The League Will Always Show Your Issues

When it comes to hitting a baseball, it doesn’t take long to identify what opposing pitchers think you can and can’t do well. Fail to prove them wrong and you’re destined to watch that weakness put under near constant attack.

For some players this weakness simply means attacking them in a certain area is the safest play, but in no way equals an automatic out. That distinction is what separates below average players from very good players.

We’ve watched this for years as Pirates fans. Gregory Polanco can’t hit anything outside especially from a lefty. Pause here for jokes that he can’t hit anything. It’s so established that I don’t really want to waste much time on him if I’m honest. No matter how Greg eventually finds his way out of town, the fact is he’s on his way.

Now there are some players who the Pirates want to understand a bit better. Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler specifically both need to be tested and tried.

Alford has shown a penchant for striking out so far that easily rivals Polanco and that’s not a skill you’d like to see him absorb. He’s shown that he doesn’t have the patience to spit on balls down and in. In fact he’s only faced 61 pitches in 2021, with two batted balls none of which were barreled.

You can’t get much more small sample size than that, but for his career that officially started at the MLB level back in 2017, he’s only faced 412 pitches which resulted in 3 barrels resulting in his 3 career homeruns.

This doesn’t mean he’s done or the Pirates shouldn’t at least explore working him through this, but it does mean the issue has been identified and until or if he is able to adjust and make pitchers pay for it he’ll continue to struggle.

One thing Anthony does, he takes his walks, and for someone with his speed tool that’s a plus. The way he’s hit it’s difficult to put him anywhere but the 8 hole, but let’s be honest, a pitcher for the most part will happily take a walk in front of the pitcher especially when a strikeout will come just as often statistically speaking. Yeah, I wouldn’t throw him anything to hit either.

Dustin Fowler has had even fewer opportunities this season but he’s largely done the same with his chances. We’re talking about a K% of 37.5 and at least for Fowler I can honestly say this isn’t his norm. In a much bigger sample provided back in 2018 he was sitting at 23.2%, so perhaps Dustin is quite literally just suffering from extreme small sample hell.

Point is though, strikeouts are predictable based on zones. Down and away from pitchers who throw from both sides are kryptonite for Fowler and he just can’t seem to spit on them, at least in the early going.

Look, I’m in no way telling you this by way of making it seem we’ve been too tough on Polanco, we haven’t. What I am saying is it’s not exactly like one of the other outfielders is jumping off the page as an upgrade for Greg.

When Ke’Bryan Hayes returns, perhaps Phil Evans could slide out to Right Field and give the Pirates at least another competent bat in the outfield. Even he doesn’t hit like a corner outfielder, but at this point I’ll settle for someone playing there and hitting anything.

But more than anything it’s hard to envision any team in MLB carrying 4 outfielders and only really getting production from one. Again, we’re 4 games in, but it’s pretty easy to see the best that can be hoped for is “ok”.

The patience to watch it play out is understandably in short supply, especially for Polanco. There is just nothing left to learn there, no more hoping it clicks. If anything we wait for his patented hot streak where he seemingly can’t be retired for a week.

Alford and Fowler on the other hand have years of control and very limited opportunity under their belts. Speaking only for myself I’d like to see them get the lion’s share of at bats moving forward. I don’t say this believing the production is going to jump off the page suddenly, but by the end of 2021, I want no more ifs on either of them. They either stay here as part of the solution or they leave as failed experiments that cost the team nothing to try. Playing both while sitting Polanco would at least get one of them out of the 8 hole every game and that would at least be giving them a fair shake.

I mean, there is a reason everybody predicted the team to lose a bunch more than they win. Point is though, if Polanco isn’t going to hit, we might as well make sure we get answers on the other options. I think I probably know those answers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t flesh this out.

It’s also incredibly difficult to preach the virtues of small ball to a club that has 3 or 4 players in the everyday lineup providing little resistance. Strikeouts are going to happen, but many of these players aren’t even talking competitive at bats with regularity and that just isn’t going to help anyone. The principle simply doesn’t work without contact.

Brian Goodwin, Troy Stokes Jr., Jared Oliva, Chris Sharpe, Bligh Madris, and eventually Travis Swaggerty are all backing this mess up. Spend half a season getting answers on the options they went with out of camp and if they need to cut bait do it and start answering the next wave of questions.

The bar for what looks like success couldn’t possibly be lower than it is right now when it comes to outfield help.

Bryan Reynolds is quite literally the story when it comes to production out there and that simply can’t and won’t be enough, ever. That is no way an indictment of Reynolds, it’s instead to say that the Pirates should waste no time motoring through their options because the picture doesn’t start looking better until someone not named Bryan starts hitting out there.

Pirates Fall 5-3 to the Reds

At some point the Pirates need to put it all together in one game, tonight was not that night. The bats have been a few big swings away from doing nothing for two games straight now while the pitching has kept them in just about every contest.

Neither of these units are perfect, and they don’t need to be. But tonight a very good overall pitching performance by the staff, minus Michael Feliz really, fell apart with poor defense and an abysmal amount of support.

The Pirates are 1-3, have been in every ballgame, and they’ve won when they scored more than 3, lost when they scored 3 or less. The bullpen is strong enough to sustain this team if they can only get mediocre starting pitching. I think beside the obligatory blow up games that happen to everyone time to time they’ll keep the team in most contests.

So that puts the onus on the offense to show up. Without Ke’Bryan Hayes, Colin Moran has stepped up, Phillip Evans has stepped up. Reynolds has taken his walks and was rewarded tonight with a blast of his own, but by in large the bats aren’t enjoying the colder climate.

This will be the story all season. How many runs can this offense put up? If the answer is more than 3 I like their chances most nights, if the answer is less, I don’t.

Offense can even influence the final score further, because if it’s 3-0 Shelton might want to pitch his least steady option whereas 3-1 might mean a more reliable option. Offense showing up, even threatening by walking 11 times in a game stresses the opposition, and their staff. It’s essential to winning baseball and ultimately I like the pitching side’s answers more than the bats. And again that’s with mediocre starting pitching. One thing you can’t do is strikeout 15 times, many of which were 4 pitches or less. That’s not a competitive at bat and it’s not just Polanco. He’s the biggest target for a ton of reasons but he is by far not the only one. Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler have been just as inept.

News & Notes

  • Reynolds (1 RH), Moran (2) and Evans (1) all hit solo shots in the contest, not all GABP shots either. Evans jack went an estimated 446 feet.
  • Derek Shelton trusted Rule 5 pickup Luis Oviedo in the fifth inning with a 2-1 lead. He would give up a homerun to Moustakas but finished with two strong innings. First, that’s a ton of trust for the 21 year old. Second I love it, because he’s the perceived biggest question mark and let’s go get the answer. Good start.
  • JT Brubaker walked four in his four innings of work but he exited with only surrendering the one run. Now that is not where he wants to land, but Brubaker commanded his pitches well if not being a bit too nibbly with a hot hitting Reds lineup. He’ll improve, this was in no way what Keller has been doing in case you didn’t see the difference by watching both.
  • Michael Feliz really struggled in his appearance, this is much of what we’ve seen from Feliz over the years. If the movement on the slider is too good he can’t control it, if it’s not good he get’s pounded. He has this sweet spot for spin rate and its like finding a four leaf clover at times.

Five Pirates Thoughts at Five 4-5-21

The start to the season has had good and bad. We’ve covered all of it but the biggest positive I could take away might be the simple fact that they had a chance to win all three. That’s what a bullpen will do for a team. Despite all the warts this club has that one area is something that will keep the club in most games and early on they can afford to lean on them so heavily. Come July, if nothing has changed, we’ll start to see why they needed to stockpile so many arms in AAA, because they’ll simply kill most of the pen.

Baseball is at it’s core a story, one that unfolds all season long, and while what happens in game 2 isn’t as important as being in the thick of things come August, things that happen now have direct affect on clubs as they move forward.

Let’s dig in here and see what’s on the old noodle today.

1. Oh Mitch

There is no way to watch the struggles of Mitch Keller and not think back to the struggles of another young man who had incredible stuff and excellent control numbers in the minors but couldn’t figure it out when he made it to MLB.

That’s right, I’m referring to Tyler Glasnow. Before you tell me how tall Tyler is or that he has a better fastball, I’m not trying to make a direct comparison between the players side by side, I’m simply saying there is a lesson there that we should all pay attention to.

Glasnow was labelled the classic Quad A player. For those of you not well versed in the baseball insult world, it means he was never going to figure it out, too good for AAA, not good enough for MLB. Realistically though, he was a guy who came up and got roped all around the ballpark. He had never had his stuff hit like that at any level and it creates an immediate questioning of everything he ever learned or threw.

Things that worked in AAA like bouncing a curve a foot in front of the plate or throwing a fastball 10 inches above the zone no longer garnered swings and misses to get him out of a painful situation.

No this wasn’t a product of pitch to contact, this was a player who didn’t trust his electric stuff could get outs if he threw it in the zone.

That, is where the similarity is. Mitch too has incredible talent, he simply doesn’t buy it when others are begging him to trust it. He says it after the game. He says I need to hit the zone more, I need to throw more strikes, but ask any pitcher what a pitch thrown without confidence and conviction tends to come out like.

They have to fight through this together. That’s the bottom line. The answer remains up in the air on Keller but if they reach the end of 2021 and still aren’t sure if Keller is part of the future or yet another youngster who can’t make the final jump that is a failure this club can’t afford.

2. The Blue Was Brutal

The Pirates didn’t do enough to win this weekend in Chicago, but they certainly got no favors from the umpires. Game one was called pretty straight and the Pirates walked 11 times and happened to win the ball game. Games 2 and 3 were all over the place.

When you’re teaching patience to a young team and preaching the virtue of OBA for a club that is going to have to manufacture most of their runs, everyone in the game knows that approach depends on understanding the umpire’s zone. Calling balls as strikes isn’t in and of itself crippling, but not doing it consistently sure as hell is.

Don’t get me wrong, good teams overcome that. The Pirates as we all know currently are not in that category.

I know you think I’m probably gearing up to hammer the umps more or preach about the robo umps, but I’m actually heading to a different place here.

The Pirates need to do a better job of recognizing the issue in a given game before the 6th inning. 5 innings of watching Davies get 3-6 inches off the black seems like a bit longer than it should take to recognize the zone isn’t going to play to your advantage.

Why didn’t Keller get the same advantage? Well, simply put, when you spray the ball all over the place and are visibly frustrated, hell your catcher is visibly and maybe even audibly frustrated. You aren’t going to get that ball just off the edge on a 3-2 count.

Davies starts 8 inches off and backs it in inch by inch until he starts getting the calls. That’s control, that’s influencing an ump. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t good, but it also wasn’t something the Pirates should feel hard done by over. They have to change their approach to meet the demand of the day, and for that matter so do their pitchers. And I’m being kind by pluralizing pitcher, because only one really couldn’t adjust.

3. Colin Moran Has Matured

Look, we have no idea what role if any Colin Moran will have on this team in the future. He could be traded, or extended. We just don’t know. One thing we do know however, Colin isn’t taking bad at bats. In fact he’s taking a professional approach in every situation and every moment in the game. We just talked about the umpires and regardless of how bad they were, Colin adjusted. He knew and recognized that the outside pitch was getting called and rather than take a ball for a strike he just added that to his coverage zone ultimately leading to his first homerun of the season, an opposite field 2 run jack that made the game interesting.

That’s maturity. If you thought he was a terrible baseball player I can’t argue, he wasn’t great. But I invite you to have some virtual cataract surgery and take a look at what Colin does this season with fresh baseball eyes. I honestly don’t think he is the player many of us have decided he was.

If anything, I wonder how much faster this would have showed itself if the Pirates were able to give him a bigger role, not that I blame the Pirates, at third base he was an albatross.

4. Early Hayes Injury

It shows how fragile things are at times. All the excitement surrounding this club tends to start with Hayes and to suffer a weird and seemingly benign injury in game 2 really hurts. In game two of the series when Hayes went down you could actually see the air come out of the balloon for the club.

Sure they stayed in it but the at bats weren’t nearly as structured, and the team looked like a switch was flipped to playing out the game. As many of us were watching and waiting for news on the star’s status it was easy to almost read the same questions and concerns on the faces of those in the dugout.

No baseball players will tell you they think their team is anything less than a World Series contender, at least not in public until they’ve been eliminated, but a loss like Ke’ is something that can truly change the dynamic of the entire ball club.

It was good to see them come back out for game 3 ready to fight. They fell short but didn’t quit all game long and that gives me hope for a few things. First, it speaks highly of the coaching, because they didn’t just come back and try they jumped right back to the formula that worked for them on Thursday. Taking serious, professional at bats. Even Polanco walked twice. Next, it showed that Erik Gonzalez and Phil Evans are going to do a pretty good job filling in but the drop off is clear. Defensively Evans isn’t even in the stratosphere of Hayes but offensively he can at least provide some of that OBA minus the pop. Gonzalez has the defense on lock down but the bat is still just an also ran.

Now, let’s see how long this lasts, my guess is a decent amount of time due to the Difo call up vs someone they could send right back down. Difo will now have to clear waivers to go back down and since there are other choices that wouldn’t have required that it makes me feel this is either going to be longer term for Hayes than we hope or the Pirates aren’t terribly concerned with losing him potentially. We’ll see how this plays out, but I would assume a short term plug would be a guy the Bucs could use and send back without jumping through hoops. And I’m not even touching the DFA of Bashlor because he was a fringe 40-man member at best. (Thanks to my friend @KG_55VFTG as we navigate all this roster noise together)

5. No No’s Don’t Trump Pitch Counts

Yes, I too remember Nolan Ryan throwing 140 pitches in a complete game shutout. So when José Berríos was pulled after six no-hit innings against the Milwaukee Brewers I wasn’t shocked, even though he had only thrown 84 pitches.

See, chances are he had already pushed slightly past his agreed upon limit at that point and while I understand a move like this isn’t fun for the fans, all 30 teams would have done the exact same thing.

We all remember (well, most of us above say 25) when pitchers would go out and throw 125 pitches and come back out four days later to do it again. Times have changed and so has medicine along with training.

Like it or don’t. Think it’s babying players or not. This is the universally accepted best way to save arms. You could argue it isn’t working and I can’t really say you’re wrong but we also have to acknowledge that we aren’t asking arms to do what they used to be asked.

90MPH used to be a scary fastball as recently as the early 1990’s and now that usually doesn’t even get you scouted unless you happen to be 14 when you hit that on the gun. The human body was not designed to throw a baseball, at least not the way it’s done at the MLB level and it’s literally destroying elbows and shoulders.

I’ll agree with everyone that wants to complain that the fans were deprived a no hit bid, but I can’t see a way teams can preach pitch count to their staff then decide it doesn’t matter because of an arbitrary outcome that doesn’t affect the team itself. At least the last time I checked a no-hit win didn’t count for two.

Baseball is always changing, and not always for the better, but I also can’t argue with at least 30 head trainers and no doubt 30 independent surgeons and easily 30 GM’s and Coaches who think this is the best way to ensure these guys can stay on the field.

Fans used to really enjoy head to head collisions in football and slamming opposing skaters into the boards head first in Hockey too, but then medicine stepped in and revealed the damage being done. I can honestly say those decisions didn’t improve the product, but they just might save some careers if not quality of life afterward.

6. Late Breaking Bonus – Another Keller?

The Pirates acquired Kyle Keller from the LA Angels for Cash and in a resulting move DFA’d Edgar Santana. Now, I’ll remind you this doesn’t mean Santana is off the club but seeing him clear waivers seems highly unlikely. In fact you could see someone do exactly what the Pirates did and make a deal for him before he hits the process.

I’m high on Santana, but it’s very clear the Pirates aren’t. No, I don’t have any insider info here just a hunch. Santana and his skill set are exactly the type of talent this club has been moving heaven and earth to acquire. A fastball in the high 90’s and a lights out slider, even his Spring outings didn’t show a player who hadn’t recovered from his Tommy John procedure. Perhaps the Pirates were put off by his use of PED’s that lead to his suspension in 2020. This is one of those things we’ll likely never fully understand, but it could be as simple as someone asked him how he trained to recover and they didn’t like his answers prior to that news even breaking.

Bottom line, they at the very least have shown if they lose him they won’t lose any sleep.

As for Keller, beside the media’s fascination with his forkball (which he threw all of 3 times) he’s nothing special on paper. I always question when a team with almost no pitching cuts a guy but this is almost the exact path the Pirates took to get Chris Stratton and it’s safe to say he’s worked out. I also saw similar stats and skills for Duane Underwood Jr. and he too in the early going sure looks like a solid get.

At some point I suppose I should trust Ben Cherington’s eye but something tells me there is more to the story here.

Pirates Fall 4-3 to Cubs and Mistakes Play a Big Role

Long before today’s contest began in Chicago, this game was going to carry more importance than a third game of the season typically would.

Mitch Keller was scheduled to take the mound for the first time this season and after an uninspiring Spring seeing anything positive to take away from his outing would have been nice for reassuring a fan base desperate to see any sign of like from the young pitcher.

He did not provide much of that today. It’s simple to say that control was an issue but reality is being terrified to throw his pitches in the zone is, was and will be his problem.

Michael Perez at one point in the first stopped setting up outside or inside instead having Mitch’s target middle middle to force him back in the zone. It worked to a degree, forcing him to get in the zone a bit more but creating fat pitches. Well worth it if the message gets through.

News & Notes

– The bullpen remains a strong suit for the Pirates even if Duane Underwood will get saddled with the loss today,

– David Bednar in game 3 got a visual confirmation of how the club sees him as he took the mound in the bottom of the 8th with a one run deficit. Back end is absolutely in his future, maybe very back.

– Poor base running has been a theme this season and a player like Anthony Alford can Ill afford to be culprit number one. This team is going to survive on OBA, that number matters much less if you run yourself out of bases.

– Dereck Shelton has shown in the early going that he is going to leave the lineup alone largely and for continuity’s sake it’s a smart play.

Looking for Early Season Easter Eggs?

I love writing about baseball and the Pirates in general. Most of my time doing so has been without actual baseball games, so when the games actually start it’s really hard to not over analyze everything you watch.

That’s our job, picking nuggets out of extremely small samples to paint a picture. Nothing we’ve seen in two games is enough to accurately say much of anything. It would be like watching Captain America and deciding you know how the whole Marvel Universe works.

Baseball is a story and it unfolds in a series of events that over time add up. Sometimes the events while small support knowledge gained in previous seasons.

Gregory Polanco is one of those.

He’s had a rough start in his two games in 2021 and he’s taken some ugly swings. His arm looks like an issue again. Throughout Spring, Greg hammered the ball. Not wind assisted crap, I mean hammered. He wasn’t beating the shift by threading the needle, instead he was mashing it to all fields.

Seeing him play in 2021 is simply put not about hoping he develops. Too late for that, best case scenario now is to catch fire and become a trade chip. That said, the most common question I’ve received so far this season is “Why do we need to keep seeing Polanco play?”.

The best way I can answer that isn’t educated by what we’ve seen this very early season, instead it’s a series of answers.

One, the Pirates simply don’t have much power and even if Greg looks like crap all season he’ll hit 20 homeruns.

The alternative also isn’t exactly sure fire. Anthony Alford has a ton of tools and he looks great hustling out there but he thus far has stuck out almost just as much. Fowler has already been involved in a couple real brain fart moments and is getting a rep for just pounding the ball to the right side right into the shift.

The reality of 2021 is the Pirates will play some combination of those three with a sprinkling of Phil Evans for most of this season. Just because they feel by say July they have the answers they need, it won’t mean they have better solutions waiting.

Troy Stokes Jr., and Jared Oliva might very well make an appearance this season and if they perform well perhaps they could supplant one of them.

Despite some people I honestly respect continuing to beat the Travis Swaggerty in 2021 drum, I just don’t see it, in fact I’m not sure we’ll really find an answer there either when his time does come. Oneil Cruz could be an option, but think back to his Spring where he couldn’t hit a beach ball with a boat oar until he was reassigned and the pressure was off. And even that supposes he takes to the outfield and isn’t just tucked out there.

In baseball, sometimes the struggle to solve a problem winds up creating more.

Tyler Anderson is another player who has garnered instant reactions. He put together five innings of 3 run ball and probably could have gone another inning if the defense behind him showed up. People instantly said he stinks and started calling for the next man up.

Well, the next man up would probably be Wil Crowe or Cody Ponce. Cody is on the IL and Wil pitched yesterday too, certainly didn’t do anything to stake claim did he.

Reality is, if that is what every Tyler Anderson start looks like all year he’s by far their best free agent signing this season. Eating innings and keeping the team in the game is exactly what a pitcher like him is supposed to do.

Think back to last season, how many players did we all give a pass because it was only 60 games? Now after 2 we’re ready to call it on more than one?

Gregory Polanco is probably playing his last season as a Pirate, that’s a fact that he can’t escape almost no matter what he does on the field. All he can do is possibly accelerate it by hitting. Now, is there a point where the Pirates might just say “done” and toss their hands in the air during 2021? I doubt it. It’s not because I think they believe in him per se or that he’ll just figure it out, it’s because at least up until the deadline there is hope someone might want him coupled with who is behind him.

Cruz is the most likely bat to jump up and make him irrelevant. Now, how bad would he have to be to have the Pirates cut him and pay 5-6 million plus the 3 million buyout is the real question. That answer to me is worse than he’s ever played.

Essentially, the reason he keeps getting chances has more to do with the alternatives than Greg himself. There is a reason in my proposed lineup I put Polanco in the 7 hole, it’s because his performance down there becomes a bonus if he does anything, and honestly that’s a great way to look at his season in general. Anything he does is a bonus.

You are absolutely right when you say we’ve seen enough, we certainly have. So when you look at who would take his playing time one would think it would be devastatingly easy to spot someone who is a better option. I can’t, because it simply isn’t there yet.

Pirates Sunk By A Couple Of Cubs Home Runs

In his Pittsburgh Pirates debut lefty Tyler Anderson pitched pretty much as expected, not great and not terrible, as he allowed three runs in five full innings on five hits; which could have easily been more thanks to two more errors from a pair of Pirates, including Adam Frazier’s second in as many games. Anderson did strike out seven with a mix of pitches that had the Cubs batters guessing at times.

On the mound for Chicago was long time nemesis, Jake Arrieta, who benefited from a favorable strike zone in his Wrigley Field Homecoming; although his pitches did have good run and movement in spite of his decreased velocity. Through six innings of work he allowed regular soft contact, counting Kevin Newman’s bouncing base hit that accounted for the Pirates lone run on the day.

In relief of Anderson, the Pirates bullpen was not as stout as it had been on opening day, giving up a couple of insurance runs, walking two and striking out four as the Pirates fell to the Cubs by a score of 5 to 1 on Saturday Afternoon.

  • After two games Gregory Polanco has just managed on hit, even though it could potentially have been scored an error, and is 1 for 8 on the season with four strikeouts.
  • Rule 5 Pick, Luis Oviedo, acquired in a trade with the Mets, made his MLB debut; striking out one and not allowing a run in one inning of work.
  • The Pirates struck out 12 times, while waking on once, in direct contrast of the first game of the series.
  • After one at bat Ke’Bryan Hayes was removed from the game with left wrist soreness after an awkward swing and a slide back into first base.
  • Prior to the game, when the Alternate Site Squad was announced, Cole Tucker and Jared Oliva were remarkably absent. Apparently they are still back in Florida, receiving additional instructions.

After an opening day win and a loss today, the Pirates and Cubs are back at it for the rubber match in the series. Mitch Keller puts his foot on the rubber against Zach Davies at 2:20 PM EST on a glorious Easter Sunday matchup.

Masking an Issue with Strategy

The Pirates are far from a perfect club. They have quite a way to go in order to truly cut into some of the biggest issues the team possesses. Starting pitching is going to be a theme most of the year, and if you’re honest, it always is, good and bad.

This season though, the Pirates know its a problem and the way they plan to mask that issue is to lean heavily on what could be a strength this year, the pen.

It’s truly a tale of two cities. One unit, the starters, aren’t really stretched out all that much. They as a unit don’t really have the stuff that the bullpen does either. Chad Kuhl looked ready to get yanked in the first and Derek Shelton didn’t appear to have a trusting long leash. Instead he looked ready to pull the trigger even that early in order to not allow a poor start to take the chance to win off the table.

It’s a different philosophy, even from as recently as last season, where pitchers like Trevor Williams would be left to dangle for seemingly 3 innings longer than he should have, but maybe that’s not even a fair statement, because Derek Shelton never had the solid stable of arms in the pen at his disposal he does now.

You often hear Ben Cherington refer to all pitchers as arms. Regardless of where they’re deployed or are projected to be deployed, he simply calls them arms. Seeing how Shelton operated yesterday in game one bookended by days off on either side it’s clear to see why. Equal footing makes sense when the entire unit was almost put to use in one game.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves, this philosophy isn’t going to work as we get later into the season. At some point starting pitchers are going to need to routinely get at least 4 or 5 innings knocked out or the pen won’t remain the formidable unit it looks like it could be.

They have fresh options in the minors of course and they’ll need some if not all of them, but simply put, that doesn’t mean you can burn through the current pen to get there. In other words if a member of the pen gets hurt it certainly is great they have that backing, but they’ll still have to pull back a bit on usage.

It may be fine early on in the season for the bullpen to carry the mail, but the pendulum needs to swing back the other direction before too long. Two or three rotations through we should start to see this play out, and if we don’t, that’s when this team will truly turn back into a pumpkin.

If you watched yesterday’s contest it’s clear the Cubs feel that way as well. Problem for them is simple, they don’t have one strong unit to lean on.

Listen, I’m not here to tell you the Pirates are going to crush the league by using their bullpen more and starters less, but I am saying they’re going to use it to not let games get out of hand. Simply staying in games isn’t a sexy goal, but when it comes to winning games with less methods at your disposal it just might be the best possible strategy at least early on, and for a young team that might not fully understand they’re supposed to suck, a good start sure can keep the blinders on a bit longer.

At the same time the Pirates offensive attack is targeting the opposition with a strategy of their own to take full advantage of the pitching problem that is sure to be just about league wide. Patience at the plat and a contact first approach led to 11 walks for Pirates hitters and almost constant traffic on the bases. Sure, we can talk about their inefficiency with runners in scoring position or the baserunning mistakes but if we simply focus on the at bats taken by just about everyone it’s pretty clear to see they are shaping up to be a staff killer.

Imagine coming into Pittsburgh in the middle of a 20 game in 21 day stretch and having the Pirates burn through your entire staff in a three game set by forcing relievers to throw 35-40 pitches in an inning.

That adds up. Doesn’t mean they’ll win more than they lose, but it could make them a team you don’t want to play.

It’s going to be incredibly interesting to watch this element of the team develop, and evolve as the season progresses. For right now though, it’s an advantage if they play this right.

The Pirates Take Down The Cubs On A Kuhl Day In Chicago

The Pittsburgh Pirates bats were hot in Spring Training; and it was the hope, no matter how unrealistic it was perceived, that this would continue. In my season preview I even called for them to help out Chad Kuhl in the top of the first by putting some runs on the board, which is exactly what Ke’Bryan Hayes did; although Kuhl tried his best to waste the favor, at least initially. Sure his outing probably didn’t turn out the way he would have liked, but the two runs on one hit wasn’t truly all his fault.

On the other side of the coin, Kyle Hendricks and his counterparts were even more out of control with their pitch selection. This allowed the Pirates to manufacture runs beyond the Hayes bomb, with stolen bases, hustle and a little bit of small ball. Whereas their batters couldn’t seem to make it on or even around the base paths without the Pirates help; only managing two hits the entire game.

In the end, after a four hour affair, a midst the frigid air on the Northside your Pirates outlasted the Cubs for a 5-3 victory on Opening Day 2021.

News and Notes

  • Ke’Bryan Hayes keeps the hype train rolling on a two-run homer in the Top of the 1st that traveled 410 feet with an exit velocity of 105.3 mph straight through the Wrigley Field wind.
  • Duane Underwood Jr. strikes out the side in his Pirates regular season debut, against his former team. Sam Howard matches him in the 6th and local boy David Bednar adds two more.
  • Mental and physical errors abound as Adam Frazier lets a grounder slip out of his web and Stallings rips a throw beyond Kevin Newman’s range, while Alford and Fowler looked lost on the bases in the 4th. So, instead of having a four or five run cushion, the Pirates clung to 4-2 lead.
  • The Pirates walked 11 times, and Phillip Evans got plunked. Not a great day for the Cubs pitchers; although the Pirates helped them out by going 3 for 20 with runners in scoring position and leaving 20 men on base.
  • He can hit, David; and he can walk too. Adam Frazier goes 2 for 3 with 2 RBI and 2 BB. Cue the Trade Rumors.

After an off day on Friday, the Pirates and Cubs will be back at it on Saturday afternoon at 2:20 PM EST, as Tyler Anderson takes the mound to face off against Jake Arrieta in his homecoming.

Opening Day in Wrigley

Long before the Pirates and Cubs take the field this afternoon at 2:20 many of us legitimately wondered if we’d get here.

Fresh off the suspension of the 2020 Spring Training and the abbreviated 2020 baseball schedule and still living with COVID-19 as it makes its way around the country even while a vaccine scrambles to make an impact on the populous, having any semblance of a quasi normal 2021 baseball season seemed like a long shot.

Here we are though, Chad Kuhl and Kyle Hendricks will square off on the hallowed grounds of one of America’s oldest ballparks.

Every aspect of baseball took a punch in the mouth last year. Development, fan interaction, regular and routine baseball activity, even participation of players was virtually destroyed in the name of keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Kids who had no business on an MLB mound were forced into service. Players in general who had no business on an MLB mound somehow found themselves pitching in the 7th with a one run lead to protect.

19 year old first rounders were tossed in the line of fire with nothing more than what they knew in College.

Managers had to learn how to juggle extra bats and arms. GMs had to figure out how to patch holes with sometimes less than 24 hour notice.

Cold streaks were now bad seasons. One bad start now meant an ERA in the 5’s no matter what else you accomplished.

MiLB players went without pay largely and many were left on an island to figure out for themselves how to stay in baseball shape. Baseball towns all over the country were absent the sounds and sights of the game that for many defined them.

Some lost family, friends. Wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, parents other loved ones had to read reports of COVID spreading through MLB and wonder if their person would be ok.

Was this worth it? What are we doing? Does this even matter?

All in the past now, but not gone. For oh so many reasons 2020 was a year that most of us would love to erase, and no, I’m not talking something as tangible as statistics.

The game survived, as did all the other leagues in the country. Scarred, bruised and battle tested MLB enters a season that will be bookended by a National disaster and a potential Labor disaster.

I’m going to enjoy this baseball season for a ton of reasons, and as an American I’ll enjoy it for a few more, but I can’t help but feel after what we and the game have been through, we don’t need to see a self inflicted wound this December.

If the players and league can’t see that reality, they truly better not return a still broken product. Fix it or push it off, but don’t destroy a second year of development for hundreds of prospects and intentionally take something away from a nation that has already given and had taken enough.

Baseball is back, and it needs to stay that way.

A 2021 Pirates Prediction Piece, With A Little Look Back

2020 is a year, and a baseball season, that many Pirates Fans would probably like to forget; and actually some players like Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Gregory Polanco might not mind if it were erased from memory as well. After waiting almost four long months for Opening Day to arrive, fans were treated to a 5-4 late inning loss against a division rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates, didn’t look great, but they did look horrible either. It seemed almost possible that this 60 game truncated year, might not go as poorly as some may have envisioned.

Flash forward a little over two weeks, with a seven game skid mixed in and no back to back wins, to when Pittsburgh was 3-13. At this point it was pretty clear the season might be a total loss; and it pretty much outside a spectacular September by Ke’Bryan Hayes, as the Pirates floundered to a league worst-hey another bright spot thanks to securing the #1 Overall Pick in the 2021 MLB Amateur Draft-19 wins and 41 loses. The hurting and pain was over, at least for the time being.

As Ben Cherington and the Pittsburgh Pirates entered the off-season it was apparent that this was going to be a time for changed; and change their team did. Gone was the post McCutchen Face of The Franchise, Josh Bell, so long to the gritty pitcher Joe Musgrove and farewell to the once hopeful, but often injured, top prospect Jameson Taillon. Trevor Williams and Chris Archer, along with a few others, were sent packing too. In the blink of an eye the team got younger, and a lot less experienced, which for the most part has continued to be a running theme through Spring Training; as side from the additions of Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson and Steven Wright.

And with that we are pretty much caught up to present day; one sleep away from the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day for the 2021 Season at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, when Chad Kuhl will put his foot on the rubber to ring in the year-hopefully with an early lead provided to him off the Pirates hot bats.

So-getting down to brass tacks-what do we as Pirates Fans have to look forward to, what are some reasonable expectations, who could fail, who could flourish, and ultimately what will their final record be?

Well, first off, even though it may seem as trying to soften the blow, 2021 is not a year where the final record will mean much to the Pittsburgh Pirates; and it is also really hard to nail dowin due to the possible trades that could take place during the season, with Chad Kuhl, Adam Frazier, Colin Moran, Steven Brault, when healthy, and Gregory Polanco, if he performs, being possible pieces used by Ben Cherington to acquire additional prospects for the system. One year signees in the forms of Trevor Cahill, Tyler Anderson, Brian Goodwin and the recently return Todd Frazier could also fit this bill. Now I know that I have gone on record a couple of times saying that the drop off from some of players on the active roster to those at the Alternate Site/AAA is not as size-able as it has been in previous years and there is a decent amount of depth a most positions, but if more than a couple of these happen it will obviously have some effect on the overall record.

However, once again I will emphasize that this is not something that should be focused on. Instead the focus needs to be on the individual performances of players, such as Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes; the potential young core of the current rebuild. These players, along with the performances of probable trade pieces should keep Pirates Fans busy enough to maintain interest beyond the first extended losing streak; although it is to be expected that not every player will experience success, while others could easily exceed their pre-season projections.

For reference it is fairly quick and easy to reference Dan Szymborski’s ZIP Projections on Fangraphs. Are they baseball gospel? No, but they are always a decent measuring stick; and you may have to do a little leg work because of trades and acquisitions, which I actually take enjoyment in.

https://www.fangraphs.com/projections.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&type=zips&team=27&lg=all&players=0

A couple of players that fit into the first category of who could fail, or more politely put disappoint, would have to be Mitch Keller and Anthony Alford. By mentioning their names it doesn’t mean that they will necessarily have bad seasons; it’s just that they might not live up to current or previous expectations.

Prior to Spring Training Keller was heralded by some as the de facto ace and presumptive opening day starter. However, after some legitimate struggles during his first few starts there were some clear concerns about Keller that weren’t totally set aside by; although he didn’t allow a run across three innings of work, mostly due to the four walks and only two strikeouts, which has started to become sort of a pattern.

For Anthony Alford the centerfield position was his to lose; but after a poor showing from Brian Goodwin and a late appearance from Dustin Fowler, he was the most likely choice. However, we can’t ignore that this a player with only 51 Major League games under his belt, with a career .169 AVG and 3 home runs. Do I hope that he will succeed? Absolutely. Am I counting on it? Absolutely not.

On the other end of the spectrum there are those who could fit in the later classification of flourishing, and possible standing out, including Gregory Polanco, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Colin Moran; three of the four whom I have written about over the last couple of days. The lone player that was left out, Reynolds, was actually one of the biggest victims of the shortened season. After hitting at every level, including his first year with the Pirates, he managed to only bat .189 with 7 homers, but did improve significantly in his defensive prowess. When it comes to 2020, some fans have chosen to ignore many of the outcomes; and at least as it pertains to Reynolds I think the might just be right.

Of course as we look toward the start of a new year, I noticed that there was a third grouping that I failed to mention, which is those that might just fall straight in line, or pretty darn close, with their projections. For me Ke’Bryan Hayes, Adam Frazier and Jacob Stallings almost immediately come to mind.

Now I understand that Young Hayes earned a 1.9 WAR in only 24 games, which would extrapolate itself out to approximately 12.8 WAR over 162 games, but in doing that we might be getting ahead of ourselves; like way ahead of ourselves. Even after a stellar Spring Training expectations must be tempered for the key to future, not so much that he falls below an average everyday player, but maybe a little bit shy of the clear league MVP.

As far as Adam Frazier is concerned, many first wonder why he is still here. He is most definitely a possible trade chip, but he is also a consistent presence in the lineup; having been a Gold Glove Finalist the past two years and even in a down year during the 2020 season, his contributions were still a net positive at .7 WAR and .6 fWAR respectively.

Then there is Jacob Stallings, the protocol defensive catcher. Any offense he provides you is a bonus, and until defensive metrics no longer count for anything, much to the dismay of fans that believe he is overrated because those statistics are worthless, he is one of the top 10 rated players at his position.

All in all there will be a lot of aspects of the game to watch, along with individual players and performances. And a few things I didn’t get a chance to touch on like coaching, player development and the Minor League Season-which I will hopefully be in Altoona to enjoy on May 4th.

Like I said before I am not really concerned about record, but if you want my prediction-because all the cool kids are doing it-I am going say the Pittsburgh Pirates are in for a 63-99 last place finish in the NL Central.