Toolshed: Nationals pitcher in Sharp shape

As club makes history, its No. 13 prospect standing out in AFL

Sterling Sharp has posted a 1.00 WHIP through five starts in the Arizona Fall League. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 18, 2019 10:00 AM

On Tuesday in an Arizona dugout, Sterling Sharp was taking notes and passing a phone around with his Nationals teammates.

Anibal Sanchez had gone 7 2/3 innings in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Max Scherzer worked seven frames in Game 2. Stephen Strasburg went the same distance in Game 3. Sharp and his teammates followed along as Patrick Corbin worked through five innings in Game 4.

At a time when teams seem eager to play matchups with their bullpens early and often in the postseason, the Nationals, whose weakest link in 2019 was their relief corps, rode strong starting pitching in the franchise's first NLCS victory since its move to Washington -- a 4-0 sweep of the Cardinals. Starting pitcher Sharp thinks he could fit into that approach to workload management quite well.

"It plays right into the way I pitch," he said. "Being a ground-ball guy, I'm trying to get the guy out with my first three pitches. That's always my goal. I want to get right into the action and get weak contact. I'm always trying to get to seven innings in under 90 pitches. There may be a lot more guys now with that strikeout ability, but there are multiple ways to get guys out."

Sharp has certainly been building a strong case for someday cracking the Nationals rotation in the Arizona Fall League.

The No. 13 Washington prospect has posted a 1.42 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP with 17 strikeouts and nine walks over five starts with Surprise thus far. He was named the showcase circuit's Pitcher of the Week after tossing five scoreless innings in an Oct. 8 outing at home against Mesa. Six days later, he posted five more zeros, this time against Peoria on Monday -- the same night as the Nats' 8-1 win in support of Strasburg in Game 3.

True to his aim, Sharp is tied for second on the circuit in innings with 19; only Red Sox right-hander Tanner Houck has tossed more at 19 1/3.

"[Since 2017], I knew pretty early on that I could be an innings eater," Sharp said. "That's my role. That's what I'm trying to be. I was hoping to build off last year. Unfortunately, I got hurt. But now that I'm back, I'm back to focusing on getting those quick outs."

The 2016 22nd-round pick out of Division II Drury (Missouri) University realized he needed to ride his sinking fastball and an above-average changeup hard if he was going to crack the upper levels of the Washington system. As he mentioned, Sharp's breakout came in 2018, when he combined to toss 148 1/3 innings (second most among Nationals farmhands) between Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. He finished with a 3.70 ERA and 105 strikeouts in that span -- and perhaps most importantly for his skill set -- his 59 percent ground-ball rate was 11th-highest among the 477 Minor League pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2018.

Sharp was set to grow on that back with Harrisburg in the Eastern League before he suffered an oblique injury. At the time of his last start on May 24, the 24-year-old right-hander sported a 3.99 ERA over nine starts (49 2/3 innings), and his ground-ball rate increased slightly to 63.3 percent. He made one rehab start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, two more with Class A Short Season Auburn in late August and a relief appearance for Harrisburg in the postseason, but that wasn't nearly enough to make up for the lost time. The Nationals alerted Sharp close to the last week of the regular season that he was heading to the AFL to not only build up his 2019 innings count but also get back to feeling like himself.

"For me, it was all about body awareness and being able to repeat my delivery," the 6-foot-3, 170-pound hurler said. "Not being able to throw for two months messes with you. You just need to trust your body. Your mind might try to remind you of what it was like when you were hurt, but if your body is in the right place, you have to get over that and trust that you are healthy. That was all part of the process."

But Sharp's process in the AFL involves more than just getting on the mound and working as deep as he can. It's also about taking that next jump in his overall development. He's turned his focus to his slider, which MLB.com graded a 45 on the 20-80 scouting scale coming into the 2019 season.

"The last two years, I knew I was getting to be a two-pitch guy," Sharp said. "So I needed that third pitch, and I think the way things have gone so far has proven me right. I started thinking of it almost like a curveball. I'm trying to get on top of the slider more. I'm still getting the feel of it, but it's looking a little more slurve-ish. I can tell it's working if I'm getting a few more strikeouts with three pitches. If I'm getting them out front and the pitch has that late break, then I know I'm on the right path."

Sharp is using the slider in new spots to test its effectiveness.

"It's mostly in certain situations where I can afford to miss a pitch," he said. "During the regular season, I might think that I have to throw a fastball right there, but here, these guys are too good and have the scouting reports to know what's coming. So it might be 2-0, 2-1 and I'll still go with the slider, because that's a good spot to try it -- especially with two outs or with the bases empty, where a walk can't hurt me. It's all about gaining confidence with it in all sorts of situations."

Offseason MiLB include

Even with the experimentation, Sharp would like to keep seeing the results too.

"I was really just coming here to work on things," he said, "and then my competitiveness kicked in."

Coming off his fourth Minor League season, the Michigan native will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason if Washington doesn't protect him with a 40-man roster spot before the November deadline. A strong Fall League from start to finish would certainly help his case.

If and when he's added to that roster, Sharp will be one call away from getting his chance to eat innings alongside Scherzer and Corbin (and Strasburg, if he doesn't opt out of his contract this offseason), joining a team that for the first time in its history has World Series experience. For now, he'll be following as closely as he can, even if that means more phone watching from dugouts in the desert.

"It means a lot to see them get over the hump like that," he said. "They've always given Minor League guys their chances to start, so guys like me have hope. Hopefully, this is just a springboard and we keep going back for the next two, three, four years."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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