Three months later

Shortly after Drew Sutton lifted the Bucs to an exhilarating victory over the Astros, Dejan Kovacevic wrote how “these aren’t Jerry Meals’ Pirates.” The date was July 3rd, and the Buccos were flying high. The 8-7 win pushed them to eight games over .500 for the first time in 20 years. Kovacevic wrote, “This team is touching peaks not seen in two decades, touching hearts that long ago gave up on baseball in these parts. It doesn’t deserve the digging up of negatives. It’s been too good, too resilient.”

Three months have come and gone since that special July night, as we sit here on October 3rd. The Pirates season is over; another disappointing summer in the books. A 20th consecutive losing season became official on Sunday afternoon as the Bucs squandered a late lead; a recurring theme in the second half. Much has changed over the last three months. They’ve been too bad; it’s time to dig up some negatives.

DK started right off the bat by saying, “This team is about James McDonald‘s cool, not another Jerry Meals collapse.” That’s the same James McDonald who showed zero cool in the second half, and saw his ERA climb from 2.37 to 4.21. J-Mac was so awful that he deserved a demotion to the bullpen. He made just one appearance out of the ‘pen, in which he allowed three runs without recording an out. He was a vital piece to yet another Jerry Meals collapse, as the Pirates dropped 37 of their final 54 games.

Next, “It’s about Drew Sutton, a minor-league journeyman twice disposed this year alone, crushing a hanging slider to walk off a hero. His eyes would well up later when he described “one of those baseball moments” that makes all the 14-hour bus rides worth it.” Sutton was disposed yet again, just weeks after his dramatic home run. Side note (totally unrelated to baseball talent) – Sutton was notorious for searching his own name on Twitter and oddly responding to fans:

He also enjoyed deleting such tweets, and eventually deleted his Twitter as a whole. Anyway, Sutton was canned after showing just a flash of success (much like his other two MLB stints of 2012). He went back to his 14-hour bus rides, before an injury ended his season.

Also, Dejan mentions, “It’s about the pitching, the sharpest and deepest we’ve seen since Doug Drabek,  John Smiley, Zane Smith, Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk in 1991. All to Neal  Huntington’s credit.” The pitching declined at the end of the year, just as it did in 2011. The sharp and deep staff – both the rotation and bullpen – took a serious hit in the second half, which caused major problems. The rotation was anchored by A.J. Burnett (more on him in a bit) and James McDonald (see above) during the first half, as well as lights out bullpen work from Joel Hanrahan and Jason Grilli. The ‘pen, which was one of the best in the league early on, saw some struggles during the latter portion of the year; even Grilli and Hanrahan had frustrating times on the hill. In addition, Neal Huntington – who was credited for piecing together a fine staff – is now unpopular among many fans. However, his job is seen as safe.

Kovacevic states, “It’s about A.J. Burnett, the pitcher and the person. If not for that 12-run  beating he absorbed May 2 to help spare the bullpen, his ERA would be 2.46, even  with this hiccup.” To Huntington’s credit, the A.J. Burnett trade was a steal of a deal. Still, Burnett couldn’t be perfect all year. He won just three games in 12 starts since the beginning of August. Although wins aren’t the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, A.J. wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in the first half.

Furthermore, “It’s about Clint Hurdle’s gem of a quote before the game about why Burnett has  taken to Pittsburgh: “He’s loved now. Norm used to like it when he walked into  Cheers, too.” Later, Dejan pens, “It’s about their boss. It’s Hurdle casually saying stuff like, “Our goal is to  re-bond this team with this city.” And meaning it.” Hurdle, who appeared to be the answer for the franchise, isn’t loved quite as much anymore. A man who was focused on re-bonding a city with their baseball team has failed at doing so (thus far). He wanted nothing more than his team to “finish” this season, but they’ve been far from it. From bunts to misusing his bullpen to all-around mis-managing, Hurdle infuriated the fan base on multiple occasions. What it boils down to is that he’s led the team to two straight collapses. While not all blame can be placed on one person – and it certainly shouldn’t be all on Hurdle – he’s certainly a focal point. He can provide gems of quotes, but is he still the man for the job? To put it in perspective, Hurdle has managed 10 MLB seasons; nine of those have been of the losing variety.

DK writes, “It’s about Andrew McCutchen, the team’s MVP and, as of those three hits  Tuesday, the National League leader with a .360 average… Those chants don’t seem far-fetched.” Cutch’s average peaked at .374, but slipped, slipped, and slipped some more with an abysmal August. He finished the month with a .252/.347/.346 triple-slash and just six extra-base hits. McCutchen’s power came back in September, but his average still in the .260’s for the month.  Don’t take it the wrong way – a .327 avg with 31 HR and 96 RBI is still an unreal season. But the team went as Cutch went; a pretty solid start, a phenomenal stretch, a disappointing finish. Those MVP chants soon died down.

Finally, the article describes,

 “…this 2012 season might end up having pivoted off a single pitch. You know which one. Eight days ago in Philadelphia. Brad Lincoln vs. Jim  Thome. The Pirates’ big lead was down to 8-7 in the seventh, two men on, two  outs, 0-2 count. The Same Old Pirates crumble there, sadly, meekly. But Lincoln reared back  and rifled 95-mph heat through Thome’s huge cut. It’s about that pitch. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Lincoln said Tuesday. “But I know it was a big  moment. That’s why I got really emotional.”Yeah, there was that, too. Lincoln gestured slightly into a flexing pose  toward Thome, one he still insists “wasn’t aimed at him.” The two had a brief  staredown.”You know, we should really be past that,” Lincoln said. “Look at us. We  pitch, we play defense, we’re hitting now. We’re here, man. We’re not going  away.” Not this time.”

You know the script. Brad Lincoln, the pitcher who pivoted the season with one pitch, was dealt just weeks later. Yinzers believe it’s the worst trade in history because Lincoln’s having a good year and Snider is unproven. Sabermetricians and stat geeks think it’s a potential high-reward situation for the Pirates.

Regardless, it WAS the same old Pirates that prevailed. We pitch? 4.50+ ERA down the stretch. We hit? .229 team batting average in September. We field? Hmm… remember the seven errors in ONE GAME against the Cubs? Yikes. It’s crazy to reflect on the changes that occurred over the past three months. Down the stretch, it seemed like a completely different team than the one that stood waiting at home plate for Drew Sutton on July 3rd.

“‘We’re not going away.’ Not this time.” Well, they went away. They didn’t step up when it mattered most. Another embarrassing display of Pittsburgh baseball. Sad, really. And now they’re going away for real. The season’s over; no more Pirates baseball in 2012. PNC Park will sit still for six months. The stress and agony of being a Bucs fans can be pushed aside for a while. Hopefully next year will be different – less Jerry Meals talk, no 19 inning games – and maybe even a winning season (oh, please, don’t let the streak hit 21). But until then, it’s going to be a looong winter.

HOKA HEY – 179 days until Opening Day.

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Checking in on some former Buccos

Here’s a look at how some ex-Pirates are faring this season:

Nate McLouth was recently called up by the Baltimore Orioles. He tore it up for their Triple-A club, the Norfolk Tides, and earned a spot on their big league roster. Nate has hit .250 with four doubles and a triple in 14 games for the O’s

Brad Lincoln has an ERA of 6.55 in eight games for the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s been tagged for eight runs in his last four outings.

Adam LaRoche has enjoyed a solid season for the first place Washington Nationals. In 114 games, he has 23 HR and 77 RBI while hitting .260.

Sean Burnett is also contributing big time in the nation’s capital. The lefty reliever has a 1.94 ERA in 55 appearances for the Nats.

– In 54 games for the Mets, Ronny Cedeno is hitting .287 with 3 homers and 21 runs batted in. He missed time due to injury in April (left intercostal strain) and May (strained left calf).

– In his first season with the Minnesota Twins, Ryan Doumit has hit a solid .292 with 14 long balls. The injury-prone catcher has played in 101 of Minnesota’s 120 games, and has only been bothered by a right calf strain this season. He inked a two-year extension with the Twins in June.

Steve Pearce has landed in Houston after playing 28 games for the Orioles. He’s hit .283 in 16 games for the Astros.

Chris Snyder is also with the lowly Astros. Snyder is hitting an abysmal .181 this season.

Xavier Paul has been clutch for the enemy Cincinnati Reds as of late. He sparked a walk-off win on Sunday by hitting a leadoff pinch-hit triple. Paul has managed a .342 batting average in 38 at-bats for the Redlegs.

Snider oddly consistent with ground balls

Travis Snider, who was acquired on Tuesday from Toronto, has hit .200 (3 for 15) in four games for the Pirates. He collected his first run batted in as a member of the Bucs on Saturday night. The play (a sacrifice fly to center field in the sixth inning) was another Pittsburgh first for Snider: it was the first fly ball that he has put into play so far.

Snider, who appeared in just 10 games for Toronto this season, is hitting nearly everything into the ground for the Bucs. Here’s a look at his plate appearances:

July 31st @ Chicago
Infield single on a weak ground ball
Groundout 4-3
– Strikeout looking
– Walk
Groundout 3

August 1st @ Chicago
Groundout 4-3
Single to CF on ground ball
Grounded into DP 4-6-3
Single to RF on ground ball
– Strikeout swinging

August 3rd @ Cincinnati
– Walk
Groundout 4-3
Groundout 4-3
– Strikeout swinging

August 4th @ Cincinnati
Groundout 4-3
Groundout 6-3
– Sacrifice fly to CF
– Pop out 3

Whether it turned into a hit or an out, 11 of 18 plate appearances have resulted in some form of ground ball. Of the other seven, he’s struck out three times and walked twice.

According to FanGraphs’ “Batted Ball” statistics, his ground ball numbers have definitely increased this season. From 2008 – 2011, his ground ball to fly ball ratio was about 1.2. This year, however, his GB/FB is up to about 2.25. Snider had been around a 1:1 ratio, but he’s hitting about two grounders for each fly ball in 2012. League average for ground ball percentage is around 44%; Snider’s GB% this season is about 58%. His fly ball percentage is approximately 26%; the league average is near 36%.

By no means are we giving up on Snider or even criticizing him, but it’s just unusual to see so many ground balls. He’s a strong guy with pop in his bat (3 HR in 10 games for the Jays this year), so it’s something that you wouldn’t expect. Four games is a very small sample size, and adjustments will definitely be made. It would be excellent if Snider can get the ball in the air and drive some out of the yard.

Brad Lincoln, who went to Toronto in the deal, has thrown 4.2 innings for the Blue Jays. He has yet to allow a run, and has only surrendered one hit.

Two Pitches Not Enough for Lincoln

The Pirates have needed Brad Lincoln to make some spot starts with the injuries to Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens. Lincoln was very effective in seven appearances out of the bullpen, and sported a 0.63 ERA entering his first start against Miami. He’s made three starts this season; here are his numbers from each:

IP H R ER BB K
5/14 @ Miami 6 4 2 2 1 3
6/6 @ Cincinnati 4 6 5 5 2 5
6/12 @ Baltimore 4.1 9 4 4 1 3
TOTALS 14.1 19 11 11 4 11

As you can see, Lincoln has not been too sharp in his last two starts, after a solid outing in Miami. Overall, he’s at 11 runs on 19 hits in 14.1 innings pitched as a starter. He had success in the bullpen, and here’s a possible reason why: he’s been relying on just two pitches (fastball and curveball). When making a relief appearance of just an inning or two, you can get by with a sharp fastball and effective off-speed pitch. However, if you start pitching four, five, six innings in a game, the hitters will eventually adjust to your pitches, catch on to your tendencies, etc. Here’s how Lincoln has mixed up his pitches this season:

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 53%
Sinker 10%
Curveball 36%
Changeup 2%

As a reliever, you can find success with a fastball, curveball, and the occasional sinker or changeup. However, you really cannot expect to have much success as a starter if you’re only throwing two pitches. The Pirates top three starting pitchers, A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, and Erik Bedard, all feature multiple pitches in their repertoire and mix them up effectively. Here’s a look at all three’s pitch frequencies (numbers courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Burnett

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 38%
Sinker 23%
Curveball 29%
Changeup 10%

McDonald

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 41%
Sinker 20%
Slider 20%
Curveball 15%
Changeup 4%

Bedard

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 31%
Sinker 26%
Cutter 5%
Slider 1%
Curveball 28%
Changeup 10%

Lincoln throws just two pitches over 10% of the time, while Burnett (3), McDonald (4), and Bedard (3) all do it with a higher amount. To maximize your effectiveness as a starter, you must keep hitters off balance, and equally distributing at least three pitches is a good place to start. In Lincoln’s case, it’s really only going to be a fastball or curveball. For Burnett, he could throw you a fastball, sinker, or curveball. J-Mac could give you a fastball, sinker, slider, or curveball. Bedard could toss a fastball, sinker, or curveball, like A.J. You can only keep hitters guessing for so long, and if you’re only featuring two pitches while going multiple innings, the batters will most likely catch on.

If you need a reason for how a reliever can get away with just two pitches, look no further than closer Joel Hanrahan. Check out his frequencies this year:

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 75%
Slider 25%

That’s it for the Hammer; just a fastball and slider. With 415 pitches this year, he’s thrown 311 fourseamers and 104 sliders. Obviously he can get away with a large amount of fastballs since he throws so hard, but he can also use the slider when he needs it. Jared Hughes is another example of someone who’s featuring two pitches out of the ‘pen, neither of which are fastballs. Hughes is 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA this year; here are his frequencies:

Pitch Frequency
Fourseam 3%
Sinker 84%
Slider 11%
Changeup 3%

Hughes heavily relies on his sinker (360 of 431 pitches thrown), and uses his slider just 11% of the time. Of his 431 pitches, he’s used a fastball and changeup a combined 23 times. Hughes is a solid example of an effective reliever with just two pitches in the repertoire.

Back to Lincoln; here’s a progression chart of his ERA over all 16 of his appearances, both as a starter and reliever:

Key Points:
3 – ERA jumps to 1.29 when he allows his first run of the season
7 – ERA down to 0.63 after four straight scoreless bullpen outings
8 – ERA up to 1.33 after giving up two runs in Miami
14 – ERA down to 1.04 six straight scoreless bullpen outings
15 – ERA up to 2.40 after giving up five in Cincinnati
16 – ERA up to 3.15 after giving up four in Baltimore

Lincoln has been effective in the bullpen, as 11 of his 13 relief appearances have been scoreless; he’s allowed just two runs out of the ‘pen. However, his starts haven’t been nearly has effective, and has increased his ERA because of it.

This being said, Brad Lincoln and the Pirates have a decision to make. Either he needs to develop/rely on a third pitch more (probably his sinker) and become an effective starter, or he needs to stay in the bullpen and rely on his fastball/curveball combo. Obviously a 3.15 ERA is not bad, but it could grow if he continues to give up runs in his starts. Clint Hurdle verified that Lincoln will indeed be making his next start on Sunday in Cleveland. But if Lincoln is not effective for his third straight outing, he could be headed back to the bullpen. If Jeff Karstens doesn’t have any more setbacks in rehab, he may be back on the mound next week for the Bucs.

From Bullington to Cole: A Decade of Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Picks

The MLB Draft is just around the corner and the Pirates enter with the 8th overall pick. Hopefully Neal Huntington and staff with address some holes, as well as add organizational depth. Many mock drafts have Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero as a possible target, but Dejan Kovacevic says that he won’t be picked at number eight because he doesn’t possess the offense the Bucs are looking for. The Pirates have picked a plethora of pitching in reason years, namely Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Stetson Allie. However, the past decade has featured some missed opportunities at the draft for the Bucs. Here’s a look at the previous 10 drafts for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from 2002-2011.

2002
1. Bryan Bullington, Pirates
2. B.J. Upton, Devil Rays
3. Chris Gruler, Reds
4. Adam Loewen, Orioles
5. Clint Everts, Expos
Other notable first round picks: Zack Greinke (6th), Prince Fielder (7th), Nick Swisher (16th), Cole Hamels (17th), Matt Cain (25th)

Instead of taking prized high school shortstop (turned pro outfielder) B.J. Upton from Virginia, the Pirates opted to select Bryan Bullington, a right-handed pitcher from Ball State, with the first overall pick. As a college arm, Bullington was expected to be a safe bet to make it to the big leagues. However, he lost velocity and was often injured. In 2006, David Schoenfield from ESPN.com Page 2 listed this as the 49th worst draft pick of all-time. Dave Littlefield and his staff were heavily criticized for botching this pick.

2003
1. Delmon Young, Devil Rays
2. Rickie Weeks, Brewers
3. Kyle Sleeth, Tigers
4. Tim Stauffer, Padres

8. Paul Maholm, Pirates
Other notable first round picks: Aaron Hill (13th), Chad Cordero (20th), Chad Billingsley (24th), Carlos Quentin (29th)

At number eight, the Pirates took left-handed pitcher Paul Maholm from Mississippi State. Not a terrible pick for the Bucs, as Maholm conributed seven solid seasons before moving on with the Cubs this season. Paul was stuck with some terrible teams in Pittsburgh and never received much run support. Most high-profile players went in the late rounds, such as Jonathon Papelbon (4th round, 114 overall), Michael Bourn (4th round, 115 overall), and Matt Kemp (6th round, 181 overall).

2004
1. Matt Bush, Padres
2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
3. Philip Humber, Mets
4. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays

11. Neil Walker, Pirates
Other notable first round picks: Jered Weaver (12th), Billy Butler (14th), Phil Hughes (23rd)

In 2004, the Bucs took local catching prospect Neil Walker from Pine-Richland High School. After a shift to third base in the minors, Walker came up as a second baseman for struggling Aki Iwamura in May of 2009 and has called it home ever since. Not a bad pick for the Pirates at 11, taking “The Pittsburgh Kid.” Although he moved from behind the plate, he’s made strong adjustments to the infield and seems to be an above-average second baseman. His hitting is also average for a middle infielder. Angels ace Jered Weaver was selected immediately after Neil.

2005
1. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
2. Alex Gordon, Royals
3. Jeff Clement, Mariners
4. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

11. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Other notable first round picks: Ryan Braun (5th), Ricky Romero (6th), Troy Tulowitzki (7th), Cameron Maybin (10th), Jay Bruce (12th), Jacoby Ellsbury (23rd)

For the second straight season picking 11th, the Pirates chose young high school outfielder Andrew McCutchen from Fort Meade, Florida. In an absolutely stacked draft class, McCutchen looks like a solid pick. No complaints here; McCutchen has lived up to the hype and is the Pirates star. Despite initially signing with the University of Florida, McCutchen thankfully went pro with the Bucs. The Mariners took former Pirate/current Indianapolis Indian/future Pirate(?) Jeff Clement with the third overall pick. The 2005 draft class is considered one of the best ever.

2006
1. Luke Hochevar, Royals
2. Greg Reynolds, Rockies
3. Evan Longoria, Rays
4. Brad Lincoln, Pirates
5. Brandon Morrow, Mariners
Other notable first round picks: Clayton Kershaw (7th), Drew Stubbs (8th), Tim Lincecum (9th)

Picking inside the top five for the first time since 2002, the Bucs selected University of Houston product Brad Lincoln at fourth overall. Lincoln, who is now spending time in the bullpen, has looked sharp as of late. If he continues to progress, we could see him in the rotation if there are more injuries or if roster moves are made. If he is successful for the next few years, this seems to be a decent pick. Clayton Kershaw or Tim Lincecum obviously would’ve been better selections, but you can’t complain if Lincoln makes some decent contributions down the road.

2007
1. David Price, Rays
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Josh Vitters, Cubs
4. Daniel Moskos, Pirates
5. Matt Wieters, Orioles
Other notable first round picks: Madison Bumgarner (10th), Jason Heyward (14th)

In a relatively thin draft class, the Pirates once again picked fourth. Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters was still on the board, but the Bucs took lefty pitcher Danny Moskos from Clemson. One of the most head-scratching moves of all-time and the last straw for Dave Littlefield. Littlefield and staff said that it was “a baseball move” and Moskos was the guy they really wanted. Many think that it was because of the money that Wieters and his agent, Scott Boras, demanded. Moskos has had a few brief stays in Pittsburgh but is still stuck in Indy. Wieters, on the other hand, is already in his fourth MLB season and has collected 50 HR/188 RBI in 411 games with Baltimore.

2008
1. Tim Beckham, Rays
2. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles
5. Buster Posey, Giants
Other notable first round picks: Gordon Beckham (8th), Jemile Weeks (12th), Brett Lawrie (16th)

With the highest pick since 2002, the Pirates picked Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt with the second overall pick. Unlike with Wieters, the Bucs front office decided to deal with super agent Scott Boras. Although it took awhile, the deal luckily got done. Pedro, who looked good in the second half of 2010 after his recall, had an abysmal 2011 season and was looking like a bust. However, “El Toro” has shown good signs so far this year and is improving on defense as well. Gerrit Cole was selected 28th overall by the New York Yankees, but thankfully he opted to go to UCLA.

2009
1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
2. Dustin Ackley, Mariners
3. Donavan Tate, Padres
4. Tony Sanchez, Pirates
5. Matt Hobgood, Orioles
Other notable first round picks: Mike Leake (8th), Drew Storen (10th), Mike Trout (25th)

In a head-scratching move, the Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth overall pick. The Boston College product was not very high on many draft boards, but the Bucs were eager to take him. Sanchez hasn’t fared well in the minors, both on and off the field. He’s still stuck in Double-A Altoona and isn’t looking too promising. Not the best pick for Neal Huntington and the front office.

2010
1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
2. Jameson Taillon, Pirates
3. Manny Machado, Orioles
4. Christian Colon, Royals
5. Drew Pomeranz, Indians

After just missing out on the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, the Pirates took high school pitcher Jameson Taillon at number two. Taillon is looking good in the minors and the organization is being careful with his progression. Hopefully he continues to succeed and develop as one of the organization’s top prospects.

2011
1. Gerrit Cole, Pirates
2. Danny Hultzen, Mariners
3. Trevor Bauer, Diamondbacks
4. Dylan Bundy, Orioles
5. Bubba Starling, Royals

The Bucs were rewarded with the top pick in the 2011 draft after a terrible 2010 season. With last year’s number one overall pick, the Pirates decided to select right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole out of UCLA. There were a few options to choose from, as there was no sure top pick, such as Harper or Strasburg. Infielder Anthony Rendon was a strong candidate, but was plagued by injury and fell to 6th overall. UVA product Danny Hultzen was also an option. Trevor Bauer, Cole’s teammate at UCLA, was more successful than him in college. However, Cole looks good so far in the minors. He’s been so strong that he could be receiving a promotion soon. For Bradenton, he and Taillon are providing a glimpse of what the future could hold in Pittsburgh.

Over the past decade, the Pirates have made some questionable picks. There have been some solid ones, but they are overshadowed by certain selections. There has definitely been a solid groundwork laid – McCutchen/Walker now, Taillon/Cole in the future – but the picks of guys like Bullington and Moskos are tough to bear. Sure, Moskos could really help the ‘pen down the road, but it’s hard to take the fact that he was selected just because they needed to save some cash. If the organization had the money, they could have Matt Wieters behind the plate right now and hitting in the middle of the lineup. No matter who the Pirates select at eighth overall on Monday night, hopefully it helps the organization a lot more than it hurts them.

Go Bucs