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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
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
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.
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.
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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