Starting Nine: Seeing more pitches paying off for Pirates
Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.
1 The Pirates’ offensive production has been remarkable. The Pirates left Coors Field leading baseball in batting average (.294) and on-base percentage (.378), and third in runs (119), despite not enjoying the DH.
But perhaps the number most telling and indicative of the buy-in to the new approach up is number of pitches seen.
2 Shortstop Jordy Mercer noted the contagious aspect of seeing teammates take pitches and work counts. Mercer said there is a pride factor up and down the lineup in fouling away and wasting quality two-strike offerings. Through Thursday, the Pirates led baseball in pitches seen (3,682), averaging a staggering 175 pitches per game.
3 Thursday at Coors Field, the Rockies went back on video and reviewed the number of foul balls hit by Pirates on Wednesday. They counted 53 among the 250 pitches thrown by the Rockies.
Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, felt like he executed his game plan well, but he had thrown 96 pitches in 3 2⁄3 innings. An exasperated Gray told reporters he couldn’t get the Pirates to chase out of the zone. The Pirates fouled off two dozen of his pitches, often with two strikes. Earlier in April, the Pirates fouled off 25 of Justin Verlander’s pitches in Detroit.
4 The Pirates are fouling off pitches, and they are not chasing out of the zone.
Percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone:
2t. Blue Jays26.0
Last season, the Pirates were 18th at 31.1 percent.
5 Part of the improvement is new personnel as John Jaso has been a welcomed addition. Another part is the breakout of Gregory Polanco. Still another factor is improved lineup construction with Clint Hurdle noting the club has tried to avoid batting back-to-back players with higher strikeout rates.
But there also might be a contagious influence in the form of peer pressure that Mercer alluded to.
Perhaps players see their peers take pitches, work counts, not try to do much. They want to copy the modeled behavior.
Time to make the call?
6 Throwing Super 2 concerns to the wind, a number of clubs have called up pitching prospects in the last week. Aaron Blair made his debut for the rebuilding Atlanta Braves. The Minnesota Twins called upon Jose Berrios, and the Oakland Athletics summoned Sean Manaea. Pirates prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are in the same class of elite pitching prospects.
Is it time for the Pirates to consider bringing up Taillon or Glasnow?
7 Glasnow continues to dominate hitters with his plus-plus fastball, and Taillon has been remarkable in his first four starts since 2013, striking out 23 and walking just two in 23 innings.
It seems unlikely the Pirates will call up a top prospect before Super 2 concerns pass.
The Pirates waited until after the projected Super 2 line passed before calling up Gerrit Cole in 2013 and Gregory Polanco in ’14. (Super 2 players are those major leaguers with more than two years of service time but less than three that are in the top 22 percent of service time in the group. They are awarded an extra year of arbitration.)
There is legitimate financial reasoning for a club to not call up a top prospect before the projected Super 2 cutoff: An extra year of arbitration means upwards of $10 million-plus for a good player and $20 million-plus for ace.
8 But with where the Pirates are in the win curve, with how effective their lineup has been, improving the back of the rotation and gaining a win or three before the middle of June could be big in the standings.
After all, a couple of wins were the difference between the Pirates playing in a wild-card game and playing in the NLDS last October.
9 Baseball is the only major pro sport in North America where teams delay young players’ arrival times to save money.
This has become an issue with the players’ union and perhaps there can be common ground to alleviate the issue in the next collective bargaining agreement.