Limited to a two-inning, 40-pitch workload this summer, Beloit right-hander Nolan Sanburn has been challenged to get into the swing of things during his return from a shoulder injury.
The Oakland A's 2012 second-round pick out of Arkansas came into pro ball with a starter's mentality, but he has been eased along slowly after a shoulder problem cost him the first six weeks of the season.
Perhaps the first thing asked of all pitchers in Oakland's system is to command the fastball, and the 6-foot right-hander has battled inconsistency with that command during his short time in Beloit.
"All we're going to see out of Nolan is two innings at a time," Snappers manager Ryan Christensen said. "We're taking it slow with him and building some confidence. Command of his fastball is a major issue. When he commands his fastball, the breaking stuff is very sharp and electric. If he can pitch ahead and use his breaking stuff when he's ahead in the count, that's when he's at his best."
During college and in a short stint with the Arizona rookie league club, Sanburn could get away with a lot because of his electric stuff and deep arsenal of pitches. But in Low-A, his 6:7 K:BB ratio is slight cause for concern from the coaching staff. And with a strict limit on innings, Sanburn is not being afforded much time to work things out on the mound.
"It shows flashes of mid-90s and is a good fastball, but it doesn't have a lot of movement on it right now," Christensen said. "If it's straight, when you get to the upper levels it doesn't matter how hard you throw, it's going to get tattooed. It's got to be located down. Even though he's a power pitcher, if he doesn't put that thing at the knees it's going to get hit."
For Sanburn, it's been about finding a balance in the mental side of the game.
"At the beginning of the season I was thinking more about my mechanics, instead of just being a competitor out there on the field," he said. "Hopefully in the rest of these outings, I'll be able to get ahead of guys, knock down the walks and get some weak contact early in the count.
"I think the pitches are OK – it's more about my mental state and being able to stay aggressive but also be even keel when I'm out on the mound.
"Before spring training, we wanted to change my view and aggressiveness into being more passive. If I want to eventually go more innings, I need to extend myself out and be the same pitcher in the first inning as the seventh or eighth."
Besides the high walk rate, the rest of Sanburn's numbers through his first six outings in Beloit aren't bad for a pitcher who hasn't gotten much work yet in his professional career. He's allowed three earned runs on eight hits in 10 innings and opposing batters are hitting just .222 against him.
Sanburn is still featuring his starter's mix of four pitches – a fastball, curveball, slider and change-up – in the limited work out of the bullpen. That's presented another problem, however.
"It's tough sometimes because I don't have the pitch count to use all four pitches effectively," he said. "I'm sticking to Oakland's code of pitching progression, and that's to get ahead with the fastball. I'm throwing about 65 percent fastballs. But when the situation calls for an off-speed pitch or change-up when I'm behind in the count, I'll do whatever's necessary."
Perhaps the biggest positive for Sanburn, as it was for the pitcher he was called on to replace in Beloit [Michael Ynoa], is that he's finally 100 percent healthy and pitching in games.
"I have full confidence in myself and my arm is no issue," Sanburn said. "That was a freak accident that happened in spring training. I'm not hesitant at all when I throw. The biggest part now is just being mentally prepared for each outing.
"I need to prepare myself better than what I have in the past – looking over scouting reports, looking at video, knowing what hitter's coming up and the situation of every at-bat and count. I need to be prepared for every situation."
Sanburn said A's minor-league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson has already told him to be prepared for instructs, and that the plan is to give him more innings in Phoenix.