Lancaster, California —— As the Lancaster JetHawks stare down the final three games of the California League‘s first half from tonight on to Sunday, they’re perilously close to clinching the South Division title and an automatic playoff berth come September. If—or when—that happens down in Rancho Cucamonga this weekend, the Colorado Rockies‘ High-A affiliate has one player to thank maybe more than any other, and you won’t find him anywhere on a top-30 prospect list.
Sure, Brendan Rodgers has been absolutely killing Cal League pitching all year long, and is likely just a few days away from a promotion to Double-A after the Cal League’s All-Star Game. Yes, Peter Lambert is too advanced for this league, too, and showing off why Colorado Rockies fans have been right to be excited about him as a future rotation member up in Denver. Still others like Sam Hilliard, Wes Rogers, Roberto Ramos, and Yonathan Daza have turned the Lancaster JetHawks’ lineup into a murderer’s row of sorts, while slick-fielding infielders like Garrett Hampson have brought stability and defensive consistency to the most extreme hitter’s park in all of professional baseball.
But winning starts with pitching, and pitching in Lancaster starts with one man: Craig Schlitter.
A 25-year-old right-handed pitcher the Colorado Rockies drafted in the 27th round out of tiny Bryant University three years ago, Craig Schlitter has been in High-A before, logging 50.2 innings over 38 relief appearances last summer with the Modesto Nuts. He was respectable then—2-2 with a 4.26 ERA and 66 strikeouts against 30 walks—but it pales in comparison to the work he’s put in as a newfound member of the starting rotation this summer.
In 13 starts (Schlitter is on schedule for one more before the All-Star break begins on Monday), the righty is 9-1 with a 2.40 ERA. He’s thrown more innings (78.2) than anyone in the Cal League, and leads the circuit in wins. With pedestrian stuff (more on that below), he’s held opponents to just 69 hits and a .237 batting average—again, in the worst pitching environment in pro ball. He had won seven games in three seasons before 2017, and yet now finds himself the ace of a Lancaster JetHawks staff that includes one bona fide prospect and another high-profile fringe prospect.
Schlitter does it with exactly the sort of stuff you’d expect from a small-school, late-round non-prospect: he’ll work 86-89 mph with his fastball, occasionally touching 90 mph with a four-seamer. His two-seam sometimes hits 84 and 85 mph, but he baffles hitters with it thanks to late arm-side run and a knack for living at the knees on the outside corner. He’ll flash a 72-76 mph curve, and while it’s not even an above-average pitch, he goes to it early and often, unafraid to mix pitches from the first at-bat of the game. Add an 80-81 mph tumbling changeup and the Colorado Rockies have themselves a nuanced, thoughtful pitcher in a league where throwers thrive and velocity is (usually) king. Pitch-to-contact guys shouldn’t really work in a place like Lancaster, and yet here’s Craig Schlitter, putting up quality start after quality start with no sense of slowing down.
There’s an underdog aspect to Schlitter’s red-hot 2017, and while it must be tempered a bit—he is 25 years old, after all, and he’s been in this league before—there is no question the Colorado Rockies’ unlikely High-A ace is the feel-good story of the summer on an affiliate with so much of the focus directed at a litany of exciting prospects. Consistency has been king for Craig Schlitter, as he’s worked at least six innings in 11 of 13 starts. He’s allowed three runs or less in 12 of his 13 outings, and he’s really only been hit hard once—and that wasn’t even in Lancaster. He’s undefeated in five starts at home with a sub-2.00 ERA. He does everything to help himself, too; he throws strikes, works quickly, lives at the knees, attacks every hitter in the lineup, and can command the ball to both sides of the plate. He knows what he doesn’t have—velocity and raw plus stuff—and so he mixes from the start, forgoing the use-only-your-fastball-two-times-through-the-lineup nonsense.
Down the road, with his velocity and at his age in High-A, it’s still unlikely Craig Schlitter ever carves out a significant big league career. As brutal as his home ballpark can be, perhaps Schlitter’s stats will normalize a bit in the second half. Soon, he’ll be forever tested against better and better hitters in Double-A and Triple-A who are better equipped to take full advantage of mistake pitches, though rare they may be. But right here, right now, enjoy what Craig Schlitter is doing for the Lancaster JetHawks, for the wind-swept confines of The Hangar have broken many a high-profile pitching prospect before him.
Below, we’ve got a video of every single pitch Colorado Rockies right-handed pitcher Craig Schlitter threw for the Lancaster JetHawks during his most recent start—a June 12 home win against the Lake Elsinore Storm. It’ll give you a little idea of how he works both sides of the plate and thrives with pedestrian velocity and stuff in such a hitter’s environment.
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