Picture San Diego Padres hurler-in-training Robbie Erlin back on the diamond of his Northern California high school, Scotts Valley, or -- better yet -- on one of the nearby Little League fields. Imagine the 21-year-old teaching, not throwing. He is instructing a tween, trying to convince him to step high onto the mound and make his motion, but only after dropping the baseball.
"Without having a ball in their hand," he said, "they won't worry about where it's going."
This is the focus of Coach Erlin's lesson plan.
"The biggest one I tell pitchers is to keep their weight back, keep their weight over the rubber," he said. "That way you give your arm time to have a full motion and get on top of the baseball instead of dragging your arm and hurting your elbow or putting stress on your shoulder."
Where does Erlin -- the Pads' No. 6 and baseball's No. 97 prospect -- get the wisdom? From many sources and over many years: Erlin learned his curveball from his dad at 9, his changeup from his oldest brother at 13 and most everything else from San Jose-area pitching coach Dave Salter, whom he has worked with every year since.
"I enjoy working with kids and trying to teach them things that I learned at their age that helped me," the Oakland native said. "Every time I go home, I'll try and get hooked up with somebody in Little League and get some lessons going."
The more advanced the pitcher, the more advanced the advice.
"High schoolers, I will get into more detail, little things that will give them the upper hand over their opponents," said Erlin, who has worked with kids during his offseasons since he was made the Texas Rangers' third-round draftee in 2009. "Whereas Little Leaguers, I'll work on basic mechanics so they won't injure their arms."
Which is unfortunately ironic because Erlin is currently on the Double-A San Antonio Missions' disabled list due to tendinitis in his elbow. (He underwent an exploratory MRI on May 25.) It's also unfortunate because Erlin had won consecutive starts on May 6 and May 12, lowering his ERA through seven outings to 2.67, before he was shut down. He also had 45 strikeouts in his first 33 2/3 innings.
MiLB.com asked Erlin to describe and grade each of the five pitches he employs. (His grade is based on a scout's traditional 20-80 scale, 50 being the Major League average.) Here is Erlin, in his own words.
Pitch one: Four-seam fastball
: As a strikeout pitch, also for a strike.
Speed: I work around 90 mph, sometimes slower, sometimes harder.
Grade: Probably average, 50. I'm definitely confident in it.
Pitch two: Two-seam fastball
: I learned it quite a while ago, when I was in pitching in high school. I just developed it on my own. It came easy; it's pretty similar to the four-seam just has a little movement.
Purpose: I like to use it more in a ground-ball situation or a hitter's count to get a little movement on it.
Grip: I go in between the horseshoes. I spread my fingers out -- my fingers aren't together.
Speed: 88 to 90 mph.
Pitch three: Changeup
: The first time it was introduced to me it was by my oldest brother, who was a pitcher at the time. I was probably 13 years old and then started working on it with Dave Salter. It took a little bit of getting used to. I mean, I could throw for it for a strike, but as far as really being able to get depth with it and a little bit of movement, it took a little getting used to. But, by the time I got to high school at 15 or 16, I had a pretty good grasp on it.
Purpose: Once you get into pro ball, whether it's Rookie-ball or the big leagues, everybody can hit a fastball, so I really had to gain confidence in it. I throw the same changeup I did a few years ago, but now I have more confidence to throw it in any count to any hitter. If I have a feeling that a hitter is looking fastball, it's a good pitch to slow 'em down and give 'em a different look and disrupt his timing.
Speed: It comes in about 77 to 80.
Grade: 50. Tough to grade yourself, you know?
Pitch four: Curveball
: I actually learned it when I was nine years old. My dad taught me how to throw it. Before I could throw it in a game, my dad told me I had to throw my fastball for a strike to both sides of the plate. That plays into always being able to command the baseball. Growing up, my dad and my pitching coaches preached command before velocity or anything. So I started throwing it in a game when I was nine. I was fastball-curveball all the way through high school. Even now, I still throw it with confidence. It's a good pitch for me.
Purpose: It can be both: a strikeout pitch and a strike pitch.
Grip: It's like a four-seam grip. When I get on top, I pull down on the front of the ball, so all four seams are biting into the wind.
Speed: About 73 to 75.
Pitch five: Slider
: I started throwing it about half-way through last season. When I was with the Rangers, I asked Brad Holman
, my pitching coach in Myrtle Beach, what his thoughts were on incorporating a cutter or a slider for a fifth look. He talked it over with the pitching coordinator and they thought it was something I could handle, so I started working on it early on in the season. I developed it further when I was in Frisco and then started throwing it in a game. I could throw in the strike zone; it was just a matter of getting a consistent movement or action to the pitch -- that was a little tricky -- and I still struggle with it from time to time. When I was traded to the Padres on July 31, I told them what I threw, and they were willing to work with me on it. It really developed the last two months of last season and then carried over into this season.
Purpose: It's a pitch that'll have side-to-side movement, more so than my straight 12-to-6 curveball.
Grip: I guess it would be similar to my two-seam -- it's between the horseshoes -- but I put my fingers together and I just kind of roll my finger along the seam a little bit to get more bite or pull with my middle finger.
Speed: About 79 to 81.
Grade: 50. I like the movement; it's just a matter of being able to throw it anywhere in the strike zone. It could be an effective pitch for me.