Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

5-22-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

They can hit. They can’t hit. They can pitch, they can’t pitch.

Welcome to what a .500 team looks like. Despite their start to 2023, the Pirates have played the best part of May being the worst version of themselves and it’s got all of us up in our feels.

Are they awful? Are they a dominant team that went into hibernation? Does anyone have answers? Are any of the prospects answers right now?

All I know is, most people didn’t have or want to have any of these questions when they were playing way above projection, playing below hits different.

1. The Frantic Look for Answers

This baseball team started this month simply not needing to answer any questions. Pick an aspect of this team that was struggling and you could point to 10 reasons it didn’t matter. For instance, Rodolfo Castro struggling at SS and to hit right handed pitching was largely ignored early on. Why? Well, the team was overcoming it, and doing so with so much daylight between success and failure that discussing it was seen as trying to find issues when there simply weren’t any.

Same with the staff. We loved all the quality starts from the rotation, but nobody wanted to mention pitching with a lead or pitching while backed by a team that was crushing baseballs every day changes the way you approach an outing.

Everything works together, and when you have a mediocre team, you tend to see more extremes on either side.

There are exceptions to that rule and to be frank we haven’t had many in Pittsburgh over the years, but Mitch Keller has shown the way. He is capable of being the reason this team wins almost all on his own in any given game.

For the Pirates to succeed, one side of the ball will need to stop letting the other influence their performance.

Sounds super easy, but clearly, it’s not. At least not for most. In May of 2022 for instance, Keller would have worn the weight of the world every time out on his shoulders and his performance would likely have suffered for it.

I firmly believe they aren’t as good as they were, and they also aren’t as bad as they’ve been, but the players need to believe it too.

It’s a small thing, but I’ve seen something over this rough patch. I’ve seen the exuberance dissipate in the dugout when something positive does come. Homeruns aren’t always met with the jacket and sword anymore, nobody wants to be the guy celebrating a relative drop in the bucket of offense when the team is barely damping a towel.

When a pitcher really shoves like Keller, the rest of the team is quiet. Oh, super complimentary of Mitch, very appreciative of his effort, clearly upset they couldn’t make the game the laugher they wanted but happy for the win and almost impotent to help create it.

This team needs to get back to enjoying the game.

My advice, cut loose. Don’t worry what you look like, celebrate like this downturn didn’t happen and climb back on the horse.

When you start a season like that it brings about something most fans don’t really think about, massive amounts of pressure. Every team in Spring will tell you they love the group of guys, think they’re very talented, we’re gonna make some noise!, nobody believes in us but we know what’s in that room… you all know the clichés, but then it actually looks real, and holy cow boys, we really might have something here.

Another cliché you’ll hear a lot about a team coming out of a rebuild is they have to “learn how to win”, and here’s the thing folks, it’s real. If you want to know how tough someone is, punch them in the mouth and see how they react.

In May, the Pirates have decided to not swing back as much as hide behind the snack bar at the park.

The turnaround will come from small things. A 1-0 win, a walk off win when all looked lost, a non star getting hotter than the sun, but it won’t come from gripping the handle of the bat too tight or feeling you can’t miss a spot cause your team can’t overcome two runs.

2. Change the Formula

I love the idea of a bullpen developing an established back end. Colin Holderman and David Bednar have done that largely and for the most part when the game is handed to them, it’s time to switch off the lights.

You’d like one more, someone you can toss in the 7th and the Pirates have some candidates. Robert Stephenson who before his last two outings had gone 9 straight scoreless, effortless even, Dauri Moreta who still probably walks a few too many to be in that spot and Jose Hernandez who has simply looked great most of the time.

That’s great, but when your team is on a 4-13 stretch, you may need to start seeing this differently.

For instance, Holderman and Bednar simply don’t pitch much when the team isn’t winning, so maybe the standard for when they enter a game needs to at least temporarily change.

Let’s say the Pirates are down 3-1 in the 6th. Typically, this is when Derek Shelton (or any coach really) will send out some of their middling arms. This is where you get your Chase DeJong, or Wil Crowe types. This is when you tend to get the outing for Rob Z., but maybe it’s time to start valuing staying in a game at least on the level of trying to close one out.

This happens all over the league, but when a team gets into a funk like this, in the most counterintuitive move of all most teams will simply not play their best relievers, like at all. When you’ve lost 2 of 5, ok, no biggie, they’ll get back in there, its no biggie, but when you’ve lost 9 of 13 and are in danger of squandering a historically good start, maybe you need to think more about preserving a chance to win than hoping guys you wouldn’t count on to hold a lead will keep you 2 down.

Look, I know this for the most part can’t be the way they think of the bullpen, but in an effort to break the spell, keep the team in the game needs to trump we aren’t leading.

To break out of this funk, you can’t afford to have your best relievers growing barnacles on their ass.

3. Cutch at Leadoff?

Hey, I wouldn’t normally endorse it, but in the Spirit of point number 2, different is ok when trying to break the spell and to his credit, Cutch has responded.

As we move along, I’d prefer he drop back a bit in the lineup but for now, it’s working. The Lineup looks short but that’s bound to happen when guys like Carlos Santana simply aren’t hitting.

The leadoff spot is simply not what it was in baseball, analytics have changed it entirely and for those of us who grew up thinking it needs to be a speedster, well, tough. Cutch early in the season would have been a great fit up there as he was getting on base damn near half the time, but as he’s cooled, well, let’s just say, I don’t see this being a long stretch.

Those of you still wanting Bae to get a crack, I’m not pushing for it until his OBP stops flirting with .300, that’s simply not high enough to matter, and he also has an issue making his speed matter having been thrown out 4 straight steal attempts.

I could make an argument that Reynolds would be the best based on straight up analytics but you can see why they leave him be.

An interesting guy to go with next in my eyes would be Tucapita Marcano. He has the speed, takes a good at bat, and he’s able to pop one on occasion too. Putting one of those types at the very top, lengthens everything out a bit and before too long I think the Pirates will have to make a change like this. In fact, I hope they’re preparing for Oneil Cruz to drop in the order upon his return.

4. What’s Up with Castro?

Rodolfo Castro has 20-25 homerun potential. This is easily provable from his MLB track record, and his overall power tool. He’s also struggled as a left handed hitter since being promoted to MLB.

This season Here are his splits.

Look, it’s not good, but honestly, it’s not so dire that he should rot on the bench. In the entire month of May he has all of 32 at bats.

There are mixed reports about what the Pirates are doing with him. For one thing, he’s not playing, and further, nobody has publicly said much more than they want to get him in advantageous situations.


But what is the sitting part accomplishing? Are they dropping switch hitting? Is he a straight platoon player now? Are they working on fixing whatever they see that’s preventing him from getting it together as a lefty?

Here’s what I know.

As of right now, they don’t plan to drop the switch hitting, although it’s been discussed. What they are doing is shielding him form right handed pitching as much as possible while they work with him on his approach.

Recently, he’s had two at bats against a lefty. The first was a position player and he took the at bat right handed. The next was against Arizona and he sharply singled left handed.

With the team struggling to hit, it seems counter to the cause to sit a guy who can provide at least some instant offense, but it’s clear this process is more important to them.

Why not send him down to work on this stuff? For one thing, they have 4 guys for the middle infield on the MLB roster but they’re just as anxious to use Owings in games as they are Castro right now. I don’t as we sit here see anyone who should be up who’s missing an opportunity and at the end of the day, he’s important enough to trust the MLB staff to instruct here.

Bottom line, I understand it, but enough, 5 of his 11 homeruns in 2022 were hit left handed. The power potential is there, and absent a clearly better alternative, Castro needs to play.

5. Adjustments Take Too Long

There’s a balance in baseball. Tinker too much and never give time for adjustments to take hold or even understand if you addressed the right target. Tinker too late and bad habits are already entrenched, creating a situation where you feel like you have to deconstruct and rebuild a facet of what you’re doing.

The Pirates as a team tend to take a bit too long to adjust in my mind.

An example.

The Pirates hitters started the year on fire. Taking a patient approach at the plate, seemingly always in good hitter’s counts and pounding the ball when the pitcher was inevitably forced into the zone.

Well, as the weather heated up and pitchers started finding the zone more in the first place, the Pirates never adjusted. It was a solid 2 weeks before some members of the lineup started expanding their target zones. A full two weeks before most caught on that pitchers were no longer trying to get a chase to get ahead.

Now that they’re finally onto it, you’ve seen them have success against who? The best early season pitchers in the game. Opening day starter types. Why? Well, those guys throw strikes and the Pirates are finally ready to swing.

Look what they did to Zac Gallen the other day. He was in the zone early, the Pirates hit him and then he started missing the zone trying to live on the edges, and finally, the patient approach was there for the Pirates to take advantage of.

All of that success stemmed from attacking early, not sitting back waiting for the pitcher to put himself in trouble only to find themselves down 0-2.

These adjustments are harder than someone in the dugout just throwing up a signal, I’m not naïve here, but it also shouldn’t take 2 weeks to understand what was working wasn’t going to play for a while.

This is where Andy Haines should ultimately be evaluated. Not on who he worked with in the offseason, not on who he made awesome or who stinks, it’s more about how they adjust.

I gave Haines crap for 2022. I gave him praise for the start to 2023. Now I’m saying, one month doesn’t win anything, show us how you adjust. More than anything, show me that the league can’t figure out the team approach in half an inning like most of us fans can.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

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