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March 31, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Vanimal’s lair is the bullpen. Should it be? … Approaching Polanco — again … And a Bryant Rule

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SOUTH HILLS – March is a month defined by upsets, and a year after the Travis Ishikawa Cinderella story, we had another upset – in the minds of many – when Clint Hurdle named Jeff Locke as the final rotation member over Vance Worley on Monday.

Why is it an upset? In short, Worley out-performed Locke in about every significant measure last season — and for his career. In fact, Worley was the third-best Pirates’ starter according to WAR, last season, and fourth best overall pitcher. While Locke and Worley have been up and down this spring, Worley has walked only one batter. He’s a more consistent strike thrower. He’s become perhaps the most deceptive pitcher in baseball thanks to his “tunneling” of pitches, making his cutter, two-seamer and changeup look like the same pitch until 20 or feet before the plate. Here’s the tale of the tape:

                       WORLEY                     LOCKE

2014     (Career)

WAR           1.6 (5.9)                    0.3   (1.4)

FIP              3.44 (3.75)             4.37  (4.33)

ERA            2.89 (3.75)             3.91  (4.00)

K/9             6.42 (7.04)             6.1   (6.53)

B/9              1.79 (2.76)             2.74  (3.74)

GB%           49.2 (45.2)               50.5   (50.7)

IP               110. (437.0)            131.0  (348.2)

*Superior numbers are bolded for dramatic effect.

Worley has performed better than Locke in 2014 and in his career in every meaningful measure, save for groundball rate and even that improved after Worley joined the Pirates.

The rationale for the decision?

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March 30, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: The low down on the down-low philosophy

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SOUTH HILLS – I suspect many of us on the outside, and perhaps some within organizations, are guilty of looking at major league players as having relatively static skills once they reach a certain age. We are guilty of thinking the idea of development is tied the minor leagues, and not the major league experience.

One thing I wanted to get across in my Sunday story on the Pirates’ low-pitch philosophy is how  teaching still really matters, even at the top of the sport, and that veteran major league players are not inelastic. Players can still improve and develop … if they are in the right environment with the right teachers.

After all, while every pitching coach, every organization, prefers pitches down in the zone, why is it over the last two seasons the Pirates are 2.4 percent better than the MLB average in locating pitches in or around the lower third of the strike zone (53.9 percent to 51.1 percent)? This 2 percent edge is key. Most key Pirates’ pitchers over the last two seasons have been acquired externally, and almost all of them have improved their groundball rates in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have allowed the fewest flyballs and fewest home runs (229) in baseball over the last two seasons. They have produced by far the most groundballs.

And the Pirates, as you probably know, have two excellent pitching instructors in Jim Benedict and Ray Searage. Benedict takes more of an analytical approach borrowing everything from biomechancis, PITCHf/x data to video. Searage says “empathy” is his strength. He prefers slight changes in favor of overhauls. He gets players to buy into physical changes. I look at Benedict as leading the philosophy course, and Searage leading the mechanical one.

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March 29, 2015
by Rob Biertempfel


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The secret of Searage’s success

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Ray Searage (left) tutoring Charlie Morton (Photo: Chris Horner/Trib Total Media)

Ray Searage (left) tutoring Charlie Morton (Photo: Chris Horner/Trib Total Media)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As I was reading Travis Sawchik’s piece today in the Trib about the Pirates’ success pitching to the lower portion of the strike zone, I recalled a conversation I had earlier this spring with a long-time scout. I’d asked the scout what it was that made pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant Jim Benedict so successful. This was the scout’s response:
“It’s almost like what Dave Duncan did. They take power arms, get them to settle down and throttle down a little bit and just worry about the bottom of the strike zone. I don’t know for sure, but I want to say they were in the top three last year in (inducing) ground balls. They’ve been there the last several years, which makes your shortstop, second, third that much more valuable. That’s why Pedro (Alvarez) got off of third; he couldn’t throw the ball. They get ground balls because what they do is take these massive deliveries and these power arms and say, ‘OK, we’ve got something good to work with. Let’s tone them down and worry about being down in the strike zone.’ They do a great job of that. I saw Dave Duncan do that with the St. Louis Cardinals and I think he was fantastic at it. I think these guys are fantastic at it, as well.”

— RB

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March 28, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Could unbundling be undoing of skyrocketing franchise values?

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SOUTH HILLS – So you probably have heard the Pirates are now worth $900 million, according to Forbes. It’s been quite a return on the investment for principal owner Bob Nutting, who took control in 2007 when the Pirates were worth an estimated $278 million.

What’s clear is there has never been a better time to be an baseball owner. The television contracts are incredibly lucrative from both national and local revenue standpoints. New stadiums with more premium seating, and development around ballparks, have creates masses of wealth. The league’s innovative digital arm, MLBAM, not only produces hundreds of millions of dollars  annually from streaming games to mobile apps — but it also provides video services to companies outside baseball. Each owner has an equal 1/30th stake in MLBAM.

In short, the confluence of an incredible inventory of live DVR-proof programming, digital dollars and an era of new stadiums has grown the game from a $1 billion to a $9 billion business in two decades. The revenue increases have shown no signs of slowing. While the Pirates’ value is still somewhat hypothetical, and requires a buyer, the Pirates’ per year operating income has increased from $15.6 million in 2010 to $45.6 million in 2015.  Continue Reading →

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March 24, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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An opening day lineup preview? Pirates’ pen becoming Royals’ pen? A darkhorse and a Steph Curry note …

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BRADENTON, Fla. – So the crisis is over. Andrew McCutchen (left knee? hamstring? something in that general area) is back in a Grapefruit League starting lineup today. McCutchen is batting third and starting in center field.

 

IMG_0338I

But the rest of the lineup card is also of interest.

Outside of fielding a DH and starting Tony Sanchez at catcher, might this be a very close approximation to the Opening Day lineup in Cincinnati?

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March 23, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Can the Pirates win it all?

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BRADENTON, Fla. – So this happened last week:

Yes, an objective national baseball reporter, with no Pittsburgh ties or biases, has picked your Pirates to win a World Series title this season.

Hey, this is the time of year to dream, right? But is this a wild dart throw of a prediction, or, is this a sound forecast rooted in logic?

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March 18, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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One seat left … or is there?

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Asked about the final rotation battle on Tuesday between Jeff Locke and Vance Worley, Clint Hurdle declined to answer and then revealed the other 80 percent of his starting rotation.

Francisco Liriano will start the opener on April 6 in Cincinnati against, presumably, Johnny Cueto. Gerrit Cole will start the second game there and A.J. Burnett will finish the series against the Reds. Hurdle has elected to pitch the Worley/Locke winner in the fourth game and be followed by Charlie Morton in Milwaukee.

So we know Liriano will be the first Pirates’ pitcher in nine years, and first since Oliver Perez, to earn back-to-back Opening Day starts. Hurdle said he wants to split up Morton and Burnett since he believes they are the most similar pitchers on the staff in how they sink and spin the ball. We know Cole is lined up to start the home opener on April 13. But do we also know the entirety of the staff?

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March 16, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: How to optimize the Pirates’ batting lineup … And Kang extras

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Sorry the lack of activity folks, but I was tied up last week in daily coverage while also trying to finish a Sunday profile on Jung Ho Kang that I hope you will read or have read. I think you will find it interesting.

Getting back on point, one of the most interesting things Clint Hurdle had to say over the weekend was this about Starling Marte‘s future home in the batting order:

“(Marte) can be a run creator and a run producer. I see him as a run producer,” Hurdle said. “He’s not going to hit cleanup. So (fifth) is probably close.”

Marte hit fifth Saturday and Sunday. I suspect he opens as the No. 5 hitter in Cincinnati.  That got me thinking about Marte’s ultimate home and how to optimize the lineup.

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March 11, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Urgent (Cole) Care: the Price or Harden trajectory?

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CLEARWATER, Fla. – The pain in the back-side of his shoulder scared Gerrit Cole last season.

He missed 70 days on the disabled list. The Pirates cannot afford to have their burgeoning ace miss another 70 games in 2015. But it was that scare, that alarm that sounded, that short-term loss of time that could prove to be an important long-term development for Cole as I wrote about earlier this week.

The two trips to the disabled list have Cole more serious about preventative care this spring, and in particular one area: the shoulder. To some this may seem like a boring March line but it’s incredibly important.

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March 9, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Cervelli and the optimism of spring

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BRADENTON, Fla. – I have a few friends in the scouting community and I caught up with one this week and got his take on the Pirates.

He likes many of the club’s components. He loves the outfield (who doesn’t?), he thinks the starting infield is solid, he’s intrigued with Jung-Ho Kang, he likes the rotation perhaps more than most. He does have questions about the middle relief, but for him there is one glaring concern: catcher.

This concern has been muted a bit thus far in camp because Francisco Cervelli has received nothing but rave reviews from teammates. Said Casey Sadler following his three shutout, no-hit innings vs. the Blue Jays on Sunday: “Give all the props to Cervelli.”

Oh? Continue Reading →

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