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March 2, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: The Kang threat … And what else can nine figures buy?

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SOUTH HILLS – Jung-Ho Kang will start at shortstop and bat third at noon today in a 5 12-inning intra-squad scrimmage at McKechnie Field. It will be the first time observers get a look at Kang in live game situations.

It’s been fun – even from a distance – to see Kang blast shots on to the tin roof beyond the left-field fence at Pirate City in early batting practice sessions. There has been one question answered about mysterious Kang:  it appears he possesses at least average raw power. The more important questions will begin to be answered today and into the season: Can he translate that raw power into game power? Can he make enough contact? Does that leg kick work against MLB pitching? Does he have the hands and actions for the middle infield?

If Kang can indeed translate his skills and beat many outside scouting expectations, he will provide the Pirates with a good problem: depth and another starting-caliber infielder. Trib columnist Rob Rossi opines today Kang is threat to take over second base from Neil Walker.

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February 26, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The McCutchen-Longoria parallel (and my MLB Network segment)

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SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Remember when Evan Longoria signed a nine-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays before he took a major league at bat? It was the most club-friendly and undervalued contract in the sport …. until he was surpassed last season by Andrew McCutchen (and also Paul Goldschmidt).

To understand the bargain that is McCutchen, let’s go Ross Perot and introduce a chart. The following is McCutchen’s actual remaining salary (including the 2018 option), his projected Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs.com projections, and his true market value.

Year               Actual salary     Projected WAR   Market value ($6 million per WAR)

2015              $10 million         6.7                        $40.2 million

2016              $13 million         6.4                        $38.4 million

2017              $14  million        6.3                        $37.8 million

2018             $14.7 million      6.0                        $36.0  million

TOTAL       $51.7 million    25.4                $152.4 million Continue Reading →

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February 24, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Less splash is more: What the Pirates can learn from the Golden State Warriors … And true value

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SOUTH HILLS – Any savvy club, particularly a small-market one, is forever in search of the any competitive advantage no matter how large or slim. And the latest idea the Pirates are exploring does not even come from within the confines of baseball.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark offers an interesting read here about the Pirates becoming interested in how the NBA’s Golden State Warriors conduct their business. If you don’t follow the NBA, the Warriors are one of the league’s elite teams this year, led by an all-time great, sharp-shooting backcourt. But what has the Pirates intrigued is how the Warriors are utilizing – and resting – their entire roster.

The Pirates haven’t exactly kept this a trade secret. Clint Hurdle brought up the interest in the Warriors recently when asked if he’d like to give Andrew McCutchen a little more rest this season.

Said Hurdle on Monday: “I read an interesting article a while ago on the Golden State Warriors, how they get maximum production with their players. [Proof pro athletes and managers do read articles]. They’re actually playing less, and they’re playing better collectively as a group.”

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February 23, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to expect of post-hype Polanco?

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SOUTH HILLS – Recall the hype surrounding Gregory Polanco‘s call-up last season? It was greater than that of even of Gerrit Cole of a year earlier. Polanco was billed as the team’s best positional prospect since Andrew McCutchen. It was as if he was to walk across the Allegheny, into right field at PNC Park, and single-handedly lift a scuffling Pirates club into contention.

(OK, so we may had a little something to do with building the hype)

Early on, Polanco even exceeded the hype. Remember his five-hit game in Miami that included a game-winning home run? He was spraying balls all over the field. He looked like a natural, like a Yasiel Puig, who did not face much of a learning curve.

Polanco’s second half is fresh in our memory. He was briefly demoted and replaced by Travis Snider in September. Polanco’s on-base fell to .268 in the second half. His power disappeared. Instances of solid contact were few and far between. Maybe he was tired; remember he had played baseball nearly for a year straight, including winter ball. Maybe it was simply a league catching up with Polanco after acquiring some advanced scouting reports. Or are their deeper concerns? What Polanco will we see in 2015?

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February 20, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Thinking outside the box comes to an end (And it’s about time)

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SOUTH HILLS – Big news today that I’d like to think the Trib played a small role in bringing about: Major League Baseball has announced new pace of play rules for 2015 (you can read them below) and the key change  is an idea we at South Hills Command Center have championed since May 11.

Baseball has a pace problem. We all know this. In 1963, there were 17 four-plus hour MLB games. In 2013, there was a record 94 four-plus hour games. Since PITCHf/x was was installed in MLB parks, the seconds between pitches has increased from 21.5 in 2007, to 23 last season.

I was curious last May about the pace issue, so I placed a stop watch on hitters during a Pirates-Cardinals game. Every time both batter’s feet left the box I started the timer, and when one foot returned I stopped the clock. I recorded all the times and came to this rather appalling finding: the Cardinal and Pirate batters combined to leave the batter’s box 190 times after pitches adding up a whopping 39 minutes and 51 seconds of loitering outside the box. (You can ready the story the here).  Continue Reading →

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February 18, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The communication gap

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SOUTH HILLS – Pitchers and catchers report today in Bradenton, Fla. and the full squad is due in on Feb. 24th, though a number of players have already arrived in camp. Each year, when the Pirates’ full squad migrates to the Gulf coast, Clint Hurdle calls a team meeting.

Last year the message was about battling complacency, with Hurdle having a highlight video made that interwove the Sid Bream slide with the drought-ending, postseason clinching play at Wrigley Field in 2013, when Russell Martin hung on to the ball, raised it triumphantly above his head, and Nate Schierholtz was called out at home plate.

Remember?

iconic2013

The iconic image of the Russell Martin Era

The video was to be the last time the Pirates basked in 2013 successes. But perhaps the most important such tone-setting team meeting, that led to that success, was called a year earlier, in February 2013, when Hurdle introduced quantitative analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald, before the Pirates players and coaches in the Pirate City cafeteria. Hurdle asked that they be respected, trusted and listened to as valuable resources.  Continue Reading →

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February 16, 2015
by Rob Biertempfel


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Kang among early arrivals for spring training

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Jung Ho Kang pauses during batting practice Monday on Field 4 at Pirate City.

Jung Ho Kang pauses during batting practice Monday on Field 4 at Pirate City.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jung Ho Kang reported to Pirate City last Wednesday, a full week before pitchers/catchers and two weeks before position players are required to be in camp. “I’ve worked out here (four) days so far,” Kang said through his interpreter, Jae Han. “I’m getting adjusted to everything. I like it so far.” Continue Reading →

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February 16, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Baseball’s talent pool problem and what to do about it

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SOUTH HILLS – In his first weeks on the job, new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has outlined a number of problem areas he would like to attack. But the most important one, I believe, is getting more young people — and a more diverse collection of young people — participating in baseball.

Perhaps baseball’s biggest problem is a socioeconomic one. Baseball, domestically, is turning into an upper-middle class game. The costs of travel teams, equipment, private instruction and showcase participation prices many families and athletes out of the sport. It’s an issue the industry is acutely aware of.

The financial gate to entry appears at the youth level and only becomes more restrictive at the college level. Unlike college football or basketball, the main feeder systems for the NFL and NBA, college baseball does not enjoy full scholarships. Instead, 11.7 scholarships are divided among a roster of 30 players. Partly as a result, college baseball is one of the least diverse sports in the country. The sport was 85.3 percent white in 2012. Continue Reading →

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February 13, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The case against shrinking the strike zone

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SOUTH HILLS – There’s a number of reasons for baseball’s decline in offense, as run scoring contracted for an eighth consecutive year last season to 4.07 runs per team per game. That’s fewest runs per game since 1981.

There’s the proliferation of shifts, the increase in throwing velocity (which partially explains the deluge of strike outs), the fact that almost all new data and technology flowing into the sport has helped run prevention. (See: shifts, batter’s hot zones, etc.) But there’s something else interesting at work against hitters tied to new technology.

Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times found in studying PITCHf/x data that the strike zone is expanding. In comparing 2009 to 2014, the strike zone has expanded by 35 square inches for left-handed hitters, according to Rogele, and 46 square inches for right-handed hitters . Yahoo! baseball columnist Jeff Passan reported yesterday the study has drawn the interest of Major League Baseball. New commissioner Rob Manfred wants to add offense to the game and some estimates indicate the expanded strike zone is responsible for 30 percent of the run scoring erosion.

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February 12, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Mechanical engineering: Hall of Famers from the vault, and one analyst projects stardom for Kang

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SOUTH HILLS – Jonah Keri has supplied us with a mid-winter treat as he went behind the scenes at MLB Productions recently and came away with some never-seen-before footage as you can view/read about in this fantastic Grantland.com article.

Keri reported about an interesting project that is underway. Wrote Keri: “The Major League Baseball Film and Video Archive’s contents date all the way back to 1905 and contain more than 200,000 hours of footage. During a recent trip to the MLB Productions headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, I watched as dozens of technicians worked on converting thousands of games into digital format.”

Keri found one particular gem (which you can view if you go to the link), a newly discovered two-minute video of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. You know, just three of baseball’s four original Hall of Famers. Continue Reading →

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