Neal Huntington on Harrison’s Struggles, Pitching Depth, Low Walk Rates

Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington met with the media on Sunday, discussing several topics, including the struggles from Josh Harrison, the fading pitching depth, and the walk issues that have impacted the offense this year. Here is a breakdown of each of those topics. We’ll have more Huntington notes on minor league related topics later today.

Josh Harrison’s Struggles

While Andrew McCutchen’s early season struggles are one thing, the struggles of Josh Harrison have been sort of masked by the level of attention justifiably devoted to the Pirates MVP. Through Sunday, the player many vouched for as last season’s team MVP was hitting .173 with a .491 OPS.

Harrison’s spectacular 2014 season earned him a four-year extension that could net him as much as $50 million. It’s only natural to wonder how his new deal might affect his play.

General manager Neal Huntington remarked Sunday players generally do one of three things when they get their payday:

1. Relax and keep playing the way that earned the player his contract

2. Stop giving the level of effort now that he’s financially secure

3. Try to justify the contract.

Harrison falls into the third category.

“He’s trying to show that those that doubted him,” Huntington said. “He’s trying to show us for showing faith in him that it is deserving.”

The major problem Huntington identified with the team’s offensive woes is that too many players are trying to do too much at the plate. Harrison is one of those players, with that mindset deriving from trying to prove he deserved the contract.

Once Harrison takes a step back, Huntington thinks the Harrison of 2014 will quickly return.

“We just need Josh to take a deep breath and be the player that we know he is capable of,” Huntington said. “Be the energy, be the leader, be the dangerous guy in the box, be the guy that bounces around the field but do it well defensively and we believe he is close to that.”

Pitching Depth

A hallmark, though not lauded as one, of recent Pirates teams was the pitching depth that allowed Pittsburgh to withstand injuries to Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett in the last couple of seasons. But with Jameson Taillon rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Brandon Cumpton going down in the spring with the same surgery, and now the potential injury to Nick Kingham — who many expected to contribute in Pittsburgh this season — the depth isn’t as solid as it once was.

This year, Morton is in a similar position as 2013 when he entered the rotation in June following his Tommy John surgery in 2012. He’s in the midst of rehabbing from his hip injury suffered last year, and if he returns to the form that netted him his own contract extension, he would be an excellent number four option in the rotation and provide some insurance if any other pitchers go down.

Beyond Morton, though, the Pirates only have Casey Sadler as pitchers equipped to join the rotation for a spell at the moment. Pittsburgh will search for depth from new sources, with Huntington mentioning reclamation project Clayton Richard or even Adrian Sampson as players that could develop into options.

“We’ve chipped away at our depth and we’re going to have to have some guys continue to grow and develop,” Huntington said. “We may need to add depending on where we go, it’s going to factor into our roster decisions as we move forward.”

Walks and the Offense

The Pirates tied with the Mets for the National League’s best walk rate at 8.4 percent last season. This year, their 6.1 percent rate of drawing free passes ranks ahead of only Colorado at 5.5 percent.

As Huntington noted with Harrison, the Pirates offense has suffered from hitters pressing in the box. As a result, their strikeouts are up and walks are down.

Once the walks start to come back, so should the runs. Look no further than Thursday’s 7-2 in victory against Cincinnati as proof.  In that game, the Pirates not only rapped out 11 hits but also drew seven walks.

“As we get our guys back to being intelligently-aggressive hitters our walk rate should return,” Huntington said. “We don’t want to create defensive hitters, we want to create intelligently-aggressive hitters.”

  • There are signs that the pirates as a group are learning (again) that you don’t swing for the fence on any pitch close to the strikezone and even more importantly not with two strikes. Of all the things that have changed or been lost in baseball situational hitting is one that needs to make a comeback and quickly.

  • How long before they cut Hart? I don’t pretend to be a scout but just looking at him he’s done. Do they call up Tabata? Wait for Decker or Lambo to be healthy?

    • Gotta think Lambo make the most sense, since he does give the same options as Lambo in terms of defensive positioning. Tabata gives you a decent singles/doubles bat, but Lambo really isnt a worse option as a PH. That BABIP he currently has is a crime.

      • With as much swing and miss as this club has right now, I think Tabata brings a more needed skill set. Lambo can replace Lombardozi.

      • Honestly, this is exactly the kind of situation where having a player like Stetson Allie in your system helps. Platoon/bench bat that doesn’t require a couple million dollar commitment and sticky personnel issues like the string of washed up veterans the Pirates continue to employ every year.

        • I think the “washed up veteran” idea needs to at least be given a rest this season. The team went out and fell into getting Kang, brought in a not terrible option in S Rod, and took a decent yet failing option with Hart. I saw the bench makeup as obviously different this offseason than in previous years, as they clearly went after better depth and not just a bunch of non hitting defensive options that are 2 years beyond their best.

          Allie is set up for a solid bench future, but i dont think it’ll stop them from continuing to bring in guys like S Rod.

          • I made no attempt to make some overarching judgement of roster construction. I specified one player, in one role, where the Pirates once again chose an aging veteran option over multiple younger candidates.

            • Luke sutton
              May 13, 2015 5:03 pm

              well, you used the phrase “string of washed up veterans the team continues to employ every year” so i think thats at least a bit of a comment of roster construction beyond 1 player in one role. I agree that they have done that, and i see them having altered that this offseason. Even Hart was not a sure thing to be completely done, and its early to definitively say it either way.

  • Hart is starting to consistently look really really bad at the plate by the way. He is getting trounced on fastballs on the outer half, he simply can’t reach them at all. He either needs a bigger bat, or he is pulling off pitches, or both. His approach is just dreadful right now, but his execution is worse

    • Guy is toast. Noticeably slow bat, and it’s literally painful watching him move on the field.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      May 11, 2015 1:39 pm

      How long does this team stick with Hart, before going a different direction? Rodriguez can backup at 1B and platoon with Alvarez – that would allow the team to waive Hart and replace him with Rojas or Tabata or Romero – all would be better bats off the bench than Hart – plus Rojas and Tabata can at least play the field and run a little.

      • I just asked this question and didn’t mention Romero. Rodrguez playing everywhere gives them a lot of flexibility if you ask me. I’m thinking they would go OF but Harrison can play LF and RF too and slide in Kang at 3rd. So maybe they just grab the hottest bat in AAA so maybe that is Romero.

      • I wouldn’t give up this quickly on just about anybody in his role; such a small sample, and in difficult AB’s to really excel.

        But, Hart is a guy who was showing classic signs of decline *before* basically missing two straight years with lower body injuries and clearly hasn’t regained the mobility he had before.

        I didn’t really like the move when it happened – there were better, younger, cheaper options to be had – so I’m admittedly going to be biased here, but it seems like Sean Rodriguez is the better baseball player right now, and if that’s the case, Hart has no place on this team.

        • I was ok with the move. I’ll admit it. I bought into the cliché of a bounce back year. But there’s just no baseball left in him. Give some 4A guys a shot and see if they can carry a hot streak. Plus Hart can’t run or field either so if he’s not hitting……..what is he?
          Not that Rodriguez is going to carry a .950 OPS all year but I was way off on that trade. I’ve said on this site many times I didn’t like the Borden deal but they clearly needed Rodriguez especially since J Hay moved into a starting role.

        • Hart was a decent gamble as a RH power bat. He wasn’t going to see much playing time in any scenario and he does have Bucs only three PHs. I never saw Hart as more than 150 ABs, or about a half dozen per week. If he’s washed up and DFAd sometime soon, no major loss.

          However, Neal hit a winner in SRod. There’s nothing but good with that acquisition.

      • What gets me is that they keep putting Hart in, in the worst possible situations. Why on Earth would you ever put Hart at the plate with 1 out and a runner on first base, i’m actually happy when he strikes out because at least he didn’t roll over on the ball and ground into a double play. If you are down a run in the 8th or 9th inning with noone on base, sure put him in, see if he can hit a double or homerun, but with runners in base in a double play situation? Hell no!

        • And somehow Alvarez has faced Aroldis Chapman, the most dominating LHP on the this planet, three times in six games.

          • NMR- i would normally agree with you, but honestly……everyone is going to strike out against Chapman, we have about 3 people on the team whom can catch up to his fastball. Sadly Alvarez is not one of them, but at least if he got lucky and hit the ball he has a better chance of anyone hitting a homer…..

  • So noone is discussing his stance in the batting box- STILL. I wonder how many times we will have to bring it up before someone whom has access to Hurdle, Huntington, or Harrison actually ASKS him why he is so far away from the plate?

  • Still seems like an awful lot of denial from Huntington regarding this clubs plate discipline. Exactly which hitters are under performing what should’ve been expected of them in these categories?

    Cutch and Walker are a few walks short, literally a few. Otherwise, isn’t just about everyone else walking and striking out right around where we should’ve expected them to?

    You lose Russell Martin, Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez, and Travis Snider. Replace them with Francisco Cervelli, Alvarez/Hart, and Gregory Polanco. Guess what? You’re not going to walk as much. Nobody should be surprised at this.

    • I think we were expecting Cervelli to walk as much as Martin. Alvarez does walk a fair amount in spite of his strikeouts, and Polanco was lauded for his plate discipline in the minors, which also should end in more walks considering his place at the front of the lineup. I disagree that noone should be surprised by this, it’s surprising that this degree of change is there, a certain amount might be have expected, but i think they were hoping that we’d see some greater plate discline as well. Hart, Kang, and Rodriguez are probably the biggest culprits for the overall ratio because they just don’t walk at all

      • Really not sure where you’re getting any of this.

        Cervelli has a career walk rate under 8% and was projected to be under 7%. If you expected Russell Martin-like discipline, that was a pipe dream.

        Kang has the 3rd highest walk rate of any Pirate with more than 50 PA.

        You are correct about Polanco *in the minors*, but his performance last year should’ve absolutely adjusted his projection *in the Majors*. And it did.

        • I got it from Tim’s reports preseason

        • I don’t really change projections based off of 200 rookie AB’s

          • What?

            • Polanco’s ability to take walks as he gets more familiar with the speed of the league and how he’s being pitched is quite likely to increase. This makes me unwilling to use his patience (or lack thereof) during his rookie year to establish what he will do going forward

              • Gotcha, we’re talking about two different things, then.

                I agree, his *potential* plate discipline is that of a hitter who will take walks. Absolutely think that’s still the case.

                But there was no reason to think he’d immediately turn into that guy coming off a rookie season which showed nothing of the sort.

                • I think that’s fair, but I would expect some incremental improvement as the year goes on

  • Sounds from Huntington’s comment that the team is looking to Josh to “be the guy that bounces around the field but do it well defensively” that he may have lost the “full-time 3B” role.

    • I think Harrison has been in a defensive funk as well as offensive, so moving him around is more to take away the tunnel vision and give him something else to think about. Getting Kang at bats since he’s hitting well currently just helps it all work out right now, I don’t see this as anything more than to take advantage of a hot hitter and get Harrison some different looks to break up his routine

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