PITTSBURGH -- The jump in the rate at which Pirates pitchers are piling up strikeouts has received a lot of attention and been explained in a variety of ways.
Led by James McDonald's emergence to join veteran put-away aces A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, the Bucs were averaging 7.32 strikeouts every nine innings heading into Tuesday's game, by far a record pace for a franchise that has had only one other staff hit 7.0 (1969).To Clint Hurdle, it's all about the younger pitchers putting their experience to use. "They know what they have to do with two strikes, and that's not to go to 'show' pitches," the manager said. "They have the aggressive mentality to put batters away." To pitching coach Ray Searage, Bedard and Burnett showed the way for an erstwhile pitch-to-contact staff and "everyone else is feeding off them, which is great." To one of the principals -- Jason Grilli, who has 33 punchouts in 18 innings -- it's "just going for it when I got two strikes on the guy, without holding anything back." All good theories, all overlooking possibly the best explanation of all: The Pirates are merely falling in line with a Major League trend of escalating strikeouts; after all, they are pitching against the same guys as everyone else and are ranked 17th in the Majors in strikeouts per nine innings. Majors-wide, the 30 clubs are striking out 7.4 men per nine innings, which at the end of the season would also be an all-time record, topping the old mark of 7.1 set last season. Furthermore, that 0.3 jump is the largest from one season to the next since 1985-86, when the rate went from 5.4 to 5.9.
Hurdle giving Barmes break to work on swing
PITTSBURGH -- In at least one sense, and temporarily, Jordy Mercer has already made Clint Barmes disappear. With the rookie on his bench and ready to either back up Josh Harrison or start himself at short, manager Clint Hurdle has the chance to do something that has been on his mind for a while.Get Barmes off the frontline for an extended period, and get him into his batting laboratory. Barmes sat Tuesday night, and he'll remain out of sight in Wednesday night's homestand finale. "Then with the off-day Thursday, it'll give him three days to regroup with some of the stuff he's working on," said Hurdle, who remains confident his former Colorado shortstop will resume hitting in his style. That's something for the Pirates to hold onto. If it's trustworthy that baseball water seeks its own level -- that players reach their norm over the course of a long season -- Barmes' next four months would boost the Bucs' offense. The pre-2012 .252 career hitter would have to go 126-for-360 (.283) to get his current .170 there at the 500 at-bat mark. "People here haven't seen the way Barmes can, and I still believe will, hit," Hurdle said. "I'm working with him on some specific things, and it could be a couple-of-days thing." As for Mercer, he figured to make his Major League debut Tuesday night as a late-game defensive replacement for Harrison. Hurdle considers Mercer defensively superior to Harrison. Hurdle might be tempted to have Mercer make his first big league start in Wednesday's series finale with the Reds, with Harrison returning to right field. However, he may want to give Mercer an easier first assignment than Cincinnati's scheduled starter, ace Johnny Cueto. Then again, Matt Hague made his own big league debut earlier this season against the Phillies' Cliff Lee.
Up next for the trio of right-handers on the DL: Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) will have a five-inning or 80-pitch rehab outing Thursday in Indianapolis versus Durham; Chris Leroux (strained pectoral muscle) will pitch two innings in a Pirate City extended spring training game on Saturday; Daniel McCutchen (strained left oblique) has begun throwing and is slated to throw a bullpen session next week. The Bucs began play Tuesday with two errors in their last 13 games and the Majors' best fielding percentage (.996) in that stretch. Defensive stats are often misleading for not taking range into account, but that baker's dozen actually includes numerous plays on certifiably tough chances. Jordy Mercer's arrival means there are three selections in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft on the current roster: Pedro Alvarez (first round, second overall), Mercer (third) and Matt Hague (ninth). The value of pitching: In their recent 12-game losing streak, the Chicago Cubs scored an average of 2.75 runs per game. For the season, before Tuesday's game, the Pirates averaged one-quarter run more -- and had a .500 record (24-24).
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.