Name: Craig Italiano
DOB: July 22, 1986
Acquired along with Ryan Webb in a trade with the Oakland A's on July 5, 2009 for Scott Hairston, Italiano was an immediate hit in the Padres system.
"I saw him out of high school, power stuff with a horrendous delivery," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "When Oakland had him, they did most of the heavy lifting, they retooled his motion and got him though some injuries."
"I am very impressed with this kid," Lake Elsinore pitching coach Dave Rajsich said. "He's got a great makeup: size, strength, goes about his business very professionally, and I think he's got a very bright future with the organization."
Originally drafted in the second-round of the 2005 MLB Draft, Italiano missed most of the 2006 season with a torn labrum. A skull fracture after being struck by a line drive during the 2007 season took away most of that year. From 2005 to 2007, Italiano managed to pitch just 53.2 innings.
In 2008, Italiano went 8-4 with a 3.78 ERA across 100 innings with Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton. A Midwest League All-Star that season after a 7-0 start that included a 1.16 ERA across 70 innings, he was shipped back to Stockton to begin 2009.
The right-hander was 5-6 with a 5.63 ERA with Stockton prior to the trade He had struck out 75 in 76.2 innings of work while walking 40.
It was the change he made in June of 2009 that really turned around his season. After posting a 7.05 ERA in his first 13 starts with Stockton, the coaching staff dropped his arm angle from overhand to low three-quarters. The results were immediate. He allowed one earned over his final 16.2 innings before the trade sent him packing.
Assigned to High-A Lake Elsinore in the Padres system, Italiano yielded five earned runs the rest of the way – with three coming in one relief appearance. He posted a 1.44 ERA across 19 outings and 31.1 innings, striking out 44 while surrendering just 24 hits. He limited the opposition to a .209 average and that number fell to a .171 average with runners in scoring position.
"He came in and he was outstanding," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He just goes out there and throws all he's got for an inning or two and he's done."
He stranded four of the eight runners he inherited – a situation he had never seen prior to joining the Friars system since he had been mostly a starter with the A's. He also produced an impressive 5.71 groundout-to-fly-out ratio while working with the Storm.
The difference is in the arm angle. Coming over top would seem the conventional wisdom given his 6-foot-6 height. By coming over top, he would disrupt a hitter's eye level. Moving his arm to the side, however, produced easy and free arm action that resulted in more movement on all of his pitches.
"He throws kind of a low three-quarters," Lezcano said. "The main thing with him is to make sure that slider breaks, has downward movement and doesn't stay flat on him .If he does that, he's throws 94, 95 – sometimes 96 – he's tough to hit. It was a good acquisition on that trade."
"When he came over they had moved it down to a low three-quarters probably a month and a half to two months earlier," Rajsich said. "When I pulled up his stats for what he had done in Oakland I said, ‘Now when did they switch your arm slot? Show me where your first game was.' You could see the progression of how he was starting to come together with that new arm slot. So their was a period of him adjusting."
A power arm that was known for mechanical problems within his delivery, Italiano found a comfortable resting spot for a repeatable motion with the change. His control and location have also improved.
The Cleveland native features a fastball that sits 92-94 mph and has topped out at 98 mph. It isn't just the speed of the pitch that makes it effective but the late movement his new arm angle has provided. Its late sink misses the sweet part of a lot of bats. If there is contact, he is getting ground balls at an surprising clip.
He also features a power curveball/slider. It has more up and down movement than a slider but less loop than the traditional curveball. Since it comes in the mid-80s, saying it is a curveball seems strange and it more of a better quality slurve that encompasses some of the positive traits of both. The pitch could use some work to become a true plus pitch, but it gets plenty of swing-and-misses.
His changeup is not a big factor in his repertoire, especially as he moves forward in a relief role. It wasn't very good as a starter, oftentimes coming in too hard. Given his new role, facing hitters once on any given day, the changeup is a show-me pitch that will sneak in every once and a while to keep it in a hitter's mind. It is not, however, a true threat.
Coming out of the bullpen was a breathe of fresh air for the Ohio native. He no longer had to pace himself and could go full throttle. That suited him fine, as he attacks the zone and works the lower half of the plate.
"The only thing that we adjusted, you're not going to change something that you haven't seen, and this guy's throwing 92-96, consistent at 94, balls exploding, tremendous run, and sink," Rajsich began. "The only thing that we looked at one day was in Lancaster - he was throwing in the bullpen and I said, ‘have you ever tried throwing from the other side of the rubber?' Because he was throwing off the far first base side of the rubber and from that arm slot the hitter sees his arm like right directly to the plate. I don't know why that reasoning was, but I said, ‘Try throwing some balls from the third base side so now that you're throwing from behind a right-handed hitter. It puts more pressure on him to stay in the box because we're creating angles.'
"He moved over there and I looked over at it and I'm like, ‘Oh my God. It's the difference between night and day.' Now he has to get more extension out so the ball has more later sink and life; the slider was sharper. Everything just fell together. I'm just thinking if he moves up to the higher quality of hitters this is going to be beneficial for him. And the numbers tell it all. They were hitting 60-percent less on the right side than they were when he was in Oakland. We don't know exactly when the switch was made, how many games he had before we tried to do that, but the numbers might be even bigger than what they are.
"The player we have now is not going to be an effective three-pitch starter, but he has the makeup, the late inning mentality to be something very good out of the bullpen," Fuson said. "Right now, when he comes in, he throws between 92 and 98 and really attacks the zone. He could use some more work with his breaking ball, but (the Padres) expect to see him move up the ladder pretty quickly."
Conclusion: His affinity to work quickly and attack the zone with hard stuff puts him on a quick ascension path. If he can tighten up the breaking ball a bit more and continue to limit his walks, he can make a quick and bold impact on the San Diego bullpen.
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