By Todd Johnson
Affiliates never know what is going to happen over the course of a minor league season. Prospects will come and go and roles may change. Over the past month, the Tennessee Smokies have had to deal with a lot of change. Starting pitcher Trevor Clifton and relievers Daury Torrez, James Norwood, Craig Brooks, and Dakota Mekkes were all called up to AAA Iowa. When Norwood and Brooks left last week, it opened up a lot of holes and roles to be filled at the back end of the pen. While Wyatt Short was promoted from Myrtle Beach, most of the changes would have to come from within.
For most of his pro career, Jake Stinnett has been a starting pitcher since being drafted out of Maryland in the second round in 2014. Everyone noticed right away that he had a lot of movement on his pitches. The problem Stinnett has struggled controlling that movement. At South Bend, Myrtle Beach, and Tennessee, Stinnett worked to find some consistency with his pitches. Heading into last year, he had a career ERA of 4.39.
However, an injury forced him to miss most of the 2017 season. When he came back in late July 2017, he was relegated to the bullpen. And for the last six weeks of the season, he had the best month and a half of his career. Over 9 appearances, he put up a 0.61 ERA with 14 Ks in 14.1 innings.
Last fall, Jake was assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He drew rave reviews as a reliever and it was thought that he would have some sort of back-end role when the 2018 season began. Sometimes, the best laid plans never get made. And sometimes, things have a funny way of working out.
After Norwood and Brooks were promoted on June 25, Manager Mark Johnson needed to find a new closer. For most of 2018, Stinnett was a set up man and long reliever. He looked good in April with a 2.16 ERA in 8 games. However, in May and June, he struggled more often than not. For the first half, he had a 5.54 ERA in 26 innings with 32 strikeouts. Opponents hit .264 against him, cranked 4 HRs, while Stinnett walked 12. Of the 16 ERs he allowed, 10 of them came in three games in which he gave up a HR. Get rid of the HRs, and his ERA was 2.57 in games where he did not allow a dinger.
For Stinnett to pitch in such a high leverage situation as a closer, he was going to have to make some changes. You often hear about hitters developing an approach at the plate. The same is true of pitchers. As for Jake, his pitches still look the same, but his demeanor does not. Broadcaster Mick Gillispie often comments now how quickly Stinnett works as a closer. In the old neighborhood, we used to just call it “rock and fire.” You just get the baseball, get your sign, and you let it rip. Hitters do not have a lot of time to think about what pitch is coming. So far, so great for Stinnett!
Heading into tonight’s game, Stinnett’s had 4 save opportunities since moving into the closer spot. He has yet to allow a run in four innings. He only has four strikeouts, but he has not walked a batter nor allowed a hit. His season ERA went from 5.46 down to 4.78 in less than two weeks. For the second half, his ERA is a sparkling 1.50 in 5 games.
Manager Mark Johnson has to feel good about moving Jake into the closer role. Stinnett is simply attacking the hitter. He needs to maintain that approach if he is going to succeed as the Smokies’ closer long-term. If he can continue to do what he’s done over the last 10 days, he becomes quite the interesting prospect heading into 2019.