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Pregame: Burnett set for PNC Park start, team monitoring Melancon's velocity

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Notes and quotes from today's pregame:

A.J. Returns

Tonight, A.J. Burnett will make his first start in PNC Park as a Pirate since Septemeber 21, 2013. After the yesterday's game, the right-hander said that taking the mound tonight was going to be "special."

"I'm looking forward to it," Burnett said. "The crowd, the excitement, the energy that the team and fans bring. I just want to carry on what the young kid (Gerrit Cole) started today."

Clint Hurdle said that every pitcher has a different set of weapons, so Burnett's game plan won't necessarily mimic the one that contributed to Cole's strong start.

"He's had success against these guys already," Hurdle said. "I think he is going to rely on the experience of the games he's pitched against them. He'll stay with his strengths. Fastballs on both sides of the plate. Comebacker to the left-handers in. Keep the right-handers stood up and honest."

Burnett has held Miguel Cabrera to a .631 OPS in 26 plate appearances. Other Tigers of note: Ian Kinsler .558 OPS in 28 PA, Alex Avila .350 OPS in 12 PA, Victor Martinez .984 OPS in 37 PA, and J.D. Martinez .000 OPS in 10 PA.

Hart starts; Marte out

Corey Hart will start in right field tonight, with Gregory Polanco moving to left field and Starling Marte out of the lineup. Hurdle had a straightforward explanation for the move: "Marte, the way he is swinging the bat, he's out, Hart's in."

Marte is 3-26, with 14 strikeouts in his first seven starts.

Losing velocity

As many noted in the postgame discussion, the velocity of Mark Melancon's cutter has fallen off fairly drastically. From the graph, we can see that it is down 3 MPH on average.

MM Velocity

To see whether this is might simply be part of a common early season decline for Melancon, I looked at his game-by-game cutter velocity over the course of last season and April of this year.

MM year velocity

We see that his velocity is trending slightly upward, but is still noticeably below 2014 levels.

Of course any steep decline in velocity raises concerns about a possible injury. However this afternoon Hurdle said that "concern is not a word I'm going to use."

"I think you just need to evaluate and have conversations (with Melancon)," Hurdle continued. "I think the best way to get things done in the clubhouse is when you have questions you just ask them. It's always important to ask the player what they feel. What are they seeing. What are they experiencing."

First pitch swinging

Yesterday, we noted that the Pirates were putting a lot of first pitches in play. Heading into tonight's game, their first pitch swinging rate is up eight percent from last season, 26 to 34 percent.

I asked Josh Harrison today whether these numbers reflected a increased emphasis on being aggressive early in the count this season. He laughed while saying, "No, not at all."

"That's just something that's happening," Harrison said. "The game will dictate whether you want to swing at the first pitch or not and certain situations. And I guess we've probably been provided with a lot of opportunities this year where the game dictates it. But it's not something where we've said, ‘Hey let's swing at more first pitches.'"

Hart utilizing scouting reports

Following Monday's game, Corey Hart credited good scouting reports for his early success in the role of a pinch hitter. I asked him today if the Pirates were providing unique information that he didn't receive in Milwaukee or Seattle. He said that there wasn't much of a difference, and that most scouting reports are fairly generic.

"It's pretty standard stuff," Hart said. "I just started digging into them more than I used to. As a starter I never really paid attention to relief guys. I was always looking at starters, so now I'm just looking at more guys."

Hart then provided some insight into the type of information he is interested in when he looks at the scouting reports.

"When I'm pinch hitting against a smaller lefty it's going to be different pitch selection and they are going to attack me differently," Hart explained. "Also, I look at who I'm similar to (to see how they've been pitched) and the game situation. A one run game or five run game is going to be different. I look and see if there are any type of red flags that pop up."

Morton update

Hurdle said that Charlie Morton is making "making some progress, it's incremental."

"We're just working on things," Hurdle continued. "The health is where it's at. He's just trying to make sure that his biggest focus point is staying connected over his backside, creating balance over his backside and repeating his delivery."

The team is still mapping out when they'll pull him out of extended spring training and have him compete somewhere.