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Sam Tuivailala Checking Control Issues

Throughout his minors career, Sam Tuivailala has struggled mightily with control. However, Tuivailala’s recent improvement in that department shows that he deserves this big league shot.

Cardinals fans have been waiting for Sam Tuivailala to find the plate for a few years now. He owns a tantalizing fastball, but the walk numbers over his minors career are even higher than those of another hard thrower named Trevor Rosenthal. This year, it looks like Tuivailala may be figuring it out.

The control numbers aren’t perfect. In fact, they may never get all the way to where the Cardinals would like. Nevertheless, the strides he made this year are very noticeable. Over the first two months of the season, Tuivailala walked an unsightly 5.78 batters per nine innings. Since the beginning of June, he has only allowed 2.59 free passes per nine innings.

It is important to note that this does not mean that Tuivailala is now more likely to pitch in line with that second number going forward. History suggests that he is more likely to pitch like the weighted average of the two. I only bring up the splits because I do believe that sometimes a young player shows some progression in season. Is he more likely to pitch like the 3.98 season walks per nine going forward? Yes, but he certainly made improvements. He has never registered a mark that low in a full season before, and his FIP suggests that he can work with that.

According to FIP, Tuivailala is pitching very effectively right now. FIP only takes into account balls that aren’t put in the field of play (i.e. K’s, BB’s, and HR’s). You may want to cringe at his 5.44 ERA, but he isn’t giving up nearly enough home runs to warrant that. He is pitching much better than that number, as bad defense and bad luck are hurting him this season. Tuivailala’s FIP this season is 2.98, compared to the 4.20 FIP he posted in AAA last season.

What does that mean, exactly? It essentially means that Tuivailala punches out enough batters and keeps the ball in the park to still be effective despite his control issues. There are plenty of pitchers who are able to succeed despite high walk rates. Among the things that those pitchers all have in common are the ability to strike out a lot of batters and the ability to limit home runs.

Here is a short list of established relievers with a higher walk rate than Tuivailala in 2016 that fall into that category: Craig Kimbrel, Zach Duke, A.J. Ramos, David Robertson, and Fernando Rodney. Each of those pitchers has shown some level of success at the big league level during his career. Tuivailala just might join them if he keeps trending in this direction.

We can debate whether or not Tuivailala is ready for the majors yet, but he did earn his shot. He made the adjustments that the coaching staff asked of him. He cut down on his walks, but kept up the strikeouts and low home run rate. Sure, he still has his flaws. His offspeed pitches needed a lot of work last time he was in the majors. I have no idea how those pitches have progressed, but he still has a blazing fastball.

When you are primarily a fastball pitcher, getting ahead in the count is extremely important. He’ll need to avoid falling behind early, as that will allow batters to just sit dead red. If he falls behind, he will have to come in with his fastball, and good hitters can still beat the best fastball. In time, his offspeed pitches will develop. I don’t know where they will end up or how often he will use them, but they’ll get better. For now, the majors represent a big test.

Getting the fastball in the strike zone early in the count will be the key for Tuivailala. If he can do it, then maybe he gets more time for development with the big league club. If he can’t, then the postseason roster seems unlikely for Tuivailala. John Mozeliak gave the young pitcher the shot he deserves. Now, it’s time for the reliever to deliver on the promise that he has shown. He made some adjustments. He got his control issues in check. It’s time to do it at Busch Stadium.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports

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