PITTSBURGH — The Pirates have played the last three games with two catchers on the disabled list, as Francisco Cervelli still hasn’t seen the field after suffering a concussion and Chris Stewart has not yet run the bases while coming back from a left hamstring strain.
In their stead, Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings have manned the catcher’s spot and have done so well there hasn’t even been any drama.
That’s pretty rare for a team to have four catchers that can handle themselves nicely at the Major League level. Pirates fans can easily remember the days of when Michael McHenry was treated as a conquering hero because the Pirates had literally run out of capable athletes at that spot.
It’s an even better situation than that for the Pirates, because not only do they have depth, that depth is their own prospects. But they’re not young prospects. Diaz is 26 and was signed out of Venezuela in 2008. Stallings is 27 and was drafted in 2012. They’re players that have been developing for a long time.
But part of the benefit of having that experience is that they’ve caught the Pirates home-grown pitching staff a lot. Stallings caught Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow in Bradenton in 2014 and Altoona in 2015. Diaz caught Jameson Taillon in West Virginia in 2011. Kuhl, Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams were all with Diaz and Stallings in Indianapolis in 2016.
“It works out well for them,” Hurdle said. “The added experience, the game opportunities, the live reps. It definitely helps. They’ve prepared well. They were both integral parts of our Spring Training preparation and catching these guys. They both have worked very hard to earn these opportunities.”
Hurdle said that he expects Diaz to get the bulk of the playing time until Cervelli and Stewart return, but the fact that the two have such an extensive background with most of the staff means they can try to exploit particular battery pairings the team likes. That’s what led to Stallings starting on Friday with Glasnow on the mound.
“I think it definitely does help that we’ve caught a lot of these pitchers coming up through the system,” Stallings said. “We’re just so familiar with them, I think it makes the transition a little bit easier.”
It’s been a smooth transition even for the players that did not come up as Pirates, though.
“They’ve been great,” reliever Daniel Hudson said. “Stalls actually caught me a lot in Spring Training and Diaz caught my first game in Spring Training with the Pirates. They do a good job here of implementing those guys into catching a lot of us in Spring Training. It’s easy to get on the same page with them early on. They do a good job of recognizing what we like to do throughout the game. It’s been an easy tradition.”
Stewart ran for the first time on Friday and has been taking batting practice, catching and throwing, but it appears the Pirates have quality depth for as long as he needs to take to get ready. Cervelli had no update on his condition Saturday.
Taillon will return to the starting rotation Monday, with Glasnow as the odd man odd. Kuhl will have his next start bumped back two days to accommodate Taillon. That will set up the Pirates with Williams on Saturday, followed by Ivan Nova, Taillon, Cole and Kuhl.
Hurdle said there were multiple reasons for Glasnow being the odd man out that go beyond his 7.45 ERA.
“It’s the volume of work,” Hurdle said. “It’s the areas we’ve pushed to and him being able to push through. As you look now, the WHIP number is real. It’s close to 2.00. Throwing more strikes, more hard contact. Moving forward, the curveball was a pitch he always had in his back pocket. That has kind of evaporated. It’s unplugging him from this vacuum, clearing the space. There’s good stuff to pull. I think he walks away with an honest evaluation of why he was sent down, which was, at the end of the day, performance.”
There’s also the toll Glasnow’s short starts have taken on the bullpen, which called up two more arms on Saturday to continue to attempt to manage the workload.
“There’s collateral damage that comes with a lack of innings picked up by your starters,” Hurdle said. “I think that’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that young pitchers start to figure out even more so along the way at this level. When you look at traffic in the clubhouse. When you look at having to add and subtract people to pitch innings. I think it gives them the best awareness they’ve ever had of the accountability and awareness that comes with a rotational spot.”
Glasnow’s return to the Indianapolis rotation as opposed to the bullpen is a sign that the team hasn’t given up on him being a successful starting pitcher.
“This is delay — it’s not denial, “ Hurdle said. “This isn’t failure. What happens after this could turn into failure based on what you do and how you attack it. However, this is a great learning opportunity. You have a very good feel what you need to work on. He was a very good honest self-evaluator.”