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Pirates

Pirates unearth a gem in Cervelli, who has made most of his time

| Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, 10:33 p.m.
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli ranks as MLB's best pitch-framer, according to Statscorner.com, saving 24.2 runs more than the average catcher in 2015.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli ranks as MLB's best pitch-framer, according to Statscorner.com, saving 24.2 runs more than the average catcher in 2015.
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli salutes his teammates in the dugout at the start of a game against the Brewers Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli salutes his teammates in the dugout at the start of a game against the Brewers Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, at PNC Park.

The opportunity arrived just after last season.It was Nov. 12, while Francisco Cervelli was watching friends play basketball in a neighborhood gym near his offseason home in Tampa, Fla., when his smartphone rang.

For the first time in 12 years with the New York Yankees organization, general manager Brian Cashman called with news. Cervelli had been traded to Pittsburgh for left-handed pitcher Justin Wilson. Cervelli was shocked, though it was reported he had fallen out of favor with Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

Friends, family and teammates reached out. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called.

“(Hurdle) told me, ‘We've been watching you for a long time,' ” Cervelli said.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Cervelli was on the club's short list of catching targets in November 2012. Russell Martin topped the list. While the team did not “Re-sign Russ!” as fans had chanted at last year's National League wild-card game, the Pirates had to replace him.

For the third straight offseason, the Pirates acquired an underappreciated Yankees catcher. This year, the 29-year-old Cervelli has produced more wins above replacement (3.5) than Martin (2.9), who moved on as a free agent to Toronto. Cervelli is second in on-base percentage (.384) among catchers, trailing only the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey.

Cervelli ranks as the game's best pitch-framer, according to statscorner.com, saving 24.2 runs more than the average catcher this season.

Have you any doubt about the quality of Cervelli's glove? Joey Votto, owner of an impeccable batting eye, was ejected from Thursday's game after being upset with pitches Cervelli had framed for strikes that were indeed off the plate.

Back in November while being flooded with incoming messages, Cervelli began reaching out with two phone calls.

The first was to his mother.

She had been there for him at his lowest points, when he was running out of opportunities. Cervelli was devastated when he was sent back to Triple-A in 2012 after the Yankees traded for Chris Stewart on the last day of spring training. He was embarrassed when he was caught up in the Biogenesis scandal, suspended for 50 games in 2013, after admittedly trying to find a short cut in returning from yet another injury.

The next phone call was to Julio Mosquera, who had been his minor league catching coordinator with the Yankees. Cervelli calls him his “guardian angel.” In spring 2006, Cervelli had finished a poor season in the Gulf Coast League as a backup. He had lost his confidence before Mosquera approached during a quiet bullpen at the spring training complex.

“He was the only guy who told me, ‘I'm going to help you,' ” Cervelli said.

Cervelli recalled his phone call with Mosquera.

“This is best for you,” Mosquera told him.

“I didn't know what to do that night,” Cervelli said of the trade. “The next day I say, ‘Well, (the trade) is what you want.' … I was ready to go.”

Yankee pipelines

Everyone liked Cervelli's throwing arm, but Mosquera was intrigued with Cervelli's hands. To help, he began with a drill designed to help develop softer, quieter hands.

Cervelli still uses it today, and just last winter, even his girlfriend worked with him on the drill. From one of two parallel couches on the patio of his Tampa condo, she would toss toward Cervelli an assortment of plastic balls varying in size and weight. Cervelli demonstrated the proper catching technique for the drill, extending his thumb, index finger and middle finger to form a prong.

Back then, Mosquera spoke with Cervelli about not only the mechanics of receiving but also another key technique: beating the ball to a spot.

In the late 2000s, the Yankees were on the cutting edge on quantifying pitch framing. Their analysts knew the difference between a 2-1 and 1-2 count is .150 to .200 points in batting average. Over the course of the season, a catcher who is capable of influencing borderline calls can save dozens of runs. When the Pirates acquired Martin and Stewart, they already ranked as elite framers. Last season, Cervelli ranked 12th in per-pitch receiving effectiveness.

Mosquera saw in Cervelli a drive to work and to support his family, which now is with him in the United States because of ongoing unrest in Venezuela. While Cervelli's mother is a native Venezuelan, his father's father, like tens of thousands of Italians in the 1950s, moved his family for better opportunity to oil-rich Venezuela after World War II. German air raids had left Cervelli's native town, Bari, Italy, (a strategic port for the Allies) in ruins.

Mosquera also liked that Cervelli is a good athlete.

“You have to start by having great hands and have the ability to stay down low,” Mosquera said. “He has all those abilities.”

In his youth, Cervelli was a dual-sport athlete. He played soccer in the alleys between the stucco walls of buildings in his native Valencia, located in the jagged hills of northern Venezuela. His passion for soccer lives on. Earlier this summer, from the visitors' clubhouse in Atlanta, a cry of anguish erupted after Barcelona scored against Cervelli's favorite Italian club, Juventus, en route to the UEFA Champions League title.

Being athletic, loose and flexible enables Cervelli to get low in his catching stance, which is critical in framing.

“The more eye-level (a pitch) is, the better view an umpire has. The lower ones (pitches) are more of an estimated guess,” said Stewart, who compares Cervelli to Martin. “They're both freak, athletic players.”

The lowest part of the strike zone in baseball has been expanding since 2009, according to pitch-tracking analysis by Jon Roegele. In that time, it has grown from a 6-square-inch space to 50 square inches, Roegele's research shows. With catchers skilled at framing pitches and a pitching staff that produces a lot of ground balls, the Pirates have taken advantage of the growing strike zone like no other team.

No Pirates pitcher throws more darting pitches in the lower portion of the strike zone than Charlie Morton. Morton said Cervelli's skills go beyond framing. It's his blocking of balls in the dirt and his game-calling that give a pitcher greater confidence.

“I'm not sure how much it gets talked about, but when we started putting an emphasis on defensive catchers, we started playing a lot better,” Morton said. “We started winning.”

The stumbling block

The Pirates knew there was opportunity if Cervelli could remain healthy. Entering this season, he had missed almost as many major league games to injury (183) as he had played in (250), though his ailments were not chronic.

When he was healthy, he was effective. His .303 batting average, .384 on-base percentage and .417 slugging mark this season are in line with his career numbers: .285/.358/.392.

“He performed in small sample sizes,” Huntington said. “Defensively, he's been everything we thought and hoped he'd be. … We felt like there was bat there.”

There also was an opportunity for Cervelli to better stay healthy, thanks to the efforts of the Pirates strength and conditioning staff. Cervelli is one of the Pirates wearing the Zephyr BioHarness, which monitors fatigue level, under his jersey. He has spherical bruising dotting his lower back from the ancient practice of “cupping,” which has become popular in the clubhouse. Some players believe the suction cups reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Perhaps it is one of the reasons the Pirates have the third-fewest days in the National League lost to the disabled list. And, for the first time in his career, Cervelli has remained healthy.

‘You die for them'

When A.J. Burnett made first All-Star Game appearance came in July, the veteran pitcher took his game jersey and batting practice jersey home to commemorate the experience. He gave his batting practice jersey to Cervelli.

Burnett's appreciation for Cervelli goes beyond framing skills. In his third start after the break, Burnett was upset with a call and barked at the home-plate umpire. Cervelli intervened, standing up, turning around and blocking the umpire's view of Burnett, thus de-escalating the situation.

“You die for them,” Cervelli said of pitchers. “(The jersey) was the best gift ever.”

Huntington said scouts repeated this message: “This guy cares about the pitchers.”

Cervelli engages in a curious practice during games: He will block balls in the dirt when no runners are on base. Why?

“I don't do it for strikes,” Cervelli insisted. “(Umpires) appreciate when you block balls and you protect them.”

Pirates reliever Jared Hughes said Cervelli is always “positive.” After an inning in which Hughes missed up with several pitches earlier this season, Cervelli approached between innings.

“(Cervelli) said ‘Hey, man, you did a good job of getting out of that (jam). But you're best when you're getting on top of the ball,' ” Hughes recalled.

Cervelli builds relationships off the field with pitchers.

“He likes nice restaurants,” Hughes said, “and just talking about life.”

Said Cervelli: “I learned from one of my former teammates with the Yankees. He said, ‘You go out, you're at the (dinner) table, don't talk about negative stuff. Just (be) positive and have fun.' ”

The teammate? Derek Jeter.

Cervelli dines frequently at Adolfo's in Bloomfield, an Italian-Venezuelan restaurant. He likes the arepas, a flat-bread meat pie.

And, according to staff there, when patrons approach for autographs, Cervelli always complies.

For Cervelli, it's about making friends all over Pittsburgh and making the most of an opportunity.

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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