Monday Mop-Up Duty: the Branson factor, 1B market heating up?, and remembering Kiner


SOUTH HILLS – One 2014 storyline that has gone under the radar due to the AJ Burnett saga, and the ‘when will they do something’  lamenting  is new hitting coach Jeff Branson and what his presence means for the 2014 Pirates’ offense.

It’s tough to place a value on a hitting coach. I’ll take bat speed and talent over coaching every day of the week, but I do think certain hitting coaches can provide an impact. The curious case of Eric Hosmer is my favorite example of this, and I’ve brought up his curious 2013 in this space before.


Hosmer was hitting .262/.322 /.331 on May 29th of last season when Kansas City fired their hitting coaches and brought in George Brett,who, fwiw, is close with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.  Hosmer hit .317/.365/.492 after Brett’s arrival.


Coincidence? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. There was a clear change in Hosmer’s approach and aggressiveness after Brett came on board. He began to pull and lift fastballs again. Whether it be the message, trust, or training techniques there are hitting coaches who can add value (See Kevin Long in New York). Can Branson be one?


Because as much as you’d like to see another impact bat added a first base, shortstop or right field, the biggest thing that could happen for the 2014 Pirates’ offense is for Pedro Alvarez to take a Chris Davis-like step forward, and extrapolate his end-of-season performance. Remember Alvarez’s NLDS ? Using the whole field? Competitive at bats? An RBI in every game….. The biggest thing that could happen is the Pirates improve their lowly 2013 performance against off-speed pitches: 27th in the game in production against curveballs and 30th, last, against changeups.


There was some criticism about  Hurdle electing to remain internal with his hire of Branson, who was Jay Bell’s assistant last year. Some wondered if Hurdle did not want to give a name brand hitting coach autonomy, though Hurdle dismissed that idea when I asked him for this Sunday story on Branson.


“We went after (Texas Rangers hitting coach) Dave Magadan very aggressively last winter. Magadan was the brand name as far as I, and many others in our industry, were concerned. We were in relentless pursuit of him, and he chose Texas. And what is Texas doing this offseason to bolster their team? They are looking to add more offense.”


Hurdle said the trust aspect is most critical for a hitting coach and cited trust as a main reason Branson was hired. Branson has worked with many of the current Pirates in Triple-A and at the major league level.


“How does a coach get the player to listen? One of Jeff’s strengths, I believe, is developing trust,” Hurdle said. “You are not going to allow a coach to coach you until you trust them. I think that’s the challenge a hitting coach has, more so than any other coach, because a swing is a very private and prized possession.”


A hitting coach might be able to improve upon some of the Pirates’ issues – 9th in running scoring, 11th in average, 3rd in strikeouts in the NL last season – but there is still one glaring positional question mark that likely needs external, on-the-field upgrading: first base.



9. It looks like Nelson Cruz will likely land in Seattle which will add another significant log to the corner outfield/first base logjam the Mariners have. Like the butterfly effect, Peter Gammons thinks this could start a chain of events in which the Pirates upgrade first base via trade:


8. Depending on the cost, I like Smoak, particularly if you limit the switch-hitter to facing only right-handed pitching. While PNC Park isn’t a hitter’s paradise, it would be a welcomed home for Smoak who has had his numbers suppressed in Safeco. Smoak fits Neal Huntington‘s preference for post-hype sleepers. When Smoak was coming out of South Carolina he was getting Mark Teixiera comps and he is a former first-round pick who was the prize in the Cliff Lee-to-Texas deal.


7. But Smoak is going to cost something in a trade. Is that cost/production better than what remains on the free agent market?

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that the Pirates and Kendrys Morales have “mutual interest” if the the Pirates can find the “right price,” which presumably means a club-friendly deal. Morales will cost more than Smoak in dollars and he’ll also cost a club its first round pick in 2014. But Morales could be getting desperate as there appears to be few suitors for his service.

And Morales can hit.

Career wRC+ vs. RHP

Morales 124

Smoak    101

(League average is 100).

Both are switch-hitters but neither sniffs Gaby Sanchez‘s 145 wRC+ number vs. LHP so a platoon still makes sense with either player.



Morales makes some sense …  but is he really an everyday 1B?


6. I haven’t been carrying the Morales flag, but he’s the best available 1B out there according to Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA forecasts. PECOTA’s projection for Morales is pretty strong as it is a conservative system: .273/.336/.449, 23 HRs, 80 RBIs. 2.7 WAR

PECOTA’s forecast for Smoak is not as a strong: .233/.323/.389, 16 HRs, 61 RBIs and 0.3 run.


And just for fun Mitch Moreland and Ike Davis‘s PECOTA forecasts from the annual guide:

Moreland: .251/.321/.421  16HR, 56 RBIs 0.9 WAR

Davis:          .238/.332/.429  17HR, 55 RBIs  1.5 WAR


It’s really remarkable how similarly unappealing these trade market options must be for the Pirates.


5. One problem with Morales? How much of liability will he be at 1B?


4.  Then there’s the internal candidate, Andrew Lambo.

PECOTA projection (250 plate appearances): .231/.289/.406, 9 HRs. 32 RBIs.  Not encouraging.


3.  If you’re going by PECOTA and focused on 2014, Morales makes the most sense. Look, all of these options will cost something, so that makes Morales even more attractive.


2. Down the road, if Josh Bell can improve his hit tool/pitch tracking he could be a strong candidate to move to first base. Stetson Allie is a lottery ticket, and the pipeline is in general relatively dry at first base. But it’s important to note there are relatively few true first base prospects, most players are converted there after failing to hold down a position higher on the defensive spectrum.


1. Remember Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse were unsigned at this time a year ago, so it’s not too late for the Pirates to upgrade their roster.  AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano were February additions in each of the last two years. Huntington likes to let the market play out and look for value (See : trade deadline).



“Him coming into the booth for a ballplayer was the equivalent of a real spiritual person getting to meet the Dalai Lama. And really that’s what it was like. He transcends generations.”
—Former Mets pitcher and current SportsNet New York analyst Ron Darling on the passing of the great Ralph Kiner.

Our own Bob Cohn wrote a fine piece on Kiner here



Kiner’s home runs per season from 1947-51:  51-40-54-47-42

His strikeouts: 81-61-61-79-57




Malcolm Gladwell work is always worth a read and ‘David and Goliath’ should be of particular interest for those looking for advantages inherent in the underdog.

– TS