The Pirates' Jameson Taillon pitches against the Chicago Cubs in the first inning at Wrigley Field on Sunday.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ST. LOUIS — Welcome back, baseball fans. The Pirates snapped their three-game winning streak Monday night and fell to 6-7. They are an intriguing team about which you, the readers, had many questions. I answered some of them. If you have a question for next week’s mailbag, send it to email@example.com or to @stephenjnesbitt on Twitter.
Here we go.
Tony: Is Tallion the Bucs ace?
Stephen: As a fan of this beautiful game of baseball, I understand why you ask this. The word “ace” conjures up images of some of the great starting pitchers in baseball history. But it’s also something we like to assign a specific starter in the rotation: The ace is the alpha, the leader, the sit-the-[bleep]-down, the guy you go to on opening day and in Game 7 of the World Series.
As a beat writer, I see the question differently. It’s something fun to throw around with your buddies, but it’s not something most ballplayers and baseball people take seriously two weeks into the regular season. It’s not something I should ask manager Clint Hurdle about. But, for your sakes, I did. To his credit, he didn’t boot me from his office at Busch Stadium.
I informed Hurdle some fans have asked whether Jameson Taillon has supplanted Gerrit Cole as the ace and asked whether such a distinction matters to him at this point.
“I’ve never given it any thought until right now,” Hurdle said, then clarified, “and I’m not even giving it thought. I’m just listening to the question.” He paused. “I love our society. It's a fast-food mentality. It's eight items or less. That's what it is: I’ve got to have an ace. We don’t have to have an ace. We’ve got pitchers who pitch first or second or third games, and let them go out and pitch, and, you know what, at the end of the season usually their talents and skills and performance let you know where they sit in the rotation and where they sit in the league.”
If determining an ace can be considered a problem, it is a good problem to have.
“Good conversation,” Hurdle said. “I probably won't engage in it. Are you Twittering this? Blog?”
Lord knows he’s never heard of a mailbag.
“Good luck,” Hurdle said. “What was your thought? Can you say?”
I told Hurdle I don’t think the debate mattered, and he replied, “I’m with you.” If Game 7 of the World Series were in two days, sure, maybe it would matter, but that start typically is dictated by recent performance. I said I figured Taillon probably needs more games under his belt before he can be considered the staff’s ace, and if you asked Taillon, he’d probably say he’s not the ace — at least not yet.
“Yeah,” Hurdle said. “I’d agree with you.”
Taillon wasn’t in the clubhouse long enough to ask him.
The ace debate depends on your criteria. Depending on your definition, the Pirates’ current ace could be any of three starters — Cole, Taillon or Ivan Nova, who was lights out again Monday. In three starts this season, Cole has a 5.29 ERA, Nova 2.25 and Taillon 0.90. So, yes, that’s why it seems so urgent and exciting to ask whether Taillon is now the new ace.
Look also at their stats for their entire Pirates careers:
What makes an ace? I think longevity plays into it. Noah Syndergaard didn’t vault to the majors and immediately take over for Matt Harvey. I think it’s someone who has seen sustained success and earned the trust of a team and a fanbase. I wrote a story two years ago about the Pirates — which Pirates? — quite literally handing the ace card to Cole.
Most will agree the Pirates’ ace still is Cole. He’s been here. He helped haul them back to the playoffs after 20 losing seasons. He finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting two years ago. He was the opening day starter this season. If you ask around the clubhouse, he’s still the guy.
Really an even better question is …
Robbie: Is Jameson Tallion going to be considered the better pitcher over Gerrit Cole by the end of the season?
Stephen: They’ll both have nearly 30 more starts before the regular season is through, but a full season is a much better sample size to analyze than just the first two weeks of April.
The onus still is on Taillon to get through his full season healthy. Early returns, however, have been fantastic. His fastball has averaged 94.8 mph, according to Fangraphs, and his curveball is killer when he can locate it the way he did Sunday against the Chicago Cubs — six strikeouts, four looking, all on the curve. He’s thrown 74 curveballs this season, per Fangraphs, and only one has been returned for a base hit.
Cole’s numbers have been skewed by a five-run fifth inning opening day at Fenway Park. He has otherwise shown well. His average fastball velocity (96.2 mph) is among the highest for starting pitchers in the majors, and his slider appears to be working its way back to full strength.
If Taillon and Cole give the Pirates 30-plus starts, I’m not sure who ends up as the better pitcher, but I do think the Pirates end up in the playoffs.
Jeff: Frank Coonelly always defending payroll by saying it has gone up every year. It's now heading down. Why?
Stephen: The most detailed explanation we have received was from general manager Neal Huntington when he spoke with my colleague Bill Brink last week. So I’ll first direct your attention there.
The Pirates’ payroll finished at $99.9 million last year. They started this season with a $91.5 million payroll, according to the Associated Press.
Part of the drop can be easily explained. Jung Ho Kang’s $2.75 million is not included in the opening-day figure, and neither is the amount they owe reliever Jared Hughes. It also does not include Drew Hutchison, who is making $2.3 million at Class AAA Indianapolis. The players who have taken the place of those more veteran, expensive players generally have been young ones making league-minimum salaries.
But it’s certainly fair for fans to be concerned about spending. The Pirates over the last few seasons typically added payroll during the season, and I imagine that will occur again this year if they are near a postseason position. Last year, of course, they shed Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese at the trade deadline and added Nova and Antonio Bastardo and extended David Freese.
The Pirates aren’t ones to break the bank in free agency, so returning Nova was a meaningful, cost-effective move. In my view, the Pirates wanted to see what they have in their current players to start the season and plan to grow the payroll down the road. But, yes, a payroll drop is a bad look.
Dave: Do you think GP will require a DL stint?
Stephen: I do not. Gregory Polanco ran sprints before the game Monday in St. Louis, stroked a pinch-hit RBI double in the ninth and said he is all systems go. He did not use those exact words, mind you, but they matched his intent. I expect he will be in the starting lineup Tuesday.
B: A comment, not a question. I HATE the new intentional walk rule! There is always the chance of a wild pitch or the batter reaching out to get a hit. How much time does it save? A minute. Or two?
Stephen: Your complaint has been registered. I imagine the time saved is pretty negligible.
SomeCleverName: Can Chad Kuhl actually hit?
Stephen: Not remarkably well. Kuhl, a starting pitcher, is 2 for 25 in his major league career. The reason he pinch-hit in the ninth inning Sunday, according to MLB.com's Adam Berry, is that the Pirates were going to have the ailing Polanco hit in the pitcher’s spot and have Kuhl pinch-run for Polanco. Once Adam Frazier ripped a three-run home run to basically put the game away, Hurdle pulled Polanco off the on-deck circle and sent Kuhl to bat. He walked.
Glenn: Does the team have a sports psychologist work with Glasnow?
Stephen: The Pirates have a couple men in the front office who deal with the mental side of the game. Bernie Holliday is the director of mental conditioning, and Tyson Holt is the mental conditioning coordinator. The players all meet with Holliday for “MC Dojo” sessions during spring trainings. I’m not sure whether or how often they meet with him during the season. I have not heard about specific sessions for Glasnow, but he does seem to be more settled.
So many questions, so little time. Will save the leftovers to use next week. See you then.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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