Every week in “The Little Things”, we cover examples of fundamentally sound baseball by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  These are not necessarily clutch hits or big strikeouts, but instead are the small things that a professional baseball player can to do help his team win.

After a losing a disappointing three games at home to the Cincinnati Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished the week by sweeping the Cubs at Wrigley Field.  There were many examples of solid, fundamental baseball during the past week.  However, in this edition of The Little Things, we want to focus on three bench players that may not normally get a lot of recognition for the important roles they play on the team.

Chris Stewart’s smart base running

In the Pittsburgh Pirates’ final game against the Boston Red Sox on April 13th, Chris Stewart hit a double off the Green Monster and found himself on second with one out.   Jordy Mercer followed with a ground ball single barely through the hole on the left side of the infield.  Because Stewart wasn’t sure if the shortstop would get to the ball, he had to stay at second.  When the ball did get by the shortstop, Stewart alertly noticed that the third baseman had also run out towards the outfield after the ball and the pitcher had not come over to cover third.

Stewart scampered to third much to the chagrin of the Red Sox defense.  This doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but by taking advantage of that situation, he put himself on third with only one out.  This was a great run scoring opportunity, but unfortunately, the next batter (Starling Marte) could not get the ball into the outfield and instead struck out.  This was followed by Andrew McCutchen flying out right field on the first pitch he saw.  Still, we give a lot of credit to Stewart for using his head.

John Jaso makes a productive out

This example will not seem very exciting, but we just love it when a professional baseball player sacrifices his own stats in order to do something good for the team.  Since those players don’t get recognized in the typical game summaries, we often try to call them out here.  In this case, John Jaso was that player.

In the April 14th game against the Chicago Cubs, Gregory Polanco had started the top of the second inning by walking, stealing second and scoring on David Freese’s double.  This gave the Pirates and early 1-0 lead.  Going up 2-0 would increase the Pirates win probability to over 70%.  John Jaso stepped to the plate with Freese on second and no outs.  Jaso made absolutely sure he hit the ball to the right side of the field which moved Freese to third with only one out.  Jaso got another hitless at-bat added to his stat-sheet, but put the Pirates in an excellent run-scoring situation.  This kind of team-first baseball is what helps teams win close games.

Phil Gosselin gets on the board

Phil Gosslein has had a rough start at the plate as a Pittsburgh Pirate.  He was 0 for his first 9 at bats heading into the April 15th game against the Chicago Cubs.  He had hit the ball hard a few times but always right at someone.  He had tried going the opposite way the previous few at-bats with only a couple of lineouts to right field to show for it.

He got his chance to pinch hit to lead off the top of the 8th inning.  The Pirates were leading 8-6 after a furious comeback, but on this particular day, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field, no lead was safe.  Gosslein needed to get on base for his team and he needed to get his own personal 0-for off his back.  He noticed the Cubs’ third baseman, Kris Bryant, was playing him deep so he laid down a surprise bunt on the first pitch.  Bryant did an admirable job fielding the bunt, but the throw was just a bit too late.  Gosslein had his first hit and the Pirates had a baserunner with nobody out.  This is the kind of thing that smart players can do to help their teams.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all roses last week.  There were some big gaffes as well and one of these cost the Pittsburgh Pirates a potential win.

Gregory Polanco’s big mistake

Gregory Polanco made a bad decision in the April 13th game against the Boston Red Sox that would lead to a run scored.  The Red Sox won the game 4-3 so this run was very important in this particular game.

The Sox had a runner on second with one out when Marco Hernandez sent a fly ball deep to left field.   The ball ended up hitting the left field wall about 3 feet up and was therefore catchable.  However, Polanco made a decision to pretend like he was going to catch the ball well off the wall and, theoretically, hold the Boston Runner at second base.  At the last moment, he turned and fielded the ball off the wall.

This was just an incredibly poor decision by Polanco and shows that he has a lot to learn in left field. 

The problems with this decision are numerous.  First, with a runner on second and one out, you are trying to catch any ball that is remotely reachable.  The penalty for trying to catch it and miss is a run scored and a runner at second – maybe third.

But the penalty for trying to deke the runner was worse.  Once the runner at second (first baseman Mitch Moreland) saw that Polanco was trying to deke him, he immediately took off.  He could clearly see the flight of the ball and knew it was deeper than where Polanco was standing.  If Polanco had gone for the ball instead of trying the ill-fated deke move, Moreland would have had to stay close to second.  This was just an incredibly poor decision by Polanco and shows that he has a lot to learn in left field.  If Polanco would have run to the wall and made the catch – a difficult catch for sure but a catchable ball nonetheless – then the inning ends without the Red Sox scoring a run and the Pirates at least force the Red Sox to bat in the bottom of the ninth.

Chris Stewart is our fundamental player of the week

We would like to recognize Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Chris Stewart for his heads up base running this week.

Stewart has always meant much more to the Pittsburgh Pirates than merely a backup catcher.  Stewart personifies doing the little things right with his “smart hitting” mantra.  He can be counted on to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the team.  He also does an amazing job doing the little things right as a catcher.  Have you ever seen Stewart block a pitch in the dirt?  He has textbook technique and often doesn’t get recognized for these kinds of catching skills because he only starts 30-40 games a year.

Photo credit – Bryan Green – Flickr Creative Commons

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.