A picture worth savoring

I use words to express my thoughts on this blog, but after the doings of last night I thought a picture could do a much better job. Enjoy.

 

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The Last Laugh

The Pirates-Padres game played on August 3, 2005 at PNC Park sticks out for a couple of reasons for me.

First, I got my first ball ever on my own during batting practice. Standing in the last row above the Clemente seats, Padre (and ex-Pirate) Brian Giles demolished a homer right at me. Without my glove I took my hat off but misjudged the ball. It hit off my thumb holding my hat. I was able to scarf it up, and the stitches embedded in my thumb were a cool battle scar.

The only thing I remember about the game was Brad “Big Country” Eldred hit a walk-off double in what was one of his first major league games (turned out to be the highlight of his career).

The game got done and my dad was off the next day at work. He had the briliant idea, “Let’s stay and see if we can get autographs outside the player garage.”

I certainly said yes, as I really wanted my first ball signed. We began the wait on the Mazeroski Way cul-de-sac hoping for players to stop. One by one they drove by: Darryl Ward with his tinted windows and blue headlights, Jack Wilson with his kids in the back seat, the hero of the night Brad Eldred driving a beat up Toyota pick up truck waiting for his first paycheck. Nobody bothered signing. That was until a Jeep Wrangler pulled up to the group of eight or so gathered. Down came the window, and the man behind the wheel was pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong, the proverbial 25th man on the Buccos during the Littlefield era, he came to the team in a trade, along with Armando Rios, that sent Jason Schmitt to the Giants. Schmitt went on to have a very successful career including a Cy Young Award. Rios never lived up to the promise as a bat the Pirates needed to protect Giles, and Vogelsong spent the bulk of his days in the back of the bullpen as one of the many symbols of incompetency in the front office. When you checked into a game on the radio and heard Vogelsong was in, chances was the game was out of hand.

Anyway, he couldn’t have been kinder. He signed for every fan and his girlfriend sitting next to him didn’t care either (that’s usually a big reason why players don’t stop to sign after games).

When I got home, I prominently displayed the ball next to the Barry Bonds and Willie Stargell autographed balls on the shelf in our basement. It ended up being an inside joke among my brothers and dad. Vogelsong throws a scoreless inning down 7-0, that ball is now worth a whole 50 cents. 49 cents for the material, one cent for the autograph.

Ryan was let go by the Pirates following the 2006 season, having posted an ERA over 6.00 three out of the four seasons with the team. He then began a strange journey that saw him play three years for the Hashin Tigers and Orix Buffalos of the Nippon Professional League in Japan. Despite being 31 years old, an age that players usually see decline in both skill and interest from Major League clubs, he refused to give up.

After spending parts of the 2010 season as “organizational depth” in the minor league systems of the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Prior to the 2011 season he signed with the team that drafted him, the San Francisco Giants without anyone noticing.

I don’t really need to tell you the rest of the story, you probably know it already. One thing that I will look forward to on Tuesday is hearing Joe Buck announce the name of 33-year-old first time All-Star  Ryan Vogelsong. He will most likely tip his hat to the crowd, something I along with the rest of Baseball Nation should do toward him.

And Ryan go ahead and make a joke about me.

Chances are I would have given up a long time ago.

Halfway home

It seems like yesterday that the Pirates were beginning the 2011 season. After Friday’s game, they reached the halfway point of the season. At the time I am typing this, they hold a 42-41 record that is lightyears beyond what anyone expected. Time to give some mid-season grades.

Offense

A main goal for the Pirates in 2011 was to improve their pathetic offense that averaged just 3.62 runs per game last year. Adding Matt Diaz to platoon in right field with Garrett Jones along with Lyle Overbay to add pop at first gave the team hope that they would be able to score more and take pressure off the pitchers.

So far in 2011, in 83 games the team has averaged just 3.87 runs per game which ranks well in the bottom third of the league. The problem is the team still has poor on-base and slugging numbers.

In 2010 the team had an on-base percentage of .304. This year the number is .310. While it is a slight improvement, it is still well below the league average. The hitters are not staying patient enough to draw walks along with hits. The strikeout numbers are very alarming too. Pirate batters have struck out

The Pirates lack power too. Their team slugging percentage of .354 is 14th in the National League and down from the .373 in 2010. They have hit just 53 home runs, which puts them on pace to have less than they did in 2010.

The general guide for all-around hitting, on-base plus slugging percentage is .664 which is also 14th in the National League. What this stat shows is that the team has some of the worst offensive production in the league.

Obviously, Overbay and Diaz have been disappointments. The fact Pedro Alvarez has done very little this year along with regression from Neil Walker hasn’t helped. With the offense banged up, the team will hopefully see more production when healthy. But to this point in the season, it has been pretty awful.

Grade: D+

Defense

Another goal for 2011 was better defense. The Pirates committed the most errors in the majors in 2010 and looked like a team of little leaguers most nights. That has changed quite a bit in 2011. Take Ronny Cedeno for example. In 2010 his Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (a metric that measures how many runs above or below average a player was worth to his team based on the number of plays made) was -15, meaning he cost the team 15 runs. In 2011, turn that around to a +8 so far, meaning he has saved the team 8 runs. This is very important since the Pirates don’t score much. Ronny has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game so far this year and has taken a ton the pressure off the pitchers. Andrew McCutchen has also seen a tremendous increase as and many members of the team have improved as well.

There still have been some flaws that these metrics don’t cover. The defense from Lyle Overbay at first has been pretty terrible, and the Pirates still don’t have a catcher that can consistently play good defense behind the dish. The outfielders, primarily Andrew McCutchen, have had a devil of a time remembering what bases to throw to and how to hit cut off men. The addition of Xavier Paul has helped out in that regard. Either way, the defense has been tremendously better than in past years.

Grade: B+

Starting Pitching

Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Gone are the days of embarrassing outings with double digit runs allowed. Gone are the days of the revolving door of starters brought in for the heck of it. The Pirates rotation has established themselves as dependable thanks to the work of Pitching Coach Ray Searage and some pleasant surprises.

Kevin Correia was signed to be a serviceable starter that would just be average and round out the rotation. He has been anything but great, keeping the team in just about every game he has pitched and is one of three pitchers in the NL with 10 wins.

Jeff Karstens wasn’t in the rotation to start the year but an injury to Ross Ohlendorf gave him a chance. He has done more than take advantage of it, as he has an ERA that ranks in the top-10 of the league. By pounding the strike zone and a little luck, he is having a breakout season.

Charlie Morton was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2010. With the help of a tweak to his motion and a new sinker, he has made a complete 180 degree change. By keeping the ball on the ground and good defense, Charlie has established himself as a good pitcher night in and night out.

Paul Maholm, my pick to disappoint this year, hasn’t done so. A lack of run support during his starts has kept his record down, but for the most part he has shown up when he takes the mound.

James McDonald was picked by many to be the breakout pitcher for the Pirates. Unfortunately, he has been inefficient during starts and has control issues from time to time. Luckily for him, he has done a very good job limiting the damage. His stats are still much better than the average fifth starter.

All in all, the rotation is the reason this team is competitive. As long as it holds up the way it has, the team will be in the thick of things in the NL Central.

Grade: A

Bullpen

Another bright point for the team. We all know how dominant Joel Hanrahan has been converting all of his save opportunities. But credit is also due to the middle relief corps. Chris Resop and Jose Veras have been very good in set-up, and Daniel McCutchen has been a pleasant surprise in his move from starter to reliever. The team still lacks a true lefty that can get outs from those batters consistently, and Evan Meek’s arm troubles have led to a subpar campaign from him. But the good has outweighed the bad, and the team’s ability to shorten games has been invaluable to their success.

Grade: A-

Management

One of the big questions for 2011 was how this team would perform under new manager Clint Hurdle. The team has looked more motivated with the new skipper, and Hurdle holds the players accountable for their mistakes much more than John Russell. There are some parts to Hurdle’s strategies that baffle me. He likes using the sacrifice bunt, a lot even though it has been proven that bunts hurt more than they help in a lot of cases. He also has a weird way of managing his bullpen. He’ll put in left-handed pitchers to face left-handed batters, but then he’ll refuse to replace them when righties come to the plate. The team has also been reckless on the bases (as Hurdle likes having runners try to take the extra base), as only the Arizona Diamondbacks have been caught stealing more. Despite this, you can’t argue with results. The Pirates are still having their best season since 1999.

Grade B+

Summary

As mentioned before, the Pirates are having their best season in over a decade despite numerous injuries and holes. It certainly made for a fun first half of the season. If the pitching can hold up, and the offense comes around, I don’t see why the Pirates can’t keep competing in the weak NL Central. The only problem I have is thinking how good this team would be if they had close to a league average offense.

Overall Grade: B+

2011 Topps Series 2 Box Break

For those of you that don’t know already, I am a huge nerd. I take pride in the things I collect, whether it be Pittsburgh Pirate programs, baseballs, or ticket stubs.

One thing that I recently got into has been the long-time hobby of collecting baseball cards. I was never into it much when I was little, but about two years ago I really got into it.

Starting last year, I made it a yearly goal to get all 660 cards that Topps has in its yearly set. I did it last year, and after getting the first 330 cards in Series 1 for about $15 on eBay, I’m well on my way to doing the same this year (though I’m also going after the additional 330 cards in the update that comes out this winter).

There is nothing quite like busting through a box of cards and seeing what you get. So shortly before coming home, I ordered a 36-pack box of Series 2 and it came in the other day. Here is what I pulled.

Base Cards: 227/330 (68.8%)

Though the base card design isn’t as good as the 2010 version in my opinion, Topps still has a great look to it. The photography continues to be really good, going beyond the static images of guys in their stances and wind-ups. I also got only two doubles besides the parallels, so that is always nice. Now comes the fun of trying to get the remaining 53 cards I need. To give you guys an idea what they look like, here are the Pirate cards I pulled (Note most of the good players were featured in Series 1).

I’m only one short as the Josh Rodriguez rookie didn’t come up in my box. Probably worth a whole two cents.

As with Topps’ main card set, the packs feature a ton of insert cards. In recent memory, a lot of them are trash-worthy and overkill. I’d much rather have a larger checklist of players then all these flimsy sub sets that I won’t collect. Let’s see what they had for Series 2.

Gold Parallel (Numbered to 2010) 3/330

These cards are essentially the same as the base, though they feature a gold border. Since they are harder to come by, they are meant to be more of a challenge to collect all 330. I don’t have the time or money to do that, so essentially these are worthless to me.

Diamond Parallel 9/330

Since this is Topps’ 60th anniversary of making cards, there is a diamond theme throughout the set. These parallels of the base cards are awesome. They feature a holographic twinkle to them that really looks cool. Though I won’t get all 330 of these, I’m definitely going after the Pirate ones, as they would look even better autographed.

Kimball Miniatures 9/50

These inserts are modeled after the Kimball mini-cards that appeared a long time ago. Series 2 featured cards numbered 51-100, and all of the subjects are former players (Series 1 was 1-50 and were all current players). These cards are nice, but are a pain in the butt to keep nice in a binder.

Diamond Stars 6/25

These cards really have no point to them, as you would have to live under a rock not to know about the players on them. However, a great holographic sparkle design like the parallels save them from being a waste.

Diamond Duos 9/30

These cards are the same as the “Legendary Lineage” ones seen in the 2010 edition, however instead of an old player being compared to a new one, it’s two players with something in common. Really no point to these, however I’ll hang on to the Andrew McCutchen/Pedro Alvarez one that I pulled.

Before There Was Topps 2/7

These cards detail various brands of baseball cards that were around before Topps. Yawn.

60 Years of Topps 15/58

These cards are reprints that are to give an example of each year’s design and a little lesson about the set of that year. Not too bad if this wasn’t basically the same thing as “The Cards Your Mom Threw Out” from last year. Nothing like getting “vintage” reprints from 2008 and 2009! Other than the Dave Parker Pirates card for 1975 and the Chris Carpenter rookie reprint that also has the original back to it, the rest are trash.

Topps 60 9/50

This set is supposed to chronicle the various leaders in statistical categories over the last 60 years. Some of them are flat-out stupid (Such as John Lester leading AL left-handed pitchers in strikeouts from 2008 to 2010) and some feature guys that barely crack the top 10 in some. Another dumb insert set.

Topps Town 6/50

Unlike last year when they came in every pack (and ended up in my trash), Topps Town code cards were harder to come by and were featured on nice holographic chrome stock. They also feature players other than the usual New York/Boston/Philadelphia players, making it a unique subset.

Prime 9 2/9

Unlike in past years, where each box came with a redemption card for a special “Red Hot Rookie”, Topps changed it up by starting the Prime 9 series. Basically, for a specific week, one of these cards can be turned in to your local hobby shop for a special chrome card. Each card is also good for an entry for a trip to the 2012 World Series. Though my Jose Tabata Red Hot Rookie card is one of my favorites, I can’t  argue against a system that gets you a nice card similar to that in your hand before January. I’ll have to wait to see how it goes before giving it a thumbs up or down.

“Hits” (Relics/Autographs)
1 (Mark Texiera Topps 60 Game Used Jersey Card)

My one “hit” in this box was a good one. Since this is the 60th anniversary, Topps has bolstered their relic checklist, and I got very lucky getting a Yankee. Though I wish it was a pinstriped swatch, I can’t complain about it as I’ve gotten crap in boxes in the past.

Final Grade: B

Though the design has come a long way from the mid-2000s when it was awful, Topps still lacks some features that make it a perfect card set to collect. Like EA Sports’ exclusive rights with the NFL for video games, Topps is the only licensed producer of baseball cards now. This has led to a declining product quality and the rehashing of the same ideas over and over again. But flaws aside, the price is right at just $2 per pack making it an easy set to get into. I just wish they would take some elements from Upper Deck before they were out of the baseball market, offering more hits and cutting down on mundane insert sets for a bigger base.

If there is anyone else out there into collecting I highly suggest getting in contact with me as I’m always up for trading!

Four Games in Four Days: Pirates-Mets series

After turing in the dreaded Precision Language final early Thursday morning, I was free for the summer. After packing up and heading home, it was time to start enjoying my summer.

Lucky for me, the Pirates were wrapping up a season-long home stand with a four game series against the New York Mets. I have attended all games in a three game set before, but had never completed a four-game series. Here is a recap.

Friday

Back in the friendly confines of PNC Park for the first time in nearly 50 days (that’s a long time for a season ticket holder). It felt good to be back at my summer home. There was no one that I would rather have pitching my first game back than Charlie Morton.

He has been dynamite in 2011 for the Pirates, and he is always fun to watch. This night, however, the luck wouldn’t be on his side. The Mets took control early, and scored five runs in the fourth where every ball seemed to either drop in for a hit, or cause the Pirates to make an error. The offense that is suffering from many injuries couldn’t get anything started, and the Mets cruised to an easy 8-1 victory.

Despite that, it was a great night for a game

This guy, however, was put to sleep by the Pirates offensive woes.

Saturday

The next day’s game would be much more event-filled. I hadn’t gotten to see much batting practice so far in 2011, but today I got my chance. The gates opened at 4:30 for season ticket holders, and unlike other days, STHs get access to the whole bowl rather than just the bleachers. Since many had their sights focused on getting home run balls in left field, I picked the deserted seats down the third base line to get some snags.

I got my first ball shortly from pitching coach Ray Searage. Since the ball was close to where I was standing, and there was nobody else around, he had no choice but to throw it to me. At the same time, Jeff Karstents was trying to chuck some balls up to a kid with his mom in a suite in the upper deck. Since he came up short, the ball made it’s way down to me. I was able to throw it up to them. unbeknowst to me, there were some other kids up there too who also wanted balls. This is a nightmare for a ballhawk. Since I didn’t have any emotional attachment to the Searage ball I had a minute ago, I sent that one up. Pedro Ciriaco hit a ball into the 100 level seats down the line. A usher directed me to it, and it was ball number two on the day.

The Pirates ended practice shortly after, and the Mets came out to hit. I was still the only person down the baseline. Jose Reyes was the first to hit, and sent one of the first pitches he saw just over my head down the line. It landed in a seat a few rows back and I was able to pluck it up for ball number 3. Since the Mets players were ignoring the kids up above me, they began to call on me to throw yet another one up. Thinking on my feet, and not wanting to look like a jerk, I reached into my bag and threw up the Ciriaco ball. I didn’t want to get rid of the Reyes one I just got, he’s one of the best players that I’ve snagged a ball from. Jason Pridie of the Mets saw my act of goodwill and hooked me up shortly after.

With four balls on the day snagged, I got closer to the hitters to get better shots of them hitting.

After a little while, sluggers Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran were due up. I went out to the outfield seats to attempt to tie my career high of five baseballs. I played the less crowded right center field seats and waited for Beltran to hit one my way. He crushed a ball that I began to break back on toward the Riverwalk. I had overrun it and it was dropping short of me. A man with a glove dropped it into a handicapped seat at the top of the section. Another guy grabbing it pushed it to the seat where it rolled out. I got down and trapped it with my glove. A crazy fumblerooski to get my 5th ball.

I went to the bullpen to watch the pitchers warm up. The game featured an intriguing pitching match-up with the hard throwing James McDonald of the Pirates going against Met knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

I went to my seats to watch the game. It would be the first that Jason Bay had played in Pittsburgh since being traded in 2009. I could not understand for the life of me why Pirate “fans” booed him. He was always a class act and an all-star here. He never really did anything that ticked me off.

Later in the game I moved to seats closer to my parents who were attending the game. The third largest crowd in PNC Park history was on hand, primarily to see the post-game Skyblast show featuring the band Huey Lewis and the News.

The Pirates were able to get just enough offense. A two-run double by Andrew McCutchen was the difference. Despite getting hit hard, and struggling with his control at times, McDonald was able to keep the Mets in check.

Since all of the 39,000+ were sticking around, the atmosphere was really electric as Joel Hanrahan mowed down the Mets in the 9th to preserve the 3-2 victory.

The show after the game didn’t disappoint either. If you have never been to a Skyblast show before, I highly suggest you check one out. It is a big pyrotechnic extravaganza featuring fireworks and live music.

There were fireworks from every place you could imagine including the field, the barges on the river, the Roberto Clemente bridge, and the scoreboard.

Some were even fired off of the skyscrapers across the river.

Huey Lewis had a good show, though I wouldn’t rank it at the top of the ones I have seen. I must say I am really looking forward to when Train comes in August. There aren’t many better ways to spend seven dollars.

Here is my pull. I noticed how the balls the Mets used had the logos way off center and crooked.

Sunday

Yeah it was another forgettable game after a very good one the night before. Kevin Correia pitched very well, but came unglued in the 8th inning when the Mets blew the game open. The only excitement for the Pirates on offense came when Lyle Overbay flew out to deep center field. The firework controller thought it was a homer but it wasn’t even close. He launched them by mistake. Clint Hurdle was ejected after arguing that the center fielder Angel Pagan trapped the ball against the wall. It was yet another great day for baseball so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Monday

I could see the finish line. Attending four games in four days is quite a grind, and Monday’s would be the last one needed to complete the task. I wasn’t feeling batting practice, so I headed to the stadium for first pitch. It was a cool night that was dominated by another great outing from Pirate pitcher Paul Maholm who mowed down the Mets. I was also very impressed by the play of new catcher Mike McKenry who was acquired from the Red Sox just hours before the game. There were a couple of crazy plays including fielder interference that led to the first Pirate run, a home run by Brandon Wood, and a near triple play. Hanny shut it down for the 17th time in 17 chances. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. The game went very quick as it wasn’t even dark yet when the game was in it’s late stages. The city had a weird orange tint as the sun set.

I saw some good and saw some bad in my first game back, and I am looking forward to spending many more summer days and nights at the ballpark.

Gerrit Cole: Who Will Be #1?

The clock continues to count down toward the 2011 MLB Draft. Here is the second part of my series taking a look at who the Pirates might take first overall.

Gerrit Cole

Height/Weight/Age: 6’4″/220/20

Position: Pitcher

School: UCLA

Scouting Report:

A pitcher that fits the workhorse and power pitcher roles, Cole is a rare combination of finesse and strength. With a fastball that averages in the mid to upper 90s that can top out at 99-100 MPH, and a devastating slider, Gerrit features an arsenal of pitches that can rack up a ton of swings and misses. He also features a strong arm that lets him go deep into games regularly and eat innings. In 15 2011 starts, he has gone 6-7 with a 3.28 ERA while striking out 108 batters in 107 innings.

Why the Pirates will draft him

Depth– Yes the Pirates drafted pitcher Jameson Taillon with the 2nd pick last year, but with pitching being such an unpredictable position, it’s better to have two high-potential arms than one, especially if the injury bug hits one of them.

Potential for a devastating rotation– Assuming both Taillon and Cole develop, the Pirates would have a ridiculously good top of the rotation that would feature two aces.

Why the Pirates won’t draft him

Workload– Since Cole has pitched so much in college, it would be likely that the team limits his innings pitched for at least the first year in the organization. While this may prevent injury, not pitching regularly may hinder his development.

Danny Hultzen– Though Cole has great potential to develop into a good pitcher, he hasn’t dominated college hitters quite like Danny Hultzen of Virginia. The fat that Hultzen is also a lefty will also make them look long and hard at him before pulling the trigger on someone else.

Anthony Rendon: Who Will Be #1?

In a few short weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be making the first selection in the 2011 MLB Draft. Being that this draft is being viewed by many in the baseball world as one of the deepest in recent memory. Since the Pirates can go in numerous different directions, the next week or so will feature posts profiling the different prospects the Buccos may select. This one is dedicated to Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon.

Anthony Rendon

Height/Weight/Age: 5’11″/190/20

Position: Third Base

School: Rice University

Scouting Report:

For being such a small player, Rendon packs a lot of punch. In 2010, he hit .394  with 26 HR and 85 RBI. In both 2010 and 2011 he has had an OPS of over 1.000. Has tremendous patience, as he has drawn 76 walks in 56 games in 2011.  Was unanimous selection to be top pick in 2011 before ankle injury in international play in late 2010. Tremendous fielder who has great range, and good arm.

Why the Pirates will select him.

Offense– There is no question the Pirates could use a player like Rendon in their lineup. He is a gifted hitter with power that would compliment the speed of McCutchen and Tabata, with a better ability to hit for average than Pedro Alvarez.

Major league readiness– The fact that he will be 21 by draft day, coupled with his advanced skills, Rendon will be up here sooner than later.

Move Pedro Alvarez to first base– Drafting Rendon will make sure there will be a capable player at the hot corner when the time comes for Alvarez’s inevitable move to first base.

Why the Pirates won’t select him.

 Scott Boras– Rendon has hired notorious agen Scott Boras to represent him. He and the Pirates aren’t on good terms after the Pedro Alvarez signing saga in 2008. There is a chance the team will want to avoid the chance of another soap opera when trying to sign Rendon.

Health– This pick would have been a no brainer before he shattered his ankle playing for team USA late last summer. There are still reports of him not being 100%. The Pirates will need to take a long look at his long health before going all-in.

Is he for real?– Certainly his 2010 season was eye-opening, however, he has seen a lot of regression in 2011. After 26 home runs last season, he only has five this year. In his defense, teams have begun pitching around him like Barry Bonds, resulting in a ridiculously high number of walks.

Final Verdict

The case for Anthony Rendon is certainly a curious one. He is the best all around offensive player in the draft. Unfortunately, there is also a tremendous amount of risk that goes into selecting him, as nothing will be guaranteed. Something tells me the Pirates will be looking for more of a sure bet with the money that will be at stake.

Stay tuned for my next post on UCLA pitcher Garrett Cole.