Monday Mop-Up Duty: Cole train slows again, what does it mean? The power of humility and more

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

SOUTH HILLS  – Although the Pirates don’t believe Gerrit Cole has damage to his right ulnar ligament, although his initial MRI reportedly did not show any damage, we’ll have to wait and learn the results of the second opinion.

The elbow discomfort could explain his spotty fastball command and lessened effectiveness – and movement – on his slider.

The issue marks Cole’s third injury of the season (ribs, triceps and now elbow) and fifth issue since 2014. In 2014, Cole had shoulder and back muscle strains.

The biggest difference between the Cole of 2015 and the Cole of 2016 is health. It was full health last season that allowed Cole to stay on the mound repeat his delivery and execute pitches.

But despite Cole not pitching as well as he did last season, despite the frustration Cole has caused a fan base which expects great things from the righty (and no one expects greater things from Cole than Cole himself) it’s important to note this: Cole has been the Pirates’ best starting pitcher this year.

Cole82916
Cole’s 2016 season might have frustrated you, but he’s still been the most productive pitcher on the staff over the entire season (Horner photo)

 

Cole leads the staff in wins above replacement (2.7), fielding independent pitching (3.19 … Jameson Taillon is 3.71) and is second to Jeff Locke in innings pitched 114.

Yes, Taillon and even Chad Kuhl have been better than Cole since their call-ups, but they still have a small sample of major league experience and have only been up in the majors for a partial season. Even if you’d rather see Taillon start a hypothetical wild card game, Cole is still an important part of the top of the rotation.

The Pirates can’t afford to be without the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft for much time.

The Pirates have closed their wild-card deficit to a 1/2 game entering a critical series in Chicago, but without Cole – who has had success against the Cubs – the Pirates will now throw rookies in Steven Brault and Kuhl in the series, and finish with Ryan Vogelsong.

If Cole is not healthy down the stretch that’s a problem.

And if he can’t stay healthy going forward that’s a bigger problem.

Is the sore elbow a warning sign?

The difference with this injury for Cole is it’s really the first one that has the potential to be a season-ender, with year-plus of rehab.

And the trouble with building around any young arm, especially a high-velocity, fastball-dependent like Cole is the high risk of injury. Earlier this year the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit conducted a study on MLB pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery:

“When the percentage of pitches thrown was evaluated, UCL reconstructed pitchers pitch significantly more fastballs than controls (46.7% vs. 39.4%, P = .035). This correlated to a 2% increase in risk for UCL injury for every 1% increase in fastballs thrown. Pitching more than 48% fastballs was a significant predictor of UCL injury, because pitchers over this threshold required reconstruction (P = .006).”

In summary: The more fastballs you throw as a pitcher, the more susceptible you are to Tommy John surgery.

Cole has thrown his fastball on 66.6 percent of his offerings for this season, and 66.5 percent for his career.

Only four other pitchers to throw at least 100 innings this season have leaned on a four-seam fastball more than Cole this season:

  • Pitcher   Four-seam %
  • Archie Bradley    70.1
  • Adam Conely       63.5
  • Kevin Gausman  61.1
  • Junior Guerra     60.3
  • Gerrit Cole            60.0

There is the idea that hard-throwing pitchers are more susceptible to TJ. So then a hard-throwing, fastball-dominant pitcher is even more susceptible. The study suggests Cole is a future candidate for elbow surgery.

Even if the Pirates and Cole dodge a bullet with this injury, they might not be so fortunate next season or the year ofter.

While Cole adopted a more stringent, between-start regimen after his 2014 injuries, he might need to make more changes in 2017 beyond. He might have to throw his fastball less often and throw his changeup or another off-speed pitch more frequently. Other than adopting a knuckle-curve he picked up from A.J. Burnett as a rookie, Cole hasn’t done much to change his pitch mix. That perhaps must be the the next adjustment.

Of course, maybe Cole will defy the odds and never need TJ. Maybe because he did not throw too much as amateur, maybe because his mechanics are clean, maybe as he works on better pitching contact and avoiding extended at-bats, he will avoid major injury.

But in assessing risk, Cole, like all pitchers, carries plenty.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Kuhl has been much, much better in his second exposure to the majors. He’s looked like a different pitcher in keeping in his 93 mph sinker down in the zone. I wrote about the draft-and-development success story that is Kuhl for Sunday’s Trib. One big reason the Pirates had confidence in taking Kuhl out of the Delaware program in 2013? Unlike many prospects it today’s pre-draft process, Kuhl was open.

Said the signing scout of record Brian Selman:

“In the amateur world, you are betting on human beings. Naturally, there is huge margin for error. … Chad was unique. We had had a lot of access. We didn’t need too many external sources. We could just talk directly with Chad. That’s a very rare thing in amateur scouting these days.”

The Pirates learned of Kuhl’s humility and self-belief leading up to the draft, traits that have been so important to him and his development.

>>Why is humility important? In essence, it allows a player to be more open to instruction. Kuhl improved his body, delivery and added the two-seamer in the Pirates system. Taillon also is able to self-evaluate. If Taillon didn’t have humility before his two years missed due to injury, he certainly has it now. Taillon, at the suggestion of the Pirates’ management and coaching staffs, added the two-seasm fastball this year and it’s already a plus pitch.

>>Weekly Andrew McCutchen update: McCutchen had a good series in Milwaukee, and August continued to be his best month of the season. A true turnaround? We’ll see. The plate discipline does continue to be in a better place.

But …

2016

chart

(McCutchen’s average exit velocity hasn’t shown any consistent improvement … and is below his 2015 levels)

2015

chart

>>One other troubling number this season: McCutchen’s rate of pulled groundball is up (71 percent) from his (61 percent career average)

>>Josh Bell is an inspired choice to hit near the top of a lineup.

His plate discipline has translated thus far from the minors. His swinging strike rate (6.1 percent) is Jose Altuve-like, and his 21 percent out-of-zone swing rate is well below the MLB average (which is really good). Small sample, yes. But it’s the same process he had in the minors. Even if the game power takes some time to develop, Bell should add value with his eye and contact ability.

>>Ivan Nova is probably not J.A. Happ 2.0.

Neal Huntington has already said he’s likely gone in free agency, but would a strong final month compel the Pirates to make a multi-year offer? The Pirates could use a veteran presence in their 2017 rotation.

>>While the Pirates took care of business in Milwaukee, these were the types of series they were supposed to take advantage of with the game’s softest second-half schedule. The Cubs will be tough. And an important 10-game homestand follows.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: -9

Jordy Mercer’s defensive runs saved this season, which ranks 22nd among shortstops. (Mercer produced +9 DRS in 2014 and 0 in 2015). His hands are sure, but the metrics have him getting to fewer balls in play.

HE SAID IT

“I think (Mercer) is a Gold Glove shortstop. I get to see him every day. Sometimes, the Gold Glove is attached to the bat. He’s made progress there this year. All I know is, if (Gold Glove voters) got to see him every day, they’d love him as much as we do.”

Clint Hurdle on Mercer’s shore hands an .986 fielding percentage.

HE SAID IT II

“I had this belief in myself. That’s all me and my family ever wanted was a shot. I got my shot.”

– Kuhl

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

Looking for a new show? Check out Netflix’s bloodline (recommended by Jameson Taillon).

-TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Farm Report: Dean Treanor’s Robinson Cano story, September callups, plus notes

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Dean Treanor is a fan of winter league baseball.

The Triple-A Indianapolis manager has seen winter ball turn around players’ careers, vault them to the next level and, at the very least, give them live at-bats while others are limited to offseason cage work.

Treanor has spent an estimated 14 years as a coach or manager in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Asked about the progress of Triple-A first baseman/outfielder Jose Osuna, he said he saw the Venezuelan Winter League as beneficial for Osuna for a couple of reasons.

First, Osuna is 23, young enough to where a couple hundred extra at-bats won’t hurt him or cause him to break down during the minor league season. Second, he said, there’s something to be said for a player’s motivation when he’s playing and competing in his home country.

Osuna, who is the subject of this week’s minor league report (you can find the story here), was raised in Trujillo, Venezuela and played 59 games for the Bravos de Margarita during the 2015 offseason. He said playing in his home country, but more importantly playing with and against current and former major league players in his home country, was a driving force behind a .330 winter season that ended with his being named the league’s Rookie of the Year.

Asked about the importance of national pride in performing and being motivated for winter league baseball, Treanor shared a story about Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano.

During the 2014 offseason, Cano broke a pinkie toe during Major League Baseball’s All-Star series in Tokyo and wanted to get a few extra at-bats during his lead-up to spring training. So, he briefly joined up with the Estrellas, a Dominican Winter League team based in Cano’s native San Pedro de Macoris. It’s also a team Treanor managed that season.

Treanor said he was pleasantly surprised by Cano’s leadership during his stint with the Estrellas, especially given his already being a perennial major league All-Star and his only being with the team for short stay.

“The Mariners actually let him play in five games down there and when we had meetings toward the end of the regular season, going into the playoffs, he spoke up,” Treanor said of Cano. “Even when he wasn’t playing, he was at the games, and a lot of them he was in the dugout because he wanted that team to win so bad. That’s just a perfect example of that immense pride that guys have in the team that they’re with in their native country.”

Cano’s presence with the Estrellas served as an inspirational tool for the club’s younger minor league players.

“It was good for the players on that team just to watch him go about his business,” Treanor said. “We had a workout facility in the city and he was there every day working out. So you can’t say enough about that, what that means to the other players to see that and that influence on them.”

With Josh Bell now seeing time at first base with some regularity in Pittsburgh, Osuna is expected to close out the Triple-A season as Indianapolis’ primary first baseman. Osuna now professionally plays the same position as Miguel Cabrera, a player that inspired him as a young baseball player.

Earlier this week, Osuna reflected on one of his earliest baseball memories: watching the 2003 World Series. Cabrera, then a 20-year-old rookie with the Marlins, hit an opposite-field home run off Roger Clemens in Game 4.

“I wanted to hit the ball like him,” Osuna said. “It was crazy, as a young guy, for him to make it. Kids over there want to look like him, you know?”

Osuna has shown good power this season, the product, he said, of laying off breaking pitches low in the zone. Though he is not on the 40-man roster, he said he entered this season with the goal of advancing two levels and reaching Pittsburgh.

“It’s why I’m working every day. It’s what I want,” Osuna said. “For me, I’m ready to be there. I’m just waiting on an opportunity and if that happens, I’ll go over there and work hard every day to stay there.”

SEPTEMBER CALLUPS

Treanor has been a Triple-A manager long enough to know there are two months that are most difficult for the Triple-A baseball player: July and September.

In July, he said, players are constantly on their phones as the trade deadline approaches. In late August and September, as much as managers try to talk players through the end of the season, there’s a general belief that putting up big numbers could mean a September call-up to Pittsburgh.

“We do talk about it. They don’t listen very well,” Treanor said, laughing. “Everybody thinks that now when it gets closer, ‘I’ve really got to put up numbers,’ and it’s really just the opposite. It’s such a cliché, but you really have to try to get better every day here and work on the things that you need to work on and let the process take its course.”

When major league rosters expanding September 1, the Triple-A manager’s job becomes an interesting balance of welcoming players from lower levels and maintaining the focus of members of the 40-man roster disappointed by not having received a call to the majors.

“First of all, you have to deal with the guys that don’t go up on September 1 and try to keep that mental flow going,” Treanor said. “Then you’re bringing the new guys in and trying to blend them in at the high point of the season.”

This September balancing period won’t be a long one for Treanor. Constant roster changes throughout the season have run their course, and the Indians (65-69) are in a spot they haven’t often over the last few years: out of the Triple-A playoff picture.

Treanor said Tuesday he didn’t yet have a specific number as far as how many of his players will be promoted. He and his new roster will navigate a total of six games (Indy has a double-header Sept. 1) before season’s end.

“You go through that and it’s really just trying to keep everybody together and with a focus on what we’re trying to do here,” Treanor said.

ODDS AND ENDS

  • Nick Kingham will pitch for Double-A Altoona on Monday. The 24-year-old right-hander has a 2.06 ERA in eight games in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk said Wednesday that the end of the minor league season will most likely signal the end of Kingham’s season. Kingham has walked just two hitters in 35 innings this season.
  • Tyler Glasnow and Trevor Williams split Indianapolis’ Saturday game. Glasnow threw 58 pitches over three scoreless innings, allowing three hits, striking out three and walking three. Williams needed just 50 pitches to work through four scoreless innings in relief. Since June 28, Williams has a 1.63 ERA, with opponents hitting just .201 against him. Williams’ originally scheduled start this weekend was postponed:

  • Pirates Prospects reported late Saturday night that right-hander Mitch Keller will be promoted to High-A Bradenton. The 20-year-old has been healthy and dominant this season, posting a 2.46 ERA in 23 starts with Low-A West Virginia.
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Freese extension analysis and Taillon’s red line

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

PNC PARK – So I’m an idiot.

Earlier today on our Pirates podcast I surmised it was unlikely Freese would be back with the Pirates next season.

Whoops.

About an hour later, Freese, of course, signed a two-year extension with a club option for 2019. It’s $11 million guaranteed and could be worth up to $16.5 million.

Freese
Interestingly, Freese did not receive much applause Monday in his first at-bat after signing a two-year extension. (Horner photo)

 

I thought an extension was unlikely because Freese would likely want a multi-year deal in free agency coming off a bounce-back season.

I thought it was unlikely, from the Pirates’ perspective, because Freese will turn 34 in April.

I thought it was unlikely since, ideally, a club would have an internal option to provide similar production at pre-arbitration costs.

Well, Freese did want a multi-year deal and he got it from the Pirates

You can understand the deal from Freese’s perspective. In the PED-testing era, the sport as become a younger man’s game. It’s been tough to find work for the aging, middle class of free agents. Freese learned this last year as he waited until March 11 to sign with the Pirates.

Could Freese have made more on the open market?

“Potentially. I also could be sitting at home until the middle of March next year,” Freese said. “You look at both markets from this winter and next winter, they don’t seem too different. … I’ve made a lot of money in this game to begin with. … Where I play and who I’m around is more important to me. If I didn’t want to be a Pirate, I would’ve went to the market and seen what happened.”

Does it make sense from the Pirates perspective?

We understand the Pirates wanting to hedge at third base with the uncertainty of Jung Ho Kang‘s status and the lack of upper-level minor league prospects at third base.

We understand the Pirates wanting to keep the bench as a strength. Freese (1.6) Sean Rodriguez (1.4) and Matt Joyce rank third, fourth and seventh on the club in position player WAR on the club. Rodriguez and Joyce are free agents to be, perhaps unlikely to return. Joyce probably wants more playing time and the club is grooming Adam Frazier as the next Rodriguez.

The age thing is the one stumbling block but Pirates GM Neal Huntington downplayed concern. Huntington said Freese’s “low-maintenance” swing, “hard work” and “defensive abilities” lessen the concern.

“It probably would be a little different if we were expecting him to play 155 games a year for the next two or three years,” Huntington said.

And Freese is key to another area the Pirates care about: player rest and efficiency.

“To have David (Freese) spell and keep our guys strong and fresh, the opportunity to play first as a right-handed complement if we stay with (John) Jaso,” Huntington said. “Depending on where Josh Bell takes this, the ability to have a major league veteran ready to step in and fill a substantial role … We felt that was a good addition for us.”

While the deal seemed unlikely (to me, anyways), the two sides did have motivations to find common ground.

The Pirates also prefer to spread risk, and claim the Francisco Liriano savings in part enabled the Freese signing. Initially, that doesn’t seem to be a popular talking point on the deal since this is a relatively modest financial agreement for a team worth nearly $1 billion, according to Forbes.

TAILLON AND RED LINES

While so much focus has been on Andrew McCutchen, Josh Bell and to a lesser extent Gerrit Cole, there is an interesting situation going on with Jameson Taillon.

Taillon has been the best Pirates starting pitcher since his call-up and continued that trend Monday with another excellent outing.

But here’s the issue: Taillon’s previous professional high for innings pitched in a season was 147 back in 2013. He then missed the next two seasons due to injury.

Taillon stands at 135.

A similar comp?

See: Cole’s rookie season

Back in 2013, fresh off of the Nationals shutting Stephen Strasburg down for their stretch run in 2012, I asked Huntington about Cole. Huntington said there was a red line with Cole but wouldn’t publicly discuss it.

“If we cross it we’ll let you know,” the GM said then.

Cole threw 185 innings across Triple-A and the majors in 2013. He threw 11 more in the NLDS for a total of 196.

His previous professional high was 137 innings in 2012.

It was a 43 percent jump. It seemed aggressive, but the Pirates also needed Cole down the stretch.

A 43 percent jump for Taillon would be 180 innings.

The Pirates did push back a couple of Cole’s starts down the stretch in 2013, but the Pirates also had a firm grasp of a wild card spot. If the Pirates push back a couple of Taillon’s starts it could be the difference between making and missing the postseason. They also don’t want to push him too far, too hard in his first full season back. It’s an interesting dilemma for the club.

-TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Monday Mop-Up Duty: Be greedy when others are fearful? (Re: Happ) … and Bell, Taillon, Cole and more

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

SOUTH HILLS – Fernando Rodney shot his third imaginary arrow of the weekend into the sky above PNC Park on Sunday afternoon, a celebration Rodney enacts after each successful save. It meant, of course, the Pirates were swept by the Miami Marlins in a crucial series when the Pirates did not see Jose Fernandez or Giancarlo Stanton.

It’s been a Charlie Brown type of season for the Pirates. As soon as the club seems to gain some traction, as soon as the fan base wants to believe, the football gets pulled away.

After an excellent West Coast trip, the Pirates returned home only to have their season be placed on the brink for what seems like the twentieth time or so this season.

The Pirates are three games behind Cardinals for the second wild-card spot, and the Marlins now have a 1 1/2-game lead on the Pirates for the final wild card.

That the Pirates (62-59) remain in postseason contention as we near September is more of an indictment of the NL field than an endorsement of the Pirates’ resume.

What could have changed the Pirates’ fortunes this year?

Happ
Where would the Pirates be with J.A. Happ in 2016? (Horner photo)

 

Having better seasons from Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano would have helped, of course. But much public focus continues to center on what the Pirates did – and did not do – to surround the core this offseason and at the trade deadline.

The most popular second-guessed decision was the inability to-resign J.A. Happ.

Happ, of course, recorded his MLB-best 17th win of the season last week. If Happ was still a Pirate, the club likely has a firm grasp on a wild card spot. After all, the rotation has been the weakest link this season. Happ has been very good. He will earn AL Cy Young votes.

However, criticizing the Pirates for not signing Happ is like criticizing 28 other teams for not signing Happ. Many, including yours truly, thought the Blue Jays had taken on too much risk in years and dollars with Happ.

There’s a reason so many teams balked at giving Happ at three years and $36 million — he had little track record of success. Outside of a couple months at the end of the season with the Pirates last year, he had largely performed as a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Teams want to see a player sustain success for a longer period before investing. (Also, some teams, like the Pirates, misread where the market for pitching was headed. … but the market is not going to be any better this winter)

Of course, there was opportunity because there was doubt in the market.

If a club believed in Happ, the club had an opportunity to find value as the Blue Jays have.

So what did most of baseball miss in Happ’s ability to repeat his last-season 2015 success?

As I explored on Sunday in the Trib, Happ essentially shelved his softer offerings while with the Pirates. In August and September last season, Happ threw his fastball on 71 percent of his offerings.He is throwing it 70 percent of the time this year. Happ’s fastball rates as the third most effective in the game according to Fangraphs.com, In the second half last season, it ranked as the ninth-best fastball. Perhaps such a pitch, such an adjustment, should create greater belief.

Ray Searage also got Happ, like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez before him, on a better path path toward homeplate.

What’s interesting about the big data era is that more skills are able to be quantified thanks to Statcast and PITCHf/x and Trackman before it. The underlying reason for success can be better understood.

For instance, the spin rate of Happ’s fastball this season – 2359 RPMs – is 100 RPMs above the MLB average. What that means is that Happ’s fastball has unusual velocity and movement for a lefty. The fastball has less vertical movement, appearing to rise. The average exit velocity off Happ’s fastball is a full mph below the MLB average.

There was another lefty with a similar story to Happ this offseason: Rich Hill. Hill reemerged with the Red Sox last year to have a dominant close to the season. And when looking beyond the curve numbers, Hill’s fastball and curveball dominance were supported by rare spin rates.
Perhaps the lesson is this: in the Statcast era, when we can better understand the underlying reason behind performance, perhaps it makes sense to take greater risks on small samples.And perhaps Happ is another example of the Warren Buffett investing axiom: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.

Whenever there is doubt there is opportunity.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Pirates GM Neal Huntington yesterday on Josh Bell’s call-up:

“We brought Josh up to play a decent amount. We do anticipate he’ll get some at-bats at first base as we go forward.”

Perhaps, though, it’s time for Bell to receive the lion’s share of at-bats with Jaso performing at replacement level, with Bell, 24, expected to be part of the next core. Clint Hurdle made it sound Monday as if Bell will get the lion’s share of work. Yes, his bat slumped on returning to Triple-A but how much of that was due to frustration? Yes, the defense is shaky and see Andrew Erickson’s excellent blog post Friday on reviewing all Bell’s errors from this season. But it seems to be time to learn about Bell at the MLB level.

>>Huntington said Jameson Taillon‘s innings will be monitored, though he did not draw a red line around a certain number. Still, it’s plausible he has a start or two pushed back as Gerrit Cole did in 2012. Taillon has thrown 127 combined innings this season, his previous high is 147. In 2013 as a rookie, Cole, threw nearly 200 innings (including postseason) after throwing 137 combined innings 2012.

>>Regardless of how Andrew McCutchen closes the season, he has lost a step.

As I wrote prior to his West Coast surge, his batting average on groundballs had declined 100 points. His infield hit percentage (7.0 percent) is at a career low. His speed score – which takes into account stolen base, attempts, triples and a number of other factors – has decline dramatically and is at a career low as are his steals and attempts. His percent of extra-bases taken, is also at a career-low 28 percent and down from 64 percent in 2013.

>>Now, McCutchen can still hit when he makes quality contact (The other issue is strikeout rate). His batting average on line drives and fly balls is in line with his career norms. But speed isn’t something players typically gain back. And perhaps those infield hits, the extra bases taken, those steals are gone for good.  And a loss of speed isn’t going to help McCutchen go back on balls, which he continued to struggle with over the weekend.It’s why the age curve is so cruel to center fielders, in particular.

>>Players typically trade speed for power as they mature but McCutchen’s isolated slugging and HR/FB have not increased but are slightly off career rates. This offseason, the Pirates are going to have to determine how much McCutchen’s loss of speed will continue to hinder him. They will have to consider if it will continue to erode, or if he believes he can get it back through an adjusted training regimen. For the first time, the Pirates might have to make a decision on McCutchen and his future.

>>The Pirates need more from Cole down the the stretch. They need  Cole to produce a September like he did in 2013 and 2015, when was the club’s best pitcher. Two similarities between those seasons? He stayed healthy. And I do believe his claim claim that because of that health, the lack of interruption, he was able to better repeat mechanics and better execute pitches.

After all, his velocity and pitch mix is essentially in the same place. That means it has to be location and execution issues. Not only has that led to a slightly increased walk rate, but it has likely led to a slightly lessened ability to sequence hitters. Perhaps that explains the lack of swing and miss (His slider whiff rate has fallen from 21.6 percent last season to 15.6 percent this season). Cole’s slider has lost some movement from last season, perhaps, again, tied to his delivery.

Year/Horizontal moment /Vertical movement (plus) gravity (Scale in inches)

2016   2.45           29.2

2015   2.95           32.8

Source: Brooks Baseball

>>Chad Kuhl did not have the same swing-and-miss stuff Saturday that he had in Los Angeles. The slider and changeup weren’t as effective, but he again kept his two-seamer down. For a fourth straight start, he generated more ground balls than fly balls. He at least looks like a quality back-of-the-rotation option. The home run pitch to Xavier Scruggs was not a poor pitch, located at the extreme bottom of the zone.

>>Through four starts with Indianapolis, Drew Hutchison has a 5.40 ERA.

>>Yes, Felipe Rivero had a tough Friday but the stuff is legit. Hurdle said Rivero has the best left-handed velocity he has seen after Aroldis Chapman and Rivero has two swing-and-miss secondary pitches. With health, he should be a long-term fixture of the back of the bullpen.

>>Mitch Keller is going to skyrocket up prospect lists this offseason.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 41

Starling Marte’s 41st steal of the year matched his career high set in 2013.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 132

Opponents two-strike wRC+ against Cole (league average is 100). Last season? Opponents posted a 52 wRC+ with two strikes, as Dave Manel noted at Bucsdugout. Cole’s lack of ability put hitters away with two strikes jumps out. The Pirates have to hope it’s a temporary condition.

HE SAID IT

“I will forever tell you that (those) three days had nothing to do with what I’m doing. I would’ve done this regardless. I might have five more hits in three games. Instead of hitting .240, I could be hitting .260.

“I had a good ninth-inning at-bat off their closer in Milwaukee (at the end of July) and I said ‘I’m in a good spot.’ … I stayed right there in that spot.”

-McCutchen does not believe his August bench had anything to do with his West Coast turnaround

 

HE SAID IT II

“The result. You don’t want to give up runs, especially on a pitch like that. You really think you can get him on the ground. You kind of execute a pitch, and it kind of fires you up a little bit and pisses you off. You execute a pitch and he gets you. It’s just part of the game.”

– Kuhl on the pitch location to Scruggs on Saturday.

-TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Farm Report: Breaking down Josh Bell’s defense in Indianapolis this season

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

From the top of the Pirates organization on down, it would be difficult to find, save for maybe Jung Ho Kang or Andrew McCutchen, a player whose defense has been scrutinized this season as closely as Josh Bell’s.

“Is he capable of playing first base at the major league level?” is a question asked with greater frequency for a couple reasons, one being John Jaso’s decline at the plate over the last couple months, the other being this:

In the last month, Bell has cooled off some. Since being sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis, the first baseman is hitting just .210 with five extra-base hits in 105 at-bats, which could be some combination of a post-demotion letdown and a guy having a down month after being great for more than three straight.

A large-scale look at Bell on defense suggests he’s right around what he was last season. Bell’s fielding percentage in 2015 was .986 (16 errors, 1,097 chances). This season, it’s roughly .985 (15 errors in 958 chances).

Fielding percentage obviously doesn’t catch everything. There are good plays that result from errors and bad plays that are, by rule, non-errors.

While keeping in mind that Bell has been involved in nearly 1,000 plays on defense this season, we took advantage of MiLB.TV video and broke down each of Bell’s errors in 2016. Again, it’s a look at 15 plays out of more than a thousand (Bell eclipsed 2,000 career innings at first this week).

Some were legitimate errors, others borderline plays. Some impacted the game, some had no effect. The idea was, plainly, to look at habits and the situation in which each play happened.

Take a look:

(vs. Toledo 4/18), T3: 1 out, 1-1 count, Steven Moya batting, runner on third, Casey McGehee on first, Jameson Taillon pitching. Pitch was outside to a left-handed hitter.

Result: Run scores, McGehee to second, Taillon got the next two hitters out to end inning

Did Indy win? Yes, 4-2

How did Bell hit? 1-4, 2 RBI

Describe the play: Slow chopper hit to the right side. Instead of squaring up the ball, Bell stutter-stepped, faced toward second and attempted to backhand the ball. Jameson Taillon came over to cover and Bell flipped to Taillon, but Moya reached first safely.

 

(vs. Toledo 4/19), T9: 1 out, Corey Jones, left-handed hitter at the plate. Jordany Valdespin on third, first pitch, middle-away, Jhondaniel Medina pitching.

Result: Run scored to put Toledo up 5-3, Medina walked the next hitter, another reached via single, but he got out of the inning. The run that scored against Medina was not earned.

Did Indy win? No, 5-3

How did Bell hit? 1-4

Describe the play: Bell was playing in with the rest of the infield to preserve a run. The ball was hit to his right and he backhanded the ball (he had no other choice) and made a hurried throw home. Jones stayed at first and the run scored. Official ruling was a fielder’s choice and a throwing error, thrown well to the right of a diving Ed Easley. A good throw likely wouldn’t have had the runner at home.

 

(@ Louisvile 4/22), B1: 1 out, 1-1 count, Jermaine Curtis hitting, Jose Peraza on third, Steven Brault pitching. Pitch was inside to a right-handed hitter.

Result: Run scored to cut Indy’s lead to 2-1, Brault struck out the next two hitters to end the inning.

Did Indy win? Yes, 13-2

How did Bell hit? 4-5, 5 RBI, 2 R, BB (HIT FOR CYCLE)

Describe the play: For one, Jermaine Curtis crowds the plate. At the time, he had been hit five games in a row, and not by coincidence. Brault’s pitch was inside and Curtis did not get extension. The ball was weakly popped up to short right field. Bell backpedalled but never turned his hips completely. Willy Garcia was back in no doubles defense and Alen Hanson was closer to the middle, so Bell was on his own to make the play. Bell was facing home when the ball hit off the front of his glove. Bell had to deal with two partial hip turns as well as the sun while navigating whether the ball should be his. Again, he hit for the cycle.

 

(vs. Durham 5/2), T9: 1 out, first pitch, Dayron Varona hitting, Jake Goebbert on first, Luke Maile on second. Trey Haley pitching. Pitch was middle-of-the-zone to a right-handed hitter. Result: Varona reached, Maile goes to third and Goebbert to second. Run scores when Haley walks Daniel Robertson to extend Durham’s lead to 9-2 before inducing a double-play. (Kang had an error earlier in the inning, base hit could have been extra bases, but Bell dove to stop it).

Did Indy win? No, 9-2 loss

How did Bell hit? 0-3, BB, K

Describe the play: Bouncing ball to the right side. Bell was aggressive and positioned himself to backhand the ball and start a 3-6-1 double play. The ball went under his glove as he attempted to do so.

 

(vs. Columbus 5/17), T1: 0 out, Ronny Rodriguez singles on an 0-1 pitch to center. Tyler Glasnow pitching. No count on Erik Gonzalez, a right-handed hitter.

Result: The first out of the inning. Glasnow commited a throwing error to put Gonzalez on, but a 3U and a strikeout ended the inning with no runs.

Did Indy win? Yes, 4-1

How did Bell hit? 2-2, 3B, 2 BB, R

Describe the play: If you’re going to make an error, this is probably the best result. Glasnow should have been charged with the error on this play, which was a pickoff throw to first in the dirt. Bell couldn’t come up with it but stayed with the play, racing back to the bullpen mound to retrieve the ball. He then unleashed a no-hop rocket to Pedro Florimon at third, who tagged out Rodriguez for the first out of the inning, 3-5. I would include this play in Bell’s highlight reel. Indy’s broadcasters thought the error had been charged to Glasnow, though it was marked down as a missed catch error on Bell.

 

(@Pawtucket, 5/29), B6: 1 out, 2-1 count. Rusney Castillo hitting, no one on, Jameson Taillon pitching. Pitch is middle to a right-handed hitter.

The result: Castillo reaches, Justin Maxwell singles, then Taillon gets back-to-back popouts to end the inning.

Did Indy win? Yes, 8-2

How did Bell hit? 3-4, 2B, 2 R, RBI

Describe the play: Bell was too aggressive on this play. This ball could have been a 4-3 groundout to second baseman Max Moroff, but Bell attempted to backhand the ball and was unable to field it cleanly. Given the urgency of the play, Bell would not have had time to square his shoulders to field this.

 

(@Gwinnett, 6/21), B6: 1 out, 1-0 count. Reid Brignac hitting, bases loaded. John Kuchno pitching. Pitch is middle-in to left-handed hitter.

The result: Throwing error by Bell, Bradley Roney and Ozzie Albies score and Ronnier Mustelier moves up to second. Kuchno gets a strikeout and a groundout to get out of the inning.

Did Indy win? No, 8-7 loss in 12

How did Bell hit? 2-5, RBI, R, 2 BB

Describe the play: Brignac squibbed a ground ball to the right side, so it was a good job by Bell to at least absorb a bad hop, though it likely put him off balance. He then tried to throw to second to get a force out but short-armed the ball, missing Pedro Florimon badly and sending the ball into left field. Two runs scored to give Gwinnett a 7-3 lead.

 

(@Gwinnett, 6/23), B8: 1 out, 0-1 count. Blake Lalli hitting, Kelvin Marte pitching, Mel Rojas at second. Outside pitch to a left-handed hitter (hit to shortstop).

The result: Missed catch error by Bell, Mel Rojas scores from second. Marte gets a strikeout and a lineout to right to end the inning.

Did Indy win? Yes, 9-5

How did Bell hit? 3-5, 3B, 3R, 2 RBI

Describe the play: Gift Ngoepe was credited with the assist, Bell with the error. It was Bell’s first legitimate missed catch error of the season.

 

(vs. Columbus, 7/4), T3: 1 out, 1-2 count. Carlos Triunfel hitting, Frank Duncan pitching, bases empty. Outside pitch to a right-handed hitter.

The result: Throwing error by Bell, Triunfel advanced to second. Duncan got Scott Schebler to fly out, then allowed two singles and a home run before getting an inning-ending groundout. Four runs scored in the inning, zero earned.

Did Indy win? No, 11-3 loss

How did Bell hit? 0-3, BB

Describe the play: Triunfel grounded the ball weakly to the right side. Josh Bell backhanded the ball a few paces in front of second baseman Max Moroff. Bell double-clutched, his momentum carrying him backward as he threw behind Duncan, who was over to cover first.

 

(vs. Columbus, 7/5), T3: 1 out, 2-2 count. Tony Renda hitting, Gerrit Cole pitching (rehab assignment), bases empty. Middle-of-the-zone pitch to a right-handed hitter.

The result: Fielding error by Bell on throw over to first (ball hit to shortstop). Cole got back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning.

Did Indy win? Yes, 6-0

How did Bell hit? 1-5, RBI, run

Describe the play: Renda hit a hard ground ball to shortstop Max Moroff. Moroff threw over to first. The ball didn’t appear to hit the dirt, but was low and slightly off-target. Bell was unable to make the catch, the ball trickling just behind him.

(BELL PROMOTED TO PITTSBURGH 7/8-7/15)

(@Louisville, 7/17), B4: 2 out, 2-1 count. Hernan Iribarren hitting, Frank Duncan pitching, Raffy Lopez on second. Middle-of-the-zone pitch to a left-handed pitcher.

The result: Fielding error by Bell on ground ball chopped to the right side. Bell tagged out Lopez for the third out of the inning.

Did Indy win? No, 6-4 loss

How did Bell hit? 0-3, BB

Describe the play: Bell semi-backhanded a ground ball chopped to the right side and the ball deflected off his glove. As he ran to his right to retrieve the ball, Lopez ventured too far off third. Bell noticed and ran directly at Lopez, diving up the third base line to tag Lopez before he could get back to third. The play was scored a not-so-common E3, 3U. This was a rare error that deserved to be a Web Gem.

 

(@Gwinnett, 7/26), B2: 2 out, 1-2 count, Mel Rojas Jr. hitting, Trevor Williams pitching, Emilio Bonifacio on first, Chris Ellis on second, Daniel Castro on third. Middle-in pitch to a left-handed hitter.

The result: Fielding error by Bell on a single to right. A run scored to give Gwinnett a 5-0 lead. Williams then got Hector Olivera to ground out to end the inning.

Did Indy win? No, 11-2 loss

How did Bell hit? 0-4

Describe the play: Bell played relatively deep in right with two outs. As Rojas’ ball approached, he wound up in order get his momentum moving forward. On the transfer between his glove and throwing hand, Bell bobbled the ball, allowing a second run to score on the play. This is, so far, Bell’s only error in right this season.

 

(vs. Norfolk, 7/30), T4: 2 out, 0-0 count. Ozzie Martinez hitting, Kyle Lobstein pitching, Xavier Avery on first. Pickoff play.

The result: Throwing error by Josh Bell. Ozzie Martinez grounds out to end the inning.

Did Indy win? No, 10-4 loss

How did Bell hit? 0-2, replaced by Dan Gamache before the seventh inning

Describe the play: A third pickoff attempt by Lobstein of Avery worked. Bell pivoted and threw to second, but in the dirt and well to the right of Gift Ngoepe’s target. A good throw probably would have beaten the speedy Avery.

 

(@ Louisville, 8/19—2 errors), B4: 1 out, 1-1 count. Juan Perez hitting, Drew Hutchison pitching. Middle-of-the-zone pitch to a left-handed hitter.

The result: Fielding error by Josh Bell (ball dribbled to the catcher). Hutchison allowed four more hits in the inning. A total of six runs scored.

Did Indy win? Yes, 8-7

How did Bell hit? 1-4, RBI

Describe the play: Elias Diaz picked up a weakly-hit ball and throws up the first-base line. Diaz’s throw nearly hits Perez but instead deflects off Bell’s glove, leading to a charged error. Without throwing another pitch, Hutchison made a pickoff throw to first, which deflected off Bell’s glove and sailed into the fourth row of seats, allowing Perez to advance to second.

What does this all of this tell us about Bell? Some instincts need work, but his instincts certainly don’t suggest he’s timid while playing first. Quite the opposite.

Triple-A Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor told the Tribune-Review in July, shortly after Bell was promoted, that his main issue at first stemmed from being aggressive on ground balls hit to the right side:

“With our defensive alignment, especially with a right-handed hitter at the plate, he’s off the bag quite a ways and that’s not a fundamental but something he has to go through to understand how long it takes to get to the bag, how to set up the throw, where the throw’s coming from. But the other side of that is knowing how far he can go to his right for a ground ball and that’s really kind of a work in progress. He had a play the other night that he went too far and it is instinctive about how far you can go. So we’re working on that a lot and like I said, he’s gotten a lot better, but to his credit, he wants to get everything he can. But there is an instinct of where your second baseman is and how far you need to go because you’d rather have him covering first and the second baseman getting the ball instead of the pitcher.”

Treanor and the Pirates are hoping to see more 4-3 and 1-3 plays than 3-1 plays from Bell in the future. How much experience he’ll get with those plays at the major league level is a question we likely won’t have answered until September.

Odds and Ends

  • Keep an eye on right-hander Nick Kingham and where he finishes this season. The Pirates’ No. 11 prospect, per MLB.com, has been great in his return from Tommy John surgery, posting a 2.48 ERA and walking just one hitter over his first 29 rehab innings.
  • Jose Osuna is earning his keep in Triple-A, and then some. Since being promoted to Triple-A in late June, the left fielder has hit .297 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs.
  • Stay tuned for a feature in this Sunday’s Trib on Low-A West Virginia right-hander Gage Hinsz, who had a rough outing on Thursday but has shown tremendous upside in 2016. He seems to fit the mold of Pirates prospects drafted out of high school: young (20), tall (6-foot-4) and can touch the mid-90s.
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Did the three days matter? (And our podcast)

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

SAN FRANCISCO – So Andrew McCutchen looks like he’s back.

McCutchen believes he is back.

“That’s without question, honestly,” said McCutchen after Wednesday’s 6-5 win over the Giants. “I’ve turned something. I don’t know if it’s turning a page or a corner or something. Things are going well for us. Going well for me, too.”

Pittsburgh has been waiting for months to hear such a declaration from The Face of the Franchise.

If McCutchen is back that’s a big deal down the stretch, as the Pirates return home a game back of the St. Louis Cardinals of the second wild card. This weekend’s series against Miami is a chance to create some separation.

How did McCutchen get his swing back, his groove back?

It sure seems like McCutchen’s three-day benching during the Atlanta series at the beginning of the month helped.

McCutchen
Does rest matter? The Pirates think so. McCutchen does not. (AP Photo).

 

Before sitting McCutchen was mired in the worst season and prolonged slump of his career.

Since returning?

McCutchen is batting .317 and has a .973 OPS in August. He’s made more athletic plays in the outfield, including two spectacular catches on the road trip. Perhaps most important is his grasp of the strike zone has returned. In 12 August games, McCutchen has 12 walks against 8 strikeouts.

For all the theories about the root of McCutchen’s poor season perhaps the answer was as simple as this: he was fatigued, he was tired, over-worked — however you chose to classify the need for rest.

But McCutchen remains defiant in regard to the idea being benched helped:

“I was the first to tell all y’all that them (those) days don’t have nothing to do with it,” McCutchen said. “I will forever tell you that them three days had nothing to do with what I’m doing. I would’ve done this regardless. I might have five more hits in three games. Instead of hitting .240, I could be hitting .260. I knew that given the days, whatever, it is what it is. But it ain’t got nothing to do with it, man. I knew I was going to be able to do what I needed to do regardless. I was ready to go. I had a good ninth-inning at-bat off their closer in Milwaukee and I said I’m in a good spot. I told myself I was in a good spot. They decided to sit me for three games; I stayed right there in that spot. From there, it’s been going well.”

Reasonable men and women can have their doubts.

After all, the Pirates are an organization that highly values the importance of player rest.

From July:

Teams like the Pirates — and some in the NBA and NFL — are looking for a way to measure and produce more-efficient performance. They want to know who should play and who should rest. They want to know who is recovering well and who is not. They want to know who is over-training and who is under-training.

They want to reduce the duration of slumps and lengthen periods of peak performance.

“You start at green, you’re yellow, you’re red.” Tomczyk said. “We are looking for that video-game meter.”

I suspect McCutchen’s meter was at yellow, maybe yellowish-orangish entering August.

I suspect he was probably working too much, too hard, taking too many swings to get out of his slump. He was in the cage often taking extra swings, extra reps. Too much work can have a negative impact. And since baseball is such a mental game, three days down probably did much to free McCutchen of mental clutter.

Does rest matter?

McCutchen’s August suggests it does.

It appears as if McCutchen’s bar is back to green.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST:

-TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Monday Mop-Up Duty: Pirates rotation becoming Kuhl, calm and collected

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

SAN FRANCISCO – If the Pirates are going to turn around their season, if they are going to make a second-half push for a wild card, they had to get more from their starting rotation.

The problem started there, and the fix had to begin here.

Since the Pirates reconfigured their rotation at the trade deadline, their starters’ combined ERA (3.26) is fifth best in baseball, covering 102 innings. And a large part of the effort has been tied to rookies Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl.

In the big picture, the Pirates had to become more younger and homegrown in their rotation to succeed and sustain. That process accelerated in the second-half of this bridge season.

So far, so good.

Kuhl
Kuhl looks like he’s going to be staying around for a bit (AP photo)

 

Taillon has secured a spot in the rotation and it appears like Kuhl is close to doing so if he has not already done so. Sunday was the best we’ve seen Kuhl.

He had a swing-and-miss slider, which generated seven of his career-best 12 whiffs. He got powerful lefties Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal to swing over diving sliders for back-to-back strikeouts in the sixth, his final two batters of the day. The slider had been inconsistent to date.

It was not Sunday.

“To be able to command your slider to both sides of the plate,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “You have to have those things to pitch in the big leagues.”

Unlike Gerrit Cole on Saturday, Kuhl was also able to effectively to mix in 10 changeups, which helped him get out from under a number of favorable hitting counts he created for lefties.

Said Hurdle of Kuhl mixing in a third pitch: “It’s critical … I think the most impressive thing to me is he had seven 2-0 counts to left-handers and he was still able to pitch through it.”

Like in his last start against the San Diego Padres, Kuhl was much better in keeping the ball on the ground since returning from Triple-A. Kuhl produced eight ground-ball outs against zero fly-ball outs Sunday.

“It was huge to fix those mechanical (issues) and get on top of the ball instead of coming around it,” said Kuhl, who entered with a 36 percent groundball rate. “I’m going to try and do what I do best. Keep the ball on the ground. I’m not going to strike out 13.”

If the Pirates are going to grab a playoff spot it has to begin with starting rotation improvement.

The rookies are doing their part.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>While the rotation has been better, Cole struggled on Saturday. And outside of his complete game against a left-handed Seattle Mariners lineup on July 27, Cole has struggled against lefties. Lefties are hitting .309 against him this year after batting .222 against him last year.

What’s the problem?

Cole did a better job of burying his slider last season against lefties. He still doesn’t often throw a changeup, a lefty-neutralizing pitch for many right-handed pitchers. Dodger lefties went 9-for-16 against him Saturday when much of his off-speed stuff was elevated.

Hurdle noted there is a fine line between good and mediocre in pitch execution. Cole said his delivery was in an excellent place last season, perhaps still searching for such consistency this season.

>>While the Pirates appeared to have hedged at the deadline, swapping Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese and Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero, Ivan Nova and Antonio Bastardo might just be a net positive for 2016, let alone beyond this season. Liriano struggled in his second start with Toronto on Friday,

>>Speaking of Rivero, he’s looked very good. Legit swing-and-miss stuff. Hurdle said he has three “legit” pitches and.

“You almost have to guess to hit the fastball,” Hurdle said.

Pirates fans are going to be a fan of this trade moving forward, I suspect.

>>With Giancarlo Stanton’s injury and the Dodgers pitching staff falling apart, not only is the wild card looking more and more plausible for the Pirates, but earning the top wild card might also be in play. The Clint Hurdle invitational could return to PNC Park.

>>What more can you say about the bench? Sean Rodriguez with four RBIs on Sunday, Adam Frazier with four hits? It’s bailed out of the Pirates this season.

>>Tyler Glasnow left his rehab start Sunday apparently shaking his right arm. Not a good sign. He failed to hit his targeted pitch count. Glasnow is looking less and less like a factor to impact the Pirates in 2016.

>>One element that was not created by design, but that is interesting is with an all right-handed starting staff, and with four lefties in the bullpen, the Pirates should benefit from a platoon advantages late in games when clubs stack their lineups with left-handed bats as the Dodgers did over the weekend.

STAT OF THE WEEK: .450

Andrew McCutchen’s on-base percentage in August.

McCutchen has a season-best walk rate in August (27.5 percent), and a season-low strikeout rate (15 percent). The key to getting out of his slump likely begins with better strike zone discipline.

HE SAID IT

Gerrit Cole’s question to Vin Scully. (What do you ask the 88-year-old legend that’s been asked everything?)

“I asked him how he gets the stories. They order a bunch of sports magazines and newspaper stuff and either him, or whoever, cuts stuff out along the way. The story about McCutchen (a story Scully told Saturday about Andrew McCutchen’s father telling his son to have a protect-the-house mentality in the batter’s box) he found in a Sporting News six years ago, and he cut it out and put it in the file. He didn’t remember it. He totally forgot about it. When the Pirates come to town, he opens the file.”

HE SAID IT II

What did Scully say to Cole?

“He was like ‘That was kind of a bummer (Saturday) because you’re a local boy. Your family is here and everything,’ ” He said he really liked to watch me play. He said he remembered me. You feel like you know him.”

HE SAID IT III

Ryan Vogelsong on his return to San Francisco, and Giants fans. He rebuilt his career in the city and won two World Series titles:

“They really supported me tremendously for five years through the good times and the bad times. As emotional as Atlanta was for me the other night, it’s going to be every bit of that on Monday.”

-TS

 

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Friday Farm Report: On a resurgent Will Craig and Danny Beddes

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Over the last three weeks, Will Craig has played like the Will Craig the Pirates drafted with the 22nd overall pick in June.

The Short-season Class A West Virginia third baseman went 0 for 2 with three walks on Wednesday, snapping a 17-game hitting streak during which he raised his batting average to .260 from .188.

During that span, Craig hit six doubles to raise his season total to 12 in 44 games, putting him not far off his pace of 16 in 55 games during his junior year at Wake Forest. That much improved from the first 20 games of his professional career, during which Craig had just two extra-base hits.

Craig told MiLB.com he was surprised to have struggled upon reaching the minor leagues:

“In my mind I never thought I’d struggle very much. That’s just being a ballplayer. You think you’re on top of the world and you never think you’re going to have any problems. At the same time, in the back of your mind, you feel like there’s always a chance. I hit mine earlier in the year.”

Craig was right to think he wouldn’t struggle very much, because he mostly hadn’t up to that point. He hit .280 his freshman year at Wake Forest but dominated ACC pitching in his sophomore and junior seasons, hitting .382 and .379 in back-to-back years and totaling 29 home runs and 124 RBIs during his final 108 games in college.

Needless to say, those numbers are not easily replicated in professional baseball, especially the power numbers. Entering Friday, Craig had hit just one home run.

Combine the shock of professional baseball with the shock of regularly using wood bats for the first time in a non-showcase/summer baseball format, and that will happen.

Consider the college position players taken in the first round of the 2016 draft (there were seven). Here’s a look at each player’s current minors home run total versus his home run total from his final year of college (keep in mind each player has about 10-20 fewer minors games than 2016 college games at this point):

PLAYER, PICK, TEAM, COLLEGE HR, MINORS HR       

Nick Senzel                        2              Reds                      8                             6

Corey Ray                            5              Brewers               15                           2

Zack Collins                         10           White Sox           16                           3

Kyle Lewis                           11           Mariners              20                           3 (out for season w/torn ACL)

Matt Thaiss                         16           Angels                  10                           5

Will Craig                             22           Pirates                  16                           1

Will Smith                          32           Dodgers               7                              4

Given Craig’s (A.) track record in a tough ACC (B.) last month in Morgantown and (C.) home run total compared to other first-round college position players, it’d be safe to view the Will Craig of July/early August as the Will Craig of the future, with more power to come.

GOOD, BETTER, BEDDES

Craig was not named to the New York-Penn League All-Star game, but six Black Bears were: Outfielder Hunter Owen (you can read more about Owen here), infielder Kevin Mahala, catcher/outfielder Kevin Krause, outfielder Sandy Santos and right-handed pitchers Brandon Bingel and Danny Beddes.

Beddes allowed two runs on just one hit over six innings Thursday to produce his fifth quality start in his last six starts. He’s also the subject of this week’s minor league report, which will run in Sunday’s Trib.

Sometimes over the course of reporting these stories, there are anecdotes/tidbits that are shortened or don’t fit given story context and space constraints. Here are a few leftovers from conversations with Beddes and a few of his coaches this week:

  • Beddes, who is listed at 6-foot-6, also played varsity basketball for American Fork (Utah) High School. He realized early on in high school, however, that his future was in baseball. Said Beddes: “When I was young, like when I was a freshman, maybe a little bit into my sophomore year, my goal was to play both in college. Baseball and basketball. But as I went on, I just realized I wasn’t the guard type and I wasn’t tall enough to be a big in college at a big school or anything. I wasn’t athletic enough to be a wing and I wasn’t the shooter or anything like that, so after my sophomore year I just realized my future was in baseball, but I continued to play basketball just to keep up my athleticism and keep in shape.”
  • Beddes’ increased focus on his changeup came after an early-season conversation with West Virginia Black Bears pitching coach Mark DiFelice, in which DiFelice asked him which pitches he threw best in college: “I ended up telling him that my changeup was my fourth-best pitch and he made that a very big point that the Pirates like to throw changeups and that I needed to get that pitch better,” Beddes said. “From Day 1, my goal was to get my changeup better, to get my changeup to not be my worst pitch. That was what I’ve always focused on. It’s definitely not a polished pitch yet, but I’m working on it and it’s getting better.”
  • In addition to loading up on his back side on the mound, Beddes said he has been helped by hitters struggling with their adjustments to wood bats. “It’s definitely a different game with that wood bat, so the hitters are a lot better, but because of that wood bat – there were a few balls hit this year where, if those were metal bats, it’d be an absolute bomb – you can make a little bit more of a mistake and not pay for it,” Beddes said. “But if you make a mistake right over the middle, they’re still gonna take care of it. It’s going to go a long way.”
  • Beddes’ catcher for his senior season at Utah Valley was Zac Willis, the same catcher he had at American Fork. Said Beddes: “That was amazing. I love throwing to him. He’s always been my favorite catcher. He knows me like the back of his hand. It was really great, because I’m a gamer. When I’m in the game, if I don’t succeed, I get really mad and he knows how to calm me down and he knows how to aim that anger. I loved it. I loved every game my senior year throwing to that guy.”
  • DiFelice said a key for Beddes moving forward will be throwing his changeup, which he described as a four-seam circle change, with greater consistency. “He was cutting a couple of his – well, he wasn’t cutting it off, per se, but he wasn’t finishing the pitch,” DiFelice said of Beddes. “I just got him to basically finish his changeup to allow him to kind of turn that ball over and it started creating better depth for him.”
  • The Pirates have, oddly enough, selected 6-foot-6 right-handed pitchers in the 15th round in back-to-back years. Beddes was the Pirates’ 2016 15th-round pick and fellow Black Bears pitcher Scooter Hightower was the 15th-round pick in 2015. DiFelice is only 6-foot-2, but was also a 15th-round pick, selected by the Rockies in the 1998 draft. Asked about being familiar with falling in the draft, DiFelice said he had spoken with Beddes about it. “Being a 15th rounder, not in the top 10, obviously you kind of think of yourself as outside the spectrum, outside the prospect status, but I told him, ‘You can work your way into prospect status if you’re a starter your whole career. It’s double-edged. If you’re a starter and you’re in Double-A, you’re a prospect. You’re a prospect at any level if you’re a starter, so continue to start, continue to have success and continue to get better each year,’” DiFelice said. “The sky is the limit for this kid with body size and mentality. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.”
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

One area to increase spending … Taillon is boring (in a good way) … and our podcast

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

SOUTH HILLS – Pittsburgh will be following with great interest what the Pirates do with the financial flexibility they created with the Francisco Liriano trade.

Perhaps one area where the Pirates could benefit in being more aggressive, perhaps one area to maximize spending, is in international free agency.

Pirates Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo is one of the most productive in the business. He has unearthed gems like Starling Marte ($90,000 bonus) and Gregory Polanco ($150,000) for modest signing bonuses. The Pirates have focused on finding diamonds in the rough. They have not signed one of Baseball America’s top 30 international prospects, or had one of the top 30 bonuses, in the last three years.

The Pirates have preferred to spread risk and have really committed to large bonuses. Only Luis Heredia ($2.6 million) and Harold Ramirez ($1 million) have received seven-figure bonuses out of the Latin American amateur market.

While, there are now bonus pools in place for international spending and penalties for exceeding allotments, it’s an area where more aggressive spending (See: Sano, Miguel) could result in a future star. Just this signing period alone, other smaller-maker clubs have aggressively signed elite international talent. A fellow smaller-market club in Oakland has already signed two players to $1 million-plus bonuses.

Moreover, in the Pirates’ own neighborhood, the Cubs signed 12 of Baseball America’s top 40 international prospects last season.

The Pirates believe in paying for what players will do, not what they’ve done. And in no place is there more upside for what players will do – what they can become – in the amateur market whether foreign or domestic.

TAILLON DOES IT AGAIN

Joe Block gave Jameson Taillon a compliment on air today. He said Taillon “is boring” … in a good way.

Agreed.

All the rookie does is throw strikes, attack the zone, induce quick action and groundballs and give the Pirates a chance to win.

He’s been the Pirates’ best starter since being called up.

In 10 major league starts, Taillon has a 2.85 ERA, 7. 1 strikeouts per nine, 1.2 walks and a 54 percent groundball rate.

Maybe the strikeouts will come, maybe he’ll become more exciting, but for now, the Pirates have to be very pleased with what they are seeing.

WEEKLY PODCAST …

-TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Monday Mop-Up Duty: There are no small markets

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

PNC PARK – There are smaller markets. But there are no small markets in baseball.

Revenues in the game are connected, and shared, more than ever before. National television, MLB Advanced Media (digital dollars) are shared equally, and are growing exponentially.

Sure, market size still matters. Sure, the Pirates are never going to have the Yankees’ local TV deal. Yes, ticket prices differ (the Pirates lag behind in ticket prices and do not control parking like other clubs) and there are different sponsorship opportunities. But the Pirates also receive a max-allotment of revenue sharing. (33 percent of all regional TV cable deals are shared in revenue sharing).

So, there are no small markets in the sense there are no poor clubs unable to sustain significant player payrolls.

There’s never been a better time to be an owner.

As I wrote in Sunday’s starting nine, Forbes values the Pirates to be worth $975 million. The Pirates were sold for $92 million in 1996. Pro franchises are exclusive assets and they’re only going to continue to grown in value. Heck, the L.A. Clippers sold for $2 billion.

While new cable – regional and national – and digital dollars are pouring into the game, in the PED-testing era, the sport has also become younger. That means players are relatively cheaper. There are fewer expensive free agent seasons to buy. More production is coming form pre-arb and early arbitration years. (Teams have also focused on locking up young stars to below-market value extensions). The result? Owners’ share of revenues has increased by almost 20 percent since the mid-1990s, according to some estimates.

Nutting
It will be interesting to see if the MLBPA pushes for some mechanisms to increase spending by low-payroll clubs (Horner photo)

 

While teams aren’t opening up their books, one way to get an idea of how much teams could (should?) spend is to apply the NBA’s soft cap-and-floor system to baseball.

It’s not apples to apples. The NBA plays half as many games as MLB, it has has smaller rosters and venues, and it does not have to pay for an extensive player development system like MLB teams do. Still, NBA teams, like MLB clubs, do share national media and digital dollars and also have significant local TV/radio deals.

In the NBA, players are guaranteed 44.74 percent basketball-related revenues.

In baseball, players are guaranteed no percentage share of revenue. That was great in the 90s, not so  much today.

From Sunday’s column:

“If baseball had an NBA-style “soft” cap-and-floor system — in the NBA, at least 44.7 percent of league revenues must be shared with players — the baseball cap would be set at $141.5 million this season and the floor set at $127.4 million. The Pirates — and 11 other teams — would be below the floor and face a monetary penalty.

“The Tribune-Review found last year that with an NBA-style cap-and-floor system, 13 MLB teams would have been under the floor by more than $15 million (the Pirates were under by $34 million) and would be required to add a combined $413.5 million to their payrolls.”

Others, like Francisco Liriano trade critic Joe Sheehan, have floated the idea revenue-sharing money should have to be spent on player payroll. That  seems practical.

I think fans would better understand creating financial flexibility if they better understood where the dollars were going, if there were clear minimum salary thresholds to meet just as in the other major pro sports.

For instance, fans understand and accept creating “cap space” more than creating flexibility.

Baseball taxes is its biggest spenders but it has no mechanism to force lower-spending teams to add payroll. And because the game has trended younger, teams can more easily win on small budgets. While players are fearful of the word “cap,” they should embrace the word “floor,” or at least some mechanism like a tax in their upcoming collective bargaining agreement talks to increase their share of declining revenues.

It would also benefit fans of smaller-market clubs.

The smaller-market Royals’ Opening Day payroll was $142 million and if you run the NBA’s cap-and-floor system with baseball’s revenues, then that’s right about where the cap would be. In a $10 billion business, there are smaller markets but no small markets.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Pirates GM Neal Huntington again on Sunday maintained that Drew Hutchison was the focus of the Liriano trade. And it’s not just spin.

What does the club like about Hutchison? Huntington said Sunday they like that he can get his fastball up to 95, that he can spin a breaking ball and throw a changeup. He’s shown a two-seam fastball in the past. Like other reclamation projects, Hutchison’s career FIP (4.23) is better than his career ERA (4.92). It suggests he has not pitched up to his true talent level. In the NL, he might be able to post a sub-4.00 ERA. Huntington also noted Hutchison was blocked by one of the better starting staffs in the AL.

>>Even if Hutchison’s upside is that of a back-of-the-rotation arm, the cost of mediocre pitching has exceeded $10 million per year on the open market. Was clearing Liriano’s salary part of the trade? Absolutely. Was is the salient reason? You can decide. But there is also reason to believe Hutchison can fit in the Pirates’ rotation. There is value in that, in not having to overpay for reclamation projects this offseason.

>>Can Ivan Nova be the next J.A. Happ? He doesn’t need to be to be a rotation upgrade. He needed only 76 pitches to get through seven innings Saturday. He attacked the strike zone. Like with Hutchison, as the Pirates have shown with Mark Melancon and A.J. Burnett, they believe one way to spin gold is to keep taking arms out of the AL East and place them in PNC Park. It will be interested to see how swapping Liriano and Jeff Locke out of the rotation for Nova and Ryan Vogelsong works out.

>>What also interests me about Nova is his two-seam fastball. He has tripled the usage of it since 2014 – throwing it on 52.5 percent of his offerings this season – and he threw some good ones Saturday, getting Zack Cozart and Adam Duvall to swing and miss at two darting two-seamers. Nova also has a career-best groundball rate. The Pirates are betting on PNC Park reducing some of his HR issues. Nova said he essentially replaced his so-so slider with the two-seamer.

>>What was also interesting is Huntington’s comments on why he believed Liriano was unlikely to live up to his $13.6 million contract in 2017:

“Familiarity we believe had an impact on him this year as hitters saw him for the fourth year and as advance scouts saw him for the fourth year,” Huntington said.

Opponents are swinging at career-low rates of Liriano’s pitches (41.1 percent) and of his pitches outside the strike zone (27.9 percent), nearly a five percent drop from last season. Ultimately it seems the Pirates believed the league had punched back at Liriano and he was unable to counter-punch.

Why?

Liriano has thrown the fewest pitches in the strike zone since 2013 was again throwing the fewest amount of pitches in the strike zone this season (38.3 percent) according to PITCHf/x data. Maybe Liriano can’t throw strikes and it takes three years of experience for hitters to adjust and realize that. Those facts are reason to be motivated to move his salary for 2017, especially if you are a GM operating within a tight budget.

>>You never ideally want to move prospects in a deal to move salary but Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez‘s stock has diminished this season. Still, ideally a team moves mediocre prospect only to add pieces. But the Pirates eventually have to do deal with their prospect surplus.

>>The Arquimedes Caminero trade was somewhat curious since Caminero is a pre-arb arm who can touch 100 mph and has been dominant in stretches. The Pirates have a surplus of bullpen arms, but was he the right one to move? He might have been the only one to draw interest on the waiver market.

>>Huntington said one criticism of the one-game wild card is more teams would be content to stand pat and do nothing at the deadline. Investing too much in competing for a wild card is not an optimum strategy. Some are indignant the Pirates would sell any parts at the deadline but the reality is much of the league is in contention due to the second wild card. The Pirates, at this point, appear to be a mediocre team. Is that worth investing in? The Pirates hedged. It’s plausible Nova-Rivero-Bastrado will out perform Melacnon-Liriano-Niese.

>>So Matt Joyce might be this club’s best hitter.

His 12th homer landed in the last row of the center-right-center seats Sunday and bounced onto the river walk for a 442-foot homer. You don’t see balls land there every day. That swing adjustment keeps on getting it done. And it might be time for Joyce to see regular at-bats. How to create them?

>>Yes, Josh Bell has cooled off at Triple-A but one wonders how much of that is due to frustration after proving his bat was MLB-ready. While Bell’s glove needs work, John Jaso has has been worth -0.3 WAR to date. Hard to believe Bell would not be an overall upgrade moving forward.

>>One thing about Jaso, though: he is a worker. This is a guy who was commuting three days a week from Tampa to Bradenton this winter to work on first-base defense. This is not a player who would purposefully not run out a ground ball.

>>Jameson Taillon might never be a 6-WAR player like Manny Machado but if he keeps throwing strikes like has been and attacking the zone he looks like he could become a solid No. 2-type starter. Taillon walked his first batters since June 24 on Friday. His control coming off two years of missed competition has been remarkable.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 0-6

Gerrit Cole‘s career record against the Reds. Can’t predict ball.

HE SAID IT

John Jaso is OK with fans booing him but not employees of the club as he told the Trib’s Andrew Erickson:

“I’m not the kind of guy to hit a ball and then just stand there in the box and just be like, ‘Oh, screw it,’ and just walk back the dugout. Of course that’s not me,” Jaso said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons that Pittsburgh went out and got me (in the offseason). It hurts when media or announcers that are supposed to be on the same side as you say negative stuff at you and attack your character. That is tough to deal with, but as far as fans go and booing, I know how it works. They want to see their team win. Pittsburgh’s a huge sports town. I know that I wouldn’t be here getting paid to do what I love doing if it weren’t for them.

“But it is tough when you have people that are supposed to be on your side and have your back say negative things about you before even asking you about what happened, giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

HE SAID IT II

Well, then

HE SAID IT III

“There is a very good chance Francisco Liriano gets back to the American League where hitters are unfamiliar with him, in a new environment, with new scouting reports and does very well with Toronto.”

– Huntington on Liriano.

It is true that if Liriano does have a better second half that might not mean he would have had a better second half in Pittsburgh.

– TS

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail