On Wednesday, I wrote about how we might need to change the way we currently value pitchers. Despite all of the focus on the impacts of park factors, defense, defensive shifts, and pitch framing, the general outlook on pitchers is that the skill comes first, and the outside factors are just complementary additions or subtractions that don’t make a substantial difference.
In the article linked above, I pointed out how A.J. Burnett went from a hitter’s park with a poor defense where he struggled, to a pitcher’s park with a great defense where he had success. He’s now going back to a hitter’s park with a bad defense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggles once again, if only because his heavy ground ball approach could be disastrous with the Phillies defense behind him. On the flip side, the Pirates have brought a lot of guys in the last few years who have found success thanks to a combination of PNC Park, a heavy ground ball approach, strong infield defense, and more recently the defensive shifts and Russell Martin’s addition behind the plate.
I asked Clint Hurdle if all of these advantages allowed for pitchers to make their pitches with a little more confidence, knowing that they’ve got a lot of forgiveness with all of the outside defensive factors.
“It’s one of the things we talk about with them, and we introduce to them, how we play defense,” Hurdle said. “How the park’s played. The success that comparable pitchers of their type have had in PNC because of A, B, C, and D. Obviously when they can pound the zone, when they can keep the ball down, when they can move it in and out — based on our defense, the people we have — yes, it’s going to prove a favorable advantage for them, that they might not have been aware of that they could have coming in, or they weren’t aware of that they had previously.”
A key development note from that quote: you’ve probably heard of “the fastball academy”, which is a term used for the lower levels of the minors where the Pirates emphasize fastball command. Some just believe that this approach means “throw a lot of fastballs until you can throw them for strikes”. The approach is actually what Hurdle described. Pounding the strike zone. Keeping the ball down. Being able to locate to either side of the plate. These are all things that the Pirates stress for every single minor league pitcher, and it appears they also prefer that approach with guys they’re looking at in the majors.
Hurdle also noted that today’s players are very open to video, and that often a player who has struggled will be more open to making an adjustment or trying to find out why he is struggling.
“One thing about today’s player that they’re very open to, is we even show them on paper. And we can back it up with some video tape. They’re good with that. They’re in that technology state right now in their generation that there’s really no other place to go with it. Any time that you can get a player that’s had some challenges, and hasn’t done well, obviously the opportunity to learn and to listen is usually enhanced.”
“I do think that we can’t lose sight of the fact that you need to give the player some credit as well. There can come a point in time in a player’s career that he’s just had enough of what he’s had enough of. And he finds a way to make some adjustments. But the combination of that, it definitely has proven to be an equation of success for us.”
That’s not necessarily every single player. For example, Francisco Liriano came to the Pirates last year knowing that he had to make some changes to have future success. He made changes, and success came. Jonathan Sanchez was resistant to making any changes to his game, and as a result he continued the poor performance that he had before arriving with the Pirates.
One of the key changes that the Pirates expect their pitchers to make is the “three pitches or less” approach. If you’ve followed my minor league coverage, then you know all about this plan. All of the minor league pitchers are told that they are expected to get hitters out in three pitches or less. Obviously that’s more of a guideline than a rule, but the focus here is pitching to contact. If your stuff is good enough, then you’re not going to see contact, or you’ll see a weak ground ball. Hurdle mentioned that this is also a requirement for guys who come in at the major league level.
“I also think that they know when they come in, one of our identifiers and one of the things we stress, is getting hitters out on three pitches or less. They’ve probably heard it before. It’s not something new. I’ve grabbed it, and grabbed it last year, and really tried to hammer it. That was back from the days when I was a minor league manager in the Mets’ system. But you get more of what you focus on, and I think when you can bring things to the forefront and say ‘these are non-negotiables that we have in place, and we really need you to grasp these and understand the importance of these going forward.’ So far we’ve had success with that.”
As Hurdle said, this concept isn’t new to baseball, or to the Pirates. However, it’s not a concept that is easily adopted by players. I’m guessing that’s usually due to a lack of trust in the park factors and the defense that a pitcher has no control over. The Pirates have a lot of forgiveness with their park and defense, which should make it easier for their pitchers to adopt this approach where they focus on quick outs, rather than strikeouts. I’m guessing it might be easier for pitchers to adopt this approach now, after the success of guys like Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, and others who saw their numbers do a 180 after coming to the Pirates.
As someone who has covered the Pirates’ minor league system for several years, I’m very familiar with their “three strikes or less” approach, along with their desire for pitchers to work down in the zone with the ability to locate to both sides of the plate. It’s no surprise that they have the same expectations for pitchers in the majors, especially since they’re training every single one of their minor league pitchers to have the same focus on command and take the same approach when/if those pitchers reach the majors.