Pirates Notebook: Pitching Staff Racking Up Punchouts

Photo by Mark Olson

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a pitch to contact staff during the 2011 season. That however, has changed so far in 2012. Out of all of the starters in the majors with three or more starts, the Pirates are the only team who have two that rank in the top 15 in K/9. Those starters are Erik Bedard (9.79) and A.J. Burnett (9.77). They’re one of nine teams in the majors that have four starters with a 6.5 or better K/9 ratio, with James McDonald (7.61) and Charlie Morton (6.59) joining the list.

“Obviously we love guys that can strike people out because that is a definitive out 99 percent of the time. Where as a ball in play has a chance to end up as a base runner, base hit or an error,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We cautiously tried to get guys — Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon — guys that have the ability to strike guys out. We inherited what we inherited and wanted to make the best of it.”

“The pitch efficiency, you can strike people out and still be efficient. It’s just the matter of not trying to do it from pitch one. And that’s been the fun of watching James McDonald. He’s taken both of those into account. He’s trying to get as many pitches, as many outs as he can in three or less. Once he gets the two strikes he’s barring people…That’s the lesson we’re trying to get to Taillon and Cole, [Luis] Heredia and all the other power guys in our system. Take first pitch outs. They’re your best friend in the world. When you get two strikes on a guy, bury him.”

Last year the Pirates starters had a single game high of nine strikeouts, which happened twice — once from James McDonald and once from Jeff Karstens. Already in 2012, the Pirates starting staff has struck out nine or more in three different outings. Lefty Erik Bedard surpassed that with his 11 punch out performance on Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Over five innings, Bedard struck out 11 Cardinals, which included a span of seven straight batters.

With 11 strikeouts in his start Thursday and nine K’s in his previous outing, Bedard became the first Pirates pitcher to record at least 20 strikeouts over two consecutive starts since Oliver Perez in September 2004 (21). Bedard is also the first Pittsburgh hurler to win two straight starts while fanning at least 20 batters since Francisco Cordova in August 1999.

McDonald has combined for 25 strikeouts over 20.1 innings in his last three starts. On the season he has a 7.6 K/9, which ranks third in the Pirates’ rotation. His evolution of a strikeout pitcher has been impressive this season.

“[Catcher] Rod [Barajas] was back there calling a good game,” McDonald said after his start on Saturday. “He’s seeing what those guys want to do up there. He’s putting down the right fingers for me. I’m just making the pitch…If I need a strikeout, I feel like I can go for one. But I really prefer to put the ball in play within the first three pitches.”

McDonald may not consider himself a strikeout pitcher just yet, but his evolution since being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers has been impressive. McDonald gives credit to his battery mate for getting punch outs. Barajas, who has over 13 seasons in the Majors behind the dish, deserves some credit for the solid pitching performances this year.

“Rod has a history bank of pitchers, where I think he can profile every guy in there. He’s caught somebody like that guy, something similar to that guy. He can reference back,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Truth be told, we did nothing but shake off each other in that game in St. Louis and Bedard struck out 11 guys. It was the slowest paced game. They weren’t on the same page. If they were in the same library, they weren’t reading the same book. And that’s how unique this game can be.”

“If you think back to the game, there was multiple conversations with signs and shakes. You talk to some of the other pitchers right now, they’ll say, ‘forget about it. I’m not shaking.’ More often than not these guys are putting down just what these guys want to throw. They’re keeping pace clean and fresh. Keeps the defense in play, which plays big dividends in a game last night where everything’s fresh and moving quickly. They deserve a portion of the credit. But at the end of the day, the ball is coming out of the other guys hand. They deserve the greater volume of the credit.”


Hurdle Thinks Pirates Are Moving in Right Direction

After finishing the 2011 season with a 72-90 record to ensure another losing season, skipper Clint Hurdle said the club is in a better position at this point in time than they were last year.

“Everybody wants to put a better product out on the field in front of your home crowd, in front of your home fans, in your home park. I think we’re closing in on that” Hurdle said. “I think the gap is closer from where it was last year at this point in time. I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction. I think if we were scoring more runs, we’d have a little more confidence. But that goes back to the biggest point I want to make, there comes a point in time in that evolution where the men in the clubhouse, coaches in the clubhouse, the manager of the team, our confidence is not tied to last nights success or our last road trip, anything of that. Confidence is confidence. It’s constant. It’s unwavering. It’s persistent. From that level, are we where we need to be, to be a Championship team today? No. Are we heading in the right direction? Yes. And way in front of where we were last year at this point in time.”

The Pirates enter game action on Monday with a 12-16 record, 5.0 games back in the National League Central Division. While their hitting is ranked 16th in the NL with a team .626 OPS, their pitching has been impressive. The Bucs are tied for seventh in the NL with a 3.44 ERA, and are tied for fifth in the NL with a 3.75 xFIP.

Hurdle explained how he knows the club is in a better point this year.

“Body language first and foremost,” Hurdle said. “Conversation, communication, the levels of it, the intensity of it, the content of it. When I’ve been in clubhouses when we had good teams, we walked right, we talked right. The only thing that I can maybe use an analogy to that maybe everybody can relate to, from my standpoint, it’s like when you teach a young child to drive. That time when you say, ‘you’re going to drive. Here’s the keys.’ and you get in the front seat, put the seat belt on, sit stiff as a rock and say, ‘take me for a ride.’ Are you throwing the keys, you get in the back and you say, ‘go for it.’ And you see how they react. The way they grab the wheel. The excitement they have about taking you for a ride. That’s what I look for. It’s about the content. The way they walk, the way they talk.”

“They want to drive,” Hurdle said on whether they are ready. “They definitely want to drive. But we’ve got work to do to get there. And they understand that as well.”


Karstens Working Through Throwing Program

Right-hander Jeff Karstens continues to progress back from shoulder inflammation, which caused him to go on the disabled list on April 18. Karstens rested his arm for 10 days, but since then has been working through a throwing program in order to build back his arm.

The first day back of throwing, Karstens said his arm felt cranky. But since then the arm is feeling a lot better.

“He’s on a throwing program. He’s feeling good, but now we need to build him back up to a starters workload,” Huntington said. “It’s one of those things a lot like A.J. You got to get the injury out. We’ve got to get him healed, we’ve got to get him strong, then we’ve got to build him up. The build up is what takes the most time. Jeff has got the injury out. He’s feeling good. He’s feeling as good as he’s felt in a long time. Now we just got to get him back out on a mound program.”


McCutchen Fatigued After Stomach Flu

All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen was out of the lineup on Sunday while recovering from the stomach flu, which also forced him to exit game action early on Thursday after four innings. McCutchen sat out on Friday, and played through illness on Saturday night.

Huntington said that the illness is nothing serious, and the club will reevaluate his status on Tuesday.

“It’s just a bad virus,” Huntington said. “Andrew just doesn’t have a lot of access weight to lose anyways. Just fatigue now. Didn’t eat. Jut didn’t feel like eating. We tried everything we could to get some nutrition into him. Now it’s just a matter of fatigue and getting him back. Getting him back eating, getting nutrition back in him, getting him back feeling strong. The virus seemed to have played its course. You saw him play last night. He was not feeling well. He wanted to try and gut through it. We’d rather have him get back to close to 100 percent as we can, rather than play him a week at 65-75 percent.”

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Randy Linville

On the strikeout thing, the Bucs are also the only team with two starters in the bottom 10 in K/9 among chuckers with three starts – Karstens and Correia. The question is can the Pirates gain an advantage by having a hard thrower followed by a soft tosser and then another hard thrower in their rotation, like the 1986 Mets tried to do by tossing Ojeda and his slop right before or right after the hard stuff from Gooden and Fernandez? I’m wondering if there has been a study done on setting a rotation in a manner like that? Is it better to bunch all the hard throwers together? Or is it better to mix them up with the guys who can’t break a pane of glass with their heater?

The overall result is that the Pirates starters are middle of the pack in K/9 overall (10th in the NL and 16th in MLB) because they have two guys near the top, two guys near the bottom and two guys in between.

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