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Monday Mop-Up Duty: first quarter report

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NEW YORK – The Pirates salvaged something from their series in New York by splitting Sunday’s gaffe-filled doubleheader. But as we’ve officially passed the quarter pole, the Pirates are in a tough spot. There’s still a lot season to play, there’s still a lot to like about this roster (and some not to like), but the Pirates are without much margin for error. They are seven games under .500 (18-25). The Cardinals are beginning to look more like the Cardinals. The Pirates have regressed in just about every area, including now apparently, base-running.

Now, there are some reasons for optimism, many of which we’ve covered over the last few weeks.

The Pirates have been unlucky to a degree.  Their BABIP was way down early, though it has since increased to the middle of the pack. There’s the 10 blown saves. The bullpen’s underlying skills are similar to last year, so this pandemic has to cool at some point, right? The Pirates are 6-14 on the road, a rate that should improve to a degree. I do think players like Neil Walker, Pedro Alavrez, Tony Watson and  even Andrew McCutchen have made real gains. The Pirates are again leading baseball in groundball rate as a staff.

But the Pirates have some real issues. And the biggest is tied to starting pitching.

Look, I’m not a proponent of the “win” statistic for pitchers but the Pirates’ starters are a combined 5-18, and Gerrit Cole has four of those wins. The rest of the staff is Anthony Young’s 1993 season. That tells a story. Sure, it’s in part about the bullpen breakdowns and lacking run support at times, but there’s simply been too few impactful starts, too many variables left up to other areas of the team.

And if you hate the win stat, consider the Pirates’ starting pitchers are the only staff to produce negative WAR in baseball. The advanced and traditional stats are screaming in agreement.

There are also defensive efficiency issues. The Pirates ranked 1st in baseball in converting batted balls into outs in the first half of the 2013 season, converting 73 percent of batted balls into outs. They rank 10th at the moment. Not bad, but again, regression.

Looking for help from the schedule? Well, the Pirates rank 16th in strength of schedule, or in other words, in he middle of the pack. (The Brewers and Cardinals have played two of the easier schedules to this point).

In short, regression has infected and afflicted nearly every area of the team. The good news is there’s going to be some positive regression back to the mean over the last three quarters of the season.  But will there be enough?

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS

9. Department of Silver Linings: the Gerrit Cole changeup.

It arrived in Milwaukee, it again appeared in New York, and it’s fabulous.

Enjoy (courtesty @dshemie8):

http://gfycat.com/JoyfulDifferentJellyfish

Cole’s changeup was regarded as a plus pitch when Cole was coming out of UCLA, but he was only throwing it three percent of the time this season entering the Milwaukee start and also threw it sparingly last season.

Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer told he last year he thinks the changeup could develop into Cole’s best pitch. We saw why Sunday as he got Mark Teixeira to swing and miss and Ichiro to strike out on the pitch.

cole

The Pirates possess something that makes the Yankees jealous – and Cole might be up the cusp of reaching another level.

8. Think the Yankees might be interested in Cole in 2020? Yankees made him the 28th overall pick in 2008 and Cole turned them down. While no one is going to feel bad for the Yankees, has to be tough for their front office to watch a player like Cole perform on their turf. The Pirates should try to extend their control over Cole. But his agent is Scott Boras. And Cole comes from a well-to-do family so dollars aren’t the priority they are to some young players. Good luck.

WEEKLY POLANCO DISCUSSION …

7. How many hamstring pulls does it take to get to the a Gregory Polanco callup?

(Starling Marte expects to be back in the stating lineup on Tuesday)

6. We understand this is all about, or mostly about, Super 2.  Polanco was named the International Player of the Week today. We know the Pirates believe he’s ready hence the $25 million offer over seven years.

I think Neal Huntington was correct when he said he wants Polanco up when he’s ready to impact and not just survive. The Pirates are smart to maximize their years of control — but Polanco looks ready. And regardless of when Polanco arrives his development will not be complete. Every player has to adjust at the major league level, and what, offensively, does Polanco have to prove at Triple-A? He’s flirting with .400 in late May. He has a mature, measured approach, power, bat-to-ball skills. Maybe it’s a small sample, but he’s dominated over his 600 plate appearances above A-ball.

Polanco, to me, is a superior talent to Marte – right now –  and I like Marte despite his flaws. Just think, Polanco had six swings and misses in his first 170 swings this season, according to Baseball America. Marte had eight swings and misses in a 17-pitch span on Sunday.

Moreover, I think you want Polanco overlapping as much as possible with the Pirate careers of Andrew McCutchen (signed through 2018) and Cole (under control through 2019).

But also consider this: if the Pirates continue to struggle, if they are 10+ games below .500 in  mid June, what’s the point of calling up Polanco at that point? Why not June, 2015? Why not enjoy another year of control.

5. Reese McGuire‘s bat is starting to heat up at Low-A … but Austin Meadows is in danger of having something of a lost year. It’s nearly two months into the minor league seasons and he still hasn’t played due to a hamstring injury.

4. TOOTBLAN

3. Marte is consistently baffling.

Marte went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader.  He often chased out of the zone vs. Kuroda. Marte has the 12th highest strikeout percentage (29.7) among major league batters.

Golden sombrero in Game 1, go-ahead, two-run homer (and second in three games) in Game 2.

No denying the talent. Can the approach be improved? The plan was to work Kuroda up and in one at bat Sunday, Marte struck out on four pitches – all of which were below the strike zone.

2. You won’t find a better catch than Josh Harrison’s in the eighth inning Sunday. He was also aided by the Pirates’ more aggressive outfield alignment/shifting.

1. I don’t know what to make of the big-inning thing and Charlie Morton. His curveball and split-changeup played up yesterday. His two-seamer was sinking. Hurdle thought Morton didn’t work in early enough in the game. Is that the common thread for all the big innings allowed? It seems like Morton has worked in plenty. Morton struggled to grasp any common denominator after the game.

HE SAID IT:

Life-long Yankees fan Cole on win over Yankees:

“It was exciting. It’s just another win right now. … The sentimental stuff doesn’t mean anything. Getting out of here without getting swept is nice.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: .067

Winning percentage of Pirates’ starting pitchers not named Gerrit Cole.

Now, I know about killing the win. I’m not a proponent in placing much stock in pitching W-L records, but 1-15?

STAT OF THE WEEK II: .380

Ike Davis‘ OBP since trade. Power of changing scenery? New York market is a different animal.

YANKEE STADIUM OBSERVATION 

$11 Miller Like at Yankee Stadium. That better be a gold-laced souvenir cup.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

Next time you’re in New York and want some high-end Mexican cuisine, try Ofrenda in West Village. Great stuff. Of course there’s about 10,000 great restaurants in New York. Hard to go wrong. (Unless you visit Olive Garden in Times Square).

– TS

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