On the Pirates: Pitching under the gun

Velocity displays can be distraction, especially for prospects


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It was not until the past couple years that every stadium in Major League Baseball had a pitch-speed indicator as part of its scoreboard displays, but now they all have one, plus running pitch counts, plus, in some places such as Houston's Minute Maid Park, the type of pitch.

Example: "83 mph, slider."

The marketing reasoning is simple: If fans can get this information for free on television broadcasts, why not provide it to the paying customers?

But that does not mean baseball people have to like it.

For one, they worry that even a veteran pitcher can get distracted.

"You'll see guys walk off the mound toward the plate to get the ball back from the catcher, just so they can get a look at the gun on their way back," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "Still, with the more mature pitchers, they use it as a gauge to see how they're doing, but it's usually not more than that."

But the other and more significant worry is in the minor leagues, where prospects trying to prove themselves can risk injury by overthrowing. Most minor-league parks still do not have such displays, especially not those at the lower levels. And, if Huntington had his way, that is how it would remain.

"I've always been against radar guns at minor-league parks. A lot of parks are going to them, and that's the option. But, hopefully, with a good affiliation, you can influence either the location of the display so that it's out of an easy sight line or talk them out of having it altogether."

Why?

"With the immature pitcher, there's an impact. They want to light up that gun, see if they can run it up there at 94 or 95 miles an hour. That's what you don't want to see."

And if that radar gun happens to be poorly located ...

"I've been to minor-league parks with the radar gun up in the press box, and that angle makes the pitches look a lot slower than they are. So, these poor kids are humping back and trying to throw 86."

The Pirates' top affiliate, Class AAA Indianapolis, has one that is part of the scoreboard in right field. Class AA Altoona has one independent of its scoreboard, in right-center field. The affiliates at lower levels do not.

Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development, said the organization stresses to its youngest prospects never to pitch to radar guns, including those they cannot see.

"The reality is, they know they're getting gunned every outing, if not by the stadium then by our people," he said. "What we don't want them doing is overthrowing just to show us they have a fastball. It's not easy, but it's our job to keep them from doing that."

Good luck with that.

"When I was coming up, there weren't many of those guns," flamethrowing reliever Tyler Yates said. "Now, there's a tendency for the kids to look, no question."

And his feeling?

"It's good and bad. I think it's good to know, for example, how effective your offspeed stuff is by checking the gun. But throwing the fastball to get to a certain number ... I think that's a bad thing. You don't know how reliable that gun is."

If evidence is needed ...

The importance of the radar gun to all concerned was apparent this week, when PNC Park's pitch-speed indicator -- an automated system with a gun slightly above home plate that feeds information to a computer -- went awry and made everyone appear to be pitching slower than they were.

Matt Capps had a fastball clocked at 88 mph, about 6 mph slower than usual.

Even Florida's Matt Lindstrom, who might be capable of reaching triple digits with his underhand tosses, was at 91 mph.

Alas, the problem was fixed.

The difference an 'A' makes

There is no label more dreaded in the minors than "4-A:" A player who is too good for Class AAA, not good enough for the majors.

Think Chad Hermansen.

Or, in the present day, think John Van Benschoten, who will be recalled by management today: He was 10-7 with a 2.56 ERA for Indianapolis last season, 0-7 with a 10.15 ERA with the Pirates.

This year, now 27, he was the International League's best pitcher in the early going, 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA and is fresh off 6 2/3 no-hit innings Tuesday night against Louisville.

Why should this time be any different?

Stark has an answer, and a rather blunt one.

"Where we've challenged him is that he's got to be that much better down there with his approach and work ethic," he said. "His four days of preparation have to be exceptional so that, when he gets up here, he doesn't have to change. ... Hey, some guys get it at 22. Others get it at 27."

Van Benschoten had no response to that assessment, but he did acknowledge an upgrade in his pitching, particularly his ability to challenge hitters as he did even after opening that no-hit showing with nine consecutive balls.

"I'm trusting my stuff and going right after the bat and, to be honest, I feel great about it," Van Benschoten said. "There were times last year, in the minors and majors, when I was pitching around guys, and I'm not doing that anymore. If they hit it, they hit, just so they don't get good wood on it."

No. 1 with a bullet

The Pirates' amateur scouts, while performing regular duties in their assigned regions, have shared responsibility for searching for their most important pick in the June 5 first-year player draft, that being No. 2 overall.

Their top choice, of course, could be negated by the team picking No. 1, that being Tampa Bay.

So, it might be telling -- or not, given the scope of scouting these days -- that the Rays had three top executives, including general manager Andrew Friedman and scouting director R.J. Harrison, attending a recent game in Georgia involving high school shortstop Tim Beckham, the consensus most-talented player available.

The Pirates have had plenty of looks at Beckham, too, but they are not known to have had that kind of showing.

Another player thought to be climbing in the eyes of scouts is Florida State University catcher Buster Posey, who, if available at No. 2, might offer the Pirates a chance to right a wrong in having bypassed Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters last summer.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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