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Why no Pirates player will be NL MVP …

They have too many candidates. It’s a chain gang.

All season, Clint Hurdle and his players have espoused the one-for-all, all-for-one character of the team. The statistics back up that appraisal. So do the daily results.
 Asking “Who is the Bucs’ MVP?” is like asking “What will the weather in Pittsburgh be like today?” It depends on what day you ask.
They connect the dots … and pass the lunch pail.
This morning, it obviously is Russell Martin. On Sunday, without question it was Josh Harrison. That time he hit a tying home run in the ninth and a game-winner in the 11th, it had to be Andrew McCutchen. Pick any day he delivers a clutch hit, and it’s unquestionably Neil Walker.
Nine Pirates have hit 10 or more homers.
Eight Pirates have 40 or more RBIs, and 11 have 30 or more.
The reigning MVP, McCutchen, won’t reach the 84 RBIs that last season were the fewest for a full-season MVP in a quarter-century.
Cutch’s repeat chances are hurt by the fact he’ll have to split the votes with the Bucs’ breakout sensation. Harrison is the MVP choice of McCutchen himself — as well as of PNC Park fans who have begun to greet his at-bats with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Then, there is Martin — whom we thought was invaluable last season, then he showed up for this one.
In 2013, Martin batted .192 in 120 at-bats with men in scoring position, with 30 RBIs.
In 2014, Martin is batting .380 with men in scoring position, and in fewer at-bats (92) has nearly double the RBIs (56).
Hey, if MVP is out of the question, maybe Martin can bag Comeback (Clutch) Player of the Year.

Eye for an eye? Baseball has an eye for retaliaton

As I watched Josh Harrison and Starling Marte lead off Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies with a different sort of back-to-back — they both got hit by Jerome Williams pitches — it occurred to me target practice has to be over: The Bucs are already too good at getting hit.

The Pirates have been hit by pitches 72 times — maybe a result of their hurlers’ commitment to pitching inside having resulted in an MLB-leading 80 hit batters.

Maybe? And maybe the moon isn’t made of cheese.

Next time you hear a pitcher shrug off a beanball with, “The pitch just got away from me,” just roll your eyes and hit the mute button.

If retaliation is not part of the code, how come baseball’s six divisions rank in the exact same order in batters being hit and pitchers hitting batters?

Here’s your scorecard, entering Thursday’s games:

BATTERS HIT (Totals by division):

  • NL Central: 312
  • AL East: 263
  • AL West: 259
  • AL Central: 224
  • NL East: 212
  • NL West: 205

HIT BATTERS:

  • NL Central: 287
  • AL East: 260
  • AL West: 255
  • AL Central: 245
  • NL East: 216
  • NL West: 212
Not only are the rankings identical, but note the similarities in the two sets of numbers division by division. 
I’m aware of one factor in this distribution: In a division game, say if Lance Lynn hits Andrew McCutchen, the incidence shows up in both sets (hit batter for Bucs, batter hit for Cards). But even with that mathematical sidebar, the numbers are interesting.
Decoded.

Hang with ‘em? Yeah, Liriano one of best at that

There is a growing movement to eliminate — or, more realistically, at least de-emphasize — wins for starting pitchers.

Francisco Liriano probably does not have a problem with that suggestion. He doesn’t get wins, anyway.

In his effort Sunday against the Reds, Liriano protected his place in a wretched lineup: Pitchers with more than 20 starts in a season, an ERA lower than 4.00 — and no more than three victories.

Mind you, Liriano is one of only 11 such misbegotten hurlers in the history of the game. In a way, however, he could be the biggest victim of them all: He is the only one to have met his fate on a winning, contending team. Sometimes, it’s just an everyday-lousy team and nothing goes right — as opposed to the fates picking on you.

Check out this chronological list (Name – # of wins/starts; team and record):

  • Joe Harris – 2/24; 1906 Red Sox 49-105
  • Hal Brown – 3/21; 1964 Colt 45s 61-88
  • Mike Kekich – 2/20; 1968 Dodgers 76-86
  • Jerry Koosman – 3/32; 1978 Mets 66-96
  • John Montefusco – 3/22; 1979 Giants 61-79
  • Ross Baumgarten – 2/23; 1980 White So 70-90
  • John Dopson – 3/26; 1988 Expos 81-81
  • Eric Hillman – 2/22; 1993 Mets 59-103
  • Dustin Moseley – 3/20; 2011 Padres 71-91
  • Jacob Turner – 3/20; 2013 Marlins 62-100
  • FRANCISCO LIRIANO – 3/24; 2014 PIRATES 71-65
And, lest you think that most of Frankie’s misses came on his off days, consider that he has either gone seven innings on a yield of no more than three runs or six while allowing no more than two a total of 10 times — and picked up wins in two of them.
Actually, bad luck may have less to do with it than manager Clint Hurdle’s characteristic way of handling his starters and relievers. It works on a team basis, but starters often leave games they could win with a little longer mound tenure.
Why do I say that? In today’s Majors, of the 109 pitchers who have made 20-plus starts and have an ERA below 4.00, there are only two who have fewer than six wins, and they’re both in the Bucs’ clubhouse: Liriano, and Charlie Morton.

 

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.

Huh?

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.

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