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The Double-A season hit the halfway mark for Altoona last week, as they put together a 42-29 record and were at the top of the Eastern League Western Division. The Curve have had a rough go as of late; however, that does not dismiss the great first half that the team put together. I decided to choose five of the top story lines out of Altoona during the first half of the season. You’ll see that most of them are positive and reflect how well the team did; however, you’ll notice that not all top stories are always success stories.

Here we go…

Emergence of Max Moroff

Max Moroff has been THE story in Altoona, and maybe the entire Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, during the first half of the season. Currently he leads the Eastern League with 95 hits. He is second in the league with a .321 batting average, and he has flirted with the league lead in batting average over the past couple weeks and throughout the season. He is current third in on-base percentage at .396, first in runs scored, fourth in total bases, and second in walks with 39.

Moroff has gone on streaks as well throughout the season, with a 30-game on-base streak, 11-game hitting streak, and 12-game hitting streak all in this half season. The only other switch hitter that is comparable to Moroff in the Eastern League statistical department would be his own teammate Josh Bell.

Moroff was also very strong from the field as well, with only seven errors and a .983 fielding percentage from second base.

As we broke down Moroff’s hitting streak at the end of May, he kept going back to his rhythm and timing as key components to his turn around this season. Moroff has been a creature of habit this season, hitting before and after games in the batting cage no matter what his results have been.

For the second half, it will be interesting to see how Moroff responds to his battery mate Gift Ngoepe’s promotion to Triple-A. He should find some time at shortstop along with Adam Frazier. The last time Moroff played shortstop, he struggled with a myriad of errors; however, he needs to have positional flexibility with Alen Hanson and now Gift at Triple-A Indianapolis. If he can maintain his strong bat, there is no doubt that the Pirates will find a place for him on the field.

Gift Ngoepe’s Strong May & June From the Plate

(Photo credit: David Hague)
Photo credit: David Hague

Ngoepe’s hard work at the Double-A level paid off a week ago, as he was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis. His promotion came after finally being able to maintain a consistent batting average over a two-month span in Altoona. There has never been a doubt about Gift’s defensive ability, often being labeled as the best defender in the Pirates minor league system; however, the bat never fully came around until recently. Gift switched to only batting from the right side before this season began, and the results didn’t come until the calendar flipped to May.

Gift only hit .172 in April, but from the beginning of May until Gift’s recent promotion, he hit .291/.374/.401 with a .775 OPS. His lack of hitting was the only thing holding Gift back from being promoted, and from possibly one day reaching the majors. With this recent turnaround, there is a chance that Gift could reach the majors as early as this September. If not this year, he should find himself in the mix of earning a spot on the 40-man roster after this season because of his defensive ability alone.

Willy Garcia’s Strikeout Numbers & Promotion

(Photo credit: Sean McCool)
Photo credit: Sean McCool

Willy Garcia was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 15th. Before his promotion, Garcia was riding a 19-game hitting streak for the Altoona Curve, where he had a slash of .370/.407/.630 for an OPS of 1.037.

Garcia was having a decent year on paper through April, with his batting average staying around .290; however, he wasn’t hitting any extra base hits, and he was striking out a ton. The Pirates organization was firm with Garcia that he needed to cut back on the strikeouts to be able to move forward in the system. Garcia had a 11.7% strikeout rate in May, while striking out 32.8% of the time in April. During that time, Garcia struggled with the power, but it came around in the middle of May towards the beginning of his hitting streak.

From the beginning of May until his promotion, Garcia’s strikeout rate sat at a very nice rate of 15.6%. He also moved to center field after Keon Broxton’s promotion, and he was able to show off his strong arm even more from a more prominent position in the field.

The Starting Pitching Staff’s Start of the Season

The Altoona pitching staff began the season on quite a tear. In the month of April, the starting rotation combined for a 1.09 ERA in 99.1 innings pitched. Tim Williams pulled some numbers when Pirates Prospects picked the Pitcher of the Month in April.

  • There was only one outing where an Altoona starter gave up more than two earned runs.
  • There were only two starts with two or more earned runs allowed.
  • Three of the rotation members finished the month with two or fewer earned runs allowed.

The starting rotation carried the Altoona Curve through the beginning of the season. Tyler Glasnow gave up two earned runs in 22.2 innings in his first four starts. Angel Sanchez only gave up one run in all of April in 22.2 innings. Zack Dodson didn’t allow a single run in 18 innings pitched in April.

Once May rolled around, the starting staff came back down to Earth, but Altoona has been a good place to be a pitcher in the first half of the season. Steven Brault was promoted from Bradenton and pitched two beautiful games after his first outing, not allowing a run in his last two starts in 13 innings. Chad Kuhl has had an up-and-down season so far, but he has shown signs of extremely good control. Angel Sanchez took his 2.79 ERA in 77.1 innings to Triple-A Indianapolis and pitched seven shutout innings for the Indians a week ago in his third Triple-A start.

Finally… Josh Bell & Tyler Glasnow

You’ll notice that I mostly discussed the good things that have come out of Altoona in this article so far. I couldn’t write an article about the top stories in Altoona without including two of the best prospects in the Pirates system, though. Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow are great baseball players, but the expectations are sky-high for both of them to be able to come up to Pittsburgh and be stars. For both players, there have been flashes of greatness; however, there have been setbacks.

(Photo Credit: David Hague)
Photo Credit: David Hague

Josh Bell is a great hitter. His hand-eye coordination is fantastic, and the numbers prove it. He is currently batting .315 for the Curve, good for fourth in the Eastern League batting race. He is second in hits with 91 (behind Moroff), and he is T-1 in triples with six. The problem with Bell lies with his power numbers. His ISO is only .111, which rates by FanGraphs as “Poor to Below Average”. He only has three home runs, and as a player who put on weight to get stronger and took over first base, that simply isn’t good enough. An American League scout has said that the lack of power and ability to drive the ball deep is a major concern for Bell.

Bell is also struggling with his transition to first base. He will have flashes of extremely good fielding; however, it seems like the everyday plays are difficult for him to make, having committed 12 errors in 65 games at first base. He continues to work extremely hard at the position, especially with his manager Tom Prince and former Pirates first baseman Kevin Young.

The hitting ability is there for Bell; however, he will need to start to show that power to move forward in the system.

Tyler Glasnow 8
Photo Credit: Tim Williams

For Tyler Glasnow, the season started great for him with a 24:6 strikeout to walk ratio in his first four starts. Batters were only hitting .158 against him, and he looked to be continuing the dominance that he has shown through the minors up until this point. Glasnow’s mid-season ankle injury had completely derailed his season and forced him to miss more than a month’s worth of development.

In his first start for Altoona since May 17th, he went 3.2 innings while striking out seven and only walking two. His efficiency could have been better, allowing him to go deeper in the game while on a pitch count. He followed that up with a start last night, and showed his best fastball command of the season, although his off-speed stuff needed work. Glasnow’s development should be the biggest story out of Altoona for the second half of the season.

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  1. From what I’ve seen, Bell has cut down considerably on physical errors, but he often makes mental errors. I like the way he is progressing defensively thus far anyway.

    • J: Those mental lapses will happen. Comparatively, as a RF he was trying to stay attentive, possibly getting 4 or 5 balls a game. As a 1B he has to be mentally prepared on every pitch – putouts, assists, cut-offs, and all at game speed. He had all of about 6 weeks in Arizona sharing time at 1B with Greg Bird, then the off-season, and ST before being the full time starter at AA. And, to do that while being a team leader on offense most of the year is true accomplishment.

  2. What happened with the Pirate philosophy of taking hitters and they will develop (hoped for) power in Bell’s case? He sure can hit and get on base at a high rate, however, he will not move up until hit belts home runs. Sounds contradictory to me. I will take a high average hitter over a popup and strike out king like the Bucs have in the majors now.

    • Does anybody care that Bell has hit over .300 this year and way over .300 last year with runners in scoring position? I’d take a guy who can bring people in over a person like Pedro .222 this year and .202 last year RISP. But supposedly Pedro has all this power. Bell’s an RBI guy and Pirates need more of them.

  3. So, you completely ignore the guy hitting .375 on the same team as Max (54 points higher)?

    Adam Frazier needs some love, too.

    I would’ve combined them into one ‘group’ as you did with Bell/Glasnow.

    • foo: Good point about Frazier, because he is doing very well. He is facing a major problem though in the quality and quantity of MI’s in the Pirate system, and most of them are younger than he is.

      Sean: Bell is struggling moving from the outfield to the infield which is a major position change. That said, he has played almost the same amount of games as Pedro with 700 total chances to Pedro’s 601. Pedro has 11 errors and is fielding .982; Bell has 12 errors and is fielding .983. With those numbers, it is difficult to be comfortable with either defensively, but a quick look at the comparative numbers indicates that this kid is working very hard at the transition, and making a lot of improvement. Lots of credit to he and the coaches.

      • This is where numbers can be extremely deceiving. Sometimes he looks good at first; other times he looks very out of place.

        • Sean: And that is to be expected. Watch a 1B during a game and then watch a RF – he probably feels like he is on a different planet. He is learning that he has to be mentally alert on every play, and I think his defense has been good considering the transition he is trying to make.

    • Frazier has definitely been awesome so far this year at Double-A. The sample size and the myriad of other story lines are the reasons I didn’t mention Frazier here. I’m very interested to see how he does playing shortstop the rest of the way. (He had a pretty terrible throwing error last night.)

    • I agree with Tim. Frazier’s sample size is still on the small side at 140 ab. Guys like Moroff and Bell have more than double that amount.
      Regardless, he’s tearing it up thus far, and I’d bet he’s got a good shot as player of this past week for the EL.

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