Bob Smizik: Has Harrison surpassed Alvarez?

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Nobody asked me, but . . .

• Who is the Pirates’ best third baseman? That’s a fair question in view of the continuing outstanding play of Josh Harrison, the one-time 25th man, and the continuing disappointing play of Pedro Alvarez, the National League home run leader from 2013. Harrison, playing second base for the injured Neil Walker, continued his heroics Tuesday night, though in vain, with four hits and two RBIs to raise his batting average to .319 and his OPS to .851. Alvarez was hitless as his average fell to .232 and his OPS to .712. Alvarez is the greater home run threat, but Harrison’s slugging percentage is 100 points higher.

• Manager Clint Hurdle needs to give serious thought to removing Jason Grilli as his closer. Grilli’s ERA this month is over 5.00. The game-losing home run he gave up to Todd Frazier in the Reds’ 6-5 win pushed his OPS against right-handed batters over .800. That’s not good enough.

• Alvarez’s throwing errors are becoming alarming and not just because of their propensity to hurt the Pirates. They're also driving down his trade value. He is worth considerably more on the trade market as a third baseman than a first baseman or a designated hitter. Alvarez, who made his 17th error last night, is on his way to leading MLB for the third straight year.

• It’s been more than five years since the Pirates stunned their fan base by trading Nate McLouth to Atlanta and a verdict on the deal is finally in. With Charlie Morton pitching so well and Jeff Locke coming off two excellent starts and having made the All-Star team last year, score the deal an A for the Pirates and Neal Huntington. McLouth has been, for the most part, a mediocre fourth or fifth outfielder since the trade. Additionally, Gorkys Hernandez, the third player the Pirates got from Atlanta for McLouth, was used to acquire Gaby Sanchez.

• There's no greater proof of the overrated importance of ‘protection’ for hitters than the onslaught Andrew McCutchen is conducting on National League pitchers with the highly ineffective Ike Davis usually batting behind him.

• Making the signing of Russell Martin even more difficult for the Pirates is that he’s easily the top catcher in the 2014 free-agent class, which also includes Kurt Suzuki, A.J. Pierzynski, Geovany Soto and Nick Hundley.

• Brandon Cumpton looks to be the odd man out of the Pirates’ rotation when Gerrit Cole returns, but while hardly dazzling he continues to keep his team in games when given the chance to start.

• Tony Gwynn, who died at age 54 this week, was not merely, as was often stated in tributes, the best hitter of his generation but one of the greatest ever. Eight batting titles speak to his excellence. In my brief dealings with him, he also was an outstanding gentleman. I recommend this tribute by Buster Olney and if you missed it in Tuesday’s Post-Gazette print edition this one by Bill Plaschke of the LA Times.

• Since posting an earned run average of 1.86 in April, Justin Wilson’s ERA is 7.56.

• The beanball wars of 2012, 2013 between the Pirates and Reds have not resurfaced this year. If they do, the Pirates will not easily play the role of the innocent, as some tried to paint them in the past. Through games of Monday, Pirates pitchers had hit 43 batters, which leads the National League. St. Louis is second with 27.

• Brock Holt, who went to Boston in the Joel Hanrahan trade after the 2012 season, is batting .338 with an .843 OPS in 161 at-bats for the Red Sox. Holt, taken in the ninth round, may well turn out to be the star of the Pirates’ 2009 draft class. He's playing third base, first base and the corner outfield for Boston.

• By their All-Star votes, fans are saying the use of performance-enhancing drugs is OK. Nelson Cruz, whose 50-game suspension last year should be fresh in everyone’s mind, is the top AL vote-getter among designated hitters, well ahead of the hugely popular David Ortiz. Melky Cabrera, suspended for 50 games in 2012, is third among AL outfielders.

• By popular demand (three people) my two favorite Chuck Noll stories, one of which is reprinted from the Monday comment section.

• After the Steelers’ first exhibition game in 1993, some eight months after his retirement, I was walking the corridor at Three Rivers Stadium toward the Steelers’ locker room. Coming toward me were Noll and his wife, Marianne. Although I had never met Mrs. Noll, she said something to me that Chuck had never said: ''Hello, Bob.''

• Noll and I both were rookies in 1969. My boss, Roy McHugh, wanted me to go over to the team’s offices, then at the Roosevelt Hotel, but I resisted. Of the two rookies, I was by far the most insecure. But he prevailed and the interview went off without a glitch and, true to Noll, he revealed nothing under the pressure of my stupid questions. As I got up to leave his office, which was an old hotel room, I reached for the nearest door knob, turned it and walked into a closet.

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