Quinn Priester's latest pitch boosts ROY hopes

December 12th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- If wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2023, there will be four players he’ll have to acknowledge in his acceptance speech: Alek Thomas, Wyatt Mascarella, Drew Stengren and Donivan Williams. For without those four, Priester might never have discovered the pitch that enabled him to evolve as a starter.

“I wanted to give my buddies a new look,” Priester said. “I just didn’t want them to hit it. That was purely just, ‘Well, I had an opportunity to mess around.' I did. And I stumbled upon something pretty good.”

Priester, the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, currently features five pitches in his bag. The right-hander has thrown his four-seam fastball and curveball since high school. He dabbled with a “crap” circle-changeup “to get drafted, basically." Upon turning pro, he transitioned to a Vulcan grip. In the Gulf Coast League, he and Dylan Shockley, a catcher in the Pirates’ Minor League system, conspired to throw more sinkers in the pursuit of maximum efficiency. As for the fifth pitch? It kind of just happened.

Prior to 2020, Priester struggled to throw a slider. He could never find the feel. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Priester stumbled into an opportunity to get back in the lab.

During the pandemic, Priester frequently threw live sessions against Thomas, Mascarella, Stengren and Williams -- like Priester, products of greater Chicago high school baseball. That quartet frequently saw Priester, and in time, they possessed doctorates in the field of Priester’s repertoire. They knew his fastball. They knew his curveball, changeup and sinker, too. They didn’t know of the slider.

In this low-stakes environment, Priester had nothing to lose by flipping in a couple sliders. As Priester threw the pitch more and more, things finally clicked. Priester discovered a gem.

"I never really thought about it. I was just trying to enjoy playing baseball,” Priester said. “When I had only one breaking ball, my buddies knew. They've seen me every week. They know a curveball's coming. What if I could just have another breaking ball? It was literally just to get out the same [four] guys.”

Priester’s repertoire has already undergone considerable transformation since being drafted out of Cary-Grove High School in 2019, but he expressed an openness to further evolve and learn from others, whether that be different pitches or different grips. Priester cited the four-seam fastball of right-hander Mike Burrows, the Pirates’ No. 8 prospect, praising Burrows’ ability to consistently generate swing-and-miss.

“If he throws it at the top of the zone, it's just whiff, whiff, whiff,” Priester said. “Whereas, I’m going for foul balls straight back [and] popups. If he gets a foul ball, he'll be pissed. Just like, ‘Seriously?’ It's just some guys do things exceptionally well, and I think it would be stupid to not try to learn from those guys.

“I would argue that there are things I do well that I hope people can ask me, too.”

Given Priester’s trajectory, there might be a couple up-and-coming pitchers who would love to learn from the 22-year-old. 

Priester is coming off another successful season. Despite missing April and May with an oblique injury, Priester finished 2022 with a 3.29 ERA with 89 strikeouts across 90 1/3 innings at four Minor League levels. Then, at the Arizona Fall League, Priester was selected as an All-Star. 

Priester likely will begin 2023 with Triple-A Indianapolis, but he projects to make his Major League debut at some point next season. As Priester stood in the Pirates’ clubhouse ahead of a recent season-ticket holder event, he shared that the possibility of owning -- and keeping -- a locker wasn’t his only thought.

“Rookie of the Year has crossed my mind,” Priester said. “Those types of things. I want to set big goals because you work harder for that and you realize, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty big goal. I can’t really slack if that’s what I really want to be.’

“I just want to give myself every opportunity to be the best version of myself that I can be. I don’t know what that will be, but I’m going to work as hard as I can to achieve it. I don’t want to put a limit on that.”