2020 Season in Review: Best Hitter and Pitcher in Pittsburgh

At the end of the 2020 season, the Baseball Writers Association of America voted for a few awards when it came to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The awards were the Clemente Award, which signifies the Pirates MVP for the whole season, as well as the Steve Blass Award, which is awarded to the best Pirates pitcher in the opinion of the writers. The final award was the Chuck Tanner Award, which Jacob Stallings won for the best media cooperation on the team. 

According to the voters, Jacob Stallings was the Pirates’ overall MVP and Steven Brault was the best pitcher, and Brault’s case was boosted by some very impressive starts towards the end of the season. Now that I’ve had a few months to digest it, I’ll be looking at some other candidates who could have been in the conversation for these awards (Clemente and Blass) and then I’ll decide if I think the BBWAA made the right choice.

Clemente Award (Pirates MVP)

Winner:Jacob Stallings

If I told you last year that Jacob Stallings would be the Pittsburgh Pirates’ MVP in 2020, you would have laughed and shaken your head by telling me that Bryan Reynolds was going to hit under .200 too. Well, both of those things happened, and while Reynolds having the worst season of his career is unbelievable, I’m here to talk about Stallings’ unpredictable season. Stallings was designated for assignment multiple times over the last few years, and was even outrighted off the Pirates’ 40-man roster for a time last year. His experience in the big leagues was limited to mostly September callups, with the most games he’s played before 2019 being 14, in the 2018 season. Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz were the tandem for a few years prior, and it seemed like there was no way Stallings was ever going to be more than a 3rd catcher in the system. Instead, Cervelli got a few more concussions which probably ended his professional career, and Diaz stopped hitting and Jacob Stallings started to get most of the starts in the final months of the 2019 season. Hurdle put trust in Stallings, and he rewarded him by not only hitting at solid .262 with 6 home runs and 13 RBIs in 71 total games. He impressed Derek Shelton and the new coaching staff enough to earn the starting job, with not much competition added except for Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy.

Stallings started his 2020 season off with a big hit that knocked in two on Opening Day, and he just kept on rolling after that. In 18 August games, Stallings had the stretch of his life offensively, collecting 20 hits in 51 at-bats with 10 RBIs and 4 extra-base hits. This was rare for the catcher known for his Gold-Gold caliber defense. Also impressive is the fact that Stallings was able to get himself as far as fifth in the lineup. I know, the Pirates lineup options are not the best, but on a normal day Stallings was in the 8-hole, so it was probably a personal accomplishment mixed with a ton of trust in production from the coaching staff. Of course it went a little downhill in September when Stallings only managed to get 9 hits in 57 at-bats, but he ended with a respectable .248 average when it was all said and done. 

While he had solid offensive production, Stallings’ defensive production was once again elite. Stallings was able to get 1 in 3 attempted base-stealers, and he also had +7 DRS (defensive runs saved), 2nd in the MLB to only Tucker Barnhart of Cincinnati. Stallings’ 2.3 framing runs saved was also among the best in the MLB. His defense was one of the main reasons he won over the trust of Chris Archer, then Joe Musgrove, and eventually the whole pitching staff last year. While Stallings didn’t win the Gold Glove this year, he should be in the mix year after year as long as he remains a starter at the catcher position.

People who should have been considered:

Colin Moran

Allow me to go back to the pre-season speculation. Pirates fans and writers knew the inevitable was going to happen at some point during the 2020 season. We were going to see the team’s top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes after a few months in Triple-A. Hayes had struggled there the year before. There were also some extremists who wanted to see Hayes on Opening Day because of Colin Moran’s defense (or lack thereof). I honestly don’t get that as Moran has hit about .280 the two seasons prior to this one with 11 and 13 homers. The universal DH would allow Moran to see less time in the field and to focus on improving his power. 

Moran started out the season scorching hot, with 4 homers in the first week of the season, and then also hit a long ball in his 8th game of the season. At one point he was tied for the league lead in home runs. After August 1st, he only hit one homer and he hit .220 overall in August. Moran’s beginning of September went better, going 4-11 with a home run in a series with the Cubs. Just like the month of August, Colin Moran went into a slump for almost the entire month of September. In his final five games of the season, he hit 2 home runs while going 7-20 and driving in 5. Four of those RBIs came in one game. Overall, Moran managed a decent .242 batting average with 10 home runs and 23 RBIs. On the field, he only played 4 games at third base, and 24 over at first base, as well as 26 as the designated hitter. Moran became a lineup mainstay, getting the majority of the time at first due to Josh Bell’s huge defensive struggles. 

Ke’Bryan Hayes

When Ke’Bryan Hayes was called up, the Pirates were at a 10-22 record and many fans were fuming at Ben Cherington and the front office because of the moves he made, or the ones he did not make for the team. Hayes had been hyped up as the number one prospect in Pittsburgh’s organization for at least a few years, along with Mitch Keller. The knock on Hayes had always been that his defense would be Gold Glove-level every year, but when it came to hitting he was always lacking both consistent contact and power, shown by his .265 average and 10 home runs in 110 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. And on the night of September 1st, he delivered with a double and a game tying homer against the Chicago Cubs and that gave all of the cardboard cutouts in attendance along with all the real people watching at home that glimmer of hope they were looking for and a glimpse into a (hopefully) bright future. 

Even after that game, there were still people from all over saying that it had to have been a fluke, it wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t proven. If they wanted proof, they could not have gotten any more proof than what Ke’Bryan Hayes did in the month of September, in which he played 24 games. Overall, he hit .376, which was impressive enough, but his on-base percentage was .442 and his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .450. Obviously this is unsustainable over a full 162 game season, but if he could get anything close it would be impressive. Hayes also put up unheard of numbers in the final week, going 14-27 with 2 home runs. Another thing that stuck out to me was the quality of the at-bats. I mean, 6 or 7 pitches every time he stepped to the plate, and even if Hayes struck out, you knew that he battled before going down. Hayes actually got one first-place vote for the Clemente Award. 

So the question is, did the BBWAA make the right choice? When it comes to the Pirates, they didn’t really have many options because the team didn’t really hit that much. I think Hayes would definitely be the choice had he been on the roster in August, but just like the Rookie of the Year, he isn’t the choice because of the lack of games played. Stallings gets my vote, but if Hayes played 10 more games he wins easily. 

Steve Blass Award (Best Pitcher)

Winner: Steven Brault

The eventual winner of the award, Brault didn’t even begin the season as a mainstay in the starting rotation. Instead, Derek Shelton opted with the piggyback strategy with Chad Kuhl, who was coming off Tommy John Surgery, and Steven Brault. It was implemented for three games, and in one of those games Brault had a perfect game going, and was lifted for Kuhl who got rocked almost immediately. Now starting on his own, Brault delivered some solid starts to a rotation that wasn’t good in 2020. His final two starts of the season were the most impressive, as Brault pitched a 1-run complete game in his penultimate start, and seven shutout innings in his final game of the campaign. Brault said his last two starts went so well because he didn’t shake off Jacob Stallings once. This is just another example of Stallings having full trust and confidence from his pitching staff, which was part of the reason he got team MVP. Not a surprise, but Brault did have the best ERA out of all the starters on the team, at 3.38. Also, Brault has been gaining trade interest from other teams, so if he does get traded, he could bring in a decent haul, especially since he’s a lefty. And even if he doesn’t, Brault would be a strong candidate for the rotation, possibly as a 4th or 5th starter or a long reliever. 

People who should have been considered:

Joe Musgrove

As with everything in 2020, pitching was a little bit different, as pitchers didn’t get anywhere near the same workload as they would have in a 162 game schedule. For example, now former Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams made 11 starts, the most on the team. In Musgrove’s case, he was only able to start 8 games due to a triceps injury. He made his first Opening Day start as well, pitching a solid 5.2 innings and yielding 3 earned runs along the way. He recreated the exact same statline in his next outing, too. Musgrove got shelled by the Twins (5 ER) in his lone August start, before landing on the injured list and not returning until the beginning of September. Musgrove’s first three starts in September were more of the same, pitching a total of 12 innings while allowing 6 runs. After being pretty inconsistent, he pitched 13 shutout innings in his final two starts of the season. Thanks to those games, Musgrove finished with a very respectable 3.86 ERA, while improving his offseason trade value at the same time. 

Richard Rodriguez

In a bullpen that included Dovydas Neverauskas, Tyler Bashlor, and Miguel Del Pozo in 2020, Richard Rodriguez was actually one of the bright spots in Pittsburgh this season. In pure RichRod fashion, it wasn’t lights out all the time, and if you don’t remember, he pitched one of the worst wild pitches of all time (look it up if you haven’t seen it, you won’t regret it). Rodriguez’s first outing on Opening Day was rough, as he allowed 2 runs and a longball, something he struggled heavily with at times in 2019. He started August pitching pretty well, only giving up runs in two of his first 8 outings. That was followed up with two consecutive games where Rodriguez gave up 4 runs (3 earned). Once he got into September, Rodriguez was back to his dominant ways, not allowing a single run in 9.2 innings pitched. He also struck out 16 in the same span. On top of that, Rodriguez was able to convert on 4 of his 5 late-season save opportunities after Nick Burdi went down with what turned out to be another major injury. His 2.70 ERA in 24 games was the best in the Pirates’ bullpen by far, and he could possibly be the closer next season for this team.

So who was the most deserving of this award? Ten of the fourteen voters ended up going with Brault, and the other four voters went with Richard Rodriguez. As much as I don’t want to pick a reliever for this award, I would have probably voted for RichRod. I know Steven Brault had an impressive finish to the season, but he was really inconsistent before that. Rodriguez, on the other hand, was extremely consistent, which was great to see considering the performances from the other pitchers in the ‘pen. I can see both sides of the argument and obviously there weren’t many choices, but Rodriguez seemed like the better choice. 

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