it was really similar to my windup. So it was easy to locate a pitch and stay the same and keep the rhythm. It changed that up a little bit.
But, working with Brad (Holman) and just repeating it and repeating it and having him watching and letting me know if it gets too high or whatever––that definitely helps on the repeatability and consistency of it.
Cole: You had a span of a few starts this season where you haven’t worked out of the stretch much, if even at all. Clearly that’s not a bad thing, but how comfortable do you feel with it considering you haven’t had a ton of opportunities out of the stretch yet?
Erlin: I feel comfortable. One thing Brad and I talked about last week is not worrying about mechanics to a point where it’s bad for you. At some point, you have to let your athleticism take over. All the guys that are playing now have been playing baseball their whole lives.
At some point, you just have to let that take over. I thought about that. When runners were on last game, I just let it take over and just pitched like I’ve been pitching my whole life. That really helped. I’ve been pretty comfortable out of the stretch so far.
Cole: For a guy that is only a couple years removed from high school, you are obviously advanced for your age in terms of how you sequence pitches and attack hitters in general. How did you get to that point? Do you study how certain major league pitchers attack hitters?
Erlin: Yeah, definitely. Definitely watching big league pitchers––even if it’s on TV––you can always learn stuff. And just really, last season, talking to Brad during games when I’m in the dugout. Last year, the hitting coach––Jason Hart. I talked to Hart quite a bit during the games about what he sees in the swing and what their weaknesses and strengths would be. And talking to Julio Garcia here, the hitting coach.
If you talk to them and get their point of view and perspective on it, once you go into a game, it’s going to stick. You can be like, ‘Oh, okay, I saw that last game with this guy. So he’s probably going to have the same tendency.’ You go with it, trust your gut, and try to exploit it.
Cole: When you’re charting in the stands and you’re going to face that same team later in the series, are you generally paying a little extra attention to what the hitters are doing?
Erlin: Most definitely.
Cole: When I watched you in spring training, I noticed you were throwing your changeup to both left- and right-handed batters. You didn’t really throw much of a changeup in high school, right?
Erlin: No. I think it has come a long way. I always liked it. But, like I’ve said before, it just speeds up hitters’ bats in high school. And now, in pro ball, everybody can hit a fastball. So I’ve just learned to throw it and trust it. I’m comfortable throwing it at any point with any hitter. I’m happy with how it has progressed.
Cole: Between the changeup and the curveball, do you feel more confident in a particular secondary pitch at this point?
Erlin: I like them both. It just depends on the situation and the hitter and all that.
Cole: How do you feel about your performance so far this year?
Erlin: I feel pretty good. I can’t say that I’m really sharp or anything. I’m still working toward that. I’m working toward consistency. There is still a lot of room to improve. That’s just my focus––you can’t get complacent. You just have to go out every day and do what’s going to help you reach your ultimate goal, which would be to pitch at the highest level. That’s just kind of what I’m focusing on.
Cole: I’ve asked this to both the pitchers and the hitters that I’ve interviewed with the Myrtle Beach club. But being in a small eight-team league, do you become somewhat familiar with your opponents?
Erlin: Definitely. We keep a book––the pitching staff. Brad always has it with him. We’ll write down whatever we see in a hitter. And the next day, if we’re playing the same team and the same lineup, we’ll go over what we saw and any notes that we wrote down. And then, when we play the next series a couple weeks down the road or maybe a month down the road, we’ll go back to that sheet. We’ll be like, ‘Okay, these guys are in the lineup. This is what we saw last time.’ So we kind of have something to go off.
Cole: Perhaps the only negative from your stat line this season is the home runs. You’ve given up seven so far. Because you aren’t allowing many other base runners, they’ve pretty much all been solo shots. But is that something you think about much?
Erlin: No. I definitely don’t think about it. It’s just one of those things that happens. I guess you could say I know why I gave them up. A lot of them were hitter’s counts, and I would challenge. And on a lot of them, I missed my spot, which is completely my fault and my responsibility. They’re geared up for it and they hit it.
But each one I’ve given up, I’ve learned something from. I just try and build off it. I don’t think about it much. I try to take the situation of the game into account. Like when I’m facing the big hitters in the lineup, I’m just trying to keep the ball on the ground the best I can and in the ballpark.
Cole: As you look forward to the remainder of your season, what would you like to improve on the most?
Erlin: Still mechanics. I’m still working on just some little things in my delivery. So I definitely want to work on that. And just locating all my pitches for strikes. I want to have good mindsets going into games––attacking hitters and being aggressive and that sort of stuff.
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