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Pirates pitching staff putting up Ks at rate not seen here in 40 years

| Monday, May 7, 2012, 11:58 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher Erik Bedard delivers during the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday April 22, 2012, at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher Erik Bedard puases on the mound after giving up two runs during the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday April 22, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald delivers during the first inning against Colorado Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald delivers against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the third inning against the Cardinals Saturday April 21, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Erik Bedard doesn't think of himself as a strikeout pitcher anymore.

“Not after three surgeries,” Bedard said.

In 2007, when his stuff was at its nastiest, Bedard led the majors by averaging 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9). His numbers have dropped since then, indicative of the toll of the operations that rebuilt his left elbow and shoulder.

Yet, Bedard still has what it takes to get the ball by hitters. Five days ago, the left-hander racked up 11 strikeouts in five innings against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was part of a franchise record-setting 17-strikeout game by Pirates pitchers.

Three days before Bedard dazzled the Cardinals, James McDonald amassed 10 strikeouts against the Atlanta Braves. In his April 21 debut, A.J. Burnett whiffed seven Cardinals in seven innings.

So far this season, Pirates pitchers are putting up Ks at a rate not seen in Pittsburgh in more than 40 years.

“We talked about it when we added Burnett and Bedard, and we've seen it come into play,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's definitely helped.”

National League teams have averaged at least 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings every year since 2008. In that stretch, the Pirates always were well below the league average.

This season, the Pirates' SO/9 is 7.4 — the seventh-best rate in the NL and just one-tenth under the league average.

The Pirates haven't finished a season with a SO/9 of at least 7.0 since 1969.

They were one full strikeout better than the average that year and ranked second in the NL, which then had 12 teams.

“Anytime you can get a strikeout ... there's no play that needs to be made, so it's the easiest out in baseball,” Hurdle said. “Over time, it wears down an offense. It frustrates hitters. It's frustrating to go up there and swing and miss repeatedly.”

Still, a manager's love of the strikeout comes with two caveats. First, a high SO/9 rate must be accompanied by a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. What's the point of lots of strikeouts if just as many batters are getting on base with walks?

The Pirates have improved their strikeout-to-walk ratio every season since 2008. This year, they average 2.23 strikeouts for every walk — their best ratio since 1991, when it was 2.29.

Second, strikeouts are great, as long as they don't overly inflate a pitch count and shorten a pitcher's outing. Pitching coordinator Jim Benedict believes a ground ball is the best way to get an out, because a pitcher can zip through an inning with as few as three pitches.

“The thing about strikeouts is, you have to get to two strikes to get a strikeout,” Benedict said.

Note: Top outfielder prospect Starling Marte was hit by a pitch on the right hand during a game Sunday with Triple-A Indianapolis. General manager Neal Huntington said Marte is day to day but did not describe the nature of the injury. Also at Indy, reliever Daniel Moskos was placed on the disabled list with what Huntington described as “discomfort” in his left elbow.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7811 or rbiertempfel@tribweb.com.

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