Top O’The Metric To Yinz: Patient at the Plate

Throughout the years certain stats have been considered to be on the forefront or more highly regarded by experts. For the longest time Batting Average, Home Runs and Runs Batted In were thought of as the gold standard for judging a player’s ability, hence the Triple Crown. Now I am not downplaying these stats and especially not this achievement, as any person who leads or is near the top in these categories would most likely be successful according to any of the advanced metrics. Still there is some benefit to looking beyond the basic statistics in attempt to predict future performance as it pertains to contributions to their team.

Over the next few weeks I will be looking at a specific advanced stats and discusing how the Pirates stacked up against each other, as well as the rest of the league, in each category. Since most conversations start on the offensive side of the game, because chicks dig the long ball, it makes sense to begin with the Pirates batters; although the statistic I wanted to start with is not nearly as exciting.

BB% is just as simple as it looks. Walk Rate or Percentage is the number of walks that a batter earns on a per plate appearance basis; calculated by dividing the number of walks but the number of plate appearances. If a player is able to draw walks on a more consistent basis, they are likely better at differentiating between whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. This often leads to not only getting on base more, which Billy Beane has taught us is important, but also has a direct correlation to swinging at pitches that they can make effective contact with.

This past season in Major League Baseball it is no surprise that the three players with the best BB% were Mike Trout (18.3%), Yasmani Grandal (17.2%) and Alex Bregman (17.2%). These players not only have advanced plate discipline, but have also earned the respect of pitchers that may use a less direct approach with them; pitching around them or issuing intentional/unintentional walks. The players with the worst BB% were Kevin Pilar (2.8%), Tim Anderson (2.9%) and Hanser Alberto (2.9%). This deficiency can be counteracted by other skill sets, which is something that will be addressed in future articles, but can be used to predict difficulty in maintaining success.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 there was some surprising information that I discovered when looking at the BB%, as to the players that had a higher rate than I expected based on the good old eye test. However, some of the numbers proved what I already believe to be true. For the purpose of this being a prediction of future performance I will not be addressing player who are not longer on the Pirates roster.

Top 3 Pirates-BB%

1) Josh Bell (12.1%): This is extremely encouraging to see considering my personal assessment of Bell falling victim to the low outside pitches and his inability to lay off of them. With Bell showing his power potential it is very possible that pitchers have also started to give him the respect he deserves and have started to pitch around him at times. I look forward to seeing how Bell continues to adjust and grow as a hitter.

2) Bryan Reynolds (8.4%): It is nice to see a young hitter exhibit patience at the plate. Reynolds’ BB% is slightly below the league average of 10.55%, but can always improve as he becomes more comfortable at facing MLB caliber pitchers. On the other hand pitchers will also be adjusting to Reynolds’ approach so it is possible that this rate will remain the same.

3) Jacob Stallings (7.6%): Stallings is another player that is still getting used to MLB pitching on a consistent basis after being a regular September call up. His performance is also below average, but still has the capacity to improve. Even if this becomes the norm for Stallings it is promising in predicting his abilities to be an every day player for the Pirates.

Bottom 3 Pirates-BB%

1) Kevin Newman (5.3%): As the player that became the main leadoff hitter for the Pirates last season this brings up some concerns moving forward. Successful leadoff hitters by their nature have an above average ability to get on base. If Newman is unable to improve upon these current struggles, it could possibly be an indicator of an inability to maintain the accomplishments he experienced in his rookie season.

2) Erik Gonzalez (5.8%): Due to his injury Gonzalez did not have the opportunity to receive consistent plate appearances until the end of the season. It is possible that he was more anxious in his approach at the plate in an attempt to prove himself and justify his spot on the roster. However, if this becomes a pattern it will become more difficult to defend his place on the Pirates 26 or 40 man.

3) Colin Moran (6.0%): For the opponents of Colin Moran as the everyday 3rd Basemen for the Pirates this is just another statistic for them to use to defend their position. Improvements can always be made, but as time passes this ability to change becomes less likely and takes more effort on the part of the player to make the adjustment. It is very likely that Moran is the player we have come to know.

Obviously this is just one small glimpse into the type of hitter that each player is or could be. Many other statistics go into making an informed assessment of a player’s ability or potential and the last thing I want to do is overemphasize the importance of simply getting on base. As we look at more advanced statistics over the coming weeks a more complete and clear picture of each Pirates player will start to develop.

For Some, Disaster Equals Opportunity

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Rahm Emanuel

Put aside your individual political leanings for at least the duration of this column, and take that quote at face value, rather than dismiss or accept it based on who said it. This may not be the most palatable utterance but if you’re honest, you know it’s true, it’s damn true.

That’s why disaster bills are filled with pork and earmarks, the urgency to get the needed action done lowers the depth heels are dug in and principals flutter off into the wind.

So why would MLB be different? News broke yesterday that Tony Clark, the Players Union chief had put out a statement that negotiating reduction to pay for players should games be played without fans was done. This is key so let’s make sure we get it 100% accurate. “Players recently reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises. That negotiation is over,” Clark Said.

At first, I thought of this as a death nail for baseball being played this season. Then I started listening to the conversation on last night’s live Bucs In The Basement Podcast as Chris and Craig were discussing the news, that very quote up there popped into my head, and then there it was, Chris uttered a variation of it as well.

As baseball has negotiated the eventual or theoretical restart of the season, Mr. Clark is not alone in trying to make the most of the opportunity. Here’s a short list of Mr. Manfred’s proposals for restarting the game:
1. DH – Now (Another “speed of play” wish list item)
2. Doubleheaders with 7 inning games (shortening the game significantly, for “speed of play”)
3. Shrinking the draft (effectively eliminating the need for his previously targeted 40 some odd MiLB teams)

I’m sure there are more, these ones are just obvious. The Players union used it to potentially get expanded rosters.

That was the first round of “negotiations”, I quote that because it didn’t feel like there was all that much give and take. Now we have reached the next stage, and players feel they have the owners in a position to push back themselves. The biggest thing for the players is to lose only as much pay as the number of games lost dictates. They want to hear nothing of a pay reduction based on the ability to have fans or not. If Rob Manfred is to be believed, and that’s a tall ask for some of us, baseball teams accrue nearly 40% of their revenue from the gate and gate related activities. The players have already pushed back on that by expressing that none of that speaks to the reduced expenses the teams would incur.

Adding a wrinkle to all of this is the looming CBA negotiation as the current deal expires in 2021. Much of what we see in this restart the game talk is posturing and scoring victories to carry with them into the next, arguably more meaningful talks. For instance, Rob Manfred by getting the players to “be ok” with shortened games in doubleheaders today, could be used to say why aren’t you ok with it now when they sit down for the next round. The players and Mr. Clark know that if they don’t play the owners have nothing, meaning they know who has the real power right this second.

Just as your daily life changes due to evolving CDC guidance and new restrictions from your government officials, so too will this situation change. The players are right, as of now they do have power and a legitimate argument that it is dangerous to play the game for them and the communities it may be played in. This will change. Dominoes will start to fall.

As more of the country finds its way to some semblance of open for business, the player’s argument will become shallower. The leverage of the CBA hanging over the entire thing is a tool both are using and in my opinion a miscalculation in the long run.

A suffering country, filled to the brim with people of all types enduring devastation economically on a scale none of us have ever seen, is going to have a very short fuse for the infighting of Millionaires (real or perceived) vs Billionaires (again, real or perceived).

That’s not to say, “baseball will be back, chill”. I’m simply saying if either side of this thinks the American people will lose the 2020 season and face a work stoppage from either side in 2021 without permanently harming the game, I’ve got a feeling there will be a whole new reason for falling salaries coming at them.

The Path Of A Pittsburgh Pirates Fan

The Seed is Planted: The 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates

Children are a finicky lot of characters to say the least. Their favorite foods change week to week, day to day and most times minute to minute, their favorite televisions ebb and flow along with the latest trends and they thrive off of instant gratification, as well as information at their fingertips. As a child I was not much different, except for the information at my fingertips; it was the mid-80’s after all. I ate pretty much nothing, but peanut butter sandwiches and LIFE cereal, my obsessions went back and forth between Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats and all I wanted was Pepsi from a glass bottle or a Klondike bar as a reward for not fighting with my older sister that day or behaving at the grocery store.

As it is with most almost 6 year olds I wasn’t a very good sport, as in I didn’t want to lose any game that I played; which meant a lot less rewards for not fighting with my sister. I also wanted whatever team I was cheering for to win as well. A few months before the 1985 Major League Baseball season, my childhood heart took a pretty big hit when hometown hero, Dan Marino, was unable to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh; in the figurative sense of course. I surely didn’t want something like this to happen again when starting to cheer for a baseball team. How would I make such a tough decision? What baseball team would I put my heart behind?

Other kids my age might have had a simpler way of deciding. Maybe they would start to get behind the team represented on their T-Ball, Minor or Little League uniform. This was impossible for me as my T-Ball League chose to dawn the names of National Football League teams on their uniforms. My sister and I played for the Raiders, so that obviously wasn’t going to help me at all. In a previous article I wrote about my Grandma Caramellino’s love of the Pittsburgh Pirates and my Pap Caramellino’s love of baseball. Why not give the hometown team an opportunity; especially since there was still some luster left from the 1979 We Are Family World Series Champion Pirates. I would soon feel a 6 year old sense of regret and defeat, but not before the 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates had their hooks firmly entrenched in my young heart.

My Dad’s name is William, but everyone has always called him Bill. That year the Pirates had two Bills on their roster; the aging veteran, superstar Bill Madlock, and a journeyman utility player named Bill Almon. Did I mention that a child’s mind is also illogical and it makes connections using the silliest or simplistic reasons? Well it is and it does. These automatically became my two favorite players. Kent Tekulve was quickly added as a third due to the fact that he wore glasses that looked like my Dad’s and I thought the Submarine Pitch looked super cool. I even tried to start throwing like him. A fourth member joined the crew after I saw the name R.J. Reynolds on a pack of my Grandma Toth’s Winston cigarettes. I thought he and the Pirates part time Left Fielder were one in the same for longer than I care to admit.

As the 1985 season started I had such hope for my “new” favorite baseball team. I hadn’t looked at their record from the previous year; it was 75-87 by the way. It really wouldn’t have done me much good to look at because I am not sure if I would have known what it meant anyway. That hope was quickly squashed as the Chuck Tanner led Pittsburgh Pirates dropped the first two games of the year to the Cubs and seven of their first ten games. The Pirates did not have a winning record at any point during the entire season and finished the year 43.5 games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals, with a record of 57-104. To tell you truth I didn’t care. Madlock hit 10 Home Runs, Almon hit 6, Reynolds batter .308 in a very small sample size and I got an autographed Kent Tekulve card. Also a player named Bob Walk started 9 games that year and had a mustache like my Dad’s. I was very impressionable and easily excited. What can I say; I was 6 by the end of the season.

This team, no matter how bad, is stuck in my psyche forever. It was the first team I invested myself in, that I cheered for and that I have regular memories about listening to, watching on TV and attending my first game to see at Three Rivers Stadium to see play. This terrible team, record wise, holds a special place in my heart and they always will.

Watching It Grow: The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates

“The Freak Show” as they affectionately came to be known thanks to Pirates long time announcer, Greg Brown, have been the inspiration for a few segments on AT&T Sports Net (as well as the past incarnations of the same network), promotions at PNC Park and multiple articles over the past 20 plus years. Our own Gary Morgan even wrote about them at the previous publication we “worked” at together. They hold a very special place in Pittsburgh Pirates folklore, as well as in the hearts of many Pirates Fans that had the opportunity to see them play first hand. They were a ragtag bunch of baseball players with no expectations placed on them, mostly due to $9 million dollar payroll that was invested in their creation. The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my fandom not only for what went only inside the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, but also for what was going on in the life of a young man from Apollo, Pennsylvania.

As the 1997 season started I was finishing up my senior year at Apollo-Ridge High School, with plans to been college at Mercyhurst in the fall. I had a part time job at McDonald’s, spent most of my time at one of the local restaurants (Patrick’s Pub or the Mosey Inn) with my friends, midnight bowling at Lee’s Lanes on a Saturday Night or at the Country Club on Sunday’s. During the previous summer mine and my friend’s parents had also started to let us venture the hour long drive to Three River’s Stadium to let us what Our Buccos play, mostly because they pretty much knew when they could expect us to get home; even though we often tried to push the limits by stopping at Smartie Arties in Holiday Park for some wings on the way back from the game. This summer would be no different, except for the fact that we may have attempted to force our parents expectations even further beyond their boundaries due to a sense freedom on the horizon as we all looked forward to the future.

Along with the new sense of freedom we had instilled in ourselves, the Pirates were also going through some changes of their own. Gone was the Pirates Manager of 10 years, Jim Leyland. In his place stood a familiar face in the form of Pirates former 3rd Base Coach Gene Lamont, who himself had returned to the team from a stint as the Chicago White Sox Manager during the previous year. Kevin McClatchy started to become a more familiar name to a Pirates Fans, after having purchased the team during the previous off-season in February of 1996. After his first full season as owner of the team, he took it upon himself to slash the team’s payroll from an already near league low of $21 Million in 1996 to the ridiculously low, previously mentioned, $9 Million payroll in 1997.

New Pirates Manager Gene Lamont is brought in to try to fill the shoes of the Legend Jim Leyland.

Some familiar faces remained, like Outfielder Al Martin and Pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jon Lieber remainder and one returned; 1st Baseman Kevin Young after a year with the Kansas City Royals. The rest of the team was made up of cheap veterans and many young faces; including a 23 year old Jason Kendall and a September call-up 3 of the previous 4 years, Tony Womack. No one could have predicted what the season would hold for this team, not even the players in the Pirates clubhouse. I, myself, was just happy to have the freedom to go to see a ballgame as an “adult” and was so wrapped in the social calendar of a recent high school graduate that it was probably about a month or so into the season before I even realized what was going on.

The first game I attended that year was a 10 inning thriller against the Marlins on Sunday in May. Midre Cummings brought the raucous crowd to their feet with a two run home run in the bottom of the 9th to take the game to extra innings, only to have our hopes dashed in the top of the tenth as the Marlins scored two runs. You know who scored the go ahead run? Marlins third baseman, Bobby Bonilla. It would be almost two full months before would attend another game because of work and graduation parties, but I still kept up with the team through radio broadcasts, my subscription to the Sporting News and games whenever they were broadcast.

My next game was a pretty infamous one; you guessed it, the 10-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday July 11th. The next day was one for the history and record books but unfortunately I had to work that night and didn’t even find out what had happened until later on the next day when I went to my Grandparents house and picked up the sports section of the Valley News Dispatch. The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon, had combined for 10 inning no-hitter, the 8th of its kind and tied for the longest combined no-hitter in history. That day I watched the game on television with my Grandparents and the Buccos won again, giving them a 1 game lead in the NL Central over the Astros.

Toward the beginning and especially in the middle of August many of my friends began to head off to college, leaving only a few of us at home, and waiting for it to be our turn. On Wednesday August 20th I went to my last game with one of my high school friends before he left for school that weekend. The Pirates won 7-3 over the Padres and moved back to .500 at 63-63. Honestly I don’t remember much more about the game other than the fact that Jason Schmidt almost went the distance. I was more focused on the “end of an era” and the trip to Smartie Artie’s on the way home.

Jason Schmidt went 10-9 for the Pirates in 1997, including 2 complete games.

Over the next two weeks I went to four games by myself, including a rare Monday double header against the Dodgers; the second game ended in a walk off home run by Mark Smith in the bottom of the 9th, right after Joe Randa has tied the game with a two run home run the batter before. I wish I would have made that my last game; it would have been a great way to physically walk away from that season and into life as a college freshman. Unfortunately I went to a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Indians a little over a week later and only three days before I left home.

The day that I arrived on the campus at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA, the Pirates moved within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros. It was the closest they would get to the NL Central Title for the rest of the season. However, it was a sense of pride amongst all of us from the Pittsburgh area as our team was relevant with so many other baseball fans from different areas. And even though we finished 5 games back and 4 games under .500 some three weeks later, it brought me closer to some of the people I met, gave me a little bit of normalcy during a time of such change and attached me to my “hometown” when I was away from home for the first time in my life. I am eternally grateful to the boys from “The Freak Show”, my 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Fruits of My Passion: The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA/Shutterstock (7840624b)

Think back to a time in your life when you were just young enough to still not have a care in the world, but had enough money burning a hole in your pocket that you could spend it on some unnecessary things. For me the year was 2005 and for my friends and I that gratuitous expense was the package of Pittsburgh Pirates tickets that would allow you to get every bobblehead that season, along with a couple other games. We as a group had been going to games here and there over the past couple of years, sometimes there were more than just the usual 4 and other times we couldn’t all make it. However, it became our nice little getaway for the afternoon and/or evening and we were going to enjoy ourselves. All life-long/diehard Pirates fans, with our Cleveland Indians buddy thrown in from time to time, we weren’t in it just for the give-away or getaway; we were also in it for the pre-game tailgates, as well as some baseball talk along the way.

It began as just a couple hours before the game hanging out and turned into half days at work, getting into the lot as soon as possible and having as much time to drink and eat as we wanted to type of affairs. Of course there was always baseball at the end of these parties and that was definitely not lost on us as we walked into PNC Park ready to cheer on our Buccos. The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates were like many of their recent predecessors and the teams that would follow in that they were often a very eclectic mix; mostly made up of very young/unproven players, veteran castoffs and a couple of potential budding superstars. The previous year the Pirates finished with a record of 72-89, better than only the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, so expectations were not very high. However a young man acquired in the trade of Brian Giles to the San Diego Padres a couple of years earlier had burst into the scene with 26 Home Runs. That young man was the Canadian Outfielder and 2004 Rookie of the Year winner, Jason Bay. Add in future batting champ Freddy Sanchez, 2004 All-Star Jack Wilson and top prospect, Zack Duke on the horizon, we at least had something to root for coming into 2005.

In his rookie year Jason Bay batted .282 and hit 26 Home Runs on the way to becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates only Rookie of the Year in team history.

The season did not get off to a good start as the Pirates were swept in a short two game opening series by the Brewers and then lost a quick west coast heartbreaker to the Padres in 12 innings. It wasn’t until April 15th that my friends and I attended our first game of the year on Jason Bay Bobblehead Night. It had been a warm day and we were all young and tough guys, so we all left our sweatshirts in the car. The day soon turned to night and we were all ordering coffees and hot chocolates to stay warm. One of friend even signed up for a credit card to get the free Pirates blanket. On the field an unlikely hero, Bobby Hill, who was having a hot start to the season, doubled in two to give the Pirates the lead for good over the Cubbies late in the game. I heard this play over the radio of my car as I drove home because it was way too cold to stay for the entire game.

It would be over a little of a month before I would attend another Pirates with my friends, this time on Oliver Perez Bobblehead Night. Yes the same Oliver Perez that took the mound for the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS versus the St. Louis Cardinals. Since it was a Saturday Night game, that left plenty of time for tailgating, mainly drinking, which is probably why I don’t remember as much from this 8 to 3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. As I try to recall that night the main events that stick out in my mind were that Perez actually pitched pretty well in the game, earning a win on his night and that Jason Bay went 0-4, striking out twice. This was extremely disappointing as he had been on a tear leading up to this game and went on another one immediately after, so we basically got to see one of his only bad games during that time.

Pittsburgh Pirates fan giveaway on June 8, 2005.

On June 8th of that season the Pirates did something a little different and had their first ever “dual” bobbleheads, which ended up becoming one of my favorite Pirates Collectibles for a very long time; the Steve Blass/Manny Sanguillen Bobblehead may be the best idea the marketing department has ever come up with, prior to the Steve Blass Bobblehead this past season. This particular game was on a Wednesday, but I had the next two days off so it was like a Friday for me. Only one of my friends joined me that day for the “normal” pregame. By the time the other two guys arrived we were kind of out of control. This was fairly routine for us at the time, so it was extremely lucky that we always stopped drinking once we got into the game; mostly because we didn’t want to pay the ballpark prices. This day resulted in another win for the Pirates, 6-1 over the Baltimore Orioles and almost ended with a Rob Mackowiak cycle.

The next two games that I went to kind of run together in my mind. This should not and does not make any sense as I went to the one on Tuesday June 21st with my Mom, my Dad and my Grandma for my Birthday and the other was a game with my friends on Saturday July 9th. Also there was a giveaway on the July 9th, a Pittsburgh Crawford’s hat, which I originally remember as a Homestead Grays hat. The Homestead Gray’s hat is the one that my Dad and my one buddy both wore for what seemed like the next 10 years. This is probably why I remember that one more clearly, even though neither one of these are the best versions of either ball cap and could possibly be why these games run together. Nothing about these games was the same, other than the score. The Pirates beat the Nationals 11-4 on the 22nd and won a game over the Mets on the 9th by the same score.

The Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays Pirates fan giveaway ball caps. Two different games, two different years.

I only remember going to one more game that year, but based on my ticket stubs (I have kept all of them since at least 1997) I went to two more games. In between July 9th and Tuesday August 23rd I went to see the Pirates win two games on Sunday July 24th (3-0 versus the Rockies) and Saturday August 6th (9-4 versus the LA Dodgers). On the 23rd of August the Pirates shut out the Cardinals 10-0 as Nate McLouth homered and Zack Duke only went 2 innings, which was the main reason I went to the game. At that point in his rookie year Duke was 6-0 and as always I have been a big fan of prospects, so this was a little disappointing, but it was nice to see another Pirates win.

As the season came to an end Lloyd McClendon lost Managerial Position, the team ended the year 67-95 good for last in the NL Central and my friends and I already made plans to sign up for the same package the following year. Some positives came out of this season, including 32 Home Runs for Jason Bay, an 8-2 record with a 1.82 ERA for Zack Duke and a break out season for Freddy Sanchez. Add in a 9-0 record for me in the games I attended that year; it was a running joke that I should have gone to all the home games that season and it was a great summer for Pirates baseball.

Passing It On: The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

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If I randomly polled Pittsburgh Pirates fans in my general age group as to the pinnacle of their fandom, the vast majority of them would more than likely recall the magical night of the Pirates Wild Card/“Blackout” Game versus the Reds on October 1, 2013. Believe me that is definitely up there and I can’t really disagree with anyone that would give this as their because fandom is a very personal journey, but for me there were a few moments during the previous year that hold a more special place in heart and are forever etched in my memory.

During the 2011 season the Pirates gave fans more hope than they had experienced in years. Up until back to back heartbreaking losses in Atlanta in late July, they were in middle of playoff hunt and in a dead heat with the Brewers and the Cardinals for the Division Title. After an epic second half collapse they finished 18 games under .500 and 24 games out of 1st Place. However, they brought life back into the city and had many of us looking forward to what would come next. I for one couldn’t wait and neither could my soon to be 5 year old daughter Grace, who had become the constant by my side as we watched game after game together.

As the 2012 season began the Pirates got off to a slow start, which just extended the disappointment felt by many at the end of the preceding year. As the season progressed they fought and clawed their way to a 25-25 record through the first 50 games. During the weekend prior to this my Mom and Dad gave me an early Birthday/Father’s Day present of 4 tickets to the Pirates game on Sunday June 10th, which would be the first one I would attend that season.

It was an extremely hot afternoon (88 Degrees) when the game began; luckily we had seats in 316 section with the Press Box blocking out the sun the majority of the time. Gracie had the number 22 for McCutchen on the back of her shirt, a last minute purchase at the local Kmart; immediately cementing him as her favorite player for life. Much to her delight, and mine, McCutchen put the Pirates on the board with a double in the bottom of the 1st; bringing in Alex Presley. He then blasted a home run to left field; with Neil Walker standing on 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd. Gracie kept on telling me that she hit a home run because she matched McCutchen. We spent the rest of the game talking about the rules of baseball, why the fielders shifted on certain at bats and why Neil Walker was my favorite player, not Andrew McCutchen. As the game ended the Pirates held on for a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals and moved into a tie for 1st place in the process.

My daughter, Gracie, at the Pirates game in her Andrew McCutchen Shersey.

The next game that we would attend that season was a fairly monumental one for my family as four generations, from my 84 year old Grandma Caramellino to my 13 month old son Carter, went to the game together for the first time ever. As the Pirates hosted the Miami Marlins, my family and I packed into PNC Park to see our team win its third game in a row and to 12 games over .500. As the game went on Carter began to get fussy and my Grandma was starting to get tired, so slowly we began to trickle out to our cars. Gracie and I held on to the final out because she wanted to see the celebration fireworks and wanted to make sure the Pirates held on for the win. This time it was my favorite player, Walker that played the role of hero with the go ahead home run in the bottom of the 5th.

(Top): My Sister, Dana with my Son, Carter.
(Bottom): Gracie with my Dad, Bill. Bill is sporting the Homestead Grays hat, which was discussed during a previous article.

As summer went on Pirates fever reached its peak. Walking through the streets in Koppel, PA, I could hear the sounds of the game coming out of radios from people’s porches and through open windows as the volume was turned up a little too loud. Sitting down at the bar inside Buster’s Place or McDowell’s Inn, patrons were actually paying attention as the Pirates played, rather than treating it as background noise. On July 31st we were all locked to the television screen as A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th against the Cubs, which is the closest I have come to watching a no-no from start to finish in my life, either on tv or in person. Me and my friend who were watching the game together did speak a word from at least the 5th inning on. After the game I called my Grandma Caramellino and the first thing she said to me was how much she couldn’t stand Pedro Alvarez for not being patient at the plate. She was a big fan of Billy Beane as you can imagine.

The rest of the season is somewhat of a blur of win streaks and longer losing streaks (7 games at the beginning of September). That year the Pirates had three players with over 25 home runs (McCutchen 31, Alvarez 30 and Garrett “G.I.” Jones), three pitchers with over 10 Wins (Burnett 16, James McDonald 12 and Kevin Correia 12) and a team ERA of 3.86. Unfortunately they dropped below .500 for the 20th Season in a row after being as many as 16 games over on August 6th, finishing 4 games under and 18 games out of 1st Place. It was disheartening to say the least.

Of the many letdowns that occurred during the 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were also so many bright spots; especially considering my own personal fandom journey as a lifelong supporter of the Pirates, who was now passing along my passion to my daughter, Gracie. Over the previous year and even more so during the 2012 season as she became my side-kick in watching every pitch and discussing the intricacies that exist in each and every game. That summer she fell in love with baseball just as I had when I was right around her age. 2012 was also one of last years I was able to have meaningful conversations with my Grandma Caramellino about the game she had introduced me to and that had been a part of building the unbreakable bond between us.

My Mom and my Grandma Caramellino at the last game we attended together on July 3, 2013, a 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

One Magical Night: The Pirates 2013 Wild Card Game

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A lot has been written about this particular game over the past few days; especially after AT&T Sports Net’s airing of the game for all to see on Tuesday Night and the subsequent showing of the game on MLB’s #OpeningDayAtHome Thursday Morning on @MLB Las Mayores and Twitter. Hell, the Pirates even have a link to the full game on YouTube on their Twitter feed if you want to go watch it again; I have! Each time I watch it I am transported back to my apartment in Moon Township. Pacing the living room, drinking way too many IC Lights and having a few nervous smoke breaks on my patio; watching the game through the sliding glass doors, not wanting to miss a minute. I still get goosebumps with every Cueto chant from the “black-out” crowd at PNC Park. Then with a drop of the baseball, the crowd is in hysterics. Russell Martin sends them even further into a state of pure pandemonium as he crushes Cueto’s next pitch into a sea of Left Field Loonies! Ok, I just got chills again. The rest of the game is a mix of joy, disbelief, elation, satisfaction and pride. This was my team! My Pittsburgh Pirates, on the National Stage had sent the rival Reds packing and we were on to St. Louis!

This game is one of my most cherished memories in Pittsburgh Sports Fandom, if not the most. However, as I got to thinking about this one game, this one moment in time, I started remembering the rest of the season; all 162 games that preceded this One Magical Night. It was much different than the offensive exhibition that Russell Martin and company put on that night. It was a season of defense and good pitching, which as we all know Liriano put on full display that night. It was a season of shifting and the Sinker. For the most part it was “small ball” at its finest.

Now granted the Pirates did combine for 161 Home Runs that season. However, this was only one of a couple major batting categories that they were above league average in; 14th to be exact and only 6 Home Runs above the median. The other was OPS+, which is a stretch as a major category; and they finished 11th and a fraction higher (3) ahead of the middle of the pack. In any other category they were ranked near or in the bottom third; including runs (20th/634), batting average (22nd/.245) and on base percentage (19th/.313). They were a league average slugging team with a percentage of .396. The Pirates also struck out more than all but 5 other teams during the 2013 season. And to top it all off one of the heroes of this game Russell Martin had a total of 15 other Home Runs throughout the entire season and batted .226. Martin and many others contributed in other ways during the Pirates 94-68 campaign; especially defensively.

For the year the Pirates ranked 3rd in all of Major League Baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (45), led by Martin with 21 and Starling Marte with 18. Even the oft defensive challenged Pedro Alvarez stayed in the black with a 2 DRS. As a team the Pirates also ranked 8th in Double Plays with 154; which means anytime opposing teams got players on the base paths, Clint Barnes and Neil Walker quickly erased them. The only area they struggled in defensively was errors committed. Their 106 miscues ranked 9th amongst big league clubs, but the made up for this by ranking first in assists with 1924; almost 100 better than the closest team and nearly 600 better than the worst. Each of these strengths led to many more wins than any stroke of the bat or trip around the bases.

The other area in which the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates excelled in was Pitching. As a staff they ranked 3rd in the league with a 3.26 team ERA (not one regular starter had an ERA over 3.59), 9th in Strike Outs with 1261, 7th in WHIP to the tune of 1.233 average and stranded 1158 runners, good enough for 5th in the league. As far as the relief pitchers were concerned, the nailed down almost every single close game the Pirates were in that year. Jason Grilli, Mark “The Shark” Melancon and company combined for 52 saves and in the process accounting for over half of the team’s victories that year. As a staff, they all pitched clean and consistent innings on a regular basis and when any did get on they were more than likely stranded.

Now I know that none of these numbers are as sexy as the National League leading 36 Home Runs that Pedro had that year; because we all know that “chicks dig the long ball”. And they aren’t as exciting as the 3 Home Runs hit that night; including the 2 by Martin. However, they tell a truer story of how the Pittsburgh Pirates got to that point and were put in a position to compete for a World Series Title for the first time in forever. They are the reason we as Pittsburgh Pirates Fans got to stand up and cheer for our team on the One Magical Night in 2013.

Prepare for the Shaming – MLB Furloughs are Going to Be a Social Litmus Test

Over the weekend, The Athletic broke the story that Rob Manfred is expected to provide ownership the ability to furlough or reduce the pay of non-playing members of staff in reaction to COVID-19 related suspension of play.

This isn’t a mandate. In other words, there will be no verbiage instructing that teams SHOULD do this, only that they COULD. It could affect coaches of all levels, office personnel, scouts, basically, if you work in baseball and don’t play, you’re it.

This is expected to take effect on May 1st, which doesn’t bode well for how confident MLB is about getting back on the field, or the plethora of personnel that could very well feel the wrath of this lockdown financially very soon.

There’s the poop. I’m not surprised by any of that honestly. I expect much more of this the longer this goes on and you should too.  That said, business decisions like this are being made all over our country, in fact, the world.

None of this will stop the shamers. The first team that sticks their neck out and takes action on any of these is going to get lit up like a downtown Christmas tree by social media and “journalists” alike. They’d be wise to do it as a group to at least disperse the target a bit, but as we know well here in Pittsburgh, not all teams are in the same financial situation.

The immediate response prevalent seems to be these “billionaire owners” can afford to keep these folks employed. I’m sure that’s true, I’m sure they could, but how long are they supposed to in order to have done their part? Say the entire year is cancelled, should they continue to pay everybody regardless of ability to work while no revenue flows into the business?

As I said earlier, owners will be loathed to be the first to step on this ledge. To me it’s not much different than Disney making all the executives take pay cuts, or in some cases taking no salary. I find it incredible the ability of the social masses to spend another person’s money.

Let’s take it down to our level. In a way, the cable company works for you, as does the electric company, your cell phone carrier, they all work for you. So, imagine tomorrow you get an email from the cable company saying because of Covid-19 they would no longer be able to perform service visits and your DVR is permanently non-functional until such a time as they can get back to work.  But they’re hurting over at Cable R Us and they still need you to pay them full price.

What would your reaction be? Would you happily continue to pay full price, or would you potentially want to try and force them to take a pay cut? It’s silly right? You’d of course want to pay less, and you aren’t exactly thriving right now either.

Now, upscale that conversation. What does a scout do? They scout of course, and can that be done via video? Sure, somewhat, but here we have a situation where there is no new tape. At some point there is no job to be done. I’m not picking on scouts and I’m not even pretending to understand every intricacy of their work, I’m simply saying when your company stops making widgets, you don’t need people to sell widgets. So, in order to have society not call you “part of the problem” do you need to continue to employ 50 widget salesmen?

When bars stopped being capable of serving drinks inside, many bartenders and servers lost their positions. Some have adapted and been able to keep key employees going, but the vast majority have had to be laid off or furloughed. It’s devastating to the industry and those individuals, and we seem to understand it when it’s a local pub. What about a big boy? Like a national chain? Are we saying because Olive Garden is a billion-dollar business they should have indefinitely employed people no matter what?

Everyone understands what we’re doing here and everyone rational understands why it’s being done. Anyone that expected there to be no repercussions or pain as a result didn’t do the math. I’ll say it again, if you want places to go back to when this is over to put in an honest day’s work, don’t shame these businesses regardless of size when they take steps to be able to come back from it.

Aramis Ramirez – One Man, Multiple Lessons

How can one man have spent the majority of his career outside of your organization and still be one of the most important figures in its history? I’ve thought about that question a lot recently and I firmly believe those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The trade of Aramis Ramirez to the Chicago Cubs in 2003 is one of those moments worth studying.

First, let me say this isn’t going to be just another sour grapes piece. Bad trades happen all the time and we’ll just get sidetracked if we start going down that road with no context. Instead, let’s look at this by way of the lessons that we, and the Pirates, should have learned from not only the trade of Aramis but his entire career.

Let’s begin by telling his story a bit, Ramirez was a Dominican born player who signed with Pittsburgh at the age of 16, 4 years later he made his debut with the Pirates at third base in 1998. He would struggle to get his footing until 2001 when he really broke out hitting 34 homeruns with an average in the .300 range. His defense was less than ideal to be kind.

WAR
When Aramis retired, he did so with a career WAR around 34. When the Pirates traded the youngster in 2003, he had a cumulative WAR of 1.3. The lesson learned here is that a youngster trying to make their way in the league, perhaps WAR is not the be all end all for determining whether they are a good player or not. Way back when this trade was consummated, WAR was not a thing, at least not the way it is today. I hear the same thing today all the time about players being “worthless” based on their current figure. WAR is a guide, a useful tool to help determine the value of a player, but it isn’t a completed story. A four-year sample is not as powerful as a 10-year sample.

Trade Talent for More Talent
Sound familiar? Josh Bell’s career lines up very nicely with Aramis’ as they both struggled with consistency when they got here, they both had a huge breakout season and defense was the worst part of each of their games.

In 2003 Pittsburgh erupted to the news that Aramis had been traded to the Cubs, and that was following a sub-par season that saw his average drop to .234 with 18 homeruns following his stellar 2001 season that saw him hit .300 with 34 homeruns. So why was Pittsburgh upset? Seems like we should have been saying he was a DH trapped in the NL, or a defensive liability. One thing that hasn’t changed in damn near 20 years, the Pirates didn’t feel they could afford to sign him long term. So, they moved him with two remaining years of control. I could detail who they got back for him, but trust me, no household names in the mix. In fact, I’ll go a step further, if you remember them at all, its because you are bitter about this trade, not because you remember something they did on the field.

Bob Nutting Has Destroyed this Franchise Alone
Well, he hasn’t helped it or turned it around, but he also was not responsible for this event. Everything I wrote in the last entry up there is still happening today, think maybe the system has a little something to do with decisions made here? If anything, I could use Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to illustrate the Pirates trying to avoid this very situation. Signing all three of these players to contracts that ensured they would be here at least a season past arbitration is a direct response to the memory of moving Ramirez too early. Still, the drumbeat of the necessity of moving Bell goes on. I mean, did I mention they even tossed in a salary dump of Kenny Loften to get this deal through?

Time
Once Aramis was traded to the Cubbies, his defense actually got worse. He led the majors in 2003 with 33 errors at the hot corner. Man, if his name was Pedro, they probably would have benched him for Sean Rodriguez. He became a steady third basemen as his career progressed, and spent his entire career in the NL, never becoming a DH. Like any skill, it takes time and patience to develop.

Aramis is not one of the best players to ever swing a bat and he was in no danger of being confused with Pops if he spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. If the franchise could at least learn from his story and avoid repeating the mistakes and mistaken narratives that created many of the decisions made, perhaps Ramirez could yet become one of the Pirates’ most important figures.

Through The Prospect Port Hole: Juan Jerez

After a quick trip back to the states to profile right handed pitching prospect Colin Selby, my attention was drawn back to the Dominican Summer League and the Pirates1 squad. I understand that it is very hard to project the abilities of a 16 or 17 year old kid, but what are you supposed to react when a young man is already exhibiting the traits of a MLB player of the future at such a young age? It is hard not to get excited when this potential is wrapped up inside of raw talent. This is how I felt when I first saw the now 18 year old Juan Jerez with a bat in his hand. As always I temper my expectations because a lot can happen between the DSL and PNC Park, but it is fun to imagine the possibilities.

Juan Jerez was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates for $380,000 as an International Free Agent from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic on July 2, 2018. The 6’ 160 lb infielder went into training for a year before being assigned to the DSL Pirates1 to begin the 2019 season. Many were not sure what to expect from him considering his size and overall build, but once he took the field, he impressed even the most conservative scouts.

Jerez puts on a show at a workout prior to his signing by the Pirates during the 2018 International Bonus Period. https://youtu.be/TRh0s6XBuZ4

Jerez’s first year in professional baseball was an overwhelming success for the the 17 year old, suiting up against players who were almost a year older than him on average. He slashed .272/.324/.469, with 7 home runs and a total of 25 extra base hits. Looking a little bit deeper into the numbers his BABIP was a solid .309, his wOBA was .371 and he posted an above average 114 wRC+. His walk rate of 5.5% leaves a little bit to be desired. However, keeping his Strike Our Rate below 20% (18.9% to be exact) is fairly impressive for a player of his age and experience.

No matter the circumstances Jerez would obviously have been starting back in the DSL to begin the 2020 season. His hit tool and game power still need to be developed further, with the hopes of them meeting their future values of 55 and 45 respectively. His defense could also use a little bit of polishing as he currently projects to be a 2nd Basemen with the potential to play shortstop long term. It could be as many as 4 or 5 years before we see Jerez walking on to the field in Pittsburgh, but as this young man has already shown us, he is full of surprises.

The Draft Provides More Than Talent Infusion

There will be ratings and scouting. Development success and setbacks. Those that can’t get the mental aspect of the professional game and others still who realize they lack the physical tools to make this dream a reality. The story doesn’t end with stardom or bust, there are many who will carve out a niche and success will be measured in a different way.

Some will ascend like Andrew McCutchen, who is still in the midst of his career story. The talent on the field pales only by the person he is off the field. Pittsburgh is not longer where he works, but it has become his home and we’re a better community for it.

The ultimate example of a player rising above everything they did on the field is probably Birthday Boy Steve Blass. He was a champion, yeah, that’s part of the story, but he became possibly the greatest ambassador for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball that ever lived. How many can say they won a World Series here and then went on to call games for parts of 4 decades?

Who knows, maybe in 2043 we’ll be talking about Travis Swaggerty joining the galactic broadcast network (I hear they won’t black out games out of market), the point is you aren’t just drafting a player, you’re drafting someone who will become part of the franchise story.

When you think of it like that it almost makes sense the Kyle Stark put so much emphasis on the non-baseball aspects of growth. OK, I’m done, back to that being silly.

Craig and I have been blessed to talk to and write about a bunch of players in our time covering the Pirates, and you can tell some have that Blass Ambassador gene baked in from the word go. Others prefer to let their game do the talking, and that’s great, there’s room for both and need for both.

Some like Doug Drabek will go on to coach the game, others will become scouts evaluating talent and no doubt calling back to their own experiences to make the process better and more effective.

There is no nice way to say this, some won’t make it, that’s just reality. In fact, most won’t make it. But, bust is a bit strong. Many of the players chosen this season will play a huge role in the development of those picked 15 years from now. A baseball life is non-linear and putting everyone into a pass/fail bucket isn’t seeing the whole picture.

The draft brings hope of renewal and a freshness to the entire system. Last year’s picks become the grizzled veterans (some still struggling to sport facial hair mind you) on the Single A squads that our friend Rob wants so desperately to pare back. They look up to the draft picks from 3 or 4 seasons ago who are just starting to nip at the heels of cracking a major league roster.

One day soon for the first time a kid with cotton candy stains all over their jersey will reach out with excitement and a baseball to beg someone young enough to remember themselves doing the same thing for an autograph. For some, it will be the first of many. Soon their signature will become little more than a scribble, others will come to grips with how rare this opportunity actually is and will sign everything like they’re handing in a thesis at the end of a master’s program.

Baseball is a journey and its different for everyone, for many it begins right here with the draft. The talent will be right there in black and white, but the ability to marry the talent with the want to is where the rubber hits the road.

Good luck to all the 2020 MLB Armature Draft Picks!

The 2020 MLB Amateur Draft: The Pittsburgh Pirates Top 2 Picks

In an agreement between Major League Baseball (aka Rob Manfred) and the MLB Players Association (aka Tony Clark) a compromise was reached concerning the 2020 “June” Amateur Draft. This arrangement allows Manfred to move the draft back to as late as July 20th, to cut the number of rounds from 40 to as little as 5 (this can be increased to 10 at his and the owners discretion) and to set the rounds of the 2021 MLB draft at 20. As I had mentioned in a previous article this lines up perfectly with Rob’s Plan to contract Minor League Baseball, but I digress.

There are some additional consequences of the shorted draft; especially this year. In the past players picked in rounds 6 through 10 were slotted to receive $125,000 to $300,000 signing bonuses. This will be reduced to a maximum of $20,000 for players signed as non-drafted free agents after the first 5 rounds have concluded, if the draft is not eventually extended to 10 rounds. Many college juniors may return for their senior years and high schoolers may hold firm to their college commitments if they fall in this range, whereas both of these groups could have been enticed to enter professional baseball during prior years. However, at least these guys have an option. The group of players that are holding onto the short end of the stick are the college seniors that fall outside the projected top tier levels of talent. They also did not have an full spring season to prove themselves and potentially raise their draft stock.

A freeze was put in place on any MLB transactions as part of the deal, which as it currently stands also has some possible ramifications on the draft process. Due to this stoppage Competitive Balance Picks are not allowed to be traded at this time. I assume this will be lifted if baseball resumes prior to the draft date, but nothing is certain at this point. So as it stands presently the Pittsburgh Pirates will have the #7 and #31 picks in the “first” round of this summer’s draft, which includes Competitive Balance Round A.

These two picks are extremely important to Ben Cherington as they are his first as the Pirates General Manager, along what will be his next steps in acquiring talent to build the system from within. He took his first step by trading Centerfielder Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects Liover Peguero (SS) and Brennan Malone (RHP). Both players were in Arizona’s Top 10 and now slot in at #5 and #7 respectively in the Pirates Top 30 Prospects in MLB Pipeline. So what approach does GMBC take with the first pick at #7? As I see it he has one of three options: 1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor 2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward 3) The Out of the Box. Each of these choices have their benefits, but the one of them sticks out as the best option in my opinion. Of course all of these could change based upon availability due to possible surprise picks ahead of them.

Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington’s first major move was to trade Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two of their Top 10 Prospects.

With the 7th Pick in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates Select…

1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor Pick(s)

Reid Detmers (LHP)-Louisville

Detmers is possibly the most polished and MLB-ready arm in the draft. He has three pitches (a fastball, a nasty curve and a sinking change up) in his repertoire, all of which he can through with above average command and control. His fastball tops out at around 95, his curveball freezes hitters as it swoops into the strike zone at 75 and the curveball is a happy medium. In limited work this spring Detmers allowed only three runs, while striking out 48 and walking six in 22 innings. Did I mention he is a lefty? This isn’t a must, but it is totally a bonus. In my opinion he projects as a 3-4 starter in the rotation for years to come, a plug and play if you will and a true innings eater.

Jared Kelley (RHP)-Refugio (Texas)

Now I understand that college arms may be easier to tempt, but this young man is primed for the big time. At only 18 years old he already has a MLB ready fastball that tops out at 98, an above average changeup that sinks away from hitters and a slurve will take minimal work to perfect. During his junior year in 2019 he posted an 11-0 record with a 0.24 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 65 innings. He clearly has the potential to be the ace of any rotation and could reach PNC Park in less time than many other high school arms. A lot of projections have him reaching the majors before his 21st birthday.

Note: It has been pointed out to me that Kelley probably doesn’t fit in the “low risk” category as a high school pitcher and potentially not even the highest ranked HS hurler in the draft. I guess I just like Jared Kelley a lot, but I can see why I shouldn’t call any HS pitcher low risk; they are higher risk by nature. If picks changed in front of the Pirates, I would put at least two or three players in his place or possibly move Max Meyer up. Meyer only “scares” me because of the potential to become a bullpen arm. I tweeted this concern earlier in the week and maybe not so jokingly got called out by Matt Capps for it.

2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward Pick(s)

Austin Hendrick (OF)-West Allegheny (Pennsylvania)

Call me a homer, I don’t care; this young man has the potential to be a star in the MLB. His raw power is undeniable, his athleticism could possibly play in any of the outfield spots and the upside is higher than most of the other players that could be taken at this spot. The downside is the swing and miss, which has become an issue at times. I feel like adjustments can be made to reduce these concerns, so I would have no issue with the Pirates taking him with their first pick in the draft. Now if you want to say that they should pick a player such as Zac Veen in this spot over Hendrick, you won’t get much argument from me. Just don’t discount him just because he is a local boy and don’t think I am I including him for that reason either.

Nick Bitsko (RHP)-Central Bucks (Pennsylvania)

A late addition to this year’s draft; it wasn’t announced until January that he would be graduating this year, Bitsko is 6’4 and 220 pounds at only 17 years old. He consistently hits 92 to 96 on the gun with his fastball and has a lights out curveball that comes in at around 80 mph. Both pitches consistently flirt with the strike zone and produce a lot of whiffs. Add in a developing change up and this young man has all the makings of a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

3) The Outside The Box Pick(s)

Heston Kjerstad (OF)-Arkansas

Kjerstad was hitting .448/.513/.791 with six homers in 16 games prior to the abrupt stop to the season. Over the past few years he has been among the top performers in the SEC, one of the nation’s toughest conferences. His freshman year he broke the school record for home runs by smashing 14 and hit 17 more as a sophomore. As it is with most power hitters he has the potential to sacrifice average for the swing and miss, but I really don’t see this as a major concern. His only downside is a lack of speed, which more than likely relegates him to the RF position exclusively. However, there are worse fates as I imagine his home run total would makes us as Pirates fans forget all about this.

Note: After discussions with a trusted source (to me) I have come to the realization that this out of the box thinking in choosing a college bat, especially in this spot may only apply to my way of thinking and not GMBC’s. I have been a long time opponent to the Pirates selection of Travis Swaggerty in the 1st Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft, not because I don’t like Swaggerty as a player, but due to the fact that I just haven’t seen the type of production I have come to expect from a top 10 pick.

Patrick Bailey (C)-North Carolina State

Bailey is possibly the best all-around catcher in the draft, as far as defensive ability and offensive potential go. As a switch hitter, he has shown power from both sides of the plate and an uncanny ability to get on base. He has a live arm that will hold runners in check and is above average in framing and blocking. Prior to the remainder of the season being cancelled he was hitting 296/.466/.685 with six homers in 17 games.

With the 31st Pick in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates Select…

1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor Pick

Alika Williams (SS)-Arizona State

Sometimes you just look at a young player and say that kid can just flat out play. This is clearly the case with Williams. He attended the prestigious Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California. The Broncos are a staple in the top 50 of high school teams in the United States and have produced current MLB players (Trevor Williams), as well as Pirates Prospect Cal Mitchell. Drafted in 2017 he chose to attend ASU instead. In his last full season (2019) he slashed .333/.429/.474 with 4 home runs. He does not have overwhelming power, but he does show patience at the plate resulting in walks above strikeouts. In the field he has above average tools, Arm (55) and Field (55). All of these attributes combined should make him an everyday player in the MLB.

2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward Pick

Masyn Winn (RHP/SS)-Kingwood (Texas)

Winn is a legitimate two way player as far as potential, as well as in practice. He has a fast ball that tops out at 98 and a curveball that sits at around 80, both with above average spin and movement. His athleticism and arm allows him to play a consistent shortstop, which is where many scouts predict he will end up. The bat is his only concern as of right now, but not as far as power is concerned. Winn needs to learn composure at the plate, a skill that can be developed and comes with maturity. He is currently a strong commit to Arkansas. I believe this can be changed with a solid bonus offer and talks of a big league career.

3) The Outside The Box Pick

Blaze Jordan (1B)-DeSoto Central (Mississippi)

POWER! That’s it. That’s the assessment. But in all seriousness, this young man does have ridiculous power. How many people can say they hit a pair of 500 foot homers at the age of 13? My guess is not many and maybe only one. A combination of strength and speed in his swing often results in towering shots and high exit velocity, nearly 107 mph. Currently positioned at third base due to hard work and conditioning, a move to 1st base seems like the most likely landing spot for Jordan. At only 17 years old he still has room to grow, which is unbelievable seeing as he already supports a 6’2” 220 lb frame. It might be a little bit of a pipe dream or a shot in the dark, but I would love to see what he could bring to the table in a Pirates uniform.

Obviously I am not in the room with GMBC, Kevan Graves, Steve Sanders and the rest of the crew so I can’t know exactly what they are thinking. However, I have almost as much access as their scouts do right now, at least as far as videos go and just like them I have seen these guys play for years. Also as anyone knows, the draft is a little bit of a crap shoot, but super fun to speculate about anyway. Even though it is not a regular year there are still some assessments and predictions that can be made. With that being said, let me hear yours! (Or just tell me mine are awesome!)

Ten Players Pirates Fans Hate Themselves for Loving

I suppose this list starts with a requirement. You almost have to be more than a Pirates fan, you have to be a baseball fan as well. Its easier to think you’re ready than to actually out loud admit it sometimes. Many Penguins fans have learned they don’t secretly have a soft spot for Alex Ovechkin alone. Here We Go!

  1. Eddie Murray – OK, it makes it a bit easier to admit since the Buccos won against his Baltimore Orioles in 1979. But Eddie was one Bad Man. He hit for power and average, played slick defense and did it from both sides of the plate. He probably stuck around a bit too long and some folks around my age may not remember him when he was EDDIE.
  2. Gary Carter – Arguably the best catcher of his era both defensively and offensively, Gary started his career with Montreal, but where I learned to love him was during the 1988-89 seasons when he was with the Mets. The Pirates were approaching contention and the Mets were the main obstacle, admitting you liked watching Carter do his thing was not a popular opinion.
  3. Daryl Strawberry – Same reason as Carter really. Strawberry had just about the smoothest swing I’d ever seen at the time, plus he guest starred on the Simpsons (back when it was good). You wanted to see the Pirates win, but if Daryl hit one out in the process, that was ok.
  4. Barry Larkin – From 1986 to 2004 Barry held down Short Stop for the Reds. That alone is enough reason for a Pirates fan to dislike the guy. I loved watching the guy play, he was an incredible fielder and well, a career .295 hitter kinda says it all. He spanned multiple eras of baseball and finished his entire career in one place.
  5. Anthony Rizzo – Rizzo conflicts me. I hate the way he hangs over the plate and kills the strike zone, when I really think about it though, and if I’m honest, I hat the umps for letting it happen. Anthony is steady, strong and plays a great first base too. boy it pains me to like any Cubs but God help me he’s a great player to watch.
  6. Chipper Jones – Quite possibly the best Third Baseman of my lifetime. He crushed everyone from both sides of the plate and I’m pretty sure he hustled even on vacations with his family. Nobody stuck the knife in and twisted quite like the Atlanta Braves, but Chipper was special.
  7. Christian Yelich – OK, you’re right he hasn’t been around as long as these other entries, but how often can you witness visible torque in a swing? I mean you can see everything coil and fire through the zone. He has power but somehow makes it look effortless. I love watching the guy hit.
  8. Matt Carpenter – He kills the Pirates. He kills alot of teams. I love his swing and his seemingly endless versatility, is there a position the Cards haven’t played him at? Think about it, they need a first basemen, Matt can take it. Need a power hitter, Matt will just start swinging for homeruns more. Can’t find anyone to hit leadoff, Matt will just adjust and take more walks, maybe even show some steal ability. You’re lying if you say you wouldn’t love him on your club.
  9. Charlie Blackmon – Maybe its the beard, he wore it before it was cool you know. Surely there have been better Rockies players, hell even right now Story and Arenado are better, but Blackmon always caught my eye. He’s fast, hits for power and can admirably play any outfield position. Hits lefties and righties. Just a fun player to watch.
  10. Gerrit Cole – I simply loved watching him pitch in Houston. Doesn’t matter if you believe he was held back here or just found his game and put it all together in Houston, the man was just close to impossible to hit. Wish it would have been in Pittsburgh, but I can’t hold it against him.

So who did I miss? Only picking ten was a challenge but these are some of my very favorites. Share your memories! It makes it so much more fun than just adding to the list.

Friday Focus – All Draft Systems are Not Created Equal

Of all major North American sports, baseball has probably the hardest to swallow draft system. Who is this guy? When will he make it to the majors? What position will he play? These are all questions that most fans have when they see who their MLB club picked.

Sure, you have your Bryce Harper, or Ken Griffey Jr that crop up every so often and that’s good for the game in many ways. It also causes the casual fan to wonder why there aren’t more of them. When stacked up against the other leagues, it’s easy to see MLB has the least focused on and furthermore, least understood of all draft systems. Let’s look at the others and work our way back to MLB.

NFL
The NFL has seven rounds of their draft and by the end of it, most interested fans will have heard of half of them at least. College football’s popularity helps this situation tremendously. Fans are already familiar with at least the highlight reel that some of these players have banked.

Now, it is not a guarantee that you’ve arrived being drafted. Being selected in the first 3 or 4 rounds will get you a better than average chance of sticking with the club. 5 through 7 and you must outplay a veteran or perhaps were deemed a “project” in the first place and the practice squad is your best bet.

Teams can trade any and all draft picks with impunity, creating extra buzz in some markets that may get upwards of 7 out of the top 60 players selected. When you only play 11 men on a field at a time you can see how quickly that could make an impact.

There is no lottery to choose draft slots and this has become an issue in other sports, where tanking, essentially voluntarily stinking out loud for a season, to get the top pick dinged the integrity of the game. Football has largely avoided this because one player on a 53-man roster is hardly enough to turn the fortunes of an entire franchise around. See Cleveland.

NBA
The NBA benefits from the popularity of the college game too. In fact, the tournament that we sadly missed this March makes household names out of many who won’t even make the lottery. The NBA has had to address the tanking issue, and in 1985 instituted the draft lottery. Every team that misses the playoffs has a chance of “winning” the right to make the number one selection overall. Some years that means more than others, but it almost always means a franchise level talent coming into the system.

Here in Pittsburgh, of course we don’t have an NBA franchise so surely this audience will have a bit less interest in how this one functions, but nationally it is easily number 2.

Players drafted in either of the total of two rounds have an excellent chance of playing for the franchise that selected them. The NBA also has a pick trading system that is a bit different, you may trade future draft picks but may not do it in consecutive years.

If you are selected, making the club is pretty likely, starting not so much. The Lottery picks are the “sure fire” picks.

NHL
The NHL is probably as close to MLB’s cousin as you’ll find. This is mostly due to the fact that most players selected will either join a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to further develop or an equivalent in Europe. They could also potentially be sent to one of the organization’s minor league system teams, and some could even remain in college. Again, as with MLB there are of course your Conner McDavid and Sidney Crosby level players, but most won’t immediately jump into the league.

The NHL does have an interesting twist on this though, rookie players can play a number of games, essentially a trial period with the NHL club. If that threshold is met, they must stay. This exact scenario played out with Marc Andre Fleury back in the day. As ever the NHL strives to be the most complicated organization in the world, many of the arcane rules are  constructed simply to protect the Canadian Junior Hockey system, see when the draft changed from 20 to 18 many feared players going to the AHL for development, so the NHL decided you had to be 20 to play there, hence keeping the QMJHL relevant.

Now, being drafted in the first round is no guarantee in hockey, there are significant hurdles to jump and teams swing and miss all the time. The developmental nature of the NHL draft has much the same effect as MLB for this very reason.

MLB
I told you we’d get back here. MLB’s draft will of course be altered this season but most of that won’t matter for this discussion.

A typical MLB draft consists of each club having an opportunity to select up to 40 players in 40 rounds. On top of that there are supplemental picks based on losing type A and type B free agents. This is intended to help the “small market” clubs to feel less compelled to trade players on expiring contracts. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked on the level they hoped.

NCAA baseball has seen a bit of an uptick in interest over the past half-decade but nowhere near the level of basketball or football, so MLB does not benefit from the name recognition of those sports. More than anything though, knowing the percentage of these players selected that will actually impact the team you love is daunting to get past. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed most as I read my partner Craig’s Prospect Port Hole columns is how frequently players are moved around the diamond, some on and off the mound. I’m not sure why this took me off guard to be honest, if you think back most of us who played baseball at any level remember the “best” athletes pitched and played at least one other position. Think about it, the only position on the field where having a great arm isn’t mission critical is first base, maybe second base? So, it stands to reason most would have pitched at some point.

It also means when your favorite team picks that top ranked Short Stop, perhaps we are out in front of our skis a bit when we lose our minds that we don’t need another middle infielder.

Another hitch in MLB’s giddy up is the selection of pitchers. It’s easy to get excited about the draft of that corn-fed Iowa boy who hits 100 on the gun and struck out 215 in his Senior year of High School, but what if he ends up being a back end of the bullpen arm? Many people feel that is a waste of a top pick, but there is upside. First, their progression through the ranks stands to be far faster than a starter, and second, there will likely not be much coaching to drop velocity in order to increase the number of innings that can be tossed. At the end of the day, you need those guys too and drafting players who will make the league is not easy, maybe that is enough.

There are some who will put mock drafts together for MLB and I know for a fact one of them works here. Just remember, this draft is a different animal. The Pirates can’t say, “hey, we need catchers, let’s make sure we get one in the first round” because there may very well be no catchers there. Think back and remember Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher, obviously he did not remain in that position.

As a general philosophy, when you are drafting players that might not push to make the height of the sport for 5 or 6 years, it’s wise to pick best players regardless of position.

Rob Manfred wants badly to have MLB create TV content that goes beyond playing games, and that wish predated the COVID-19 crisis. The draft would seem to be low hanging fruit. Perhaps they could look to create a show that follows the perceived top 50 picks in the draft to build some anticipation or name recognition out there.

I didn’t even touch on the fact that none of this takes international players into account, and that accounts for a whole lot of the players that make it to the league. It probably makes the odds even steeper for those taken in the draft.

A common phrase for years around here has been build through the draft. It’s a whole lot easier in other sports to do that and this all plays into the difficulty of being one of the teams that can’t afford to fill holes with money.