Friday Farm Report: Meadows, Hayes and Taillon

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MEADOWS
Austin Meadows made his season debut with Altoona on Monday (Horner photo).

Spring training produces a few freak injuries each year, and in 2016, Austin Meadows might’ve been the unluckiest Pirate.

The ninth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Meadows was playing catch during spring training when he fractured his right orbital bone.

At the time, our Rob Biertempfel noted that former Pirate A.J. Burnett returned from a similar injury, sustained during spring training 2012, in about six weeks after an initial estimate that he would miss between eight and 12 weeks.

The healing process was similar for Meadows. Forty-eight days after the orbital fracture was said to have happened, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound outfielder sent the following tweet:

After spending some time in extended spring training, Double-A Altoona announced Monday that Meadows had rejoined the Curve, a team with which he spent six games in 2015. Born May 3, 1995, he is the youngest player on the Double-A roster, two months and a day younger than catcher Reese McGuire.

The Pirates’ No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com, Meadows went 3 for 12 with a double, two walks and four strikeouts in his first three games entering Friday.

Meadows has shown he’s a .300 hitter at full health, and he’ll need some time to show that again. Granted, he put together strong numbers in 2013 and 2014 at lower levels, but 223 games into his minor league career, he’s hitting .312.

It’s not unreasonable to anticipate something similar this year, and traditionally Meadows is a stronger hitter as the year goes on.

Last April, he hit .293 with 10 strikeouts. Combining his last August and September, Meadows struck out 25 times but hit .319 with 19 RBIs in 35 games between High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona.

In 2014, he hit .309 in  his first 22 games with Low-A Charleston and .325 in his last 23 games. Meadows’ rookie year, 2013, was fairly steady. He managed a .313 batting average in the first 24 games of his 48-game season and hit .321 to close out the season.

Of note: Of the 15 Pirates position player prospects (say that 10 times fast) in the club’s top 30 (per MLB.com), five were hitting above .300 as of Friday. They are No. 3 Josh Bell (.301, Triple-A), No. 7 Ke’Bryan Hayes (.348, Low-A), No. 10 Alen Hanson (.328, Triple-A), No. 11 Kevin Newman (.357, High-A) and No. 27 Adam Frazier (.305, Triple-A).

ESPOSITO’S PRAISE OF HAYES

In this Sunday’s Trib, we profile Low-A Charleston third baseman and 2015 first round selection Ke’Bryan Hayes, who, entering Friday, was hitting .348 with 14 RBIs.

His manager, Brian Esposito, has seen Hayes have some good and not-so-good stretches at the plate during spring training and the first stretch of the 2016 season. But a phrase Esposito used three or four times during a Tuesday interview referenced Hayes’ ability to “wash off” or turn the page better than other players at his level. Esposito said that might have something to do with Hayes’ family’s long history in professional baseball.

Hayes’ father, Charlie, played 14 years of major league baseball after spending the better part of seven years in the minors. His older brother, Tyree, pitched in 112 minor league games. In short, there’s a very strong chance Hayes had a better understanding than most when he was drafted as to what minor league life entails.

“I mean, he knew exactly what he was getting himself into. There are some guys that you deal with that are not getting the results they want the first two, three weeks of the season and you see some guys show some frustration and they start getting away from what their plan is,” Esposito said. “This kid knows exactly what he needs, what he wants to do, and he goes out and executes it.”

Hayes said something that has allowed him to relax to start the season is familiarity. Many of the players he ended last season with in Morgantown are the same guys he figures to spend much of this season with in Charleston. He added that continuity is a big reason for the Power’s 14-7 start.

“Automatically when I got into the locker room, I could tell everyone was for everyone. It’s a great group of guys and it’s a fun atmosphere to be around,” Hayes said. “Definitely coming in with the same group of guys, everyone knows everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and everyone’s comfortable being around each other. Everyone has a feel for each other, so it’s pretty good.”

In case you were wondering: Hayes has two walkup songs, and both feature Future (say that 10 times fast). He said they are “New Level” by ASAP Ferg feat. Future and “Last Breath” by Future.

WORTH NOTING

Triple-A right-hander (and No. 4 prospect, per MLB.com) Jameson Taillon earned a no-decision Thursday after allowing just one run on five hits over a season-high seven innings.

His fourth start of the season also offered a first — a walk. Taillon walked two hitters to drop his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 23-to-2. Before that start it had been, you know, infinity.

Through four starts, Taillon is 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA. Entering Friday, Triple-A Indianapolis had walked 54 hitters, giving it the second lowest walk total in the International League.

 

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“The Process” and Andrew McCutchen

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DENVER – Before I came to the Trib, I covered college football, reporting on Clemson and the ACC for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier.

While I was in the Upstate of South Carolina, a former Nick Saban assistant, Kevin Steele, was the defensive coordinator for a time at Clemson. Steele spoke often of the “The Process,” verbiage that is often attributed to Saban.

The Process is about process-thinking trumping outcome-thinking. It’s is about not getting caught up in day-to-day results, it’s about not worrying about the first-half scoreboard or your April batting average. It’s about striving for person excellence through productive practice – that is how improvement, and desired results, are eventually obtained.

The Process has seemingly proliferated everywhere including major league baseball, including Andrew McCutchen‘s locker stall.

McCutchenTip
McCutchen’s hat tip is a tribute to his wife, and a nod to Jackie Robinson, who McCutchen said tipped his cap to his wife before batting. (AP photo)

 

After his three-homer barrage on Tuesday night, McCutchen mentioned “The Process” eight times in a six-minute meeting with scribes.

“You can’t always care about results. If you get stuck on results it’s going to be a long season for you. It’s all about the process. That’s what I’m trying to do,” McCutchen said. “And in that process, progress. It’s not like I felt myself getting worse. I felt myself getting better, better and better. It’s only a matter of time. It’s April. It’s not even May 1st yet. So just know it’s going to get there.”

McCutchen said as a minor leaguer he learned to transition from an outcome-based to a process-based thinker as he struggled to hit .200 in the first half in Double-A.

“The process. You’re clear: every at bat, every pitch, you’re clear you start over,” McCutchen said. “Everything that has happened, the past is the past. Erase it. … .Swing and miss? Oh well. Strike one? Oh well. Clear it. That’s all your trying to do.”

Saban
Saban would be proud of McCutchen’s mindset and post-game media session (AP photo)

The Process, and a well-timed off day, perhaps allowed McCutchen to quickly end a 3-for-23 Western road skid.

The Process, along with improved health, allowed McCutchen to rebound from a miserable April last season and become his regular MVP-caliber self.

The Process is perhaps allowing athletes like McCutchen to reduce their valleys and increase their peaks.

Some roll their eyes at the jargon, but it’s rooted in psychology. Steele and Saban spoke often of not worrying about the opponent, or the scoreboard, but instead focusing on personal standards, internal bars and expectations. It was through that thinking that they believe excellence and improvement are achieved.

Hey, we might be tired of hearing about The Process, but maybe it’s working.

McCutchen did not feel he got in a zone as he stepped into the Coors Field right-handed batter’s box on Tuesday night, he felt he had arrived there through his work in the batting cage in previous days.

“People think when you get four hits you’re locked in. Sometimes you can go 0-for-4 and be locked in,” McCutchen said. “It’s the process. I was locking myself in before I stepped on the field. When I was in the cage working in batting practice, I was locking myself in so when the game starts I can go play the game. I lock in here. I lock in when no one is watching. When the game is going on I just go play.

“Like I said it’s a process.”

-TS

 

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What’s up with the end game?

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DENVER – Time to worry about the bullpen?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just early.

Coors Field probably won’t help us evaluate the Pirates’ pen as we near the close of April,  but early this season the bullpen does not look like the dominant group of the last three seasons.

Shark
Melancon said too much was made of his velocity and struggles early last season. (Horner photo)

 

Mark Melancon’s velocity is down again early this season as it was last April: his cutter is averaging 89.7 mph after averaging 90.7 mph last season. It averaged just under 92 mph in 2014. Melancon blew a save Sunday, and blew only two all of last season. But after April struggles last season, Melancon went on to have a stellar and historic May-September stretch. So maybe his groundball and velocity rates will spike up again. Maybe Melancon is just building up arm strength. Melancon felt the attention paid to his velocity issue last April was overblown.

The team has missed Jared Hughes, though the good news is Hughes should be back soon.

In general the Pirates went away from their groundball focus with additions like Neftali Felix, who is a fly-ball pitcher, and the Pirates have suffered a significant decline in groundball percentage early this season … and have suffered an up tick in home runs allowed. A return of Hughes would help here.

An offseason focus of the Pirates was to improve the quality and quantity of their multi-inning relief crowd, ostensibly in part to limit the exposure of the back of their rotation. To date that hasn’t gone well, and in all fairness, Juan Nicasio seemed to be signed initially to fill that role before he performed his way into the rotation.

Only the Royals had a better bullpen than the Pirates from 2013-15. And as you can see in the chart below the Pirates have suffered regression everywhere save for strikeout rate:

     PIRATES BULLPEN PERFORMANCE AND MLB RANKINGS

Season(s)      ERA             FIP             K/9             BB/9 (lowest)    GB%

2013-15:    2.94 (2nd)   3.48 (5th)   7.79 (27th)    2.90 (5th)     50.4 (1st)

2016           4.79 (23rd)  4.89 (25th)  8.7 (13th)      4.54 (27th)  44.3 (15th)

 

It is early.

There are still a lot of talented arms in the bullpen and as Melancon’s 2015 season showed us it would be folly to rush to judgment or the panic button.

But here’s perhaps the other underlying concern: the Pirates’ bullpen has had some heavy usage.

From 2013-15, the bullpen logged the fourth most innings in baseball, and many of those arms remain with the club. This season the Pirates rank third (71.1 innings) as starting pitchers have rarely worked into the seventh inning.

Is that work catching up to the pen?Bullpen

In summary, it hasn’t been a great April for the bullpen – and this was a bullpen the Pirates committed record totals payroll and payroll percentages to.

The bullpen must be a strength for the Pirates.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>Entering his start Sunday, Francisco Liriano’s fastball velocity was down by a full mph from last season, and his swinging strike rates and chase rates were also significantly down from his three-year average as a Pirates.

Why does this matter?

Giving batters an extra fraction of a second to discern whether to swing or not is potentially a huge problem if you throw as few pitches in the strike zone as Liriano does.

Earlier this month August Fagerstrom wrote a fantastic piece about beating Lirano “in theory” over at Fangraphs.com earlier this month . The concept is basically this: don’t swing.

Lowest percent of pitches thrown in the strike zone since 2013:

1) Liriano, Pirates — 40.0%

2) Kyle Gibson, Twins — 41.1

3) Trevor Cahill, Diamondbacks/Braves/Cubs — 42.5

4) Jeff Locke, Pirates — 43.0

5) Dallas Keuchel, Astros — 43.4

The good news? Liriano hit 94 mph Sunday. His fastball had the most life it’s had early this season.  At his typical 92-94 mph fastball speed, batters have a tough time telling whether that’s a Liriano fastball or slider coming toward the plate.

The bad news? It wasn’t a great outing … And his velocity is eventually going to decline at some point in his career. Can he adapt?

>After missing two years, three quality Triple-A starts for Jameson Taillon in three attempts is very encouraging for Taillon and the Pirates

Most remarkable for a pitcher who has not thrown a full-season minor league inning in two years is that Taillon has not walked a batter over his first 16 1/3 innings this spring, while fanning 16. His fastball has been in the 94-95 mph range.

See you in June, Jameson. (Right?)

> Not only would the additions of Taillon and Tyler Glasnow help the rotation but the residual effect of moving other arms – Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong – could deepen the bullpen.

Joe Blanton struggled as a starter but became a standout last season as a multi-inning reliever for the Pirates. Perhaps Locke or Vogelsong could excel in such a role.

>So Francisco Cervelli is a pretty good receiver, eh?

>But playing Cervelli some at first base is an inspired approach to keep a .350+ OBP bat in the lineup while also resting his legs and getting Chris Stewart’s able glove and game-calling skills on to the field.

>As a friend of sabermetrics, I was saddened to see Cole Figueroa dispatched to Triple-A. But Figueroa deserves another look in Pittsburgh or elsewhere as a utility player. He has good defensive instincts. And if you don’t believe me, trust Statcast and see this exchange between top nerds Daren Wilman and Figueroa, following Figueroa’s web gem last week …

>Can Nicasio hold up as a starter? Beyond his lack of a third pitch and his past inconsistency, his fastball velocity has decreased with each start. In Arizona, Nicasio was throwing an awful lot of 91 mph fastballs.

>Andrew McCutchen enters Monday having started every game this season for the Pirates. What happened to the concept of following the Golden State Warriors’ rest patterns?

>How much patience will the Pirates have with Locke? He’s starting at Coors Field tonight, which will be a challenge.  So far this season it doesn’t appear new mechanics are the answer.

>Coors Field is such a tough place to build a team. Maybe after Theo Epstein breaks a second curse in Chicago, he should think about taking a job in Denver. Now THAT would be a challenge. Seriously, though, Cubs are who many thought they were early this season:

STAT OF THE WEEK: 466.1 feet

Distance of Jordy Mercer’s home run on Friday at Chase Field, the longest of the season in the majors. Who had that?

When Mercer does square up a baseball he shows he has some raw power.

STAT OF THE WEEK II:

So who is worried about the club’s power after a handful of 460-foot plus home runs over the weekend? Sure, Chase Field has never hurt any hitter’s confidence, but the Pirates have some more power upside if Gregory Polanco can lift more balls into the air.

HE SAID IT

Pirates reliever Tony Watson said Thursday regarding the Zika virus as the Pirates’ schedule trip to San Juan in June:

“Right now, we don’t want to go down there because there is too much risk. But we don’t have all the facts yet, either. We’ll see where it goes.”

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

On my trip to Denver, I finished ‘This is Your Brain on Sports.’ It’s an entertaining and enlightening and quick read on sports psychology. It’s worth a read.

-TS

 

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Friday Farm Report: Chad Kuhl, Power surge

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Chad Kuhl’s start to the season with Triple-A Indianapolis was delayed slightly by some forearm discomfort in spring training, but  he pitched a gem in his second start on Wednesday.

The 6-foot-3 right-hander tossed five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, striking out five, walking one and hitting a batter. Through two starts, he is 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA.

Something to watch from Kuhl this year will be increased changeup usage. It was a pitch he said he didn’t need or use much in college, but it’s one he has been gaining a feel for during his first couple seasons in the minor leagues.

“I think I really started to feel comfortable with it this year,” Kuhl said on Monday. “This spring, we went back and did some fine-tuning and some minor adjustments to the grip and that’s where I feel like it most improved is during the springtime when we really devoted a lot of time and energy in the bullpen to throwing it.”

You can read more about Kuhl’s progression from an underrated high school prospect in Delaware to a steady-rising minor leaguer in this Sunday’s Trib, but what didn’t end up in the story were thoughts from Kuhl and Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles on the team’s talented  young rotation. We’ve written about that rotation quite a bit both on the blog and in the paper.

Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault are, per MLB.com, the Pirates Nos. 1, 4, 16 and 17 prospects, respectively, and Taillon is the oldest of the bunch at 24 years old. Wilfredo Boscan, 26, is not listed as a top 30 prospect, but is 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA to start the season.

Through 12 games, Indianapolis is third in the International League with a 2.66 team ERA, and a young cast of varied characters is a large reason why, Kyles said earlier this week.

“They’re all different in their own way, but there’s a lot of similarities in the fact that they’re all young and talented,” Kyles said. “I think they feed off of each other in that way and obviously they’ve gone through the minor leagues together for the most part, so they’re very comfortable with each other, they know how to give each other the business a little bit and, you know, they feed off each other the way they work as well.”

Kyles added of the group: “From one through five through the rotation, it’s probably the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

Combine minor league talent and a few worrisome starts to open the season at the major league level, and there’s the very real possibility a couple of these faces appear in Pittsburgh later this summer. Kuhl said the group isn’t worried just yet about who gets a call and who doesn’t.

“You know, I’m sure you probably read somewhere that there’s all this competition between us because we’re all starters and stuff like that, but it’s not like that at all. Because we’ve played with each other, we’re all friends, so we’re all pretty close,” Kuhl said. “All I know is we have five very good starters and we’re really comfortable that whoever is out there is going to be like a No. 1 starter for us.”

WILD AND WONDERFUL

Entering Friday’s doubleheader against the Lexington Legends, Low-A Charleston had won eight of its last 10 to start the season 11-3, its .786 winning percentage the best in the South Atlantic League.

Leading the charge has been third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, a 19-year-old who was selected by the Pirates with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

After hitting just .220 in 12 games with Short-season Class A Morgantown to end last season, Hayes is second in the South Atlantic League with a .400 batting average after 11 games. His 18 hits tie him for 10th most in the league, and his .449 on-base percentage is seventh-best.

Four of the No. 7 prospect’s hits — and five RBIs — came in the Power’s wildest game of the year thus far, an 8-7 win over the Kannapolis Intimidators (best name for a minor league team?) in 16 innings Monday.

Hayes was born Jan. 28, 1997, making him the youngest player on West Virginia’s roster. The second youngest? Right-hander and No. 14 prospect Mitch Keller, who has tossed 10 straight scoreless innings to start the 2016 season.

WHAT A PLAY

The Indianapolis Indians defeated the Toledo Mud Hens 4-2 on Monday night.

Outfielder Danny Ortiz had a hand in that victory, specifically his glove hand.

Thirty-nine at-bats into the season, Ortiz is hitting .205.

OF NOTE

Ortiz’s teammate, Jason Rogers, hit .366 in his first 11 games, earning a promotion to the Pirates Friday afternoon. Rogers’ .435 on-base percentage ranked sixth in the International League as of Friday, and his 28 total bases tied for fourth-best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Pirates’ groundball plan is up in the air (and our podcast)

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PNC PARK – If you’re a regular reader here (If you’ve read a certain book about the Pirate Way!) you know the groundball has been a big part of the turnaround.

The Pirates have induced dozens upon dozens of groundballs above the league average rate and have had them funneled into their shifts since 2013. The groundballs have also reduced the rates of extra-base hits and  home runs allowed. The strategies have led to a significant amount of runs saved and wins added.

From 2013-15, the Pirates’ three playoff teams, they led baseball with a 51.1 percent groundball rate. The next closest team? The Dodgers produced a 48.3 percent groundball.

From 2013-15, the Pirates’ staff allowed the fewest home runs in baseball 339. The are one of only four teams (Nationals, Marlins, and Cardinals) to allow fewer than 400 home runs in that period.

The groundball has been a big competitive advantage for the Pirates over the last three years, and it’s disappeared early this season.

The Pirates entered Saturday having allowed a home run in 11 straight games and in every game since opening day. They entered Wednesday ranked 15th in groundball rate (46.0 percent). The struggles were quieted Saturday as Jon Niese tossed a gem and kept the ball on the ground. But perhaps the issue is Niese was the only one among four significant pitching acquisitions this offseason that is a groundball pitcher.

Juan Nicasio, Neftali Feliz and Ryan Vogelsong are all flyball arms. The Pirates went away from their ideal model of pitcher this offseason.

CAREER GROUNDBALL AND TWO-SEAM FASTBALL RATES

               Player / Career GB% / Career two-seam % / 2016 GB%/ Career GB %

  • Vogelsong    41.3   13.9    42.9      6.7
  • Nicasio         44.3     8.6    30.4      1.7
  • Feliz              35.9     6.6     38.5     4.9
  • Niese             50.o   18.9     52.9   23.7
PTR-Bucs08-030716
Do flyball pitchers fit in Pittsburgh? And does Nicasio fit in the rotation? (Horner photo)

 

Said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle of the personnel:

“No. 1 you bring in individuals that don’t have those skill sets and you’re not at a point in time where you are going to try and take away and create something that is not there,” Hurdle said. “I don’t believe Neftali is a groundball pitcher. I don’t believe Nicasio is a groundball pitcher. So we knew that going in. I think you are going to try and stay consistent with your philosophy where it fits and where it makes sense.”

It’s interesting that the Pirates targeted a different model of pitcher this offseason.

The Pirates did not so much teach past reclamation projects how to throw two-seamers. Those arms already possessed them, they just threw them more often with the Pirates.

Edinson Volquez has thrown a sinker on 24 percent of his career offerings. A.J. Burnett did on 17 percent of his, and Francisco Liriano on 31 percent.

“(The groundball decline) can also be because we set the bar extremely high in those rates,” Hurdle said. “There might come a time where they plateau a little bit. You try and find different ways to attack and that’s something we’re digging into.”

We’ll have to see how the new models – the fly-ball pitchers – pan out, and it’s still really early this year.

But the groundball has been the Pirates’ friend over the last three years and it must continue to be an ally.

 

WEEKLY PODCAST  …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Forming an identity?

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SOUTH HILLS -As the Pirates created a merry-go-round offense in the third inning Sunday, with eight straight batters reaching safely, scoring five runs in a season-best inning en route to a season high for runs (9) and tying the season-best for hits (17) in game, it got me thinking:

Have the Pirates developed an offensive identity?

It’s one thing to talk about wanting to be a more selective, patient, grinding offense in March, it’s another thing to become one in the regular season.

Less than a week after shelling Justin Verlander and the Tigers in Detroit, a day when 25 of Verlander’s pitchers were fouled off and only five were swung and missed, the Pirates’ hitters again saw more than 170 pitches (181), they again chased a starting pitcher early from a game. The struck out twice Sunday, and drew seven walks.

The Pirates enter Monday with the game’s best on-base percentage (.385), despite playing in the DH-less league.

McCutchen
The Pirates sported a new-look Sunday alternate jersey and a new-look offensive approach. Can the retro look and new lineup be as effective as the 1979 one that led the NL in runs scored? (Horner photo)

 

“I think the club has continued to build some momentum as far as the battle-in-the-box mentality,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “We saw again over 170 pitches. … To take what is given to you, if nothing is there you pass the baton. You keep moving, scratching and clawing.”

Jordy Mercer said the improvement is a combination of more experience and maturity with young hitters like himself and Gregory Polanco, who has exhibited enormous growth and patience.

Part of it is new personnel, most notably John Jaso, whose approach, I believe, is contagious and somewhat similar to the example and bar set by Russ Martin in 2014.

And perhaps another part is sharpened focus tied to necessity. The Pirates know they won’t be able to lean on the home run.

“That’s what we do,” Francisco Cervelli said of stringing hits together. “This team is different than the (Detroit) Tigers. They have home run hitters. We can do that, but we have to play our game.”

 

AN OFFENSIVE IDENTITY?

Year  OBP     Runs/G       BB %        K %            wRC+      Pitches per PA

2016:  .385 (1st)  4.38 (9th)  11.3 (3rd)  16.6 (27th)  123 (4th)  4.0    (5th)

2015: .323 (9th)  4.30 (11th)  7.3 (19th) 21.0 (19th)   99 (11th) 3.79  (19th)

*MLB ranks in parentheses.

 

Yes, the Pirates are stranding a lot of runners, though Hurdle and Neal Huntington note that is a byproduct of putting more men on base. (The Pirates are actually league-average in RISP average).

Yes, the power is a real issue. The Pirates are less able to damage and maximize mistakes by opponents. And there have been high-OBP, lower-power offenses that lag behind in run scoring due to sequencing issues. In short, more things have to be strung together for this offense to work.

Yes, some point to the Royals’ success and wonder if being aggressive earlier in counts is the new, old way to go. Some wonder what is the point of getting to bullpens earlier if every bullpen arm seems to be throwing 95 mph+ these days?

But the Royals’ strength was their bullpen and defense last season, they finished tied with the Pirates for 11th in baseball in weight runs created plus (99). A wRC+ mark of 100 represents league average. And if you can get into the middle bullpen, that’s still where the weakest arms on a team reside.

There is more than one way to create an effective offense. The Royals’ approach is the trend to copy, but the Pirate Way of offense can work and  has won World Series titles. (Think about those grinding Boston Red Sox lineups).

What’s most important is the Pirates have buy in, improved maturity and upgrades in personnel in their lineup.

They perhaps have an identity.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Mercer might be the most underrated defensive shortstop in the game. Incredible week from him in the field.

>>Concerns about the rotation could be short live. Following Jameson Taillon’s encouraging return Wednesday, Tyler Glasnow went out and struck out six and allowed three hits and one run in his five-inning debut and then came back with a nine-K effort on Saturday allowing just one run. His fastball sat in the mid 90s, and combined with his extension and perceived velocity remains a very special pitch.

Said Neal Huntington:”For (Taillon) to come out with the crispness the sharpness of the stuff, the velocity, the comfort, was great. A tremendous first step. Now we are looking for him to build on that and show the breaking ball he showed in the first outing is the breaking ball he is going to have. The velocity. Looking to refine the command. Refine the consistency. Ultimately build him up and he is able to get deeper into games. Be able to be a little more efficient and be able to come up here and get major league hitters out. An encouraging first step.

“We had him a little better than that (94 mph on the stadium gun). But that is not necessary the focus. Right now the focus is on health, how the ball is coming out of his hand, and the consistency of command. The velocity will be there. It was there last summer. It’s really the crispness, the quality and consistency we’re looking for out of all three pitches.”

>>A Cole-Liriano-Glasnow-Taillon top four in the rotation for the second half of the season could do some damage.

>>Nice route on a ball over his head by  Gregory Polanco on Saturday, remember that was a play he struggled with.

>>After a rocky first start and a bullpen session he was unhappy with in Cincinnati, Niese got in front of a mirror in Cincinnati and detected a flaw in his motion. He believes he was “jumpy” in his delivery, his arm moving forward too quickly. He’s responded with two quality starts, including an outstanding outing Saturday. The Pirates seek production beyond Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano in the rotation. In his last two outings, the cutter has been an effective pitch, he’s had better angle, and his velocity has touched 92 mph. He was extremely efficient Saturday, requiring just 84 pitches to get through six shutout innings.

>>The Pirate miss groundball extraordinaire, Jared Hughes and third baseman Jung Ho Kang. The good news? They are both beginning rehab assignments this week. Interesting to note, Huntington said Kang’s injury was so severe and unusual a trauma surgeon – and not a orthopedic surgeon – did the surgery. Remarkable recovery.

>>Were you worried about Andrew McCutchen? You shouldn’t have been, obviously. He was great this spring and he was just missing home runs in Cincy and Detroit.

>> Even with new mechanics, Jeff Locke remains consistent with his inconsistency.

As one scout told me this spring, Locke baffles him, and he believes the issue is probably more mental than physical and suggested it might be an inability to consistently focus.

>>Kyle Lobsten has really struggled in a multi-inning role with a fastball that’s averaging 87 mph. The Pirates could use another left-handed reliever in the bullpen. Could that guy have been Eric O’Flaherty? He’s struggled with the Braves, but his sinker is sitting 90 mph and scouts said it touched 92 mph.

>>For what it’s worth, Charlie Morton‘s fastball is 95-97 mph with the Phillies early this season.

>>Juan Nicasio perfect through three innings Sunday and then not so much.  It  remains to be seen whether he has enough command and pitches to stick in the rotation.

>>I am intrigued with Nicasio as a multi-inning reliever as a sort of tandem starter to pair with lefties Niese and Locke. Limit the exposure of Locke and Niese and if teams stack right-handed bats against them the Pirates could gain the platoon advantage with Nicasio. But as long as this continues, the Pirates will ride it out in the rotation.

HE SAID IT

“Can you really wrap your head around that? (Having so little experience at first base). Then to say ‘OK we are going to do this.’ That was his mindset. We are going to get this done.”

Hurdle on John Jaso. That Jaso’s defense hasn’t been a storyline for Pirates, is a pleasant development for club. It speaks to Jaso’s work ethic and athleticism. How about that over-the-shoulder catch on Sunday?

STAT OF THE WEEK: 30

Number of major league hitters who had at least as many home runs as the Pirates as a team entering the weekend (3).

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 0

Number of Pirates starting pitchers to work into the seventh inning prior to Niese’s start on Saturday. The Pirates became the last team in baseball to have a starter work into the seventh inning.

STAT OF THE WEEK III:  3.86 and 205

Justin Masterson’s ERA and IP per season with the Indians from 2011-13. He’s worth a shot. He has an elite sinker when healthy.

– TS

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Sunday chat (and transcript) with Neal Huntington

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PNC PARK – Greetings and salutations on this fine Sunday.

I’m endeavoring to post key parts of  Neal Huntington‘s Sunday Q & A with reporters in the blog for your enlightenment and enjoyment this season.

Huntington addressed a number of topics today from signing Justin Masterson, to Jung Ho Kang‘s rehab and Jameson Taillon‘s return. Here goes …

HuHurdl2
Neal talks, we listen … for you! (Horner photo)

 

NH on the Masterson signing:

“He’s really just going to extended (spring) to get built up and stretched out to the point where he is ready to go out and start for us at some point in time. …  We saw him in late spring training. He’s just about ready to start competing, but not at the point where he’s ready to pitch for a full-season club.

“(Masterson) is not far removed from being a  very good major league starting pitcher. He’s battled some injuries, he’s battled some inconsistency. When that power sink is on it’s hard to elevate it’s hard for hitters to do much with. If he can get him back to that he can come up here and help us.

“We tracked him most of the offseason and stayed with him. When he was ready to throw off the mound we sent some scouts in to go see him. He felt like we were a great fit for him and we felt like he was a good fit for us.

NH on Kang’s rehab assignment (which begins Monday) …

“Get him essentially in the next step in what for him is a spring training progression. We felt it was time to get him  out against some upper-level competition.  He felt like he was ready to face Triple-A, get his feet on the ground, speed of the game.  Quality of the competition and see how he progresses through it and keep him on track to help as at some point hopefully sooner rather than later.

“I don’t want anyone to think mid to late April and that he is behind. He is so far ahead where he thought he would be coming off the traumatic injury he sustained. The fact it was a trauma surgeon that put him back together again not an orthopedic surgeon. It’s an injury we’ve never seen before in our time in baseball. I’m not sure there are many people that have seen this injury. It’s a sample size of one and his progression has been remarkable. We’ve allowed him to help us to decide what the next step would be. He has been a day-by-day build. To get him back and playing in a Triple-A game on April 18 is truly remarkable and a testament to him and our guys and the trauma surgeon.”

On Jared Hughes

“In Jared’s case he’s thrown the ball very well. We’ll see where he is. We have some things mapped out where we can go shorter or longer based on how the ball is comes out of his hand and most important how he feels. In both guys’ cases they  feel physically ready go out and compete now it’s just getting them some upper-level competition.

On Elias Diaz‘s injury …

“(Diaz) continues to have some discomfort in there not related to the ligament. We’re working through what is the best course of action to get him back on the field. He remains no throw until we are able to gather all the opinions and put together a course for Diaz to move forward.

On Taillon’s first outing since 2013 …

“For him to come out with the crispness the sharpness of the stuff, the velocity, the comfort, was great. A tremendous first step. Now we are looking for him to build on that and show the breaking ball he showed in the first outing is the breaking ball he is going to have. The velocity. Looking to refine the command. Refine the consistency. Ultimately build him up and he is able to get deeper into games. Be able to be a little more efficient and be able to come up here and get major league hitters out. An encouraging first step.

“We had him a little better than that (94 mph on the stadium gun). But that is not necessary the focus. Right now the focus is on health, how the ball is coming out of his hand, and the consistency of command. The velocity will be there. It was there last summer. It’s really the crispness, the quality and consistency we’re looking for out of all three pitches.”

On Tyler Glasnow‘s first week …

“A great line last night, five innings, nine strikeouts, 83 pitches over five innings – so there’s some inefficiency there. Explosive fastball at times, inconsistent at others. Explosive breaking ball at times, inconsistent at others. Nearly a complete lack of use of the changeup. Second start out, wanted to get his feet on the ground, but a reminder that we’ve still got some work to do before he’s ready to come up here and battle against a good Major League club. Great, great signs but also some signs we’ve still got some work to do.”
On Taillon throwing changeups …
“We’re getting there. We wanted him to get his first couple starts, get his feet on the ground, go out there and do what he needed to do and he’d help us understand where he is in the process. Yes, the changeup development — as many times as I say it, as many times as we say it to him — is still going to be crucial for him to be a good Major League starting pitcher. It’s awfully hard to develop a third pitch at the Major League level. We’re going to continue to push him to do that. He still does most of the Triple-A hitters a favor when he throws it to them, but he’s going to need to throw it. I don’t want to say force just yet, but in a few more starts, it might be mandated, absolutely.”
Trevor Williams’ status …
“He’s feeling so far OK. Seven-day DL, it’s easy to just miss a start rather than to play short.”

 

On Starling Marte being out of the lineup …

“He gave it a great effort this morning. He just didn’t feel right. At this point in time, he wanted to play but just wanted to make sure that we give him the necessary time with a day off tomorrow. He’ll come back and hopefully be ready to go Tuesday.”
NH on outfield positioning ..

 

“It’s a nuanced approach in that it is based on opposition hitter and pitcher, and projected outcomes. But as a group, we did tend to play deeper last year. We did tend to be deeper last year than ideally we wanted to be in most situations. So, there is an across the board intent to move our guys in a little bit. But then there is a much  more nuanced approach with our outfield positioning based on a number of factors – the two big ones being hitter and pitcher.

NH on pitch location and shifts  …

“That’s the great thing about the data, is that it doesn’t care where the ball is pitched. A hitter that pulls the ball, especially in the infield, he pulls fastballs away no differently than he pulls fastballs in.

“The better hitters have the ability to just slap the ball through and we are going to have to make some adjustments as guys show the ability to be able to do that. At the same time, when a dominant hitter tries to drop a bunt down, but he fouls it off, he has done you a huge favor by putting you in a 0-1 count. When a dominant power hitter tries to slap a ball the other way, typically he’s doing you a favor because that is not what he can do. Now, with a guy that can handle the bat that is pull-oriented, but can handle the bat by taking the fastball away and slapping it the other way, those are guys that we’re going to have to make some adjustments. But we go into shifts based on all data. Based on what a hitter does with balls away from him is no different than what he does with balls in. ”

 

-TS
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Friday Farm Report: Mitch Keller, Kevin Newman and Trevor Williams

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Mitch Keller turned 20 just 11 days ago.

He’s also the leader in the clubhouse for most impressive minor league start of the young season.

Call it Keller instinct (I’m sorry, had to).

On Monday, the Low-A Charleston right-hander had a masterful first start at Greenville, striking out 10 in five scoreless innings while allowing just one hit — a bunt single — and no walks.

Keller, you might remember, was the Pirates’ second round pick in 2014 out of Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The 6-foot-3 right-hander posted a 1.98 ERA in eight Gulf Coast League starts in 2014 and made just six starts for the Rookie level Bristol Pirates last season as he dealt with a right forearm strain.

Watching the replay of his start, Keller’s command is noteworthy. On Monday, he regularly pitched inside and kept hitters off balance by establishing his breaking ball early.  He also had good movement on his low-to-mid 90s fastball, though he got away with a couple pitches up and over the middle in 3-2 counts.

Most impressive to me was his pace. Keller didn’t waste any time working through his 68 pitches (49 strikes) and capitalized on that rhythm throughout his five innings in a 2-0 Power loss.

Keller is scheduled to pitch again Saturday against Lexington (Kansas City’s affiliate) at 2:05 p.m. at Appalachian Power Park. If he manages to stay healthy, keep an eye on the young right-hander.

HELLO…NEWMAN

Kevin Newman (left)Newman

In Sunday’s Trib, we’ll take a look at High-A Bradenton’s Pac-12-heavy middle infield, specifically shortstop Kevin Newman and how he has been progressing since being taken with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2015 draft.

As is usually the case when reporting features, there are a couple nuggets that don’t make the final cut for space purposes but are nonetheless worthy of noting.

One in particular has to do with Newman on defense.  High-A Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said the former Arizona infielder came to the Marauders a pretty polished player. Still, Ryan and the Bradenton staff noticed Newman was a little slow when it came to his setup in the field as he got ready to react to the pitch and a possible batted ball.

“Once he sees it he buys into it completely,” Ryan said. “The ball’s getting hit a little bit harder in pro ball than they do in college, so setup is very important as far as helping him with his range and things like that.”

It’s been a little over a week since Ryan first brought the fielding detail to Newman’s attention, and he’s already seen improvement. The reason, Newman said, is a strong video system in Bradenton.

“That’s a great example of something that I couldn’t feel but I could see on video. I was setting up a little late while the ball is in the hitter’s zone and I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Newman said. “With stuff like that, the video is huge.”

Also worth noting is that Newman, who has a .959 fielding percentage in 68 professional games entering Friday, now shares a middle infield with 2015 second-round pick Kevin Kramer, a former Pac-12 rival at UCLA.

Newman explained earlier this week that there wasn’t a rivalry since the two didn’t really know each other in college, save for the occasional small talk.

“No more than when one of us was on second base we would talk to the other one,” Newman said. “But as we both have been playing together here, we’ve developed a real good relationship and we work together to try to get each other better every day always talking about where we are in certain situation and where we like the ball on double play feeds.”

The Bruin and the Wildcat are getting acquainted, while Ryan is getting used to the idea of having two Kevins in his middle infield.

“It’s funny,” Ryan said. “I’ll yell out ‘Kevin’ into the field and they both look.”

MUST BE THE SHOES

As we mentioned last week,  Triple-A Indianapolis right-hander Trevor Williams recorded just one out in his Sunday start before exiting with shoulder discomfort.

The right-hander, who went 7-10 with a 3.85 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A and Triple-A in the Marlins system last year, is listed as active on Indianapolis’ roster as of Friday afternoon, and hinted at his shoulder’s status in a Twitter conversation that, oddly enough, began with a brand new pair of shoes.

A fan replied to Williams’ tweet asking if the shoes were consolation for an injured shoulder. Not quite, he said. When the fan asked about the pitcher’s shoulder, he gave the following reply:

Things could change once Jared Hughes returns to the Pirates from the disabled list and a corresponding move sends someone down, but for now the rotation appears to set at Triple-A, minus Williams.

Righty Chad Kuhl (the Pirates’ No. 16 prospect, per MLB.com), a recent addition to the Indianapolis roster, will make his season debut Friday night after going 11-5 with a 2.48 ERA in 26 starts with Double-A Altoona last season.

Tyler Glasnow will make second start of the season Saturday, followed by lefty Steven Brault on Sunday.  If Williams isn’t ready to return by early next week, expect Jameson Taillon on Monday, Wilfredo Boscan on Tuesday and Kuhl again Wednesday to complete Indy’s homestand before an eight-game road trip.

It’s still incredibly early, but entering Friday’s game, Indianapolis is third in the International League with a 1.62 team ERA and a 30-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As Travis Sawchik wrote earlier this week, Taillon’s Wednesday effort (6 IP, 1 ER, 5 H, 6 K, 0 BB) went a long way in helping that ratio, though there’s a decent chance he won’t be helping ratios in Indianapolis in a couple months.

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Jameson Taillon, X factor

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SOUTH HILLS – Despite the blow-up last night, the bullpen should be a strength this season for the Pirates, it should be deeper. Neftali Feliz has looked very sharp earlier this season. The Pirates have as strong as end-game setup, sixth-inning-and-beyond options, as they’ve had under Clint Hurdle.

The lineup looks like it should be much more productive, if less powerful. We’ve seen the OBP and quality of at bats drastically improve early this season. John Jaso is a welcomed on-base and grinding at-bat type hitter, and influence on the rest of the lineup. Gregory Polanco‘s swing adjustment looks like it could allow for a breakout.

The defense looks to be in a better place in part due to the new outfield alignment, in large part due to the swapping out of the right side of the infield. Also, Jordy Mercer has had an outstanding defensive start to the season and looks to be improving for a third straight season in the field.

But the question, at least to me, has always been the middle and back of the rotation. That is what could determine whether the Pirates contend for a playoff berth, or even division title in 2016. Remember, the club’s third starter has been much better than league average in each of the last three seasons. The Pirates might very well need to upgrade their rotation to have a shot to some big things in 2016.

That’s what has to have made Jameson Taillon‘s first full-season minor league appearance since Sept. 1 2013 on Wednesday night so encouraging to the Pirates.

Taillon
Nearly six years after being drafted, will Taillon be worth the wait? He’s likely coming to a ballpark near you this June (Horner photo)

 

Taillon threw 85 pitches over six innings. He struck out six, allowed five hits and one run.

Said Taillon to milb.com “Getting out there and pitching in my first game in a long time, in a competitive environment against a solid team. It was definitely a big weight off my shoulders.”

He hit 94 mph on the stadium scoreboard. And perhaps most important, he didn’t walk a batter.  Taillon does not have the pure stuff of Tyler Glasnow, but he could beat him to the majors because he has better command.

“I had a good curveball working tonight. It definitely felt good coming out of my hand. I could kind of feel the shape of it in the spin and I could throw it for a strike or throw it for a chase,” he said to reporters. “Normally, I’m happy if I have one of those — a strike curveball or a chase curveball — and tonight I had both. Those definitely make for the better nights.”

Taillon maintains his 2014 and 2015 were not lost seasons.

He has bristled at the notion they were throughout the spring and winter.

“During those two years, I was learning a lot about myself, about my mechanics, pitching-wise, I went through a strength routine, developing a routine in the training room to hopefully prevent injury down the line,” he told milb.com “I worked on mainly mechanical stuff and I think it’s something I can take with me through the rest of my career. If I were playing for those two years, I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish exactly what I did.”

And if those two years helped Taillon become a more mature, efficient pitcher, one more ready to help impact a major league club upon his call-up, then they will not be wasted years.

If Taillon is better for it, then the delay could help the Pirates. Instead of calling up Taillon in 2014, they’ll likely call him this June and control him through 2021.

Sometimes steps back, even two steps back, can result in a giant leap forward.

Now it was just one start. Some scouts have concerns about his arm action. But it was a step forward.

Stay tuned.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The extra 2 percents are piling up

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DETROIT – Since shifts are so 2013, the Pirates have turned their search for hidden value elsewhere: to defensive alignment.

I’ve read many a complaint in my Twitter feed and email in box about Andrew McCutchen playing too deep in the outfield over the last few seasons. Anecdotally, it seemed like a number of shallow fly balls fell for hits against the Pirates last season, and it caught the attention of the club as well. The phenomena was verified by opponents’ batted-ball charts.

“In reviewing the numbers last year, there was so much collateral damage done in front of us, balls that fell in, extra bases that were taken by guys trying to get to balls. It was glaringly apparent that we could make an adjustment,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, “especially with the athleticism of our outfielders and change the dynamic of what’s gone on as far as run prevention.”

cutch416
McCutchen is ‘alright’ with a shallow defensive approach. (AP photo)

 

For a team that prides itself on pitching and defense, the Pirates probably need defensive improvement in 2016 to contend in the Central with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Pirates are in a three year defensive decline, and McCutchen has declined in outfield efficiency.

Year — Defensive runs saved (MLB rank) — Defensive efficiency  (MLB rank)

  • 2013 — 68 (3rd)     71.5% (5th)
  • 2014 — 28 (7th)      71.0% (11th)
  • 2015 — 8 (12th)     69.7% (23rd)

And just as the Pirates tried to gain an extra two perfect of value (Hey, my friend Jonah Keri wrote a book about this concept!) from defensive shifts and their new lineup construction this season – wins at the margins that are free – the Pirates now have a more smartly aligned outfield.

The volume of shallow-hit balls that are now caught should outweigh the number of extra-base hits that will not be caught

Despite it being easier to come in on fly balls, Hurdle said there has been no resistance to the plan. Hurdle said players have accepted it.

Like with moving McCutchen to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, the Pirates’ ability to communicate and share ideas with players has built trust and ratcheted up acceptable levels. Every major league team has the same data, but it’s the Pirates ability to communicate it that has given them an edge over many clubs since 2013.

“The game has turned into a numbers game,” McCutchen said. “(The club) spits out so much (information) and says ‘Well, you do this, there will probably be this happening and this.’ I said ‘All right. Cool. I will go out and do it.’ That’s basically what’s going on. I am going out there and playing a little shallower.”

Is the outfield alignment tied to the outfield dimensions of each park?

“It’s a misnomer that you play different depths because of different (dimensions),” Hurdle said. “You basically play the same depth. There might be a certain hitter you push on but the outfield depths…regardless of what is behind you there are certain areas we try to maintain consistency with.”

THREE UP

Yes, Gerrit Cole wasn’t sharp in his season debut.

Yes, his struggles against the Reds continue. He’s 0-5 against the Reds, and 40-16 against everyone else in his career.

But drill deeper and his outing also hinted at growth potential as Cole threw all four of his pitches, including 11 changeups, a pitch that is focus point for him 2016. Back when I profiled Cole in 2013 prior to his call-up, Indianapolis pitching Tom Filer thought Cole’s changeup could become his best pitch. But Cole hadn’t trusted the pitch in the majors, throwing it a career low 3.6 percent rate last season. But he trusted it Saturday. At times the pitch had good fade as he got Jay Bruce to swing over the top twice on changeups for a strikeout in the third inning. The pitch had 8-10 mph of velocity separation. It can be a strikeout pitch for Cole, thanks to his fastball velocity and the timing disruption.  The pitch can be another lefty neutralizers. And as Cole noted it’s a “low-stress” pitch. If Cole has another big leap forward, the changeup could be the reason why

>> I love Gregory Polanco’s  new swing and approach. He’s compact, quicker to the ball, and again spraying line drives foul pole to foul pole. He looks like a different guy, well, actually the guy we saw in June 2014. Assuming he continues to grow and consolidate his skill gains, his contract could rival Andrew McCutchen’s and Starling Marte’s in terms of their team-friendliness.

>>The third rotation spot has been a competitive advantage for the Pirates over the last three seasons. If Juan Nicasio can continue to command his 94 mph fastball inside and outside, low and high, as he has done this spring and in his first start, the Pirates might have remarkably found another third starter on the cheap. If he can’t? Well, the Pirates might have to wait until Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon arrives to procure a legit third starter.

THREE DOWN

>>Power is going to be an issue this season. The Pirates hit just one home run in their first five games – though Starling Marte made it count. The season’s second homer? Courtesy of Chris Stewart on Sunday. The Pirates can still be an effective offense without power, but there’s going to be less instant offense. Mistake pitches by pitchers will not be as damaged.

>>The back of the rotation remains a question mark. Jon Niese struggled in his first start (and goes again today). And while Jeff Locke’s new mechanics were encouraging Sunday, he still allowed nine base-runners in six innings good for a 1.5 WHIP. He benefited from a couple double-plays.

>>Slide rules. I’m all for protecting players, but there’s still some confusion about the home-plate rule – as Josh Harrison articulated Sunday – and what happened to the Houston Astros regarding the new slide rule is probably against the spirit of the rule.

HE SAID IT

Hurdle on leadership: “I try to be the thermostat. I’m not a thermometer. I don’t want to report the weather. I’m going to help set it.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: .387

The Pirates’ MLB-best on base percentage through Week 1 (of 26). The Pirates’ focus on improving on-base and the quality of at bats seems to be working early on, though with some poor RISP results in Cincy.

Pirates’ pitches seen per plate appearance has also jumped as the Pirates are seeing 4.0 pitches per plate appearance, eight best, up from 18th in pitches seen per plate appearance (3.79).

The Pirates might not hit for much power but if they can string together better at bats, and increase their on-base mark it might not matter

A large part of this is tied John Jaso’s presence, a welcomed addition to the lineup. He comes as advertised: he sees pitches, he has an elite understanding of the strike zone, gives competitive at bats. While he had a base-running gaffe in Cincinnati he is not non-factor as a base-runner. He’s reached base in all six games.

-TS

 

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