I've been thinking about the draft quite a bit lately. I was asked to make the Pirates' pick for MVN's mock draft over the weekend and I did a lot of wrestling with a lot of things before finally coming to UNC's right-handed pitcher Alex White as my pick. You can read my reasoning at that post, but I'm not sure there's a position player worth the slot if Ackley's off the board and in the end, I liked White the most out of the pitchers available (and not because we share a school). It's also what I think the Pirates will probably do with the pick given the same set of circumstances (no Ackley) that I was.
I'll be upfront here. Drafting a pitcher in the four-slot of the draft makes me nervous. I read Thomas Boswell's piece in the Washington Post back in April about drafting pitchers early (also discussed by Charlie on his blog) and it made me queasy. But when thinking about my MVN pick, I thought into it a bit more. It's harder to project pitching than hitting, yes. But it shouldn't be impossible. If it was, drafting pitching would be a completely random event. Take one look at the Red Sox or the Rays and you'll agree that it's not.
Teams bad enough to have the first pick in the draft are quite often pitiful organizations. They have poor scouting, they have poor player development, and they make poor decisions. For example, the Pirates have picked two of the 13 pitches chosen first overall since 1965: Kris Benson in 1996 and Brian Bullington in 2002. Benson had an awesome (some might say Strasburg-like) junior year at Clemson in '96 though he doubled his innings that season. In 2009, that might be seen as a red flag. He didn't throw after the draft in '96 and in '97 started the year out at Lynchburg, which was the Bucs' advanced-A affiliate then just like they are now. He pitched well there and was sent to Altoona, where he struggled. He was promoted to AAA Nashville in 1998 anyways and he had a decent year (respectable 1.36 WHIP, nice strikeout and walk rates and a nice K/BB ratio), but got hit pretty hard and lit up for a 4.98 ERA. He then started 1999 with the Pirates, even though he hadn't really excelled at any level since high-A. In 1999, one year after he pitched 156 innings in Nashville, he threw 196 2/3 innings with the Bucs. In 2000, he went to 217 2/3. In 2001, he had Tommy John surgery and he never really recovered the potential he flashed prior to going under the knife.
Is it fair to say the Pirates' handling of Benson is the only reason he's considered a bust as the first overall pick in the draft? Probably not, but I think we can look at the evidence and agree that their handling of him certainly might have contributed. The Pirates' other number one overall pitcher was Brian Bullington. I don't think that even Dave Littlefield thought he was the best player in the 2002 draft. But we've got proof of principle here. Of the thirteen pitchers taken with the first pick in the draft, how many others were affected by the team that picked them like Bullington and Benson?
In 1973, David Clyde became the first pitcher drafted first overall. He went straight from high school to the majors because he was from Houston and the Rangers' owner wanted to sell tickets. Guess how that turned out. Floyd Bannister had some pretty good years in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, but he pitched for some really bad teams in Seattle and Chicago. Mike Moore pitched for an awful Seattle team early in his career and still carved out a solid career. Tim Belcher is one of the few pitchers drafted early to land on a good team (the early 90s Dodgers turned things around quickly after he was picked) and he also had a solid but not great career. Andy Benes was a good pitcher on some middling Padre teams in the early 90s, arguably the ace of the St. Louis team that made the playoffs a couple times in the mid-90s, and ran out of gas at the age of 30. How does the perception of his career change if he started out with a good team? Ben McDonald was rushed through the minors and had a full big-league workload thrown on him at the age of 22. Paul Wilson was part of a young Mets' staff who saw every single promising young arm in the system get blown out (Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher were the other two big names in that group). Brien Taylor was a good prospect until he tore his labrum in a fistfight. Matt Anderson was a really stupid pick (and yes, I know current Pirate scouting director Greg Smith made that selection). Luke Hochevar's got his whole career ahead of him and looked good in AAA before his callup this year. David Price looks like a future ace.
I realize that that was a cursory glance a those picks and that this a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg argument, but I think that development and environment has as much to do with with most of these pitchers failing as bad luck or the inability to. It's no surprise that Brian Bullington developed poorly with a club that developed a lot of pitchers poorly, just like it's not a surprise that David Price is developing well in a system that's developing a lot of pitchers well. It is certainly harder to scout pitching than it is to scout hitting, but I think it's also easier for bad coaching to screw up pitching prospects than it is for bad coaching to screw up hitting prospects. There's a lot more to it than just saying, "drafting pitchers high never works."
In fact, it seems to me like it's panning out much better in the past few seasons. The jury is still out on most of these guys, but in addition to Price, Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Brandon Morrow, and Justin Verlander were all recent first round picks and none were selected later than Scherzer at #11. Brian Matusz (last year's #4 pick) got off to a good start in the minors last year. Scouting is different now than it was even ten or fifteen years ago and the handling of young pitchers has improved exponentially.
I'm not saying that I think that White or Crow (or even Strasburg, for that matter) are slam dunk picks in the four-spot this year, but if the Pirates think they have the right people in place to develop young pitching and they think that White or Crow are the best players available, then that's who they should pick. I don't think they should be scared away by this particular page of history, because I'm not sure it applies to them.
I can't pretend like I watched a lot of this game, but I can say that everytime I flipped over, it looked to me like Ross Ohlendorf was in complete control on the mound and I'm happy that the box score and the highlights bear that out. It looks like he did a great job mixing in his slider and changeup with his fastball/sinker. Just like in that Marlins game, he got a few more strikeouts tonight and it seems to me that this is the difference between him being a middling starter and maybe a good one.
On the flip side of things, Brandon Moss chipped in another big night, the bullpen held down a lead, and Adam LaRoche lost the first home run to instant replay since replay was instituted last year. I guess the fact that it was an RBI double sort of dampened the blow.
This is the great thing about baseball; two days after we were mired in an eight game losing streak, we're seeing some of the good things that we liked so much in April again. I just wish we could've piled on one more run and matched the Pens' final. That would've been cool.
Ross Ohlendorf and Joel Piniero go at it at 7:05 at PNC park tonight, but you won't be able to watch on TV in Pittsburgh because it's been preempted by Game 7 of the Penguins/Captials series. I think we all agree that this Pens/Caps matchup is sufficiently epic to boot a May baseball game from the airwaves. In fact, I'd encourage to watch this hockey game, even if you're not a hockey fan. It's certainly what I'm going to be watching tonight.
But I will say that a win for the Bucs tonight would be huge. We need to put some space between us and that eight-game losing streak and the only way to do that is to win baseball games. I think we've got a chance of Ohlendorf can get a bunch of grounders and keep the Cards' bats in check. I guess we'll have to see. Or at least read about it.
After reading Tony La Russa's comment about Zach Duke last night (according to DK, he told reporters, "You saw Duke pitching, right?" when asked why his hitter struggled last night), I decided to go in to the PitchFX and look around a little bit to see if I could find more of an explanation than "he's throwing a little harder this year" to attribute his turnaround to. I mean, he is throwing a little harder, I think (I haven't really compared, but last night Pitch FX spots his fastball right around 89 all night), but there's got to be more to it, right?
The first thing I noticed on the graphs from last night is how nasty his curveball looks against right-handed hitters. I pulled up the full chart with pitches and outcomes and sorted the changeups. There are two that are misclassified fastballs (I think), so that leaves us with 12 pitches, all thrown to righties. He threw ten for strikes (both balls were to Pujols) and of those ten strikes, two were fouled off, four were hit for ground outs, three were swinging strikes, and one was a called strike. That's a really good pitch.
Next up is the curve, which he threw 30 times for 19 strikes. Those 19 strikes resulted in four foul balls, seven called strikes, two swinging strikes, two groundouts, a flyout, and a single. In total, he went to his change or curve 42 times with only 13 balls. Of the 29 strikes, only six were put in to play and only one of those went for a hit. I don't have time to compare this with a start from last year (I will at some point soon, I hope), but those numbers strike me as being really, really good.
Still, we at least partially have an answer; it's not just an improved fastball that's making Duke better. He's throwing some really good off-speed stuff as well.
When I came home at 8:30 tonight and turned the TV on I expected a lot of things, but not a 7-1 Pirate lead. That's just what I saw, though. It stayed that way, too. I don't mean that that was the final score of the game; I mean that I wasn't hallucinating it. The Pittsburgh Pirates did indeed rack up a win tonight, and they did it in pretty convincing fashion.
First credit for the win goes to Zach Duke. When you pitch eight innings, your night-terror-inducing bullpen only has to throw one. When you hold the other team to one run, your overmatched offense only has to score two. We're now officially in to mid-May and Duke's ERA is 2.53 and he just picked up his fourth win. Tonight's line was pretty typical for how he's pitched this year: 8 innings, 4 hits, 5 Ks, 1 walk, and just one run on a first inning Albert Pujols dinger. I'm still expecting some backsliding from Duke, but I'll admit it; the guy looks good this year.Is it strange that I feel like we wasted all of these runs tonight? We scored by stringing a bunch of hits together in the second, then by stringing a couple homers together in the fourth. And not just any homers, Brandon Moss and Adam LaRoche homers. The two coldest guys on the coldest team in baseball homered in the same inning tonight. Baseball is a funny sport, isn't it?
Look, I remember the epic 13-game losing streak of June 2006. That was a terrible, terrible time to be a Pirate fan. I would really, really like to not have to go through such a thing ever again. We're just five games away from that, so let's nip this in the bud now before things start getting ugly.
Zach Duke and Todd Wellemeyer take the mound at PNC tonight as the Buccos try to end this eight-game streak. Jack Wilson's back in the lineup and Brian Bixler is far, far away from the field, which is good both for the defense and the offense (Bix struck out an insane 15 times in 22 ABs with the Bucs). JR is also giving Robinzon Diaz the start behind the plate, which makes it three starts in four games for Z. He's certainly been killing the ball, but Jaramillo's still acquitting himself well both at the plate and behind it. Still, seeing Diaz in the five slot tonight is a pretty good indication that Russell's confidence is growing in him.
Is the futility of Pirate games ever more obvious than when the Bucs are playing awful and the Penguins are locked in an epic playoff battle? I'd say no.
I've noticed a pretty strong wave of negative sentiment focused towards minor league performance recently both in the comments here and on other sites. I'm not sure if this is a reaction to the Pirates' ugly play, Pedro Alvarez's terrible start, or the fact that three of the four affiliates currently playing have losing records. Probably, it's a combination of all three factors, but whatever the case, there are some pretty common misconceptions about the minor leagues (both the Pirates' system and in general) that I think could use some clearing up.
The fact that three Pirate affiliates currently have losing records is meaningless. Somewhere in my old closet back in Hermitage, I have a 1995 or 1996 vintage On Deck magazine with a big story about how both the Jason Kendall-lead Lynchburg Hillcats and whoever the Pirates' AA affiliate was at the time (the Carolina Mudcats, I think) won league titles the previous year. And don't forget the several years in the earlier part of this decade that Dave Littlefield would trump things like, "All of our minor league affiliates are in the playoffs" or "Our minor league affiliates have the best combined record in baseball." These teams exist to get players ready for the big leagues and nothing more.
That's not to say that we have a great system because we certainly don't. And it's certainly frustrating to see the strikeouts rack up for Pedro Alvarez in Lynchburg and to see Jose Tabata hurt again in Altoona and there's certainly way too many "downs" in Charlie's rundown of how his top 20 prospects have performed. And when all of those things start piling up, it's easy to lose sight of the long-term picture. There's still a lot more talent in the system than there was at this time last year, and many of the guys that aren't underperforming are picks from 2008. Rebuilding a minor league system doesn't happen overnight and even when it's done well, there are large portions of it that are going to be hit or miss.
As frustrating as things are right now, just think back to last May. Behind McCutchen there was Walker, Steve Pearce, and Brad Lincoln, who hadn't even thrown since his Tommy John surgery. That was the entire system. Now there's Alvarez and Tabata, who are still blue chip talents despite their early struggles this year, Grossman, Lincoln is healthy and throwing well, Chase D'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer both seem at least worth keeping an eye on, and there are a handful of other guys from last year's draft (Quinton Miller and Wes Freeman at the top of the list) that are interesting as well. It seems to me that that's a pretty big step forward for just one year. Let's see where we are after the draft and trade deadline this year.
Just for fun, here are the velocities of Ian Snell's fastballs from his last three starts, with data obtained from Brooks' Baseball and replotted. Right click and choose "View Image" to see it at full size.
Can we conclude anything about his 130 pitch outing on April 29th from this chart? It's not easy to say, though it does look like his velocity yesterday was pretty similar to his velocity on the 29th. It certainly seems like there's more red dots (from his start on the fifth, the start after his 130 pitch effort) down around 87 or 88 mph than yellow or blue. To my casual eye, he did seem to look better on the mound yesterday. But let's please not push him to 130 pitches again, OK?