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Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone

| Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
USA Today Sports
Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton throws a pitch in the first inning of a spring training game Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers to the plate during a spring training game against the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict watches a workout in the bullpen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict talks with A.J. Burnett in the bullpen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., in March.

BRADENTON, Fla.

The low strike is changing baseball, and it has changed the Pirates.

Pitchers increasingly are targeting the lower third of the strike zone, and the lower part of the zone is expanding rapidly for a variety of reasons. These trends explain, in part, why the sport reached its lowest level of run scoring last season — 4.07 runs per game — since 1981.

In today's game, the low pitch is more likely to be hit into an infield shift, called a strike or framed by an adept catcher. While more pitches are being thrown lower in the zone, few teams have thrown there as often the past two seasons, and no team has had more success, than the Pirates.

Last season, 53.9 percent of Pirates pitches were located in or around the lowest third of the strike zone, according to Trib Total Media research of PITCHf/x data. The major league average for pitchers throwing 1,000 or more pitches was 51.5 percent.

An important byproduct has been more ground balls. The Pirates produced an MLB-high 51.5 percent ground ball rate over the past two seasons. The next closest team, the Colorado Rockies, posted a 47.5 percent rate. The 4 percent edge is a dramatic gulf, the same gap that separates the second-best Rockies from the 21st-ranked Toronto Blue Jays (43.5 percent).

Low pitches result in ground balls. Over the past two seasons, the Pirates have allowed the fewest home runs in baseball (229), more than a hundred fewer than the two most homer-prone staffs in the National League: the Milwaukee Brewers (342) and Cincinnati Reds (333).

“(It's the) type of pitcher that we've typically worked to acquire, the type of catcher we've typically worked to acquire, the emphasis within our development system,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of the philosophy. “Ground balls don't leave the ballpark. (The skill) was undervalued at one point in our minds. Now it is being valued. Receiving is being valued.”

The low strike has helped the Pirates evolve from perennial losers into back-to-back postseason participants. The low strike is the product of philosophy, teaching and skill.

And it is a competitive advantage at risk.

Philosophy 101

Unlike a 98 mph fastball or knee-melting curve, the beauty of the low pitch is it can be taught. And perhaps the club's best teacher is Jim Benedict, the organizational pitching guru and special assistant to Huntington.

Benedict's cerebral teaching style has been borrowed from many places. He owns a master's degree in history. He is interested in analytics, biomechanics and video scouting. He learned much from his three years pitching in the minors. He learned to identify pitchers' flaws from his years of scouting. He credits much of his teaching style to Dave Snow, his coach at Los Angeles Valley College.

Benedict rarely speaks during bullpen sessions. After the final throw, his towering, tanned 6-foot-3 frame moves toward pitchers and offers a quick assessment. He will sneak up on players in video rooms or during catch sessions in the outfield for a chat. He vowed never to use gadgets such as weighted balls or strings tied across home plate at knee level to teach the Pirates' low-strike plan.

“Just like with everything else, the root of all fixing is through education,” Benedict said. “Educate the player, and they get it.”

Benedict preaches the benefits of pitching down to improve pitch efficiency and generate outs in three pitches or less.

“We have coaches with (pitch-count) clickers. We have offenses trying to build up high pitch counts,” Benedict said. “If you're up in the zone, you are going to have a high pitch count.”

Benedict simplifies approaches for pitchers: Rather than try to be too fine with command, attack a broad area low in the zone, the lower third. “Attack the strike zone ... break bats.” That's what pitchers hear again and again from Benedict.

“We use a progression,” Benedict said. “Down before in and out; in and out before up. If you are in before down, you're probably going to be up. If you're up before down, you're up. So we are down first. The down is where we work from as an idea, and then we expand off of that.”

Benedict preaches process over outcome.

“The problem is, with a lot of pitchers, all they think about is where the ball lands, not the process to make it land there,” Benedict said. “Once you release the ball, you have zero to do with. Nothing.”

Traded to Pittsburgh in November, Rob Scahill began to pitch away from contact in the unforgiving pitching environments of the Rockies system. He has attacked the strike zone more often this spring. What has struck Scahill is the “continuity” of the Pirates' philosophy.

“Everyone is all on the same page,” he said.

What has he hears most often? “Strike one … they've really preached that,” he said.

Reaching a summit

At every stop in Ray Searage's major league career as a left-handed reliever, a coach tried to overhaul his mechanics. Searage vowed he never would do that.

While Benedict takes a cerebral approach, Searage, the other part of the Pirates' pitcher-whispering team, believes the skill that allows him to connect with pitchers is empathy. Talking about pitching philosophy is one thing. Making an mechanical adjustment is more personal.

Francisco Liriano raised his arm slot with the Pirates to cut down on east-west misses and create a better plane. A subtle tweak. Charlie Morton lowered his slot to improve command and create more spin. Another subtle tweak. Both pitchers turned around their careers in Pittsburgh. Searage doesn't teach cookie-cutter mechanics. He teaches a uniform concept.

The Pirates want pitches on a steep angle, a tougher trajectory to hit, which also improves the likelihood the pitch will be lower in the zone. No matter the arm slot, every pitcher has an apex, where the ball is at its highest point in a throwing motion. Searage and the Pirates want their pitchers to reach it as quickly and as efficiently as possible — not with a long, windmill-like route. In his scratchy native Long Island, N.Y., accent, he explained through an analogy.

“If you watch how quarterbacks throw, they can throw the ball 60 yards by doing what? Short and quick,” said Searage, mimicking a quarterback bringing the ball to an ear-level starting point.

“Their strides aren't long. They are over their legs and then boom!” he said, releasing an invisible football. “They throw the crap out of it. We are trying to get the same kind of philosophy. … If you get it out and up (directly), then you will be able to get your angle.”

It's an important message for the Pirates' young pitchers. Prospect Jameson Taillon has heard over and over about the importance of plane and location.

“Pitching down is in my head,” Taillon said. “It's a thought. It's a mission.”

Growing zone

There is another advantage to pitching low: The lower third of the strike zone is growing.

In comparing 2009 PITCHf/x pitch-location data to 2014, analyst Jon Roegele calculated the strike zone grew by 39 square inches. Nearly all of the growth was in the lower part of the zone, roughly two inches across the plate. In 2009, Roegele found the strike zone did not extend below 21 inches above the plate. Last season, the average strike zone contained 47 square inches of space below that border.

Roegele suggested nearly one-third of the run-scoring decline is attributed to an expanded strike zone.

The idea is that pitch-tracking technology, used to grade umpires, has compelled umpires to alter their strike zones. PITCHf/x was in every stadium by 2008. Pitchers, in turn, more often targeted those lower zones. And as adept pitch-framers have said, it is easier to frame pitches lower in the zone as it requires only subtle movement of the glove.

The Pirates have invested heavily in pitch-framing skills, acquiring above-average framers in Russell Martin, Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli in successive offseasons. They have helped own the lower third of the strike zone.

Hitters are trying to fight back.

Searage has noticed some batters have become more adept at hitting fastballs lower in the zone. The Oakland Athletics have hoarded fly-ball hitters as their swing paths match up more favorably with low pitches.

Moreover, Yahoo reported earlier this year the commissioner's office has taken notice of the expanding strike zone and is intrigued with the idea of shrinking the zone to add offense.

Is that a worry for the Pirates? Huntington said the Pirates will “work hard to try to maximize our outcome ... wherever the powers that be in New York decide to take the game.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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