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Monday, December 5, 2022

Neal Huntington Responds To Piggyback Pitching Proposal

PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t the most modest proposal, but my story from Sunday morning about how the Pirates could deploy their multitude of starting pitching options in a more efficient way came with a dose on inherent humility.

Yeah, I’ve watched and covered the sport for many years, but in the end I’m just a guy in front of a keyboard. When it comes to implementing real change, there are always going to be unintended consequences, and some of them negative.

Nevertheless, I believe the Pirates are in a position in which they could make the ‘piggyback’ concept work at the major-league level.

Since Neal Huntington is typically made available to reporters prior to Sunday games, I thought this a good time to ask the Pirates’ general manager if the team’s current situation — five starters, plus two converted starters in the bullpen — made him think of discarding convention and traditional pitcher usage.

In short, the answer was no. Huntington and the Pirates like being more flexible than a strict pairing of a starter to a long reliever, although the current system might not be that different from what they’re doing right now.

“Rather than picking one starter that we might project might not have it, Clint (Hurdle) can go get the starter that doesn’t have it that night,” Huntington said moments prior to first pitch against San Diego at PNC Park. “He can go get him in the third inning, fourth inning or fifth inning, and feel comfortable with what he’s going to use in his bullpen around that time frame.

“We’re in a stretch in the next four weeks where we’re going to play a lot of games. It becomes a little bit harder when you’re taking two of those available 12 (pitchers) or two of those available 13 and pitching them on one day, and then they’re going to be down for a couple of days.”

Huntington allowed that the performance of Joe Musgrove once he returns to the rotation Friday will dictate where the Pirates go with their ratio of position players to pitchers, but Huntington sounded comfortable with the status quo.

“The ability to use Steven Brault to finish an inning and then go an inning or two, the ability to use Tyler Glasnow last night and give us extended innings out of the bullpen, those are good things that allows Clint to use the remainder of the bullpen when he wants to, not because he has to,” Huntington said. “Our bullpen’s been really good for an extended period of time now. Part of it might be that Clint has been able to use them when he wants to, even in stretch in which our starters haven’t been able to get deep in the game, but because we have multiple guys who can go multiple innings, he hasn’t had to use five relievers to finish (a game with) a short start.”

Again, this feels a little like a distinction without much of a difference from my standpoint. Where I might differ from Pirates management is more a matter of degree, not philosophy. Having two relievers who are ‘stretched out’ has paid off more often than not. No argument here.

But, twice in the four-game series against the Padres, a scuffling starter was allowed to hit for himself in the middle innings with at least one runner on base. Maybe having another long reliever on staff — maybe Kingham or Musgrove could join Brault and Glasnow in the future? — would allow Hurdle to be more aggressive in his hook.

This framework would only be possible if there are enough healthy, viable options to pitch multiple MLB innings. It appears the Pirates are close to that point, if they’re not there already, but Huntington said his preference is to keep Kingham on a starter’s schedule in Triple-A as opposed to helping in the big-league bullpen.

Basically, the Pirates feel Kingham is their best candidate to step in for a spot start, more so than Brault or Glasnow.

“It’s nice having Nick, knowing he can keep us in the game and give us a chance to win,” Huntington said. “The best organizations have that in Triple-A. The hard part for Nick is that he’s that guy.”

And, despite Kingham being older than everyone on the staff except Iván Nova, George Kontos and Richard Rodríguez, the Pirates still see him on the development arc as much as the performance arc.

“He’s still learning, still growing, still developing the use of his slider and the arsenal as a whole,” Huntington said. “There are things he can absolutely continue to work on down there and he’s going to be ready the next time we have a need.”

Kingham was sent back to Indianapolis on Sunday, but maybe the next time he’s recalled will be for good. The possibility that he’d be used out of the bullpen anytime soon appears slim, though.

In the meantime, we can dare to dream.

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The problem with giving Hurdle the option is we’ve seen plenty of times Hurdle sticks with a pitcher trying to chase the useless win stat.

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