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.

If at first base you don’t succeed, try again

Cheap shot alert: What follows may not be fair, given both the perfection of hindsight and the fact we are only at the one-sixth pole of the 2014 season.

However, perusing the state of left-handed hitting first basemen who have recently traveled through Pittsburgh will have Pirates fans rolling their eyes.

Finding that dependable complement to Gaby Sanchez has of course been one of the Bucs’ top priorities, and maybe still is. With that in mind, cheek out the current doings of some guys who have filled that role and passed on:

  • Justin Morneau: .357-6-22; I had a sense in Coors Field he will have the numbers to make the Pirates look bad for their decision to not even compete to keep him, but it could be more than that — the lifetime American Leaguer may just have needed a little extra time to adjust to a new league.
  • Lyle Overbay: .308-1-7, including 3-for-5 as a pinch-hitter; here’s one to make fans gnash their teeth.
  • Adam LaRoche: .312-4-17.
  • Garrett Jones: .237-4-11.
Not making any of that easier to go down is that the current holder of the job, Ike Davis, hasn’t been able to shed the troubles he brought with him from New York.
Davis is batting .185 with a pair of homers and nine RBIs and, on that “dependable” scale, it’s even worse than than. Davis’ home runs were a pair of grand slams (the first with the Mets), meaning that, otherwise, he has drive in one run in 49 at-bats.
Oh, he is also 0-for-16 going into the opener of a brief, two-game series in Baltimore.
Maybe Ike can catch some of Camden Yards’ Davis Karma. Chris won’t be needing it, being on the Orioles’ DL.

Pirates waiting for Polanco to … slump?

Getting inside the head of Neal Huntington:

“Gregory, could you slump for us? Please?”

The Bucs’ GM may not want Gregory Polanco to hit a lull — as opposed to the smashes he’s been hitting all over the International League — because it would ease the increasing pressure on the club to finally get him up. But — and this is strictly speculation on my part — it would give him a chance to take the only test he hasn’t yet passed.

Namely, how does he handle and react to adversity? Always one of the major questions about can’t-miss prospects who go through the ranks dominating their peers. In the Majors, everyone is fed humility at some point; how will The Guy spit it out?

Polanco certainly hasn’t been humbled in Indianapolis. We’ve been giving you our Polanco Daily on Twitter (@Tom_Singer). Here’s the Polanco Monthly, his first at the Triple-A level:

  • .400 batting average
  • 38 hits (12 for extra bases) vs. 16 strikeouts
  • .457 on-base percentage
  • .632 slugging average
  • 25 RBIs — in 24 games
  • Hitting even better against lefties [.405] than right-handers [.397].
All that, while the big boys are struggling to score runs — fewer than three in 14 of their 26 games.
No wonder the outcry grows for the call to go out to Polanco.
While obviously not confessing any Polanco slump-wish, Huntington regularly refers to “making the adjustment to the adjustments pitchers will make to him.”
Indians manager Dean Treanor patiently points out that there are things outside the batter’s box Polanco has to work on: Taking the proper routes to balls in right field, a relatively new position for him [sorry, center is taken in Pittsburgh] and using his speed properly on the bases [he has been thrown out on half of his eight steal attempts].
Looking at the numbers, no one wants to hear about that. Fundamentals, schmundamentals.
“We’re in a statistics-driven business, and there is no question a .400 average over 90-some at-bats is very impressive,” Huntington says. “But sometimes you can’t rush these things.”
Still, a scout from another organization makes a very interesting observation in today’s Tribune-Review:
“Polanco is embarrassing the Pirates by them not bringing him to the big leagues ASAP. He would be an immediate impact bat in the middle of their lineup.”

My own response to the Free Polanco movement has gone something like this: This isn’t basketball, where one man can reverse a team’s direction.
And whenever I make that point, I get hit with Yasiel Puig, whose arrival last year kick-started the Dodgers awake. So there.
Oh, by the way. The Dodgers did not page Puig until early June.
So there.

Cole gets peeved, then gets curious hook

This is my third year of covering the Pirates and, to the best of my recollection, today was the first benches-clearing melee they have been involved in all that time.

No one is in favor of basebrawling. But everyone is in favor of a team showing some spunk. Clint Hurdle always preaches making the opposition “uncomfortable.” Brushing people off the plate is one way to do that. Speaking up against a perceived wrong is another way.

Except for last season’s detour, obviously no team has been as comfortable against the Bucs as the Brewers. They’ve shown up the Pirates for most of a decade on the field, in the box score. That’s the game, we get that. Showing them up in the batter’s box, though, is a different matter.

Gerrit Cole certainly thought so. Not like he called out an innocent angel. Check with Brian McCann.

Anyway, the best part of the incident, from the Pirates’ angle, was that it totally overshadowed what could have been the major post-game topic otherwise.

No one (I didn’t cover the game, taking a rare day off) apparently asked Hurdle about the removal of Gerrit Cole. 

I’m not finding blanket fault with the move. There may have been very sound reasoning behind it. But the point is, the post-game question apparently never came up.

Although Cole left a fastball out over the plate for Mark Reynolds’ tying homer, he otherwise had a smooth eighth inning. He retired the side on only seven pitches. He averaged 95-plus on his fastballs in that inning. He finished it with a total of 91 pitches – by far his fewest in any start this season, and in fact his fewest since Aug. 8, when the Marlins chased him after five.

Yet, Hurdle called on Jason Grilli to protect a 2-1 lead against the  same lineup sequence that had ambushed him 18 hours earlier.

So help me, when Grilli began by retiring Juan Segura, my immediate thought was, “Well, at least we’ll have a tie.”

Sometimes, I hate my instincts.

Cole gets peeved, then gets curious hook

This is my third year of covering the Pirates and, to the best of my recollection, today was the first benches-clearing melee they have been involved in all that time.

No one is in favor of basebrawling. But everyone is in favor of a team showing some spunk. Clint Hurdle always preaches making the opposition “uncomfortable.” Brushing people off the plate is one way to do that. Speaking up against a perceived wrong is another way.

Except for last season’s detour, obviously no team has been as comfortable against the Bucs as the Brewers. They’ve shown up the Pirates for most of a decade on the field, in the box score. That’s the game, we get that. Showing them up in the batter’s box, though, is a different matter.

Gerrit Cole certainly thought so. Not like he called out an innocent angel. Check with Brian McCann.

Anyway, the best part of the incident, from the Pirates’ angle, was that it totally overshadowed what could have been the major post-game topic otherwise.

No one (I didn’t cover the game, taking a rare day off) apparently asked Hurdle about the removal of Gerrit Cole. 

I’m not finding blanket fault with the move. There may have been very sound reasoning behind it. But the point is, the post-game question apparently never came up.

Although Cole left a fastball out over the plate for Mark Reynolds’ tying homer, he otherwise had a smooth eighth inning. He retired the side on only seven pitches. He averaged 95-plus on his fastballs in that inning. He finished it with a total of 91 pitches – by far his fewest in any start this season, and in fact his fewest since Aug. 8, when the Marlins chased him after five.

Yet, Hurdle called on Jason Grilli to protect a 2-1 lead against the  same lineup sequence that had ambushed him 18 hours earlier.

So help me, when Grilli began by retiring Juan Segura, my immediate thought was, “Well, at least we’ll have a tie.”

Sometimes, I hate my instincts.

“Stubborn” like a bull? Well, of course

The reinvention of Pedro Alvarez, begun last October, continues, and it is pretty astounding.

Getting to five homers quicker than any Pirate since Willie Stargell in 1971, or becoming the first Pittsburgh player ever to notch a pair of two-homer games within the first eight of the season, isn’t astounding; Alvarez’s power is recognized.

But how about two strikeouts in his last 30 plate appearances — during which he has drawn six walks? Who is that guy?

Manager Clint Hurdle attributes this to Alvarez “becoming more stubborn with his approach, and being aware of where he gets pitched.”

How about his .353, 3-homer, 6-RBI Division Series against the Cardinals? That seemed to put him over the top, as far as his confidence is concerned.

“Yeah,” Hurdle said, “I do think that was a big help, to perform with that slow heartbeat under that magnifying glass. He probably had the most consistently competitive at-bats of anybody in our lineup that whole series. I do think that was a big confidence builder.”

In Thursday’s game, Alvarez batted fourth in the lineup for the first time ever against a left-hander (the Cubs’ Travis Wood) — cementing his role as the cleanup hitter Hurdle has foreseen for him for years.

Alvarez’s big blow, the three-run winner in the seventh, of course came off a different lefty, James Russell. Alvarez screwed up enough pitching moves even in 2013 to collect 13 RBIs off southpaw relievers.

Pirates lineup, Apr 9 at Cubbies

Pirates lineup v Cubs (and Jason Hammel):

  • LF: Starling Marte
  • RF: Travis Snider
  • CF: Andrew McCutchen
  • 3B: Pedro Alvarez
  • C: Russell Martin
  • 2B: Neil Walker
  • 1B: Travis Ishikawa
  • SS: Jordy Mercer
  • P : Wandy Rodriguez

The biggest early-season surprise, easily, is how Ishikawa has moved in and made himself at home. Sure, the fact the Pirates have faced nothing but right-handed pitchers accommodates him — but, make no mistake, if he hadn’t hit out of the gate, Clint Hurdle would’ve worked around him.

Ishikawa bought a major leash with his two-hit game on Opening Day. And he’s kept hitting (.294) and getting on base (.350).

This must be tough on Gaby Sanchez — even though he will get a start Thursday, when the Bucs finally get a lefty (Travis Wood).

I’ll get Gaby’s thoughts on this pre-game today.

Check out Pirates.com later to see what he has to say.

Pirates lineup at Cubs; and woe is baseball!

Pirates lineup for tonight’s game in Wrigley:

  • LF: Starling Marte
  • RF: Travis Snider
  • CF: Andrew McCutchen
  • 3B: Pedro Alvarez
  • C: Russell Martin
  • 2B: Neil Walker
  • 1B: Travis Ishikawa
  • SS: Jordy Mercer
  • P : Charlie Morton
And, why not? That lineup is 3-1 this season.
* * *
This doesn’t quite qualify as another one of those “baseball is dying” Chicken Little cries, but even someone as knowledgeable and respected as Bill Madden buys into a common misconception.
He wrote over the weekend:
“It’s an unfortunate proven fact that never was the game more popular than at the height of the steroid era in the late 1990s, when home runs were flying out of ballparks in bunches.”
Proven fact? Yes, chicks and everyone else loves the long ball, and that culture did ratchet up the popularity that sagged after the 1994-95 play stoppage. But more popular than now?
In 1998, the Summer of the Chase (Mark McGwire v Sammy Sosa) 12 of the 30 teams drew fewer than 2 million and the aggregate MLB attendance  was 70,372,221.
Last season, only eight teams were under 2 mil and had a total gate of 74,026,895.
Narrowing that focus down to one team, the Giants in ’98 were one of the sub-2 million clubs. According to the team accounting announced today, the G-Men have already sold 2.8 million tickets for this season.
And, oh, MLB set an all-time preseason attendance record, Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues combined.
Yep, really hurting.

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