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June 6, 2015
by Bill West


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(Belated) Friday Farm Report: Young lefties, sac bunts & Sanchez thoughts

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Because of the concerning recent performances from Jeff Locke and Antonio Bastardo, the topic of left-handed pitchers touches a nerve with the Pirates’ faithful.

Judging by their minor league acquisitions this season, members of the Pirates’ front office are among those who are actively seek a southpaw or two to boost Pittsburgh’s bullpen or starting rotation in the somewhat distant future.

There’s still too little data available to make much of the young new lefties in the system, but here are some small-sample updates.

Stephen Tarpley, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound 22 year old, was the prized piece of the Pirates’ trade that sent outfielder Travis Snider to the Baltimore Orioles in late January. Shoulder fatigue caused Tarpley, a third-round pick by Baltimore in 2013, to miss the beginning of the regular season, but in three starts (15 innings pitched) with Single-A West Virginia Power, he had a 1.20 ERA with a 9.0 K per 9 innings rate, a 2.4 BB/9 rate, and a 1.27 WHIP.

Steven Brault, 23, also came to the Pirates via the Snider trade — he was the player to be named later. The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder had a 3.27 ERA in 55 innings spanned over 11 starts with High-A Bradenton. His 6.1 K/9 rate is below his career average of 7.3. And Brault’s 2.5 BB/9 rate is his highest mark since his 2013, when he pitched for Baltimore’s Low-A affiliate as a rookie.

Bradenton’s rotation also features 22-year-old Jayson Aquino, who joined the Pirates’ system after being acquired for cash considerations from Toronto in May. Aquino had a 3.72 ERA in 29 innings pitched during five starts. He also had a 5.6 K/9 rate and a 2.5 BB/9; both marks are close to his career averages.

Obviously none of these three will join the Pirates anytime soon — Indianapolis’ Clayton Richard (2.08 ERA in 30 1/3 innings pitched) or Altoona’s Zack Dodson (2.63 ERA in 54 2/3 innings pitched) are the buzz-worthy lefty starters in the minors, and Indianapolis reliever Bobby LaFromboise already has spent time with the Pirates this season. But the lefty newcomers avoided damaging their individual credibility during their first few outings.

Sacrifice ritual?

Perhaps no organization welcomes the chance to move a runner over with a sacrifice bunt more than the Pirates.

From top to bottom, the Pirates and their affiliates give up an out to get someone into scoring position far more often than their opponents, according to baseball-reference.com data.

Leading the way is Single-A West Virginia, which leads all MLB and MiLB teams with 40 sacrifice bunts.

With 31, Indianapolis leads the International League and is tied with the Albuquerque Isotopes for the most in Triple-A.

With 23, Bradenton has the most in the Florida State League and second most in High-A.

And with 25, Altoona has the second most in the Double-A Eastern League.

Sanchez’s DH duty

The abundance of catching talent on Indianapolis’ roster has necessitated a 50-50 split in playing time between Tony Sanchez and Elias Diaz, as a story in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review will detail.

One aspect of the story that didn’t make the print edition was Sanchez’s thoughts on serving as a designated hitter; he and Diaz bat at DH to stay in the lineup during series with American League teams.

It’d suffice to say that Sanchez doesn’t see the DH role, or really any offense-first position, as a new avenue to the major leagues

“I give a lot more credit to Big Papi and DHs in the American League, because it’s not an easy position to play,” Sanchez said. “All you’re doing is worrying about your at-bats and getting hits. That’s the only way you can contribute to a team. And being a catcher, there are multiple ways you can contribute to winning a game. So it’s something I had to get used to. I had to come up with my own routine for what I’d do between at-bats when I am DHing. So it’s a learning process, but keeping my bat in the lineup is the only thing that matters.”

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June 1, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The perfect offseason?

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SOUTH HILLS – Where would the Pirates be without their offseason additions?

Would they have had such a strong stretch over the last 10 days to return to relevance?

We’ve noted here before how A.J. Burnett has been the best free agent pitching value signing to date, and how Francisco Liriano was one of the better free agent signings of the offseason. I noted again Sunday how the Pirates perhaps took advantage of the industry’s fear of the unknown in signing the first KBO position player in Jung Ho Kang. Like with Ichiro, Yeonis Cespedes and Jose Abreu, the team first willing to jump into a new market is often rewarded.

Fangraphs.com/JABO suggested last week that perhaps the Pirates had the perfect offseason.

The Pirates gave one year and $8.5 million to Burnett, who led the NL ERA going into his last start. The deal has already paid for itself, assuming one WAR is worth $7 million. Liriano is missing bats like an ace (23 strikeouts his last two starts) and his three-year, $39 million deal looks like a much better value than that of Jon Lester or Max Scherzer’s nine-figure paydays. Continue Reading →

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May 29, 2015
by Bill West


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Friday farm report: Richard’s happy place, Tucker’s attitude, Allie’s lack of regrets & Bell’s lack of HRS

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Clayton Richard

Nostalgia might keep Clayton Richard with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians this season.

Necessity might get him back to the big leagues with the Pirates.

Richard, who earned Mr. Indiana in football and baseball as a high school senior, will make his fourth start of the year for the Indians tonight.

In each of his previous three outings, Richard went five-plus innings and threw at least 85 pitches. His ERA and WHIP with Indianapolis, 4.02 and 1.468 in 15 2/3 innings pitched, aren’t grounds for excitement. But his left shoulder, which has undergone three surgeries since 2011, appears capable of tolerating a serious workload.

Whether the Pirates will take a chance on the left-handed Richard becomes the big question. The bullpen’s two lefties, Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo, respectively represent perhaps the most and least reliable relievers in the pitching corps.

Bastardo seemingly was on the chopping block Monday when the Pirates needed to make a move to create room on the active roster for Charlie Morton, but he remained, while righty Radhames Liz was designated for assignment. What the Pirates invested in Bastardo might serve as his saving grace. Continue Reading →

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May 26, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Charlie Morton rides in on white horse. And would a 154-game slate help the game?

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates and Charlie Morton had to have had some flashbacks back to 2013 last night, right?

There was a healthy Morton on the mound Monday, throwing a heavy 92 mph sinker that touched 93. Recall, his sinker averaged 92.5 mph in 2013 to go along with its diving action, when he would have led baseball with a 63 percent groundball rate had he enough innings to qualify. That was the guy that got the contract extension and monikers like “electric stuff” and “ground Chuck.” Last year, his sinker averaged 90.9 mph and his groundball rate backed up by eight points. He was the guy that looked like a No. 5 starter.

On Monday, his sinker, with its velocity and life, looked to be more in 2013 form.

Then there was the command. Morton did not walk a batter Monday. He threw 63 of his 87 pitches for strikes. This was a guy that less than two months earlier, in the club’s final spring training game in Philadelphia, could not find the plate. Morton had developed some poor mechanical traits – from arm path to direction of motion to the plate – in trying to compensate for his injuries last season. He had spent the last two months re-wiring those mechanics in extended spring. The re-wiring appeared to be a success Monday. This could be big. Continue Reading →

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May 25, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: Top shelf, top of rotation?

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SOUTH HILLS – As disappointing as many aspects of the Pirates’ season have been up to the season’s quarter mark, the weekend’s sweep of the Mets – an important weekend considering the Mets are an emerging team like the Cubs making the NL a tougher neighborhood – highlighted one glaring positive to date: the top of the rotation.

Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano were all outstanding matched up against a mostly young, talented Mets staff. Cole continued to show why he might be on track for Cy Young consideration in his breakout season. Burnett continued to show that his delivery is in the best place it’s been in his career. Liriano continued to show that a healthy Liriano, under the guidance of Ray Searage and with an able pitch-framing catcher, is a tremendous bargain.

The trio dominated the Mets and became just the third back-to-back-back starting pitchers in franchise history to strike out at least 10 opponents since 1900.

The starting pitchers have offered a stunning turnaround this spring. After ranking 26th in WAR last season (8.8),  the Pirates rank fifth in WAR by starting pitchers (4.5). Continue Reading →

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Friday Farm Report: Glasnow’s changeup, Indy’s hitting sherpa, Sanchez’s music

May 22, 2015 by Bill West | Comments

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Tyler Glasnow’s addition to the Altoona Curve disabled list for a sprained right ankle, announced Wednesday, will give him time to fully recover from the injury he suffered while sliding into second base as a runner in a game May 6.

What the time off will cost the Pirates’ top pitching prospect is game-speed work on his changeup, a pitch Glasnow only began to grow confident in during the final week of April.

Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage expects Glasnow to throw at least six to 10 changeups per game, even when opponents are overmatched by the righty’s four-seam fastball and curve.

Glasnow’s fastball sits in the mid 90s, while his changeup has clocked in around the mid to high 80s.

“I’m not super comfortable throwing it,” Glasnow said of his changeup, “just because I know batters won’t know it’s coming, but they’ll barrel it up because it’s 88 miles per hour.” Continue Reading →

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May 21, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Blame game at the quarter mark (and a podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have to hope this is the low point in their season.

Before Wednesday’s game, Starling Marte – the club’s best position player to date- was getting an earful from Pirates manager Clint Hurdle in a closed door meeting regarding his lackadaisical play in the field over the last week.

On the field during the game, Antonio Bastardo continued to show why Hurdle doesn’t trust the situational lefty in many situations, as Bastardo left an off-speed hanger to Joe Mauer for the lefty Mauer’s first homer of the season. It was the game-winning hit. The club’s sixth loss in seven games dropped the Pirates to four games under .500 and nine games back of the Cardinals.

So who’s to blame? Continue Reading →

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May 18, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: Arms (and Bats) Race

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CHICAGO –  Three-and-a-half hours before first pitch Sunday, Kris Bryant tried to make his way in the players/media gate off Waveland Avenue.

He was in street clothes and carried a backpack and a single bat in his right hand. Maybe it was the bat, or the height, of the smile — that smile! – which betrayed his identity, but he was swarmed by a few dozen fans that were stalking players there.

Everyone is enamored with Bryant these young Cubs hitters, it seems.  I sense Clint Hurdle is tired of getting questions about the young Cubs from Chicago media who visit his office.  While the bleacher reconstruction is behind schedule at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ entire infield is 25 or younger and it’s producing ahead of schedule. As I wrote about last month here, the Cubs and Pirates have adopted different talent acquisition philosophies and they are now coming to a head.

The Pirates made a rare commitment to young arms, the Cubs to bats. And since the Cubs are five game above .500 and took a weekend series from the scuffling Pirates, since Bryant, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Sole have been so impressive, since Pirates RHP prospect Nick Kingham is getting a second opinion on his elbow and Jameson Taillon – a second overall pick like Bryant – has had Tommy John surgery  it’s easy to say the Cubs have had the better approach. But hold on. Continue Reading →

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May 13, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Winning at the margins and around a solid core (Phillies have a long way to go)

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PHILADELPHIA – My favorite column of all time ran in the Philadelphia Daily News today. Full disclosure it includes a shout out to my book, and columnist David Murphy is a former colleague. Murph and I met, first locked eyes, at the Myrtle Beach Sun News 10 years ago when I took a job covering prep sports there and he was covering Coastal Carolina, a small Division I school. We go way back.

That said, this post isn’t just a shameless plug for ‘Big Data Baseball’ (Available May 19 where ever fine books are sold!) there are some interesting points brought by Murphy that challenge the notion that it’s simply math, and a department of nerds, which can turn around a moribund franchise like the A’s, like the Rays, the Pirates … and now the Phillies.

Murphy writes columns about the Phillies and has been a critic about their front office’s lack of interest in analytics among other deficiencies (general talent acquisition). These are not issues in Pittsburgh, which is why, as Murphy notes, the Pirates “became one of the ascendant franchises that has stepped up to fill the void left by the Phillies’ self-implosion.” But a central point to Murphy’s column is there is no substitute for time and amateur talent acquisition. Math can’t be the only answer. Continue Reading →

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May 11, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The Kang and Harrison parallel

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PHILADELPHIA – As noted in Sunday’s Starting 9 column, there is a curious parallel between Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang.

After playing sparingly last April, it was nearly at this time a year ago – on May 3, 4, 5 of 2014 – that Harrison received his first three consecutive starts. The Pirates were struggling offensively and had fallen to eight games below .500 on May 2. Harrison recorded two hits in each of those starts, seized everyday playing time, and never looked back. Whether or not one player’s performance can be contagious, it coincided with the Pirates’ remarkable turnaround.

It was last week (May 3, 5 and 6 – the fourth was an off day) that Kang received his first three consecutive starts, he hit, and this weekend the Pirates’ began to show some run-scoring life in taking a series from the Cardinals. On Sunday, Kang got another start and smashed his second home run and a go-ahead single. Could a Kang breakout coincide with another Pirates’ turnaround? (Kang was in the starting lineup again over Harrison on Monday). Continue Reading →

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