Williams: This is When the Pirates Need That Veteran Presence

SAINT PETERSBURG, Fla. – You don’t just wake up one day as the best team in baseball.

You can wake up one day with the intention to become the best team in baseball.

After three years of showing little attempt to win at the Major League level, the Pirates woke up this offseason and brought in several veteran additions, led by the signing of Carlos Santana

“We thought our young group was ready,” said Shelton. “And I think we thought we needed some stabilization.”

Shelton mentioned the pitch-to-pitch focus, and the quality of at-bats as areas where the veterans can help younger players.

Following two losses against the Tampa Bay Rays — which were fueled by mistakes from some of those younger players — the veterans will be stepping up to turn this stretch around. 

“The one thing that I really like here is, we have some veterans that understand that it’s a long season,” said Shelton, prior to losing two in a row against Tampa. “You’re gonna go through ebbs and flows of playing good and not playing very good in wins and losses.”

The Pirates have lost three in a row, including two against the best team in baseball. This might cast some doubt on their hot start. It should, in a way.

You don’t just wake up one day as the best team in baseball.

You can develop into the best team. That takes learning from losses like these to get to the point where you know how to win these games.

I found it interesting that Shelton used the word “stabilization”, as that’s exactly how I described the veteran additions all offseason. It wasn’t just adding veteran players, and it wasn’t just adding veterans who can play. It was the way the Pirates added veterans to every area of the team that will help keep this team stabilized throughout the long season.

Let’s break down where the veterans are building up the younger players. 

40% of the Pirates Rotation

Derek Shelton identified starting pitching as the most important aspect of the success from the Pirates to start the year. 

“We’ve really pitched well,” Shelton said. “And when you pitch well, you put yourself in a lot of games, and because you put yourself in a lot of games, you can make things happen later. So, I think it all starts with our pitching.”

The Pirates rotation has combined for top ten results in the majors in WAR, ERA, and FIP. This comes despite losing one of their more established MLB starters in JT Brubaker. They’ve also lost a depth option in prospect Mike Burrows.

Those two Tommy John casualties have made the offseason signings of Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez all the more important.

Hill (43) and Velasquez (31) were added as free agents to give the Pirates innings and a veteran presence. After struggling in his first two starts, Hill has a 1.93 ERA in 23.1 innings over his last four games. Velasquez has a similar situation, struggling in his first two outings, before putting up a 1.08 ERA in 25 innings over his last four starts. The performance is now there, and the Pirates will turn to Velasquez on Thursday to snap the streak.

The Pirates have been no strangers to finding sleepers on the pitching market. They’ve had success the last two seasons with Tyler Anderson and Jose Quintana. Based on the early results, they may have doubled up on that trend this year.

The Pirates traded Quintana and Anderson at the deadline. I would be surprised if they did the same with Hill or Velasquez, especially if the Pirates remain competitive all year. 

Carlos Santana at First Base

It’s early in the season, but Carlos Santana has logged over 200 innings at first base, while playing 23 games. The Pirates have played 31 games this year, and Santana has played 6.5 innings at first, for every team game (Team Game = A player’s innings divided by 162+ games). By comparison, Connor Joe has 52 innings, or a little less than two per team game played. 

The usage for Santana is higher than last year, when he played 655 innings at first, or slightly more than four innings per team game. In the years prior, Santana had a higher team game average. In 2021, he averaged 7.2 innings per team game at first base. In the shortened 2020 season, he worked almost exclusively at first for the entire year, starting every game. In 2019, he again had a little over seven innings per team game. 

If Santana maintains his current pace, he’ll finish with 1062 innings at first base this season. That’s higher than 2022 by about 400 innings, but still lower than his 2021 and 2019 totals. The increase from last year is something he prepared for.

“I worked hard this offseason for that, so you know my body is good,” said Santana.

Despite turning 37 last month, Santana maintains a good training regimen for his body and his swing. This has led to him putting up a .763 OPS so far, and improved defense at first. 

Perhaps one of the most noticeable contributions from Santana has been the dance around the mound that the infielders do after a win. The Pirates have had a chance to dance around the mound 20 times now, with Santana bringing the tradition over from Seattle last year.

On the flip side, with the Pirates experiencing their first three game losing streak of the season, Santana will now be a calming presence to the younger players. 

Being a leader to younger players isn’t new territory for Santana. He experienced this early in his career with Cleveland, being one of the leaders when young players like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor arrived in the majors. He’s continued that approach every year since.

The player who has really benefitted from Santana’s presence this year has been Rodolfo Castro. He had a rough game on Wednesday, which every young player will have.

Santana’s influence might limit that to just a bad day, and nothing more. 

A Defensive Leader Behind the Plate

The topic of defensive catchers is still a hot button issue in 2023 — as the catching position is still filled with so many intangibles that can’t be quantified, and are barely qualified.

We see Austin Hedges putting up a .391 OPS. That’s on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. We know he can’t hit, and this isn’t new. His career OPS is .574. This leads to questions about the value of his catching skills. 

We see any time there’s a mistake on defense, like his ill-advised throw at the start of the double steal on Tuesday, which brought in a run for the Rays.

The big argument in favor of a defensive catcher like Hedges is the impact on the pitching staff.

There is no correlation that proves a causation between a pitcher’s performance and the catcher who is catching him. This doesn’t mean that no correlations exist between catchers and the positive performance of their pitching staff. It just means we can’t easily see the positive gains on defense like we can easily see the losses on offense.

When it comes to the Pirates, they definitely value the work Hedges does with the pitching staff.

“A lot of the energy we get, I think is derived from Austin,” said Shelton. “He has a ton of energy. He’s been around a lot of good young pitchers in Cleveland. And because of that, he’s almost like a coach on the field at times with the way he reads things, and has the ability to execute and it’s been a large boost to us.”

I noted above the success of the rotation. Hedges gets an assist there. Where I think his presence really has shone through has been with the assist to the success from the bullpen. 

There’s something to be said for the consistency shown from that reliever group. How much of that is due to Hedges running a consistent game plan from start to finish each game? 

The only answer that matters: Whatever the credit amount, it’s good enough for the Pirates.

I don’t see that changing until Endy Rodriguez arrives. 

The Return of Cutch

The final veteran addition the Pirates made this offseason was perhaps the turning point for a lot of fans.

Andrew McCutchen returning to Pittsburgh has made an impact on Pirates fans all around the country. As he was walking back to the dugout following a home run on Wednesday, McCutchen was greeted by a huge standing ovation from Pirates fans taking over Tropicana Field.

His influence has gone beyond the fans. Jack Suwinski is in his second year in the majors, and has shown some improvements this year.

“I think it’s rubbed off on Jack”, said Shelton of the veteran presence. “I think we’re seeing better, more consistent at bats out of Jack.”

Suwinski has been in more of a platoon role, but that’s helped him to a .958 OPS in 88 plate appearances.

McCutchen has mostly played as the designated hitter this year, but he’s the veteran leader of the outfield. He’s also a leader in the dugout, and a guy young players like Suwinski go to celebrate with after a home run. 

McCutchen has 113 plate appearances this year, and an .816 OPS to start the season. He’s leading on the field, shown by that home run early in Wednesday’s game.

Breaking the Losing Streak

This Pirates team has been very successful in the young season. Following their first losing streak of the year, we’ll see if the veterans can help guide the younger players in an attempt to cut the losing streak short.

Ideally, the younger Pirates can learn from these experiences, so that the team as a whole is in better position to compete with the Rays going forward.

You don’t just wake up one day as the best team in baseball.

Not without first going to bed disappointed many times along the way. 

Fortunately, the disappointments from the Pirates these days are nothing compared to the last three seasons. 

That’s good progression toward becoming the best team in baseball. 

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Good choice to lead the article off with Santana—he did his part today but just didn’t get any help from the rest of the lineup.


I thought that Shelton’s anger was a way of telling the team he was pissed at their effort without actually yelling at them. I think it sent a message.

Now, why that 2nd base up was the one to toss him…..


Tim, I’ll start with: I agree that adding some key veterans without a doubt was a good move and is paying off both in leadership and performance.

Now for my disagreement. At some point (not just here), I think we have over credited the veteran presence. The team, player by player, is better this year which adds wins (brilliant statement by me). Keller had already (IMO) made this step last year, Roansy is about as expected based off of last year, Jack had already changed his swing (the debate was where would he best be served to find it!), Delay was already a part of the team (he won’t keep hitting but are we sure Hedges was the big difference?), etc. prior to these veterans presence being able to have an impact.

I guess I feel we have slightly jumped the shark on the veteran influence (not performance) being a huge reason for the success. Helpful – yes, valuable – yes, smart move by Ben – yes, contributing factor – yes. the holy grail – no. I know I over simplified (and amplified) your message, but I was due for a long post!!


And yet if you replaced the vets with the kind of atrociously prepared prospects and tanking bait roster filler that were continually handed scholarships last year, all those improvements you rightly note would barely budge the needle.

If anything, I was skeptical of Tim’s claim before the season and only now appreciate it more!

(good post either way!)


Mitch Keller is now a full-grown man. If the defense played like that for him a couple years ago, he would’ve melted into a puddle on the mound.

He’s now able to command the fastball, he’s hitting 95-97 on the black and freezing hitters. Wish he would throw the curve a tad more, when you’re getting Wander to flinch, it’s a pitch that should be used more.


Mclanahan is a great pitcher. But I thought Mitch looked better last night. Not arguing Mitch is better over a large sample but last night… Mitch looked like the best pitcher out there. He was painting the corners and throwing with intent and confidence.


Fwiw Delay has a WPA of .37 so far this year while Hedges is -.56.

As others have noted I’d like to know what it is he does so much better than Delay defensively. Maybe there’s something but I’m not really seeing it.

OT could someone tell me the best place to find Catcher ERA. I know I used to see it somewhere but can’t remember now. Thanks.


“Derek Shelton identified starting pitching as the most important aspect of the success from the Pirates to start the year. 
“We’ve really pitched well,” Shelton said. “And when you pitch well, you put yourself in a lot of games, and because you put yourself in a lot of games, you can make things happen later. So, I think it all starts with our pitching.”

I think that tells you that the 1-1 pick in the draft is going to be a pitcher.


but Shelton won’t be making any picks . . .


I’m strangely encouraged by these first 2 games because I thought the pitching was pretty damn solid against a team with a WRC+ pushing 150.

Defense was horrid… no doubt.

Last edited 1 month ago by Pedro_Power

You just knew that sooner or later Castro would lose a game. Dude has no business playing the most demanding defensive position on the diamond. There’s a reason he didn’t play SS much after rookie ball.

Bae is like Billy Hamilton, but he can’t play defense. Man is he a hacker out there.


I couple really, really fun plays are carrying water for an overall pretty crappy player so far…


How you been, man?


Good brother! Been a while since I enjoyed baseball this much.


OT semibold prediction- Delay is in the lineup and we win today.


Day game after night game, yeah he will! 😜


For the more analytic guys out there. Is there “any” evidence that Hedges is a significantly better defensive catcher than Jason Delay? The eye test to me says no. What do the numbers say?


Yes, there is some evidence

By salary

Hedges $5M
Delay $720K


Even after the to CS today that Delay was part of?

Last edited 1 month ago by melkel

Good question

It probably updates overnight


Delay should be playing more than Hedges. period. And these games show the imporatance of big time clutch hitters. They can’t get any hits with guys in scoring position. That’s why I’m all for Crews.


with Hedges, its not about his ability to hit, its his inability to get the bat on the ball to make a productive out when/if necessary. He can have a .500 OPS all he wants if he at least can put the ball in play with a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs, is that asking too much?


I expected this kind of series and these kinds of games for 2 reasons:
1. Youth and inexperience. Young players are developing at the MLB level
2. This is not a “complete” team, especially w/o Cruz.
There will be bumps in the road to becoming a true contender, but I’m enjoying the journey and look forward to seeing players like Endy get their opportunity.


One other thing: I love that Shelton went ballistic on the umps last night. Imo, it’s not as much about defending his players, but more about showing his players that the games are important. He’s engaged and is bringing a level of intensity to the game.


Both Roansy & Keller stepped up under the bright lights on the road this series, so that is a great positive. Bottom line is that our players on defense & big spots on offense have come up short in their first real test. Against all odds (literally, check the Vegas line) maybe we can salvage a game today.

The hope is our young guys learn from this series. But as i think Wilbur noted, our coaches should too: Cash set the tone for the entire series when he made a Lefty-on-Lefty Bullpen change in the FIRST INNING of the series. Keeping Hedges at bat in a game-changing spot the first game was the exact opposite.

”There is no tomorrow.”


Well lets consider this: Castro is not a shortstop. We all know this. Bae is not a shortstop, we know this. We are experiencing issues from players, playing out of position and this is inevitable. The fact that the guys are pressing a little against a team like the Rays should be expected.


A lot of parity in baseball so far this year. Wash beating up on the Cubs, and Detroit beating up on the Mets, so there are no runaway teams other than the Rays…

However, with the games coming up the Pirates will need to play their best on the field and at the plate, as the pitching is not and won’t be shutdown or the losing streak can and will go on…


Yes, I think the next ten games will show a lot, even with the Rockies in there (they’ve just won the first 2 of 3 against the Brewers and are playing better since their long losing streak). If we go 6-4 or better, then we’re on our way. If we go something like 3-7, we might be on our way to focusing on draft lottery odds. Fortunately, the Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals aren’t winning more than we are despite playing weaker competition.


This is definitely at growth year for the Pirates. Keller is maintaining his leadership as the Ace, with youngsters Johan Oviedo and Roansy Contreras getting their MLB intro’s and doing well so far. Losing Cruz so early hurt, but Reynolds and Hayes are signed long term and Castro, Bae, Marcano, Suwinski, Joe, and Delay have all done well. And, the BP led by David Bednar is solid and young. Santana and Cutch are great for this young group.

And, this team has seen a decent number of the Top 30 SP’s so far, so they are not going to be surprised as the year continues. Do the Pirates stay the course or start making substitutions when the young players have a brain fart? Those things will happen, and we have a great start to absorb some of those learning moments, if management does not panic.

2023 is going to be an interesting and challenging year for Pirate fans, but it damn sure is better than what we have experienced in 2020, 2021, and 2022!


This year is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.


Hedges does deserve credit for the pitching staff. Honestly I am totally ok with the catcher being a black hole in the lineup, he can hit .000 for all I care. But come on man, the 2 catchers interference calls, and the throw down to second, (also a passed ball) are literally little league crap. He also refused to take any blame in the post game interview, in fact he said he would throw down to second again! He seems like a queef. If you are going to be a black hole in the lineup you better carry your weight defensively. Helping the pitching staff is great but that’s 1/3 of being a catcher, gotta play great defensively and he hasn’t for at least 2 weeks. Delay needs to play more period, and Shelton needs to pinch hit for him more, like he should have Tuesday.


and these are the types of questions reporters should be asking, armed with that information. Hey, “Delay is doing X, Hedges is doing Y. Your teams record is X with him and Y with him, when does playing time start to shift h ere?”


Delay deserves more playing time. The pirates have 10 wins to 2 losses in games Delay started compared to 7 wins to 8 losses in games Hedges started. (2 wins, 1 loss in others)


Sorry I shorted Hedges a win, (double header second game) it should be 8 wins to 8 losses.


Yes let’s also start making a big deal out of pitcher wins and RBIs.


I found it also interesting to see Shelton going ballistic last night. That helped me to see him act like he wasn’t going to let this team lie back and accept bad “breaks”. I hope the team saw that – it’s not the last few years!

not avail

A catcher who wasn’t a total blackhole at the plate might help, too.

Hmm, I hope there’s no Delay in finding one.

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