SOUTH HILLS – With a strong September, the Pirates could be on their way to a fourth straight winning season and playoff appearance. That’s significant given the 20 straight losing seasons that preceded this stretch.
But a greater challenge awaits in the coming years: winning a division title.
While the Pirates are bridging to a future that will include a younger more homegrown core, a future in which they believe they can sustain winning, they are bridging to a future that includes a Cubs team that isn’t going anywhere.
The Pirates are 3-12 against the Chicago Cubs this season.
The Cubs have a legit ace (though looking more human lately), a dominant back-end bullpen, and one of the most impressive young core of position players in recent memory including a couple of MVP candidates in Kris Bryant,Anthony Rizzo, and this guy …
(Remember when the Cubs acquired Russell for 18 months of Jeff Samardzija and a rental of Jason Hammel. Hey, everyone, stop trading with the Cubs!)
The Cubs have won in the trade market acquiring Jake Arrieta, Russell and Rizzo in lopsided deals.
The Cubs can compete with just about anyone in the free agency market signing nine-figure, top-of-the rotation arms like Jon Lester.
(And the Cubs are only going to have greater revenues going forward with their new TV deal and the new retail and commercial space being built around Wrigley Field).
And the Cubs have drafted and developed players – at least with premium picks – as well as anyone hitting on picks like Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.
To eventually catch the Cubs the Pirates must draft and develop exceptionally well, continue to find wins at the margins, and also have some luck with injuries and performance. They could also use a payroll that ranked more toward the middle of the pack.
How can the Pirates hope to catch the Cubs?
It’s not going to happen in 2016, but to make a deep run in October the Pirates need to start winning divisions instead of playing in wild-card games.
What would that look like?
How would that be possible?
The one area where the Pirates have to hope to have a home-grown talent advantage is in their rotation. Arrieta is a free agent after 2017. Lester is 32. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher prospect ranked in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list.
The Pirates, of course, have three rookies in their rotation at the moment, including one in Jameson Taillon that appears like he could be a top-of-the rotation arm. Gerrit Cole has to pitch more like his 2015 self next season and beyond. There’s reason to believe he can. His season has been interrupted three times by injury and he deserves something of a mulligan.
The Pirates have to rebuild their bullpen.
Tony Watson is not a long-term fit as he’s a free agent after next season. Neftali Feliz is a free agent at the end of the season and his fly-ball tendencies (See: Monday night) might be reason to let him walk despite his bounce-back season. Felipe Rivero figures to be the one long-term piece to build around. Neal Huntington has shown ability build effective bullpens before. He will have to continue the magic. Only the Royals had a better bullpen ERA from 2013-15.
The Pirates need to become stronger defensively, particularly up the middle.
The Pirates’ Defensive Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions, have fallen from 60 in 2013, to 28 in 2014 to 8 last season to 6 this season.
The Pirates have been particularly hurt up the middle at shortstop, where Jordy Mercer - though sure-handed – has fallen from a +9 DRS shortstop in 2014 to a -9 DRS shortstop this season. Andrew McCutchen appears to have lost a step in center field. Starling Marte in center field could provide a boost. It will be interesting to see what the Pirates do long term at shortstop. Is Mercer the answer or as he advances in arbitration is there another option?
The Pirates need more offensively to catch the Cubs.
The club needs Josh Bell to be Carlos Santana (the baseball player) with better contact ability, and for Gregory Polanco to consolidate his gains going forward. They need Austin Meadows and Kevin Newman to hit. That could all very well happen. While the Cubs lead baseball in position player WAR (32.1) the Pirates are in the middle of the pack, ranked 13th with 15.7 WAR, and there’s growth opportunity here for the Pirates.
In summary, a lot needs to go right.
Yes, the Pirates have a deep and talented farm system. Yes, they have a solid core at the major league level. Yes, their front office has proven to be adept at finding value in free agency. Yes, their coaching and training staffs have been opened minded and have added significant value. But the Pirates are going to need much to go right to catch the Cubs.
As we’re witnessing, the Pirates might have picked the wrong time to return to relevance.
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.
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.
“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.
(McCutchen’s average exit velocity hasn’t shown any consistent improvement … and is below his 2015 levels)
>>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.”
Looking for a new show? Check out Netflix’s bloodline (recommended by Jameson Taillon).
Earlier today on our Pirates podcast I surmised it was unlikely Freese would be back with the Pirates next season.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Before sitting McCutchen was mired in the worst season and prolonged slump of his career.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“What was behind the decision to move Locke to the bullpen.” Hurdle: “The inability to start.” #Pirates
The argument against extending McCutchen? Father time
WAR produced by age by center fielders since 1946:
Age 28: 426.1
Age 29: 380.9
Age 30: 302.8
Age 31: 247.5
Age 32: 174.8
Age 33: 144.7
Age 34: 85.6
Age 35: 58.5
(Tribune-Review analysis of BaseballReference.com data)
McCutchen’s last three seasons?
Age 27 (2014): 7.7 WAR
Age 28 (2015): 5.8 WAR
Age 29 (2016): 0.6 WAR
We’ve heard a number of theories regarding McCutchen’s woes: his thumb, his knee, his eyesight, I even heard on the radio yesterday – from a caller – that somehow this slump is related to his first year of marriage. Todd Tomczyk says he’s healthy.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: McCutchen is out of his prime and he’s declining sharply.
Maybe he’ll bounce back to a degree at some point. It’s hard to believe his decline would be this steep and arrive this fast … but because he is smaller, perhaps any loss of athleticism has a compounding affect.
Add it to the list of theories.
What we know for sure is that he’ll be on the wrong side of 30 soon, and declines can arrive faster than anyone anticipates, and be steeper in angle.
It’s not the first time such a strange and unfortunate fall would have occurred. From 538.com back in late June:
“In baseball’s modern era, McCutchen’s unexpectedly bad 2016 season ranks as one of the most shocking single-season mid-prime declines ever. If there’s any good news, it’s that most of the players in this group did manage to recover and play at a more respectable level going forward than during their down seasons. But even so, they were typically shadows of their former selves: The average player on the list above had 5.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances before his “bad” season, against only 2.8 over the remainder of his career (and only 3.0 over the very next three seasons).”
Is that worth $14 million to the Pirates next season?
LOCKE OUT OF EXCUSES?
Interesting comments from Jeff Lockeafter his last start.
“It’s frustrating, the inconsistent part of things,” Locke said. “We tried to keep some guys on five-day (routines) with all the rotation changes and everything. One guy (Steven Brault) isn’t even here anymore, so what was it really all for?
“You never know when you’re going to pitch, then you get the ball and get an opportunity tonight. I wanted to go out there and do well, but you never know what’s going on sometimes. I threw more pitches warming up in the bullpen tonight that I did in games the past two weeks.”
Whether those reasons had an impact, excuse-making is never a good look and can speak to a player running out of explanations.
With Ivan Nova arriving, and a bunch of younger options around, one wonders if Locke has made his last start as a Pirates. He’s owed about $1 million the rest of the season.
OUR WEEKLY PODCAST (WHAT TO MAKE OF THE TRADE DEADLINE)
SOUTH HILLS – I think most people at least understand the logic of the Mark Melancon trade even if they do not love it for 2016.
The club had two months of control over Melancon and an uphill climb to the wild card. The Pirates opted for 32 months of regular season control over Felipe Rivero and a prospect.
I think the good people of Western Pa. were OK with the Ivan Nova acquisition.
He’s a two-month rental that cost a couple PTBNLs. Yes, he hasn’t had a sub 4.90 ERA since 2013, but the Pirates have had success in taking struggling pitchers out of the AL – particularly the bandboxes of the AL East – and placing them in PNC Park. Nova has a 54.3 percent groundball rate. He’s a lottery ticket. So was J.A. Happ.
I think most people got a kick out of the Jon Niese for Antonio Bastardo deal, each player going back to a former team. That the Pirates were able to get anything for Niese was a win. Bastardo is inconsistent but at times but he’s lefty bullpen arm who misses bats and is under contract for next season at $6.5 million. The Pirates need bullpen options going forward in 2017.
But I can tell you from my car ride home from the office and a brief sampling of social media that people are decidedly unhappy with the Francisco Liriano deal.
It’s not that the Pirates traded Liriano.
Liriano is one of the worst pitchers in baseball this year. He leads baseball in walks. He’s thrown the fewest pitches in the strike zone, according to PITCHf/x. He looked lost for most of the season (though he recently struck out 13 against no walks in a start against the Brewers). On Sunday we explored in the Trib whether Liriano’s approach was broken and whether it could be fixed.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington said there was debate, internally, over whether Liriano could ever regain his 2013-15 form or if the last four months are what the Pirates could expect going forward.
“It was a challenging decision,” Huntington said. “There was some really good give and take in the room.”
Huntington said he “ultimately decided” to move Liriano in what is being viewed as a salary dump. He said it was not an ownership mandate.
The Pirates traded two prospects – their No. 6 and No. 10 preseason prospects according to Baseball America – to move Liriano’s remaining salary and add Drew Hutchison.
It’s not just the dollars. Yes, people are frustrated by “financial flexibility” being brought up by Huntington – and whether that financial flexibility will yield much impact in 2017. But it’s also, or perhaps more so, the young talent surrendered that has BucNation is upset.
It’s not just the acting of dumping Liriano’s remaining salary this season and $13.66 million next season, but that the Pirates had to give up Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire to dump Liriano and add Hutchison.
As one reader put it, it’s not as if the Pirates were trying to move ARod’s contract. They were trying to move one year and two months of a bad contract.
McGuire and Ramirez are the types of talent – prospects but not elite ones – that teams ideally want to deal when the time is right to add to a core. A fan base would ideally like ownership eat the cost of one bad year of a contract rather than jettison young talent.
Huntington couched the trade this way: it’s really hard to find starting pitching. He called the market for even mid-level starting pitchers “incredibly difficult.”
“Our primary goal in that transaction was to acquire Drew Hutchison and plug him into future rotations,” Huntington said. “Obviously in Liriano move we have gained financial flexibility moving forward”
But Hutchison has not been good enough to start for Toronto this season, where he has been Triple-A depth.
Now, Huntington said the Pirates really like Hutchison. He said they believe there is some untapped upside there.
And Huntington and his staff should have earned some of your trust.
While he has a career 4.92 ERA in 406 innings, Hutchison has solid strikeout (8.3 strikeouts per nine) and walk rates (2.84 walks per nine) for his career, but he is also fly-ball pitcher. Maybe they see something in Hutchison, who has past prospect pedigree and whose peripheral rate stats suggest he’s better than his ERA.
Maybe the Pirates do not believe in McGuire and Ramirez, at least as much as outside analysts. And McGuire and Ramirez have slid down lists and in the eyes of some scouts. Neither was ranked in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list (Ramirez was ranked 95th preseason).
McGuire might never hit.
Ramirez – two homers in 96 games – might never hit enough to play a corner outfield spot.
The Pirates should know their players best.
They saw something in Happ and Joe Blanton last season. The Pirates made more hits than misses in evaluating professional talent in recent years. They decided to move on from Liriano, despite his 2013-15 run, for a reason.
(But add McGuire to the first-round picks made under Huntington that are no longer with the club.)
Clint Hurdle and some other Pirates staff members have quoted Theodore’s Roosevelt “The Man in the Arena” speech recently.
On Monday Huntington expected plenty of second guessing but said:”We’re the ones that have first guess and make decisions.”