Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone

russell martin pitch framing

When writing today’s Opening Day countdown preview for Vance Worley, I was reminded of his effectiveness in 2014: sharp control, low walk rate, and a propensity for backwards K’s.

Painting the black and collecting called strikes seemed to be a big part of Worley’s game. Upon further review, the entire Pirates’ rotation was above-average in that area:

pirates called strikes 2014

My next thought was that this success could be attributed to 1) the expanding strike zone in Major League Baseball, and/or 2) the acclaimed pitch-framing skills of then-Pirate Russell Martin and Chris Stewart.

“But my goal is not to steal strikes, it’s to keep strikes strikes. I don’t want to lose strikes. The key is trying to fight against what the ball is naturally wanting you to do.” – Russell Martin

Continue reading “Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone”

Top 10 Pirates Moments of 2014

Another year in the books, and another memorable one for the Bucs. While it didn’t quite have the storybook script of 2013, the Pirates surely enjoyed their second consecutive trip to the postseason.

Looking back, you may remember some not-so-fond moments — the 10-18 start, the seven-game losing streak in August, Cutch getting beaned in Arizona, the Easter Sunday brawl (maybe you liked that one).

But there were still plenty of memorable moments in the team’s 128th season. Here’s our Top 10 in chronological order…

1. Neil Walker‘s Opening Day Walk-Off Winner — 3/31/14

What better way to start the season? A Francisco LirianoJeff Samardzija duel kept things even through nine frames, but Neil Walker sent the fans home happy with a walk-off home run and a 1-0 victory on Opening Day.

2. Sweet 16 Innings — 4/2/14

If the first game of the year wasn’t dramatic enough, how about the second?

It looked like it was going to be the Cubs’ turn to take an extra inning W, as Anthony Rizzo‘s solo shot put Chicago ahead in the 12th. But the Bucs battled back in the bottom half, with Starling Marte providing the tying single. It looked like they’d finish ’em there — Andrew McCutchen stepped in with the bases loaded, but old friend Jose Veras struck him out to end the inning.

The Pirates failed to capitalize on yet another bases loaded threat an inning later. But they finally got it done in the 16th, as Tony Sanchez slipped a dribbler through the left side to score Jose Tabata and end the marathon game.

Behold FanGraphs’ win probability chart:

Source: FanGraphs

3. Starling Marte drops the mic — 5/2/14

Coming off a brutal doubleheader sweep @ Baltimore, the Bucs welcomed the Blue Jays for the first home series of May. They had been struggling to that point, winning just 10 of their first 28 games and looking for a spark. They finally got it with one of the more exciting games of 2014.

Like many early season games, they squandered an early lead and failed to fight back. But… the switch was flipped in the ninth inning. Starling Marte will get the credit, but it couldn’t have been done without El Toro. With Neil Walker on first, Pedro Alvarez put one in the center field seats to tie the game at 5 runs a piece. Two batters later, Marte annihilated Sergio Santos‘ 3-1 pitch into the bullpen for an unbelievable comeback win.

Source: FanGraphs

This game kicked off a solid homestand and symbolized a turning point for the Bucs. They shook off their rocky start and went 78-56 the rest of the way — second-best in the NL behind Washington during that span.

4. The First Walk-Off Replay — 5/6/14

Four days after his walk-off bomb, Marte provided more magic — this time in much different fashion. Charlie Morton (0 earned runs, 3 hits in 8 innings) and Tim Hudson (1 earned run, 5 hits in 8.2 innings) absolutely shoved in this one, keeping both lineups at bay.

But with two away in the ninth, Marte drove a deep ball off the Clemente Wall, ultimately bouncing far enough away from Hunter Pence that #6 wanted to go for three. Then when the cutoff was overthrown, Marte wanted to win the game all by himself. The throw beat him to home plate by quite a few feet, but Buster Posey bailed at the last second, allowing Marte to slide his hand in before the tag was applied. Home plate ump Quinn Wolcott called him out on the field, but hey! We have replay now. A challenge was in order, and the call was easily reversed — that’s your first ever walk-off replay.

5. Welcome to The Show, Gregory Polanco — 6/13/14

On June 10th, 31,567 witnessed the highly anticipated debut of Gregory Polanco at PNC Park. Three days later, he enjoyed one of the best games of his young life.

It was Friday the 13th, but El Coffee took care of business. He went 5-for-7 with his first MLB home run, two runs batted in, and three runs scored in the Pirates’ 8-6 defeat of the Marlins in 13 innings.

6. The Rundown — 6/27/14

In many ways, 2014 was the year of Josh Harrison. This was one of those games he took over all by himself.

Standing on second base in the 10th, J-Hay got caught in a pickle when Polanco chopped one back to the mound. Fortunately, Harrison is an absolute beast and evaded one of the most ridiculous rundowns of all time. Unfortunately, he was stranded at third, despite there being no outs at the time. Fortunately, he came up to bat the very next inning and laced a walk-off double. Ho-hum.

If that rundown wasn’t good enough, he did it again a month later.

7. The Comeback vs. D-backs — 7/1/14

Another great pitchers’ duel that wasn’t decided until the ninth. A pair of southpaw starters, Jeff Locke and Wade Miley, both cruised through eight innings.

Trailing 2-0 in the ninth, Neil Walker and Gregory Polanco poked back-to-back singles, chasing Miley from the game. Addison Reed replaced him, and with one out, was welcomed by Starling Marte who crushed a ball off the center field wall. Walker and Polanco both scored to tie the game. Cutch was understandably intentionally walked, but Ike Davis sent us home with a single to score Marte. A quick game, a quick comeback — this put the Bucs at 43-40, which actually tied their high water mark for the season at the time.

8. The Triple Play — 9/14/14

The Pirates almost needed to win-out after being swept in St. Louis to start September. Kicking off their final homestand of 2014, they desperately needed to avoid a series loss vs. Chicago.

Edinson Volquez found himself in a fourth inning jam, losing 3-0 with two men on base. Well, how about a triple play to fix that? Matt Szczur hit a perfectly placed ground ball to Josh Harrison at third, who flipped it to Neil Walker at second, who relayed it onto Andrew Lambo at first for a beautiful 5-4-3 triple play. It was the team’s first triple play since 2009, and first one in Pittsburgh since 1993.

It proved to be a huge turning point in the game as well. The Pirates scored seven runs in the following two frames, holding on for a 7-3 win and starting a five-game winning streak.

9. Russell Martin Brings the House Down — 9/19/14

Entering the final home series of the year, the Pirates were in a good spot — winners of 11 of their previous 13. Meanwhile, the Brewers were in an absolute tailspin — it was time to finish them.

But, for the first time in nearly two weeks, the Bucs looked lost. It seemed like they were once again going to come up short of the elusive five-game winning streak they had been searching for all season. Yovani Gallardo was nearly unhittable through seven, but fortunately Ron Roenicke thought it was a good idea to put Jonathan Broxton in to start the eighth. LOL.

Marte and Walker both singled, and the rally train left the station. Russell Martin stepped to the plate with one out — this was their chance. Broxton was throwing nothing but fastballs, and insisted one putting another right down the pipe on his 1-1 offering.

Martin knew exactly what to do, sitting on the heater and driving it to the opposite field. He planted a fastball in the center field seats just three days earlier, and brought the same approach to his at-bat vs. Broxton. This time, it felt like the ball was never going to come down.

The best way to judge a fly ball when you’re at a game is to watch the outfielders, not the ball. When Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun charged the warning track, the PNC crowd held their breath. But when they both started running out of room, it was clear where the ball was going to land. Not in Gomez’s glove. Not in Braun’s glove. In the seats.

Even though it was a high school football Friday night in western PA, PNC was jam-packed with 37,974 on hand to witness an unbelievable game.

Definitely going to miss Russ in 2015 and beyond, if only for the fire he brought every single night.

russell martin0001

10. Clinched — 9/23/14

For the second year in a row, September 23rd was very kind to the Pirates.

With a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, they officially clinched a spot in the postseason. It wasn’t an easy ride, which made it that much sweeter.

playoffs 100

tony sanchez

A few honorable mentions: Andrew McCutchen’s inside-the-park home run, Travis Snider striking out Joey Votto, Cutch starting the All-Star Game (and leading off with a single), Russell Martin’s 1,000th hit, Sunday Night Baseball at PNC Park…

Let us know what we missed, and what some of your top Bucco moments were.

Thanks to everyone who made it another awesome year.

Go Bucs

Farewell, Russell Martin

The day we have not been looking forward to is here: Russell Martin has officially landed elsewhere. The 31-year-old catcher signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday.

Above all, thank you to Russell Martin for two great seasons in Pittsburgh. These past two years were incredibly special for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, and Russ was a huge part of it. The numbers show that he instantly became one of the Pirates’ best catchers ever, and it wasn’t just a coincidence that they made it back to the postseason in the two years he was here. Martin re-established himself in the Burgh, and he has a nice new contract to look forward to.

While it would have been nice to keep him, he’s earned this contract. Let’s be thankful he had two of his best seasons right here in Pittsburgh. No matter how much I wanted him back or how much I want them to spend some money, anything in the neighborhood of 5-82 was never going to happen. Not for the Pirates, not for a lot of teams.

Two years ago, though, they saw an undervalued player and turned him into one of baseball’s biggest bargains. Martin was a part of many magical moments over the past two years.

– He tallied four walk-off winners in 2013, adding to the storybook season.

– The streak started with a play at the plate. The streak, 21 years later, ended with a play at the plate. Russ was right there to make the play:

– The night, the game, the postseason this town waited for… Russ came up big with two home runs on October 1st, 2013, including the one that will be remembered for a long, long time:

– Just so clutch. Martin brings the house down:

– While this year’s Wild Card game didn’t go as well as last year’s, the “re-sign Russ” chants and standing ovation for Martin’s final at-bat as a Pirate were special.

russell martin

Martin was clearly loved by the fans and respected by his teammates and coaches. In addition to being a talented ballplayer, Martin’s determination and leadership showed on the field. The fire he brought to the park every day was contagious. You might not be able to quantify it, but everything you see and hear about his intangibles proves his worth.

We also have to thank him for following us on Twitter. That meant a lot to us. We’ll keep rooting for him, even though he’s up north.

Drew Brown comes through with a great farewell tribute:

So, what does this mean for the Pirates?

1) It’s Francisco Cervelli time.

2) A draft pick as compensation. Since they offered Martin the qualifying offer and he declined, they’ll get a pick in the compensation round. They also move up a spot in the first round since the Jays forfeited their pick to sign Martin.

3) At least it’s not the Cubs; they were the front-runners for Martin as recently as yesterday afternoon. Wouldn’t have liked seeing him Cubbie blue for 4-5 years.

4) Go spend the money. Get pitching. Do what you need to do. You may not be able to replace Martin at catcher, but you can try to replicate his contributions at the other positions. Get this roster improved and ready to go for April 6th.

Congrats again to Russell Martin and best of luck in Toronto.

Go Bucs

The Pirates & The Qualifying Offer

How it works: MLB teams can extend a “qualifying offer” to their pending free agents (unless they were rental players and didn’t spend the whole year with said team). The offer is a one-year contract worth $15.3 million for 2015.

Why do it: If a player declines the QO and signs elsewhere, the player’s new team will forfeit their top draft pick (unless they have a top 11 pick in 2015) and the player’s old team will receive a compensation draft pick.

The deadline: Today (Monday) at 5:00 pm

The Pirates’ pending free agents: Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Clint Barmes

Candidates for a qualifying offer: Martin, Liriano

Their decisions are in…

Russell Martin

The Pirates extended a qualifying offer to Martin. This was a no-brainer.

The Pirates’ interest in retaining Martin is obvious, even though he isn’t likely to accept this QO. When he signed here, he said he was looking to rebuild his value and test the free agent waters again in two years. After the incredible season he just had, he’d be silly to not at least see what is out there. This is his chance to cash in on a big multi-year deal.

This is still beneficial to the Bucs though. For one, they’ll receive the draft pick if he chooses to sign elsewhere. A consolation prize, but better than letting him walk for nothing. Also, other teams just a little more reluctant to sign him now that the draft pick is attached to him.

We’ll see what happens. Still holding out hope that Russ returns to the Burgh.


Francisco Liriano

The Pirates extended a qualifying offer to Liriano. I didn’t think they would do it… but they did.

Liriano is a more interesting case. He’s shown tremendous stuff at times, but his injury history is less than inspiring. If he can’t stay healthy, $15.3 million isn’t a price you’d want to pay — especially for the Pirates, who’ve gone bargain-hunting for pitchers the last few years.

Like Martin, Liriano will probably want a multi-year deal. However, this hurts his market value and increases the Bucs’ chances of re-signing him. Martin is the premier catcher on the market, so teams may not be too worried about losing the draft pick. With Liriano, there are plenty of other pitching options that teams may turn to.

No player has accepted a qualifying offer in the previous two years of this process. Could Liriano be the first?

If anything, this proves a few things:

1. The Pirates really want Liriano back.

2. They have money to spend and aren’t worried about committing $15.3 million to him (and still adding other pieces).

This is setting up for an interesting offseason.

Starting tonight at midnight, free agents can begin negotiating with any team. Hot stove season is here.

Go Bucs

Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

Video: Russell Martin Pirates Highlights 2013-2014

Well, Russell Martin is officially no longer a Pirate (for now). He and the other three free agents came off the roster after the conclusion of the World Series, and they’re free to negotiate with any MLB team starting on Tuesday at midnight. No matter what happens, Russ has had two terrific seasons in Pittsburgh (and hopefully a few more to come).

Russell Martin Pirates Highlights 2013-2014:


Go Bucs