ATLANTA -- Rob Whalen's value will likely always be most heavily influenced by his ability to consistently induce ground balls with his sinker. But as the Braves' 22-year-old right-hander has pitched at three levels over the past two months, he has started to miss bats on a more consistent basis.
Whalen produced a 53-percent ground-ball rate and recorded 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings through the first 13 starts he made for Double-A Mississippi this year. Though the results were good, Mississippi pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn began preaching the need for Whalen to stop trying to do too much with his sinker, slider and changeup.
Though this did not lead to a drastic change to mechanics or repertoire, Whalen has benefited from the confidence this conversation helped create. Over the 10 starts he has since made for Mississippi, Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta, he has produced a 50 percent ground-ball rate and tallied 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
"When I just try not to miss bats, I end up missing bats," Whalen said after notching seven strikeouts in six innings during Monday's win over the Brewers. "I think every out I've had thus far in the big leagues has been with a fastball, and that's not even my out pitch. But it's been there for me thus far because I'm trying to be aggressive and let them put it in play. I'm just going to try to keep it rolling."
Through his first two big league starts, Whalen has shown he might be more than just a guy who benefited from the opportunity to spend some time in Atlanta's injury-depleted rotation. The young hurler battled some nerves, as he allowed four runs and threw 36 pitches during the first inning of his Aug. 2 big league debut against the Pirates. But in the process of allowing three runs over the 10 innings that have followed, he has impressed the Braves both with his stuff and maturity.
Whalen made just three starts for Class A Advanced Carolina after he was acquired by the Braves in the trade that sent Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe to the Mets on July 24, 2015. He returned this season and began his rapid rise toward the Majors by posting a 2.49 ERA over 18 starts for Double-A Mississippi. This earned him a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he allowed four earned runs over the 18 2/3 innings (three starts) that preceded last week's call to Atlanta.
"I've been very impressed with how he has handled himself," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He looked very confident and poised on the mound."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.