I was planning to catch the "business man’s special" in Harrisburg this past Wednesday to see pitcher Nick Kingham and the Altoona Curve take on my hometown Senators. Rain postponed Tuesday night’s game and consequently, Kingham’s start was pushed to Thursday night. Thankfully, the Curve were going home to face the Richmond Flying Squirrels and their own big right-hander, Clayton Blackburn. The Pirates’ Double-A affiliate has a few interesting players with shortstop Alen Hanson leading the way and converted pitcher Stetson Allie providing big power in the middle of the lineup. First baseman Angel Villalona was the lone bright spot in the Flying Squirrels’ lineup as the Giants’ farm system is relatively thin, especially in the upper levels.
The Curve is a somewhat new organization, joining the Eastern League as a result of MLB expansion and the creation of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998. The club has undergone several ownership changes and was owned at one point by a group that included Mario Lemieux and Jerome Bettis. The Curve have enjoyed great success since their inception and have seen a number of top players come through. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Steve Pearce highlighted the 2007 team and Pedro Alvarez took the Eastern League by storm in 2009. Pirates’ GM, Neil Huntington, has kept the steady flow of talent coming through the system and with several exciting players at lower levels, Curve fans should have plenty to look forward to for the next few years.
A slow, simple and very scenic drive will bring you through the middle of nowhere to Altoona, PA, a small city about 45 minutes southwest of State College. At the intersection of Route 22 and Interstate 99, you’ll find Peoples Natural Gas Stadium. Pause for snickering. I understand naming rights are almost all about money but didn’t anyone think that through? Although the name stinks, the stadium is beautiful. The ballpark has a rustic yet contemporary feel as it blends concrete with brick accents and a simple design that accents the field to be the feature. There is a small section of seats in left field and a low cut wall in right field gives way to the rollercoaster at Lakemont Park. There’s an enormous scoreboard in left-center that brings the outfield "skyline" together.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel I got a true experience as to what a game in Altoona is really like. It was a cold Thursday night and the stadium was barren. I will say this – the fans who were there were die hard. They knew every player and were decked out Curve and/or Pirates gear. Lakemont Park wasn’t open but I imagine the stadium has a carnival-like atmosphere when the weather warms up and the people in Altoona start to enjoy their summer nights.
I had a variation of a hot dog at each of my first two games this year and I’d like to try different things at each park. Luckily, Altoona offered a pulled pork sandwich and pulled pork bar-b-q nachos. The sandwich was delicious. The pork was tender and juicy and the bun was perfect for that type of sandwich – soft and ready to soak the juices up. The bar-b-q sauce was fine, it wasn’t spectacular but the pork really didn’t need anything to enhance the flavor. The beer selection was a little disappointing but the prices were very reasonable. I got a 24 ounce beer for only $6.50. Normally, I’ll opt for a smaller beer and get a few because I hate when they get warm toward the end but it was so cold that night, I was able to enjoy a chilly brew all night. One of my favorite things about the stadium was the tantalizing aroma of cinnamon sugar emanating from the roasted nut stand. I finally got a bag of candied almonds and they had cashews and peanuts as well. The almonds were awesome and it was a really cool twist to a ballpark staple.
Photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
After starting off the year watching Henry Owens dominate and Jesse Biddle impress as well, I figured I’d be hard pressed to find another matchup to compare. While this matchup didn’t have the same flair as Owens vs. Biddle, both Kingham and Blackburn are well regarded arms in in their own right. To my disappointment, however, neither pitcher looked overly sharp with both struggling with command of the strike zone throughout the evening. I’m not high on Clayton Blackburn, but I was looking forward to seeing him face off against a guy with a lot of helium coming into this year in Nick Kingham.
Drafted in the 16th round in the potentially historic 2011 draft, Clayton Blackburn entered the professional ranks with less hype than the prized pitchers in the early rounds but he quickly established himself as a prospect in his own right. Blackburn dominated both Rookie ball and Low-A and was rated as the Giants’ #6 prospect after the 2012 season by Baseball America. His prospect star faded some last year as he struggled mightily in May and June before turning it on down the stretch at Hi-A Lancaster. Entering Thursday’s start, Blackburn was pitching to the tune of a sparkling 1.76 ERA with a 4:1 K:BB ratio. The box score will show more of the same but the stuff didn’t really match the numbers.
Blackburn isn’t necessarily overbearing on the mound but he does cast a strong presence standing 6’2" and weighing over 250 lbs. He has a clean delivery that he repeats well but he has a short, quick leg lift and it looks like he could benefit from slowing it down and driving more toward the plate. His fastball sat 88-90 mph in the outing but its heavy and opposing batters didn’t put many good swings on it. His curveball was the best of his secondary pitches – a yellow hammer that he threw in the mid-70’s with sharp 12-to-6 movement. Blackburn threw a changeup with good arm speed and despite reports of it having good sinking action, it looked flat. I was most disappointed with Blackburn’s control. His command was decent as he was able to hit his spots on occasion and his misses were primarily to the quadrant in which the catcher was set up, but he failed to find the strike zone all night. In Blackburn’s defense, the umpire was pretty tight but he only threw 47 strikes out of 88 total pitches.
Blackburn’s counterpart, Nick Kingham, was one of the most talked about pitchers last season and heading into 2014. He shot up prospect lists after a strong showing in Hi-A and an even stronger performance in 12 starts at Double-A in 2013. Kingham is tall and long with a high leg kick and an over the top arm slot. He gets good plane on his fastball that worked 88-91 mph and topped out at 93 mph. I was expecting more velocity from Kingham but the pitch had nice arm-side run and gave left-handed hitters fits. The right-hander throws a power curveball that has tight spin and excellent two-plane break. He showed confidence in the pitch, throwing it in different counts and to both sides of the plate. Kingham also struggled to throw strikes as he walked three batters and needed 83 pitches to get through five innings.
On the offensive side of the ball, there was not much going on for either team. Pirates shortstop Alen Hanson is a switch hitter who has shown power and speed, forming an exciting package if he can stick in the middle infield. There are questions as to whether he will have to move from shortstop but if he does, it will most likely be a short trip over to second base. I only saw Hanson bat from the left side and the swing was long with the potential to get around pitches rather than inside or through them. He showed a good eye putting together strong plate appearances all night. He has long strides and above average speed that figures to play better going from home to second or first to third than in terms of stolen bases.
Batting third for the Curve was first baseman Stetson Allie. Some of you may remember Allie as a top pitching prospect when he was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft but after terrible control issues, he decided to give it a go with the bat. Allie has a ton of power but also a lot of swing-and-miss. He is balanced at the plate in a crouched stance that just looks powerful. Allie had two strikeouts and only one hit in the game but he put a charge in to both balls he put the bat on. With a good eye at the plate, he may have a chance to make it to The Show but will likely never hit for much average.
Angel Villalona played first and hit cleanup for the Flying Squirrels. Villalona’s story in an interesting one as he was the organization’s top prospect in 2008 and was out of baseball for two years starting in 2010. He returned to baseball in 2012 and hit well in the Dominican Summer League before scuffling at Hi-A and Double-A in 2013. Despite his troubles off the field and his lack of plate discipline, Villalona’s power keeps us coming back. Now 23, Villalona has an extremely thick lower half and is not a particularly great athlete. He has an open stance and an exaggerated load and leg lift that he uses for timing, keeping his hands back. Villalona’s only hit was a single to left field but he drove a ball deep to center for a sacrifice fly, lined out and walked in his other three trips to the plate.
I was hoping for a little more out of this pitching matchup but the weather conditions were less than ideal and the umpire was unforgiving. Despite a little less velocity than expected, Nick Kingham showed some of his great stuff and Clayton Blackburn was able to keep Curve hitters off without having his best stuff. Both pitchers profile as mid-rotation starters but Kingham’s ceiling is higher thanks to more projection remaining. Alen Hanson was impressive and Stetson Allie was better that I would have thought. Of course, I think of Adam Loewen every time I hear converted pitcher but maybe Allie is closer to the Rick Ankiel end of the spectrum. I am hoping to see a South Atlantic League game this weekend with Savannah (Mets) at Lakewood (Phillies) as my most probable destination.
You can follow Zack on Twitter at @FantasyNinja8.