38,000 fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates were lustily booing umpire Vic Carapazza after his phantom foul tip call gave Cardinals’ slugger Mark Reynolds a second chance that he would not waste. Reynolds drove the very next pitch from A.J. Burnett over the left field wall to stake the Cards to a 1-0 second inning lead. PNC Park was a powder keg ready to explode. Francisco Cervelli was melting down in rage after his quick ejection by Carapazza after voicing a few words of displeasure over the obvious missed call. Manager Clint Hurdle was turning 50 shades of purple. He too was sent for an early shower. While chaos was ensuing all around home plate A.J. Burnett casually took a baseball and milled around the mound area until the rest of the Pirates coaching staff could drag Cervelli and Hurdle off the field. Burnett had every reason to be chapped. You have to believe inside he was boiling. He was just burned by a terrible call and his catcher was being taken away from him in what was setting up to be a pivotal game. 5 years ago Burnett would surely have gotten himself tossed in a situation like that. 10 years ago he might have been tossed and broken a hand on a water cooler. But in this moment Burnett looked like the calmest man in PNC Park. When play would resume Burnett would go on to do what he has done every 5th day all season long – keep his team in the game and get them to the 7th inning.
Even at age 38 A.J. Burnett hardly appears to be the most mature guy in baseball. He almost always carries an edge with him. This is a guy that relishes telling strikeout victims to “Sit the F Down”. But when the Pirates need a calming influence, a rock to lean on, Burnett is that guy. Andrew McCutchen is the soul of the Pirates. Gerrit Cole is the heartbeat. A.J. Burnett is surprisingly the steadying influence for this club. As long as A.J. is holding it together every thing else will be fine. And that is what happened in this epic 14 inning Pirates win over the Cardinals on Saturday night. A.J. Burnett steadied the ship and gave the Pirates a chance to win – just like he has all season.
Last night I watched as Charlie Morton hurled yet another gem for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff in a 3-0 win over the Chicago White Sox. It was the 3rd straight shutout for the Pirates pitching staff and the 5th shutout in the last 6 games. It got me thinking – is this the best Pirates starting Rotation that I have ever seen?
I turn 40 years old next month. I was too young to have a memory of the World Series Champion 1979 Pirates. I do remember later versions of John Candelaria that pitched for the club in the early 80′s. I also remember what Bert Blyleven was like with the late 80′s Minnesota Twins. They were obviously very good pitchers that anchored a championship team in 1979. But statistically their 1979 seasons don’t compare to what Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett are doing, and even Francisco Liriano outpaces them. The early 90′s staff that won three straight NL East Division Titles was the best Pirates rotation that I can remember. Individually Doug Drabek won a CY Young Award in 1990 and John Smiley was a 20 game winner in 1991. The overall best statistical performance from the rotation in those years was the 1992 edition in which the starters posted a 3.25 ERA and a 3.30 FIP. Those numbers pale in comparison to this year’s rotation (2.83 ERA, 3.09 FIP). And when it comes to domination, forget about it. Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and to a lesser extent A.J. Burnett rack up strikeouts beyond what those the Bucs’ starting pitchers of the early 90′s were capable of.
This year’s Pirates starting rotation isn’t just good – it is historically good. The numbers thus far bear that out. Here are the best ERAs from the Pirates starting pitchers in the last 40 years:
Right now Gerrit Cole leads the National League with a 1.71 ERA. He is a legitimate CY Young candidate, if not the front runner. A.J. Burnett is second in the NL with 1.89 ERA. Francisco Liriano‘s ERA is now below 3.00. Charlie Morton has a 1.62 ERA in 5 starts since returning from the DL. That makes 4 really solid starting pitchers that are being rolled out right now. Jeff Locke is the lone weak link, and even he has proven capable of pitching well in stretches. There are still close to a 100 games remaining in this season. Some regression is to be expected. I highly doubt any of these guys will finish with sub 2.00 ERAs. But I’ve already seen enough to declare this an extremely good starting staff. So, is this the best Pirates starting rotation in my lifetime? I’m not one to put the cart before the horse, but I think it is.
The Pirates had a very rocky series with the Reds to open the 2015 season. Three games, three rain delays, three losses, and three times the bullpen failed. Hopefully bad things come in threes and this series will soon become a distant memory. The opening series disaster in Cincinnati culminated with manager Clint Hurdle being heaped with a fair amount of scorn for electing to use reliever Rob Scahill in the 9th inning of a game tied at 2-2. The #hurdled hashtag on twitter awoke from hibernation as fans came out in full force to question why the skipper would withhold Mark Melancon, his best reliever, and place the game in the hands of the pitcher who is essentially the 12th man on the pitching staff. It mattered not that 95% of managers will never use a closer in the 9th inning of a tie game on the road. It also didn’t seem to matter that Gregory Polanco dropped a short fly ball on the last play of the game and was a far bigger goat than Scahill. When people want to blame the manager there is no stopping them.
There is a time and place for a manager to go off script from the traditional usage of a closer. But I’ll be damned if it is in April in the third game of the season. Lord knows I don’t agree with how managers use bullpens in this era. I think closers should be used in the 8th inning more often. I loathe the fact that the majority of relief pitchers have been conditioned to be 1 inning specialists. Instead of having the four best relievers on a team be available to pitch 1 inning nearly every day I would prefer to split them up so that two pitchers can go multiple innings every other game. But defined bullpen roles are what they are, and no matter how much me or you bitch about those roles the baseball establishment will not be changing them anytime soon. Clint Hurdle is certainly not the manager I am expecting to redefine the modern usage of bullpens. So let’s judge Hurdle under the proper lens. I will do that by rationally explaining why Rob Scahill was the appropriate 9th inning choice yesterday.
At the time that Scahill was inserted into the game the Pirates’ best relievers not named Mark Melancon had already been used. The options left were Scahill, Melancon, Radhames Liz, and Jared Hughes. Hughes threw 29 pitches in a 1.2 inning outing the previous night. Any manager would be reluctant to use him on back to back games after that many pitches this early in the season. Liz melted down the pervious game and has a track record no better than Scahill. So that leaves Melancon as the only other choice in a game in which the Pirates still need at least 6 outs to win. In all likelihood the Pirates were still going to need to rely on Scahill or Liz. The only way that could have been avoided is if Melancon pitches the 9th, the Pirates score in the top of the 10th, and then Melancon continues for the bottom of 10th. Those are not great odds. Is that really how you want a manger to handle the bullpen in the third game of the season? If this was a playoff game, or even an important game down the stretch against the Cardinal, then I would agree that the manager should deviate from the script and go with the clsoer. But managing like that now is just going to burn out your best reliever before we even get to the all-star break.
What I find odd is that so many people agree with not making payroll investments in the bullpen yet they want to ride one or two arms in every tight situation all season long. It was not Hurdle’s fault that he put the game in Scahill’s hands yesterday. The fault lies with whomever felt the team should roll with three reclamation projects in the bullpen. I am fine with having a few projects in the bullpen. And I agree that spending too much on middle relievers is silly. But I also recognize that doing so means the manager has to throw them into the fire. You can not hide that many inferior relief pitcher options. So if you found yourself asking, “Why Rob Scahill” the question needs to be directed at GM Neal Huntington instead of Clint Hurdle.
How much do fans really appreciate greatness as they see it? Can you spot a legendary performer in the moment? Or does it take some time and a little retrospection to truly comprehend how great an athlete was? I think there are a few instances where fans can grasp the magnitude of a legendary athlete during the prime of his playing years. Everyone knew Michael Jordan was one of the top two or three greatest basketball players that ever lived long before his playing days ended. But in most cases it is absence that makes the heart grow fonder. Even beloved athletes are seldom recognized for how great they truly are until their careers come to an end. I believe that will be the case for Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen.
There is little question that Andrew McCutchen is loved by the Pirates’ fan base. He is an easy guy to like. He has a great smile, an infectious optimism, and he is one of the best baseball players in the game today. But there is a difference between identifying contemporary greatness and historical greatness. What McCutchen is doing right now in the prime of his career rivals many of the greatest Hall of Fame outfielders. I’m not sure many fans realize that, but some sabermetric analysts do. ZiPS projections for 2015 listed McCutchen’s No. 1 comp as Duke Snider. Snider is one of the all time great players in baseball history. Baseball-reference.com lists Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield among the 10 most similar hitters to McCutchen thru his age 27 season. That makes three Hall of Fame players that McCutchen is being compared to. And Cutch is arguably a greater player for his era than those three great players were in their playing days. Snider, Winfield, and Dawson never finished in the top 3 of the MVP vote in back to back seasons. McCutchen has an active streak of 3 straight seasons in which he has finished in the top 3 of the NL MVP vote. That is a quite an achievement for a player that just turned 28 years old. Andrew McCutchen’s career still has a long road ahead. There is no doubt in my mind that road leads to Cooperstown, NY.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been awarded the winning posting bid for the right to exclusively negotiate with Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang. The posting fee bid from the Pirates is reported to be $5 million. Kang is a 28 year old right-handed hitting shortstop for the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Kang is a 5-time all-star in the KBO. Last season he put up Ruthian slugging statistics. In 116 games he crushed 40 Home Runs and led the league with a 1.198 OPS. It should be noted that the KBO is an offense heavy league and that the level of play is lower than even that of the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League. Kang’s KBO stats are not likely to translate to Major League Baseball. However, most scouts believe he is a major league ready talent capable of being at the very least a utility player. The Pirates obviously believe he can be more than that. In addition to the $5 million posting fee the Pirates also need to sign Kang to a major league contract. His demands are reportedly a 3 or 4 year contract worth at least $5 million annually. In all likelihood it will take an investment in the vicinity of $20 million for the Pirates to bring Jung-ho Kang to Pittsburgh. That is more than the team has ever spent on a free agent position player, besting the 2 year $17 million contract spent on Russell Martin two years ago.
This is an historic moment for both the Pirates and Korean baseball. It marks the first time the Pirates have ever won a bid for an international player thru the posting system. Jung-ho Kang would also be the first Korean position player to jump from the KBO to Major League Baseball. Amateur Korean players such as Hee-Seop Choi have been signed by major league organizations, but the only professionals in the KBO to make the jump to MLB have been pitchers, the most notable being Hyun-jin Ryu of the Dodgers. I have to give general manager Neal Huntington credit for having the guts to take a leap like this. Jung-ho Kang offers a high ceiling but a very low floor. This is a pretty big gamble financially for a small market club like the Pirates. I have criticized the Pirates in the past for being too risk adverse. This is certainly a change of course.
Russell Martin has made his decision. He won’t be returning to the Pirates. Yesterday he agreed to a 5 year $82 million contract with the Blue Jays. That is a whopper of a deal that the Pirates had no hope of matching. Good for Russ. He played two terrific seasons in Pittsburgh to position himself for this mega-deal. Martin leaves Pittsburgh as a beloved player. He was an elite defensive catcher that oozed intangibles. In 2014 he also put up a career year offensively. The Pirates made the playoffs both seasons that Russell Martin played for them. That in itself speaks of Martin’s impact. This was a team that had posted 20 straight losing seasons prior to Russ’s arrival. As a tribute to Russell, here is the moment I will most remember him for. This dramatic three run blast off of Brewers’ reliever Jonathan Broxton in the 8th inning on 9/19/14 gave the Pirates a come from behind victory over the team that was chasing the Bucs in the Wild Card Standings.
Tony Watson has been sensational out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. Sporting just a 0.87 ERA in 31 innings this season, Watson has been the Pirates’ most valuable pitcher. And I mean that quite literally. His 0.9 fWAR is the highest on the team. To lead a pitching staff in WAR is practically unheard of for a non-closer relief pitcher. Watson has been so good he has been virtually unhittable. In fact, you have to go back to May 22nd, three whole weeks, to find the last time he did surrender a hit. He is also working on a 21.2 inning scoreless streak. So of course when a guy is this successful fans want to make him into something more. The logical progression is to turn him into a closer. There is no doubt in mind that Watson would make a great closer. But I’m not so sure he is more valuable to the team in that role. He is already pitching in high leverage situations that rivals the closer role on most teams. His 16 appearances in high leverage situations is tied with Mark Melancon for the team lead, and only 3 less than NL leader Sergio Romo. To me closers are overrated, and the way manager Clint Hurdle uses his bullpen Tony Watson will get more work and just as many high leverage situations in his current role than he would if he were closing.
Of course not all suggestions of change are so logical. It is one thing to suggest Tony Watson become the closer, but Richard over Saberbucs.net goes so far as to suggest the Pirates turn Watson into a starting pitcher. Let me first say I give credit to Richard for thinking outside the box and floating an idea that has virtually no chance of ever happening. So let me tell you why it won’t happen.
Tony Watson is a 29 year old relief pitcher that is 4 years removed from being a starting pitcher. This is a guy that is now indoctrinated into being a reliever. It is what his role is. It is what he is comfortable as. It is what he has been successful being. He pitches exclusively out of the stretch. There are very few examples of guys going back to starting after having been a reliever for any length of time. The best example Richard came up with was John Smiley. It is a huge reach to call these situations comparable. Smiley was a 23 year old two years removed from last being a starting pitcher, and had struggled in a relief role. Tony Watson is a 29 year old four years removed from last being a starting pitcher, and is dominating as a reliever. With Smiley the Pirates were searching for an answer to salvage him. There was no risk in trying to convert him back. With Watson you are trying to cover a perceived weakness with a strength. Pulling the linchpin from your bullpen is a huge gamble, and frankly I think a silly one. The idea that you can just plug and play any pitcher into the role of a high leverage reliever is misguided. And when you look at the future of the Pirates roster it is tough to see an experienced late inning guy other than Watson being around much longer. Jason Grilli will be a free agent after this season and Mark Melancon’s salary is approaching a level that the Pirates will be uncomfortable fitting within their relatively small payroll.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tony Watson is incapable of starting. But there are some significant barriers for him to hurdle to become a top of the rotation pitcher. And let’s face it, if Watson can’t become a number 3 starter or better then such a move would be a flop. The Pirates already have plenty of guys capable of filling the back end of a rotation. For Watson to become a good starting pitcher he would first need stretched out. This isn’t a guy accustomed to throwing 90+ pitches an outing. So it is probably too late in the year to make the change this season. If you were to make such a move next season he’d probably have a pretty hard innings limit for his first season. His career high in innings was 151.2, but that was back in 2008. The last time he threw more than 100 innings was 2010. It is hard to envision the Pirates allowing him to throw much more than a 140 innings in his first season as a starter. If you’re lucky he makes 25 starts, and probably gets shut down in September. In addition to the workload concerns there are questions that remain as to whether he can alter his style of pitching and still be successful. He will have to dial down his fastball a bit. No way he can sit at 94 mph with his fastball over a 6 inning stint. He will have use his off speed pitches more. He will have to adjust to hitters seeing him multiple times in a game. There are just too many reasons why something like shouldn’t be tried. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As for the starting rotation, that would be best addressed by acquiring proven starting pitchers. That might not be some novel out of the box solution, but it is a darn good solution that is hard to argue with.
After eight straight games against right-handed pitchers to start the season the Pirates will finally face a left hander in game #9 when Travis Wood takes to the bump for the Cubs. That will be a welcome sight for Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata, the sparsely used right-handed side of the platoons the Pirates use at 1B and RF. Sanchez and Tabata better take advantage of their opportunity to get some hacks against a southpaw. They aren’t going to see another left-handed starter again for quite some time. Following this series with the Cubs the Bucs will face the Brewers, followed by the Reds, and then the Brewers again. The Brewers have no southpaws in their rotation while the Reds have just Tony Cingrani. It appears the Pirates will miss Cingrani as he is scheduled to start Sunday in the final game of the Reds’ series against the Rays. Unless something unforeseen happens the Pirates will face just one left-handed starter in their first 20 games and just two in the entire month of April. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that reads this blog. I have referenced numerous times that the Bucs faced just 31 left-handed starters all last season. I’ve also pointed out the lack of southpaws in the rotations of the Pirates’ NL Central Division rivals. With a schedule heavy with division opponents to start the season it is not surprising the Pirates would see so few in April. But what few lefties there are in the division the Pirates have missed. The Cubs chose not use Travis Wood in the season opening series, and now it looks like the Pirates will also miss Cingrani when they take on the Reds for the first time this season. The fallout of this imbalance is that Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata are collecting a lot of splinters in their buttocks.
pur·ist noun ˈpyu̇r-ist\n: a person who has very strong ideas about what is correct or acceptable and who usually opposes changes to traditional methods and practices
If you are a baseball purist the 2014 season is going to shake your core beliefs. On the day that Barry Bonds returned to Pittsburgh to present Andrew McCutchen with the MVP trophy and Ryan Braun took the field to a standing ovation in Milwaukee, Major League Baseball also ushered in expanded instant replay. It is sort of ironic that the battleground in baseball purity took center stage in the city of Pittsburgh. Bonds has become a pariah due to his use of performance enhancing drugs, so much so that the greatest hitter in a generation could only muster 36% of the vote for the Hall of Fame on his first ballot this winter. Pirates’ fans took the first steps in forgiving Bonds for some of his transgressions, but he still has a long way to go before baseball purists will ever forgive him for sullying the game. Personally, I don’t like PEDs in baseball. I want the game to be clean. But I’m not willing to trash all of Bonds’ accomplishments because of PED use. I don’t hate Ryan Braun because he used PEDs. I hate him because he threw an average hard working joe under the bus. Oh, and I also hate him because he plays for the Brewers. But truth be told, if I were a Brewers fan in Milwaukee on Opening Day I would have cheered Braun too.
What should be a bigger travesty than PED use to baseball purists is the use of instant replay. The first instant replay challenge in baseball history took place in Pittsburgh in the 5th inning of Opening Day of the 2014 season when Cubs manager Rick Renteria appealed umpire Bob Davidson’s out call at first base after pitcher Jeff Samardzija bunted into a double play. History will show that Davidson’s call was upheld, and so begins a new era of baseball. I can’t believe I feel this way, but I hate instant replay. I’ve always thought that the injustice of a bad call should never be acceptable in this day and age of advanced video technology. But the more I think about instant replay the more I hate it. I appreciate all of the beautiful flaws that occur during a game. The imperfections of the game is what makes it so perfect. Some of the greatest mistakes in the history of the game are among the greatest moments in the game, and that includes umpiring mistakes. Is it a sports travesty that Don Denkinger blew a call in the 1985 World Series that helped the Royals defeat the Cardinals? Is it a sports travesty that Jim Joyce blew a call that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game? Of course it is, but subtracting these moments from history makes the game a little too perfect for my liking. The umps get the call right 99.8% of the time. I’m ok with the 0.2% of the time the umps get it wrong. Even if it means having to live with this call.
It’s back! After the long cold winter Opening Day is finally here!
Is there a better day for a baseball fan than opening day? We can now put all the discussion points of the offseason to bed and focus on what happens on the field. The Pirates will start 2014 with a 0-0 record, just like every other season. But this one feels much different. It has been a long time since the Bucs started a season with this much hope and these many expectations. This is a good team that should have a good year. With a little luck it could be a great year.
Just a few programming notes for the new season. Every Sunday evening during the season I’ll post a weekly roundup titled TWIBB Notes. TWIBB stands for This Week in Buccos Baseball. I’m also going to follow and post frequent farm reports of the Pirates minor league affiliate, the West Virginia Power. Several Sally League teams are within a few hours drive of where I live, and I will attend a few games when the Power visits. I will be writing first hand reports of the games I attend. These are just a few of the ideas I have in mind. I will posting often, so keep coming back. Enjoy the season. I know I will. Let’s Go Bucs!