Pirates prioritize power arms, punchouts

Yates adds elite velocity to staff, but more is needed



Tyler Yates had just blown a fastball by Chipper Jones' bat, high and tight at 96 mph, when the right-hander rethought his plan for one of the National League's most respected sluggers.

Forget the sinker.

The changeup can wait, too.

"From there, I was just like, 'Here it is, my best against your best,' " the Pirates' newest reliever recalled of this encounter in the season opener last week in Atlanta. "Fortunately, I was good enough to get it by him."

Try 96 mph for strike two and, just for show, 97 mph for a punch-out, a show of sheer power that had his coaches and teammates buzzing days later.

"You can't do what Tyler did that night if the gun is showing 89," pitching coach Jeff Andrews said.


Today
  • Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
  • Radio:WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (0-0, 3.18) vs. RHP Ryan Dempster (1-0, 1.50).
  • Key matchup: Half of Xavier Nady's eight at-bats against Dempster have been hits, and half of those hits have been home runs.
  • Of note: Reserved outfield seats, usually $20, can be bought for half that by college students showing identification. Also, hot dogs will cost $1 for all customers.

"Even if those last two pitches are 90 or 91, it's a different story," manager John Russell said. "It's a nice thing to see."

And a rarity for the Pirates, who, for years now, have lacked power in their pitching staff, even as the rest of Major League Baseball is stockpiling the commodity, particularly in the bullpen.

That might explain why Neal Huntington, shortly after becoming the Pirates' general manager, spoke of prioritizing power in all pitching acquisitions, from 16-year-old Latin Americans to drafting to some already in the books, such as the Rule 5 draft selection of Evan Meek, to the snapping up of Yates from Atlanta in late March when the Braves decided they would not be among their top 12 coming out of spring training.

What made Yates, who twice clocked 100 mph in 2007 and hit 99 mph Monday at PNC Park, expendable?

"Are you kidding?" said Ian Snell, the Pirates' lone power starter. "Did you see Atlanta's bullpen? Every one of those guys came out throwing flames against us. And you know what? You look around at other teams' bullpens, and you see a lot of that now. Hopefully, Neal and the new people he's brought in will do a better job of finding guys like that for us."

It will take time, as Huntington readily recognizes.

"Every chance we get to acquire a big arm, we have to do it," he said. "It's not velocity for velocity's sake, though. There has to be command. There has to be a secondary pitch. But there's no question that power does play out of the bullpen."

At the major-league level, the Pirates fare OK with bullpen velocity.

Closer Matt Capps can clock at 96 mph, though his exceptional command seldom requires him to rear back to that extent.

Damaso Marte tops out at that same speed from the left side, but he does so more regularly.

John Grabow, also from the left side, hit 93 mph while fanning two batters over the weekend, and Andrews envisions him leaning on the fastball more this year, "certainly in the first half." Still, as Grabow said, "I'm not going to throw by people too often."

Franquelis Osoria is a classic sinkerballer whose fastball checks in at a keep-them-honest 92 mph.

Not-so-special KsThe Pirates' pitchers have ranked among the bottom half of the National League's 16 teams in strikeouts in all but one year this decade:

Year

KsRank20001,07010th200190815th200292015th200392614th20041,0796th200595814th20061,06010th200799713th2008*543rd*-Through yesterday

And Meek?

He might serve as Exhibit A for the Pirates' desire to add power, if only because of the lengths they are willing to go to keep him around. He has struggled mightily with his command, as was evident again Monday, and he has yet to throw anything approaching his reputed 99 mph capabilities.

Still, it does not sound as if they are about to give up.

"I think, as Evan gains confidence and maybe has some mechanical adjustments, we're going to see the velocity," Huntington said. "I can't walk away from a pitcher who throws a 2-2 fastball down at the knees to a right-handed hitter that clocked at 95 in spring training. It's in there. It's a matter of getting it to play consistently."

Among the starters, only Snell regularly tops 92 mph, though Tom Gorzelanny did hit 94 mph Monday immediately after a mound visit from Andrews.

Otherwise, as the Bill James Handbook shows, in 2007, Matt Morris threw the greatest number of pitches less than 80 mph in the league, Paul Maholm ranked fifth in percentage of curveballs, Gorzelanny ranked 10th in percentage of changeups, and even Snell -- with an average fastball of 92.4 mph -- threw sliders for 35.5 percent of his pitches, most in the league.

In the minor leagues, the velocity is sparse, too. Brad Lincoln, the top draft pick from two summers ago, profiled as a power starter, but his recovery from elbow surgery has all projections on hold. Olivo Astacio, a reliever already in the system whom Huntington added to the 40-man roster because of his power, has been shut down by shoulder pain since the winter. At the moment, only reliever Ronald Belisario shows significant power at Class AA or higher.

How important is power?

"It's something you want," Andrews said. "That's why you draft the best arms, first and foremost. You can't teach it. It's there, and it's there for as long as you need it."

The Pirates, at the major-league level, ranked 13th in recording 997 strikeouts last year, an average of 6.1 per game. This decade, they have ranked 13th or lower five times in eight years, never higher than sixth.

Weigh the intangibles, too, as laid out by Andrews:

• "The obvious one, of course, is that you can get away with more mistakes because the hitter can't control his swing as much."

• "Guys who have power arms have power breaking balls. There's a little more spin. The break is sharper. It's tighter. It's later."

• "There's a value in getting an out without putting the ball in play. You hate to put a luck or chance factor on a pitcher's success, but contact guys do go into hot and cold spells. Second and third with two outs, and that grounder goes through ... if that happens two times in a game, that's the difference between four runs or zero runs in six innings."

• "It makes the game easier all around, including how to manage. Power beats left and right. You don't have to worry about which soft tosser you'll have throwing from one side or the other."

• "You need them in the playoffs. I was a minor-league coach under Lou Piniella in Seattle, and he always searched for that because his feeling was that strikeouts are needed in the playoffs, that they make the difference. Look at Joba Chamberlain, Jonathan Papelbon, Joel Zumaya."

Yates can cite another benefit.

"You always want to be in control of your fastball, even if that means taking a little off it," he said. "But, when you get up, 0-2, sometimes it's not bad to let one run up by a hitter's face and show him you've got that power in your arm, even more than you've shown him. It puts a little intimidation in there, makes them speed up their bat. Now, you set up your offspeed pitches and get them to swing over it or swing early."

Not that he Yates expects the Braves' Jones to be intimidated the next time they meet.

"What's funny is that we talked about that at-bat after the game, laughed about it a little, and he said, 'Don't expect it to happen again,' " Yates said. "So I did it again two nights later. We'll see what happens when he comes to Pittsburgh."

That will be May 9-12. Keep one eye on PNC Park's pitch-speed tracker in right field.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published April 9, 2008 4:00 AM


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