Morning Report: The Pirates Appear to Be Adjusting Their Fastball Approach Throughout the System

I feel like it’s been a weekly article this year where I’ve broken down the fastball usage for the Pirates. They traded Gerrit Cole to the Astros, then saw him putting up better results than ever by throwing more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs. Charlie Morton was doing the exact same thing.

So the question for the first part of the season was: “Why don’t the Pirates make this adjustment with their pitchers?”

The speculation from fans in response to that question was that this was a Ray Searage decision. But I pointed out that this extended well beyond Searage, and was an approach shared throughout the organization.

Over the last month, the Pirates have seen their pitchers throwing more breaking stuff, and going below 60% fastball usage. That has led to improved results from the first few outings.

From what we’ve gathered so far this week, it seems the entire organizational philosophy is changing. Sean McCool wrote about this with Mitch Keller earlier this week, and how Keller has been throwing more off-speed stuff rather than being fastball heavy. Here are the key details from the article:

“I feel like when I got here I was fastball heavy and only throwing breaking balls for putaway and not early and middle of counts,” Keller said. “That’s where I’ve really grown with the curveball and especially with the changeup. I have so much confidence now throwing behind in the count. That’s been my biggest improvement.”

From the time he was promoted to Double-A until now, his changeup has improved dramatically. He has shown the ability to throw it for strikes and for chase, something that wasn’t the case a year ago.

“Throwing it hard and trusting it,” Keller responded when asked about his breaking pitches. “Trusting it’s going to do what it’s going to do. Biggest adjustment I made was working on it during sides and during the game throwing it like a fastball. Having that mentality that you’re going to throw it for a strike.”

Michael Ryan agreed that his changeup development has been essential in Keller’s development.

“This league was really good at letting him know that you can’t just use the heater,” Ryan said. “You’re not just going to blow it by everybody. You have to use the secondary pitches. He’s been able to throw the breaking stuff for both strikes and chase. That’s what he has improved on the most this year.”

When I saw Travis MacGregor pitch this week, I noticed he was using a lot of sliders and changeups. I asked him after if the Pirates have him throwing more off-speed pitches.

“I think we still have the mentality of attacking. Getting ahead early, and the majority of the time you’re doing that with the fastball,” MacGregor said. “I definitely know they’ve been working more 1-0, 1-1, work some changeups in, try to keep guys off-balance. I would agree with that. I think they are pushing more towards a focus on getting more secondary pitches in there.”

So has the attack mentality included off-speed stuff as well, rather than just reserving those for strikeouts?

“I agree. I definitely think I am using off-speed pitches more,” MacGregor said. “I think they’ve been more effective, and my command of them has been better. I think at the end of the day, we’re still going to dominate with the fastball.”

That’s similar to what happens anywhere. You’re still going to throw the fastball the majority of the time. But there’s a big difference between throwing the pitch 60-70% of the time, or dropping that usage to 50-55% and throwing more secondary stuff. That’s especially true if the secondary stuff features one or two of your best pitches.

This is a good sign that the Pirates are adjusting, not just at the top, but all throughout the system. After all, it wouldn’t matter if they were adjusting at the top if the wave of pitchers coming through the minors weren’t making the same adjustments along the way in preparation for when they arrived.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 6-3 over the San Diego Padres on Friday night. They will send Trevor Williams to the mound for his 17th start today. He allowed three runs over six innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks in his last start. The scheduled Padres starter is left-hander Joey Lucchesi, who has a 3.57 ERA in 53 innings, with 55 strikeouts and a 1.25 WHIP. He threw four shutout innings against the Texas Rangers in his last outing.

The minor league schedule includes the Triple-A debut of Mitch Keller. In his last four starts combined, he allowed two runs over 26 innings. He finished at Double-A with a 2.72 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 86 innings. Oddy Nunez goes for Bradenton in his first start since he tossed a no-hitter on Sunday. He also threw six shutout innings in his prior start. Morgantown starter Alex Manasa will be making his fourth start and all four have come on the road. No starter listed for Altoona or Bristol, but Bristol should be Steven Jennings making his third start. The GCL Pirates are off today.

MLB: Pittsburgh (39-42) @ San Diego Padres (36-48) 10:10 PM
Probable starter: Trevor Williams (4.03 ERA, 64:28 SO/BB, 87.0 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (43-35) @ Columbus (39-39) 7:15 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

AA: Altoona (40-35) @ Akron (46-34) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (37-36) @ Dunedin (35-41) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Oddy Nunez (3.24 ERA, 49:27 SO/BB, 75.0 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (43-31) @ Hagerstown (28-48) 6:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Hunter Stratton (5.83 ERA, 48:22 SO/BB, 46.1 IP)

Short-Season A: Morgantown (6-8) vs Mahoning Valley (10-3) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Alex Manasa (3.57 ERA, 9:6 SO/BB, 17.2 IP)

Rookie: Bristol (6-4) @ Princeton (5-5) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

GCL: Pirates (4-6) vs Braves 12:00 PM 7/2 (season preview)

DSL: Pirates1 (11-13) vs Indians/Brewers 10:30 AM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates2 (12-12) vs Mariners 10:30 AM  (season preview)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Indianapolis on Wednesday night, Alex McRae’s seven shutout innings included this long at-bat against Edwin Espinal, the former Pirate prospect.

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

6/29: Chad Kuhl placed on disabled list. Max Moroff recalled from Indianapolis.

6/29: Brett Pope promoted to Bradenton. Matt Eckelman promoted to Altoona.

6/29: Evan Piechota activated from Bradenton disabled list.

6/28: Mitch Keller and Jason Martin promoted to Indianapolis. Alfredo Reyes promoted to Bradenton.

6/28: Eddie Muhl retired.

6/27: Sean Rodriguez placed on disabled list. Tanner Anderson called up to Pirates.

6/27: Jung Ho Kang and Christopher Bostick placed on disabled list. Eric Wood activated from Indianapolis DL.

6/27: Raul Siri promoted to West Virginia.

6/27: Pirates sign John O’Reilly.

6/26: Pirates sign Allen Montgomery.

6/26: Jason Delay placed on disabled list.

6/26: Ryan Haug assigned to GCL Pirates. Will Reed assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab.

6/25: Jackson Williams added to Indianapolis roster. Arden Pabst assigned to Bradenton.

6/25: Eric Wood assigned to Morgantown on rehab.

6/25: Pirates release Johnny Hellweg.

6/24: Pirates place Michael Feliz on disabled list. Clay Holmes recalled from Indianapolis

6/24: Jerrick Suiter activated from Indianapolis disabled list.

6/24: Pirates released Kyle Simmons and Cristopher Perez.

6/23: Corey Dickerson reinstated from Family Medical Emergency Leave list. Adam Frazier optioned to Indianapolis.

6/23: Evan Piechota placed on disabled list. Ryan Haug promoted to Bradenton.

6/22: Pirates sign Braxton Ashcraft and Connor Kaiser.

6/22: Francisco Cervelli placed on disabled list. Jacob Stallings recalled from Indianapolis.

6/22: Arden Pabst promoted to Indianapolis. Blake Cederlind promoted to Bradenton.

6/22: Travis MacGregor assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab.

6/22: Fernando Villegas activated from Morgantown restricted list. Assigned to GCL Pirates.

6/21: Fabricio Macias activated from West Virginia restricted list. Assigned to Morgantown.

6/21: Pirates sign Kyle Mottice and Steven Kraft.

6/21: Tyler Eppler activated from temporary inactive list.

6/21: Cody Smith assigned to Morgantown from GCL Pirates

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Six former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus three trades of note. Starting with the players, we have INF/OF Delwyn Young (2009-10), pitcher Chan Ho Park (2010), first baseman Dave Roberts (1966), lefty pitcher Don Gross, who was a member of the 1960 World Series champs, and pitcher Johnny Miljus, who played for the 1927 team that went to the World Series. Also born on this date, pitcher Hal Smith, who played for the Pirates from 1932 until 1935. There have been three players in Major League history named Hal Smith and all three played for the Pirates. The other two were catchers in the 1960’s.

Starting with the most recent trade first, and it was actually two on the same day. On this date in 2009, the Pirates dealt away Eric Hinske and cash to the Yankees in exchange for Eric Fryer and Casey Erickson. Fryer played very little for the Pirates, while Erickson never made the majors. It was addition by subtraction though, as Hinske wasn’t playing well for the Pirates and wasn’t happy in Pittsburgh. Fryer came back to the Pirates last year for a short time while they were suffering through catching injuries.

On that same day, the Pirates sent Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan to the Nationals for Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge. This deal worked out better for the Pirates, as Hanrahan became the closer, then was traded to get Mark Melancon. Morgan and Milledge were a wash, as neither played very well (both were a 1.0 WAR over two seasons with their new team). Burnett did well in his limited role, which was mostly him being used to face lefties. In 245 games, he threw 201.2 innings.

On this date in 1982, the Pirates traded Pascual Perez and a player to be named later to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for pitcher Larry McWilliams. While the PTBNL turned out to be a career minor leaguer, the deal was basically even as both teams got decent production out of their new pitchers. Both were good pitchers in 1983-84, then fell off in 1985. McWilliams finished fifth in the Cy Young voting in 1983.

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