PITTSBURGH – Prior to today’s game against the Cincinnati Reds, Pirates’ Manager Clint Hurdle discussed Jung-ho Kang’s rehab with the media. Hurdle did not give specifics about when we could expect to see Kang make his 2016 debut, noting that his stint with Indianapolis is effectively his Spring Training period.
Kang has 33 plate appearances in seven games for Indianapolis, and his .107/.212/.214 line thus far indicates it might be wise for him to have some more time to acclimate himself to playing on a daily basis in live-game situations.
Hurdle mentioned that 45-60 plate appearances is the target for most players during Spring Training, and Kang is obviously still a week or so short of that. He also mentioned some of the more obscure situations that Kang needs to work through to make sure his knee is ready, such as taking secondary leads, making hard turns at first base, running to and around third base, and making a greater variety of defensive plays.
The two spoke yesterday about Kang’s objectives for the latter part of his rehab assignment. Those plans are coordinated between the major league and minor league staffs, and include responding to things like defensive shifts, which have become much more prevalent at the AAA level.
Fortunately for the Pirates, David Freese has been performing reasonably well in Kang’s stead, hitting .278/.376/.398 with adequate defensive work at third base. It’s dubious that the Pirates would change their approach with Kang if Freese was performing poorly, but Freese’s work so far does allow a little more leeway should Kang need more rehab time.
Hughes Reinstated, Scahill Optioned to Indianapolis
The Pirates announced earlier today that Jared Hughes was reinstated from the disabled list after arriving in Pittsburgh yesterday. He trades places with Rob Scahill, who was optioned to Indianapolis. Hughes had been on a rehab assignment after dealing with a strained lat muscle.
“We’re excited to have him back. He’s been a big part of our bullpen the last two seasons.” Hurdle said before today’s game.
Hughes has pitched exactly 250 innings for the Pirates in parts of five seasons, with a 2.77 ERA (3.95 FIP) and a 61.7% career ground ball rate. With the exception of his shorter stints in 2011 and 2013, Hughes has consistently produced a lower ERA than his peripherals might indicate. His sinking fastball, which generates those ground balls, fits well with the Pirates’ defensive approach in the infield.
Hurdle also mentioned that Hughes has been one of the best relief pitchers in the league at stranding inherited runners, and indeed, his 19.59% scoring rate for inherited runners is 16th best among NL relievers with at least 50 total appearances over the last four seasons.
Getting ahead of hitters, which is understandably a goal for any pitcher, is particularly important for Hughes. Hurdle mentioned that being ahead in the count allows Hughes to put hitters in a more defensive position where they will hit the ball with topspin and generate the desired ground balls, rather than being able to take a borderline pitch and wait for a better option.
Hurdle on Hitting
One of the recurring phrases mentioned when discussing the Pirates’ philosophy at the plate is letting the ball get deep in the zone before attacking the pitch.
Hurdle compared the situation to leaning one’s head too far forward when throwing a punch. If a hitter is attacking a pitch out front, he’s “leading with his chin,” thus playing into his opponent’s attack.
Part of building trust with letting the ball get deeper in the zone is hitting from a tee at different locations to show hitters that they can still hit the ball hard and avoid too much extension as the ball gets closer to the catcher.
Hurdle also mentioned that he has even used video of children learning to hit as a teaching tool, showing hitters that our natural tendency at the plate is to reach toward the pitch with the swing, and that better results come when you let the ball get deeper in the zone.
The Pirates also push this approach throughout their minor league system, lining baseballs across the plate as a target point for where the hitters should make contact.
Tonight vs the Reds
The Pirates enter tonight’s game riding a five-game winning streak, having also taken seven of their last eight games. Tonight’s starters, Francisco Liriano and Alfredo Simon, last met on April 8 in Cincinnati, but neither earned a decision in the Pirates’ eventual 6-5 victory.
Liriano looks to earn his second win, and his first against the Reds this season. He has struggled with efficiency and command so far, notching a 17.2% walk rate in 21.1 innings pitched over his four starts. His 4.64 ERA looks even worse when you consider his good luck with stranding runners (86.7%) and balls in play (.264 BABIP), leading to a 6.50 FIP so far this season.
Fortunately, the Reds have been kinder to Liriano than other teams in his career. Last season, Liriano surrendered a .179/.247/.299 line to Cincinnati, walking only four batters, while striking out 22.
Alfredo Simon will make his fourth start of the season tonight, and things have not gone well for him since his strong performance against Pittsburgh earlier this month.
Simon currently has a 16.39 ERA (8.65 FIP, 5.39 xFIP), after giving up eight earned runs in only 2.2 IP against the Cubs in his last start. After striking out seven when he last faced the Pirates, Simon has a total of five strikeouts in his last three appearances (4.1 IP), and has surrendered four home runs in his last two games.
**Josh Harrison has an eight-game hitting streak going, during which he is hitting .429/.484/.643 with three doubles and a home run.
**Both John Jaso and Francisco Cervelli have reached base safely in 19 of their 20 games so far this season.
**Starling Marte leads the Pirates in multi-hit games (11) so far this season. He also leads the NL in outfield assists (3).