Josh Harrison is an unconventional choice in right field, but he has provided the Pirates with a bit of a spark for now.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not every team has Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Gomez atop the batting order. Many teams make do with what they have.
The Pirates thought they had their leadoff batter in left fielder Starling Marte, and they still might. But Marte struck out 37 times and registered a .302 on-base percentage in 116 plate appearances atop the lineup this season, prompting manager Clint Hurdle to move him lower. Most recently, Marte has been batting fifth.
Thus began the Josh Harrison experiment. Harrison, a utility infielder, was moved to the leadoff spot as the starter in right field -- ahead of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata -- for four of the Pirates' previous five games entering their weekend series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Harrison went 6 for 16 in those games with a double and two triples.
Asked if he was riding the hot batter, Hurdle said, "Absolutely."
Harrison is not a typical leadoff hitter, or for that matter a typical starter on a roster that already has two right fielders. Harrison had a career .284 on-base percentage entering the weekend series and 17 walks, compared to 80 strikeouts, in 617 plate appearances.
"I could care less about what the career on-base percentage is," Harrison said. "I haven't spent the whole time leadoff. Pinch-hits play a factor."
Recent studies have suggested that the leadoff batter needs to be one of the best on the team and one with a high on-base percentage. Studies have also concluded that lineup construction only adds or subtracts about one win per 162-game season. Harrison approaches plate appearances differently as the first batter of the game than he might otherwise.
"You obviously don't want to go up there and swing at the first pitch," Harrison said. "It's a matter of you giving these guys a look behind you. You don't want to put yourself on hold, but that's part of being a leadoff [hitter]. You can't be afraid of going deep into counts."
Often a pinch-hitter, Harrison now has to exercise more patience and tries to let his teammates see every weapon in the starting pitcher's quiver.
"Certain at-bats will be a little different than if you're batting lower in the order," he said. "Nothing really changes. They're going to attack me how they're going to attack me. Just certain situations, you've got to work the count a little bit more."
Marte likely will move back to the leadoff spot at some point. His speed is too valuable a tool to keep him batting fifth. The eventual arrival of top prospect Gregory Polanco will also alter the lineup. Hurdle is riding the production while he can, despite Harrison's statistical history, in an effort to help an offense whose runs per game and on-base percentage have not improved much since last season. Harrison is enjoying the experience.
"It's always fun when you get the chance to be the first one to attack a guy on the mound and set the tone for the team," he said.
Living in the moment
Jeff Locke harbored no illusions about how his spot start Monday would go.
"I got into town [Sunday], pitched [Monday] and right back out of town," he said after the game. "I don't think there's a whole lot of thinking going on."
Locke's start marked his first appearance in the majors this season, a year after he made the National League All-Star team. The signing of Edinson Volquez pushed Locke to the minors to start the year, though Wandy Rodriguez's knee injury and struggles in rehabilitation starts have left the door open for a return. Starting at Class AAA can be tough for players with major league experience.
"I think he has enough experience to know what the challenge is for him and what he needs to do," Hurdle said before Locke's start. "He's best served by just staying in the moment."
Locke felt improvement. After the San Francisco Giants scored two first-inning runs on four hits, he retired 13 batters in a row.
"There's times last year where I think I'd let that snowball," Locke said. "[Monday] I kind of put a foot down. It doesn't matter what, you need to get right back after it."
That same mindset could apply to Locke's eventual return to the majors. As the past few seasons have shown, the starting rotation rarely stays intact for a full season.
Looking ahead: Brewers
The Pirates travel to Milwaukee this week to face the Brewers for the first time since the April 20 fight that resulted in four suspensions.
Milwaukee entered the weekend with a 22-13 record -- best in the NL Central. It continues to get great production from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who was hitting .293 with a .364 on-base percentage, in addition to Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun.
Strong performances from the Brewers' rotation have contributed to their hot start. The starters' 3.14 ERA ranked seventh in the majors entering the weekend, up from 21st in 2013.
Right-hander Wily Peralta has broken out in his second full season as a member of the rotation. He had a 2.17 ERA and only nine walks issued in 452/3 innings entering Friday's games. Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse also had ERAs of less than 3.00.
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