Wagner Finishes Strong At Akron
Right-hander Neil Wagner put up a great showing down the stretch this season.
After starting the year at advanced Single-A Kinston and putting up an 8.73 ERA in nine April appearances, Wagner settled in the rest of the way to put up a 3.44 ERA in 32 appearances from May until mid-August when he was called up to Double-A Akron. At Akron he was sensational in limited time going 2-2 with a 2.75 ERA in 11 combined appearances in the regular season and playoffs. Wagner's late season progress was a byproduct of him sticking to his plan as well as some tinkering with his delivery.
"I don't know, I just kind of had a bad start this season the first month or month and a half," said Wagner last week at Canal Park in Akron. "I just kept sticking to it and made a couple adjustments, my windup being one of them. I lowered my arm slot just a little bit and started throwing more strikes and kind of brushed off the bad outings as much as I could."
Wagner now throws exclusively from the stretch, which was a change implemented by Kinston pitching coach Greg Hibbard earlier in the year. Wagner used to always throw from the windup with no one on base, but the change was made in mid-May to strictly throw from the stretch. While it took some time to adjust to the change, his performance took off from there.
"Hibbard said that my velocity was better out of the windup, but my velocity was kind of a little inconsistent so we tried it for a couple weeks and if I liked it we would stick with it," said Wagner. "As I settled into it my velocity out of the stretch got back to where it was out of the windup. I was just more consistent with the release point on all my pitches and decided to stay with it."
The Indians drafted Wagner in the 21st round of the 2005 Draft out of North Dakota State University. Wagner closed in college, and has the stuff to be a late inning reliever. Outside of right-handers Adam Miller and Mike Pontius, Wagner arguably has the most explosive fastball in the system and shows good command with it. Wagner's fastball velocity out of the stretch is still up at 95-96 MPH, and earlier in the season topped out at 98 MPH and in Akron's first playoff outing was at 97 MPH.
While Wagner controls his fastball well and can blow it by hitters, the key to him becoming a bona fide relief prospect will be the development of at least one secondary pitch which he has struggled with at times. He throws a slider and changeup, and was sent to the Hawaii Winter League last offseason to work on them. The results have been mixed to date, and he continued working on developing the pitches this season and will continue to do so this offseason in the Arizona Fall League.
"I am working on a slider and I guess a split-changeup," said Wagner. "It drops kind of like a splitter but is not a true splitter. The main thing with my slider and changeup is to throw them for strikes and be a little more unpredictable early in the count so that late in the count I can use my fastball or those pitches so guys are not sitting on fastball every pitch. The split-changeup got better sort of in the middle of the season and toward the end of the season it picked up where I was not only just throwing it for strikes but throwing it in the right counts and right situations to be more unpredictable with what I was throwing. It was not so much throwing it for strikes, it was just using it in correct counts."
There is no doubt the Minnesota native's strong finish has firmly added himself to a list of impressive relief pitching prospects the Indians are starting to pile up in the system. His outstanding month of August and showing in the playoffs here in September have provided him the springboard he needed going into next season where he should start in the Akron bullpen.
"The last month of the season was good coming up [to Akron] and getting my feet wet at this level," said Wagner. "Knowing I can command three pitches and use them in different counts has really given me some good confidence moving forward. I hope to have a good fall league and offseason and go from there."
Photos courtesy of Tony Lastoria and Akron Aeros