Thomas Pannone turned 23 years old three weeks and one day into the current minor league baseball season. This past weekend he was given a late birthday gift by the Cleveland Indians organization, a promotion to AA Akron after only five starts decked out in the new blue and lime green duds of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.
If Pannone was on your list of the most likely Hillcats player to get the first promotion to AA that would be a surprise. He is not ranked in the top 30 Indians prospects according to the 2017 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. They list Pannone as a left-handed reliever, just ahead of his new AA Akron teammates Luis Lugo and David Speer, and behind Hoby Milner, a Rule V pick since returned to the Phillies, and Edwin Escobar, a journeyman who never actually suited up for the Cleveland organization.
Pannone was drafted in the 9th round of 2013 after one year of junior college. He spent two full seasons with the Indians Arizona League entry before getting a bump up to Low-A Lake County for 2015. Late in the 2016 season, he finally got the promotion to High-A, but his success on the mound was hidden behind a short stint on the disabled list. He finished the season on the reserve list, as the organization was working with him to rebuild his pitching mechanics.
“I just wanted to build off of what I was working on towards the end of last season,” said Pannone about his focus and goals coming into 2017. “I really wanted to get my delivery down and make sure I was coming to spring training in a good spot.”
Before his promotion on May 5th, Pannone had pitched in 13 games for the Hillcats over parts of two seasons. In that span he had racked up a 5-0 record and a 1.01 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 23 walks in 71 innings pitched. He had only allowed a single home run, and in the current season had yet to allow an earned run.
This success led to his being named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Month for April. In that span he allowed only seven hits in 20 2/3 innings, with only one hit allowed to a left-handed batter. His WHIP (0.68) and batting average against (.106) led the league. He extended his streak of not allowing an earned run to 45 2/3 innings, dating back to the previous season. Quite impressive.
“When they ask me to reflect on the pitchers I’ve worked with he’s probably one of the guys who I’ve been the proudest,” said Hillcats pitching coach Rigo Beltran. “When he got here he had some mechanical flaws in his delivery, his velocity was really down, almost 10 mph off what he was doing before.”
The Cleveland organization uses TrackMan Radar to analyze their pitchers and hitters at every level of the farm system. Originally developed to track golf swings, TrackMan uses a 3D Doppler radar system to collect 20,000 samples per second. This lets the team analyze small changes in a batters swing, or the spin rate on pitches, as well as many other factors. Through use of this system, the Indians coaches and analysis staff could tell Pannone was off from his peak level of performance, and designed a plan that would get him back on track.
His experience at the High-A level in 2016 helped him build confidence. Following the organization’s plan for his offseason work, it aided him in optimizing his delivery and helped Pannone to open the season strong. Daily trips to the gym to build strength in the offseason didn’t hurt either.
“I think it let me come into the season a bit more comfortable with my surroundings,” he said. “I’ve had Mansolino as my manager before, and Rigo as the pitching coach, so knowing where I was going to go put me in a good spot.”
His final start at the High-A level exemplified the advances he has made in his pitching and delivery. Facing the Winston-Salem Dash, he pitched seven innings of three-hit ball with eight strikeouts. Only two Dash hitters reached second base, both on doubles, and both were stranded without advancing. This was the type of outing Pannone had made in four of his five starts this season.
His shortest outing, four innings against Salem on April 25, ended early because of his pitch count.
“I only got to throw four innings,” said Pannone about that outing. “I had a lot of long at-bats. I had some 8 or 9 pitch at-bats which ruined my pitch count.”
A number of the Red Sox hitters had seen him twice this year and the previous season, enough to know what his offerings were.
“I’ve seen those hitters a couple of times each,” he shared. “They’ve seen what my fastball looks like and timed it up enough to just foul it off.”
With a pitch count currently at 85, Pannone thinks he should regularly get through six innings each outing. “I think it should move up to 95, but even with 85, I should still be getting into the sixth inning and be more efficient and get guys out of the box.”
Having grown up a Yankees fan, with his father and grandfather also being lifelong Yankees fans, he gets juiced when facing off against Salem and the Red Sox organization.
“I definitely enjoy facing them,” he said, “just growing up a Yankees fan with a little dislike for the Red Sox.”
As he has excelled on the mound this season, he has worked closely with coach Beltran to carry his offseason improvements into the season and rise to the level of a prospect in the Indians organization.
“I’m working on the shape of my curveball,” said Pannone, “and trying to slow down my change-up while getting it to look like my fastball.”
So far, he has been very successful following the Indians development program. At the end of 2016, they sat him down and showed him the film and numbers regarding his delivery and fastball speed. Reworking his delivery at the end of last season and through his offseason program has put him in position to continue his success.
“I’ve got to give him credit,” said Beltran. “He’s a good athlete, he worked hard to make those adjustments we did at the end of the year and in the offseason, he really perfected them, and then he took off from the beginning of the season.”
Making his first start with the AA Akron Rubberducks on Monday, May 8, Pannone continued his exceptional pitching. He held Trenton Thunder batters to three hits and three walks while striking out six in 5 2/3 innings. This extended his innings without an earned run streak to 51 1/3. He begins his AA career in top fashion, and is poised to continue his rise towards a Major League career.