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Neal Huntington on the Pirates Bullpen, Justin Masterson, Depth, and Rule Changes

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PITTSBURGH – Sunday’s game against the Rockies was eventually postponed after a three hour and 37 minute rain delay, which began after the first inning. Starting pitcher Juan Nicasio allowed a run in the first inning, and the Pirates were unable to tie the game in the bottom half of the inning.

The game will be played tomorrow at 12:35 PM, with Ryan Vogelsong making a spot start. Francisco Liriano will make his next start on Tuesday to start the series against the Diamondbacks, followed by Jeff Locke on Wednesday, and Gerrit Cole on Thursday.

The Pirates also announced that Jung-ho Kang took swings in the batting cage before the game, and was cleared to come off the bench as a pinch hitter.

Prior to the start of the game, Pirates GM Neal Huntington had his usual home Sunday meeting with the media, and several topics relating to the major league team were discussed.

Pirates Looking to Rejuvenate the Bullpen

The current relief corps has fallen well short of expectations this season, ranking 13th in FIP (4.73) and 14th in fWAR (-0.9) — a below replacement level performance that the team hasn’t seen from its relievers since 2009.

As you would expect, Huntington said the front office is always looking out for opportunities to improve the major league team, but he stressed that improving the internal picture would be much more important than locating external help, particularly since teams are not likely to move players until closer to the trade deadline.

“We’ve got some guys here that we believe we can get on the right track, and we’ve got some guys in Triple-A that we believe in,” Huntington said. “We need to get them on the right track, and they can help us.”

Entering Sunday’s game, the only Pirates relievers with more shutdowns than meltdowns were Tony Watson (8 to 1), Mark Melancon (8 to 2) and Neftali Feliz (6 to 3). Among the pitchers struggling the most is Arquimedes Caminero, who has a 6.38 FIP (5.61 xFIP), well above his numbers (3.80 FIP, 3.77 xFIP) from last season.

Huntington said that Caminero’s problems stem from frequently working behind in the count.

“It’s more pitching from behind, and guys being able to sell out to a fastball coming. The idea is to get ahead in the count, let them sell out to 98, and be able to throw the split [or] the slider.”

Justin Masterson Close to Returning

Huntington also gave an update on Justin Masterson’s progress in extended Spring Training. Masterson was signed to a minor league deal last month, and may provide some bullpen help in a long relief or swingman role.

“He was up to four innings the other day. The velocity is slowly increasing, he’s throwing strikes,” Huntington said. “The shoulder feels strong. It’s just a matter of continuing to build him up as well as continuing to take steps forward to repeat his mechanics. But so far, so good.”

Masterson threw 59.1 innings with a 4.89 FIP as both a starting and relief pitcher for the Red Sox last season before being released in August.

Avoiding Walks and Home Runs

Pirates pitchers rank 13th among NL staffs in K-BB% (9.6%), and 13th as well in HR/FB rate (14.3%). Huntington was asked whether the excess free passes and long balls were being addressed internally.

“I know that with Clint and with Ray, free bases is something that hasn’t gone well for us,” Huntington said. “We’ve given up too many of them, and we need to be more aggressive in the zone.”

Additional contributors to these problems are their poor strikeout rate (19.5%, 13th in NL) and decrease in ground ball rate relative to previous years (45.3%, 6th in NL). Both have been a deviation from the Pirates’ recipe for run prevention success over the last three years.

“Whether it’s a mechanical adjustment, a mentality adjustment, it is something that Clint and Ray are going to continue to emphasize with our guys,” Huntington said. “Get ahead, stay ahead, and put people away. We’ve had a long run of success here being able to do that.”

Maintaining Organizational Depth

On the topic of maintaining strong organizational depth, Huntington reiterated that the front office will never reach a point where they have too many — or just enough — organizational depth, with respect to pitching in particular, but also with position players.

“You never have enough depth, you never have enough good prospects, you never have enough good major league players,” Huntington said. “The second that you get content, this game punches you right in the nose, so we’re going to continue to work hard and develop the players we have in the system.”

While it is certainly challenging to see Pirates starters struggle while Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow pitch well at Triple-A, Huntington stressed that pitching depth is critical to an organization’s success.

“Pitching is a game of attrition, and we’re working to continue to develop arms, sign good arms, and scout good arms,” said Huntington, to the surprise of none. “We’re far from ideal. We love what we have; we believe we’re in a good spot, but we’re far from ideal.”

Changes to the Strike Zone

Huntington was also asked about a recent piece by ESPN’s Jayson Stark that foretold of changes to the bottom part of the strike zone, and whether that would affect a consistent part of the Pirates’ run prevention strategy of keeping the ball down in the zone.

“Pitchers are good enough athletes that they probably make the adjustment over time, the same way the umpires will make the adjustment over time,” Huntington responded.

“We’ll have pitchers that will pound the bottom of the zone,” he continued, emphasizing that their approach would not change. “We’ll have catchers that will do a really good job of keeping strikes, strikes at the bottom of the zone. We’ll adjust and adapt if we need to.”

Huntington also addressed a lingering concern that more balls in play and offensive activity are needed to make for a better fan experience.

“You go back fifteen years, and we were talking about raising the mounds because there was too much offense in the game. Fifteen years later, we’re now talking about making rule changes to get more offense in the game,” he said.

After decreasing to 2 hours, 56 minutes last season, the average game time is back above three hours this year. Strikeout and walk rates have also increased, leading to fewer balls in play, and the highest average number of pitches per plate appearance in history (3.88).

“It’s a fascinating dilemma, how do we get offense in the game, and how do we find that balance point,” he continued. “Hopefully each step of the way we’ll take into consideration what the unintended consequences might be of any rule adjustment, and try to stay out in front of those.”

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