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Crowded outfield: Josh Bell moving to first base

In response to what is already being called their Dream Outfield, the Pirates are moving top position prospect Josh Bell to first base.

Bell, freshly-named the Florida State League’s Player of the Year as an outfielder, has been working out at first base since his mid-July promotion to Double-A Altoona.

Bell has yet to play at the new position, but will do so in the offseason Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions — who will be managed by Jeff Banister, the Major League club’s bench coach.

“It’s a good situation,” said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. “Jeff will be able to keep an eye on how this goes and keep us updated.”

Rated No. 3 among Pittsburgh prospects, Bell has a high ceiling, but perhaps little chance of reaching it at his original position with the Bucs. Despite Gregory Polanco’s recent return to Triple-A Indianapolis, the Pirates figure to be set for years with an outfield of Starling Marte,  Andrew McCutchen and Polanco.

“He’ll first go to Instructional League after the season and continue working there,” Huntington said of Bell, “then he’ll get his first game-action at the position in the AFL.

“It’s an opportunity for him to get at-bats in a very competitive environment, and to give first base a go. We just want to see how he takes to it and whether than can become an option for him.”

An Olympian undertaking, for Pirates starters

Like most baseball traditionalists, I’ve long had a problem with the concept of a “quality start.” Since that is defined as having a pitcher go six innings while allowing three earned runs, ideally a starter could have nothing but quality starts and finish the season with an ERA of 4.50 — hardly a “quality” performance.

Lately, a new term has been introduced: Ultra-quality start, which is a seven-inning outing on a yield of two earned runs. While that is more appropriate, it’s still only an extension of the whole quality concept.

For fun, let’s award medals, Olympics style, and rank starting pitchers accordingly.

  • Bronze: Six innings, three earned runs.
  • Silver: Seven innings, two earned runs.
  • Gold: Eight-plus innings, no more than one earned run.

Here are the current standings of the Pirates rotation, ranked according to Golds. Maybe we’ll update this on a weekly basis.

Pitcher / Gold-Silver-Bronze-Total

Edinson Volquez 2-5-6-13

Charlie Morton 1-7-4-12

Gerrit Cole 1-3-5-9

Jeff Locke 1-3-5-9

Vance Worley 1-3-4-8

Francisco Liriano 0-3-5-8



The Morris deal: How about ‘present’ considerations?

In the middle of another implosion by the Pirates bullpen, Bryan Morris comes out of the Marlins’ to blow down the three hitters he faces.

Okay, we get it. The June 1 trade of Morris to Miami will not go down as one of Neal Huntington’s best. Quit rubbing it in: Against the Bucs alone, Morris has three shutout innings, with five strikeouts. Overall, he has an 0.28 ERA in 28 appearances for the Fish.

I’d like to reconsider my original take on that deal. I’ve been saying that you need to wait years to rate it, because the player taken by the Pirates with the Draft choice acquired in return won’t be on the scene for years.

On further thought … that is exactly what was wrong with that move.

By the time Connor Joe, the Draft pick, arrives — IF he arrives; prospects are always crap shoots — Pedro Alvarez for sure, Andrew McCutchen likely, and Neil Walker possibly will all be gone. No way to foresee where the Pirates will be then.

But we knew they were in a race NOW. You have to grab every chance to contend for a postseason shot, because it is never guaranteed.

It isn’t like the Bucs shipped out a struggling pitcher. Morris was already 4-0 for them.

And now that their bullpen appears to be crumbling, they’re in damage-control mode — while Morris is thriving in Florida.

Please, I don’t even want to get into the Jason Grilli (19 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings for the Angels, with a 3.07 ERA) — Ernesto Frieri (10.13 ERA) business.

From Cutch to Slap-Happy Ahmed: Curse ‘Zona

So let’s take a look at the Pirates’ last two days in Phoenix.

Saturday, Andrew McCutchen is drilled by a pitch, which very sensibly could have led to the oblique injury that will land him on the DL for the first time in his career, seriously impacting the Bucs’ playoff chances.

Sunday, the D-backs won because the umpires let one of their baserunners flagrantly knock down an automatic inning-ending throw.

Both things suck. Which sucks more will depend on the length of McCutchen’s absence.

I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV nor slept at the Holiday Inn.

But I do know that the body is an intricate web of interconnected muscles and tendons, and one area weakened by pain can lead to injury in another.

A few innings before Randall Delgado’s hit on Andrew’s spine, he had flown through the air for a diving, twisting catch of a line drive. And got up smiling.

Are you going to tell me that a man can put his body through something like that without a problem — and the next day become incapacitated by doing something he has done thousands of times? Swing a bat?

The thing that happened in-between was the pitch, to retaliate for Paul Goldschmidt. Although Cutch said he had little day-after issues other than tightness, it had to impact his normal pregame preparation. His body wasn’t in as fine a tune as normal. Hence, the breakdown.

As for Nick Ahmed batting down Jayson Nix’s double play relay in the 10th — short of going into second waving a tennis racket, that’s as flagrant as interference gets. Even the other Diamondbacks knew it — check the video: They weren’t celebrating, expecting the play to be waved off and the game to continue.

From damnable to inexcusable. Quite a tandem.

I blame Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Bucs pitchers pass acid test (if I remember)

There are some things in life that make you go, “Huh?” This was one of them.

Yesterday, Pirates PR guru Dan Hart and I huddled up to try to find out the last time Buccos pitchers had allowed fewer hits in four consecutive games than the 14 they’d given the Phillies and the Cards through Monday.

The Elias Sports Bureau came through with the answer and passed it on to Dan, who walked up to me in the Busch Stadium clubhouse.

“It’s a good nugget. Goes back to your favorite decade,” Dan said.

“The ‘60s?”

“No. Go up one. The ‘70s.”

“Oh, I don’t remember anything about the ‘70s,” I said, setting up a trite line still invoked by the California Flower-Power Haight-Ashbury generation. “I was at UCLA then, so that’s all a blur.”

It’s just a throwaway line about acid and being high and missing years in your memory bank.

So … I dig into the dates Elias had passed on to Dan, that Pirates hitters had given up 13 hits in a four-game sequence from June 7-12, 1970.

And the last of those games turns out to be Dock Elllis’ no-hitter against the Padres in San Diego.

Yes, the only he has claimed to have pitched while high on LSD.


Keeping the faith: Writing Vin Scully’s cue card

The Bucs hosted Faith Night, their most engaging promotion, Thursday. Following the game against the Mets, thousands of fans remained to hear impassioned speeches delivered by, among others, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.

The occasion took me back to the early ‘80s, when the Texas Rangers still played in Arlington Stadium and fans still flocked to Dodger Stadium toting transistor radios — their umbilical cords to Vin Scully since the club’s arrival from Brooklyn in 1958.

The connection?

The Rangers held something similar to a Faith Night. I don’t recall its exact label, but the promotion was that fans showing IDs that authenticated their church affiliation got a $2 discount on tickets.

In town covering the Angels for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, I included in my game notes a throwaway line about the Rangers making up that revenue by charging an extra $2 for atheists.

Days later, I was told — that’s how we found out about things before the Internet, social networks, YouTube — that Vin Scully read that note on the air — and 40,000 people in Dodger Stadium roared in laughter.

Having Vin Scully read any words you wrote would be anybody’s life highlight. Qualifies as mine.

Hey! Keep JHay in there.

I’m glad I don’t have to made the decision. But, if I did, it’d be, “Josh Harrison, grab a bat. Pedro Alvarez, grab some bench.”

Right now, there is no way I would have a lineup that includes Alvarez and not Harrison.

The subject obviously comes up today in St. Petersburg, because Neil Walker comes off the DL. Harrison has been playing his position. Before that, Harrison played right field, now Gregory Polanco’s position.

Well, not so much today as in a couple of days — when the Bucs won’t have a DH to accomodate an extra bat.

Starling Marte getting hit twice by pitches on Monday — the second, a nasty smack on his left wrist — makes me suspect manager Clint Hurdle will have an excuse for making room for both Harrison and Alvarez.

If not, right now I can’t justify playing Alvarez over Harrison, that simple. Alvarez smacked a big three-run homer last night. He picked up his first RBIs since June 7. Since then, Harrison has 8 RBIs. Harrison has laid out at whatever position he he has played, pairing excellent defense with the .308 bat he has carried since becoming a rotating regular.

In addition to keeping Harrison in the Pirates lineup, I would add him to the National League All-Star team, to extend Mike Matheny’s bench. Not so outrageous: Versatility has gotten recent players to the Midsummer Classic (most notably, Ben Zobrist in 2009 ), and Harrison rates as well as any.

The Vulture Club: Bucs bullpen can carry that tune

The Shark Tank is so last year.

Say hello to The Vulture Club.

The Pirates’ bullpen doesn’t have a Boy George, but it does have a lead singer: Tony Watson, whose four victories match the TOTAL of the Pittsburgh rotation. Back-up singers include Bryan Morris (3-0) and Jared Hughes, who within his first six appearances had two wins — or two more than Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton have combined for in 17 starts.

The bullpen “vulture” is a baseball tradition, with the pioneer having been the Bucs’ very own ElRoy Face in 1959, when he was in the right place at the right time to post a ridiculous 18-1 record.

And it was mainlined by Phil Regan, a Dodgers reliever of the mid-‘60s who earned the official nickname of The Vulture.

However, few teams have had a Vulture Club to compare to these Bucs, whose relievers had 13 wins through 39 games — compared to the rotation’s total of four.

A big part of the reason: Clint Hurdle’s MO of essentially limiting starters to six innings (barring unusually-low pitch counts) combined with the Bucs’ late-scoring offense; they’ve scored 43 percent of their runs in the seventh-or-later.

But another reason is just good-old-fashioned vulturing.  The Bucs have led after six innings in seven games. Relievers got the win in four of those, too.

“Polancolon” — now that’s a major pain

I’m  on my way to the hospital for a colonoscopy but, first, I thought I’d get rid of a bigger pain in the butt.

Yeah, the Polanco article.

All the guys ripping it predictably used their one-way mirrors (along with some choice vulgarities and name-calling; true class).

The piece did not defend the Pirates’ reasons for not promoting him. It just laid them out. Journalistically, just seemed like a good alternative to being another lemming on the bandwagon.

Dropping some names who made it with fewer or even no Triple-A at-bats … Trout, Cabrera, etc. — too easy. For every exceptional player who has made it like that, I can give you three who were rushed up and either were significantly set back or faded into anonymity, unable to recover from early struggles.

As for the “shill” and “hack” bombs … besides doing your own research to learn that my bread is NOT buttered by the Bucs, do hope everyone out there has as successful, respected and productive a career in their field of choosing as I did in mine.

I put that last in past tense because they go in your colon, no telling what comes out.

And now I gotta go — wheeled on the gurney into the OR, and there’s a guy about to put a mask over my nose … says he’s an anesthesiologist … but I think he’s with the pro-Polanco Pirates-basher army … 

A double dose of angst — unlike any other

If sitting through Thursday’s doubleheader felt like a double dose of your most frustrating night as a Pirates fan — and if you aren’t yet on the AARP mailing list — the feeling wasn’t misplaced.

The Bucs’ 5-1, 6-5 losses in Baltimore added up to record-sized agony.

The Pirates left 28 men on base in the two games and, according to my painstaking research, that is their most in any doubleheader in the last 40 years (I stopped at 1974).

The previous high was 27, on July 13, 1984 — while sweeping the Giants at Three Rivers Stadium, winning 8-2 and 4-3. So there was nothing frustrating about that one.

In fact, of the hundreds of twin-bills in that span, there were only six other instances when the Bucs’ LOB was in double-digits  each game. And here’s the rub: They swept five of the previous instances, and split the other. Those facts may seem contradictory — until you realize that when you’re raking the ball all day, at some point your rallies have to stop with men still on base.

Against the Orioles, the Bucs managed to score six runs while leaving nearly five times as many men on base by going 6-for-30 with those men in scoring position.

Since 1974, they’ve done worse — and couldn’t have cared less. In a Sept. 29, 1991 twin-bill at Shea Stadium, the Pirates were 3-for-33 with men in scoring position — yet swept the Mets by scores of 4-3 and 2-1.

I came across a couple of notable two-a-days 0-fers.

On May 19, 1974, the Pirates were 0-for-19 in splitting two with the Phillies.

On April 20, 1983, they were 0-for-16 while getting swept in New York.

P.S. While I neglected to keep track of the exact number of doubleheaders included in this survey, they were still quite commonly scheduled in the ‘70s, not merely creations of rainouts. In 1979, for instance, the Pirates played 13 twin-bills, and that appeared to be the routine frequency throughout that decade.


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