ARLINGTON, Texas – We don’t hear Clint Hurdle publicly critique a player often but after Saturday’s loss to the Rangers Hurdle said Juan Nicasio must better “impose his will” on opponents.
“The first pitch of the game is an important pitch. I don’t want a feeling-out process,” Hurdle said. “The will gets imposed during a game. Either you impose yours, or they impose theirs. … The 104th pitch, he threw 95 mph. The first 10, he didn’t throw over 91. I just have to figure it out and talk with him.”
Nicasio has had a rough May.
No quality starts.
A 6.75 ERA.
When I asked Hurdle on Sunday about Nicasio being a possible bullpen option, if could excel there (and ostensibly be the odd man out when help arrives), Hurdle did not remove that option from the table.
“Could he be? Absolutely. He’s done it. He’s been successful the one year he did,” Hurdle said. “We have pitching coming. That’s if it comes healthy. In this game of baseball people get hurt all the time. I think we’ll always try to push the envelope on developing starting pitching knowing that we have some coming. When push comes to shove, in a perfect world, young players develop, opportunity presents itself, then those other options are available to you.
“Yes, (Nicasio) could be but right now he isn’t. Our challenge is to make him the best starting pitcher he can be while he’s in this rotation.”
What you have to like if your office is on Federal Street, or if you’re a fan of the club, is that not only do the Pirates have the third best record in the NL, they have three of the International League’s top nine ERA leaders:
Chad Kuhl leads the IL in ERA (1.03), Jameson Taillon is fourth (1.82), and Tyler Glasnow (2.25) is ninth.
Hurdle and Neal Huntington have said the young arms will arrive as starting pitchers, not bullpen help.
The question then becomes how much room will the Pirates need to make in their rotation?
Nicasio figures to be the odd man out and can perhaps strengthen the bullpen.
As I’ve written about here since the spring, even during Nicasio’s success, his lack of a third pitch, fluctuating velocity and command might make him a better fit in the bullpen. Nicasio hasn’t been able to consistently repeat the fastball command he demonstrated in March. Is it a fatigue issue? Perhaps he would be a much better fit as a multi-inning reliever, which is probably the role the Pirates originally envisioned him filling. And the bullpen arguably needs more help than the rotation.
Jon Niese has made four straight quality starts and has quieted some of the angst about the Neil Walker trade. Niese is probably a lock to stay in the rotation. His $9 million salary doesn’t hurt his cause, neither do the 24 ground outs over his last two starts for a club that has seen its groundball rate go in the wrong direction.
Jeff Locke has a 5.03 ERA, but has been pitching well in May.Still, he figures to be on rotation bubble watch duty, too. (In speaking with scouts, Locke is a guy who has trade value, too).
The Pirates have help on the way, but if Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl are all to arrive this year one might have to begin in the bullpen. Does Kuhl beat Glasnow to the rotation? To the bullpen? (Feel free to place your bets in the comment section).
Or perhaps not all three service clocks will begin to tick in 2016.
The Pirates will soon have too many arms for spots in the rotation. They will soon be playing musical chairs there. It’s a good problem to have, of course. And it will be interesting to see how much room the Pirates make, how many chairs they pull away, and who is sitting when the music stops (which is what happens with the Super 2 deadline is passed).
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ..
>>What’s behind Francisco Liriano’s issues?
What’s behind his declining performance and chase rates despite similar velocity to last season? Liriano’s swinging strike and out-of-zone swing rates from opponents are career lows. While the Pirates are 22-5 in the last 27 games started by Liriano, they’re 4-4 in his last eight starts.
It’s about fastball location.
Check out his fastball location of 2016 vs. 2015 in these heat charts:
You’ll notice from those two charts that Liriano more often located his fastball away from right-handed hitters in 2015 than this season when he’s been more inside as David Manel and August Fagerstrom have examined.
Liriano said after is start Sunday that this is in part intentional.
Liriano said he is trying to pitch “deeper into games” and induce earlier contact. But he said he’s also missing more often. For instance, he tried pitch up-and-in to Rangers lefties Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder on Sunday and both pitches came back over the plate for two home runs, nearly matching his HR total allowed to LHHs from 2015 (3) and 2014 (3).
The issues vs. lefties were a new problem but connected to his issue against RHHs – fastball command.
>>Hurdle agreed with the concept that right-handed hitters are chasing less because if a fastball is inside they can erase the threat of a slider. RHHs are not likely to swing at a slider that begins on the inside portion of the plate. After all, sliders dive down-and-in to righties. Liriano better located his fastball and slider on the outside half of the plate last season, more often presenting a dual-threat to hitters as Liraino’s fastball and slider look awfully similar for the first 50 feet of their path to the plate.
OUT-OF-ZONE SWING % vs. LIRIANO
The Pirates need the 2013-15 Liriano back, and perhaps he should shelve his new approach in addition to tightening his command.
>>While Andrew McCutchen hasn’t gotten hot yet, while his strikeouts are up, while his fly-ball rate is up — McCutchen said he is not trying to sell out for power and has not made a swing change — his hitting second in the lineup is working as intended.
Entering Sunday, McCutchen has 23 at-bats with two outs and no one base, which is fourth on the club. Last season, only Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (164 at-bats) came to the plate with two outs and no one on more than McCutchen (158). The next closest Pirate? Gregory Polanco (83).
>>Speaking of Polanco, he’s OPSing .867 against lefties this season vs. .564 for his career. Perhaps he’s putting platoon worries behind him. He hit lefties well in the minors.
>>Jung Ho Kang ‘s return has been remarkable. Six HRs in his first 19 games back? Crazy. Also crazy is his work against fastballs, including anticipating and taking an outside Cole Hamels fastball out to the opposite field Friday.
Jung Ho Kang is hitting .405 vs 4 seamers since joining MLB. Highest BA of any player vs any pitch since 2008 (min 150 AB per pitch)
— Daren Willman (@darenw) May 25, 2016
Kang has proven he can hit velocity.
He’s proven the leg kick works.
He’s paved the way for more talent to come over from the KBO.
While he only missed part of last season, should he be considered for NL Comeback Player of the Year if this continues?
>>The Pirates might not need much external pitching help with what they have in the pipeline but we liked Rich Hill as an offseason target and we like him even more now as he’s shown his September of last season is looking less like a fluke. Hill as a two-month rental would be an interesting add. He could perhaps also help the club delay the arrival of a Glasnow or Kuhl until 2017. For $6 million, Hill would have been a worthy offseason target of the Pirates.
>>Pirates have not had much luck with the orbital bone as A.J. Burnett, Austin Meadows in past years, and Ryan Vogelsong and prospect Kevin Newman this season, have fractured the bone(s). Newman was having a very encouraging season in High-A and has been moving up prospect lists. He looks like a future above-average bat in the middle infield.
>>Brash and foolish of Tony La Russa to enter a broadcast booth during a game. That’s crossing a professional boundary – literally and figuratively.
>>For as good as the Pirates have been offensively, and have mostly remained so in May …
Pirates 2016 (2015)
BB% 9.0 (7.3)
K% 19.5 (21.0)
ISO .151 (.136)
BABip .338 (.314)
wRC+ 118 (99)
— David Todd (@DTonPirates) May 29, 2016
… Yu Darvish‘s start was a reminder that good pitching almost always beats good hitting.
HE SAID IT
Arizona manager Chip Hale on Arquimedes Caminero
(and the Pirates’ coaching staff).
“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” Hale said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”
HE SAID IT II
Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume: “They have a reputation for pitching inside. It’s one they defend vigorously. …This is a constant factor when you play the Pirates.”
HE SAID IT III
Hurdle on an offseason conversation with Jeff Banister …
“Everyone was yapping at each other, and (Banister) says, ‘Boys, get ready, you are going to come and get (Cole) Hamels and (Yu) Darvish,’ ” said Hurdle, remembering Banister’s predicted probable pitchers for the late-May interleague series. Hurdle said to Banister, “ ‘Wait a minute. How do you know (Darvish) is going to pitch against us?’ (Banister) knew way back when.”
By the way, it looks like the Pirate Way that Banister has brought from Pittsburgh is working in the Metroplex.
— Jared Sandler (@SandlerJ) May 27, 2016
HE SAID IT IV
McCutchen on shallower alignment:
“There are quite a few balls over my head that I should have had. I’ve learned to kind of gauge where I play. … I’m not going to just play in every at bat, every batter. It’s ‘OK, how is he pitching today? Do I need to play a little more in or back?’ ”
HE SAID IT V
Are the coaches are OK with McCutchen’s discretion?
“They trust me,” McCutchen said. “We do need to play more in, but we base numbers off last year and this is a different (pitching) staff.”
You have to wonder how the Pirates feel about McCutchen electing to occasionally deviate from the alignment plan. The wouldn’t work well in the infield, and there’s a reason McCutchen should be shallower …
STAT OF THE WEEK: 56.9
Percent of time tMcCutchen is holding runners from taking the extra base versus 42.4 percent last season and 30.7 percent in 2014 . The Pirates’ center fielder is irked by the balls that have gotten over his head, but the shallower positioning is working.
From the talented and wonderful Salena Zito on remembering those who shaped a nation on Memorial Day
“An estimated 41 million Americans have served in the U.S. military during conflicts and wars since 1776.
That amounts to about 7 percent of the total population preserving the liberty and freedoms of the other 93 percent of us.”
It’s estimated 1.4 million Americans have died in military service since 1775.