One thing I have learned in the past year is that it takes more than talent to turn a prospect into a major leaguer. Consistency is also a key, but one thing may be even more important than consistency, particularly when you look at pitching prospects, and that one thing is confidence.
R.J. Alaniz is a very confident young man. He shows confidence through his style of pitching and exudes confidence in his ability to move through the Astros system quickly. When I interviewed him recently, I was impressed by his grasp of what he needed to do as a starting pitcher and how completely he had embraced that role, particularly considering he only recently turned 21.
Before I met R.J., I talked with Pitching Coach Don Alexander who described him thusly, “He’s got the make-up. He’s got the competitiveness. His stuff is very lively. He’s got plus command of his fastball, changes speed real well. His breaking stuff has sharpened up a lot. He’s got the physical skills, but he’s [also] got those intangibles that we like. He’s got all the tools that he needs to be pretty successful.”
And first round draft pick George Springer cited Alaniz as one of the pitchers in the Astros system that he would least like to face, “For someone like him who throws as hard as he does and for the ball to move that much, that’s why he’s so effective. Then on top of it, he can control his other pitches.”
R.J. is currently on the DL for the Hi-A Lancaster team, his second such stint of the season. After a heavy load in the first half in which he frequently pitched deep into games, he suffered some shoulder fatigue and was shut down. However, I was told that he is expected to pitch again prior to the end of the season.
On to the interview ~
On his pitch repertoire: “[My] velocity right now, it’s been anywhere between 90, 93, 94 but I’ve gotten up to 97. That was last year. This year it’s been down a little bit because of arm issues, but I throw a fastball, split change, a slider and a sinker. That’s pretty much my four pitches.”
On what sets him apart: “I throw strikes. I think of myself not as a wild pitcher, more as a control pitcher. I get outs quick. I don’t strike out a lot of people even though I do throw hard. I try to get an out within three pitches. ‘Here you go, hit it.’ You keep the ball down, get a ground ball, that’s pretty much all you need, go deep in a game.”
On what he’s accomplished this year: “Hitting more of the inside corners, throwing more inside to hitters. That’s what you’ve got to do in his league because if not, you’re going to get hit. You get the ball up in the air here, it’s gone. This league pretty much shows you how to pitch and makes you learn how to pitch. You’ve got to keep the ball low and throw inside and it really makes you a complete pitcher. That’s the most progress I’ve made here, just throwing 6, 7, 8 innings or 9 if I can. That’s pretty much the main thing, throwing the ball inside.”
On what he’s working on: “I still need to work on some mechanical issues. I still need to get more consistent. I’ll have two or three good games and then go out there and have a bad game. I need to get more consistent. This year’s been a little bit tough on me because of my arm. [I need to] come back healthy next year. That’s the main thing. Just stay consistent with my stuff and my mechanics.”
On being on the DL: “I threw like 90 innings first half, pretty much led the minor leagues in innings. That’s good. I felt good because I was going deep – 7, 8 innings every time I pitched so that felt great, but then I had the arm issue. It’s terrible now. I want to pitch but I can’t.”
On which Astros pitcher’s pitch he would like to steal: “I’d have to go with [Andrew] Robinson’s curveball – big curveball and a hard curveball. If I had that pitch in my weapons, I’d be pretty good. Throwing that curveball – it’s like coming down from the sky. Pretty huge and hard so it’s pretty much unhittable if you throw it right.”
On what he’d do if he couldn’t play baseball: “I’d be a border patrol. Hopefully I’ll make it [in baseball] and I’m sure I will. I’m positive of myself but if something goes wrong or whatever, that’s my back-up plan.”
On something people may not know about him: “People [may see] I’ve got a lot of tattoos, and they may think I’m mean but I’m a nice guy. I don’t get into trouble. I’m pretty much a nice guy to be around. I get along with everybody – Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Americans.” [Note: Alaniz grew up along the border in Texas and speaks English and Spanish fluently.]
On the changes in the Astros farm system: “They’re making a lot of moves since Luhnow came in. We’ve gotten I don’t know how many pitchers. I’m guessing it’s good. For me it’s good, for older guys I don’t think it’s good. But for me, since I’m young, I’m still good. I think there’s going to be a lot of improvements in the next two to three years with the Astros. I think he’s doing a good job. I talked to Luhnow in Spring Training once. He’s a pretty cool guy. Not many General Managers come in and talk to you. He came down here and started talking Spanish to the Latin guys. Wow!”
R.J. left me with these words, “Hopefully I’ll get healthy and I’ll be in the big leagues in two years.” Now that’s confidence. And he has the talent to back it up.