Dollander pairing his heater with an attention to detail

May 17th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding’s Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DENVER -- Judging by the way Rockies right-handed pitching prospect studies, his ability to read the opposing hitters’ swings and strategize accordingly will be near the top of his list of tools.

But no attribute anytime soon is going to surpass the fastball that Dollander is using to dominate hitters while pitching at High-A Spokane.

Dollander, 22, the ninth overall pick in last year’s MLB Draft and the No. 42 prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 100 list, is leaning on his heater while striking out 15.9 batters per nine innings and has a 2.59 ERA through his first five starts. Dollander’s next start will be on Saturday against Vancouver.

Throwing a 96-99 mph heater at the top of the strike zone makes Dollander an intriguing figure for the Rockies. The current Major League staff is not big on strikeouts. Also, the Rockies have had periods in their history where they skewed toward groundball pitchers, who sought out contact. But since Bud Black took over as manager in 2017, the mantra has been for a pitcher to do what he does best, even if balls are often hit in the air. Dollander so far has garnered only slightly more groundouts than flyouts (0.61 groundout/flyout ratio, specifically).

“If I pitch to that strength, I know I’ll be able to get deep in games and have strikeouts,” Dollander said. “Yeah, I might give up a homer here and there because I throw hard. But as long as I don't have anybody on base and I'm not walking people, everything will work out.”

For what it’s worth, Dollander has given up three home runs -- but just 15 hits in 24 1/3 innings pitched this season.

“He has a big arm,” Spokane pitching coach Blaine Beatty said. “He can go down and he can go up [in the zone]. His ability to tunnel [pitches] at the bottom of the zone with his fastball, changeup and slider, and his ability to tunnel pitches at the top of the zone with his fastball and changeup are his biggest strengths.

“And in his last outing, he gave up a couple little singles and got to bases loaded, then proceeded to strike out the next three guys. I use that as a great example of him reaching down when he didn't really have his best stuff and showing really what his true colors are.”

And he has a thirst for learning, yet he is patient.

Dollander went into last college season at Tennessee as a potential first overall pick. But changes he made to his slider backfired and he wasn’t as dominant as the previous season. Still, he was an early first-round pick for a Rockies team always seeking pitching.

The organization and Dollander agreed he would delay his pro debut in 2023, and use the summer and winter to prepare for the longer pro season.

“I went into a different lifting program during the offseason, more focused on stability and building strength in my joints,” Dollander said. “Just about everything has gotten a lot stronger -- my core, my hips, my legs, my arms are a lot stronger than when I had just gotten drafted.”

Dollander’s eyes are open to the areas that need improvement, with the slider being the key. Falling behind in counts has led to 10 walks -- an unsustainably high total that he can curb once he begins landing his slider for strikes. Sliders also can force grounders.

“It’s getting a lot better in the bullpens, so I’m excited to see where I’m at on Saturday,” he said. “The analytics are really good. It’s more me trying to find the command.”

The mental game excites Dollander. At Tennessee, pitching coach Frank Anderson called the pitches from the dugout, but Anderson also educated Dollander on what he was seeing. Education has continued with Beatty -- and his teammates.

“I like talking to the hitters -- coming up with theoretical at-bats -- just to get a read for how they're thinking,” Dollander said. “Maybe I can come up with how to pitch to a guy like them on the other team. It’s been fun learning.”

Especially when the answer to the gametime test often is an upper-90s fastball.