Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Victor Black Q&A

Before Sunday's game in Lakewood, WB2PB got the chance to talk with a couple of the Pirates top prospects playing at Class A West Virginia. Today's installment is Victor Black. Black took one on the chin the night before, telling me he "lost the game for his teammates" the night before, allowing four runs (three earned) in a 5-4 loss to the Blueclaws. He still took the time to talk about that night, his season and his future in the Pirates organization.

Victor Black
Height: 6-3     Weight: 185     
Age: 23           Position: Pitcher      
Throws: Right
2011 statistics: 2-1, 5.14 ERA, 21 games, 
Opp. BA .259, 16 BB, 23 SO

How do the pitchers currently on the team and in the organization deal with the pressure of the Pirates recent drafts being so pitching heavy?
Without a doubt you are seeing what they've been investing in for the past three years with Neal (Huntington) being the new GM and their emphasis on pitching and development there. It's bleeding through into the big leagues and you're seeing guys winning. They're enjoying it. It's fun to play baseball again. As a pitcher who has been blessed and has been invested in, there is a gratefulness there. It would be foolish to not steward the opportunity I've been given. I'm not worried about the fact that there are 40 new pitchers coming in with each draft. They took me. They invested in me and now it's my responsibility to the organization and to the people I play with to give it my all and make it my best.

Talk to me about some of the differences you've faced as a bullpen guy rather than a starter.
Nights like last night is what I really struggle with. I pretty much lost the game for us last night but they say that the best lessons are learned from the negative in life. I got up this morning, went through my workout and just try to shake it off. It's not easy but it's one of the lessons I have to learn from at this level to get better. i really need to get better at trusting in my approach and staying focused on what I'm supposed to be doing more than anything else.

The trade deadline just passed last week. Even at low-A, do the guys talk about it in the clubhouse among yourselves or do you think about it at all?
There is always the anxst about it because you understand that you aren't in college, you aren't in high school anymore. It's a business. In a shallow way of saying it, you are a property. They are looking out and they saw a glimpse of success and they are fighting to win and they were in a race and they are going to keep fighting. They look at it as "Hey, we have a shot, maybe it's the time to (trade a prospect). At this level not so much. Guys talk about it but even my buddy Aaron Baker (traded to the Orioles for Derrek Lee July 30) who I've been playing with since summer ball in high school, you see him go. I sent him a text and it's sad to see him go, but it's more of an anticipation of getting to go somewhere to maybe move up or get another opportunity. As long as other teams want you, you still have a shot at this. It's a big bragging right I guess.

What are you working on at this level? What's going well? What's not?
We've basically ditched the slider and we've taken a different approach. I have a straight fastball and a straight change. Due to the rehab last year, the changeup came about. Before I just couldn't do it and during rehab, the easest thing on your arm is a changeup. There's no stiffness, there's no tightness and you aren't trying to force anything. So I just threw it, threw it and threw it and when I came up here, we went to the straight fastball-changeup. I started to throw it and they were swinging through it and I thought 'Hey.' Now that' been the approach and it's been effective when I embrace it fully. I'm still trying to get to the point where I go for it all the way and trust it.

How's life in West Virginia compared to back home in Texas?
West Virginia and Charleston is like any other town I've been able to spend time in. It's not a small town but the people are very nice. You hold doors and greet people and go about your business. My big deal with baseball is that this is what I love to do but it's also my job. But if you get consumed in it and you make it your life ... baseball is really about beating the odds. For hitters, it's about failure and how many times you don't fail. When I get off the field, I just want to feel like a normal person. You have another life and you don't want your identity to be caught up in baseball. A career can be 15 years if you are lucky, and if you are consumed with baseball, then what do you live for?  You can't live like that.

How often does your family get to see you play?
I have a different style of family where I have three sisters who all play volleyball. One plays Olympic, one is about to get married and the other is going into college this year. My parents are consumed with volleyball. My dad would drive down to see me playing college on weeknights and drive back. Neither one of them yet has gotten the chance to see me play since i signed to play with the Pirates and that just kills my Mom. I tried to get her up last week and she was moving my sister in to college. Other than that, my girlfriend has come to visit and it's been a blessing. She's super important so....

Was there anything that surprised you about pro ball that isn't as glamorous as you may have thought?
I played in the Northwest League after my freshman year of college and they were like 'OK, now we jump onto a bus for a 13-hour ride to Canada.' I thought 'Is this something I really want to do' but this is my passion and this is what I really want to do. The bus rides haven't been a shock but I still struggle with sleeping. I just try to keep myself entertained. The only thing that came as a shock was when I joined up with my first team I came in and said 'Coach, my name is Victor' and he turned to me and said 'Don't ever call me coach again, I'm your manager.'

What are you goals for where you want to be on April 1, 2012?
I just want to be a place where I eventually can give Pittsburgh the best opportunity. I want to be where they are comfortable with me to a point that wherever they need me, I'm there and ready to go.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pirates next lesson: Learning how to win

Living in the Philadelphia area, it's been hard to avoid all the success that has come the way of the Philadelphia Phillies. But for Pirates fans looking toward that standard of success in the Bucs' future need to exercise just a little patience.

Even as players like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard became household names, the Phillies were struggling to overcome the Braves and even win games late in the season against the Marlins that would have put them in the playoffs before they finally got there in 2007. And then they lost to the Rockies....

The Phillies organizational plan is totally different, as they have developed their players. They've also been in position to acquire high-priced talent by trading minor league talent and then being able to afford to keep it because they have a very good TV deal and have over 180 straight sellouts.

The Pirates had to hit the reset button in 2008. There was very little talent in the organization, and almost zero pitching. The Bucs have started to take steps to build up the quality pitching in the organization while allowing the couple of good hitters they have to play everyday and began to flourish. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are strong building blocks. Pedro Alvarez has struggled at the start but will certainly get there. The Phillies had their share of fill-ins. Jim Thome was there before Ryan Howard and couldn't get them over the top. They acquired players like Eric Milton, David Bell, Freddy Garcia....all who didn't work out.

The team has high hopes for Starling Marte in Double-A to be a corner outfielder with speed and power. Jose Tabata has proven he can be a quality everyday player when healthy. Is Alex Presley the next Shane Victorino? Maybe. Victorino never really gave the impression of being the player he is now in the minor leagues.

And the Pirates have had their demons. Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. The Brewers, especially in Milwaukee, is another. It's a learning experience that Clint Hurdle was brought in to teach. The Pirates are now facing the pressure of all the world watching, coming off seven tough road games against the NL's best. It's a new situation for everyone in the clubhouse to now be expected to win games. And this team, especially the starting pitching, has played better than anyone expected. A jump of 10 wins with team's talent could be expected by to still be over .500 is a remarkable achievement that has ridiculous thoughts placed in the heads of Pirates and baseball fans alike. It's something young players need to adjust to and learn how to deal with.

Remember, this team was 57-105. Even if they would win just 75 games this season, it would be the biggest season turnaround since the 1958 Pirates improved by 22 games over the 1957 squad. And Pirates fans know a World Series title followed that just two years later.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ludwick, Lee MIGHT make Pirates better....

Pittsburgh Pirates fans may have been hoping for a big bill when general manager Neal Huntington made his way to the checkout line at the trade deadline market. It's been since 1997 that the Bucs weren't stocking the shelves but actually leaving with some of the groceries.  And as a first time in Huntington's four-year tenure, the first-time buyer was accused of sticker shock.

Huntington seemed to feel the effects of those 18 straight losing seasons while shopping, with at least one big fish not wanting to play for the Pirates. He also didn't want to mortgage the future for the present. He admitted after Sunday's deadline in a conference call that maybe the Bucs deserved a little criticism for undervaluing the impact of a two-month rental player and how the team may have been too eager to hold on to "six years worth of major league performance for two months of someone who may or may not make a positive impact."

However, NH stayed on goal while acquiring veteran hitters Ryan Ludwick from San Diego and Baltimore's Derrek Lee, sacrificing very little and utilizing some of the increased revenue to help out the club offensively. However there are certainly questions about both guys.

Ludwick appears to be the biggest example of the Pirates increased spending, with the team picking up all of the remaining $2.2 million on his 2011 contract before he becomes a free agent after the season. Ludwick has hit .238 this season but has 11 HRs and 62 RBIs. That sounds very good until you take a look inside those numbers a bit. Just three HRs since June 1 in 200 plate appearances.

"We feel like we've added two impact hitters, two good guys in the clubhouse and guys who have played meaningful games late in the season that still have gas left in the tank," Huntington said.  "Derrek is swinging the bat better late in the season as he's gotten healthy and Ryan will do better just getting out of San Diego. No offense to San Diego but that's a tremendous pitcher's ballpark.

Ludwick has hit .258 outside of San Diego's Petco Park but he only hit .172 in July. Ludwick is a player who hit 37 HRs in 2008 and another 22 in 2009. It's safe to say the Pirates are hoping the change of scenary will bolster his production.

'"Ryan was brought in here to help us win games. As we move forward, he should be able to help us," NH said when asked if Ludwick will play everyday.  "Our scouts saw the abilities that make him a successful hitter."

Lee is a career .282 hitter but has seen his average decrease tremendously since winning a batting title in 2005. Coming off a .260 year between the Cubs and Braves last year, Lee has hit .246 with 12 HRs in Baltimore. Both of those numbers, despite being a bit below average among baseball's first baseman, is a tremendous upgrade to the Pirates lineup. But how much Lee has left is a big question. He's a career .297 hitter at PNC Park but just .246 from 2009-2011.

There are questions for the Pirates but the strongest part of this deal appears to be what the acquisitions cost. Not one minor league pitcher was traded away, with Baltimore settling for a Class A hitter in Aaron Baker, who was no higher than fourth on the Pirates organizational depth chart at 1B. The Ludwick deal is a player to be named later or cash heading back to San Diego.

Good for NH either way. He certainly attempted to address the team's offensive needs. With Ryan Doumit almost ready to come off the DL, the return of at least Alex Presley in the near future and eventually Jose Tabata in left field and the hopes for Pedro Alvarez's late 2010 power bat, the Bucs are a better team than they were on Sunday. Sitting 4 1/2 games out in the NL Central, the question now is are they good enough to climb back into the divisional race after a brutal road trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia accompanied by the Brewers beating up on the Astros and Cubs.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bob Walk Q & A

WB2PB got the chance to sit down with former Pirates pitcher and TV commentator Bob Walk before the Pirates' Sunday game against the Phillies. Here are some of his comments from that interview.

On the acquisition of Derrek Lee:
"I think it's a good situation for us. He makes us a little bit better in the infield defensively. He's probably not the offensive firepower Derrek Lee of three, four, five years ago but he still has a decent bat. His numbers show that he's gotten a little bit better as the season has gone on after a slow start. I have my fingers crossed that he'll be able to help us going down the stretch. Right now we could use a little bit of help."

The starting pitching has come a long way from this season to last. Can you talk about some of the differences this year?
"We are leaking oil a bit at this point, but earlier in the year they were all doing fantastic. It is an individual thing to each pitcher but in a general statement, except for maholm and correia, the other guys are young and still progressing and hopefully their best years are yet to come. That might be something naturally that they've taken some strides forward and now maybe have to take a few more strides. In Morton's case, he got off to a great start changing the way he's pitching to more of a sinker ball pitcher but recently has struggled with his control. He goes out and gets ground balls and keeps his pitch count down for a couple of innings and then he won't know where the ball is going and have a 30-pitch inning with walks. That's the sort of stuff he needs to get rid of  but all the guys have taken really nice strides this year and I expect them to taken even more next year and (pitching coach) Ray (Searage) deserves a huge amount of credit. This didn't happen on anybody else's watch but his. He's done a fantastic job."

"Maholm and Correia are older, veteran guys with a track record and you can look back at. Normally when guys hit their 30s, they don't take a big spurt in production but occasionally it does and that's what happened to both of those guys. Maholm may not have the wins but the rest of his stats are outstanding and he's having his best year. He's had some runs in the past or some good half seasons or a good couple of months but he's never been able to put together a full season and it looks like this year he is going to accomplish that. Again, even though they are older guys, I'm sure Ray has had a positive effect on those guys as well."

Walk's thoughts on whether the players were looking for some help from the organization to make a move at the deadline:
"I think all year we've been looking for offense. We started talking that this is all about pitching but people come up and say 'you're playing a lot better this year,' and it's really not been about scoring more runs. It's been all about the pitching, so this offense has been there looking at us all year. It's been a little bit of a roller coaster with injuries and stuff but even when we've been clicking, it's not like we're out there beating the heck out of people. When the other team scores more than four runs, I think we've only won four games all year. We don't win very many ball games where the score gets up above five runs. That's been all year obviously and would likely continue on through into the second half unless we get some offense. I've been holding out that Pedro Alvarez comes up and plays like he did at the end of last season. If that happens, there is the answer. I think a Pedro Alvarez that we had in the month of September is better than anyone we can trade for right now. Last year, he has 26 RBI in the last month of the season. He really turned on the long-ball power and I'd love to see that continue. He got the two-run homer (on Saturday off Cliff Lee). That's the kind of Pedro Alvarez we need and would be a big help to us. As far as what is out there on the trading block, getting a big home run hitter, I don't think anyone thought that was going to happen. Bringing in Derrek Lee is a move that is going to make us a better team, but he's not really a gamechanger in the middle of that lineup, at least he hasn't been that way for a little while. Although liek I said, he's gotten a lot better as the season has gone along. He got off to a really slow start in Baltimore."

About the Pirates' minor league pitchers:
"You use those arms to go get bats. Arms are extremely difficult to find. You can't find pitching and pitching has made the difference on our team in wins and losses this year. That's the difference maker at this level. Look at what the Giants last year, it's pitching. Look at what the Giants are doing this year. It's pitching. They don't score any runs either like us. I think it's very wise to invest heavily in pitching in the minor leagues and then when you have that overabundance that you hopefull will get, you then use that to go out and get the bats you really want. I could see that happening when some of those younger minor league guys (Colton Cain, Jameson Taillon, Colten Brewer, Stetson Allie, Gerrit Cole) come up to the top if we are still in the same situation we are now, then perhaps we put a prospect package together and make a push for a real big bat if the time comes and we still need one."

On the fans' response in Pittsburgh and beyond to the team's 2011 success:
It's what we always predicted and hoped for that when the team started playing better, the fans would respond and it's been probably the biggest surprise to me. Even bigger than the way we are playing, the way the Pittsburgh fans have come out is amazing. And it's not just at the ballpark but around the city, in the suburbs. You go to the mall and half the people are wearing Pirate gear and even around some of the visiting ballparks we've gone around to. We are seeing more and more Pirates stuff. I think the people all over are jumping on the Pirates bandwagon. It's a good story, we're a young team that hasn't won in a while. We've got people rooting for us all over the place.

On the rough schedule ahead:
"I think (the media and fans) look at that more than the players do. Andrew McCutchen was asked that after the split in Atlanta. Something about that was a tough series and we could've won three out of four, now you go on to Philadelphia, he said was "it is what it is. Can't do anything about it. We've got to go play the games. And I'm pretty sure they all feel that way down there. It's go out and play the game every night and that is what Clint has been preaching. Not to look too far ahead. We as fans or in media have probably been a little guilty of talking about the future because that is what we are always preparing for. Saying things like 'Yeah, we are going to be good two years from now' The guys in the clubhouse aren't playing that game. All they are thinking about is today.  They aren't even thinking about (Saturday's loss). How is that going to change anything today?"

Walk on how coming to work every day is different with a winner on the field:
"It's been more fun but actually it's been more frustrating. I didn't think I'd be saying this but years past, there would be things that would happen and you'd just shrug your shoulders and say 'OK well we're 20 games out of first place, we've got to get better. We can't be doing that anymore.' Now, we kick away a game or something and you drive home at night mad. The next day you try and forget about it but there is a lot more at stake now than there was in past year and you get irritated at things like a bad call by an umpire. It gets under your skin but that's a good thing really. I was talking to Clint about how my attitude has changed this season watching the ball game and he said to me that there are different ways to judge success and because now things irritate you, that's because they matter. And that shows how far the team has come. It's much more successful than it's been in a long time."