The Pittsburgh Pirates took an alternative route in an attempt to shore up a pitching staff that allowed the third most runs in all of baseball last season.
Not only did they go out and sign a couple of free agents (as well as taking a pitcher in the Rule 5), they also signed one of the best defensive catchers in all of baseball, Austin Hedges.
There will be a day when the automated strike zone system used in the minors is brought up to the majors, making the skill obsolete. Until then, pitch framing will be a big part of a catcher’s game.
When it comes to pitch framing, the Pirates are set to have two of the best in the game starting the season with the team. Hedges is one of two catchers on the 40-man roster, with Endy Rodriguez being the other.
With Rodriguez going to start the year in the minors, they are going to need a backup catcher behind Hedges. Enter Tyler Heineman, a former DFA waiver pickup who played in 52 games for the Pirates 2022, and who was brought back on a minor league deal this offseason.
Like Hedges, Heineman has never been a big time hitter, making his mark defensively, especially as a pitch framer.
Another note for the Pirates, especially this offseason, has been more and more of the recognition of their preference in pitchers who throw a sinker. We saw what using the pitch did for Mitch Keller, and he wasn’t the only one who had success last year with it.
Vince Velasquez, their free agent signing they brought in as a potential rotation piece, throws a slider, and recent minor league signing Tyler Chatwood also uses the pitch to great success.
The Pirates have a type of pitcher in mind, and have gone even further in trying to make sure they get the most out of them.
When it comes to the sinker, obviously it is best utilized at the bottom of the zone, and Hedges and Heineman were two of the best in the league when it comes to framing the bottom of the zone.
|Zone 17 (down/in on righties)||Zone 18 (down/middle)||Zone 19 (down/in on lefties)|
|Austin Hedges||34.6% (15th)||55.4% (10th)||28% (8th)|
|Tyler Heineman||36.1% (11th)||57.4% (6th)||26.6% (14th)|
The rankings were based on the 60 qualified catchers according to Baseball Savant. When it comes to the strike rate listed, it’s based on the calls of non-swings that are converted into strikes from that zone.
So Hedges and Heineman were well above average when it comes to framing pitches at the bottom of the zone, with the latter converting nearly 60% of non-swings down low into strikes.
It’s going to be a tough watch at times due to their lack of offense, but the Pirates are hoping their work with a young pitching staff helps enough to make up for it.
Jason Delay Provides A Different Look Framing
With Endy Rodriguez expected to start the season in Indianapolis, he will get an opportunity to play with another one of the top framing catchers from a year ago in Jason Delay.
After being outrighted to Indianapolis at the end of the season, Delay will provide depth to a Pirates system that is showing to have plenty to go around in the upper levels. The former Vanderbilt backstop was one of the best framers in the game last year, providing a different look than Heineman and Hedges.
When it comes to framing the top of the zone, Delay was actually one of the best in baseball to do so.
|Zone 11 (Up/In RH Batters)||Zone 12 (Up/Middle)||Zone 13 (Up/In LH Batters)|
|Jason Delay||28.3% (5th)||49.4% (31st)||33.3% (5th)|
While there may be a focus on pitchers who throw the sinker, the Pirates still do have pitchers that favor throwing the fastball, especially up in the zone — namely Roansy Contreras at the major league level. Mike Burrows, Carmen Mlodzinski, and Kyle Nicolas are among other of the team’s top pitching prospects who also favor throwing a fastball up in the zone.
All three of those pitching prospects could start the year in Indianapolis, where Delay could also play.
You could argue that the Pirates have put together one of the best groups of defensive catchers at the major league/Triple-A level in all of baseball.
While defense isn’t the first thing you think of when talking about Endy, he’s strong behind the plate, and now he and Henry Davis have quite the stable around them to push/learn from.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Anthony began writing over 10 years ago, starting a personal blog to cover the 2011 MLB draft, where the Pirates selected first overall. After bouncing around many websites covering hockey, he refocused his attention to baseball, his first love when it comes to sports. He eventually found himself here at Pirates Prospects in late 2021, where he covers the team’s four full season minor league affiliates.