Astros' No. 8 prospect supplements heat with new pitch development

May 23rd, 2024

SUGAR LAND, Tex. -- When got through his second inning of work Wednesday, he felt gassed.

The heat at Constellation Field got to him, putting the starting pitcher in a position where he needed to make a decision on where to go with his game plan. The Astros' No. 8 prospect met with catcher César Salazar and decided to pull back the reins on his mid-90 mph fastball.

"I think I was just tired," Blubaugh said. "The heat just got to me. This is my first outing where it's really been 'hot, hot' here. I ran into the same problem late into the year in Corpus last year, where I was exhausted early. You have to accept the facts when something like that happens and realize you don’t have your juice, and from there, you just have to really pitch instead of just throwing it by people."

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Wednesday’s outing marked Blubaugh’s eighth start of the season for Sugar Land. Behind a fastball with an average velocity of 91.7 mph, the 2022 seventh-round pick tossed five scoreless innings, striking out three batters with 12 swings and misses and allowing four base runners -- one he picked off and another thrown out attempting to steal second base -- in a 2-1 loss to the Round Rock Express.

But what helped Blubaugh navigate his most recent start was his cutter.

He added the pitch during the Arizona Fall League. Sitting around 85-86 mph, it developed in conjunction with what pitching coach Thomas Whitsett considered Blubaugh's best trait: his fastball command. The pitch has become a more consistent weapon early in counts and behind in counts, working against both sides of the plate down on his glove side.

"I wasn't locating my fastball very good either," Blubaugh said. "I trusted my cutter and got a lot of good swings and misses [five], and it set up my other pitches pretty nicely."

"He's a guy who’s got a lot of self awareness," Whitsett added. "He knows when he can dial it up and dial it back. I think that's what served him mostly, and then the consistency and the delivery has just gotten better and better. And we're seeing him continue to do that week in and week out."

Blubaugh tightened up his delivery since the Fall League. He pitched with a bigger, longer leg kick in October and November, but even with success -- 17 strikeouts in 12 innings -- he didn't think it made the most sense for longer outings.

The Wisconsin-Milwaukee product turned to a more compact delivery to simplify his mechanics and save energy in order to go deep into his starts.

Blubaugh has been the fastest moving pitcher from the Astros' 2022 Draft class. After one outing at Double-A in April, the 23-year-old received a promotion to Triple-A, making his debut on April 11 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in Albuquerque.

Blubaugh navigated five scoreless innings with six strikeouts, three walks and two hits against the Isotopes.

"Everything we've thrown at him, he's stepped up to the plate," Whitsett said. "The reason he’s moved so quickly is because he stepped up to every one of those challenges, and he continues to throw strikes and get ahead of guys and put people away."

The Astros felt confident Blubaugh was ready to be at Triple-A. Even after a series of roster moves prompted a need for starting pitchers for the Space Cowboys in early April, Whitsett -- who is also the assistant pitching coordinator -- believes the organization didn't have plans of it being a short stay.

"In our organization, we value the ability to get ahead of hitters, the ability to create soft contact," Whitsett said. Opposing hitters averaged an 82.2 mph exit velocity against Blubaugh on Wednesday. "Maybe the scoreboard says something different, but we know that if you consistently do this over and over, you’re going to be able to pitch for a long time."

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Pedro León's power pushed him to first among Pacific Coast League hitters in RBIs with 48 -- the most among all Minor League hitters. Space Cowboys player development coach Wladimir Sutil said the staff has instilled a message of finding the best pitch to hit, especially with runners in scoring position, and not to chase.

León credited offseason adjustments and additional at-bats to his recent improvements in his fourth professional season. He turned to the Puerto Rican Winter League for a second consecutive offseason behind a direct connection from his agent as well as Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron to play for the Criollos de Caguas.

"I'm more mature now," León said through Sutil. "The experience is taking me to this level to recognize good and bad pitches and be able to make adjustments from one pitch to another. ... I'm enjoying where I'm at right now. I'm not thinking about being in the big leagues. I'm just enjoying the moment, trying to be with my teammates and just enjoy being here in Triple-A."

Leading the team with 39 batted balls with an exit velocity greater than 100 mph, León hasn't just relied on consistent power in 2024. He put an approved approach at the forefront of his season, striking out at a lower rate (24%) and walking at a higher rate (11%) than seasons past.