When the Padres lost Josh Johnson for the season to Tommy John surgery, left-handed pitcher Robbie Erlin inherited the 5th starter's job. Erlin was so-so in his first handful of starts. But in his last two outings, Robbie has looked like the future ace the Padres were hoping to get when they traded Mike Adams to the Rangers three years ago.
No matter how talented a pitcher is, it's going to take him a while to figure out how to really "pitch." Padres lefty Robbie Erlin is accelerating the learning curve by learning how to use his curve.
"He's got a good curve," said Padres manager Bud Black.
It's gotten even better due to a few technical tweaks Erlin has been working on with The Pitcher Whisperer, long time Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley.
"Letting my hand throw it out front instead of trying to throw it with my entire body and, kind of, getting ahead of myself with it," said Erlin, who has worked on not forcing the ball to go where he wants it to, instead letting the natural movement get hitters out.
Robbie is relying on that curve ball (and his developing change up) more often in his second Major League season... a combined 8 percent more often. He's cut back on his sliders (by 4 percent) and evened out the usage of his fastball. Last year, 52 percent of Erlin's heaters were two-seamers. This year that number is down to 34 percent.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding. Over his last two starts, Erlin has allowed a paltry one run in 13.1 innings, striking out 12 batters and walking just four.
It's the natural progression of a young starter learning how to make the jump from the minors to the majors.
"He was heavy fastball," said Black. "In Double-A and Triple-A last year he was heavy fastball and the curve was inconsistent. You can't pitch at 88-90 (MPH) without other pitches."
Understanding that has helped Erlin make massive strides in just a handful of starts.
"It doesn't mean you always have to throw a fastball in a fastball count," said Erlin. "It kind of gives the hitters something else they have to look for. It opens up the plate a little bit."
Erlin is exploiting that extra space. Now that he's throwing his curve consistently, opposing batters are swinging at more pitches, but making less contact. Erlin is striking out about one extra batter per start.
"I think, now, he understands the importance of being able to throw secondary pitches in the strike zone and not always having the fallback of the fastball to beat minor league hitters," said Black.
The way Erlin is throwing, he doesn't have to worry about the minor leagues.