TAMPA, Fla. - Matt Curry lit up the world of low-A pitching early last season, then faced what Curve manager P.J. Forbes called "a different world" after the Pirates made the highly unusual decision to let him bypass high-A and join the Curve.
Curry, a terrific hitter his entire life until struggling with Altoona, remembers precisely when he realized just how different the world is in Double-A.
"About a week into it, there was one pitch that I remember specifically," Curry said. "It was 0-0, a first-pitch fastball. It looked like it was right down the middle to me, and I ended up breaking my bat and flying out to shortstop."
That occurred June 3 against Portland right-hander Jeremy Kehrt, and it was a significant, eye-opening kind of pitch.
"I thought, 'Wow, that's weird,'" Curry said after popping out. "I just missed a ball that I thought I should have hit out of the park, and I hit it off the end of the bat and broke my bat.
"I was like, 'Man, I should have crushed that pitch.' I thought I was on it the whole way. That was when I thought, 'He must have had some kind of run on it to throw me off a little bit.'"
When he was lighting pitchers up at low-A West Virginia, Curry saw primarily fastballs - and a lot of straight ones. He torched most of them, hitting .361 with nine homers and 34 RBIs, and his whopping 1.148 OPS ranked third in all the minor leagues.
The Pirates were so impressed and so confident that the first baseman, then 22, was advanced enough that he could handle the huge jump to Double-A.
There's a reason organizations rarely let players skip high-A. Some skip lower levels, but the jump from high-A to Double-A is tough enough that rarely is a player allowed to bypass high-A altogether. The only legitimate prospects in Curve history who were allowed to do that were catcher J.R. House and center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Curry said he had a great adrenaline rush his first week in Double-A, and it showed as he got off to a hot start with eight hits in his first 19 at-bats. It was a struggle for him after that, however, as he quickly learned pitchers are much more polished in Double-A than low-A.
"Those pitchers, they can hit their spots when they're behind in the count or ahead in the count," Curry said. "You've got to just wait these guys out in Double-A. In low-A, I'd get down 0-2 and I'd still see fastballs. Now in Double-A, you get ahead in the count and don't see fastballs. You get behind in the count, you don't see fastballs.
"Pitchers have more movement, too. No fastball is straight, hardly."
Curry had his share of ups and downs in 87 games for the Curve. His average dipped as low as .218 a month in and climbed back as high as .285 four weeks later, but he ended the season in a slump to finish at .242 with six homers and 39 RBIs. He had a strong July, hitting .308 with three homers and 20 RBIs, then batted just .181 in August and .167 in five games in September.
"He recognized he's not always going to get a fastball in fastball counts and guys are going to pitch him backwards," Forbes said. "Lefties are going to drop 3-2 breaking balls on him.
"When he started to struggle, it was the first time he's ever struggled. I think it's good for him because it's better to struggle now than when you get to the big leagues."
Curry believes he's better off having skipped high-A, and so do the Pirates. They told him that this spring, noting that had he gone to high-A last year, he may have continued to put up big numbers but would not have learned as much.
"I learned stuff last year that I'd never seen in baseball before," Curry said, "and I had some adversity, which I've never had before. I think it's going to make me a better player this year."
Curry will be counted on for big production as the Curve's cleanup hitter. He has worked during the offseason and this spring on keeping his head on the ball just a fraction of a second longer to help him make better decisions and better contact.
One goal, Forbes said, is for Curry to make "fewer easy outs earlier in the count."
"He got to a point last year where he was swinging early a lot because he didn't want to get to two strikes, and we've got to get him back to getting his pitch early," the manager said. "If it's not his pitch, take it, get the next one and do damage with that."
The Pirates gambled letting Curry skip an important development level, but he's glad they did and believes he will be better off for it.
"You've got to face that tougher competition to push you over the top and make you better," Curry said.