Pirates Loss Shows How Important Cole and McCutchen Are to the 2017 Season

BOSTON – Opening Day is only one game. If you win or lose one game at any other point during the season, it’s not magnified. If a player has a good or bad performance at any other point during the season, it just gets chalked up as a good or bad game. But Opening Day has a way of magnifying things. It’s the first impression of the season, and for a short while, it can be a big impression.

But Opening Day did show us something that was true about the 2016 Pirates, and that will also be true about the 2017 Pirates: If Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen aren’t good, the Pirates probably won’t be good.

Cole looked fantastic today through the first four innings. He gave up just one hit and one walk while striking out two. His fastball was consistently in the upper 90s, hitting 99 MPH a few times, including a 99 MPH strikeout and a 98 MPH double play in the second inning. But then Cole fell apart in the fifth inning, giving up five runs on six hits.

The damage in the fifth came from a triple by Jackie Bradley Jr. to start things off, and was all capped off by a three run homer by Andrew Benintendi. In between saw a lot of tough luck, with two well placed infield singles in the hole at shortstop, along with a bunt single by catcher Sandy Leon to beat the shift.

Had it not been for the home run to Benintendi, this game may have turned out a bit different. Cole got a fastball by the young left fielder on the inside on a 1-1 pitch. He tried for the same pitch on 2-2 to get the out, but didn’t hit the same spot, and couldn’t get it by Benintendi.

“Obviously he was not going to let that one get by him again,” Cole said. “I’m not going to beat myself up too bad. I probably wasn’t happy with the sequence there and the triple that started the whole thing off.”

Gerrit Cole’s pitch location to Andrew Benintendi

Francisco Cervelli took the responsibility for the pitch and the outcome after the game, saying that he called the pitch and that Cole was following his calls all day. Outside of that pitch, Cole’s outing wasn’t horrible, with some encouraging signs before the fifth inning.

“I thought he was strong,” Hurdle said of Cole before the fifth. “It was a lot of what we saw in Spring Training, as far as athletic, a good fastball, finish, mix of pitches. There’s definitely a body of work to build on moving forward.”

If the Pirates can get more of Cole before the fifth inning, and less of that fifth inning struggle they saw today, then it will be a good year for him and for the team on days when he starts. It doesn’t seem like Cole is going to let this one linger into future starts, as his takeaway from Opening Day was a positive one.

“It was pretty cool,” Cole said of the Opening Day experience. “Pre-game ceremony, I didn’t get to watch all of it, but it’s pretty hard not to at least notice something going on. Tom Brady is on the field and tackling Gronk. You’re trying to warm up and the crowd is going nuts. It’s a really special environment. I think it lived up to the hype. It’s something I’ll always remember. I’ll just forget everything that happened after the fourth.”

Then there’s Andrew McCutchen, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts at the plate, while having a few rough plays in the outfield. McCutchen didn’t look good at the plate at times, including getting fooled in a bad way on his third strikeout — a pitch in the dirt that resulted in a weak, off-balanced swing.

The outfield work led to two plays showing McCutchen’s inexperience. The first one was a foul ball that fell in the small area between the wall next to the foul line and the actual foul line. McCutchen pulled up short, but later realized he could have caught the ball.

“You can’t practice a ball that close to the wall,” McCutchen said. “You can’t even throw balls like that. That was one of those plays where you learn and you go from there. I think it was a ball that I could have caught, but it’s new. Something that I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to learn how to get to the ball, but at the same time how to protect myself and not injure myself at the same time.”

The triple to Bradley Jr. might have had a chance to be a double. McCutchen correctly read the bounce off the corner of the wall, and got the ball after it rebounded right to him. He fumbled the ball though, allowing Bradley to take third easily on a play that might have been close if fielded cleanly.

The defensive struggles should be expected a bit early for McCutchen, since he’s at a new position. But the offense will be a concern, especially after the down year he had last year, and the slow start he had the year before. The Pirates are already missing Jung Ho Kang, and could use McCutchen’s old bat in the lineup, or at least something closer to the old bat than last year.

Opening Day is one game, but this one game was a reminder of how important Cole and McCutchen are to the Pirates in 2017.

Game Notes

**Clint Hurdle pitched his late inning bullpen guys, giving an inning each to Juan Nicasio, Felipe Rivero, and Daniel Hudson, with Tony Watson warming up in the ninth. The goal here was to get them some work and avoid having them down four days in a row with tomorrow’s off day.

**Adam Frazier looked good on both sides of the ball today. He went 1-for-3 with a walk and was hit by a pitch in a good at-bat in the ninth as the leadoff hitter. It sounds like he might get more consideration as the leadoff guy going forward.

“I liked the way he’s looked at the top of the lineup all spring,” Hurdle said. “You saw more of it today. I liked the way he moved around left field as well today. He’s been on a fun run to watch. It’s only the first game of the season. We’ll see where he can take it.”

The defense was good, especially when you consider that Frazier hasn’t spent a lot of time in the outfield and had to deal with the Green Monster, outside of 45 minutes of work yesterday. Frazier has speed and range in the outfield, but hasn’t been the best with his routes. That wasn’t the case today.

“I think if you keep it simple, when you think about it, you go to a spot you know you can get to, and then anything else you just play off the wall,” Hurdle said of Frazier’s play. “I think it gets overcooked sometimes. He kept it simple. He acted like he had spent some time out there.”

  • michaelbro8
    April 4, 2017 9:04 pm

    McCutchen: “You can’t practice a ball that close to the wall,” McCutchen said. “You can’t even throw balls like that.”
    Sorry; I could have my travel team practice that all day long.. weak excuse

  • cole needs some kind of pitch around 80-85 mph ,slow curve or slower change up. hitter just have to gear up for fast.

  • Michael Sanders
    April 4, 2017 1:39 pm

    Is anyone at the games at Fenway this week? Quite a few Pirates fans were there for opening day.

    • I was there, and I actually was upbeat about what I saw except for Andrew. He seems to still be in a “controlled pressing” mode, wanting to do too much and overthinking at the plate. He has temporarily lost what got him to his elevated stature in the game. Trying to be under control was not what brought about his success. It’s more mental than physical at this point.

      The Red Sox have a tough, young lineup and that fifth is the evidence. Otherwise, they were shut down but excellent pitching. I liked the way we battled back and a little surprised that Bell had such a great at bat in the 9th – too bad Kimbrell looked liked he was in a Braves uniform. He totally overpowered Harrison and Mercer.

      I left optimistic for a good, competitive year. If Cutch comes around, the lineup will be tough all the way through.

  • Tim reducing the shift argument from yesterday to basically people saying “I don’t like shifts because people can bunt against them and sometimes they don’t work’ is silly and misleading.

    People should accept when hitters with strong pull tendencies get hits against the shift because the cost/benefit works out in long run. What they SHOULD NOT just auto stamp is having a process where you all too often shift against players who DO NOT have strong pull tendencies. That’s just dumb.

  • Didn’t see the game and don’t know how Cutch looked on the triple/error but I did see him in two exhibition games and he seemed disinterested in RF. Is he out of his element there and is he having a hard time adjusting or is it that he just doesn’t seem to care anymore? You guys see him all the time, what is your opinion and please keep the insults to a minimum.

  • I see Tim is tweeting about the shifts and defending it because Moreland hit into the shift. This completely oversimplifies the discussion. No one should be arguing that shifts are worthless- they should be be used more specifically. Leon was very good hitting vs the shift last year and Sandoval batted ball profile is simply not someone you really want to shift against.

    So the fact that Moreland IS someone where a shift is conducive by no means justifies a one size fits all approach.

    Sample size is a better argument but we we are already seeing data that shifts are losing their effectiveness.

  • Someone please explain WTF these geniuses are shifting vs Pablo Sandoval? Look at his batted all profile and get back to me.

  • How many teams in MLB have worse middle infield than Harrison/mercer?

    • What’s wrong with JHay? What could be wrong with being grossly overpaid while continuing to strike out 4 times for every Walk, while hitting for little, if any, power, and turning 30 this year? Mercer, OTOH, has defensive value and has been a solid No. 8 hitter in the order.

      If they brought Newman up tomorrow and let he and Hanson be the MI the rest of the year, with Mercer as the Mentor/Utility IF, I could at least see an attempt to try to step forward. Sweep JHay and Goss out the door and add Osuna. Venting.

  • As great as Cole’s fastball looked yesterday, I often think he tends to throw it too often, which leads to batters guessing fastball at plate most of the time. Despite only giving up 2 hits prior to the explosion in the 5th, he had a decent amount of hard hit balls to the outfield. I feel that if a batter is constantly guessing fastball, they will eventually connect no matter how good that fastball is. I think Cole would benefit from mixing in more off speed pitches. Does anyone else agree?

    • 2ks in 5 innings isn’t going to get it done. He needs to put more guys away at 2 strikes and needs his slider, change , curve to be more effective in accomplishing that this year

  • That 5th inning felt like something that would happen to Charlie Morton or Paul Malholm. Cruising through 3 or 4, then a bad defensive play, a fluke hit, and then one bad pitch. Suddenly the floodgates are blown open.

  • Darkstone42
    April 4, 2017 1:44 am

    The fifth inning was weird for Cole. The only really bad pitch he made was to Benintendi, and he was twice nearly out of the inning with one or no runs across. Sandoval could have been out had that ball been a half a foot closer to Mercer, and had Cole realized how much time he had on Leon’s bunt, he could have fielded it with the glove.

    I think the bunt was the real back-breaker, though. It turned the lineup over, and I’m sure Cole was frustrated with not making that play.

    The way he controlled a very good Sox lineup for the first four innings was encouraging, though. Clearly, the stuff is back. A rough inning doesn’t ruin that, to me.

    • “I think the bunt was the real back-breaker, though.”

      A bunt that was only successful due to over-shifting the 9-hole batter with two outs and a runner on base, who was only there because of the decision to shift him despite little evidence of strong pulled grounder tendencies.

      With mounting evidence showing shifts have had little to no overall impact in suppressing base hits to all but the most heavily pulled-grounder batters, the Pirates need to seriously re-evaluate just who and when they shift. The league is punching back, and the Pirates have lost an advantage.

      • LOL the Pirates shift brilliancy is one of most overplayed narratives I’ve ever heard. Even in 2013 they were modestly better on pulled ground balls(which is basically THE reason to deploy a shift). They were 10th in league in terms of average out of 30 teams. And as you would expect they were very poor on opposite field groundballs(worst in league with average over 400 that year)

        • Yeah, in hindsight it does seem awfully overplayed. Shifts definitely helped, but they weren’t beating projections by 20 games because of shifts, even as a significant cause.

          • It’s hysterical really and the shift narrative is accepted as gospel by many “informed” Pirates fans. The reality is the Pirates saved more runs in the infield in 2012 than they did last year with all the shifts.

            In 2013 they tried to make a huge correlation between runs saved (and ignoring the fact that a lot of players were simply playing better defense that year) and attributing it all to the shift.

            The shift saved 9 runs in 2013. Meaningful and basically a game- but not the magic elixir so many people believed it to be.

            • A reasonable theory in the context of both the hype and the hope of the moment, but one that simply has not endured the test of time.

              It certainly isn’t a good look when certain people get on their soapbox about “analytics” and “anecdotes” when the actual facts don’t support their argument.

      • Darkstone42
        April 4, 2017 1:47 pm

        I think shifting Leon was the right move. He’s a bad bunter, who happened to get one down against us. And, honestly, Cole could have made that play. He clearly knew his responsibility in the shift, he just didn’t handle the ball cleanly. When he got to it, Leon was only halfway up the line.

        The point of the shift there wasn’t just to produce an out, but to change Leon’s approach. With a runner on first and two outs, you don’t want to give up extra bases. Shifting a guy, even a guy without a big pull tendency, can make him less aggressive on pitches on the inner half. They might have been looking to take their chances on softer contact, even if he’s capable of hitting the other way.

        And it worked. He bunted. And Leon’s a good hitter (the whole lineup is) and a lefty, and Cole is better for his career against righties, even good ones like Pedroia. They were forcing the Sox to get two hits in a row to score, rather than all at once. The Sox did it, though, hats off to them.

        • “Shifting a guy, even a guy without a big pull tendency, can make him less aggressive on pitches on the inner half.”

          Great as a theory, but doesn’t seem to be backed up by evidence. League-wide and Leon-specific data has shown that hitters have tended to “beat” the shift by hitting *over*, not *away* from it. Last year Leon had a higher ISO and lower ground ball rate while actually pulling the ball slightly *more* against the shift.

          I just don’t see where the benefit outweighs the risk. There’s essentially two ways to success in that situation; a pulled groundball in the narrow window of location and speed where three defenders could make a play that two couldn’t, and a line drive hit directly at the defender dropped back.

          Those two types of contact can *still* produces a hit into the shift, while opening up a slew of opportunities for bunts, queue shots, and regular-old opposite field batted balls. That’s the risk.

          I don’t see where the former outweighed the latter, not for Leon.

      • +++ ! Sandy Leon is now Ted Williams ??

  • The Pirates should’ve taken whatever they could get for Cutch this offseason. He’s done. This isn’t an overreaction to today, it’s having watched him regressed for years on end. I always thought he reminded me exactly of Carl Crawford, and his career is taking the same trajectory (without the injuries). The old Cutch isn’t coming back. Cutch will hit .260 with less than 20 HRs this year.

  • I don’t know if Cutch needs glasses or his reaction time is slowing down because it seems to me he is swinging way to late on pitches he used to hammer.

    • I saw it differently yesterday in that I thought he was too quick, too anxious, hitting two line drives foul of third. Too anxious for big results, thereby just missing on the pitches he got that were very hittable. Swinging at a 57 foot curve in the dirt was more of the same – not being patient and seeing the ball to the bat.

      When you see him wait longer, see the ball longer, and start driving the ball gap to gap, he will be the hitter he has always been – just a matter of timing.

      • He needs to focus on hitting the ball to the right center field gap. His best year he did that, and ironically ended up with his most HR. His must typical flaw is pulling the ball and turning his wrists over, besides a more recent tendency to just not see the ball at all. I think his vision has declined, not so much his bat speed.

  • Yo yo yo. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It is what it is. One game isn’t a season. We all are aware of the flaws and strengths. It will play out and possibly well. Cole is still getting stretched out you don’t go from taking names to getting rocked early season for no reason I give him the Benny here. Same for Cutch. And if I’m wrong the bucs can do an extreme trade makeover to set themselves up for the next 7 years – expecting 3 world champs min in the stretch. Raise it….The next win of course.

  • Two outs and McCutchen jogs to the double and then drops it….resulting in a scoring gift triple. Bradley was slowing down to stop at second until the fumble. Looked bad at the plate too.
    There was no chip on his shoulder today.

    • McCutcheon is a shadow of himself. Before the all-star break he will be 7 or 8 in the batting order

      • joebaseball
        April 3, 2017 8:55 pm

        starting last year Cutch has been two inches further off the plate, and he is not able to reach the low outside pitch which is where opposing pitchers have been getting him to swing and miss. Step up to the plate and he can get back to hitting that pitch.

        • He doesn’t want to take a single more F@#% You Fast Ball in the ribs and appears to despise walks. Unless Starling shows him how to settle for a single to right field, there will be much flailing over the next couple months.

        • Nice observation!

      • Please, they wait 3 years to bother moving him out of CF where he obviously doesn’t belong, they’ll wait just as long to accept he has no business batting 3rd. Appeasing Cutch’s ego come first on this team, that’s been proven over the last couple years.

      • DangerWilRobnsn
        April 4, 2017 10:37 am

        The only time Cutch is not batting 3rd are days he’s not playing.

    • the chip maybe slowing down his bat speed.

  • Unless Kang miraculously returns prior to the All-Star break this team will be in desperation mode and trying to sell at the deadline. Small sample size but had Cole managed to escape the 5th with just those two runs he would’ve turned in a solid start. He’s the consummate professional amd I have no doubts that he will have a better season by his standards.

  • Its,only one game and 2 days to analyze it. Shame the Pirates can’t play tomorrow. Loved watching Frazier play. Not worried about Cutch. He is normally a slow starter. Let’s see what happens as the season progresses. Not missing Kang and all of his drama. Freese had 2 hits today. And we have Frazier, Gosselin and Hanson on the bench. Excited to watch this year’s starting rotation. They will grow and mature. And be much better than last year’s starters.

  • Frazier was the most encouraging thing from today’s game, that and the bullpen.

    One concern I gave is Polanco and his tendency to slide feet first when stealing 2nd. He did it today and looked like he could’ve broken his ankle. Guy needs to learn to slide.

    • piraterican21
      April 3, 2017 9:42 pm

      He looked worse when he first came up sliding head first.

      • Maybe Polanco should just be playing basketball? Or maybe he is another Chapman in disguise. Any 6ft 5 in guy with his long legs is going to look ugly sliding. It’s a long way to earth from his center of gravity. Baseball as a sport favors the little guy for position players and the big guy for pitchers.

    • I am of the opinion that Polanco shouldn’t steal.

    • lol that’s funny, just last year everyone was complaining how the head first slide causes more injuries than the feet first slide.

      • I’ve never understood the feet first slide into 2nd.

        • michael schalke
          April 4, 2017 10:21 am

          Well, that’s the way players slid for over 100 years so they wouldn’t break their hand or fingers.

          • Or if they were Ty Cobb they could lacerate the middle fielders with their spikes.

          • Yea that makes sense. It just seems less frequent now and looks bad when guys like Polanco do it.

  • Sadly fangraphs probably right about this team- 80 wins.

    • I think you are being way too pessimistic. I think they will win at least 81 🙂

    • Actually was wrong, they have us around 78.

    • Look at it this way: they are tied with the Cubs, and one game behind the Cards. Sounds like they are in the race.