First Pitch: Can the Pirates Develop Hitting Prospects?

There was a discussion the other day in one of the comment sections about the abilities of the Pittsburgh Pirates developing hitters. The idea was that the Pirates haven’t done a good job of developing hitters through the draft, as evident by most of their big breakout prospects being on the pitching side. The counter to this argument is that they’ve focused more on pitching, leaving fewer opportunities for a breakout hitter. With the 2015 MLB draft less than a month away, I thought this would be a perfect time to look into this debate.

Just to make things clear, I fall on the side of the argument that says the Pirates haven’t had many opportunities for a breakout hitter, due to their drafting trends. I also think that they’ve shown a good ability to develop hitting prospects, all things considered. Allow me to go through each draft to illustrate my points.

2008 – This one was very heavy on the hitters. Pedro Alvarez went in the first round, but they didn’t stop there. Jordy Mercer went in the third round, and Chase d’Arnaud and Matt Hague were top ten round picks. That’s two starters, plus two guys who made it to the majors as bench guys, which is a strong result from one draft. That doesn’t include Robbie Grossman, who has also made the majors, and was the key piece to acquire Wandy Rodriguez.

Verdict: This Pirates group started off their drafting by focusing heavily on hitters, and it has worked out well so far.

2009 – This draft was all about pitching, and it didn’t work out. Tony Sanchez was the big hitting prospect, with hopes that he could be the catcher of the future. Now the hopes are that he can just make it as an MLB backup. He has made the majors, but that’s more of a consolation for a number four overall pick. One of the few hitters taken with a high pick was Brock Holt, who was traded in the deal to bring in Mark Melancon. Holt is turning into a nice utility player in the majors, after showing some good hitting skills in the minors with the Pirates.

Verdict: The most important hitter didn’t work out. The Pirates did get a small success story in the top ten rounds, although he’s playing for another team now.

2010 – This is another year where they focused heavily on pitching, and a lot of those pitchers went on to college instead of signing. The lone position player in the top ten rounds was Mel Rojas, taken in the third round. Rojas is currently in Triple-A, with the chance to reach the majors as a bench option, and the upside of a fourth outfielder who can play all three positions, while adding some power and speed. One twist here was that they drafted Stetson Allie as a pitcher, then quickly converted him to a hitter. He’s in Double-A now, although his upside is limited due to his strikeouts. They did go over slot on Drew Maggi and Jared Lakind. Maggi topped out at Double-A before being released and joining the Angels. Lakind converted to a lefty reliever.

Verdict: There wasn’t a big focus on hitters at all here, and the few guys they heavily targeted haven’t worked out, or don’t have big upsides.

2011 – This wasn’t as extreme as the previous two years, but they once again loaded up on pitchers. The big exception here is that they drafted Josh Bell and gave him $5 M. Other top ten round picks included Alex Dickerson, Dan Gamache, and Taylor Lewis. Dickerson was traded for Jaff Decker and what eventually became Chris McGuiness. He showed good hitting skills with the Pirates, but was limited with back problems, which have followed him to San Diego. Gamache looks to be topping out at the Double-A level, and Lewis was released. Bell is the big name, and has developed to the point where he’s seen as the first baseman of the future.

Verdict: It’s too early and there aren’t many guys to focus on from the hitting side. Bell will make or break the draft for the hitters.

2012 – This draft was all about Mark Appel, with the Pirates going signability with their round 6-10 picks in order to get extra money for the first round pick. They did take several hitters, including Barrett Barnes and Wyatt Mathisen, who have both dealt with injuries and/or struggles. Barnes is hitting this year, but has dealt with a constant string of injuries. Mathisen struggled at catcher, and was injured. He moved to third base, and has shown more potential and a better ability to stay healthy there. Eric Wood and Jacob Stallings, two of the signability guys, are currently in Altoona. Both have a small shot at being an MLB bench player, with Stallings fitting the mold of Chris Stewart.

The interesting case here is Max Moroff. When Appel didn’t sign, the Pirates turned their money to three middle round guys, including giving Moroff $300,000 to break his commitment to Central Florida. He’s now having a breakout year in Altoona, and as Sean McCool wrote today, raising the idea about whether he can be an MLB starter at second.

Verdict: Way too early. The Barnes and Mathisen progressions aren’t encouraging, but the Moroff breakout this year is something to watch.

2013 – This is the first year since 2008 where the Pirates really focused on hitters. They took Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire in the first round, then followed with JaCoby Jones, Trae Arbet, and Adam Frazier in the early rounds. They also went over-slot on Erich Weiss in the 11th round. Meadows and McGuire are living up to expectations so far as top prospects. Jones had a mini-breakout year last year, and is showing potential at shortstop. Frazier is off to a good start in Altoona. But it’s way too early to evaluate this group.

Verdict: Way, way too early.

2014 – The Pirates went heavy on position players in this draft, which is part of what sparked this topic. But if it’s way, way too early for 2013, then there’s no use discussing the results from last year’s draft.

Verdict: See me in a few years.

Can the Pirates Develop Hitters?

Looking at the breakdowns above, the Pirates have focused heavily on pitching, which explains why there have been more pitching breakouts. Their big focus on hitting was limited to the 2008 and 2013 drafts, plus a few big picks along the way. The 2008 results look great, and it’s too early to judge the 2013 group. The other three drafts have seen some good (Max Moroff, Josh Bell, Brock Holt) and some bad (Tony Sanchez). I don’t think either one is enough to say conclusively that the Pirates are good or bad at developing hitters, especially since Jordy Mercer is the only middle round guy to play a big role in the majors. You could chalk that up to a lack of middle round picks who could realistically be expected in the majors at this point. Overall, I’d say that their development skills look more optimistic than anything else.

The concern here seems to be that the Pirates just haven’t displayed the skill, not because they’ve tried and failed, but because they haven’t really tried. They have a great system for developing pitchers, and that system has produced a lot of pitching prospects. They haven’t produced as many hitters, but that’s simply because they haven’t devoted as much in resources to the hitters. Even with that, they have a few success stories on the development side to give hope that their offense-heavy approach in 2013 and 2014 (and maybe beyond?) will work out well, especially in cases like 2014 when they go against the grain.

I’d also point out that when we’re talking about development, it’s pointless to only focus on the draft. The development system works the same for all avenues of talent. You’d have to include Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and others in this group, since these guys were developed by the current system. If you’re going to only focus on the draft, then this becomes a scouting thing, and not a development angle. And then the discussion gets broken open to include unsigned talents like Trea Turner and Matt den Dekker, as those picks would reflect the scouting, even if they didn’t sign. That would tip the discussion even more in favor of the drafting skills.

Again, I don’t think there’s anything conclusive here, but I think the evidence points more towards the Pirates showing an ability to develop hitting prospects.

**Prospect Watch: Sampson Throws Another Gem, Allie Homers

**Injury Updates: Taillon Pitches Thursday, Holdzkom to the DL, Tommy John For Topa

**Jonathan Mayo’s First Mock Draft is Second Vote For Nick Plummer

**Can Max Moroff Become an MLB Starting Second Baseman?

**Wilfredo Boscan Having Unexpected Success With Indianapolis

**Morning Report: An Early Look at the Minor League Pennant Races

 

  • I believe Altoona must have a good hitting coach, it seems the last few years there has been a hitting break out at AA. Elias Diaz, Josh Bell, and Max Moroff to name a few

  • Well done, Tim. Tough topic to cover in this forum. I’m sure you could’ve written 5000 words and still not covered all you wanted to.

  • Josh Harrison also counts as a positive result for the development system. He was acquired in a trade but did spend considerable time in the system.

    Also, if Tony Sanchez tops out as a backup catcher, this would happen because of his catching skills, not his hitting skills.

    • If Harrison even turns out to be something one would call a success, you’d have to credit the Big League staff, if anyone.

      • I don’t like separating the big league development from the minor league development. It’s just a continuation and the final step of what they were working on in the minors. When I think of development, I think of the entire organization, and not just everything through AAA.

        • I suppose I can follow along with that, in a way.

          But the corollary argument to that would inherently assume that the Big League hitting coach, for instance, would at least in part be judged by how successful prospects are being developed in the Minors, which obviously never happens. Two different functions.

          Again, no clean and easy breaks in this discussion. No real right or wrong answers. Fun topic.

      • Why? What did the ML staff do that the MiL staff did not? Harrison hit when a pool prospect? Must we attribute his early success to the ML staff?

  • I am not sure that the 2008 hitters have worked out well for the Pirates, or as well as you imply.
    Pedro Alvarez’s singular skill is God given strength and power. Pitch selection, swing consistency, the ability to hit for average are to an extent teachable , and Pedro apparently never learned.

    Pedro Alvarez has NEVER had an OPS over .800. He has a career OPS+ of 104 ( 100 is average, Buster Posey, the OTHER 4 year college hitter taken in the first 8 picks has a career OPS+ of 141. Holding up Pedro as a success seems ridiculously premature.

    Likewise Mercer,he of the career OPS of .693 and OPS+ of .693. Nice glove, but he hits 8 for a reason.

    I truly think an overhaul is due for how the Pirates TEACH their hitters, or SCOUT their hitters. Other teams have more success than Pittsburgh, and I do not know why. It may be luck, but it may be something more pervasive

    • Last year the league OPS for shortstops was .669. So Mercer’s OPS is above average for his position. Plus he has been improving his defense. If you can get that from a third round pick, then that’s a good result.

      Likewise, the average OPS at first base was .745 last year (third base was .714). In three of his first four seasons, he was in the .770-.790 range. He definitely needs to get back to that this year, as he’s currently matching what he did in 2014. But for his career total, he’s averaged the results of a league average first baseman, or has been better offensively than an average third baseman, which is a bit more relevant, since that was his position until now. He put up seasons with a 1.6 WAR, 2.2, and 3.0 in his first five years. It’s not the best result, but it’s not a bust.

      If you want to say they should have taken Posey, that would definitely be a valid argument. But you’d have to remember that it would have been almost impossible for them to take Posey, considering it was their first draft, and the previous GM was fired for passing over a Scott Boras client seen as the best prospect on the board. They would have been chased out of town if they did the same thing with Alvarez, who was the top prospect on the board.

      • actually, I like Mercer, probably more than most. But he is not what you would call a GOOD hitter. He is OK for a SS though

        Vis a vis Pedro. he will never be what we hoped, so expectations are tempering things. But I would call him an AVERAGE hitter over his career. ( Certainly by OPS+ he is average). Not what you want from the second pick in the draft

    • An overhaul seems like a knee-jerk reaction. There are 30 MLB teams, and we’ve listed here that the Cardinals are “better” at finding/developing these hitters. We can’t sit here and only compare the Pirates to the Cardinals, who many people consider the best run organization in the sport, and maybe across all major sports. Compare the Pirates to the average, and I think we can agree that the pirates have done a pretty good job at finding and fielding a competitive MLB team, which is the end goal of the development process. As pointed out in the article, the Pirates FO really went pitcher heavy until the last few drafts. Now that there is an established pitching development system, we can sit back and let them figure out how to better develop/draft/acquire the hitters that can continue to keep the Pirates competitive.

  • Tim: In comparison to the developmental system in place for pitchers in the Pirates org, there really does not seem to be a level-to-level developmental system for hitters. And, it is very difficult to apply an objective measuring basis for evaluation.

    The players come in with multi-varied hitting styles usually developed by folks far away from MLB, similar to almost all of the young pitchers that become a part of the organization. But the pitchers developmental process begins on day one, and they learn how to throw the way the Pirates want them to throw – adherance to fastball command, development of a two-seamer/cutter, and development of a usable change-up. They look for guys who fit that mold and train them up, adding more tools as they go. This multi-year training does not seem to exist on the hitting side, and I see it mostly in the ability of our guys to be situational hitters.

    • This is a great comment. Can really go a bunch of different directions.

      I will say that the last two years appear to be a change in direction on the hitting side. Starting to see guys drafted who “fit the mold” and even some similar hitting philosophies trickling down, namely where they have guys starting their hands.

    • I’m actually working on a level-to-level story for the hitting. It’s not as obvious as the pitching, since that involves adding certain pitches at certain times.

      • Tim: Be sure to include the 2B from AA – he has shown a lot of maturity at the plate, and his W/K ratio is excellent.

        • Bingo. THIS is what I see as true organizationally influenced development.

  • Where are the guys like matt adams in the pirates system with low expectations that the cards take and turn into a power hitter. The pirates level of development is fine for guys who are gonna hit anyway, it’s the ones a tier or two down that seem to fall through the cracks.

    • So, in your opinion, the litmus test for a successful organization is the ability to turn late round picks into ML starters? Considering how many top 60 draft picks never make the majors, I believe an organization would be better judged on how many expected picks make it.

      The Pirates have done a good job in this regard. Some here in Pittsburgh and others traded away for veteran players.

      The late round surprises should be viewed as lucky finds. If they were expected to make it to the show, they would’ve been chosen much higher.

      • Scott: Adams is not a good example of the Cardinal method. Another guy in the same draft year of 2009 was Matt Carpenter who they picked in the 13th Round out of TCU, and he was in the majors by 2011. IMO, he is one of the most dangerous hitters in MLB – a contact guy with power who uses the whole field and knows the situation. The Cards have that 2 strike mentality, hitting it where it is pitched, and they draft guys high and low with the ability to adapt to their way of hitting. Maybe it’s the water in Missouri, but the Royals do a lot of that also.

        • Sounds similar to the Pirates drafting tall, project able HS Pitchers and teaching them how to throw sinking two-seam fastballs. I’m sure every organization has their methods of identifying their type players, I suppose some are just better at it than others. I think it’s fair to say the Cards are definitely one of the best.

      • No, what I’m saying is organizations like the cards develop hitters as diligently as they do pitchers. The pirates method is to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. I have said many times that if and when the pirates hitter development is on par with the pitchers they will be a force.

        • STL is one of the best at development, but when you mention the success stories without the failures, its disingenuous. STL fails more than they succeed like every team, which isnt to say they arent the best.

          PIT doesnt just simply throw things at the wall, if they did Mercer wouldnt be around. Guys such as Jordy arent just guessing games, much like Marte wasnt a guess.

          Last year, our offense was the strength of the team for at least half the year so either we lucked into all that talent or the development is good enough to make the team very balanced.

  • I still don’t see the pirates being able to develop hitters, guys like cutch marte and polanco are going to hit regardless of the system. When it comes to guys like sanchez gamache ect. I don’t see the level of development as say the cards have. Maybe it’s what tim said and the pirates are focused on developing pitching. Either way the organizations hitter development is way far behind that of the pitching. What the reason is for this only the pirates brass know for sure.

    • so…if a guy develops, he was going to hit regardless?

      sounds like lose-lose with your logic.

      • That’s not fair at all. It’s not like Pilbo included every hitter, did he?

        Fact is that every organization, regardless of how good they are at development, is going to run into players whose talents supersedes all else. And if I were to pick three players on the current roster who fit the bill, they’d be the exact ones Pilbo mentioned.

      • Five tool guys are supposed to hit, what happens to the guy with a box of yardsale tools in this organization?

        • But you arent really talking about pure 5 tool guys that were a polished 5 tools. Guys like Marte and Polanco are anything but polished, so the idea that they were likely to be what they are today regardless of the system might be a bit overreaching. They had the tools, but both Marte and Polanco (especially Marte) needed things to go well to avoid being one of the many guys with a ton of tools that doesnt learn the finesse side of being a MLer.

          You also have to look at other teams and how often they take a box of yardsale tools and make it a star.

    • Marte and Polanco are two of the biggest development success stories in the system. Marte was signed for $85,000, and there were questions about whether he could develop into a MLB guy when he was in the lower levels. Polanco signed for $150,000, and was struggling when he first came to the US, then finally put it together in 2012.

      Granted, they both have a ton of tools to work with, which helps their odds of breaking out. But their development is a success story.

      • I’d argue the complete opposite, but that’s what gets so difficult about actually analyzing and judging “development”.

        Polanco was signed at an age where most US kids can barely drive, let alone be draft eligible, and had his breakout coincide with physical maturation out of his baby giraffe stage. Is that really “development”? How much credit can you really give the Pirates staff, specifically? Some, certainly, but I’d hardly say this situation is one to hang your hat on.

        Starling Marte is the same exact hitter today as he was as a 19 yo in the DSL, but with more power. Again, “development” that can be tied directly to physical maturation.

        • You say potato I say patato( does’nt go so well when written do it) all I’m saying is that guys with five tool potential get developed with the pirates. What happens to the guy who nobody expects to make it And does not have five tool potential? The pirates do it all the time with pitchers, why not hitters? Finding diamonds in the rough like polanco is one thing, how about the lump of coal that’s turned into a diamond.

        • Really? Marte was ML ready at 19 as a hitter apart from lower power? I dont see that at all, because as much as he struggles at times with plate discipline now, he was far worse then. He was struggling at every level with laying off bad pitches, and i highly doubt had he been facing ML pitching he would have been the same guy at 19 as he was as a rookie. His issues were far from physical maturation and way more learning about being a hitter and seeing pitches out of the hand.

          • You’re really struggling with this concept…

            No, I did not say Marte was ML ready at 19. I said he was the exact same type of hitter he is now, and that is fact. Obviously he’s improved overall as he’s advanced, as all prospects do, just not relative to his level. You can “see” whatever you want, but the number tell the truth.

            • I think you really give to much credit to the notion that “all prospects improve as they advance” and how just patently false that is. He’s the same type of hitter, but to give most of his credit for not allowing his free swinging ability in A ball to derail his ability to make it this far seems to really just dislike the teams ability not matter what. Certainly he deserves credit, but to act like the team really didnt matter in his maturation gives him a ton of credit for everything he has done.

      • Like I said to leefoo, five tool guys are supposed to hit, what happens to the guy with a box of yardsale tools in this org. . It just seems to me the pirates are not as patient with hitters or as knowlegable about hitting as they are with pitching.. why else would so many pitchers come out of nowhere and so many hitters go nowhere?

        • But five tool guys don’t always have those tools. Usually when they come in, they have the potential for five tools, but need to develop the actual tools to become a true five tool guy. That was the case with Marte and Polanco.

          Some guys don’t develop all five tools, which is a much more common case.

          • Your focusing on the wrong end of the spectrum here, I have no problem with the pirates development of guys with five tool potential. What I’m saying is where are the john holdzkoms for the hitters? Guys who should’nt be but are in spite of the odds. You know the second tier guys, the leftovers the guys that teams like the cards take and mold into something usefull, the guys without five tool potential.

            • Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison

              • C’mon tim after that article you wrote about josh regressing your really gonna use him to defend your position, your better than that. Mercer maybe although that outcome remains to be seen. Also I have said and will say it again, the pirates are getting better at developing hitters they are just not quite there yet.

                • What article did I write about Harrison? He’s struggled this year, but I don’t think it will continue. He won’t be as good as last year, but I think he’ll be fine as a starter or a guy getting regular playing time.

          • How many of the five tools can actually be developed, though?

            Very limited work you can do to a guy’s speed and arm strength. Defense certainly can be, and hitting/power to an extent.

            My definition of development would lean much more on how the organization can help a given player turn tools into actual production. The Pirates didn’t develop Pedro Alvarez’s power, obviously. Have they done anything to help him make that power more usable? Polanco and Marte started hitting the moment they grew into their bodies. Has the organization done much to improve their plate discipline?

            I’d argue development should be defined more by what the club can get out of a player’s tools. And I’m not sure there are many who’s sum is equal to their parts. I’m on the side of the jury still being out, especially after seeing what I consider improvements over the last few years. But I’d hardly call the early returns definitively positive.

            • I’d say the hitting, power, and defense can be developed. The other two you could try (build strength with the arm, get in good shape to add speed), but they’re more about natural ability.

              One thing you mentioned here:

              “Polanco and Marte started hitting the moment they grew into their bodies.”

              That is actually a huge part of the development program. The Pirates put a big emphasis on strength and conditioning training, so that guys can grow into their bodies and have a better chance of reaching their upside.

              • At some point this comes down to judging against their peers, though, doesn’t it? In 2015, what clubs *aren’t* putting their players through strength and development programs? Can’t say I buy Starling or Polanco or especially Pirate prospects as a group bring in appreciably better shape than they would be with another club.

                I’m glad you brought that up, but it just doesn’t move the needle for me.

                • I don’t think strength and conditioning is the same across the industry. One of the things that Brault and Tarpley discussed when they came over from the Orioles was that the Pirates were more focused on athleticism than the Orioles. They noticed a difference immediately.

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