Brandon Cumpton, left, and Michael McKenry talk things out in the fourth inning Thursday in Cincinnati. Cumpton (0-0, 3.60 ERA) acquitted himself well in his first two starts.
Jorday Mercer, the Pirates' new everyday shortstop, has three errors in 34 games in the field before Saturday.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With the passing of the torch came the passing of information.
No official point in time marked the transfer of the majority of starts at shortstop from Clint Barmes to Jordy Mercer. Rather, Mercer's playing time gradually increased and manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged that Mercer, for the foreseeable future, would start more often than not.
In the process, Mercer has learned from Barmes. A superb defender who relies on his first step, good routes to the ball and reading the ball off the bat, Barmes has much to offer Mercer.
"Mercer's a guy that's going to have to depend on angles," Hurdle said. "He's not going to have the range. He's got to be good with angles. He's getting better with angles.
"Barmes is an angle guy. Barmes has learned how to play shortstop by playing angles. He does it as well as anybody in the game."
The difference between their offensive performances at the plate had more to do with Mercer earning more playing time. Mercer had a .780 on-base plus slugging percentage and a .272 average entering the weekend. Barmes' slugging and on-base percentage were both less than .300 and he had a .201 average going into the weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels.
"That's one thing I said all along, when I started this year in spring training. I wanted to be as consistent as possible," Mercer said.
While both Barmes and Mercer are athletic, they need more than their foot speed to increase their range.
"Any time that you can pick his brain and figure out what he does to excel at his position, I'm always open to listening," Mercer said. "We've always talked about balls in the hole or balls up the middle that you can't quite get to, or is there a way to shorten it up or quicken it up a little bit? It's about taking the right angle. The first couple steps, you take the right angle, you can make the play."
Mercer has played short his whole life and is comfortable there. Continued exposure in the majors has allowed him to accumulate more data, helping him read swings and improve his first step.
"I think the more you play against the hitters over and over, the more you know what's going to happen. I think all of that factors in," Mercer said.
Cumpton: Nibblers never prosper
In 2011, in low Class A West Virginia, Brandon Cumpton found something that worked.
No major mechanical overhaul. No drastic revamping of his arsenal of pitches. Just a simple approach.
"I guess just attacking the strike zone," Cumpton said. "Stop trying to aim stuff and nitpick in the corners, because obviously you start falling behind and you end up getting forced to throw stuff down the middle and down. And guys take advantage of that."
Two years later Cumpton, who was at best the 10th option for the Pirates' rotation and who started this season in Class AA Altoona, made his major league debut for a team that entered the weekend 13 games over .500. That mindset stuck around.
"I wish I had pitched a little more to contact after the home run," Cumpton said Thursday, referring to a home run he allowed to Jay Bruce in a game the Pirates eventually won.
After walking only 18 in 67 innings for West Virginia in 2011, Cumpton earned a promotion to high Class A Bradenton. He posted a 3.66 ERA there in the second half of the season and started 2012 in Altoona.
"I felt like high-A was a big fastball league," Cumpton said. "Once you get to double-A you start having pitchers be able to throw that second pitch for a strike. Therefore, hitters can't really sit on fastballs."
As Cumpton progressed throughout the minors, he noticed more communication between teammates.
"Sometimes [hitters will] stand in your bullpen [session]," he said. "You'll ask them, what do you see, what do you think will help me. And vice versa. You talk to hitters, tell them what you feel about them and stuff like that."
Cumpton started two games in Altoona this season before joining Class AAA Indianapolis. He had a 3.31 ERA in 651/3 innings there before making his major league debut.
The Pirates are off Monday, Thursday and the following Monday, giving them leeway to skip starts and rearrange their rotation. Jeanmar Gomez is ready to return, meaning Cumpton's time in the rotation, for the time being, could be limited.
He'll retain the benefits of his time with the Pirates, though. He noted after his second start, when he allowed one earned run to the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, that the nervousness decreased.
"Still, you're on the road for the first time," he said. "Giving up that run in the first inning, I just told myself, continue to compete, throw strikes and try to limit it to the one run."
Looking ahead: Mariners
The Pirates return to the dead-ball era in their two-game series with the Seattle Mariners, which begins Tuesday at Safeco Field.
The Mariners entered the weekend ranked dead last in the American League in runs per game and batting average. A decent amount of offense has come from 41-year-old Raul Ibanez, who had 14 home runs going into the weekend despite a .272 on-base percentage. The Pirates' offense has struggled to score in recent weeks as well.
Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, both offseason trade acquisitions, have helped somewhat, but the Mariners ranked ahead of only the Houston Astros in the AL West standings.
Hisashi Iwakuma has been a bright spot. The 32-year-old right-hander had 90 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings and a 2.06 ERA through 15 starts this season -- his second in the major leagues.