The Pirates have made velocity an organizational focus

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Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote an intriguing column about the rise in fastball velocity across Major League Baseball. In 2008, the average fastball in the Majors registered at 90.9 MPH; in 2013, it was 92 MPH. A change of 1.1 MPH over a six-year period may seem small, but when hundreds of thousands of fastballs are thrown every year, it becomes a statistically significant change.

Sawchik adds that more pitchers are hitting triple digits (100-plus MPH) more consistently than they have since velocity-tracking has become a regular part of the game. Some teams have begun to prioritize velocity over other traits, and the Pirates — one of baseball’s most forward-thinking organizations — are among them. From Sawchik’s column:

Under general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates made targeting and acquiring velocity a key part of their strategy, adding pitchers such as A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, and placing a premium on velocity in the draft.

“(Velocity) gives you a larger margin for error,” Huntington said. “Ninety-four (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate has much more margin for error than 88 (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate.”

In Huntington’s first season as general manager, the Pirates ranked 18th in fastball velocity at 90.8 mph. The Pirates’ fastball velocity has improved every year under Huntington, averaging 92.5 mph last season, 10th in baseball.

Per Sawchik, Pirates 2011 first round pick and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole threw 22 pitches that registered at 100 MPH or faster last season. Reliever Bryan Morris averaged 94 MPH on his fastball last year, but showed up in camp throwing 97 MPH, drawing the attention of scouts. Other pitchers who averaged 93 MPH or better last season included relievers Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson, and Justin Wilson, as well as starter Francisco Liriano, a bargain bin pick-up who was a key reason why the Pirates snapped a 20-year-long playoff drought.

Orioles sign Alcides Escobar

Alcides Escobar
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The Orioles have inked shortstop Alcides Escobar to a minor league contract, MLB.com’s Joe Trezza reported Saturday. The deal comes with an invitation to spring training and will allow Escobar to earn $700,000 in the majors if he breaks camp with the team (via Jon Heyman of MLB Network). The team has yet to formally announce the agreement.

Escobar, 32, completed an eight-year run with the Royals in 2018. No longer the .280-average, 3.0-fWAR player of seasons past, he hit several career lows after batting .231/.279/.313 with four home runs, eight stolen bases (in 10 chances), and a .593 OPS through 531 plate appearances last year. His defensive ratings also took a hit, and FanGraphs pegged him as the fourth-worst shortstop in the majors after he accumulated -12 DRS over the course of the season, only slightly higher than the Orioles/Dodgers’ Manny Machado, Mets’ Amed Rosario, and Red Sox’ Xander Bogaerts.

Still, Heyman holds that Escobar is being considered for the starting gig this spring and could yet prove an upgrade over top prospects and infield candidates Richie Martin and Drew Jackson. At the very least, the veteran shortstop figures to stabilize the position given Martin and Jackson’s relative inexperience, as both infielders played to varying results in Double-A Tulsa last year and have yet to break into the majors. Should either player earn consideration for the position in camp, however, Escobar might still work his way onto the Opening Day roster in a utility role as he saw some time at third base, second base, and center field in 2018.