Erlin adjusting to Double-A offenses

FRISCO, Texas – Left-hander Robbie Erlin has more than held his own through his first four Double-A starts, but he is working to develop his game against the more disciplined Double-A lineups. Lone Star Dugout features the 20-year-old prospect.

Left-hander Robbie Erlin earned a recent promotion to Double-A Frisco after making only nine starts at the High-A level. In 54.2 innings with Myrtle Beach, he yielded 25 hits while walking five and striking out 62. He posted a 2.14 earned-run average––not far off from the 2.12 ERA he logged at Single-A Hickory last season.

"I was very excited," said Erlin of getting the promotion. "I think I prepared the best I could. It's something I've been working toward. I was just very excited to get the call."

When Erlin got word of his promotion, he was with most of the top brass in the Rangers' minor league system, including the farm director, field coordinator, and pitching coordinator.

"I got called into (manager) Jason Wood's office in Myrtle Beach," he said. "Scott Servais, Danny Clark, Brad Holman, Mike Micucci, and Woody were all in there. Scott just told me that I was going to be heading up to Frisco in the morning. He just talked to me for a little bit, and that was that."

Erlin was the second-youngest pitcher in the Texas League at the time of his promotion, behind only RoughRiders rotation-mate Martin Perez. He's now the third-youngest hurler in the circuit––Cardinals prospect Shelby Miller was born two days earlier.

Since Erlin reached Double-A in late-May, the early results have remained strong. He's 3-0 with a 4.81 earned-run average through four starts. In 24.1 innings, he has allowed 25 hits, walked four, and struck out 21.

The Santa Cruz native got his first Texas League victory out of the way in his debut, when he yielded three runs in 6.1 innings against the Tulsa Drillers on May 29.

"I'm kind of relieved," Erlin said of getting the win. "I got it out of the way."

He was also pleased with the way he pitched.

"I thought I threw some good pitches," he said. "But, at the same time, I made some mistakes. I left a couple changeups up in the zone when I was ahead in the count. Obviously the two homers I gave up––they were 0-2 or 1-2 counts. I tried to go inside and they caught a bit too much plate. You can always improve on that kind of stuff. It's just pitching to the situation."

During his two years in the Rangers' organization, Erlin has gained a reputation for his overall mental maturity both on and off the mound. He approached his Double-A debut just like any other start and filled up the strike zone, throwing 71 of his 90 pitches for strikes.

"That's something Scott (Servais) told me––to keep pitching how I've been pitching," Erlin said. "He said not to change anything or try and do too much. So I just tried to stick to my game plan and rely on commanding the baseball. I just tried to throw my game"

While Erlin's stuff missed some bats in the game––and he has 21 strikeouts in his first 24.1 Double-A innings––the more mature Texas League hitters have been able to hang in the box a little longer. In his debut, 15 of the 90 pitches were two-strike foul balls.

Erlin hasn't let the foul balls bother him, but he has certainly noticed the hitters' maturity.

"I didn't get frustrated about it," he said after his debut. "But I just kept attacking and attacking. I definitely noticed it. Now I know they're going to battle with two strikes.

"If I'm ahead in the zone, you've got to try and put them away and you have to execute pitches or else they're just going to foul it off."

Erlin's upper-80s, low-90s fastball isn't exactly below average, but he also isn't going to blow guys away on pure velocity. The biggest negative of his strong 2011 season thus far has been the home runs. He has yielded 12 long balls in 79 total innings, including five in his first four Double-A starts.

In order to keep hitters off-balance even more––and potentially helping reduce the two-strike foul balls and home runs––the prospect has recently introduced a two-seam fastball into his repertoire.

The two-seamer, which comes in a tick softer than his four-seam fastball, was something Erlin approached Myrtle Beach pitching coach Brad Holman about when he was still in the Carolina League.

"I started throwing a two-seam a few weeks ago," said the left-hander. "It was my idea. I approached Brad Holman about throwing it. I figured I would need a pitch to get me ground balls when I need them, and I had thrown a two-seam a lot in high school, so I didn't think it would be tough to pick up again.

"I don't throw it a whole lot in games yet. I am still figuring out the movement and trying to make it consistent."

Though Erlin went to the two-seamer just a handful of times in his Double-A debut, he threw it more often in his third Double-A start. In that outing, against the heavy-hitting San Antonio Missions, the prospect took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

"I thought I threw the ball well overall," said Erlin, who allowed four runs in the seventh inning and didn't factor in the decision. "My mindset didn't change going into the seventh. I just made a couple mistakes, left a couple balls up, and I thought it was a pretty good outing. I accomplished some goals."

One of those goals was mixing in the two-seam fastball a bit more.

"It is coming along well," he said. "I threw it quite a bit in that game. It was effective. I think I got one or two ground balls. And I got a strikeout with it, too. And a lot of foul balls."

Erlin says he hasn't yet been approached about adding a cutter to his repertoire. But given the amount of Rangers pitchers that have recently begun using the cut fastball, it seems inevitable for him.

The 6-foot-0, 175-pound hurler is among the Rangers' top pitching prospects due to his ability to mix and locate three pitches effectively. In addition to his fastball, he features a 71-74 mph curveball and an upper-70s changeup. All three pitches project as solid-average or plus, and his advanced pitchability should allow the stuff to play up.

While Erlin's curve has been effective since he arrived in Frisco, he says he struggled with the pitch a bit in Myrtle Beach.

"My curveball has been very good," said the prospect. "I've been working on it and trying to keep hand speed at the release. It has felt very good. A few weeks ago, I was kind of stopping at the release point and casting it out there. It was even slower than (71-74), so I've really tried to get out there and accelerate through the pitch."

During a recent interview with Holman, the Pelicans' pitching coach noted Erlin's struggles with the curve at the time. But he was also quick to point out his pitcher's maturity.

"From a standpoint of where Robbie's at, he is very polished," Holman said. "He has just taken the initiative to learn his own delivery and find checkpoints within his own delivery. He still falters, like anybody, where it comes to losing hand speed on secondary pitches, leaving the rubber early, and things like that. He has just learned how to alleviate those issues and recognize those issues."

And Holman notes that what often separates Erlin from his peers is his willingness to study the game.

"He has worked through his pickoff and worked in just understanding game situations and hitters' tendencies. 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."

Erlin worked mostly with a fastball-curveball combination while he pitched at Scotts Valley High School in the Santa Cruz area. Although Erlin says he has always liked his changeup, the pitch often sped up the bats of high school hitters that couldn't catch up to his fastball.

He began throwing the change more often during his full-season debut with Single-A Hickory last season, and the offering has developed into a potential plus pitch. Erlin's change may be even slightly better than his curve at this point––the pitch dives under bats, and he uses it confidently to both left- and right-handed hitters.

Erlin didn't always use the changeup against left-handers last season. While he often used his entire arsenal against righties, he generally stuck to just the fastball and curve against fellow lefties. And he feels that contributed to the reverse splits––lefties hit .309 against him while righties batted only .179.

This season, with Erlin using the changeup to all opponents, the splits are much closer to equal.

Through four Double-A starts, Erlin shows promise, but he also knows there is lots of room for improvement. He is having to learn how to deal with the more disciplined Double-A lineups.

"You can definitely tell kind of what the hitters are looking for and what their mindsets are with the way they swing because they're more disciplined," he said. "When they swing and what they do with the pitch is going to tell you more. You know they're disciplined at the same time instead of a more free-swinging offense.

"I'm just getting used to a more experienced approach coming from the other team's offense. Just how to pitch to it, really. I've developed pitch sequences and how to throw to more experienced hitters."

As Erlin looks forward to spending the remainder of his season in the Texas League, he wants to work on improving those sequences and staying consistent with everything he does.

"Executing pitches," he said when asked about his focus. "You can never do that well enough. Whether it's throwing them for strikes or throwing pitches out of the zone on purpose––I would just say executing pitches and mechanics also. Sticking with that so I can get all the timing right and be able to, like I said, accelerate through the offspeeds and stuff like that."

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