On the Pirates: An end to maple madness?

Coonelly, Bay each take steps to address broken bats

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Tired of seeing those maple bats splinter all over the field?

So, apparently, is Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, who said he is "very concerned" about the bats, and he has backed that sentiment with action.

He sent to Major League Baseball offices a tape of the April 15 incident in which Pirates hitting coach Don Long had his left cheek gashed by Nate McLouth's splintered bat in Los Angeles. He also has urged commissioner Bud Selig -- his old boss -- to revisit the matter with the MLB Players Association.

It was raised during collective bargaining for the 2006 Basic Agreement, but very little came of it, with one exception ...

"The union committed, as part of the 2006 Basic Agreement, to study the dangers presented by these bats, and I am disappointed that there has been no progress made on this very important issue," Coonelly said. "We cannot wait to act until after a player, coach or fan gets injured even more seriously than the 10 stitches that Donnie received just below his eye."

Union chief Don Fehr, asked about the matter earlier this month by Yahoo! Sports, replied: "We have provisions in the agreement. There will be a committee that will be put together and meet on it. We'll look at it in good faith."

Some dispute that the makeup of the bats is to blame, focusing instead on the smaller handles, the timber being too dry and other facets. But Coonelly's stance is clear: "There is no question the maple bats break more easily and differently."

A ban is seen as unlikely, not just because players will be reluctant to give up bats that are serving them well but also because it would take an estimated 18 months to custom-create enough ash bats to replace them.

Almost all bats were ash until the past three years, when the lighter and -- some hitters say -- more vibrant maple variety took hold. Now, more than half of all hitters use them.

Count Jason Bay out, though: On Tuesday, he traded in the maple brand he has used since the minor leagues for ash.

"I have a feeling it's going to be more than just Frank pushing to get rid of the maple, so maybe I'm a little ahead of the curve," Bay said.

Maybe this kid could become a coach

There is an easy way for a hitter to get noticed in the minor leagues, and there is Jason Delaney's way.

Never heard of Delaney?

He rarely is mentioned among the Pirates' top young talents, but all he does at Class AA Altoona is create offense with great regularity at the still-a-prospect age of 25: His on-base percentage of .411 ranks fourth in the Eastern League, highlighted by a 22-game on-base streak April 17-May 10, and he has a .294 average, four home runs and 20 RBIs.

All that, and this bright young man has a finance degree from Boston College, as well as a lifelong desire to be a major-league GM.

Put the two together, and one can see why it is fun to hear him explain his approach at the plate.

"I've got to get a good pitch to hit," Delaney said by phone this week from Akron, Ohio. "I am not going to give in to his pitch. I am going to wait until I get the pitch I want. And I think that's really key at this level, where pitchers can't consistently throw to their spots. The more you realize that as a hitter, the more success you're going to have."

He turned more specific.

"The toughest thing is laying off a strike that's not in your zone. If your zone is, say, middle of the plate and out, and that pitcher throws over the inside corner ... hey, good pitch by him. Unless I react really well, I'm not going to put the swing I want on that pitch. If he throws three of those, fine. Do it again next time. But you don't see many pitchers, even in the big leagues, doing that."

Delaney has what one long-time Altoona observer calls "the best plate discipline I've seen," but many wonder how much bigger Delaney's numbers could be if he strayed outside that zone just a little more often.

Do not expect it.

When Delaney had a phenomenal .432 on-base percentage with high Class A Lynchburg that led the Carolina League in the middle of last summer, he was promoted to Altoona and actually improved his numbers for the first month or so.

"My approach was no different from one level to the next. But my walks actually went way up. Why? The strike zone was smaller. There were pitches that were called strikes on me in high A that now were balls. But you know what? I never swung at those pitches in high A, either, because they weren't in my zone."

Just hold them upside down

Only three teams in Major League Baseball had a payroll lower than the Pirates' $50,788,783 on opening day, and all three have winning records. Check the standings, in fact, and one can see Oakland ($47.9 million), Tampa Bay ($43.8 million and Florida ($21.8 million) either atop their respective divisions or challenging for first place.

Meanwhile, the top three payrolls -- New York Yankees ($209 million), New York Mets ($137.8 million) and Detroit Tigers ($137.7 million) -- are struggling miserably.

What does it mean?

Not much yet, if one asks new Pirates outfielder Jason Michaels, who has split his career between the two leagues and is plenty familiar with the nuances of both.

"You look at those teams with the big payrolls, and they've got some great players, established players, guys who know how to play the game," Michaels said. "It's hard to look to a reason why this is going on now, but it's a long season."

The one of those three surprise teams that most see as valid is Tampa Bay.

"No question," Michaels said. "They've had a core with that team that's been playing together for a while and, eventually, you get used to your teammates and learn how to win. But I don't know. We'll have to see how that goes, too."

The Dominican connection

Salomon Torres often joked while with the Pirates that, if he were not around someday for whatever reason, his Dominican countryman and good friend Damaso Marte would fall apart.

How, then, to explain the way Marte overcame that awful opening series in Atlanta to again become one of the game's best left-handed relievers?

"That's easy," Torres said this week while Milwaukee was in town. "I called him that week, and we talked. A lot. Not about baseball, either. Just about life. After that, everything was OK."

Marte confirmed it.

"Yeah, give him all the credit."

But not for that spectacular defensive play in Chicago last weekend that topped ESPN's list later that night?

"No way," Marte said. "No. 1!"

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


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