Priester has 'singular focus' on mound for Pirates

February 17th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- calls out to in the backlots of Pirate City on Friday to let him know it’s time to start simulating at-bats.

“Left-hander. Runner on second.”

Priester starts with a breaking ball that dives low out of the zone. “That’s a swing and a miss right there,” Delay shouts. Priester turns to pitching coordinator Josh Hopper to jokingly let him know that Delay called it, not him.

The at-bat continues before Priester calls out a sinker to wrap the outing. It’s perfectly dotted, so much so that an excited Delay exclaims, “That’s sick, man” as they convene with Hopper.

“I’m feeling good,” Priester said at his locker afterwards. “Feeling athletic again.”

Athletic again. That’s what he’s been searching for.

It may have been Priester’s first session since camp opened on Wednesday, but it was a sample of why he was so highly regarded as a prospect coming up through the Minors. But perhaps just as important was the intent and process through pitches. Priester is a thinker on the mound, but when evaluating his intent and approach on Friday, Hopper would occasionally interject, telling him to give a yes or no answer.

Priester went into the offseason wanting to get more athleticism into the delivery. To an extent, it’s less thinking, more doing.

“The stuff’s always been there,” Delay said. “He’s such a cerebral kid and he really knows what he wants to do that sometimes, I think, it can almost be too much information. He’s trying to do too many things. Today, it was just that singular focus.”

Last season was the first that Priester faced some true on-field adversity and poor results. His fastball velocity dipped, and while he showed some flashes in the Majors, he often fell victim to the big inning. His 53% ground ball rate ranked in the 89th percentile of pitchers according to Baseball Savant, a signal that he was minimizing hitter damage. However, those big innings led to his ERA increasing to 7.74 with a 1.70 WHIP. That led to a demotion back to the Minors and the Pirates being willing to experiment and use him as an opener down the stretch.

“I think the biggest thing is consistency. You have to be consistent,” manager Derek Shelton said. “The second thing -- his bullpen was really good today -- but minimalizing damage. We saw he had the damage last year where instead of it being one hitter or two hitters, it spanned into four or five hitters, and then that’s a big inning.”

Priester recognized it too, which is why he spent so much of his winter in Bradenton to try to find ways to stay athletic on the mound. In the Minors, his stuff was good enough that he could get out of a jam with a less than perfect pitch because he had stuff.

“I was able to get away with it in the Minor Leagues,” Priester said. “I was able to find success not performing at the best that I could. It kind of was disguising how good I could be, in my opinion. The big leagues forces that adaptation… I think the best version of myself is the most athletic one.”

Now entering his sophomore campaign, there’s a lot riding on Priester taking that step to becoming a Major League starter. The Pirates did add a pair of lefties in and , but after losing for the year due to a Tommy John surgery, it does still leave uncertainty in the rotation. They could still add another arm, but they also want to give young starters like Priester a chance to earn a spot.

“It doesn't mean, or still doesn't mean, that we wouldn't add a starter if it didn't make sense,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “That was a bit of a piece of it too. Let's be open-minded about letting the young pitchers step up and earn a spot if that comes to pass."

That’s all Priester is looking for, a chance to prove that he belongs in the Majors.

“Obviously every year coming into big league camp when I was a little bit younger, I wasn’t going to make the team,” Priester said. “Last year, this year, the mentality’s been the same through them: [Be] one of the five best guys here.”