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Notes on the West Virginia Black Bears

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I spent the last two evenings at Monongalia County Ballpark watching the West Virginia Black Bears take on the State College Spikes (Cardinals). Here are some stray thoughts, some of which overlap with things I've tweeted in the past couple days.

-P- The Black Bears play on a synthetic surface, which I gather is because WVU also plays there, and there's a lot of bad weather in the early spring. The surface is odd-looking. Stuff bounces up from the turf when the ball strikes it, like it's wet, even when it's not. And sliding is clearly an issue for the players, who find that they need to begin their slides significantly earlier than they would on grass, so that they avoid sliding past the bag. (There isn't any dirt around the bags, and the base paths are a chocolaty brown color.) Grounders also apparently play faster on the synthetic surface than they would on grass.

-P- The ballpark itself is quite nice, with a concourse that provides good views of the action and of the mountains beyond the outfield fence. I'm not sure there's a bad place to sit or stand anywhere in the park, and you can't take that for granted, especially at the short-season level. Getting through construction on the highway in Little Washington apparently is impossible right now, so getting to a weekday evening game from Pittsburgh after work would probably be tough, but it's definitely worth a trip for a day or weekend game.

-P- The two starters (J.T. Brubaker and Bret Helton) didn't have the best command, and Helton in particular got hit a lot harder than a quick glance at his line would suggest. Brubaker was throwing 89-92, and Helton was at 88-93. As you'd expect of pitchers at this level, both are big-ish guys who threw mostly fastballs. Brubaker has that lean, projectable frame the Pirates like.

-P- Probably the most impressive relief arm I saw was that of Edgar Santana, who threw hard while pitching three scoreless innings Thursday.

-P- The Black Bears' defense was probably slightly above average for this level, particularly in the infield, although many of their position players and especially their infielders were early-round picks out of college, so perhaps that's to be expected. Kevin Newman made one fairly ugly throwing error on Thursday, but also made a very tough play Wednesday. Mitchell Tolman looked good at third.

-P- Newman and third-rounder Casey Hughston both had extra-base hits Thursday, which was nice to see, because the two of them and second-rounder Kevin Kramer (pictured) have gotten off to such slow starts. (Hughston, for example, went 1-for-29 in June.)

-P- The Black Bears love bunting. Loooove it. The Spikes didn't have the best infield defense, so bunting kind of made sense from a tactical perspective -- the Black Bears had 10 hits on Wednesday, for example, and most of those were bunts or other ground balls. But the point of these games isn't to win, it's to develop big-league ballplayers. And before you object that this isn't any big deal, I saw hitters attempt bunts in at least eight plate appearances (probably more, since it didn't occur to me to start counting until I'd already seen a few) over two games. For example, let's look at what the Black Bears did in the third inning Wednesday.

Kevin Newman walks.
Ty Moore singles on a bunt ground ball to pitcher Ian McKinney. Kevin Newman to 2nd.
With Logan Hill batting, wild pitch by Ian McKinney, Kevin Newman to 3rd. Ty Moore to 2nd.
Logan Hill singles on a line drive to right fielder Orlando Olivera. Kevin Newman scores. Ty Moore scores.
Daniel Arribas singles on a bunt ground ball to pitcher Ian McKinney. Logan Hill to 2nd.
Albert Baur out on a sacrifice bunt, third baseman Cole Lankford to first baseman Casey Grayson. Logan Hill to 3rd. Daniel Arribas to 2nd.
Mitchell Tolman strikes out swinging.
Chris Harvey reaches on a throwing error by shortstop Leobaldo Pina. Logan Hill scores. Daniel Arribas scores.
Kevin Kramer strikes out swinging.

I believe Logan Hill also attempted a bunt before he singled. It was ridiculous. Guys like Hill and Baur might have only outside shots at getting to the big leagues, but if they do, it won't be as scrappy second basemen trying to bunt the leadoff hitter over. They're both big dudes whose futures will be determined by their hitting. The same is probably true to a lesser degree for guys like Moore and Arribas. So it's hard to see what purpose all this bunting serves. The plate appearances these guys get are their opportunities to improve as hitters, and I'm not sure they should be consistently using them to generate cheap offense with a tactic that isn't that effective against big-league infields.

I also saw Newman and Kramer attempt bunts on Thursday, and both got behind in counts as a result. Maybe there's more of a justification for middle infielders like Newman (who does appear to have good speed, from what I saw) and Kramer working on bunting in games, but these guys are also really still trying to adjust to the pros and get their hitting on track. Maybe their bunting is intended to boost their confidence. I'm not sure. Anyway, after Wednesday's game, Black Bears manager Wyatt Toregas (yes, that Wyatt Toregas) said to expect the team to continue bunting.

-P- What's going on with the Black Bears offensively is striking -- of the regulars or semi-regulars, Hill, Moore and Arribas are all hitting well or pretty well, and then no one else is really doing much at all. Obviously, most of these guys are recent draftees, and if there's ever a time when you're going to give a baseball player a mulligan, it's the first month of his pro career. But it's been unfortunate to see early-round picks like Newman, Kramer, Hughston and 11th-rounder Christian Kelley all struggle.

-P- The Pirates don't seem to think outfielder Alexis Bastardo is a prospect, and he doesn't really look, physically, like a potential big-leaguer in the way many of his teammates do. He's only 21, though, and has a .410 OBP so far in his minor-league career. If he keeps proving he can hit, there will be plenty of time for the Pirates to find further opportunities for him.