CHICAGO – On August 8th, the Pirates were 70-44. They had completed a sweep of the Marlins and a week earlier they had won four out of five games against the Cardinals, a series some labeled the club’s most important since 1992. The Pirates hope that period does not represent their high-water mark in 2013.
Since those happy days (remember what it was like to smile?), the Pirates are 19-23.
They’ve lost the best record in baseball. They’ve lost first-place in the NL Central. They’ve lost their cushion in the No. 1 Wild Card spot as they enter their final week of regular season play tied with the Reds in the Wild Card standings.
There will be a hollow feeling in Western Pa. if Sunday’s game was the last at PNC Park. The following is a stimulus package to pull the Pirates’ from their second-half slide and deliver a home postseason game:
*Skip Jeff Locke’s next start. With Thursday’s off-day, I think Clint Hurdle must skip his final start, which would allow Gerrit Cole to start the season final in Cincinnati on regular rest. Pretty simple: do you want two more Cole starts or one more Locke start? Don’t diminish Locke’s contribution this season. He’s a No. 5 starter that has produced a winning record and 10 wins. But he’s been a liability in the second half.
*Make Jason Grilli’s return to the closer role a permanent one. The bullpen has worked at its best when Grilli is in the closer role. Moreover, the ninth inning is often a LOW-LEVERAGE situation. Grilli in the ninth allows Tony Waston, Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon to work higher-leverage situations. It strengthens the bullpen even if Grilli is not 100 percent. And Grilli’s command is still not where he wants it to be, his velocity is a tuck down, but MLB Network’s Joe Magrane, an excellent analyst, believes Grilli’s “snap” is back on his slider. This is what Grilli told me earlier this week:
“I know people probably want to ask, ‘Do you want to be the closer?’ I want to do my job. Whatever that description is I want to do that. It’s easier to do your job and be successful when you know what that job is.”
Closing time for Pirates and Grilli
*Make Clint Barmes the every-day shortstop against RHP and always a late-inning defensive replacement. Barmes is the superior defender according to eye and statistical tests. This is a team loaded with groundball pitchers – the Pirates have the highest staff groundball rate since Fangraphs.com began publishing defensive data in 2002. Run prevention has to come first for the Pirates.
Look, Jordy Mercer has a future with this team as at least a super sub. He should start against left-handed pitching. But this week is not about development it’s about putting the best team on the field.
*Start Starling Marte, but bat him later in the lineup. Marte’s speed on the bases and in left-field is an advantage for the Pirates and the club has to hope there’s not too much rust on his bat. He should play, I think, but bat further down the lineup. I’d move Andrew McCutchen into the No. 2 spot against RHP and LHP and let Walker bat lead-off, at least against right-handed pitching (.370 OBP)
Those are my modest proposals for the final week, what are yours?
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. Speaking of new-age thinking …
Meet the Fox in the clubhouse, Dan Fox, who is perhaps the most important baseball operations person you’ve never heard of.
*The Pirates’ radical defensive plan?
*The decision to acquire Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano?
*The Pirates computer database MITT, which has unified scouting reports, medical data and contract info on 200,000 players?
They are all creations or contributions of Fox, who has played a key role in the Pirates’ 2013 success.
8. I think there are two different Clint Hurdles, the Hurdle who makes macroscopic decisions and the Hurdle that makes smaller, day-to-day, microscopic decisions.
One thing I hoped you took from reading my last two Sunday stories on the Pirates’ defensive plan and Dan Fox is that Hurdle has been very open and receptive to adopting 21st century data and ideas at a macro level. He meets with Fox and his assistant Mike Fitzgerald before every series. Such meetings have influenced lineup construction and defensive alignment. Hurdle demanded his position players buy into defensive shift and his pitchers focus on throwing more two-seamers to produce more groundballs.
Hurdle has added value to the Pirates at a macro, comprehensive level.
But some of the micro-level decisions have been questioned: leaving in starting pitchers too long or not long enough, allowing Justin Morneau to bat cleanup vs. left-handed pitching, not making late inning-defensive replacements consistently.
To be a manager is to be second guessed. But I’ll say this in Hurdle’s defense: you’d rather be questioned over the micro-level decisions rather than the macro ones. Still, in the most important week or Pirates’ baseball the Pirates are hoping both levels of decision making go flawlessly.
7. I suspect Sunday’s start will be the last we see of Locke in 2013.
Locke went just one inning and allowed five runs vs. Reds on Sunday. He was again hurt by walks and struggled against lefties. Jay Bruce lined a three-run double to the opposite field gap. Locke is not a fit as a postseason starter and I doubt whether the staff would want a high-walk pitcher to be a situational lefty. I’m not sure how you explain either Locke’s first half or second half but the Pirates hope he can reach a more consistent level between in 2014.
A member of the 2014 rotation?
6. If Locke struggles again in 20141, the Pirates could be looking at not one, not two but three openings in its starting rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is also a question mark and Pirates GM Neal Huntington is not sure if A.J. Burnett wants to continue to pitch. What Huntington did indicate Sunday is that Burnett IS NOT seeking a multi-year deal. He is either going to take a one year deal or retire. I think it makes sense to consider extending a qualifying offer to Burnett. If Burnett accepts it, it adds pitching depth. If he declines and signs elsewhere the Pirates are awarded draft-pick compensation. If he retires, he retires.
5. Non Pirates-related but Billy Hamilton, wow.
If you don’t like September call-ups, and Hurdle doesn’t, then you can’t like what Hamilton has done to the NL Central race. He was called up on Sept. 3 and he’s score three game-tying or winning runs and has an 11-MLB best steals in that time span.
He’s the fastest runner I’ve ever seen.
4. Have to think the Pirates where hoping for more of an impact from Justin Morneau. He failed to take advantage of the short Clemente Wall in PNC Park. Still, I think you have to keep Morneau in that role and hope his bat gets back to where it was in August.
3. The interesting thing about Mark Melancon is that he hasn’t been hit all that hard in his two blown saves this season and most of the damage has come against right-handed batters. Because of the quality of his cutter, which he throws more than 60 percent of the time, he’s actually better against lefties. Bud Black was smart to pinch-hit righties against Melancon.
2. Who is your preferred left-handed bat off the bench in the playoffs?
Travis Snider hit his third pinch-hit home run of the season Sunday. I think Snider or Jones should make the postseason roster as a left-handed bat off the bench.
1. While he has to make that play, I think Mercer probably took too much of the blame for Friday’s loss. But such is the nature of the beast. That’s the last thing folks remember. We don’t remember Martin or Marte getting picked off. We don’t remember a Melancon missed location. But credit Mercer for taking responsibility. I’m not sure if he’s a future everyday shortstop but he has a future as a Pirate as a super sub who can play three infield positions.
STAT OF THE WEEK I
Burnett became the first Pirates right-hander to reach 200 strikeouts in a season on Saturday. That blew my mind. After all, the Pirates have been playing Major League baseball since, oh, the 19TH CENTURY.
STAT OF THE WEEK II
The Pirates lost after leading by 3 or more runs entering nine Friday for the first time since 2009, having won 163 straight in such situations.
HE SAID IT
“A lot of it is that I’ve been blessed with a lot speed and good instincts but I’ve worked at it, too. I watch video. I study the pitchers. I have a plan when I’m out there on the bases. I’m not just running wild with no clue.”
– Billy Hamilton to Sports on Earth
HE SAID IT II
“Can Sean Casey be on my ticket?”
Neil Walker, when told he might make for a good mayoral candidate after being named the winner of the Chuck Tanner Award on Sunday, which is presented to the Pirate who is most agreeable to working with the media
HE SAID IT III
“ ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’-Niels Bohr, Danish physicist (1885 – 1962). That sentiment, while especially problematic in Bohr’s world of quantum physics, is also more than a bit perplexing in the Newtonian world of Major League baseball. …. Projecting performance accurately is a kind of Holy Grail.”
– The first words Fox ever wrote for Baseball Prospectus
TWEET OF THE WEEK
@Sawchik_Trib I wouldn't say no to a ring …
— INACTIVE (@injuryexpert) September 22, 2013
Former Baseball Propsectus writer Will Carroll urged Pirates’ director of analytics, Dan Fox, to write for Baseball Prospectus, which led to his position with the Pirates. Fox has made a considerable impact on the Pirates’ 2013 season.
NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
You’re probably more familiar with the local cuisine scene than I am, but Mad Mex in Shadyside is pretty excellent.