Ercolani's improbable journey from San Marino to Arizona Fall League

October 7th, 2023

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The castelli of Borgo Maggiore, San Marino, lie more than 6,000 miles to the east of the pitching rubber at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, where Alessandro Ercolani has made his first two appearances during the Arizona Fall League.

The first player in the history of the small landlocked nation (which lies inside Italy’s borders) to sign a professional contract with a Major League organization, the 19-year-old fireballer is both the youngest player in attendance on this year’s fall circuit and arguably the most compelling.

“San Marino, it’s really small,” Ercolani told in June. “In general, in Italy, baseball is not really popular. [But still] pitching in Italy is the only way to play [competitive] baseball.

“The day I signed, I was really happy because the Pirates’ program was, for me, really, really good.”

While Ercolani has battled his command early on with Salt River, he has rushed his fastball into the mid-90s while showcasing a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s breaking pitch and a developing changeup. He opened his outing Friday in Salt River’s 6-1 defeat to Mesa with a pair of walks, before retiring consecutive batters with a runner in scoring position. After a run-scoring double, he notched his lone strikeout of the outing on a 95.2 mph heater.

The improvement of his arsenal has come a long way since first signing with Pittsburgh in March 2021. Ercolani spent his first two years stateside at the club’s complex in Florida, where he has lauded the technological advantages associated with the organization.

“When I signed, I basically only had my fastball,” Ercolani said Friday. “So now I'm working with my cutter and my changeup … and it's feeling really good.”

Ercolani’s first taste of affiliate ball came this season with Single-A Bradenton, where he pitched to a 4.43 ERA over 17 appearances (15 starts). Things began to click for the righty when he struck out a career-high nine batters on June 9, followed by five frames of one-hit ball in his next start that earned him Florida State League Pitcher of the Week honors.

As Ercolani’s pitch counts climbed in outings, so did his success. Across the seven starts in which he threw at least five innings, he allowed more than two earned runs just once. While the Fall League offers the 6-foot-2 hurler a chance to continue honing his repertoire, it’s also the latest major stage for him to appear on.

At just 16 years old, Ercolani appeared in six games for ASD San Marino in the Italian Baseball League and racked up 11 strikeouts in 6 2/3 frames while allowing just one earned run. He was 10 years younger than the average age of his competition. While the age gap isn’t nearly as stark in the Fall League, facing batters knocking on the door of the big leagues is a considerable challenge for a pitcher still in his teens.

“I really like [to] play with people older than me, with more experience,” Ercolani said, “Just to have an idea how [good] a player older is. It's more of a challenge for me.”

Before the 2023 regular season began, Ercolani was named to Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic as a reserve. He was never summoned after the club advanced from Group A and made it to the quarterfinals in Japan, but if his progression continues, he figures to be a prominent member of the club for years to come as it continues to make its mark in international play. 

Once the Fall League wraps up in mid-November, Ercolani will return home to San Marino -- the world’s fifth-smallest country -- for the offseason. He especially misses the food. But he also misses his family, his friends and the intimacy of knowing nearly everyone when going out. Despite that longing, he remains steadfast in his excitement to continue working toward his ultimate goal of pitching on a big league mound as he gains invaluable reps during baseball’s premier fall showcase.