Cole Dominates, Hurdle Makes Right Call on Alvarez in Pirates 2-1 Win

MIAMI — Gerrit Cole had a rough start to the month of August. In his first four outings, the Pirates’ ace combined for a 4.70 ERA and a 3.53 xFIP over 23 innings. There were some concerns at the time that he might be wearing down. There were also concerns over his play, which were probably combined with concerns about Francisco Liriano’s struggles, A.J. Burnett’s injury, and uncertainty over J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton.

Cole has since rebounded very well. In his last outing, he gave up just one unearned run in seven innings. Tonight he went 7.1 innings, giving up one run on five hits, with no walks and four strikeouts. Overall, he set the tone for a great night of pitching that saw the Pirates win 2-1, taking their third of four games against Miami.

“Cole was outstanding off the mound tonight,” Clint Hurdle said after the game. “Then you get the job that Watson does and Melancon does. Tough to pitch much better than we did.”

Hurdle didn’t comment on what specifically was working for Cole the last two outings, opting not to “give away all [the] trade secrets.”

“He’s doing some things different,” Hurdle said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to execution. Even though his first pitch strikes [were] about 50 percent, he got immediately back in the counts. He got quick outs. He had 14 hitters retired on three pitches or less. He only had two, three ball counts tonight and no walks. And that screams at you about command and control and execution.”

Cole chalked it up to good luck, better execution in key situations, and good defense. On tonight’s outing, he noted that they were able to get weak contact and quick outs against an aggressive team.

“They were pretty aggressive, so it forced us to make quality pitches early,” Cole said. “Fortunately we were able to execute efficiently through most of the game and do some weak contact and get some quick outs.”

Cole did show all of his pitches early, rather than going with the fastball-heavy approach in the early innings that you normally see. Hurdle noted that this was an example of Cole counter-punching to adjustments that were made to him.

“I just think he’s trying to continue to establish different looks,” Hurdle said. “He has actually four quality pitches that he can throw. Scouting reports get around. People start doing things, jumping on tendencies. I think he’s seen different teams approach in different ways. This point in time of the season, there’s always opportunities to counter-punch. I think he’s been counter punching very well. His last two starts have been lights off stuff off the mound.”

Cole has been getting work with Francisco Cervelli recently, which is most likely an attempt to get him comfortable with Cervelli prior to the Wild Card game. Unfortunately tonight, Cervelli was ejected at the start of the third inning for arguing balls and strikes. I’ll have more on that in tonight’s First Pitch. Ultimately, that paired Cole back up with Chris Stewart for the rest of the game.

Hurdle stuck with Cole until the eighth inning when he put the tying run on second with one out. That’s when Hurdle played the matchups, going with Tony Watson with two left-handers due up. Watson struck out Dee Gordon and got Ichiro Suzuki to ground out, ending the threat.

Mark Melancon came on and converted his league-leading 41st save of the year, but it came with the help of a great defensive play. Melancon gave up a single to Martin Prado to lead off the inning, then got a shifted 4-5-3 double play, with Josh Harrison — playing third base at the time — shifting over to cover the bag and make the turn at second.

“You’re not going to see a better double play turned at the end of the game, with the shift on and those people and those places to turn that double play,” Hurdle said.

Melancon got Marcell Ozuna to ground out to finish off the game.

Hurdle Makes the Right Call on Alvarez

Prior to the game, Hurdle gave Pedro Alvarez a start against a left-hander, noting that he didn’t want Alvarez sitting for a long stretch with the Pirates playing five left-handers in seven days. It seemed Hurdle was picking the best matchups for Alvarez during this stretch. Tonight, he picked very well, as Alvarez destroyed a home run to deep center field to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead in the fourth, and give them their eventual winning run.

“It’s just trying to stay up the middle with him,” Alvarez said of the play and the approach versus Justin Nicolino. “He does a good job of changing speeds and changing location. Just trying to let the ball get deep and make good contact.”

Hurdle said after the game that Alvarez has as much raw power as anyone in the game, even referencing Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton. He also pointed out that Alvarez is giving the Pirates a boost in the second half.

“He’s shown the ability to have some good at-bats,” Hurdle said. “He’s been swinging the bat better in the second half. The overall package has been good. He’s been producing runs. We’re just trying to look for opportunities where we think the pitch patterns and the swing have an opportune matchup.”

Alvarez has actually been playing well against left-handers this year, with a .790 OPS, a .343 wOBA, and a 108 wRC+. All of those have been better than his numbers against right-handers, which is surprising.

“It’s just getting those opportunities to go up there and battle at-bats,” Alvarez said on what has been working for him this year. “Just try to stick to a good approach and work with what I’m given.”

Game Notes

**The Pirates took three of four against Miami, and are now on pace to win 99 games this season. They return home tomorrow to face the Rockies for three games, before an off-day on Monday. Pete Ellis will have coverage of all three games, and Sean McCool will join him for added coverage on Sunday.

**Hurdle on the overall game and the series against Miami: “That was a very well-played game. Very well pitched game. Some good defense. It had all the things that you want to watch when you get out there. Our guys are playing hard. It’s real fun to watch. We competed well while we were here.”

**Alvarez on the entire team playing well right now: “I think we just do a pretty good job of just going out there and trying to play the best we can. Our pitching has been phenomenal. Our bullpen has been outstanding. They always give us an opportunity to be able to come back, and overcome any deficit. It’s easier to do when it’s one or two runs, as opposed to four or five. Our pitching has been outstanding.”

**Alvarez on Cole’s success this year: “To me, he hasn’t changed. He’s been strong since day one…He’s been performing at a high level. There hasn’t been any lulls. It’s just been high energy, high intensity, and just dominant the whole year.”

**Aramis Ramirez has made some strong plays this series. Tonight was the second night in a row where he laid out to make a nice play down the third base line. He also had an underrated play on Gregory Polanco’s assist, receiving the ball in the perfect spot and keeping the tag down to help complete the play. Hurdle said that Ramirez is getting more comfortable since the trade.

“I just think it’s his overall comfort zone,” Hurdle said. “I think he’s found the rhythm to his game that he likes playing with. There’s times no matter whether you’ve got one year, or 15, or 17, that you come in a new situation. There might be some urgency once in a while to do more than you’ve really been doing for 17 years. He’s gotten to a real good place slowing the game down at the plate, and with the glove. Complete extension the last two nights on balls to the line. Fun to watch.”

  • He still hits into way too many DP killing a potential big inning. Kang should be starting at 3rd base with ARam as a backup playing once or twice a week and pinch hitting.

  • “Alvarez has actually been playing well against left-handers this year, with a .790 OPS, a .343 wOBA, and a 108 wRC+….”

    I think Tim might’ve pulled his splits before they updated from this game…FanGraphs has Alvarez at .844 OPS/.364 wOBA/135 wRC+ vs. LHP as of this morning.

    Very good things happen when Pedro Alvarez hits the ball in the air. Any team looking to get the most out of him would be focusing on making that happen, first and foremost.

    • Gaining 30 point of wOBA based on three plate appearance is pretty much a microcosm of Alvarez’s career. (And why single season split data doesn’t tell us much) His value is in rare events, if he can field his position near league average he would be an okay player to hit consistent lower in the lineup.

  • You know, I wondered how Hurdle would respond to this depth, and whether or not he would use it effectively, and I have to say, I’ve been impressed. He’s made good calls on pitchers, when to pull starters, having arms ready in case something got dicey. He’s made good lineups getting guys days off without hurting the team’s chances to win. He’s made good calls on hot streaks, when to play guys when the platoon splits don’t line up.

    In general, as frustrated as I got with Hurdle earlier in the year, he’s been doing his job very well lately. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the team, and he’s pressing the right buttons, and I’d like to give him a little credit for it.

    • I too think he has done well trying to keep everybody happy and sharp, but “finding” Pedro Alvarez? Coming into the game, in July/August, he had already hit 9 HR’s in only 135 AB’s and during that time he has also driven in 30. His HR/AB in those two months is now a HR for every 13.8 AB’s, with an RBI every 4.4 AB’s.

      I would say more than a few AL GM’s have already made a point to jot that name down for off-season discussions.

      • It truly is elite power. Highest HR/FB rate in baseball, second highest FB/LD average exit velocity, fifth highest average fly ball distance.

        Assuming he gets non-tendered, he could end up a steal this winter on a couple million dollar pillow contract.

        • Do you think he’s redeemed his earlier performance such that the Pirates would consider tendering him now? He’s cut way down on the ground balls and has only had one dreadful defensive game in the last month or so. Maybe he’s finally “turned the corner” TM?

          • If they dont find okay trade value for him, and someone came with a decent offer for Walker i think they’d make that move and keep Pedro one more year. If they can find good value in a Walker trade, im even enticed by that and i was all aboard the non tender Pedro train a few months ago.

          • So I have no idea what the club is thinking or will do, but my argument for tendering Alvarez would be based on the availability of a replacement and the utility of the money they’d save.

            The Pirates, as a $100m ballclub, can most certainly afford to tender Alvarez $7-8m next season. He’s emphatically answered questions on his one true carrying tool (which I always felt were overblown to begin with), and simply improving on doing something as simple as catching the baseball likely improves his defense to the point of being passable. Not good, but not a disaster. This offense with passable defense makes him about a one-win player, which would generally justify the expense.

            Looking at the recent 1B market, you’re generally either going to be stuck paying a guy as much or more than Alvarez would make but for two-plus years (Morse, LaRoche, Loney) or dishing out $2-3m for a Cory Hart-like shot in the dark. I personally don’t think either of those options present lower risk OR higher upside than just paying Alvarez.

            To me, the only alternative should be to mail in the position completely with a min. salary lottery ticket until Josh Bell arrives. Put as much salary as you can to other needs and hope for the best. Not likely to be any more than a 1-2 win swing, and the Pirates have shown the ability to get much more value out of pitching expenses.

            • Keep in mind, they do have Morse for another year basically for free (thank you, Andrew Friedman) if they choose to keep him around.

            • There’s the rub. It’s all about who else would play there and for how much. With Walker, Pedro and MM all entering walk years, the DNA in Neal is probably overactive right now producing endorphins he has to suppress.

              Losing Walker not a big deal with Harrison and Hanson. Losing Pedro, not that big a deal with Morse and possibly Lambo (if he can actually show up for once) or even Walker, with Bell in the wings. Losing both Pedro and Walker… well… likely not pretty.

            • If tendering Alvarez is even $10 million I’m doing it. I can understand not giving him a QO the year after for 16 or whatever it is at that point but I’m not sold on Morse and Bell could come up and struggle. Now, as an optimist I think Morse will bounce back some with maybe some more AB’s and Bell will at least provide some production with his bat, even if it’s not in the HR variety. But let’s be honest this is almost a no brainer and a way to protect yourself. If they want Bell to play first from here on out why not keep Pedro for the transition. And if he’s that bad is 8 or 9 million going to handcuff the team that much? It’s not like that’s going to cost them the opportunity to sign Price or Cueto.

              • Less about the cost and more about his production from the team standpoint id think. If his defense isnt showing signs of improving, his overall value sucks. I dont hate his game overall, but it’d hurt the team defense while providing a good not great bat.

                • I agree. But you bring him back and take that chance. The reason most people, myself included, was DONE with Pedro is because his D was reprehensible AND he wasn’t producing. Now his D sucks but he’s at least there on offense. So if he’s awful on defense you have Morse to at least split time and you have Bell possibly coming up in June or July.

                  • I think you have this one nailed, deacs.

                    Is Luke’s argument technically sound? Sure. But I think there are limits at the lower end of that logic and you can talk yourself into paralysis taking things that literally. To me, that’s the mindset of the 2011-2013 Pirates. Risk averse choices predicated by having to squeeze every penny.

                    A +$100m payroll allows a club to not only protect itself from counting on rookie Josh Bell and cover itself when Mike Morse’s inevitably DL trip or two comes around, but also bet on Alvarez popping 30 homers or better. Simply amazing what he’s doing with a fly ball rate around 25% this year. None of their options has the upside of what he could do in 2016 if he even sees that rate rebound to career average.

                    He’s still probably a non-tender, and I doubt I’ll even argue if/when it happens. But this very clearly has an chance of looking foolish in relatively short time.

                    • I’ll be a little cranky if he’s a non-tender. About two months ago I thought he was a lock to be non-tendered but now they’d be dumb not to. 9 million or so to spend at an unsettled position in 2016 (as much as I want Bell to grab it and run with it next June) is great insurance. Acquire affordable talent. Guys get hurt and if by some miracle they’re all healthy you’re lucky enough to trade one. But honestly this sh*t tends to work itself out.

                    • I think it really hinges on how you value his offense going forward. If you see him being able (and on some level relatively likely) to be this productive (110ish wRC+ or more) then either way its fine.

                      But if a person is down on his offense, to the point of “he’s still able to plop out an 85 wRC+ month” then his defense isnt playable. He’s really only playable at 9 million if his defense gets better or the offense sticks at his current level. Otherwise he is the same lotto ticket at Morse.

          • I’ll also add that he’ll leave a hefty void in overall team power when he leaves. I’m not even sure how much I believe that sort of thing really makes a difference, but it’s awful tough to ignore after a game like last night.

            The 2015 Pirates will almost certainly be one of the few lightest power hitting teams in the game without Alvarez, for whatever that’s worth.

    • In the 5-2 win over the Giants, Alvarez made two errors and should have been three. I was screeming for Hurdle to pull him for defense. He leaves him in and Pedro smacks a HR. Then plays him against a lefty and, bang Game winning HR. I guess he’s just lucky, no bench coach. As a manger, all you can do is give your players a chance to make you look good, and be positive all the time. Clint has been both of them.

  • In other news, the D-bags are about as useless as a bucket of cat vomit.