Let’s Hear From Four Pirates Pitchers

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of questions to address regarding their pitching staff. With the regular season just two-plus weeks away, final decisions have yet to be made on starter and bullpen roles alike. Candidates abound on both fronts, particularly the latter, with an addition and an injury-induced subtraction further muddying the waters in recent days. Here are snapshots from four conversations — three recent, and one somewhat older — with pitchers who could figure prominently in the team’s plans.

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Left on the cutting room floor from an interview I did with JT Brubaker at the conclusion of last season was what he said about his two breaking balls. The 27-year-old right-hander considers his slider his best secondary. He’s thrown it since his senior year of high school, and it’s firm. At 86.7 mph (per StatCast), it registered as the 11th-hardest among the 58 pitchers who worked at last 40 innings and had the pitch in their arsenal. Brubaker told me that while it sometimes registers as a cutter, he always considers it a slider.

Eric Longenhagen had written in his 2020 prospect profile that Brubaker’s “relatively new” curveball was his best secondary pitch. I asked the righty what might have prompted that opinion.

“Possibly the analytical side of it,” surmised Brubaker. “It’s something I’d put in the back pocket, then brought back out. I’m always been able to throw a curveball, but I’ve never been fully consistent with it.”

The pitch had actually gone into his back pocket at the bequest of the organization, as they wanted him to focus on his slider. He eventually pulled it back out in need of “something with a little more velocity separation between my changeup and slider, something in the lower lower spectrum to slow the batters down more.”

Brubaker’s curveball averaged 81 mph last year, with a 2,857-rpm spin rate that ranked in the 88th percentile among his contemporaries. He threw the pitch just 13.5% of the time, with batters logging a .210 wOBA on the 22 balls that were put into play.

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Trevor Cahill is bringing his secondary-heavy mix to Pittsburgh, having signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract on Friday. The Pirates will be 34-year-old’s ninth team, and over his dozen big-league seasons he’s evolved from predominantly a sinkerballer to a pitcher with a smorgasbord attack plan. Cahill’s fastball usage fell to career-low 35.3% last year, while his curveball (23.0%) and changeup (29.4%) frequencies were career highs. He also threw a slider 12.3% of the time.

“I don’t think I threw a fastball my last three outings,” recalled Cahill, who spent 2020 with the San Francisco Giants. “It was one of those things, with the numbers, where they were like, ‘Keep throwing [the curveball], it’s tough to square up,’ so I kept throwing it. And like with anything else, the more you throw it, the more control you have with it.”

Asked about his curveball, Cahill echoed what he said in an August 2019 installment of the “Learning and Developing a Pitch” series. Because his old grip didn’t work with big-league balls, he taught himself his current curveball following his 2009 rookie season. Of the high-spin variety, it averaged 2,982 rpm in 2020, up from 2,950 in 2019.

“I didn’t throw as many [curveballs] back then, because the sinker was still a good pitch,” Cahill said of his earlier seasons. “Now, with all the change in swings, it’s a lot more off-speed and heaters up, so it doesn’t play as much. It’s still good weapon to have, but I definitely have to mix it up a lot more, rather than throwing sinkers all game like I used to.”

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Blake Cederlind was placed on the 60-day injured list as the corresponding move to Cahill’s addition. The 25-year-old righty sustained a UCL strain in his right elbow, cratering any chances he had of breaking camp as the team’s closer. Given his raw stuff, that possibility existed. In a four-inning cup of coffee with the big club last year, Cederlind averaged a crisp 98.7 mph with his signature sinker.

A reshaping of the other of his two pitches had been in the works.

“What I focused on a lot this offseason was getting some good vertical and horizontal break,” Cederlind said before the elbow issue emerged. “Last year it was more of a cutter. This year you’re going to see more of a slider from me, so it should be easier to put guys away.”

Sinker/slider pitchers are typically in search of weak contact, not strikeouts. Cederlind flirts with triple digits and aspires to pitch late in games. With that in mind, how would he describe his M.O.?

“I want to get the ball on the ground and into my fielder’s hands,” said Cederlind, whose timetable on returning to action is unknown. “That or put guys away, [and] I think I’ve got pretty good weapons to do that. You might see the four-seamer a little bit more this year, too. I’m going to be working on that as well. I think those weapons can get me out of any situation.”

Would he call himself a power pitcher?

“I’d say yeah,” Cederlind said. “I can run it up to trips if I need to. That takes a lot of power.”

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Kyle Crick is a closer candidate. (Pirates manager Derek Shelton said Monday that there are “probably five” ninth-inning possibilities as of right now.) While consistency and command have been big issues for the 28-year-old right-hander, there is no disputing his ability to miss bats. A wipeout slider is the reason why. In 2019 (Crick tossed just 5.2 innings last year), only Chaz Roe got more horizontal movement on the pitch, and while not as notable, his vertical movement was well above average. Inducing chases has been a bit of a challenge: Crick’s 31.4% O-Swing% ranked in the bottom half of that particular table.

Two years ago, Crick told me that he’s not so much trying to get on top of the ball when he throws his slider, but rather more on the side of the ball. Last week, I asked him if anything has changed in that regard. Since we’d spoken in early 2019, Oscar Marin had come on as pitching coach, bringing with him an added emphasis on analytics.

“I don’t think I’ve changed much, but I do know more about why it does what it does,” responded Crick. “They’ve explained to me where my arm angle is when the ball rotates and moves. When it’s 18 to 20 inches of break horizontally, my arm angle is lower than normal. Before, I would have no way to really know that.”

No less important is the fact that Crick now has a firmer grasp on what makes his best pitch effective. Movement is only part of the equation.

“The whole idea is to have the fastball come out of that same slot, because if it’s not, it’s an easier take,” said Crick. “That’s helped me to tunnel a lot better than I’ve been able to, and that’s what the game comes down to: tunneling. If you can make everything looks the same,you’re going to get people to swing at things that they shouldn’t. They don’t know what’s coming, [so] they’re guessing.”

To say that Marin has made a world of difference to Crick — and to Pirates pitchers as a whole — would be an understatement.

“He shows us how to do it,” explained Crick.” And that’s new. That’s new school. Old school is, ‘Here’s what you’re supposed to do; we’re not going to show you how to do it, really, but here’s what you’re supposed to do.’ Now we have a good platform to build on. We have, ‘Here’s how you do it. Here’s the science behind it. Here’s why it works.’ And that’s pretty cool.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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We miss Ross Ohlendorf
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We miss Ross Ohlendorf

The difference between Marin and Searage is night and day, and as a Pirates fan it’s the most refreshing thing imaginable. Love the interviews and insight into more of the Pirates’ pitching philosophy as an organization from the subjects of that philosophy themselves.

dozingoffdad
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dozingoffdad

Marin has discovered that not being a smug dick is the new market inefficiency.