In 2011, a pair of left-handed pitching prospects came up big for the Rays in September to help them make the postseason. The first, you are all familiar with: Matt Moore. The second, however, has gone in the exact opposite direction. Alexander Torres went 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 3 relief appearances spanning 7 innings for the Rays in September of 2011, most notably tossing 5 shutout innings, striking out 5 while walking 1, to earn the win in the Rays’ September 4th game against the Blue Jays after Jeff Niemann lasted just 1 inning in the game. But this season has been a complete train wreck for Torres.
Overall in 2012, Torres went just 3-8 with a 6.72 ERA, a 12.1 K/9, a 7.5 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 18 starts, 12 relief appearances, and 80.1 IP, with 26 of his games coming at Triple-A Durham and the others all the way down in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Why was down in the GCL? Not for an injury, but because he was just so out of sync. Torres’ stuff is about as good as it gets. He throws a fastball that touches that touches the mid-90’s with devastating late bite and a changeup with good arm action to go along with good sink. He has also thrown a big high-70’s curveball. Torres has always been able to generate swings and misses with all his pitches, which are even more difficult to pick up thanks to a deceptive delivery, but the problem is that he has never been able to throw his pitches for strikes. That was something I saw in person back in spring training. Here was a line I wrote there out of pure frustration watching Torres struggle to throw strikes with any consistency.
"At the end of the day, I don’t think Torres even needs the deception because his pitches have such dynamic movement. If he could simply throw strikes with any consistency, he could be an excellent pitcher. But there’s a good chance it’s already too late."
In the GCL (completely unrelated to my writing, of course), Torres finally stopped worrying about deception and worked on simply repeating his delivery and throwing strikes. As Adam Sobsey wrote for Indy Week, Torres removed the head tilt in his delivery, removing deception but helping him to repeat his delivery. He also stopped throwing his curveball, which featured the great break but also a slightly different release point that threw Torres off and made it hard for Torres to throw it for a strike, in favor of a low-80’s slider with sharp downward break (a pitch I saw him throw in spring training). What did the change in Torres’ delivery and the dropping of his curveball in exchange for a slider do? Torres got just 2 starts in at Durham after returning from the GCL and in his final start of the season finally put it all together. He went 5.2 innings allowing just 3 hits, striking out 10 while walking just 1. It was his first 8-strikeout game of the season and just his second 7-strikeout game of the season after five games of 8 or more K’s and twelve games of 7 or more when he led the International League in strikeouts in 2011. It was also the first time all season that he walked only one batter while throwing 5 or more innings. It was just one start, but Torres appeared to make definite progress.
What is Alex Torres doing right now? He’s working in Port Charlotte with the pitching coordinator, Marty DeMerritt, who helped transform him. He hopes that his start to finish the season at Durham is the start of a major turnaround that ends with him being a good big league starting pitcher. There is still work that needs to be done. One start can’t be more indicative of Torres’ future performance than the rest of the 2012 season. But Torres is still very much a promising starting pitching prospect for the Rays, even as he turns 25 in December.
This September, Torres, a member of the Rays’ 40-man roster, will return to the big leagues. And especially after his turnaround, he has the ability to pitch well and make the same type of impact that he did in 2011. Torres’ September 2011 performance helped the Rays win just one extra game. But as we saw in 2011, you never know when one game will make the difference.