Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Improve through Innovation?
Gary Morgan Jr.
The Pittsburgh Pirates could use improvements all over their roster. Unfortunately, for a small-market team, these improvements can take time. Those high-priced free agents who can immediately plug one of those holes will likely be out of reach. So, it might be time for the Pirates to consider some unconventional approaches to help hide some of their biggest weaknesses.
William Pollard, a physicist in the 1930’s once said, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement”. Baseball is a game of physics as any analytics fanatic will tell you, so why not harken back to these wise words and explore ways to innovate this season?
For every new trend in baseball, there is someone who did it first. Some are small, like Joe Maddon batting his pitcher in the 8 hole, which quite frankly I never understood. Others are big like instituting extreme shifts to the infield defense.
Can the Pirates find something new that helps the club this season? Let’s look at some ideas I have while we wait to see who will be filling out the lineup cards.
Drop the Closer Role
The Pirates have a real hole here as we enter 2020, but this idea has some legs even if the player to fill the role was well defined. It’s also not a new idea, before the save became a stat coveted by relief pitchers to drive up their value on the market, it would have been unheard of to save a guy for a specific inning.
Let’s say you’re facing the Cubs and you’re up a run in the 8th inning. Due up is the heart of the order, Rizzo, Bryant and Baez. Wouldn’t it be different to see your ‘best’ pitcher toss the 8th inning and allow someone else to finish off the game?
This especially makes sense if you don’t have anyone you believe to have separated themselves to fill the role. It could also create a less predictable situation as you approach the later innings. If I know you’re closer is a lefty, I might save that right-handed bat off the bench to face him. The Pirates got caught going long stretches last season without using their closer as they never found a consistent bridge to the ninth. I believe this thinking would have directly contributed to a few more wins.
Shift with a Purpose
The Pirates were one of the first teams to embrace fully the extreme shift. As a baseball fan of a certain age I still cringe when I see the Short Stop all alone on the left side of the diamond. Pirates Broadcasters Greg Brown and Bob Walk have been waiting the better part of a decade to see players start to take advantage of the free hit that’s right in front of them. While that hasn’t happened much, there are some heady players who have taken what the shift has given them and it’s led to some unfortunate outcomes.
I believe in analytics and the spray charts they produce, but I’d like to see the Pirates be more effective at utilizing the shift. For instance, in a close game where runs are at a premium, perhaps the extreme shift doesn’t need to be instituted creating an easy opportunity for a coveted baserunner late in the game.
Another situation that comes up quite often is the extreme shift to the left while the first baseman is holding a runner on the bag. Opening a gaping hole to easily advance the runner - a Matt Holliday special if you will.
Shifting has helped defenses over the years, but communication is key. Last season, on several occasions, I saw the infielders all the way on the left versus a right-handed batter only to watch the pitcher and catcher throw every pitch outside - essentially forcing contact to the right side of the infield. If that was the plan for the batter, it shouldn’t have been for the infield. Again, shifting is ok, but don’t overdo it. Hitters are catching up.
Use a 6 Man Rotation
The Pirates depth was tested last season as they suffered more injuries to starting pitchers than anyone in the league. It’s common knowledge that most teams don’t even need a five-man rotation until May rolls around, so why advocate for a 6-man rotation? I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and saw my fears play out in 2019.
Steven Brault made the club out of spring with a chance to be the fifth starter, but the job was ultimately given to Jordan Lyles. It turned out to be a pretty good decision as Lyles was very solid at times, but when duty called for Brault to step in, he was nowhere near stretched out and the Pirates had to get by with 4 or 5 innings until he had started long enough to become the effective starter we saw emerge.
Having an extra starter or long man in the bullpen has been around for quite some time, and I’m suggesting we change that role to more effectively prepare for the injury problems that face every starting staff in the league. Say Joe Musgrove tosses 8 innings and throws 115 pitches in a victory, would there potentially be any benefit to pushing him back a day next time around. Perhaps it could be a more effective way to manage the cumulative pitch counts of the starting staff. Trevor Williams has a sore left heel, hey, Dario Agrazal is ready. Let’s toss him a start.
This could be accomplished by simply treating like any other starter. They’d have bullpen days to build up pitch counts and it would eliminate the need for the dreaded spot start out of necessity. Someone gets injured longer term, ok, next man up and here’s your role young man.
Use Call Ups for Evaluation
This seems so elementary, but it isn’t done often enough. When a player is called up due to injury to the starting staff, I believe the Pirates need to do a better job of using the time to see what they have.
Traditionally the Bucs have waited an absurdly long time to allow youngsters to play and, at times, this thinking has even bled into September ball. Surely the skipper needs to win the games and must put a lineup together that he feels is best, but wouldn’t it be nice to have seen Will Craig, or Ke’Bryan Hayes a bit last season? Could it even help answer some questions going into 2020? I think it could and I believe the Pirates need to have a better plan for September call ups. Anything would be better than seeing most of those whom were called up being designated for assignment or outrighted by November 1.
Those are my ideas for changes this club can make to start producing better results while not reinventing the sport. None of these ideas are a hill I’m willing to die on, but they are representative of the type of thinking I think the team needs. Who knows, getting creative might just help fill some holes on a roster or allow the club to allocate dollars to other areas of concern.
The Rays instituted an opener and used it to help Tyler Glasnow become an effective starting pitcher. The A’s famously started the Moneyball philosophy which has taken the league by storm. It’s time the Pirates should set a new trend, rather than clone one badly.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007