4-18-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Hey, if you had the Pirates a game over .500 right now, I’d love to see the receipts. More than that I’d love to see the replies you surely got in return for your bold prediction. That’s baseball though, people often predict doom based on only looking at the roster in front of them, and ignore the horrors going on with some of the other teams they’ll be playing. Think Washington wouldn’t kill to swap pitching staffs right now? Minus those on IL of course.
Let’s dig in.
1. Attitude Will Get You Only So Far…
Look, this team isn’t going to get by on good looks and a wry smile all season long. That said, some of the players have been really vocal about liking not only what this club is building, but also what’s here currently.
Let’s start with Ben Gamel via Alex Stumpf, “No one really gave us a puncher’s chance, and we’re just going out there, having fun and playing baseball.” First of all, that sounds like the verbalization for how Gamel plays the game, but more than anything, why would Gamel care about what’s coming or who’s on the way? He’s here now, with no guarantee he’ll be here beyond this season, if all of this one. Uncertainty aside, he plays like every game is his last, and I have nothing but mad respect for it.
How about Wil Crowe, this one is from Mike Persak “Our key is to win. … That rebuild crap is annoying to hear. No one wants to hear it. We’re trying to win, and if that’s how we’re going to do it, that’s how we’re going to do it.” I LOVE this. It’s what I’ve written hundreds of times, put to near syphonic words by Mr. Crowe. These guys don’t believe they’re stepping stones and this player in particular, doesn’t care if he’s starting, middle relief, closing or throwing batting practice, he just wants to put on the ol’ Tennessee boy game face and give what he has.
Want one more? Sure ya do. How about Ke’Bryan Hayes? This too from Alex Stumpf “I paid attention to [Starling Marte], Cutch [Andrew McCutchen], Josh Harrison. What was the first thing they did when they got to the field? Making sure you do that little stuff [right] is what I think is important to be a leader on the team.” The dude recognizes what came before him, knows what’s in front of him and more importantly, knows what he wants to do to attack it.
None of this means this team is going to shock the baseball world in 2022, but all of it means the culture is really coming together. The attitude is in the right place and when infused with talent, that kind of intangible stuff will act as the glue that binds this whole thing together.
This stuff may seem like just words, and bluntly, they are, but they’re also signals that some of the guys in that room aren’t waiting for Nick Gonzales or Henry Davis to walk through the door to believe they can win.
2. When a Guy Shows You Who He Is…
Michael Chavis was a top prospect in Boston and many assumed a pet project for Ben Cherington when he was acquired last year from the Sox. All Michael has done since is hit, well, when he’s stayed healthy that is.
Thing is, it’s not like Chavis bombed out in Boston. He had some injuries that slowed his progression and got pinged for 80 games for taking dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, try saying that one Mary Poppins, in 2018, but his initial entry to MLB was nothing short of impressive.
In 2019 he hit 18 home runs and 10 doubles in only 347 at bats for a slugging percentage of .444 and an OPS of .766. OK, he struck out 127 times too, but that kind of production overshadows K rate to a degree.
Boston would give him another look in 2020 where he played in 42 games, 158 plate appearances. He cut down the strikeout percentage a bit, but everything else fell too.
He’d never really be given a chance again before being moved to Pittsburgh and in his time here he’s proven to be a capable 3rd baseman, 2nd baseman, first baseman and DH. His OPS numbers in 2021 before getting injured were at .857 in his 42 PA and he’s doing what he’s doing this year which you’ve seen.
Next season he hits arbitration for the first time, and while many in this town have prospect fever, rightfully so, I look at Michael and ask, why not him? If given enough at bats which the DH should make more than possible, 20 homeruns isn’t out of the question by any means and the versatility makes him a valuable commodity off the bench even if god willing that’s not good enough to start here some day.
it’s early, I’m not saying anything has been decided or should be, but I am saying, this kid has taken an opportunity and run with it. I’d like to see this team show him and indeed others that means something in this town on this team.
3. The Pitching Staff, a Nameless, Shapeless, Unit
Derek Shelton has said he plans to use his pitching staff differently. I’m not sure any of us really knew how much he meant this when he spoke it to the media.
Sure the starters aren’t stretched out all the way, but what we’ve seen is there are no egos in the unit, and more than anything, no assigned roles.
If the Pirates want David Bednar to get the last out in the 7th because it’s an especially big time in the game then toss another inning on top of it, so be it. David doesn’t care about the save stat any more than Wil Crowe cares if he’s pithing the first five innings or the next three.
They’ll have a rotation, and sometimes they’re going to have it and give this club 6 or 7 innings, nobody has hard and fast ruled out seeing a lineup more than twice. But you aren’t going to see starters on this team lose their minds because they get pulled in the 4th with 65 pitches.
Part of that culture we touched on in thought 1 up there is evident here too. This team is a collective and it’s not going to look traditional. Every arm they have is capable of giving more than one inning. Every lefty is capable of getting righties out. Every starter could just as easily pitch the 6th, 7th and 8th.
We’ve seen things like this in the American league especially in Tampa Bay, but saying it and doing it are often two different things. If it were easy to get an entire staff to check their egos at the door, more teams would do it just to keep wages down.
I think this is a good approach for this season, but I’m equally curious to see how it works when more of the legit top end starting arms begin arriving.
As to this season, they have reinforcements who could slot right in to what they’re trying to get done. Max Kranick, Cody Bolton, Cam Vieux, on top of the couple we see already factoring in like Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras.
As we move forward this year, when a need arises, think less starter vs reliever and more arm.
4. Those Gold Gloves Weren’t Accidents
OK folks, let me fall on my sword a bit here.
I still don’t like the Stallings trade because of the hole I see in 2023. I love the return they got for him though, and they’re all performing.
Here’s the sword part. I thought Roberto Perez would be at best equal to Stallings behind the plate and I worried about his health, still do.
I was at least a little wrong.
That’s right, better.
Watching him handle this pitching staff has just opened my eyes. Early struggles from starters have universally been met by the starter getting their bearings and muscling through to wind up having a decent outing overall. It’s enabled the Pirates to win five games via the comeback already.
Roberto Perez is more responsible for this than you’d believe. He has a plan of course developed by the pitching staff and the analytics but really watch what he does behind the plate. Early on Bryse Wilson wasn’t hitting his spots and after nursing him through an inning of missing and getting whacked, Roberto made a subtle change in his receiving. Instead of waiting for Wilson to find his handle on breaking pitches, he just adjusted his target to adapt to how Bryse was letting it fly that day. Before you know it, curves that were missing low are now ticking the corner. Fastballs that were sailing are now nipping the top of the zone.
It seems simple and if that was the only example I’d leave it there. An anomaly. Then Sunday happened, and it was the second time I had watched Jose Quintana pitch in person this season, both times he was missing early, both times Perez adapted the targets.
Rather than stop calling a pitch that the guy is struggling with and rendering the pitcher predictable, Roberto adjusts the target to make today’s stuff work for the pitcher.
How many times have we watched guys thrive in Cleveland, then get traded elsewhere and never recapture what made them who they had become? Maybe there was a trick to it.
It’s also not a one size fits all adjustment. For David Bednar after watching 6 pitches Perez charged out to the mound. Not a slow walk to get a breather, not a job to let the guy think, a full charge out with ball in hand, even forgot to call time and had to turn around half way to the mound.
He covered his mouth, spoke quickly, handed the ball back and David didn’t miss another spot. What did he say, we’ll never know, point is though, he didn’t change where the glove was for David. Knowing the pitcher he knew parlor tricks weren’t going to get him where he needed to be. He’d get the save yesterday without his best stuff and emphatically point at his veteran backstop after completing the game as if to say, “You, did this”.
This guy is not just a catcher folks. Next game you watch really watch him, it’s different than what you’ve seen and you’ll notice this without having someone like me tell you about it.
5. 9 of 13
The Pirates to their credit ended their first three series of the season a game over .500, but the next stretch has them playing 6 against the Brewers and 3 against the Padres surrounding a 4 game set against the Cubs.
These are two legitimate playoff teams and after this stretch I think we’ll see a better representative of what this team can be this season.
One thing I can say is they won’t do much unless some power makes the trip. This team needs to his longballs, especially when they play in places like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Chicago. You simply aren’t going to beat those teams at home without playing the long ball game.
Pair that with the pitching staff still giving up way too many gopher balls and this trip makes for a scary stretch.
Maybe resting Reynolds and Hayes yesterday will mean they’ll play the vast majority of these upcoming games, but unless they get some help from guys who haven’t hit for much power yet like Yoshi Tsutsugo it’s going to be a struggle.
Look out, because with a team like this the line between slightly optimistic and overt despair is very thin.