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Bucs lefties display quality, quantity

Bucs display quality, quantity with lefties

LOS ANGELES -- Before the Reds left Pittsburgh last week and before they were handed a three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates in which they scored just four runs, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker knew he had a problem.

"Boy, these Pirates, I don't know," Baker said before the opening game of the series. "They present a problem. How do they consistently come up with all these left-handed pitchers?"

He has a point.

"Since the beginning of time, as long as I can remember, they've had three left-handers in the bullpen and three left-handed starters -- six lefties," Baker added. "They've always had them. They have a left-handed scouting master somewhere."

The Pirates opened the season with six left-handers on a 13-man pitching staff. No other Major League club currently has more than five in total, and there are only three teams with even that many.

And like Baker pointed out, this influx of lefties in the Pirates' staff is not a new phenomenon, even if it isn't commonplace around baseball.

Consider these trends:

• The Pirates have had three lefties in their Opening Day rotation every year since 2004. By contrast, only four other teams currently have three left-handers in their rotation. And that number would be one fewer if Oakland's Rich Harden hadn't landed on the disabled list shortly after the season started. More than half of baseball's clubs have starting rotations with one or fewer left-handers in it.

• The Blue Jays are the lone team with more lefties (four) in the bullpen than the Pirates, though Toronto does not have a southpaw in its rotation. Only the Mets and the Padres, like the Pirates, have three left-handers in their bullpens. The average number of southpaws in an MLB bullpen? Less than two.

So how do the Pirates year after year seem to buck the trend of having a right-handed-dominant pitching staff? And ultimately does doing so work to their advantage?

"There are not a lot of good lefties," pitching coach Jeff Andrews explained. "The difference with our guys is that they have a little velocity. A lot of lefties can't stand up a right-handed hitter, but our guys can. We throw inside and they understand that. They understand that you can't just be a one-side-of-the-plate kind of guy."

So therein lies key No. 1 -- velocity.

"Most of the time, the left-handed starters get clumped into the fifth-starter category because they have fringe stuff," general manager Neal Huntington added. "But with left-handers, sometimes those do also have the arms.

"I sat behind the plate and watched [Tom] Glavine throwing 94," Huntington continued. "When Tom Glavine was drafted, there was power in that arm."

Each of the Pirates' left-handed starters -- Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm -- can release their fastball in the high-80 to low-90-mph range, an ability that has proven to be necessary for top-of-the-rotation caliber left-handed starters.

However, that's not always to say that velocity is a must for lefties to be successful.

"If we were to see a pitcher with average command and control, if he's left-handed, he's naturally going to be a higher grade than if he was right-handed," Huntington said. "That's because a left-hander can get away with more stuff."

Stuff?

"Like a dominant changeup," Huntington said.

It's that changeup and the ability for left-handers to get right-handed hitters out easier than righties are able to get left-handed hitters out that has convinced both Huntington and Andrews that three lefties in a seven-man bullpen is not too many.

It's not too many as long as those lefties can consistently get right-handed hitters out -- which someone like John Grabow has proven to be more than capable of doing so far this year. Grabow this season has limited right-handers to a .167 batting average.

In fact, Andrews, who insists that baseball was invented for left-handed pitchers, would take even more.

"Give me five [in a seven-man bullpen]," Andrews said. "I don't care. I can never have too many."

Of the three lefty starters in Pittsburgh, two of them -- Duke and Maholm -- actually have had better success against right-handers than they have against left-handed hitters. Those numbers support Andrews' claim.

Reasonable deduction, however, would suggest that because managers typically prefer to play the odds by wanting a righty-on-righty or lefty-on-lefty matchup, that you would want more right-handed pitchers available since the majority of hitters are also right-handed.

Huntington conceded this point.

"Right-handed hitters have better numbers against left-handed pitchers," Huntington said. "We don't want to fly into the face of the numbers, but we want to respect the numbers."

But there seem to be some other advantages that may outweigh the disadvantages of not always having the righty-on-righty matchup. As a result, these advantages could point to the reason why the makeup of the Pirates' staff has given managers like Baker fits for years.

First off, the dimensions of PNC Park play into the hands of left-handed pitchers. With the power alley in right field, the Pirates have had to rely on lefties to counter the left-handed hitters to whom the park favors.

Lefties can take away the power of left-handed hitters much more easily, and even if a right-hander gets a good cut against a southpaw at PNC Park, he'll likely be trying to pull it toward left, the deepest part of the field.

Then there's the makeup of the top National League Central lineups to consider. The predicted top three finishers in the division -- Chicago, Milwaukee and Cincinnati -- all have at least one potent heart-of-the-order left-handed bat to contest with.

There's Kosuke Fukudome with the Cubs, Prince Fielder with the Brewers and both Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, Jr. with the Reds. Late in a game, the Pirates appreciate having the luxury of having enough lefties in the bullpen to have them ready to tame that power.

Then again, there's simply the fact that the Pirates like how their left-handers can exploit the ego of right-handed hitters, enough to where it makes up for the fact that left-handers, in theory, are supposed to struggle against right-handed hitters.

"They can sink it away and make it look like a fastball, and that makes the hitters desire to pull the ball," Huntington said. "If he tries to pull something, he's going to ground it to the shortstop."

So maybe it's not so much that they have a lot of left-handed pitchers, but that the Pirates have what they believe to be the right mix of left-handed pitchers. Each has a slightly different look. They have the velocity. And they have had success against hitters on both sides of the plate.

Huntington admits that not only do other teams often struggle at managing against a left-handed-heavy staff, but that the staff is also often the envy of other clubs around the league.

"The Pirates' situation is unique in the industry because clubs are looking for left-handed pitchers," Huntington said. "They are definitely a commodity."

A commodity that the Pirates are well stocked in.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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