Priester struggles with pitch execution in season debut

April 20th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- In his three Minor League starts with Triple-A Indianapolis this season, had done an exemplary job keeping his fastball to the outer part of the strike zone. In turn, he enjoyed some early success with the top farm club and earned another call to the Majors.

In the first inning Friday at PNC Park, catcher Henry Davis set up outside against the Red Sox lefty first baseman Triston Casas, looking for a sinker. Priester’s 1-0 offering missed its target and wound up being right down the middle. Casas took advantage and put it in the left-field bleachers.

That already was the second of three home runs Priester would surrender in his first big league start of 2024, an 8-1 Pirates loss.

“Just need to be better to help the team win,” Priester said afterwards. “That's what I'm here to do, and I need to do a better job of that."

The Pirates’ issues were not limited to just starting pitching Friday. The offense is mired in its first extended rut of the season, mustering just one hit against starter Brayan Bello en route to a 10-strikeout night. Roansy Contreras was erratic and allowed a trio of runs in his two frames.

But for a team that is going to be missing Marco Gonzales for an extended period of time, this was its first test of their starting pitching depth. It did not go well.

Casas’ home run was actually the second Priester allowed on the evening, the first being a 421-foot shot by Wilyer Abreu on a slider. His final offering was a changeup left up that Rob Refsnyder took deep to right-center, capping his night at 4 1/3 innings, five runs -- four of which were earned -- and seven hits, with just two strikeouts and one walk.

Home runs were an issue for Priester in his first tastes of the Majors last season, with 26.7% of his fly balls resulting in home runs. That’s the 10th-highest rate for a pitcher in a season since that stat started being tracked in 2002 (minimum 50 innings pitched). Three home runs on Friday will certainly not help the cause.

As manager Derek Shelton would point out afterwards, the execution problem wasn’t just the home run pitches, but the first pitch of the at-bat. Of the 21 batters Priester faced, he threw only 10 first pitch strikes.

“It's very simple,” said Shelton. “If you put the ball on the plate and you're in positive counts, you have the ability to execute pitches and expand the zone. When you're behind in the count, you have to come on the plate. In the big leagues when you come on the plate, you're gonna get hit, and that's what happened today.”

A year ago, those pitch execution problems usually translated into walks, where Priester struck out just 15.4% of his batters faced and walked 11.5%. Walks weren’t the root of his troubles Friday, but surrendering too many hitter’s counts can hurt, too.

“Being ahead in the count is something that you have to do,” Shelton said. “I think we've demonstrated with some of the starts we've had this year, when we're ahead in the count then we've been really effective.”

One start is not going to derail Priester’s season. Shelton noted pregame how the 23-year-old right-hander had a good spring and the team’s decision to start him in the Minors was a tough one. He’s a former first-round pick and was a top 100 prospect as recent as last year.

But his early showings in the Majors have been far from ideal, and if he wants to be a longer-term option to replace Gonzales in the rotation, he’s going to need to improve that execution.

"I certainly think I can do a lot better from the experiences that I have up here and the failures I had up here,” Priester said. “I've got to get back to work tomorrow and be better the next one out."