As the 2009 MLB Draft approached, Baseball America published the following line about diminutive California high school lefty Robbie Erlin:
"Several scouts have said the same thing about him: ‘If he were two inches taller, you'd be talking about him as a first-rounder."
Erlin recently finished off his first full season in professional baseball. And if teams could go back in time, perhaps he would have been a first rounder regardless of his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame.
Because of his size, the Texas Rangers were able to snag the Cal Poly recruit in the third round and sign him for a slightly above-slot $425,000 bonus.
While he didn't have the projectable body many scouts prefer in a first-round high school arm, he certainly has the solid stuff and beyond-his-years polish of a top selection.
Erlin's advanced three-pitch repertoire and mental makeup earned him a full-season assignment to Single-A Hickory directly out of his first Spring Training.
The Santa Cruz native dominated from the out-set with the Crawdads, surrendering only two earned runs in 34.1 innings during the season's first two months. After starting the year in the bullpen, he made his first professional start at Kannapolis on May 18 and retired all 15 batters he faced, striking out nine.
When the dust eventually settled on the 2010 campaign, Erlin ended with fantastic numbers. The left-hander played the entire season with Hickory and posted a league-leading 2.12 earned-run average in 114.2 innings. He gave up 89 hits, walked only 17, and struck out 125.
"It took a little getting used to, playing games almost every day," Erlin said of his first full season. "But once we got into the routine, it was easier. I am very happy with how much I developed and learned over the course of the season."
Erlin's success wasn't a product of one dominant pitch, but rather his ability to mix and command his 87-92 mph fastball, curveball, and changeup.
Though he is a left-handed pitcher, Erlin was actually better against right-handed hitters this year. He limited righties to a paltry .179/.216/.273 slash line with a 30 percent strikeout rate.
The success came largely because Erlin was able to command his changeup while also working his fastball on the inner-half of the plate to righties––two things young pitchers often struggle with early in their careers.
"My changeup was effective against righties," he said. "I got used to more sequences against them because I faced a majority of right-handed hitters."
Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman believes Erlin's advanced feel for pitch sequencing was a big part of his hurler's dominance this season.
"He does a great job of sequences––very mature sequences," Holman said. "Most guys at his age tend to get into a 1-2 or 0-2 count and then all the sudden here come the breaking balls. But Robbie isn't like that. He senses the hitter might be cheating to a breaking ball or a changeup, and he'll finish the hitter hard."
While it's difficult to suggest Erlin struggled in any aspect of his game in 2010, fellow southpaws did hit him at a .309 clip in 119 plate appearances. While polished, Erlin realizes there is still plenty of room for development.
"I think learning to throw all my pitches in any count against lefties will benefit me," Erlin said. "Things like mixing in changeups to lefties to keep their timing off. And making sure to keep the ball down when going to the outside corner, because it is easy for them to hit an outside fastball up in the zone."
Erlin's first full season was largely smooth sailing in the sense that he never had to make any major mechanical changes. Most of his work focused on the mental aspect of pitching.
"I didn't really make any changes," he said. "We worked on making my misses up and down instead of side to side. So Brad gave me ideas on how to do that, and he taught me how to fix them when I did see myself doing it. But there weren't any drastic changes in my motion."
After logging 114.2 innings this year, the prospect will now take the entire offseason to rest his arm, as he won't attend Fall Instructional League. He looks forward to adding more weight to make his arm and body more durable.
"I'm going to stay on the lifting, conditioning, and throwing schedules to try and gain a little weight," said Erlin, who is currently at 5-foot-11, 190-pounds. "I want to get stronger and keep building my arm strength so I can be ready for Spring Training and next season."
With what many scouts believe is a mid-rotation ceiling, the 19-year-old is more likely to fulfill his potential than most pitchers his age because of his mental makeup and advanced repertoire.
Erlin's polish should allow the Rangers to promote him aggressively through the system in the coming years.
"He's just a real pleasant individual to work with," Holman said. "He's extremely intellectual and coachable. You can't say enough about him in the positive. And he could probably take what he's got right now and be competitive at any level."
Erlin looking like a steal
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