Williams: The Pirates of the Middlegame

I’ve been playing a lot of chess in the last year.

They very first decision you’re faced with in a chess game is your beginning move. Like choosing a leadoff hitter in baseball, that first push forward will unfold the rest of the strategy.

The endgame is simple in chess, just as it’s simple in baseball: Win. In chess, it’s a checkmate, regardless of the piece delivering the blow. Baseball typically has a designated pitcher who comes on for the baseball equivalent of checkmate. No matter what metaphor I choose, the concept of a closer in baseball sounds very limiting to team strategy. But I digress.

The most complex thing about the game of chess is the Middlegame. If you consider the Middlegame of baseball to be the fourth through sixth inning, you might find the same complexities.

The complexity of the Middlegame — in both sports — is that there’s no real clean shift from the beginning moves. We could say that the Middlegame in baseball is innings 4-6, but I think we’ve all seen many Pirates games over the years where the other team has been into their Endgame by the fourth inning.

After a small sample of seven games — in which the Pittsburgh Pirates have gone 5-2 — the biggest trend I’ve noticed is that Derek Shelton is executing a great Middlegame.

The key to the Middlegame — in both sports — is that you can quickly and massively swing the tide of the game in your favor with the right strategy and the right execution.

I believe that last part is crucial. It’s the difference between Winning, versus watching your fireman reliever warming up as the other side swings the Middlegame in their favor. Having the right pieces in place is crucial. It’s the difference between trying to spark a rally with a Quad-A guy on a 100-loss team, versus a 23-year-old speedy contact hitter with speed to torment the opposing pitcher.

Thus far, Shelton’s Middlegame strategy and execution has looked like the strength of the Pirates.


Thus far, Ji-Hwan Bae has been a playmaker, a game changer, and whatever label you want to describe the performance of a player who would typically be batting higher than eighth in the order.

The Pirates have Bae hitting eighth to start the game, one batter ahead of whoever their defensive specialist, weak-hitting catcher happens to be that night. Don’t start calling for Bae to move up in the lineup just yet.

Oneil Cruz has been the leadoff hitter for the Pirates, followed by Bryan Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Santana. The one-through-four of this lineup is stacked like you’re facing the middle of the order right out of the gate. The Pirates don’t throw a speedy leadoff guy out of the gate to set the table for Oneil Cruz. They send Cruz, Reynolds, and their veteran free agent additions after you immediately.

That’s the beginning.

The most consistent spot in the lineup, beyond those four, has been Ji-Hwan Bae at eighth. Bae has rotated between starting at second base and center field, and has started all but one game. He’s hit eighth, always ahead of a catcher.

Once the game is underway, anyone can lead off an inning. There is research that shows the number eight hitter sees a lot of at-bats either leading off or batting second in an inning. This particular study at Beyond the Boxscore was back in 2014, but it shows cleanly that the number eight hitter bats first or second in an inning 45% of the time.

Where this seems to happen most often is in the third or fourth inning, around the Middlegame. We’ve already seen this play out in both Opening Days this season.


Heading into the fourth inning in Cincinnati on March 30th, Ji-Hwan Bae came up second with one out. He doubled to left, and followed that up by stealing third. The pressure allowed Austin Hedges to draw a walk, followed by an Oneil Cruz walk, followed by a Bryan Reynolds walk, followed by an Andrew McCutchen walk, followed by a wild pitch against Carlos Santana, and it was suddenly 4-1 Pirates. Whew.

If Bae gets on with less than two outs, those weak hitting defensive catchers don’t look like such an easy out.

The pitcher has to worry about Bae on the bases, and that “middle of the lineup” stretch that is waiting for him as the batting order turns over.

Maybe you can get that catcher out, but there isn’t an easy out in sight for awhile after him.

MLB pitchers aren’t machines. They can’t all block out Oneil Cruz on the on-deck circle when Ji-Hwan Bae is tormenting them on the bases and Jason Delay has the audacity to not accept his role as a defense-only catcher.

The same situation came up in the Middlegame in yesterday’s home opener against the White Sox at PNC Park. The Pirates were down 5-3 after a rough beginning to the game from Rich Hill.

Bae was leading off the fourth inning, and provided the spark needed to bring the Pirates back into the game, reaching base on a head first slide. He moved to third when Delay singled, and scored on a single from Cruz that fell just out of reach of shortstop Tim Anderson.

I credit that hit by Cruz somewhat to Bae. The ball Cruz hit was landing between the shortstop and center fielder. They both are thinking the same thing: Try to catch the ball and prevent Bae from scoring to maintain the two run lead. When you add extra things for fielders to consider, they don’t produce the best fielding results. Bae on the bases makes the opposing defense just a little less sharp, a little more distracted, and we’re seeing that pay off with a lot of hard hits that have been just out of reach of opposing defenders.

One play after Cruz batted in Bae, Bryan Reynolds — the number two hitter in the actual order — came to the plate and blasted a three run homer with one out.

The Pirates lost their lead in the fifth inning, but repeated the cycle in the bottom half. Bae came up with Connor Joe on second base with one out. He singled through the left side. Delay followed with another hard hit single through the left side. Cruz walked. Then, Reynolds came through again with a Little League grand slam.

I don’t care what inning it is. Having your best hitter at the plate with runners on base is a strategy that is as old as the game.

Once the Pirates get beyond the opening of the game, they have Bae setting the table often. Sure, he’s followed by weak hitting catchers. I don’t think the pitcher is thinking about that.

I think the opposing pitcher realizes that every single time that Ji-Hwan Bae reaches base, Oneil Cruz steps out of the dugout and Bryan Reynolds gets up off the bench to grab his bat.


March 30th. Cincinnati.

Mitch Keller gives up a triple with two outs in the fifth inning, allowing the Reds to tie the score.

The Pirates called on Dauri Moreta, who was acquired from the Reds last December in a trade for Kevin Newman. Moreta pitched 42 innings over two seasons with the Reds, posting a 5.14 ERA, and a 43:14 K/BB ratio. His only assignment on this day: Get one strikeout in three batters.

Moreta walked the first two, then struck out the third with an animated celebration. He returned for two outs in the sixth inning, before turning the ball over to Rob Zastryzny, who ended up getting the win.

How did Zastryzny get in position for the win?

After pitching 1.1 innings, Ji-Hwan Bae led off the following frame with a walk, stole second, moved to third on an Austin Hedges groundout, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Cruz. But this isn’t about Bae’s role in the Middlegame.

Facing his old team, Moreta shut down the Reds scoring right as it was rallying — taking control of the game by shutting down the Cincinnati Middlegame.

He did the same thing on April 3rd against the Red Sox.

Johan Oviedo was holding onto a two run lead, and Boston was pressuring with two on and two outs. Moreta had two batters to get the final out, which he got by striking out Connor Wong.

The next night, Moreta came in to relieve Roansy Contreras in the fifth inning, striking out Adam Duvall immediately to shut down the first-and-third with two outs threat. Moreta stuck around for two more outs in the fifth, and ended up getting the win for preserving the two run lead. Middlegame executed.

Yesterday was a similar story in the home opener.

Moreta replaced Rich Hill after Hill gave up a homer to allow the White Sox to tie the game. Moreta came in with no outs in the fifth and pitched a one-two-three inning with two strikeouts. The Pirates scored five runs in the bottom half of the inning, as detailed in the section above titled “Ji-Hwan Bae”.

Moreta gave up a walk in the sixth, before settling down and getting three outs in the sixth for his second win of the young season. Middlegame executed.

Derek Shelton has an early trend in which starters he will allow a longer leash in the fifth inning. Keller and Hill seem to have longer leashes than Oviedo and Contreras, for example.

Having a guy like Moreta to turn to in these Middlegame moments is huge — assuming Moreta continues to pitch shutdown outings. Thus far, he’s been able to single-handedly turn the tide on three opposing teams, just like Bae on offense.


Austin Hedges hit for a .163 average and a .489 OPS last year. He hasn’t batted over .200 and hasn’t had an OPS over .600 since 2018. The Pirates signed him to be their starting catcher.

Tyler Heineman only has 213 at-bats in the majors, including three this season. He has a .216 average and a .560 OPS, despite going 1-for-3 with a walk and a run in his lone game this season.

Jason Delay had a .213 average and a .536 OPS in his MLB debut last year. His .220 average and .591 OPS in Triple-A didn’t suggest that there was more coming.

The Pirates are sacrificing one spot in the lineup, in the age of the Designated Hitter in the National League! The horror!

Like a Monty Python sketch, that spot in the lineup occupied by the catchers isn’t quite dead yet.

Delay, for example, has gone 5-for-13 with a double and a home run. He’s benefitting from Bae getting on base ahead of him, and Cruz with protection behind him. I wouldn’t count on this production, but I could see this catching group combining for decent offensive numbers — better than the abysmal looking results they all carried into the season.

The real value, I believe, comes with the defensive intangibles. Defense behind the plate is one of those things that I don’t think will ever be appreciated outside the game. That’s because it mostly exists in theory.

How much of the success in the Middlegame from young relievers like Moreta and Zastryzny can be attributed to having a solid game caller behind the plate?

The Pirates have seen consistent results from a group of relievers who all came in minor moves. All of those guys are playing up, and I have to think the consistent solid game calling and leadership behind the plate is playing a role in the consistent results.

The Pirates have Bae as a game changer in the Middlegame, capable of sparking the offense.

They’ve got Moreta as a game changer on the other side, capable of shutting the opposing offense down.

Both of these players are riding high on small samples of success, but there’s nothing with either player to suggest they can’t continue.

The Middlegame is when the game can swing one way or another in wild fashion, similar to what we saw on Friday. I think the best defense against an opponent’s Middlegame is to have some level of consistency on at least one side of the ball.

The defense from these catchers begins to look like a stabilizing aspect for the Pirates in back and forth games like Friday.

Especially when the Pirates are finally getting sparks from the bottom of the order and their middle relievers — allowing them to control the Middlegame.


I added this section to last night’s Pirates recap, for a closer look at the MLB guys. Today, I’m focusing on the standout prospects from last night’s minor league games.

**Thomas Harrington was drafted 36th overall last year, and made his pro debut in Bradenton last night. Harrington, who signed for $2.05 million out of the prep ranks, struck out seven batters in five innings on 63 pitches. Check out the Daily Video Rundown last night for a look at his nasty slider.

**Anthony Solometo made his High-A debut, giving up one run in four innings, with a walk and five strikeouts. His velocity was up a bit in camp, but was 90-91, hitting 93 MPH last night, which is where he was last year. Solometo has the potential to end this season as one of the best pitching prospects in the system, and I’m really interested to see how he fares when he pitches in Greensboro this year.

**Endy Rodriguez went 2-for-4 with a walk. All I’m saying is this: Can you imagine when the Pirates lineup has Bae, Endy, Cruz, Reynolds, McCutchen, and Santana in a row?


**The Pirates pick first in the 2023 draft. John Dreker, our resident draft expert, has been profiling candidates for the number one pick every Saturday. This week he looks at Wyatt Langford, the outfielder from Florida with tremendous raw power potential.

**Anthony Murphy looked at how Ji-Hwan Bae continues to be a difference maker in today’s Daily update.

**My column yesterday looked at how the positive vibes in the MLB clubhouse could eventually impact younger players like Endy Rodriguez.

**Ethan Hullihen broke down the Pirates Opening Day payroll, putting them at around $75 million for the start of the 2023 season.

**In the latest Roundtable, we picked our sleeper prospects to follow in the Pirates system.

**If you missed it from earlier this week, check out our minor league previews to see how the Pirates stack up at each level:

Triple-A: Indianapolis Indians
Double-A: Altoona Curve
High-A: Greensboro Grasshoppers
Single-A: Bradenton Marauders

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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I was thinking about streakiness in a post I just made and it occurred to me that rather remarkably, our current 4-game winning streak is tied for Shelton’s longest. Hoping today is a record-setting day (only to be broken tomorrow).


I hope so. Up until then I found it so strange that we were something like 0-15 in games that would have given us a sweep of a series. That we already have one this season is a good sign.


I need a current game day thread early today. Anybody know why Burrows is out after 1 2/3 with a stat line that did not look bad? I hope he got tossed as that is better than any injury.


Mitchell injured his hand (apparently it was his hand) sliding head first into home, I think the catcher stepped on it.


watching it on and off, and it seems after a home run pitch the manager and trainer came out, and decided to take him out. So he had some type of injury happening during the inning (assuming he isn’t just feeling ill). Hopefully it is minor.

Wilbur Miller

He threw one pitch after the HR that looked kinda awkward, then he started pacing the mound flexing his forearm. After a conference with the trainer, he left. I doubt it’s anything good.


Is there any doubt that we won’t see him again until next May or June? Hope I’m wrong of course, but it just seems like this is following a pattern we’ve seen before–young pitcher breaks out showing a jump in stuff only to have to go through TJ surgery within the next year.


I wasn’t complaining Tim, we don’t usually have afternoon MiLB. Now, if you can confirm Swags and Tucipito are in route to Pittsburgh.. then we have something! (smile)


Via lameday, they had an injury timeout 🙁


Minor league observation take 2: Swags out of the lineup… can I speculate with no actual info to back it up that he is driving to Pittsburgh? I’m sure just a day off… but I can hope.


no, that magical date has not been reached, Swaggerty is in for Mitchell now, and he just made a diving catch in RF. (Young in CF).


So, for those keeping score at home, we now have two Center Fielders playing at the same time in the game against Louisville in AAA ball, we have two struggling outfielders riding the bench in Pittsburgh today, and a Second Baseman playing Center Field in Pittsburgh today, while another struggling player is playing Second Base. Which is just silliness.


I hope they give Jack a bit longer to get going, but he was tough to watch yesterday. They could bench him for CSN, but he needs regular ABs if he’s going to get his swing working. As much as I would like to see Swaggerty get a real chance in CF with the Pirates, I don’t think they should change their initial plans after one week.


I totally agree. My Swags and Tucipito comments are truly in jest. Outside of injury, 3 or 4 starts shouldn’t change the pre-season roster decisions. Let people settle in and see where we are.

b mcferren

The one thing that stands out to me is that everyone is on the top steps of the dugout during the game. Perhaps that is the influence of Cutch and Santana? Maybe that was the case last year and I’m just selectively attentive.
Also helps obviously to have a genuine first baseman fielding the position.
Some fortunate hits falling in plus almost everyone contributing has made this a very fun start to the sesson.


I don’t really have an opinion about Shelton yet,and a lot of what a manager does is behind the scenes. I have liked his lineups and pitching changes so far, except…..Allowing Hill to pitch the 5th, against the top of the Sox lineup that had smoked him twice already, and with a rested bullpen, was just a bad decision. As that inning started I said to my wife “I am turning the sound off, because this is not going to end well”…..Also, with a rested bullpen I think Crowe comes out for the ninth, but you have someone like De Jong or Underwood warming up, and you bring in a new pitcher after the first hit with less than one out. Needing to warm up Bednar when going into the ninth inning with a 6 run lead and a rested bullpen is not good bullpen management.

Last edited 1 month ago by EightMenOut

I was glad he let Crowe come out for the 9th but dumbfounded that he’d let it get to the point that Bednar needed to get up without having had anyone else ready. Using Tim’s chess analogy, Shelton is plenty capable thinking one move ahead but it doesn’t seem like he does well thinking two or more moves ahead. Of course, that’s where Kelly should be helping him (assuming Shelton isn’t too stubborn to listen).

I also agree that much of what a manager does is behind the scenes which is why much of my evaluation of Shelton is based on avoiding long losing streaks by helping keep the guys up for each game while maintaining winning streaks by keeping them hungry. That hasn’t happened in the last three years and it’s easy to blame talent. But we have the talent this year. That we’re on a 4-game winning streak is a good sign and I’m trying to stay open-minded about Shelton.

b mcferren

wish he would learn that Crowe is better used in moderation


When Swaggerty comes up after some mystical internal date is reached, then you have another speed-type player (also, from what I have seen Swaggerty is likely to be a better hitter than Bae), to add to the lineup, maybe Swaggerty 7th and Bae 8th. That should make the team’s hitting even better.

b mcferren

was thinking the same with two leadoff hitters at the bottom of the order and then Endy hitting behind Santana


Perhaps bringing in some veteran players stabilized the team by showing the kids what it is like to be a winner.


It feels like the Pirates, and the boys here at P2, are hitting some kind of stride. I hope the Pirates keep it up as it sure has been fun so far. I know the boys at P2 will as y’all have done so year in and year out. Thanks for the great content.


It definitely shows as your writing this week has been every bit as good as Reynolds hitting has been.


The Pirates of 20, 21 and 22 did not even know a middlegame even existed – as you wrote, the other team was already into their endgame before the Pirates could even consider a middlegame.

There was a lot of interaction on this site during ST about who the 2B/Util players were going to be. Castro and his 11 HR in 2022 looked like a good bet, but Bae was a tossup. Glad to see the Pirates make a strong decision that took into consideration the whole game – plate management, contact – putting the ball in play, taking advantage on the bases with players who can steal bases, and playing solid defense at multiple positions. The start to 2023 is a great first step to making this team competitive in 2024, and hopefully even earlier than that.

Harrington’s first start was much anticipated. He made the FO look very smart. taking him in 1S out of tiny Campbell University. Excellent control with what looks like two plus pitches and another pitch (CH) that is VG, and should get better with use.


First off, great article.

Second, I was watching the condensed game of the Giants vs. Royals last night and I see our old boy Sabol out in LF. He’s batting .222 w/ a home run. And then just as I recognize another Pirate behind the plate. Actually, I recognized the Pirate behind the plate BECAUSE he got hurt. On a throw back to the pitcher. It was poor old Roberto Perez. So, not only is Roberto cursed. But it looks like Sabol might be back behind the plate and an important piece for the Giants for a minute.


It’s early, and he is starting in LF due to an injury. I expect the Giants to contact the Pirates at some point to work out an “arrangement” that would allow them to be able to get him time at AAA without losing him.

He is not an MLB caliber Catcher, and if that was their option, they might want to trade for either Delay or Heineman rather than depend on Sabol behind the plate. Either way, the Pirates would not be able to find a good location for him if he was returned. Joey Bart?

Any rumors about the Reynolds negotiations. With how he is playing and the general personality of this 2023 group of players, he needs to be signed get the extra year so we have him for 4 more years – if things go well, he may not want to leave Pittsburgh when that time comes. And teams will trade to get his rights for one year or less just to be first in line to sign him long term. Play for now, not 6 or 7 years from now!


We are dumb.


Better players make a manager better.


They very much can make a Manager look better.


The big thing that sticks out to me so far is that our lineup is much much deeper than last year. At this time a year ago, I thought we could score in an inning where vogey, hayes, and reynolds got up but otherwise most innings seem to be a prayer. I know it is early in the season, but right now our lineup seems to be a threat (ish) 1-9 which is immensely more difficult to pitch to. Sure, the catching position probably wont sustain itself and jack and castro swing through most anything but we also know those two guys have the ability to punish mistakes. The veteran quartet of choi, santana, cutch, and joe all put together very professional at bats regardless of outcome. It really is nice to have a real major league caliber lineup to watch


Suwinski was clearly struggling in Spring Training and that has predictably continued into the season. Looking at a heat map since July 1, 2022 and it seems he is having a hard time against pitches up in the zone. Maybe send him down to AAA and at the same time send a scouting note to each of the teams Indy will play against saying “Jack has trouble with pitches up in the zone, just saying”. I’m not confident he can fix his swing on the fly in the Majors.

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