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April 17, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Time for Kang to head west … on I-70?

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PNC PARK – The game’s top prospect, Kris Bryant, debuted this afternoon at Wrigley Field, not coincidentally on a day when his service time had been stalled long enough to delay his entry into free agency by a year. Bryant and Gregory Polanco could share a beer and discuss this topic next series.

The Pirates’ top offensive prospect this spring, Jung Ho Kang, wasn’t classified as a prospect by some prospect-list makers because of his lengthy pro experience with the KBO in Korea.

But Bryant and Polanco have a life experience Kang does not have: Triple-A experience. Bryant logged 330 Triple-A plate appearances. Polanco, 324. Kang has zero. This spring, the Pirates were consistent about not Kang not beginning the year in Triple-A. And unlike Bryant, there were no concerns about service time with Kang because he will become a free agent after his four-year contract expires. But should the Pirates’ position be revisited?

Counting spring training games, Kang has all of 14 plate appearances since April 1. Continue Reading →

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April 14, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Something wrong with Mark Melancon? Some charts, a chat, and a podcast

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SOUTH HILLS – The small-sample-size disclaimer applies to nearly everything this year as Bill West and I noted repeatedly in today’s podcast (the link is now fixed.  My apologies)It’s often dangerous to read too much into anything that happens in early April. If a team has a five-game losing streak in the middle of July it receives less attention than one that begins a season.

But sometimes there are are hints of skill changes that are seen early, and seen in measures that go beyond traditional numbers. Arquimedes Caminero‘s fastball touched 101 mph and is averaging 99.0 mph through the first week of the season. That spike, coupled with improved control, allows one to dream on his ceiling. On the other hand, Mark Melancon‘s cutter velocity of 88.7 is three ticks below his 2014 average, when he was one of the better relievers in the game. This is a link to Melancon’s velocity trends from the last three seasons.  It was a little down to begin last season, too.

“Concern is not a word I’m going to use,” Hurdle said during today’s pre-game press conference.

But it’s not the just the velocity.

Continue Reading →

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April 13, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Does the Pirates ‘bundling’ of services make sense?

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AT AN AIRPORT AND ON A PLANE  – On Friday Clint Hurdle revealed the Pirates intend to employ an inventive playing-time concept for reserve players this season.

We already knew the Pirates studied NBA and NHL teams this offseason to better understand how to maximize rest patterns. This is an interesting area of study, because it’s an area in baseball which has seemingly had little thought invested into it. How often have we seen managers play bench players once a week? How often have we seen traditional rest patterns adopted and they rarely be questioned?  Clint Hurdle even offered a funny anecdote from his days managing the Triple-A Norfolk Tides regarding the ingrained and unquestioned nature of using reserves.

 “I said to someone ‘Go get (backup catcher Javier) Gonzalez,’ ” said Hurdle of a moment in the Triple-A clubhouse. “He says ‘Domingo!’ I said ‘No, Gonzalez.’ He said ‘Hey, Domingo!’ I said, ‘I don’t want Domingo.’ He goes, ‘Skip, he only plays on Sunday. We’ve been calling him Domingo for six weeks.” Continue Reading →

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April 10, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Silver Linings Playbook: party (and pitch) like it’s 2013

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PITTSBURGH INTL AIRPORT – OK, that was ugly: from the weather to losing three straight to a Reds club that few are forecasting to be October participants.

The bullpen had its hiccups. Tony Watson allowed as many runs on Opening Day (3) as he allowed in the first two months of last season. Radhames Liz‘s first major league game in five years resulted in a walk-off Reds win. (Still, despite the early snaps I like this group of power arms).

Todd Frazier kept hitting, and kept getting fastballs out elevated over the plate.

Pirates pitchers weren’t always on the same page as Francisco Cervelli. Billy Hamilton – whom Russell Martin and the Pirates kept in check last season – ran wild, going 6-for-6 in steals. What is projected to be one of the better lineups in the NL didn’t hit, and Gregory Polanco literally dropped the ball to complete a sweep Thursday. But lost in the midst of what was an ugly Opening Series, were two performances that if sustained are important long-term developments that could perhaps be lost in the short-term fog of disappointment.

Continue Reading →

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April 8, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Do you buy on Josh Harrison? … And do you buy into windows?

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SOUTH HILLS – Great moment for Josh Harrison today as he agreed to a four-year, $27.3 million deal — it could become a six-year $50 million deal if two club options are exercised  — and it was announced in his hometown of Cincinnati.

In many ways, the deal makes a lot of sense for the club. It buys out Harrison’s three arbitration years and up to three years of free agency. Harrison, 27, is in his prime and is coming off a 5-win season in which he garnered MVP votes. The Pirates will not owe Harrison big dollars until the fourth year of the deal ($10 million in 2018). He could be a bargain of a player.

Of course there is risk. Harrison might have just had his career year. Harrison’s batting average on balls in play jumped 100 points last season. His underlying plate discipline skills (walk and strikeout rate) showed no growth and while his line-drive rate spiked, like for many players, Harrison’s line-drive rate has fluctuated wildly throughout his career year.  Many have predicted revenge from the regression gods for Harrison in 2014. Harrison essentially told the Trib’s Bill West two days earlier to let the haters hate, the regressers regress.

“Regression, succession, whatever — let them speak, that’s what they talk about, because that’s all they can talk about,” Harrison said. “I feel like this is only the beginning.”

Is it the beginning? Is the deal worth it? (Is ‘succession’ in reference to Jung Ho Kang?) Continue Reading →

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April 6, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Happy Opening Day. Believe (in youth)? Some predictions…

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SOUTH HILLS – We’ve arrived. Opening Day. Wonderful words to write after a brutal winter.

Today from Clint Hurdle‘s daily email, which goes out to a number of recipients:  “For baseball fans, Opening Day serves as a symbol of rebirth; writer Thomas Boswell wrote a book titled, Why Time Begins on Opening Day and said ‘Many feel that the occasion represents a newness or a chance to forget last season, in that all 30 of the major league clubs and their millions of fans begin with 0–0 records.’ On Opening Day, every team believes they have a chance to win a championship. After all, they have no losses.”

Do the Pirates have a chance? ESPN’s Buster Olney and Dave Schoenfield believe so. They have predicted the Pirates will win their first World Series in nearly 40 years. But because of the unpredictable, small-sample nature of the postseason it’s pretty difficult to predict what’s going to happen in October. I think it’s plausible the Pirates win it all. Or the Indians. Or the Mariners. Or even the A’s. But the Dodgers or Nationals are the best two clubs on paper entering the season.

The Pirates’ focus should be controlling what they can control in the regular season: and that’s winning the division.  That’s the next step. Can they?
Continue Reading →

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April 2, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The Von Rosenberg dilemma

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SOUTH HILLS – One takeaway from my time in the major and minor league clubhouses in Bradenton, Fla. this spring was the sheer size of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects. We know the Pirates have a collection of towering right-handed pitching prospects but seeing them together, in person, as a group, is another thing. If you didn’t know any better you thought you were surrounded by a roster in this weekend’s Final Four. Tyler Glasnow said he never played organized basketball but he’s as long as one of Kentucky’s wings. Nick Kingham looks like a Division I tight end.  Jameson Taillon looks like the kind of prospect you expect to draft second overall.

Does this sight excite Ray Searage? I asked the Pirates’ pitching coach just that earlier last month. He smiled ear to ear,  and shook his head vertically. The potential of this group is cathedral high and the risk is also at an extreme.

If you’re a regular reader you’re probably aware of the Pirates’ unusual bet on projectable high school arms. It’s a story I wrote last spring and is still very much relevant today. Starting pitchers are the most expensive assets in the game and the Pirates’ strategy is based upon the fact they are either unwilling or unable to pay $25 million per year for an ace one in free agency. (The Pirates spent a club record on a free agent to bring back the enigmatic Francisco Liriano). Rather then spend on top-of-the-rotation free agents, the Pirate decided to try and find them before they become stars. From 2009-11 the Pirates spent 22 of their 30 top-10-round picks on pitchers. Seventeen were prep pitchers. It was a rare commitment and historic financial one in the $25 million they paid out in draft bonuses. Continue Reading →

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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?

Continue Reading →

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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.

Continue Reading →

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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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