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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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April 27, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: A changing of the guard in the Central?

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PNC PARK – I began writing this post over the weekend before the injury to St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright (his Achilles injury is an unfortunate potential season-ender). The lede item of this blog entry was inspired by this question: over the next five or six years, through remainder of the decade, whom do the Pirates fear more:  the Cardinals or Cubs?

I suspect it’s the Cubs. And perhaps a burgeoning Cubs-Pirates rivalry will arrive much sooner than many had forecast, perhaps an eta as soon as this summer.

While the Cardinals do have young talent like Michael Wacha and Kolten Wong, and have been a player development machine not to be dismissed, they have a number of key pieces that are now 30 and older. Wainwright, Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta are all on the wrong side of 30. Meanwhile, as the Pirates and Cubs prepare to open a series at Wrigley tonight, they have two of the youngest and most talented organizations in baseball.

A  Pirates-Cubs rivalry would also be a battle of ideologies.

Continue Reading →

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April 24, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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How long should managers ‘believe’?

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PNC PARK – Dancing with Mark Melancon has been quite the exercise in anxiety early this season.

Melancon recorded his third save with a clean ninth inning Thursday but his velocity was down again. His cutter ranged from 90 to 87, according to PITCHf/x, again 3-5 mph below his 2014 average velocity. And that dip is a big deal.  Last season, the cutter generated swings and misses 13.4 percent of the time, this year it’s 7.8 percent. Last year, slugged .281 against the cutter, this year the slugging mark is .517. Fortunately for the Pirates and Melancon on Thursday, he was not facing the heart of a suddenly powerful Cubs lineup.

Melancon, not one to show emotion, slapped his pitching hand to his glove emphatically after the completion of the final out. Perhaps this is a man who is feeling embattled, perhaps this is a man looking for something to believe in — results if not velocity. Melancon and the Pirates are searching for answers.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has noted Melancon and the team are trying to figure out what happened to his velocity. They claim he is healthy. They are pouring over video to understand what happened to those important, missing ticks of velocity. But how long do you keep a guy, who entered today with a 2.4 WHIP, in the closer role?

“I believe in guys,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes you got to believe in things you’ve seen in past and just give another opportunity.” Continue Reading →

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April 22, 2015
by Joe Rutter


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I swear, this tirade is true

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Bryan Price’s profanity-laced meltdown Monday had sportswriters digging into the archives to recall the best managerial meltdowns.
These lists included Lee Elia, Hal McRae, Earl Weaver and Tommy Lasorda (sometimes twice).
Sadly, Lloyd McClendon was nowhere to be found.
People seem to forget that almost 12 years ago – June 24, 2003 – the former Pirates manager went on an expletive-filled rant for the ages in the bowels of old Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
Had camera phones or Twitter existed then, stealing first base wouldn’t have been McClendon’s most noteworthy moment with the Pirates.
Sure, Price dropped 77 F-bombs in 5 minutes, 34 seconds.
Big deal.
McClendon used 17 expletives, including 15 variations of the F word, in 52 seconds. With Price’s stamina, McClendon would’ve eclipsed 90 F-bombs in the same amount of time. Continue Reading →

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April 20, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Can Jeff Locke trust himself?

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PNC PARK – There are two Jeff Lockes.

There is Locke The Nibbler. The Locke that regressed badly in 2013, and again in the second half last season. The Locke that lost conviction in pitches he was throwing. The Locke that tried to be too fine.

Then there is the Locke that the Pirates saw on Saturday night (no walks in eight innings), the Locke they saw in the first half of last season. This is the Locke that is committed to the pitches he’s throwing. The Locke that can command a 90-92 mph two-seamer to both sides of the plate and get opponents to bite on an above-average changeup. This is the fearless Locke. They Locke that doesn’t pitch away from contact. The Locke that pitches better than a back-of-the-rotation arm.

Continue Reading →

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April 19, 2015
by Rob Biertempfel


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Better looks at plate make a difference

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Starling Marte collected a career-high five RBI on Saturday vs. the Brewers with a two-run single and three-run homer.

Starling Marte collected a career-high five RBI on Saturday vs. the Brewers with a two-run single and three-run homer.

My game story about last night’s 6-2 win against the Brewers focused on Starling Marte‘s big bat and Jeff Locke’s finesse. During his media confab this morning, manager Clint Hurdle talked about another factor that’s been in play the past couple of games: the Pirates are getting better looks at the plate.
“The game changes when the pitchers don’t throw strike one as much,” Hurdle said. “We faced a couple of guys (earlier last week) where it was always strike one, strike two.”
The Pirates have been in hitter’s counts more often the past two days, but there’s more to it than that. They got a read on Brewers righty Kyle Lohse, who made it clear early on that he wouldn’t be beating anyone with his heater.
“We picked up on a theme last night where only one person was beat on a fastball by Lohse,” Hurdle said. “He threw one inning when 17 of 20 pitches were soft, and the three fastballs were targeted away, just for show. We needed to start sitting soft. We started doing that in the second inning and it played out well for us.”
The Pirates also did the little things to score runs. Andrew McCutchen drew two walks and scored each time. In the first inning, Neil Walker‘s grounder to the right side moved runners to second and third. That set up Marte’s two-run single. “There’s a value to moving guys 90 feet, even when there’s an out made,” Hurdle said.

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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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