SOUTH HILLS – Yes, Ray Searage and the other Pirates’ pitching coaches no doubt played a role in the resurrections of pitchers like AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano. Commission a statue. Yes, the Pirates’ aggressive shifting and groundball plans were critical in their turnarounds and a 94-win season. But there might be a more important player involved if the Pirates are going to enjoy a similar turnaround in Edinson Volquez. The most important man to guide a Volquez 180-degree pivot is perhaps catcher Russell Martin, and his new backup Chris Stewart. They both ranked as two of the top six pitch-framers in baseball in 2013.
The Pirates are big believers in pitch-framing. After all, they gave Martin the biggest free agent contract in club history. Volquez’s most glaring issue is his ability to throw strikes and work ahead in counts, which would make his changeup a lethal pitch – like Liriano’s slider and change became last season.
There’s a dramatic difference in offensive performance between 2-1 and 1-2 counts. It’s something like .200 points in batting average. Martin no doubt helped Burnett and Liriano, and the Pirates’ staff in 2013.
Here’s some random, easy-to-digest statistical evidence:
Burnett‘s K-rate in 2012: 8.01
Burnett’s K-rate in 2013: 9.85
Liriano’s walk-rate in 2012: 5.00
Liriano’s walk-rate in 2013: 3.52
Pirates’ K-rate in 2012: 7.48 per nine
Pirates’ K-rate in 2012: 7.72 per nine
If you think the above is just the statistical equivalent of picking low-hanging fruit just check out the heat map comparing strike calls of Pirates’ pitchers from 2008-12 compared to 2013 here
In short, if Martin and Stewart can create more favorable counts for Volquez, there’s reason to believe.
IS MERCER REALLY THE UTILITY GUY?
The Pirates agreed with Clint Barmes to a reasonable one-year, $2 million deal Thursday, ostensibly for Barmes to be the team’s middle infield utility player and a defensive complement to Jordy Mercer. But I wonder if it is Mercer who should be the one floating around the infield as a super-sub, still gaining 600 plate appearances, but playing shortstop and spelling Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker against left-handed pitching.
Against right-handed pitching, Mercer plays short … against left-handed pitching he fits at second or third as Alvarez and Walker sit versus various left-handed pitching. Alvarez and Walker have sub career 80 wRC+ numbers against left-handed pitching, and they actually declined against LHPs last season. Barmes plays shortstop only where his defensive is an asset enough to justify the empty offensive performance.
I don’t think this is in Clint Hurdle‘s plan, but perhaps it should be considered. Hey, you know I love my platoons and half-players.
LONEY SIGNS WITH RAYS
According to Ken Rosenthal the Rays have reached a three-year, $21 million deal with James Loney. Someone check on Tim Williams. I like Loney, OK. But I’m not sure a glove-first, contact-first, 30-or-older first baseman deserves a three-year deal. Pirates would have had to beat at least the AAV of that deal, I’d assume. First base FA market is really thinning for the Pirates. The options remaining are Eric Chavez, Kendry Morales (can he even play 1b?) and Lance Berkman. The good news is the trade market appears to hold have a decent number of options. Andrew Lambo is the only internal option and it’s growing more likely that option might be employed.