There have been ups and downs this season for Sam Selman. The good news for Royals fans hopeful about the team's No. 12 prospect is that every time he's reached a down, the ups have been quick to follow.
That's what Wilmington pitching coach Steve Luebber took away from Selman's impressive showing Saturday night against Lynchburg. The 22-year-old left-hander limited the Hillcats to two hits over a career-high 7 1/3 scoreless frames as the Blue Rocks escaped with a 2-1, 11-inning victory.
Selman struck out five and walked three while settling for a no-decision. He retired the side in order in all but one of the first six innings as he bested his previous career high of six frames.
The result followed a rocky outing against Frederick on July 8, when the 2012 second-round Draft pick walked five and was pulled after allowing four runs -- two earned -- on three hits over 2 2/3 innings. That outing was emblematic of the struggles that have plagued Selman in his less successful outings this season.
The Vanderbilt University product has a 3.65 ERA in 18 starts in his first Class A Advanced season but has mixed some very strong outings with a few shaky ones. Perhaps his worst came on June 10, when he surrendered eight runs -- five earned -- on four hits and two walks without retiring a batter against Salem.
Selman's issue that night was the same as it was last week -- fastball command. After that June 10 outing, the Blue Rocks made a few small adjustments to what Luebber described as an "unorthodox" delivery but mostly let Selman do his thing. The strategy worked for a while, as he allowed one earned run over his next three starts, including a six-strikeout, one-walk gem against Salem on June 22.
The results went south in the outing against Frederick and, at that point, Luebber decided it was time for a more aggressive coaching approach. He and Selman went to work between starts to adjust the southpaw's delivery, keeping him taller as he lifted his leg and prepared to drive toward the plate. Luebber described Selman's old movement as getting "a little deep," meaning he was collapsing his left leg and leaning back toward second as he broke his hands and began to throw.
"We're trying to get him to stay taller on his backside," Luebber said. "Not get so deep to give the ball angle and throw more strikes."
The adjustment took quickly, allowing Selman to produce the longest outing of his career on Saturday. The effectiveness is obviously a positive sign, but Luebber thinks it's even more important for the psychological effect it could have going forward. After all, the real test for Selman is whether he can maintain the improved command of his low- to mid-90s fastball from start to start.
"He's bounced back pretty well from outing to outing, to come back out the next time and get with it," Luebber said. "That's obviously a big thing with a lot of young pitchers. ... They're momentum guys."
Generating that momentum has been tough for Selman, even if the results have been mostly good. Carolina League opponents are batting .188 against him in his past 10 starts, during which he's posted a 2.35 ERA. He's walked 29 over 46 innings, which reflects the struggles he's had with command, but his 42 strikeouts suggest the stuff is there to take off once the command improves.
Helping keep Selman afloat despite his struggles with fastball command has been an improving selection of secondary offerings. He's adjusted his array of breaking pitches this season, sharpening his slider and re-introducing a curveball.
The 2012 Pioneer League Pitcher of the Year entered the season throwing a slider in the 76-80 mph range that had movement but lacked bite. Selman has improved that, and now gets the pitch up to 84 while improving the tightness and break.
Royals pitching coordinator Steve Foster suggested Selman re-introduce the curve into his repertoire. Selman abandoned the pitch in pro ball but can spin it in the 72-76 mph range to create a different off-speed look. And he still throws a changeup.
The secondary offerings could pair with Selman's fastball to make him a formidable rotation option in Kansas City down the road but only if the command concerns are ironed out. Luebber views Saturday as a strong first step, one he didn't necessarily expect to see so quickly.
"When things start going a little rugged, [young pitchers] revert instead of having a long-term plan," said Luebber, who spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues. "A lot of guys get to where they're defensive and want to go back to the things they have done in the past, only even moreso.
"But he's making these changes from a few days ago and he took them out into the game and things went good. That's pretty rare."