Pirates manager redefines offensive success

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Santiago Casilla probably had just about enough of Neil Walker Monday night. The San Francisco Giants reliever threw eight pitches to Walker with a 2-2 count in the bottom of the 10th inning and Walker fouled them all off. Chris Stewart, the winning run, stood on third.

Two pitches later, Casilla finally won. He struck Walker out swinging on a 95 mph fastball, the 14th pitch of the at-bat.

The Giants won in 13 innings, rendering that at-bat moot in the grand scheme of things, but the 14-pitch battle was productive in manager Clint Hurdle’s mind.

In an effort to improve the offense, the Pirates manager qualifies various outcomes of a plate appearance as productive.

“We have a definition of eight different ways you can put a quality at-bat up on the board to help the team,” Hurdle said.

He created the designations while with the Colorado Rockies. Amass 14 productive at-bats a game in the National League, Hurdle said, and a team will win 60 percent of its games. The calculations draw from the philosophy of former NFL coach Dick Vermeil, who found that a certain percentage of plays that gained positive yardage were necessary for a win.

Walker’s at-bat fulfilled two of the eight criteria: See at least eight pitches and see every pitch in the pitcher’s arsenal. Hits and walks count, as does moving a runner or a sacrifice bunt or fly.

“Not a lot of people understand,” Jordy Mercer said. “They think it’s all about the hit but it’s really not.”

Entering the game tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pirates are averaging 3.94 runs per game, which ranks eighth of 15 NL teams, and is just below the league average of 3.98. They rank third in the league in walks taken and sixth in on-base percentage, the main area Hurdle wanted to see improvement.

“I don’t think we’re changing our approach any or changing the way we do things,” Mercer said. “Now it’s just being said and reiterated. I think people are taking a look at it now.”

The plan isn’t fool-proof — Hurdle spoke of a game last week when the Pirates assembled 13 quality at-bats in the first 18 plate appearances of a game with only two runs to show for it — but the emphasis, in addition to generating offense, is intended to remove the pressure of getting base hits from the players’ minds.

“The dynamic of this game is such that you can hit two bullets and be 0 for 2,” Hurdle said. “What’s your mindset after that? You can get fisted twice and roll one through the right side and quail one into left field and all of a sudden you’re 2 for 2. What’s your mindset there? Is it all about being 2 for 2 or is it about striking the ball hard?”

Players get paid for their hits and home runs, not their productive at-bats, but Hurdle said no player has ever pushed back against the more selfless, team-first emphasis.

“I’ve actually had some players absolutely gravitate to it, because it was a way they could stay in the lineup or work to continue to get at-bats without having to hit .330.”

Irwin demoted

The Pirates optioned right-hander Phil Irwin to Class AAA Indianapolis Thursday. A corresponding move will be announced today.

The player the Pirates recall likely will be a batter. They are using a four-man rotation for the time being due to scheduled off days, and consecutive eight-inning outings from Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole eased the stress on the bullpen.

Outfielder Andrew Lambo, who has started well for Indianapolis, is on the minor league disabled list because of a right thumb contusion. The other batters on the Pirates’ 40-man roster at Indianapolis include infielders Chris McGuiness and Brent Morel, and outfielders Gregory Polanco and Jaff Decker.

The Pirates offered Polanco, the organization’s top prospect, a contract extension in spring training, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned, confirming reports from Yahoo Sports and CBS Sports. That would have removed the service-time consideration from his major league debut had he accepted. Polanco was hitting .395 with a .444 on-base percentage and four homers at Indianapolis entering the game Thursday.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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