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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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May 6, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Break glass, pull panic lever with Andrew McCutchen? (And a podcast)

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PNC PARK – What are we to make of Andrew McCutchen?

The Face of the Franchise’s worst slump of his career continues. After Tuesday’s 0-for-4 he now has a .180/.280/.293 slash line through 107 plate appearances. He said earlier in April he is at “80 percent”due to his knee and his 80 percent produced a -0.1 WAR, which means he was essentially a Triple-A level producer for the first  month. Or was the production not tied to his knee and simply a slump, as the Pirates suggest?

How does one separate the knee issue form the other typically slow Aprils for his career? How much concern should there be?

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle intimated Tuesday the media (and public) is too focused on his knee. Hurdle said prior to Tuesday’s game that McCutchen had his most “athletic” showings of the season on the recent road trip. Hurdle said his running times to first were excellent. He said his range in the outfield was better. Hurdle said McCutchen told him “he’s fine.”

mcCutchenhurt

Continue Reading →

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May 4, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Time to find out what Kang can do?

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SOUTH HILLS – Interesting to see Josh Harrison start at second base Sunday, which of course marked the third straight, walk-off loss to the rival Cardinals for the Pirates.

For starters, after playing five different positions in each of his first three seasons with the Pirates, Harrison had not played a single inning at a position other than third base in April.

While in Chicago last week, I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle about balancing Harrison’s diverse skill set – a man who can wear many gloves  – versus specializing him at one position. Hurdle said ideally a player plays one position and learns to play it well. But he didn’t rule out a return to Harrison’s previous role, and it was interesting that Hurdle thought the other position Harrison could handle well, regularly, is second base. (Harrison is now under contract through at least 2018, Neil Walker through 2016).

Also interesting is that Harrison started at second Sunday while Jung Ho Kang started at third, and Kang hit his first career MLB homer vs. a Trevor Rosenthal breaking ball (82 mph curveball). Back in its season preview issue, Sports Illustrated’s sabermetic-based “modest proposal” was to move Harrison back to a super utility role, and find out what Kang can do as an everyday player at the hot corner.  Is now the time? Continue Reading →

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May 1, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Pirates now hold ace card in NL Central?

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SOUTH HILLS – It was a turbulent first month of the season for the Pirates.

The Pirates’ lineup inexplicably went from being the National League’s most patience last season, to the league’s least discerning in April.

Andrew McCutchen hardly looked like an MVP, suffering through perhaps the worst month of his career. Not only did he post just the second sub-.200 batting average for a month in his career but his defense is on pace to be the worst of his career. The knee is a lingering concern, though he did appear to run well and better square up pitches in Chicago.

Mark Melancon’s velocity continues to sit in the upper 80s. Starling Marte was a two true outcome player in the month: either a strikeout or a home run.

Yet, despite these struggles and inconsistencies, the Pirates’ finished April with just their fourth winning mark (12-10) in the last 20 years. How? The starting rotation beat early expectations and perhaps Gerrit Cole is accelerating his track to acedom. Continue Reading →

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