Brubaker Gets It Done On The Mound And With The Bat

Each time the Pirates play I hope for a win, but that feeling was even stronger for today’s game; partially because an old friend Trevor Williams was on the mound-if you listened to a second of my podcast Bucs In The Basement last season you know my feelings on him as a pitcher-but mostly because my boy Gary Morgan was there with his son to take in a Sunday Matinee at PNC Park. To be honest I wasn’t even jealous, my day to walk the Clemente Bridge and through the centerfield gates will come; I was happy he got to experience what we have been talking about for the length of our friendship. Fans in the stands cheering on the Pirates just hits different this year.

After I got past these initial emotions, I turned the MLB app, put my headphones on and listened intently as I drove down the Indiana and Ohio Turnpikes; and what a great listen it was as the Pirates gave Williams a hard time and almost broke the game wide open in the bottom of the second and third. After 3.1 innings, 75 pitches, 10 hits and 5 earned runs Trevor’s day was over thanks to many of his former teammates; including a 3 RBI day for his counterpart JT Brubaker.

With the ball in his hand, Brubaker was almost as locked in as he was with the bat. Aside from the run on his fastball causing two hit batsmen, JT had solid command, which resulted in only 1 walk, 4 strike outs, 4 hits and 1 earned run on 74 pitches across 5.1 innings. Follow Brubaker’s solid outing the Pirates Bullpen-Sam Howard, Chris Stratton, Kyle Crick and David Bednar-allowed only one more hit, didn’t walk anyone and struck four more Cubbies.

Pittsburgh would add two more runs, thanks to a Wilmer Difo laser shot in the 7th, to take the day 7-1, and their first series victory of the season.

News and Notes:

  • Bryan Reynold collected 4 hits on the day, including a well placed shift breaking bunt in the bottom of the fourth.
  • Phillip Evan’s continues to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to him in Ke’Bryan Hayes’ absence, going 2 for 5. Also if you haven’t please go read Gary’s article on Evans from earlier today.

Phillip Evans Should Not be a Casualty of Hayes’ Return to Action

  • Dustin Fowler hadn’t been completely running away with the centerfield competition, but he did have a solid day offensively and with the glove on Sunday.
  • Difo is going to make the decision difficult of who to DFA’d when Hayes returns. Extremely small sample size, but 4 for 11 with 2 doubles and a homer can’t be completely ignored.
  • Like I said I didn’t get to see the game, however, I was a little concerned about the comments made about Colin Moran looking uncomfortable after his first swing in his final at bat.

The Pirates are back at it again tomorrow at PNC Park; welcoming in the San Diego Padres for a 4 game set. For Pittsburgh. Trevor Cahill (0-1, 15.75 ERA) against Yu Darvish (0-0, 4.22 ERA); looking for his first decision of the year in his third start in a Friars uniform.

Phillip Evans Should Not be a Casualty of Hayes’ Return to Action

Phillip Evans has gotten a load of playing time since Ke’Bryan Hayes went down with an injury after an awkward swing. Fortunately for the Pirates and Ke’ the injury wasn’t too serious and while we don’t yet know exactly when he will return to action we do know he’s eligible on the 14th.

When he does return, Evans has shown he shouldn’t be forgotten.

Now, you don’t have to believe Evans is suddenly a free prospect or the new J-Hay, I’m not there yet either but he’s at the very least hitting.

He’s batting .368 with two homeruns and 0.4 WAR in the early going. Before you get off on short sample size lessons for me, I’m aware, I just don’t care. Everyone has had small samples to look at and I can’t see a way you take this bat out of the lineup at least until it cools.

Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler both have worlds of talent, potentially more than Evans but they aren’t performing. Worse than not performing, they scarcely look like they have a clue or anchor to plant their foot and move forward on.

If I’m the Pirates, I move Bryan Reynolds to Center Field and DFA Alford. Put Evans in Left and keep him in the lineup.

I’ve chosen Alford over Fowler because at least Fowler has made some semblance of contact. Alford has 14 plate appearances resulting in 3 walks and 8 strikeouts. I don’t care if you hit in front of the pitcher, that is simply not acceptable. If it’s possible the eye test is even worse than those numbers sound.

That said, I wouldn’t get upset if they chose Fowler, he’s had 14 at bats with 1 walk and 6 K’s, but at least he’s gotten 3 hits to go along. His pathetic, non-competitive strikeout against Kimbrel the other day might have been the most inept plate appearance I’ve seen.

So, either of them could go, and if someone grabs them off waivers, so be it.

Depth is one thing but the Pirates have better options right now on the club without making any major moves.

Now another option is to just send Difo back to the training site which would also risk losing him but I’d rather have his versatility than either of the two Bucco Center Fielders.

Jared Oliva is working in Florida but he too could be an option. Maybe Evans never slows down, but even so the team at some point will want to get back to a defensively solid outfield. Evans will give you 100% effort out there but he’s not exactly a natural fielder out there either.

The point is, I understood bringing both of them north from camp as both would have to clear waivers, but the leash can’t have much more length, they’ve been in a word brutal.

At some point you have to stop being shocked by Evans’ performance and just believe what he’s showing you. If you watched the post game, he isn’t going to tell you himself, he’s quiet and reserved, clearly shies from the spotlight but his bat speaks louder than Alford’s physic or Fowler’s speed.

Evans wasn’t expected to make the club out of camp, he proved us wrong.

Evans wasn’t expected to fill in admirably for Hayes, he proved us wrong.

Evans isn’t supposed to be an everyday player, he’s actively proving us wrong.

Maybe it’s time to start expecting something from Philip Evans instead of just being pleasantly surprised.

Pirates Bats Show Up Big in 8-2 Cubs Takedown – Mitch Keller Wins His First

The score, well that felt great. 8-2 and it was a crap call away from 9-2.

As the storm clouds rolled in over PNC Park tonight the Pirates had already faced a bunch of demons on a night where the skyline looked fitting.

Mitch Keller started the game shaky, walking the first man he faced and gave up a ringing double to Kris Bryant to surrender an early 1-0 lead.

He fought through the inning though, and somewhere during the sequence to Anthony Rizzo with Bryant standing at second base, Mitch pushed back. Something clicked, and he started visibly trusting what Jake threw down. The panic in his eyes was replaced by a determination to at least make them beat him by swinging the bat.

It was needed, and importantly it came before the top of the second when the Pirates brought the wood. Batting around and posting a very crooked 7 runs many of which came on clutch two out hits.

Much like it means far more to this ball club that Keller stepped up tonight than had it been Cahill or Kuhl, the bats who came to play tonight were again all the ones you’d like to see with the notable exception of Kevin Newman who didn’t start.

Therapeutic.

That’s what tonight’s ballgame was.

The relief on the faces of hitters as they systematically purged the frustration that had built up over a very tough first week of the season was incredible to see.

None of this means they’ll go on a tear now, but in a season where some players performances matter more than others, this was a treat.

News & Notes

  • It was good to see Mitch Keller put a foot down tonight, and after he got the last out in the 5th he and Shelton exchanged an emotional moment. It felt significant in that pupil finally executed on the lessons that have been taught. Really nice to see and possibly the most important thing that has happened this season for the Pirates.
  • Anthony Alford went 0-4 tonight and continued to be plagued by the strikeout. He struck out with the bases loaded in the 2nd and the club scored 7 runs around him. Even Keller hustled his way out of an inning ending double play to keep the rally alive. Can’t have that. And he’s running out of time.
  • It should be noted, the Cubs bats are possibly worse off than the Pirates.
  • In the 7th Joc Pederson popped a ball to Left field and Reynolds and Evans were both charging the ball. It was like a mirror image of how Evans broke his jaw on Polanco’s elbow last season. Whew.
  • Brian Reynolds has hit ok this season so far, but tonight he looked like the Reynolds we all knew and loved in 2019. 1 for 4 but the at bats look the way he does when he’s seeing the ball and laying off balls that are designed to undercut his swing. Again, BIG development for this team.
  • Colin Moran, ho hum, couple hits, couple walks, man is he in a zone. He’s seeing the ball like few players do. His eye at the plate is tremendous right now.
  • Get back after it tomorrow at 1:05, and I’ll be at this one so shoot me a message if you are too.
  • Phil Evans continues to show the Pirates made the right call keeping him over Todd Frazier. Another 2 hits tonight, one of which went over the wall and a walk. Played some great defense too and man what a blessing to have a guy like that figure it out.

The MLB Draft Isn’t Until July 11th

Over the past few weeks, days and months I have realized a couple of things; social media is mostly one big giant misperception when it comes to the 2021 MLB Amateur Draft and the majority of people commenting have never watched a college baseball game in their entire lives. People regularly see a 30 second video, with a tag line, never looking into the actual circumstances or stats involved in the game; as so called sports influencers look for clicks, engagements and/or follows, facts be damned.

For example, if you looked at the tweet above, how could you not believe that Kumar Rocker was the clear #1 overall pick? During his college career Rocker continually struck out batters at a rate of between 10 and 17 per 9 innings, which would obviously translate to the Major League level; ready to anchor the Pirates rotation when the window is guaranteed to open in 2023.

Obviously I am being beyond sarcastic, recognizing many within the Pittsburgh Sports Media have no clue when it comes to covering the number #1 baseball pick. As a football dominated town, the 1st round pick is a guaranteed, sure fire contributor to the team within one to two years, especially when it is a quarterback, the equivalent to an ace pitcher for the Pirates. However, a player picked in the MLB usually has a minimum of two years, but more than likely three or four before they make any sort of impact; and that’s when it’s a polished college level player.

In my heart of hearts, no matter how often it is explained, the reasoning behind promoting the Pirates top picks has resulted in a circus; with most of us dressed up like clowns when they either don’t make it to the Majors or often fail once the arrive. For a select few neither of these possibilities come to pass, and they end up having productive careers.

If you have the time it would probably behoove you to take a look at all of the first round draft picks over say the last 10 years. The number of players you couldn’t identify would easily outnumber the ones that are successful MLB players today. Nevertheless, for the benefit of time and arguments sake, I looked up all the number one overall picks dating back to the first one I can actually remember; Jeff King in 1986.

As many of you probably recall, King was selected by your Pittsburgh Pirates out of the University of Arkansas; eventually making it to the big league club in 1989. For the next 7 seasons he became the Pirates most regular man at third, before sliding across the diamond later in his career. Across 8 seasons in Pittsburgh, King accumulated 10.9 WAR before moving on to Kansas City to cap his career off with 6.0 WAR in only 3 years; which works out to be about 1.5 WAR per season, or just below the qualifications of an every day starter. Was it a successful career? Absolutely. Was he a star? Not even close.

Since this time I have witnessed an additional 30 number one overall that have at least had the opportunity to play in MLB, even if it was only 18 plate appearances for Mickey Moniak last season; so the juries still out on him. However, as for the other 29, 3 never reached the majors, 2 recorded negative WAR for their careers, 6 have earned less than 5 WAR, 4 never made it to 20 WAR, 10 existed in the 25 to 40 WAR range; and then you have Ken Griffey Jr (83.8), Chipper Jones (85.3) Alex Rodriguez (117.5) and to a slightly lesser degree, Joe Mauer (55.3)

So out of 30 number one overall picks, there have been 4 Hall of Fame caliber players, with a couple more who’s stories have yet to be fully written. Now I know baseball is a little different in that a man who fails 7 times out of 10 is likely a legend, but it’s hard to like the odds of failing with almost every 8 or 9 picks; and were talking guys that were seen as the overwhelming favorites to come off the board first, or at least in the top 3 in any given year.

So, while it’s obviously fun to have conversations of Leiter versus Rocker, or if you really want to see a Yinzers head explode, Jordan Lawlar, there is no great analysis being done with short video clips and accompanying 280 character limited tweets. If you want to get in on the discussion, read some Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus or whatever favorite Draft Analysis Site you follow; and most importantly go to high school and college games or at the very least watch them on television.

Support the sport you are promoting. And look for my draft analysis on this site, sometime in June.

Hurry Up and Wait – A Pirates Spending Reality Check

I have readers and listeners that span the spectrum of Pirates fandom. From those who say they just want to keep an eye on the team while making sure none of their money winds up in Bob Nutting’s pocket to fans who wouldn’t miss a minute and simply don’t want to hear about the owner in any capacity.

I take that as a personal achievement if I’m honest. It means that I’ve been fair covering this team, you know, the stated intent of our website.

That doesn’t mean I’ll always tell you what you want to hear, today is one of those days. Honestly, if this were all about gaining followers or readers for me I could take the easy route and just give the people what they want, a Nutting bashing that in many ways he deserves, but instead I’m going to be a wet blanket here.

I keep seeing arbitrary deadlines for when we’ll know if Bob Nutting is serious about spending to give Ben Cherington what he needs to finish the job. Most of these tend to be in 4 or 5 years, he better do what is required or I’m done. Or if he doesn’t spend in 5 years then we’ll stop going and then he’ll move the team when the lease is up for PNC Park.

First, the lease is really not going to amount to much. If anything it’ll be a renegotiation of who is responsible for upkeep and improvements. Maybe some form of an increase in rent, but it certainly isn’t some magic date where the team could easily move from Pittsburgh. MLB won’t allow it, and their desire to expand (not relocate) is the primary reason beyond being one of the two oldest ballclubs in the league.

Baseball is financially speaking, a broken sport. That’s not to say that the teams make no money, far from it. It’s to say there are teams that rake it in hand over fist and at the same time teams like the Pirates who don’t.

We’re forced to live in generalities. I say that because not one team in baseball has open books, the only number that is verified in any credible way is the end of year payroll figure that is typically released through Forbes and is universally verified by both MLB and the Players Union.

Every other salary figure you see is an estimate, some far closer than others of course, but estimates nonetheless. For instance if you read Ethan Hullihen’s stuff at all, he’ll probably be closer than anyone you look to at any given point during the season. And I mean he will spend hours figuring out where an extra 200K came from. It’s great work, but even he can’t tell you what the teams make.

Now, that’s all the game itself, nothing really about the Pirates, but this is the environment they play in and unless a miracle takes place and somehow a salary cap is implemented it doesn’t figure to change in any significant way. If anything it’s actually trending toward making it a bit harder on the teams that don’t rake in cash.

Players are going to want to see the number of years players are controlled reduce and MiLB looks to have a seat at the table to try to get the players they represent a bit more of the pie. Hey, I actually support both of those and a cap, weird right, but that’s for another column.

Sure there will be other changes like expanded playoffs and the DH, maybe even more revenue sharing, but the only transformative thing they could do is a Salary Cap and everything short of that won’t change the competitive balance issue the league clearly has.

The school of thought that the only thing that matters is if New York and LA do well can’t really be denied. As long as the other 20+ teams keep playing ball MLB will remain a coastal sport. The league won’t crumble to the ground or see teams start dropping from the league, it just won’t become competitive.

The Pirates are in a market that simply doesn’t make a ton of money. We could take fan control of the club a la Green Bay and pack the park every night for a season knowing every dollar gets spent on the team and see quickly that we still can’t touch the top tier in the league.

That said, they’d be more competitive. You know what it would look like? It would look something like Milwaukee. The ownership in Milwaukee took over and promised they’d spend every dollar they could to make the team competitive and they’ve lived up to it but it still hasn’t been enough.

Oh, they came close, but arguably not much closer than your dear Buccos.

Things can be done right, and that’s what you have to hope Ben Cherington is doing. A team like this has to develop, draft, acquire talent from all areas at their disposal and then do some more. That process can’t ever stop.

If you really want to be honest about what happened in 2016, Bob Nutting’s defining moment for not spending you first have to remind yourself the payroll actually went up from 2015 to 2016. Even while the club lost J.A. Haap to free agency and AJ Burnett to retirement.

This club had NOTHING in Indianapolis to fill the holes. So instead of going out and spending more money on quality arms, they picked up scraps, tried to make a reliever into a starter and traded Neil Walker for a prayer.

It clearly didn’t work. But it wasn’t because they refused to spend anything. It was because they could never spend enough to make up for what they were losing.

This set off a series of bad decisions by the front office and directly led to where we are now.

Where we are now is the very beginning of a build and this is where your expectations for spending start to take shape.

At this very second the only way Bob Nutting or any owner could really spend would be to direct Ben Cherington to go out and get real established players, even if that ultimately means they get moved before the team really arrives. That’s one way they could invest now, but if Cherington is to be believed (and I’m certainly not telling you that you have to) the money they don’t spend now will be available to them later.

I know, me too. But I can’t sit here and deny it’s been said or pretend that’s not the stated plan. Now, maybe that’s all crap and all they’re doing is robbing the fan base from at least having some fun while they try to acquire young talent for the future, I don’t deny this is a path that could have been taken. COULD have, but once they moved who they moved, that thought process should have ended.

Another way he could invest would be to extend someone on the club right now like Hayes. Just to show how fickle this wish is, that used to be a group of at least 3 players, Hayes, Reynolds and Keller. He could certainly extend any of them but man looking at Keller I’m kinda glad they didn’t do that this off season. Not that I can’t see him getting it, just that right now he clearly doesn’t.

Still, an investment like this would be lipstick on a pig. I suspect some folks in that spectrum I talked about would be fairly satisfied with that as ‘proof’ that this time Bob was serious. I’d remind you that he’s allowed for extensions multiple times. Polanco, Marte, Cutch, Cervelli, Harrison, Mercer, shall I continue? Again, this doesn’t mean the club shouldn’t do it, or that it wouldn’t rightly be seen as a positive sign but for the sake of intellectual honesty let’s not pretend it hasn’t happened.

Back to the 5 years down the road theory. Five years from now this team will be loaded with many of the prospects that were recently brought in. Even if they haven’t extended anyone I mentioned they could still be here, contractually speaking they should still be here providing they are part of the winning team. And depending on how they have performed over those five years through arbitration alone they would be making good money. Hell look at Chicago where Kris Bryant is on his final year of arbitration and cashed in for a little over 20 million. That’s a good comp for a player like Hayes if you leave him go unsigned. It doesn’t just become 20 million overnight, it slow walks it’s way there by a few million per season, and yes, he’ll pay it until such a time as they face losing him for nothing, again, if he goes unsigned.

The point of this is that payroll is going to go up, but not as much as you like because the reality is they’ll be surrounded by a bunch of players who are either on their rookie deals or very early arbitration.

I say all this so you understand there is no magic number for payroll that you will feel better or that Nutting has done enough.

If in five years things progress naturally, meaning they continue to build in this fashion the payroll will rest somewhere in the 75-100 million dollar range. Now if that has them one starter short or missing a solid right fielder, yes they’d have to spend but let’s just be honest, that’s not going to be a 30 million a year guy because as I’ve been trying to illustrate, that 75-100 million will on its own increase for the next campaign. Maybe it’s 90-120 now in year 6. The progression continues, and the more prospects come up together, the higher the multiplier when they reach arbitration at the same time.

This is where most teams consider the window open, this is also a place a team like Tampa would never allow themselves to get. See they’d never get to the point where they had a player like Hayes getting that kind of money from arbitration.

That’s the fork in the road here that we don’t know. Is Ben going to go that Tampa route or is he going to hope Nutting spends to help him keep the window open?

I know which one you want.

I also know Tampa is the one that has worked in this system and it still hasn’t resulted in a championship. Close but no cigar. Horseshoes and all that…

So I ask again, what was it you thought you’d see evidence of in five years? See the math just doesn’t work for satisfying what you think you need to see in that time frame. They can do more, and my numbers aren’t without wiggle room but for the most part, I’ll be very close.

Part of me thinks if they win, nobody will care. Part of me thinks a 200 million dollar payroll that falls short would mean more to some of you than a well built 130 million dollar payroll that falls just short.

Payroll is not a competition this club can win and the owner doesn’t matter one bit in this statement.

My belief is that Bob Nutting could hold a press conference tomorrow and announce that he underspent and is going to redistribute what he should have spent back out to season ticket holders and most would still loathe him.

It’s the image he’s created here by not being vocal enough when his former GM was mismanaging the club at the behest of his team president. It’s an image he’s created by never being willing to come close to his top end budget. It’s also not going to go away no matter what he spends.

If a championship is brought home to Pittsburgh one day it will undoubtedly be in spite of him regardless of the payroll number at the time. In other words if it happens to be 100 million it won’t prove him right for being cheap, and if it’s 200 million it won’t make you feel like he finally learned. Mostly because if the economic system doesn’t change, rest assured that 200 million would be a 1 or 2 year peak and not a sustainable figure. Meaning championship pieces would be on their way out of town, again.

For a fan base that is forced to stare into the future as often as we’ve been asked to over the years, it’s hard to understand how this isn’t seen by more people if I’m honest. Maybe it’s because some of our most trusted sports reporters like Bob Pompeani still think and put forward that this is as simple as Nutting not wanting to spend. It’s part of the story, but not all of it and to only push, and if I may be so bold understand part of the story creates segments of the base who simply believe the only thing stopping the Pirates from being the Cardinals is Bob Nutting.

The belief you’ll see undeniable proof in five years isn’t some fringe belief, this is coming from people I respect quite a bit too.

Note that nothing I wrote says they can’t get the job done. Nothing I wrote says you have to settle for less than winning. The only restriction I put on anything was the dream of signing a player for 30 million a year should probably be removed from your Pirates bucket list.

Since 1995 only one team has won the World Series with a payroll outside the top 15, the 2003 Florida Marlins who clocked in at 25th. I can’t sit here and tell you that payroll has no bearing on winning.

In 2015 the Pirates universally accepted best year in modern times they ranked 25th in the league. In 2016 the season Bob Nutting single handedly ‘sold off’ the entire team I say with much sense of irony they ranked 21st. Way back in 1992 the Pirates ranked 1st.

That’s right, 1st. The game has changed, and it wasn’t just having someone cheap buy the team that changed how the Pirates participate in it.

Depressed? Don’t be, because this can be done, it just can’t be done without the pain we’re watching now, and when they arrive next it will have almost nothing to do with money immediately. There will be a time when this club reaches that fork and when they do many of us will be here screaming that it’s coming. Nutting will have decisions to make and while I won’t pretend saying all the right things to Jason Mackey in his sit down mean he’s locked in to making the right call, I certainly will say we’ll know when it comes.

This isn’t an easy sport to win in and bad ownership doesn’t make it easier. I’m making no excuses for ours, and I’m not in any way saying he’s done all he could. I’m simply saying if you have a mental timeline for forgiveness or belief, at least soak in what I’m saying here and consider these points before declaring when the proof needs to be in the pudding.

And that’s the point.

A Disappointing Pirates Return To PNC

There are only three things in life that have become near certainties; death, taxes and a Pirates pitcher giving up a homer in the opening frame. Keeping in line with this train of thought, Tyler Anderson served up a dead center dinger in the top of the first to Kris Bryant; giving the Cubbies a quick 1-0 lead in the home opener at PNC Park. Luckily for Pittsburgh he would ultimately settling down and getting into a groove, throwing four scoreless; that was until Javy Baez reached down to take one into the left field bleachers, ending his day and holding him on the hook as the pitcher of record.

For the Cubs, Jake Arrieta took the mound in his second start of the season, and I immediately wondered if his strike zone would be called as friendly as it was this past Saturday in Wrigley. At times it was, but not with the same regularity; resulting in some success, but also a few hiccups that the Pirates finally took advantage of in the fourth; plating two runs and taking a brief lead.

Unfortunately, for the Pirates bases loaded with one out in the 8th was not enough to entice Pittsburgh back into the game as the Buccos fell 4-2.

News and Notes:

  • Polanco got two hits, took a walk and actually looked comfortable at the plate. Not saying it is going to continue, just an observation.
  • In two starts, Anderson has by far been the Pirates most effective pitcher, which isn’t something to write home about. 10.1 innings pitched, 12 Ks, and a 5,23 ERA.
  • Reynold’s didn’t record a hit for the first time this year. Making a note and watching his at bats more closely.
  • Dustin Fowler swung at one of the worst pitches from Craig Kimbrel I have ever seen in the 8th, with the bases loaded.
  • Sell high on Rich Rod now and forever. 3 appearances, 2.1 innings pitched, 3 Ks 1 BB, 0.00 ERA and .43 WHIP.

Tomorrow is scheduled off day, so we have to wait until 6:35 PM EST on Saturday for the next game, as Mitch Keller (0-1, 9.00 ERA) takes the mound against Zach Davies (1-0, 3.18 ERA)

The Simplest Answer

As a eighteen year old kid, straight out of the sticks, I sat down in my 8 AM college Theology course ready to be instilled with the education my parents honestly paid way too much for; probably a little hungover, or at least extremely tired from a some late night GoldenEye. Suddenly my professor began to speak in what sounded like a foreign tongue; explaining a concept that sounded so involved and difficult to decipher. Immediately, without thinking, I jotted down the principle of Occam’s Razor using the simplest equation possible, so that any idiot, including myself, could understand; don’t over explain + don’t over think = truth is in front of you. Sounds easy enough, right? Yeah, at least it should be.

Unfortunately, it is our nature to question things, even when the most straightforward answer is staring us in the face. This is especially true as a baseball fan, who tries to use advanced metrics or other any other reasoning possible to try to explain why our team, or an individual player, is successful, could turn things around, is failing, or in the worst case scenario, will continue to flounder. Ultimately we are are looking for ways to prove that our analysis is right, when honestly we should just work on accepting the truth.

This concept is one that may hit a little close to home for the Pirates faithful, because if I am being honest, they are looking for any reason to have hope; and genuinely I can’t blame them on the account of the fact that I am one of them.

Prior to the start of the season many were made to think Anthony Alford could be the answer in centerfield, Gregory Polanco should bring back a ransom if he played well, a rotation absent a proven starter would perform well, a strong bullpen was the answer to keep the Pirates in games, defense was the most effective way to help out less than experienced pitching and that glimpses of promise shown in Spring Training could be easily replicated.

However, after seeing this team play in several meaningful games, there can’t be any way for even the most optimistic fan to hold on to the original aspirations for a Pirates. There was absolutely no realistic scenario where every single player was going to be the best version of themselves that they have ever been; you know the 30 second clips of their best pitches or the one home run they hit sandwiched in between 10 strikeouts. Sure things can improve incrementally for individual players, and for some it better; but as a team we had to know the results weren’t going to be there immediately.

For a team, such as the Pirates, that is obviously in the early stages of a rebuild, there aren’t as many reasons to get up for game time when the end result is almost certain; which is where the coaching staff comes in. While they aren’t miracle workers, it shouldn’t be too much to ask to for your team to look and play like professionals, rather than watching them make mental and physical errors each and every game. In the end it all comes back to fundamentals.

Being fundamentally sound will sometimes be the only way a team with less skill level is able to compete; and I hope you know I am not taking about division titles, or at the very least steadily showing improvement by not making the same mistakes on a constant basis.

Now, I am pretty confident in assuming that this isn’t the type of article you expected to read on the morning of a home opener, and it absolutely isn’t the one I wanted to write. However, this is where the Pirates are, like it or not. There a long road ahead, no need to over think it; because the truth is right in front of us.

Pirates Lose 11-4, but They Started Losing This One in the Spring

Same story, different day.

Stop me if you heard this one. The Pirates starting pitcher gave up a gopher ball to lead off the game and then the defense jumped in to make sure it got worse.

We’ll get back to more of what went wrong but let’s backtrack just a bit, all the way back to Spring Training.

First, I fully understand Chad Kuhl was away from camp and that stunted his process a bit, but overall the Pirates paid very little attention to getting the starters in a place where 5 or 6 innings would be a possibility. In fact back in 2020 Mr. Shelton bragged at how proud he was to have his pitchers stretched out to five innings, even as we watched the Indians starters go 7 or 8 in the tune up games. We knew this would be an issue, and it was. Here we are again, another Spring spent not focusing on getting the pitchers ready to provide some length and another season of everyone but the staff realizing this was an issue.

Just so you don’t think I’m picking on a bad start, I wrote about this being an issue I was concerned about WAAAAAY back in the first week of Spring.

The team philosophy has been to amass arms and they stated the probability of using upwards of 25 of them this season. OK I thought, I can see that, the team and hey all teams for that matter are going into the unknown a bit this year, but does that mean we can’t get the starters ready to give you five or six?

They stretched some of them out, Tyler Anderson, Chase De Jong, JT Brubaker to name the couple I can think of who actually started putting together something that resembled a start during camp. One of them didn’t even make the club as you know.

Now the season starts and you have Chad Kuhl who was built up to maybe 60 pitches if I’m being kind. Tyler Anderson who was looking ok for 80 or so, same for Brubaker. Cahill just arrived and got out a couple times, never more than 2 or 3 innings. Keller went as deep as 3, 4 if you count coming out and going back in.

Why?

Why not focus on setting them up to do the job they were assigned? I’d tell you it’s killing the bullpen but in reality it hardly matters by the time they hand it off to the pen. They’re tossing a ton of innings but honestly it’s garbage time.

Clay Holmes blew up yesterday, Chris Stratton today, and Feliz both days. Who cares? By the time any of them came in the game was long since out of hand. They just want contact and innings at that point, so who knows where they really are in their progression.

Save telling me that Feliz sucks or Holmes sucks, it’s really not the point. The point is Mariano Rivera wouldn’t come in down 10-0 and throw his best stuff with gusto.

The rotation wasn’t going to be good, that’s a fact that I defy you to show me anyone serious disputing all off season. But what the Pirates did this Spring is nothing short of setting them up for failure.

It’s a systemic failure, one that its far too late to correct. At this point they can only be stretched out by pitching during the regular season and that is going to require some of them wearing it.

The way things have started, it’s hard to see sticking with who they began with for long. Even if the record doesn’t matter this year, which it certainly doesn’t, nobody is going to learn or improve when the club is down by five after an inning or two every night.

Wil Crowe, Miguel Yajure, Chase De Jong and even the knuckleballing gimmick Wright will make their way up here soon if things don’t change and being that 3 of the five starters have little to no chance to be on this team past this season, maybe that’s how it should be anyway.

Sure hope they’re stretching them out at the training site, you know, learning lessons from the failures of the very recent past.

We’re six games in to the 2021 season and the Pirates are 1-5, that’s not a shock. The fact that everything they worked on and preached all Spring happen to be in a complete freefall is.

What I think we’re watching isn’t just a bad team. It’s a bad team that on top of needing to maximize the talent they have came into the season not prepared to put their best foot forward by simply not preparing some of their “arms” to give the club anything resembling a start.

If you want to know why I’m not spending a bunch of time feeding you a line about how encouraging the 9th inning was, it’s because it didn’t matter, in any way. They were down 11 and took advantage of a rusty closer in a VERY non save situation.

Time to find a way to reset the club, a home opener should help from a mentality standpoint, but it still won’t help them recover from the awful position management helped put them in from the jump.

News & Notes

  • Chad Kuhl pitched a regrettable 1st inning then fought through 3 more but the starting pitching we all expected to see is certainly not outperforming.
  • Wilmer Difo had 3 hits, normally that would be a beacon in an otherwise bleak landscape, unfortunately he had an inexcusable error in the first to make things worse than they already were and then made an error on the base path to fail to score on an extra base hit from second base.
  • Phil Evans had a hit, but he too made a terrible play in LF allowing a 9th run to cross the plate, not that it mattered for much beyond simply noting it happened.
  • Professional at bats remain few and far between, today Colin Moran was the only one who seemed to have an approach and he was held hitless.
  • David Bednar even got in on the act giving up back to back solo shots.

It Counts as One Loss

Ok, so that sucked. 14-1 isn’t ever going to look good.

Losing by two touchdowns to your biggest rival would stink in any sport, no matter where you are in your development. It happens, especially in that ballpark, but this wasn’t just a bad outing no this one showed some things that denying won’t fix.

The recipe for the Pirates to make everything work is one of very precise measurement. One ounce too much of bad starting pitching and the soufflé will fall. Two or three too many bad at bats and an inning turns over too quick sending that shell shocked starter right back out.

I’d love to say this was a bunch of bad luck, because there legitimately were just an incredible amount of bloops and seeing eye ground balls all night, but when the offense only goes out there and puts 5 hits and 1 walk together as an offensive ‘attack’, well it’s hard to say luck had much to do with it. Maybe luck made it worse than 6-1, that’s about as far as I can go.

Truth is, from the moment Ke’Bryan Hayes went down with a wrist injury the team just deflated. It’s been visible, and just about undeniable.

Phil Evans, Bryan Reynolds, Jacob Stallings and Colin Moran, Buccos fans, meet the four individuals on the ball club who haven’t looked like Hayes being hurt meant we’re on break.

In fact in last night’s contest the most shocking stat might be that the Pirates were only tagged with one error.

It’s an all around collapse of an entire team philosophy at the plate, and if it’s a leadership issue, at least one of two things must be true. One, they never had a leader or two, their leader is a 24 year old who is on IL.

Either of those would be a bad sign honestly.

I’m being dramatic of course, about every aspect of this one loss if I’m being straight with you. But I can’t deny that from the moment Hayes went down the team has looked different in every aspect of play. Defensively, the approach at the plate, even on the mound.

I hate to make too much of it, after all we spent the entire off season telling each other they’d stink to different degrees, so this shouldn’t exactly shock us.

Even Trevor Cahill’s performance was expected. I just said on my podcast last week that Cahill will either get crushed, strike everyone out or somehow muddle through, but one thing he won’t do is change the pitches he throws to get to the outcome. In other words, he’ll not change what he throws or how he throws it, the difference will be the type of swings that get put on his stuff.

That’s very true. Craig Toth likes to refer to him as a right handed Derek Holland and while that might give you night sweats to think about he’s dead on. Every once in a while that’s going to look good, just not often enough for you to ever call him good.

The defense has been another story because the issues have largely come from a position most of us considered to be completely covered, second base. The error isn’t always the story. Sometimes it’s the plays that don’t get called. For instance in the early going Monday when Phil Evans threw to second base trying to start a double play and the Pirates ended up getting nobody out.

He received the ball and delivered a strike to Frazier, so no error. But Evans could have been a bit quicker to release the ball and Frazier could have realized the play was slow developing and stretched toward Phil to ensure they got the lead runner. Instead he stayed in double play receiving position and they got nothing.

Small play, but it’s part of what helps Frazier keep his numbers looking clean most of the time while still not impressing most who watch him everyday with the glove. Again, that’s not all on him and if Hayes is there that ball is on him like white on rice. But this isn’t a club that can afford to give plays away.

I’m not here to tell you this is all about effort or execution.

Most nights the reality is this team doesn’t have enough to win. We said it before the season, and just because they’re actually playing doesn’t mean that has changed. They are however good enough that games getting this out of control shouldn’t be a thing, at least not a common occurrence.

Clearly once does not make a common occurrence but it sure was three games worth of bad piled into one wasn’t it?

Sometimes games like that break out and there is a fight at the bat rack, hell even the Pirates of last season posted 10 once, but it’s safe to say they need to tighten some approaches up and get back to the patient at bats they were trying to take in the opener.

Kyle Hendricks hasn’t been the only pitcher they’ve faced who was missing the zone, but he’s the only one they’ve made pay.

The patient, opposite field approach that we watched all Spring and in the first game of the season just largely disappeared. With four players trying to keep the ship moving forward there are plenty of opportunities for pitching to tiptoe through the minefield and get their outs around those few.

Look, I’m not big on believing a coach can yell his guys into staying on script much less being good, but at the very least I’d like to see them look like they have some interest in trying to get back to what worked. And if anyone on this club wants to call themselves part of the solution, maybe start solving some things.

Pirates Can’t Fend Off The Reds Attack

Prior to the second game, of a three series at Great American Small Park, the announcement of Gregory Polanco being on the bench with Phillip Evans in his place brought exuberant applause from many a Pirates Fan; and in all honestly how could you blame them after his 1 for 14 start to the season. Looking lost at the plate at times, as well as in the field, it was almost a no-brainer to give him the night off in favor of the streaking Evans; who had homered the previous night to follow up a three hit performance on Easter Sunday.

On the mound for Pittsburgh was a bit of a wild card in the form of Trevor Cahill; brought in by the Pirates toward the end of Spring Training, and appearing in only two games, Cahill had spent the majority of his past two seasons as a regular starter that was eventually relegated to the bullpen during his time with both the Angels and Giants. In Los Angeles he struggled in the role of a reliever/opener, but thrived for the Giants as he once had with the Cubs; posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.200 WHIP with 31 Ks in 25 innings.

As I sat down to watch the game I was cautiously optimistic about both situations, however, part of this enthusiasm was quickly swept away as the Reds leadoff hitter, Tyler Naquin, took Cahill’s offering deep, over the right field wall. Then it was ultimately crushed in the bottom of the second as Naquin homered again, this time with two runners on base, to give Cincinnati a 5-0 lead. Throw in an error, a wild pitch, a couple more innings, two more runs and Cahill’s day was done after 4 innings.

Unfortunately, even with Cahill out, the Pirates day didn’t get any better. Clay Homes lasted only a third of an inning; surrendering three runs of his own and getting stuck with five total when Duane Underwood Jr. allowed his inherited runners to score on a Naquin single; bringing the Reds total to 12 on 14 hits.

Meanwhile the Pirates did their very best to make the Reds lefty, Wade Miley look like a Cy Young candidate by only compiling 2 hits and striking out 6 times through 6 innings. Eventually some of the initial hope was restored when Evans homered in the top of the seventh, his second in as many days, but after that I was almost praying for the game to end quickly before things got any worse; which was near impossible at that point.

When all was said and done the Pirates fell to the Reds 14-1 in an all out shellacking in Cincinnati.

News and Notes:

  • The Reds Tyler Naquin went 3 for 4 with 7 RBIs.
  • Phillip Evans is now 5 for 12 on the season with 2 homers, and pitched a scoreless bottom of the 8th, so there’s that.
  • Bryan Reynolds has at least one hit in all 5 games.
  • Dustin Fowler recorded his second hit of the season, while Anthony Alford is now 0 for 10 with 7 Ks.
  • The Pirates only have one game without an error this season. Tonight obviously wasn’t the one.

The Pirates and Reds are back at it at 12:35 PM EST, as Pittsburgh looks to avoid the sweep, with Chad Kuhl (0-0, 3.00 ERA) on the mound for his second start of the season. For the Reds, Luis Castillo (0-1, 21.60 ERA) is looking to bounce back from his disastrous first outing of the season.