Prospect Debut Day and Why Being a Pirates Fan Has Never Been Better

Jameson Taillon in his natural habitat (Scott Tidlund/Creative Commons)

Jameson Taillon in his natural habitat, a bullpen in Bradenton.

June is always a particularly fun month for baseball.

The weather is getting just about perfect. Kids are finishing up school for the year, so families start packing the ballpark every night. And as the NBA and NHL wrap up, more casual sports fans and media outlets start to notice, “Oh, right. Baseball.”

We hardcore fans? We get another treat too. Thanks to the particular silliness of the MLB collective bargaining agreement (have you ever tried explaining Super 2 to your dad?), June is usually the month teams twist the spigot marked PROSPECT PIPELINE and we all enjoy a new round of hotshot young ballplayers.

Screw off, Andy Williams. This is the most wonderful time of the year.

For many years as a Pirates fan, any Top Prospect Debut Day was actually one of the few fun events to which I could look forward.

Sure, we’re already 13 games under .500 and all is lost and baseball fandom is where your happiness is given concrete shoes and dumped in the river… but on the other hand, Jose Tabata!

Jose Tabata

Lips. Lips forever. (Scott Michaels/Creative Commons)

It was Opening Day 2.0 for the hopelessly devoted fan. If the Home Opener was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the Buccos’ year,” then Top Prospect Debut Day was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the baseball savior to lead us out of the wilderness.”

We got prospect crushes on new flames like Sean Burnett, Paul Maholm, Brad Lincoln and James McDonald. These were the Littlefield and Soon-After-Littlefield years in which any half-decent young player was labeled a TOP PROSPECT! and saddled with unfair savior-y expectations.

Then, baseballers of actual quality began to show up from the minor leagues to Pittsburgh. Neil Walker can actually hit and play second base! Pedro Alvarez can murder baseballs even if his strikeouts make you rip off your fingernails! Alex Presley had his moments, I think!

Beloved radio postgame host Rocco DeMaro called this crew The Cavalry, no doubt because these were the men on horses riding in to save us from defeat. But none of the above were superstars or saviors.

Only one player from The Cavalry actually came in, blew us away and never stopped.

When I found out Andrew McCutchen would be making his big-league introduction at PNC Park on a weekday afternoon, I begged my mom to spring me from school early (it had to have been, like, the 3rd-to-last day of the year). I got the go-ahead, because my mom is better than your mom, took the bus to the North Shore and saw a future worth cheering for.

YouTube highlights show it was your typical partly-cloudy Pittsburgh afternoon but my memory, sitting there in the center-field seats, will be that the sun never shone brighter.

A few days later, McCutchen clobbered two triples in back-to-back at-bats. Remember how exciting it was the first time we saw blur in dreadlocks stretch a double into a triple? I wrote on Facebook that “Usain Bolt has nothing on Cutch!” And I think I really believed it.

That was 7 years ago today.

Okay, 500 words to get to Jameson Taillon. It was 6 years ago today that Neal Huntington drafted the No. 8 prospect in the draft, high school pitcher Stetson Allie, to join the No. 2 prospect Taillon.

Stetson Allie and Jameson Taillon

Children were the future. (Matt Bandi/Creative Commons)

Their two paths since then show, if nothing else, the folly of counting on pitching prospects.

Allie had a 100-mph fastball but with the control of Wild Thing Ricky Vaughn soon after leaving the California Penal League. He gave up 37 walks in less than 27 minor-league innings before the Pirates handed him a bat and a first baseman’s glove.

Meanwhile, Taillon was developing as promised, flummoxing hitters with that drop-off-the-table curveball and getting to Double-A by the end of his second pro season. At age 20, he was just a couple steps from big-league dominance.

Then? Elbow injury. Tommy John surgery. Hernia surgery. I probably scrolled through thousands of tweets with some combination of the words “Taillon” and “rehab outing.”

But 6 years to the day he was drafted by the Pirates, Taillon arrived for his welcome press conference at PNC Park — all smiles. The injuries and the surgeries and the rehab? That was just the scenic route to Pittsburgh.

Tonight, he’ll go toe-to-toe toeing the same rubber as Noah Syndergaard, a pitcher almost a year younger than Taillon who nonetheless already has a full-season of Major League innings, a Marvel superhero nickname and talk-show hosts who ask IS HE BASEBALL’S BEST PITCHER QUESTION MARK.

There’s nowhere in the world Taillon would rather be tonight, and he and I have that in common.

Pirates fans seen some pretty exciting prospect premieres over the past few years: Starling Marte,  and Neal Huntington products Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco among them. But no longer do they, nor Taillon, need to pull a 100-loss roster out of ignominy and into the promised land.

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco’s an All-Star candidate now, a prospect who’s meeting expectations (Daniel Decker/Creative Commons)

We’re in the promised land. Somehow playoff contention has become the norm, the expectation for your Pittsburgh Pirates instead of some Tim Burton-esque dreamland. We’re spoiled, and we’re well-served in reminding ourselves that we have, indeed, moved on up to the East Side.

As Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Josh Bell show up in Pittsburgh over this next year or so, they don’t have to be The Cavalry. They don’t even all have to be great, though I and Huntington would quite like that result.

Instead, Huntington and Co. have built a team that can only needs these youngins to complement what is already on the field.

This is a good baseball team, and it doesn’t need a Savior. Top Prospect Debut Day is just another game in June, though for those of us following Taillon’s odyssey to the Majors, an exciting one.

And I didn’t have to plead to get out of school to go to this game.

10 Baseball Writing Resources I Can’t Do Without

I am interested in the work habits of people that work in sports journalism. I want to know their process. If you are a sports journalist and ever agree to have lunch with me, I will probably bother you with questions in that vein.

So I figure I ought to share my process for writing about baseball, or at least the tools I use to make my incoherent points.



  • Baseball-Reference — The gold standard for career baseball statistics. The site is incredibly deep yet still loads quickly. The ability to click to total statistics from multiple games and seasons is a Godsend. And the Play Index is a joy, from simply messing around to incisive database searching. I love it all. So do you.
  • FanGraphs — The silver standard. I use it largely for WAR and wRC+, two great metrics, plus the projections they provide. FanGraphs is sneaky deep and almost comparable to Baseball-Reference if you know how to use it correctly. And if I asked you which player has the highest walk rate over the last 8 seasons, would you believe Jack Cust?
  • Baseball Prospectus — BP offers one of the subscriptions that is absolutely worth it for baseball writers. You quickly figure out why so many BP writers end up being hired by Major League teams — you will be instantly impressed the research and presentation of data within the articles. My favorite feature: the injury history on player cards, available even to non-subscribers.
  • MLB Depth Charts — Jason Martinez provides a top-notch source of rosters, transactions and depth charts for all 30 teams. It is certainly useful for fantasy owners, and indispensable for quickly seeing the lineups and rotations of unfamiliar teams.
  • Brooks Baseball — If you want to know a pitcher, you have to see what he throws. Short of actually watching the pitcher, the best thing you can do is look at his Brooks Baseball page. You will see his pitch types, velocity, pitch outcomes and so much more. It’s amazing this is all out there for free. Thank you, Dan Brooks.
  • Flickr Creative Commons — If you run a non-profit site, Creative Commons photos are indispensable for giving the site some visual pop. It’s amazing how many kind people (looking at you, Keith Allison) take great sports photos and allow them to be used for free. Or, in my case, mediocre photos.



  • Google Chrome — My browser of choice makes it even easier to do searches on players and teams. Chrome allows you to start typing in a website, hit Tab, then search on that website. [Update: As Shotgun Spratling pointed out, adding this is not automatic. Go to Chrome’s Settings and “Manage search engines…” Scroll to the bottom and add, plus other sites like,,, etc.]I don’t need to go to the Baseball-Reference main site to pull up Adam Wainwright’s page. Just hit Command-T-B-A-Tab-W-A-I-N-W-R-I-G-H-T-Enter. Once you get in the habit, you’ll never go back.
  • Microsoft Excel or Google Docs Spreadsheet — If you’re not paying for Microsoft Office, Google Docs allows you to do most of the formulas Excel is known for. Professional statisticians may need more than Docs, but it’s perfect for me to make a list or tabulate an OPS.
  • Magic Recs — If you use Twitter, you should follow Magic Recs. The account direct messages you when it notices multiple people you follow talking about a certain topic or retweeting a certain tweet. It’s not perfect, but Magic Recs has a high hit rate for notifying me about important Pirates and MLB news, or just a cool nugget I should know about.
  • Buffer — Once you write something great, it deserves to be shared! Buffer allows you to schedule sharing of your content on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Plus. If you don’t want to set a specific time, just throw the link into Buffer, and the site will put in a time to send it to the world. Easy and free — my two favorite words.

Catcher Deterioration: Projecting Russell Martin’s Starts the Next Four Years

Russell Martin Pirates

Can Russell Martin continue to retain value by staying healthy behind the plate? (Natalie Litz/Creative Commons)

One of my projects still on the table is to determine a proper contract value for Pirates catcher Russell Martin. There are so many aspects to evaluating a catcher, not the least of which is how many runs and wins his defense is worth.

I want to consider one factor in this post: deterioration. We all know that catcher is the toughest position (other than pitcher) on a baseball player’s body. Guys get knocked around by foul balls and wild pitches, must crouch and stand for all nine innings, and even still, get occasionally pummeled by world-class athletes running full-speed into home plate.

How long can Russell Martin continue to start 100-plus games per season at the catcher position? To get some idea, I looked for catchers over the last 30 years who have made 1,000 starts by age 32, as Martin has made 1,050.

Here were the results and season-by-season start totals for those players, with thanks to the indispensable Baseball-Reference Play Index:

Starts at Catcher


Focus on the average/median starts for age 34 and 35. One could easily project that Martin will make only 160-170 total starts over those two seasons.

A few conclusions I want to make:

  • The catchers stayed healthier than I anticipated.

Two of the 10 catchers flamed out, as Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley both retired before their age-35 seasons. But Hundley dealt with major elbow surgery and a Piazza-led move to left field in 1998. The fact that 8 of 10 catchers made at least 60 catcher starts at age 34 showed decent sustainability for older catchers.

  • Props to Jason Kendall.

His season-ending dislocated ankle at age 25 could have lingered and shortened his career. But for the next 11 seasons, he started at least 118 games at catcher in a showing of remarkable longevity. He probably could have extended that streak if he didn’t become an awful hitter. Still, what a bulldog.

  • Ultimately, catcher deterioration should be factored into Martin’s contract.

Catchers like Benito Santiago, Ramon Hernandez and Javy Lopez had similar offensive metrics and health levels to Martin through age 31. All three struggled to make as many starts in their following four seasons. All catchers are not equal, but it’s safe to expect Martin will not average 115 starts at catcher per season for the next four years.

How much should one considered deterioration into the contract? Depends on many things. Do you think Martin is built differently than older catchers? Can your training staff can keep him healthy through age 35? Will Martin’s offense (at near-career-highs this season, but should regress) be enough to hack it at third base or first base?

Those are just a few of the questions Neal Huntington and 29 other general managers must consider before offering a four-year contract to Martin this offseason. And it wouldn’t hurt for fans to think about it too.

Top 15 Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects for 2013 – A Compilation

Gerrit Cole
Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole was ranked as the Pirates’ top prospect on all six lists.

With regard to sample sizes, if some is good, more is better. I compiled the Top 10 rankings of prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system from Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks, along with the Top 20 rankings from Pirates Prospects,’s Jonathan Mayo and SB Nation’s John Sickels.

Outside of the top seven prospects, who all appeared in the Top 10 of every list, players can have wildly different spots in individual rankings. Kyle McPherson was rated everywhere from 7th (Baseball America, Mayo) to 13th (Sickels). Tyler Glasnow was slotted as high as 8th (Pirates Prospects, Baseball Prospectus) and as low as 19th (Mayo). Wyatt Mathisen fluctuated from 7th (Baseball Prospectus) to 16th (Pirates Prospects).

None of these individual lists are necessarily wrong, and I certainly do not wish to denigrate the hard work all of these outlets/writers do to evaluate prospects. Quite the opposite, as these are the six outlets I respect most for their analysis of minor league systems. The rankings just reflect the wisdom of multiple experts to try to gather the strongest list possible.

1. RHP Gerrit Cole
2. RHP Jameson Taillon
3. OF Gregory Polanco
4. SS Alen Hanson
5. RHP Luis Heredia
6. OF Josh Bell
7. OF Barrett Barnes

8. RHP Nick Kingham
9. RHP Kyle McPherson
10. C Wyatt Mathisen
11. RHP Clay Holmes
12. RHP Tyler Glasnow
13. LHP Justin Wilson
14. 2B Dilson Herrera
15. RHP Bryan Morris

Just missed: C Tony Sanchez, RHP Vic Black, 1B Alex Dickerson, LHP Andrew Oliver

The Pirates Should Not Trade For Justin Upton

Upton may not be the superstar he seems to be, if he leaves Arizona. (Congvo/Creative Commons)

When I saw the news that the Pirates have engaged in discussions for Arizona’s Justin Upton, I was excited as anybody. This was Justin Upton, the 24-year-old phenom that blasts towering home runs and finished 4th in MVP races. I imagined Upton as a superstar cleanup hitter behind Andrew McCutchen as they led Pittsburgh from ignominy to a pennant.

But not everything is as it seems. When looking at a trade rumor, sometimes perception is not reality. Looking at the facts now, I don’t think the Pirates should trade for Justin Upton.

1. Upton’s offensive numbers are helped substantially by playing in Phoenix.

Two graphs demonstrate this pretty well. The first shows Upton’s 2011 numbers at Chase Field, and on the road:

Oh. Well, that’s not really fair. I mean, that’s one season. Let’s take a larger sample size of Upton’s 660-game career:

Well then. Yes, Justin Upton hits the ball far. And many of those no-doubt home runs in Arizona you see on SportsCenter would be no-doubt home runs in Pittsburgh.

But Chase Field is a very hitter-friendly park, largely because the desert air allows the ball to travel further, especially when the retractable roof is open. The average player’s OPS is 28 points better at home. A 180-point difference is a major red flag to me regarding Upton.

And the dead-pull hitter Upton has become does not make him the best candidate to keep up his power numbers with PNC Park’s massive left field.

Here is a brief list of players that have posted a better road OPS than Upton over the last three seasons: Alex Gordon, Josh Willingham, Shin-Soo Choo, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd. Those are all good hitters, but hardly superstars.

2. Which Justin Upton would the Pirates get?

Last year, Upton was a bona fide MVP choice: a six-WAR player, a 30-homer hitter, owner of an .898 OPS and a terrific fielder and baserunner.

But this season is different. He only has seven homers at the break and a .755 OPS. Despite the fact that he has a higher BABIP (meaning more balls dropping in for hits), Upton’s batting average is down.

For my money, the biggest factor is that Upton is not hitting the ball as hard. Last season, he averaged 0.82 groundballs for every fly ball, and this season he is averaging 1.39 groundballs for every flyball. There is speculation that Upton has lingering shoulder problems. But whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Upton killing more worms with his grounders than he did last year.

3. His contract is significant to a small-market team.

Yes, Upton is cost-controlled. But that cost is a lot to a small-market club. (phxwebguy/Creative Commons)

When Upton is putting up MVP-like numbers as he did last year, money is almost no object. But if he continues his current groundball troubles, the contract becomes important. He is signed through 2015, and the last two years of the contract come up big. Upton will be owed $14.25 million in 2014, then $14.5 million in 2015.

That may be a drop in the bucket for the Yankees or the Rangers, but it is of utmost importance to the Pirates. Upton’s contract could take up more than 20 percent of the payroll, all for a player who seems to be a bit of an enigma.

Theoretically, the Pirates would be dumping a truckload of top prospects onto Kevin Towers’ yard, and then will have to get another truck full of Upton’s money for the rest of his contract. Instead of dealing away prospects for that scenario, the Pirates should use that money to try to make a splash on a free agent this offseason, or commit some cash for a Neil Walker or James McDonald extension. That way, the Pirates don’t have to give up…

4. The Diamondbacks will want far too much.

… Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon, Rudy Owens and Robbie Grossman. That’s who Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects thinks will have to be traded by the Pirates to get Upton. All are former or current Top 100 overall prospects, or in Owens’ case, a pitcher with a lot of value as a future rotation guy. These talented, cost-controlled young players are as good as gold for a small-market team looking to compete in these next few years. Arizona will likely ask for all of them, and they are in no hurry to deal Upton. If Towers doesn’t get overwhelmed by a trade offer, I think he would be just as happy to keep Upton around through 2015.

Instead of giving up the moon and the stars for one player, the Pirates should make a smaller splash: outfielders like Carlos Quentin, Shane Victorino, Josh Willingham or David DeJesus could make an impact on the 2012 Pirates team, and be had for much less.

Don’t commit to a player that derives most of his value from hitting in Arizona, a player that could prevent future free agency signings, a player who may not keep up his MVP status from last year. Justin Upton is a very good player, but there are far better trade options out there for Neal Huntington and the Pirates.

INTERVIEW: Pirates Bloggers On Twitter

It’s just like being there!

For most MLB teams, it would be odd that the most popular blog writers live outside of the team’s home city. But this is Pittsburgh. Steel industry leaving, jobs available elsewhere, Pittsburgh Diaspora and so on.

Five of the most popular Pittsburgh Pirates bloggers don’t even live in Pennsylvania. Pat Lackey of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke is a grad student in North Carolina. Cory of Three Rivers Burgh Blog lives in Wisconsin. North Side Notch‘s Jim Rosati is in Kentucky. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects lives in Virginia. So does Brian McElhinny of Raise The Jolly Roger, who studies at the University of Virginia.

How do these diehard fans and bloggers maintain the experience of watching a Pirates game with fellow fans, when any fellow fans are hundreds of miles away? With Twitter, of course. The five writers sport a combined 17,000 Twitter followers (give or take a few folks that might follow all or some of them). That is a lot of fellow fans to interact with. So what do these guys think of interacting with Pirates fans on Twitter? I asked them:

1. What are your overall feelings about Twitter?

 @WHYGAVS: I think my favorite thing about Twitter is that it can be whatever you want it to be; I can use it to have real discussions with both Pirate fans and the people that cover the team, I can use it to take the pulse of what other fans are thinking, I can use it to celebrate or commiserate a win or a loss, and on top of everything it’s hands down the best source of real-time news anywhere.

 @timwilliamsP2: Last year there was an earthquake about 30 miles away from my house in Virginia. I was in Pennsylvania at the time, but I was able to go on Twitter 10 seconds after my wife called me, do a search, and find that it was indeed an earthquake that shook our house. Twitter’s search is the best feature for current event topics, in my opinion. And as far as sports and prospects, it really sheds light on rising prospects. Just look at what the #FreeMattHague hash tag did for Hague’s recognition among Pirates fans.

 @ThreeRiversBlog:  I also love it because it only lets you use 140 characters. I know sometimes I wish I could write one more sentence but it forces you to get your point across quickly. It can be a good and bad thing but for the most part I don’t want to read a three paragraph tweet. If I wanted to do that I would go read the person’s blog or articles.

2. Has Twitter changed the way you watch Pirates games/sporting events?

 @NorthSideNotch: For me, being a Pittsburgh sports fan living in Louisville, KY, I can’t even watch games with friends or family who share that feeling of pulling for the same outcome. But when Twitter came along, you are suddenly involved and sharing thoughts and feelings about everything with hundreds of other people doing the same thing you are doing. Watching games on television are so much more fun because of that.

 @WHYGAVS: It definitely has. During games, keeping a Twitter client running is the internet equivalent of watching the game in a room full of fans. Was that pitch a strike? What is Clint Hurdle thinking? Was that error Barmes’s fault or Barajas’? I immediately have access to as many opinions as I need, which is very different from watching a game in an empty room.

 @ThreeRiversBlog: I think it has for me. When I am watching the game at home I have Tweetdeck open and just love seeing what other people have to say during the game. It might be jokes or what the team should do in a certain situation but there is nothing better than when a big play happens and you look at your timeline and everyone is freaking out about it. It is almost like you are there watching it with other people. When I am at games… and there is a close call it is nice to jump on Twitter to see what people are saying who are watching it on TV and have access to replays.

3. How much does Twitter/Facebook drive traffic to the site?

 @RTJR: Every time I post something, the link goes out to Twitter and Facebook and provides a decent bump in traffic (always depending on how interesting the post is, of course). I’d still run the site without it, but it would certainly be more difficult to promote my work.

 @TimWilliamsP2: For the first two years that the site was running, Twitter and Facebook was huge. Referrals represented over 50% of the traffic to the site, and Twitter was a key source… I’ve got about five times as many followers on Twitter than on Facebook. As for the referrals, Twitter represents 8% of the traffic to the site. Facebook sends 1% of the traffic to the site. Most of it these days is direct traffic. So the site would definitely be my full-time job without that traffic. However, that traffic helped get the site to this point.

 @NorthSideNotch: All of my posts are linked to the Twitter and Facebook accounts for the web site. I would say that about half of the site’s daily traffic comes from clips from the links that are posted through social media sites. As far as maintaining the blog without that additional traffic, I would have to say I probably would still do it. However, the interaction with readers on Twitter and seeing the amount of content people will check out definitely makes it easier to maintain.

4. Tim, has Twitter helped to drive book sales or in finding new writers?

 @TimWilliamsP2: I don’t really track where [book] sales originated. But I’m sure it’s like anything else in that it puts the product in front of more eyes. As for new writers, it has helped find a few contributors to the site, usually in the form of a guest post. A few weeks ago, I saw that someone I followed, who runs another site, saying they would be covering the West Virginia game today. I got in touch with them, and they’ll be contributing an article to the site. I wouldn’t have known about this person if it wasn’t for Twitter. When I was hiring a beat writer, one of the key requirements was that the person had Twitter and is very active on the service.

5. How do you think the Pirates organization can use Twitter better? Or do they already use it well?

 @ThreeRiversBlog: I think they could probably use it more to interact with fans. They are getting better at using it but I think it would be awesome if they used it for short interviews with players where they would take questions from fans. It’s all about give and take and trying different things. There is so much you can do with Twitter that all you have to do is ask a question and you will get thousands of responses, especially if you have as many followers as a professional team like the Pirates does.

 @RTJR: I think they do a pretty decent job. I think MLB has some restrictions on stuff that official team accounts can post, but I don’t know exactly what those are. It is kind of alarming how few followers they have (47,000, not that much more than PNC Park’s capacity). My suggestions would be to try and reply and connect with fans more (see @Mariners) and create some sub-accounts to tweet specifically about things like tickets, in game promotions and entertainment, news/lineups, etc.

 @WHYGAVS:  I don’t really mind how the club uses it now, to be honest, which is to break news and keep fans updated about things happening at the ballpark… That said, I do think that teams like the Reds and Astros have done a good job putting their social media people forward on Twitter (Jamie Ramsay and Alyson Footer, respectively), to kind of give a face to the team beyond a faceless automaton. Given how tight-fisted this club is with the flow of information, I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.

 @NorthSideNotch: I guess the one thing I would say they could improve on would be to use it as an advertisement more often, like having a free commercial spot. Perhaps it could be just sending out links to the ticketing site, posting promotional videos, running more specials on tickets, etc. The Pirates are a business, and like any business, they need customers. One of the best things about Twitter is that it allows you to reach a very broad customer base and it does not cost a penny. That needs to be taken advantage of.


Thanks to these guys for taking the time to email with me. Suffice to say, any Pirates fan on Twitter should consider them essential follows.