Kranick’s emotional rollercoaster ride ended on Friday, when his phone rang and general manager Ben Cherington delivered the good news: Kranick and infielder Rodolfo Castro were joining Pittsburgh’s 40-man roster.
“It was a huge sigh of relief. It was a big boost of confidence for me,” Kranick said Monday afternoon. “I can’t wait to get down to Spring Training and pick up where I left off at the alternate site this year.”
You can’t blame Kranick for already looking forward to next season. In a tough year for player development across the sport, the 23-year-old right-hander took some significant steps forward. He was one of the top pitchers at the club’s alternate training site camp in Altoona, Pa., and now he looks like a prospect to watch closely next season.
“A young, big, strong, physical guy who we think has a chance to start,” Cherington said Friday night. “Will likely need some more innings in the Minor Leagues -- and hope that happens next year -- but we’re encouraged by his progress this year.”
In a normal year, Kranick would have started the season in the Double-A Altoona rotation and maybe earned a late-season callup to Triple-A Indianapolis. It would have been a great spot from a personal standpoint, a reasonable drive for his family and friends back home near Scranton, Pa. That didn’t play out according to plan, obviously, but it might have been a good thing for Kranick’s career.
“I think the whole Spring Training getting shut down was a blessing in disguise for me,” Kranick said. “When I got home, it was a really good time for me to look in the mirror and realize, if I continue to have this fatigue, there’s not going to be a spot in baseball for me in a couple years. … It was a huge blessing for me to be able to go home and have some time to figure things out.”
Kranick, the Pirates’ 11th-round Draft pick in 2016 and their No. 24 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, entered Spring Training this year coming off a solid season with Class A Advanced Bradenton. He posted a 3.79 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 78 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings over 20 starts in '19. But he didn’t feel quite right when he threw this spring.
Kranick had battled shoulder fatigue in past seasons, typically in July or August. He’d get tired, and his mechanics would fall out of whack as a result. His delivery became inefficient, with a long arm path that took the ball too far away from his body. But he was feeling the same way in March, before he’d thrown a single competitive pitch, which set off some alarms in his head.
Before camp broke in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kranick sought advice from Pirates Minor League pitching coach Vic Black, the former big league reliever. Black shared some warmup and weighted-ball drill recommendations, and the two quickly developed what Kranick called a “career-changer” of a bond. Then, COVID-19 changed everything, and Kranick headed home to work and wait.
Kranick bounced around different facilities, staying out of Pennsylvania’s cold March weather and throwing wherever he could, until they all shut down. At that point, he decided to build a mound in his family’s backyard. The rest of the spring, Kranick threw twice a week with his father and brother, John.
Around the time spring camp broke, John -- who spent two seasons breaking down video for the Pirates -- bought a Rapsodo unit. He helped his brother dive deep into the numbers behind his twice-weekly bullpen sessions, and they had plenty of time to tinker with his mechanics and pitch mix.
The biggest change came to Kranick’s delivery, specifically his shortened arm path. The modifications bring to mind similar efforts made by rehabbing starter Jameson Taillon, who has compared his revamped throwing motion to that of a quarterback: quick, efficient and more biomechanically sound.
“It’s just way more simple,” Kranick said. “I get the ball, bring it right to my ear and I go. There’s no long arm stroke where I’m bringing the ball far away from my body. It’s just short, from the pocket right up and then go from there.”
Kranick did all that just to get his shoulder in good shape and keep it that way, but it unlocked more for him as he reported in July to the Pirates’ alternate training site camp at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
“I was just doing it for health reasons, and then these other bonuses came with it,” Kranick said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
His four-seam fastball velocity ticked up to touch 98 mph, and his more efficient mechanics gave the pitch more carry at the top of the zone. He scrapped his two-seam fastball and added a curveball, which played better down in the zone off his high four-seamer. He harnessed his slider, which is more of a cutter, and refined his changeup under the watch of Minor League pitching coach Joel Hanrahan.
Kranick didn’t pitch in an official game this year, but all the work he did makes it unfair to say he gained less from this summer than a normal season. Just the opposite, he said: “I think I definitely got more.”
Next spring, he should get a chance to prove it in big league camp.
“It’s so cool. Obviously, I’m part of the future plans. To be able to learn from a bunch of those guys in the big league locker room, it’s really going to be awesome for me,” Kranick said. “I’m really, really fortunate to have that opportunity.”