Grandal's impact felt by Bucs pitching staff

February 28th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Mitch Keller was in sync on the mound with , and they were doing something that the Pirates' new catcher encouraged the team's All-Star to try back at Pirate City: Throw his cutter more against right-handed hitters.

Usually, Keller uses his cutter more against left-handers to introduce some spin and horizontal movement while not landing the pitch in a southpaw's prime zone. Right-handers get more sweepers, which provide horizontal movement and can dive away from the hitter.

But Grandal likes how Keller's cutter plays off his sinker and wants him to experiment.

"Shake me off if you want," Grandal said following the Pirates' 13-4 win over the Braves at LECOM Park Tuesday. "Just understand when I call something, I just want to see how it plays off other things."

They tried it out in Keller's first spring start on Sunday, and the Pirates' newly extended ace felt good about the results.

"He's been around for a while and has caught a lot of good pitchers and seen a lot of games," Keller said. "He's very experienced back there. It's another learning experience for me and how I can get better and use my stuff better. I'm really excited for it."

"It's Spring Training," Grandal said. "The good thing about this is you can experiment as much as you can, and a lot of times you do that. Good things come out of it."

It's been a busy couple of weeks of cramming for Grandal. Ideally, he would spend most of the offseason getting to know his new pitchers through texting and calls so that they can hit the ground running when Spring Training starts. However, he wasn't afforded that luxury this winter. He didn't end up agreeing to a contract with the Pirates until Feb. 14. As a result, there's been more learning on the fly.

The two good things for him are that he has plenty of experience to fall back on and a pitching staff that wants to listen.

"I love throwing to Yaz," said Tuesday's starter Marco Gonzales. "He's been awesome to work with. I think he really gets me -- who I am as a pitcher. I've faced him and a bunch and I think he understands what I'm trying to do."

One of Gonzales' main projects this winter was getting his cutter back, and he threw it more Tuesday than he did in any start besides his first last season. Again, a little bit of experimentation.

With younger guys like Luis Ortiz, it's more about building confidence. Having them learn to trust their stuff and, when necessary, just hit the glove. After retiring the first two hitters of his inning on Tuesday, Ortiz fell behind early in the count to Sean Murphy. Grandal stood up and signaled to his pitcher to just hit the mitt. Ortiz did, and Murphy was retired.

It was a veteran move from a position otherwise full of younger players. Henry Davis is trying to earn his spot as one of two catchers the team carries out of Spring Training, but he and the other options of Jason Delay and Ali Sánchez have not had a complete year in the Majors yet.

"We have a very young catching staff behind Yaz, so we wanted to make sure that we added a veteran," said manager Derek Shelton. "The thing I like the most is Ortiz is 3-0 to Murphy and [Grandal] stood up in front of the plate and was like, 'Hey, let's put the ball in play here.' That's encouraging. We're going to need that."

There can be experimentation with those younger pitchers too – two spots in the rotation are up for grabs in spring competitions, after all – but after Grandal feels they are more confident.

"As we get into it, we'll get into video and we'll start talking about, 'You got this guy out here because look at how this thing looked," Grandal said. "'Look at where the location was and how they play off each other.' But I think reinforcement with those guys is attack the strike zone, attack the hitters."

The Pirates have some question marks in the rotation, even with more veterans like Gonzales. That makes a veteran catcher who knows his staff important for a young team.

"Work in progress, but we're getting there," Grandal said.