The Jinx is On: Pirates at Cardinals

Sunday's starter Ian Snell has fallen off the wall and the Pittsburgh Pirates can't put him back together again.

Back on April 23rd, we used a phrase coined by Bucs Dugout, a blog that follows the Pirates as closely as stink follows a dumptruck, to describe the Pirates' rotation: "Ian Snell and Four Days of Hell". At the time, the 26-year-old power righty was the lone bright spot of the Pittsburgh pitching staff, which as a group was on pace to give up 1,000 runs for the first time in a century.

In what may be the first-ever documented Birdhouse Cover Jinx, Ian Snell has thrown only one quality start in seven tries since that date, and has not won another game, as his ERA has soared from 4.07 to 5.46.

The powers of unintentional internet hoodoo made all-too apparent:

 

W-L

ERA

WHIP

K

BB

Before April 23

2-1

4.07

1.40

20

5

After April 23

0-3

6.34

2.01

24

26

The Cardinals touched him for four runs in the first inning to kick off that April series, but couldn't break through any further, nor touch the bullpen in what turned out to be a 7-4 Redbird loss. Snell pitched six innings total, giving up 12 baserunners against only one strikeout, reversing what had been a relatively promising trend.

That this is happening to a Pittsburgh pitcher isn't all that shocking – Zach Duke and Oliver Perez both struggled mightily to fulfill the potential they each flashed in strong rookie campaigns, and several other recent prospects are still stuck at the gate in terms of trying to translate their farm team results up here under the bright lights. That this is happening to Snell, though, must be very disturbing for the Pirates team.

Snell had shown improvement in every major metric – ERA, WHIP, Innings Pitched, Strikeouts per Walk – in his last three seasons, and appeared to be primed for a breakout year, just as he was about to become arbitration eligible. New GM Neal Huntington weighed the risks and rewards this spring, and then signed Snell to a 5-year deal that buys out his arbitration years and could be worth up to $24.6 million.

This follows the new conventional wisdom in the majors that has seen teams lock up their young franchise pieces for reasonable salaries before they gain that next level of bargaining leverage. These deals have usually only been made for those athletes that are seen as both high-ceiling and ultra-reliable, such as the Mets' David Wright, the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez, and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright. Most recently in this trend, Ryan Braun received a massive commitment from the Brewers after less than a year's service time.

So it is more than just a little bothersome for the Pirates to watch Snell's struggles. And it is surely perturbing to hear the Pirates' new pitching coach, Jeff Andrews, essentially pull himself out of the debate. Speaking to the Pirates.mlb.com beat reporter, Andrews pulled out the old "It's not me, it's you" analysis of his struggling pitching staff, Snell included:

"They're the same guys since I've seen them in 2003," Andrews said. "There's nothing strange, weird, out of the ordinary. It's all mental. If you go out there and want to throw the ball over the plate, you're going to." (Full article).

Andrews is a guy who was promoted through the ranks, after spending 21 years in the Pirates minor leagues in various instructional capacities. His 2003 team at AA-Altoona featured current Pirates Tom Gorzellany and Sean Burnett in the rotation, with Snell joining mid-season and posting a perfect 4-0 record. Zach Duke delighted Altoona in 2004 with a 1.58 ERA in nine games before being escalated upwards. Duke became the first of the new breed to hit the majors in 2005, and also becomes one of Andrews' top priorities on the workshop bench.

The coach's approach appears to be less thinking and more doing, less fineness and more attitude. With Duke in particular, Andrews is preaching a return to a mental state, rather than a mechanical state:

"More oomph. More zip. More purpose to the pitches."

This is consistent with what we're now reading about his advice to Snell and the rest. One might question whether attitude alone is enough to defeat the far-more-sophisticated major league batter, though. One might also question whether this emphasis on "oomph" might lead to some premature injuries, as pitchers try to throw harder, in attempt to earn "aggressiveness" points from their mentor.

As the Pirates find themselves in familiar straits – last place in the Central, though certainly not the worst team in the NL – their hopes of a second-season turnaround depending on how Snell and his castmates respond to Andrews' tough-love approach.



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