Joel Hanrahan open to contract extension with Pirates

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Joel Hanrahan has emerged as one of the better relief pitchers in baseball since coming over from the Nationals in the Njyer Morgan trade in June of 2009. The 30-year-old right-hander posted a 1.83 ERA this season and finished sixth in the National League with 40 saves.

Sure, save totals don’t tell us much about how a player actually performed, but relievers are regularly rewarded by that metric through the arbitration process. This puts the Pirates in an interesting position this winter.

Hanrahan earned $1.4 million this season and could see his salary reach as much as $4 million in his second year of arbitration. He told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com that while he is open to a contract extension with the Pirates, he is also aware of organization’s reluctance to hand out multi-year contracts to relief pitchers.

“Yeah, of course I’d listen to it,” said Hanrahan, who saved 40 games in his first full season as the club’s closer. “It’s every player’s goal to get a multiyear contract. If they approach me with it, I’ll listen to it and take it in. It’s a situation where we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t think the track record with relievers and long-term deals in Pittsburgh is much because I don’t think they’ve handed too many of them out. But I’d be prepared for whatever.”

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has only given one-year multi-year deal to a reliever since he was hired in September of 2007, inking Matt Capps to a two-year, $3.15 million contract prior to the 2008 season. He ended up being non-tendered after posting a 5.80 ERA and 46/17 K/BB ratio over 54 1/3 innings in 2009.

If the Pirates sign Hanrahan to an extension now, they could buy out his final two years of arbitration and perhaps a year of free agency, but it might not be the best idea to commit major dollars to a closer when the team isn’t exactly knocking on the door of contention. This may actually be the ideal time to trade him to a contender who isn’t too keen on dishing out a three or four-year deal for the likes of Heath Bell or Ryan Madson.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.