Morning Report: Josh Bell’s Defense and Steven Brault’s Performance Last Night

I wanted to mention Steven Brault’s start from last night first, then move on to a question that has come up often. Brault seemed to rely heavily on his fastball on Monday, which wasn’t the case in either of his last two starts. In the previous two games, he mixed his pitches well and kept hitters guessing and off-balance, leading to a lot more swing and misses than you normally see, especially from Brault. Last night his change-up and slider weren’t working early on, so it seemed like he decided to lean on the fastball and it cost him four runs over four innings.

Another thing I noticed is that he seemed to be working quickly to a fault. He wasn’t like what you see from Chad Kuhl, when he is totally focused on the mound. Right from the start Brault looked like he was uncomfortable out there, somewhere between looking nervous and looking like he had too much caffeine right before first pitch. It wasn’t anything like his last two starts, especially not the game from last Wednesday, which was the best pitched game I’ve seen this season in a year already full of strong performances.

One thing I’ve noticed with Brault is that he has moved away from the sinker as his primary pitch. A couple people have asked about his ground ball rate and Monday’s game was really telling as to why you aren’t seeing the grounders from him. I saw a few sinkers in there later in the outing, but he was mostly sitting 91-93 MPH in this game, which is the four-seam fastball he was working on in the Arizona Fall League. The good part about that pitch is that he was touching 93 in the shorter outings in the AFL, but as a starter, he seems to be hitting that top end more often. That pitch was very successful in his previous two games, but it also helped that his other pitchers were working as well.

**I mentioned on Twitter that Josh Bell has reached base at least once in 50 of his last 52 games. One of those games he failed to reach base was during a doubleheader, which means seven innings and he only batted three times. That brought up the most obvious question right away when you think about how great of a stretch that is over a long period of time. That question was, and I’m quoting here, “but hows that defense”.

That is actually a normal response to any Bell news about his offense and I’m beginning to think that most people are sold on the fact that he will hit in the majors. It’s hard to argue that, and it’s what helped him win the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month award. Perhaps the most important part of his offense is that he is hitting well from the right side, which hasn’t always been the case. Getting back to the question though, it seems like his glove is what will be the final deciding factor for when he comes up, so how about that defense…

Bell has looked better at first base this year than last year. He had a rough game on Monday, committing his fourth error, while also failing to scoop a tough short hop. On top of those plays, he made the mental error he seems to make the most. Whenever a ball is hit to his right, he goes after it. That’s not a problem if it’s an easy play that the second baseman might not have made. The problem comes up when he cuts in front of Alen Hanson and either makes the catch or doesn’t, in either case, it leaves the pitcher in a foot race and either he or Hanson is trying to hit a moving target. The play has come up multiple times and it’s really something that just comes with experience. You don’t want to assume Hanson will catch it, but you also have to know where he is positioned and realize that he has a ton of range for a second baseman.

So while the defense is better overall, it’s still a work in progress. No one outworks Josh Bell, so I believe that he will eventually be an average defender at the position, but it’s going to take time. That will ultimately decide when he comes up to the majors. If his bat is needed in early June, then they might say he’s close enough and call him up. If there’s no rush, then they can take their time and let him make mistakes in the minors where it won’t hurt the big team.

PIRATES GAME GRAPH


Source: FanGraphs

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pirates lost 7-2 to the Cubs on Monday night. Jon Niese gets the start tonight, his sixth of the season. He has allowed ten hits in each of his last two games, while giving up nine earned runs over 10.1 innings. The Cubs will counter with Jake Arrieta, who has won all five of his starts. He has a 1.00 ERA, an 0.78 WHIP and a .151 BAA.

In the minors, Jameson Taillon makes his fifth start of the season. His strikeout total has matched his innings pitched in each game. Taillon has an 0.86 WHIP, a .207 BAA and a 1.47 GO/AO ratio. He has allowed one run over 13 innings in his last two starts.

West Virginia was rained out on Monday. They don’t play Asheville again in the first half of the season, so the game has been canceled. Mitch Keller was supposed to start, but his game now gets pushed back two days, as the Power have a scheduled off-day today. Alex McRae goes for Bradenton, while David Whitehead gets the ball for Altoona.

MLB: Pittsburgh (15-11) vs Cubs (18-6) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Jon Niese (5.08 ERA, 9:22 BB/SO, 28.1 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (12-11) vs Durham (12-14) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Jameson Taillon (1.54 ERA, 2:23 BB/SO, 23.1 IP)

AA: Altoona (10-14) @ Erie (10-13) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: David Whitehead (4.08 ERA, 19:12 BB/SO, 17.2 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (11-14) vs St Lucie (14-11) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Alex McRae (2.88 ERA, 11:9 BB/SO, 25.0 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (15-9) @ Charleston (17-7) 7:05 PM 5/4 (season preview)
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (0.86 ERA, 1:28 BB/SO, 21.0 IP)

HIGHLIGHTS

Here is the last strikeout from Tyler Glasnow’s five shutout inning performance on Sunday.

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

4/30: Jared Hughes activated from the disabled list. Rob Scahill sent to Indianapolis.

4/27: Sam Street placed on the temporary inactive list. Jose Regalado added to Bradenton.

4/25: Pedro Florimon added to Indianapolis roster. Antoan Richardson released.

4/25: Austin Meadows added to Altoona roster. Justin Maffei assigned to Morgantown.

4/25: Jake Burnette placed on disabled list. Logan Ratledge assigned to West Virginia.

4/22: Pirates recall Jason Rogers. Cole Figueroa optioned to Indianapolis.

4/21: Pirates release Michael Morse.

4/21: Jhondaniel Medina assigned to Altoona.

4/21: Cory Luebke assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.

4/20: Jared Hughes assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.

4/19: Julio Vivas added to West Virginia roster. Logan Ratledge assigned to Morgantown.

4/18: Jung-ho Kang assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.

4/16: Trevor Williams placed on disabled list. Jhondaniel Medina promoted to Indianapolis.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Two former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus one trade of note that would seem backwards based on today’s standards. On this date in 1947, the Pirates traded outfielder Al Gionfriddo to the Brooklyn Dodgers for five players. The odd part of the deal is the fact the Pirates paid out at least $100,000 (possibly $125k) to the Dodgers as part of the deal. By the 1949 season, only one of the players was left in a Pirates uniform, pitcher Kirby Higbe. One of the players made his name in baseball as a manager years later, infielder Gene Mauch.

Five years after that deal, the Pirates traded pitcher Bill Werle to the St Louis Cardinals for veteran pitcher Red Munger. The trade didn’t do much for one of the worst teams in franchise history, as that 1952 club finished with a 42-112 record. Munger was 0-3, 7.18 in four starts and one relief appearance for the Pirates.

The two players born on this date are first baseman Ivan Cruz (1999-2000) and catcher Chris Cannizzaro (1968). You can read a mini bio for each player in the link above.

On this date in 1882, second baseman George Strief hit the first home run in franchise history. It was the first of five homers he hit during his five-year career. It came off pitcher Will White, who would win 40 games that season and he allowed just three homers all year. White is the brother of Deacon White, who played for Pittsburgh in 1889 and was elected to the Hall of Fame three years ago.

  • I was going to comment this morning that the Pirates have pretty much given up on the whole Golden State thing, at least through the first 26 games of the year, so of course Hurdle sits two starters tonight against the best pitcher in baseball.

    At least Sean Ruth will get his at bats.

    • Joyce has a lifetime batting average of .555 with a homer against Arrieta. So there’s that.

  • Thinking of making the 90 minute drive tomorrow to watch Keller pitch…weather looks nice 🙂

    • I’d trade that for the three hours I sat in the rain last night at PNC…

  • Wait, wait. I was lectured the other day on how it was Locke’s fault on a busted play at first base. One of the many experts on this site told me that the first baseman should go after ANY ball the he could get to hit to his right

    • It can be both players fault. Poor job by the 1Bmen going after a ball he didnt have to, awful job by any pitcher who isnt at least close enough to the bag for a possible play.

      Jeff Locke absolutely struggles at times in covering 1B, even if a perfect throw would not have sufficed to get an out. He tends to react about a half second later than he should and end up arriving late to the bag.

  • JD – to your eye (unless you have pitchf/x data), does it look like Brault is targeting the top of the zone with his increased four-seam usage, a la Tampa Rays?

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-rays-kind-of-fastball/

    This seems to be the template for guys with marginal pure stuff to generate more whiffs, which at least fits Brault’s 2016 start as a narrative.

    • John Dreker
      May 3, 2016 1:17 pm

      In Brault’s best games, he was hitting all four corners, but he generally works from the bottom to middle and does better when he throws inside. His off-speed pitches were on the other days and he would mix them low, with fastballs high on certain occasions and it was very effective. Pirates want their pitchers to keep the ball down though, so a majority of high fastballs are mistakes

      • Thanks again!

      • Is keeping the fastball down an organization wide thing or just the minors. Happ, Niese in some of his starts, and a few relievers live off the high and tight fastball. And while not up to the degree or Chris Young or even Happ, Cole has been moving toward through more fastballs higher in the zone.

        • John Dreker
          May 3, 2016 10:45 pm

          They condition the minor league pitchers to throw low in the zone and they look for tall pitchers who have good downhill plane on their fastball. With some veteran pitchers like Happ and Niese, you’re not getting them with the idea to change their entire game plan. I think Cole differs from the average minor leaguer in that he throws harder and he moved quickly through the system. There wasn’t a chance to mold him and you won’t change what works.

          Glasnow was up in the zone a lot in his earlier days and it definitely worked for him, still does because minor leaguers chase more. He’s been better about keeping it down and he is having the same success, except this success is more likely to carry over to the next level

  • I’ve seen him far, far less than our man JD but I have a really hard time seeing Bell as a run-saver at the position with his hands and range, which means errors become much more problematic. Four in twenty games might be an improvement, but that’s still unplayable at the big league level.

    • John Dreker
      May 3, 2016 9:44 am

      I don’t think he will ever be a run saver, but the improvements he has shown and how hard Bell works, leads me to believe he can eventually be average. He will get better at scooping the ball, something he has already improved greatly on. He will learn from experience when to go after balls to his right, and he should get better at fielding grounders in general, which is another area in which he looks better this year.
      The one thing I haven’t seen is him making throws, which seemed to come up a lot last year and only once when I’ve been watching this year. I’m hoping to see some, because I’d like to see if he has got better at it. I know he has put in a lot of time working at it, but that doesn’t always translate to in-game success.

      I will add this. Last year in mid and late season, I told many people that as bad as Alvarez was on defense, Bell was worse. I would not say that same thing now. Bell is better now

      • CandyManFan
        May 3, 2016 11:33 am

        How is Bell in the outfield? Say Polanco suffers a torn knee or Marte breaks his wrist, GMNH said Bell’s got the outfield in his pocket as a fall-back option. Can Bell handle left field at PNC Park or would he be restricted to right?

        • Bell was moved to first base in part because he was seen as a below average outfield defender – think his arm was his only plus tool

          • That’s at least a bit disingenuous. Bell was very clearly moved to First Base because of the outfield situation in Pittsburgh.

        • John Dreker
          May 3, 2016 1:08 pm

          I did read that comment and I personally don’t see it. He was average at best in right field and now he hasn’t taken a fly ball in 21 months. He arm was called average, but I saw plenty of throws that were below average. I saw him charge in on a grounder with a man running around third and he threw a ball that bounced about five times before it reached the catcher and was well off target.

          I didn’t see any throws that suggested he was anything more than slightly below average.
          The other part about not playing a position for so long that he was average at is that he has been working on throwing from a different arm angle at first base, one that wouldn’t work in the outfield. When players going from different arm angles and have to make long throws, that’s when many injuries occur.

          He could play right field, but then again, anyone can stand out there and do a bad job. He doesn’t have the range or ability to play left field at PNC and never did. His defense was highly over-rated out of high school when scouts called him a potential center fielder.

      • I appreciate the conversation, John.

        The bigger act of converting a guy who has literally never played infield to a Major League-quality defender, even if at first base, intrigues me more than Josh Bell, specifically. I don’t doubt his work ethic a bit, and maybe this is just an antiquated line of thought, but I still lean towards there being some inherent talent/skill in a person that allows him to read and adjust to hops on the infield or routes in the outfield. Maybe at this level, all these athletes have that. But the assumption that Bell can be an average defender, relative to his peers, seems to be solely based on work ethic since he very, very clearly has little natural infield ability. And that obviously brings up the question of why guys who are below average first basemen can’t/don’t improve, if all it takes is more work.

        Interesting question.

        • John Dreker
          May 3, 2016 12:59 pm

          The only thing I’d say is that it’s based on his work ethic + the improvements he has shown since late last year. I also think youth and a lack of prior experience is in his favor. Some player never get better, you’re right, and I have no idea why that is, unless they just don’t put in the time. A lot of his errors are based on game experience, stuff you learn. I think his upside is average, but I know he will never be satisfied with being average, that’s not in his DNA.

          • I also think it’s worth noting that he is getting the experience now while working with Hansen, who will most likely be to his right in Pittsburgh for the next several years. So, as they get more and more reps together, he may be able to base his defensive judgement/decisions on Hansen’s specific abilities and range, which perhaps could help improve his defensive performance a bit.

  • RobForsyth
    May 3, 2016 9:25 am

    Poor Pedro never did learn what Bell is trying to learn now; when to know that the ball is going to the 2nd baseman and you have to cover the bag.

    • John Dreker
      May 3, 2016 9:37 am

      Hanson made a terrific play last night that only he makes, and probably the play only gets completed because Brault is such an athletic player. Any other 2B/P combo on the team wouldn’t have had it. The thing about the play though, when you watch the replay is Bell is literally halfway to second base watching the play at first base. You have to be aware of your surroundings. If the team is shifting for a righty hitter, then Bell has to go for everything. If Hanson is playing a normal spot, he is going to get to a lot of baseballs that others won’t, so Bell should know to cover first base on anything more than a step or two to his right.

      • Bell is aggressive, and that is a fault in this instance. I help my son coach a bunch of 7 year olds, my grandson included. The other night a ball was hit to 2B and the 1B ran over and booted the ball into LF. My son got upset and I told him that he would be addressing the same play 10 years from now.

        That son played 2B and I instructed him to start calling a ground ball the same as he would call a fly ball, just to help the 1B with his decision-making. As you said John – pure positioning. When nobody is on base, position Bell at his right hand limit and anything to his right he knows to cover 1B unless he can make the play by moving only 1 or 2 steps.

  • Let’s hope JT can keep it going. As for the Bucs:

    Jon Niese vs Jake Arrieta.

    That will not going to end well, I fear.

  • I like how you said NOTHING about Cruz and Cannizzaro….lol

    • John Dreker
      May 3, 2016 9:22 am

      I’ve been copying last year’s history notes and adding stuff to each one, mostly due to time constraints and if I have more time, the more I will add. Those two will have to wait until next year, yesterday was a very busy day on the site, some stuff will be posted today.

      I added the note that the link has a nice little bio for each player so they don’t feel totally unloved. Cannizzaro turns 78 today

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