An early Pirates postmortem

After a 20-8 start to the 2023 season, sparked in part by the return of Andrew McCutchen, Pirates fans had flashbacks to 2013 and visions of playoffs dancing in their heads. Then things went sideways for the Pittsburgh team as their playoff hopes faded as rapidly as McLean Stevenson’s television career.

Going into Friday’s action, the Pirates were 54-67, 10.5 games out of first place in the National League Central Division and 8.5 games out of the wild card race. With 41 games yet to play, there’s plenty of baseball season left. However, it’s not too early to do a postmortem on another season gone awry.

What went wrong?

Injuries, for one thing. Let’s begin with starting pitcher Vince Velasquez. In six starts in April, three in which he went at least six innings and gave up no runs, he was 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA. Then on May 4, he pitched three innings against the Rays in Tampa Bay before exiting with an elbow injury. He returned on May 27 in Seattle, lasting two innings before aggravating the injury. Unfortunately, on June 7 he underwent season-ending surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament.

Earlier, shortstop Oneil Cruz fractured his left ankle on April 9 and hasn’t played since. He is expected to return before the season is out. Four days later, first baseman/designated hitter Ji Man Choi suffered a left Achilles strain. He did not rejoin the active roster until July. With Cruz and Choi healthy, it allowed certain players to be used as role players. But with Cruz and Choi out, players were used the way they had to be used rather than the way manager Derek Shelton wanted to use them. Thus, for example, Connor Joe played against right-handed pitchers whom he ordinarily would have watched from the dugout.

Rodolfo Castro took over at shortstop, where his defensive work left much to be desired. Increased playing time for the switch-hitting Castro exposed him as a lesser hitter from the left side, a weakness opposing managers exploited. Chris Owings and Tucupita Marcano were tried at shortstop, fielded well, but didn’t contribute much offensively. Alika Williams is manning the position nicely at present.

But that’s not all

On one hand, I’m sure Shelton wouldn’t want to use injuries as an excuse for how this season went. On the other hand, in today’s baseball, teams lack depth. Injuries to important players are hard to overcome. No manager has a Jim Northrup on his bench anymore.

That said, injuries haven’t been the only problem. Starting pitcher Roansy Contreras, who looked to have the makings of a staff ace in 2022, mysteriously struggled in 2023. After being removed from the rotation and failing to work out his problems in the bullpen, he was dispatched to the minors with his 3-7 record, ugly 6.59 ERA and 1.566 WHIP.

At the plate, after doing so well with runners in scoring position earlier, the Pirates are now 19th in the major leagues with a .248/.334/.399 slash line in RISP situations. (On a side note, it’s strange to see the Yankees at 28th with .238/.320/.373, ahead of only the lowly Royals and Athletics.) I see Pirates batters strike out looking in these situations so often, I’m beginning to question their approach. They seem to be looking for certain pitches and freezing when they don’t get what they’re looking for. Sometimes they look surprised to see a fast ball when they’re ahead in the count.

“How can you think and hit?”

I see guys returning to the dugout after making an out and studying iPads and leafing through binders. I have to wonder whether their heads are cluttered with too much information, causing them to over-think their at-bats. Yogi Berra once famously asked, “How can you think and hit at the same time?” It’s becoming hard to imagine hitting coach Andy Haines being back with Pittsburgh next year. He’s a hard worker by all accounts, but it’s just not working.

The Yankees, who can’t possibly be happy with their RISP numbers, fired hitting coach Dillon Lawson on July 9 and replaced him with Sean Casey, thrice an All-Star during a 12-year major-league career during which he hit .302/.367/.447. Although I’m certainly not privy to the Yankees’ batting cage sessions, it seems likely Casey is offering a simplified approach to hitting and has a lot of credibility with today’s hitters. Perhaps the Pirates need someone similar as a hitting coach, a former player who ate, drank and slept hitting and had sustained success at the major-league level.

Oh, Henry!

Another change that should be made is the end, at least for the season, of the Henry Davis experiment in right field. Davis is a good athlete and hard worker with a strong arm. I’m sure he could eventually play the position well. But he should be learning it and taking his lumps in the Arizona Fall League and spring training, not at the major-league level with just a few minor league games in right under his belt. In fact, he was playing it well. Then came July 14 against the Giants. That’s when Davis let a ground ball single get past him at the wrong moment in a 6-4 loss.

Since then, Davis has looked tentative in right field. On August 9 against the Braves, with one out in the top of eighth inning of a 5-5 tie, Atlanta had Ozzie Albies on first and Michael Harris II on third. Austin Riley hit a pop fly to medium right field. Davis, who could have caught the ball, gave way to second baseman Jared Triolo, who did catch it. However, with Triolo’s momentum taking him toward the outfield, he was unable to get off a strong throw as Harris scored. Had Davis taken charge, Harris would not even have attempted to score.

There’s a simple solution, which would not upset the batting order at all. Let Davis be the designated hitter and move McCutchen to right field. McCutchen has been the regular designated hitter all season. Oddly, Shelton handles him as though he’s a defensive liability, which he is not. “Cutch” hasn’t seen action in the field since May 30.


In my previous article, I wrote that the only shortstops ever to win the National League batting title were Pirates. Somehow my crack research team (me) forgot that Jose Reyes of the Mets led the league in hitting in 2011. I apologize to the reader, Reyes and his family, the entire New York Mets organization and every good American who eats hot dogs and apple pie and drives a Chevy.

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