PITTSBURGH -- Gift Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the bottom of the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.
A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs -- five earned -- and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glansow, got the win.
PITTSBURGH -- He had to tell himself not to cry, and that was before South Africa native Gift Ngoepe became the first player from that country -- and the African continent as a whole -- to play in a major league game.
Afterward, Ngoepe was asked what he was thinking as he was standing on first base following his fourth-inning single off Jon Lester.
"I thought about where I've come from, making the journey from South Africa to pursue my dream of playing in the major leagues someday," Ngoepe said. "I thought about the struggles of being in the minor leagues for 8½ years and then to finally get up here and get a hit in my first at-bat. The whole thing was just awesome. That's the only word I can think of to describe it. It was awesome."
There was a buzz in the Pirates' dugout and throughout the stadium as manager Clint Hurdle pulled an unusually early double switch, bringing Ngoepe off the bench to play second base in the top of the fourth inning.
"I told myself not to cry, because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy," Ngoepe said. "[Francisco] Cervelli hugged me, and I could feel my heartbeat through my chest. It was emotional, and I had to fight back the tears."
Hurdle offered his take.
PITTSBURGH -- It was a swing that never would have produced a home run last season, not on a 95 mph fastball. But it’s a new year, and Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward is catching up to everything right now. So when he hammered a first-inning pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates righty Chad Kuhl into the right-center-field bleachers on Monday night, it was just another indication his worst days could be behind him.
"It’s a good starting point," Heyward said after Monday's game. "A good start to the season. Keep building. Repetition will come. Keep getting at-bats. Get the most out of it you can. The more you play, the more good things can happen."
That was Heyward trying not to think too much of his fast start, which has produced three home runs to go along with 16 RBIs. For perspective, Heyward didn’t reach those plateaus until June 3 and May 25, respectively, last year.
To understand how Heyward is rebounding from the worst year of his career is to understand how he got there in the first place. This was not a slump that appeared overnight. A combination of factors -- most recently a 2016 wrist injury -- contributed to his downfall.
When Heyward came up in the Atlanta Braves system, he was an aggressive, middle-of-the order hitter. He mostly hit third in their lineup when he produced 27 home runs in 2012. By 2013, he was hitting first and second, and, by 2014, it was mostly leadoff.
"The more times I led off, the less aggressive I got," Heyward said earlier this week, a sentiment confirmed by those around the Braves at the time. "As a hitter, I wasn’t groomed to be a leadoff hitter, then you’re asked to do it. It was in my head. It kind of never gets out of your head.
"Passivity comes creeping in."
That alone didn’t derail Heyward. Though he hasn't come close to hitting over 20 home runs since, as recently as 2015 he was producing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Then came the $184 million contract and a place in the Cubs' emerging lineup. That’s also when he injured his wrist, and he started swinging with his arms to compensate. Everything went awry. By the time his wrist healed, the bad habits had taken hold.
"I’ve always been a handsy hitter," Heyward said. "That’s me. Growing up, hit with my hands. Arms are just for leverage and to cover the whole plate.
"Last year, having the wrist injury, [I] got into a lot of bad habits. Tried to do more and muscle the ball, and even when that [injury] went away, I had bad habits and didn’t come out of it."
Heyward never blamed anything on the wrist injury last season; perhaps he didn’t even realize what was going on with his swing and why it was happening. During the winter and spring training, he began to get used to using his wrists and hands instead of his arms, as that was causing him to be late on everything. It was a work in progress, and he didn’t feel right until the season began. Scouts saw the same thing in spring training. It wasn’t clicking yet, but as the season began, the bad habits faded.
"Until he says he feels it, even while you’re observing him doing the right thing, then he doesn’t know it," manager Joe Maddon explained. "To me, feeling is knowing. ... This is one situation, to feel it, to really know it, it goes beyond cognitive recognition."
Hitting coach John Mallee added: "I could just tell the timing was there by the end of spring. That’s what he was searching for."
Mallee thinks Heyward might have kicked his vices for good, like a smoker who finally gives up cigarettes. Not only is he back to using his hands more, something else returned as the calendar turned to April.
"At the end of spring training, one of the last things we talked about was feeling comfortable swinging the bat early in the count," Heyward said. "And being aggressive. That’s how you have consistent timing -- not being cautious."
Remember the passivity that crept in starting back in 2013 and 2014 when Heyward was asked to lead off? The Cubs think they may have cured that as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Heyward is swinging at the first pitch he sees about 40 percent of the time, up from just 18 percent last season. He’s having success, hitting .500 when he puts that first pitch in play, heading into Tuesday’s game. And he’s liking fastballs, swinging at 49 percent of them.
"If you’re on time for a heater, you can adjust to other stuff," Heyward said. "If you’re in between, that’s how you become arms and not hands in reacting."
Mallee keeps coming back to Heyward's timing. Now that he’s using his hands, he’s not late as much. It’s all connected.
"The spring was just getting his timing down,” Mallee said. “Now I think he feels much more relaxed in his setup. His timing has been really good.”
The results have been good so far, as well. His home runs are resembling the ones he hit in 2012, in distance and exit velocity. His line-drive percentage is up and his plate coverage is where it should be. It all stems from hands over arms.
"He’s more activated from his elbow to his fingertips, whereas in the past from the elbows to the shoulder," Maddon said. "For me you need to keep those areas of your arms out of the swing."
Maddon indicated there is enough credit to go around for the changes Heyward made to get back to his old self, but obviously he gives his player most of it. Even the scouts who saw his swing -- and had their doubts midway through spring training -- said they wouldn’t doubt Heyward could get there if work ethic mattered. He’s proved that it does, and it has. The Cubs knew he had it in him.
"While it’s amazing to watch him have the wherewithal to make the adjustments, it’s not like we didn’t expect this," Mallee said.
PITTSBURGH -- He says he's not quite the Kyle Hendricks of 2016 yet, but Tuesday was a step in the right direction for the Chicago Cubs' righty. Hendricks struggled a bit early in the game but found something that locked him in around the third inning in his team's 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's one step closer to being that guy again.
"Something in my mechanics clicked, or maybe I fell into the flow of the game or something," he explained afterward. "I was closer. It's one start but definitely better."
The best news is his fastball is climbing the velocity ladder, which is all important to the rest of his game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average velocity on his fastball on Tuesday was 85.9 mph, a season high. It allowed his changeup to act accordingly, keeping the Pirates off balance.
"It's not where I want to be, but it's not 83 mph or whatever it was last start," Hendricks said.
After throwing too much between outings, Hendricks was hitting only 83 and 84 on the radar gun last time he pitched. Backing off helped, and his off-speed stuff was the beneficiary. The Pirates went 0-for-6 on at-bats ending with his changeup, and a season-high 63.6 percent of them went for strikes.
"It was more on line," Hendricks explained. "I wasn’t pushing it or burying it in the ground. I got some more swings on it. In past games, there were a lot of takes."
Slowly, the Cubs might be getting their starting pitching in order. Even in compiling some good early-season performances, no one was completely locked in. Then they went a week without a quality start while the offense carried them. But the past two days -- especially Tuesday -- had a better feel to it on the mound. Hendricks' line tells his story: He lasted six innings, giving up four hits and two walks while matching Pirates starter Gerrit Cole as best he could. Cole was dominant, and Hendricks wasn't far from it.
While enthused by the outing, by no means is Hendricks satisfied. He could use a few more ticks of velocity and be a little sharper from the beginning of the game. Then the MLB ERA leader of a year ago might take off. He needs more time to get there.
Hendricks (2-1) struck out two and walked three in easily his best start this year. The struggling Pirates managed just four singles off Hendricks and didn't reach third base until he was out of the game. Wade Davis worked a perfect ninth for his fifth save as the Cubs won for the sixth time in seven games.
Addison Russell doubled in the second off Cole (1-3) and scored when second baseman Alen Hanson airmailed first base on a Jason Heyward grounder, the Pirates' major league-high 20th error this season. They've also allowed 15 unearned runs, the most in the big leagues.
The miscue spoiled a terrific outing by Cole. He struck out eight without issuing a walk and retired 14 of his final 15 batters. It wasn't enough for Pittsburgh, which has lost six of eight.
I have this theory: Most pitchers who have the ability to reach the major leagues have the potential to become good major league pitchers.
Consider this 21-year-old rookie: 6-14, 5.61 ERA, 155 2/3 IP, 181 H, 17 HR, 74 BB, 101 SO.
Would you have bought stock in those numbers? This kid was obviously young, so maybe he was rushed to the majors, but he got beat up pretty good. That kid was Greg Maddux, and the next year he won 18 games.
How about this 25-year-old left-hander: 6-10, 5.15 ERA, 153 2/3 IP, 184 H, 20 HR, 52 BB, 123 SO.
This pitcher didn’t throw hard, and this was his second season in the majors. He looked like a fringe major leaguer. Two seasons later, Dallas Keuchel won a Cy Young Award.
We could play this game all day. There is so much that goes into succeeding as a major league pitcher that predicting breakouts or consistent excellence is challenging. Primary, of course, is health. Stuff is important, but when we say “stuff,” we usually think of velocity. Yes, hitting a 98 mph fastball is hard. Well, hitting a 90 mph fastball is difficult, as well -- go to your local batting cage and turn the pitching machine up to maximum and see how often you make contact. So stuff can mean velocity and movement.
Then factor in everything else: command, smarts, deception, a new pitch, changing your arm angle, changing your grip on an existing pitch, adjusting where you stand on the rubber, gaining more confidence, the defense behind the pitcher, a new ballpark, a pitching coach who gives the exact advice needed and you never know who might become the next Rick Porcello or Kyle Hendricks.
Those were the big surprises last year. Are they for real? Through his first seven seasons, Porcello proved himself as a mid-rotation innings cruncher with a 4.39 ERA. In 2016, the Boston Red Sox right-hander started throwing his sinker more often, went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and career-high 223 innings and won the Cy Young Award.
Hendricks spent his first full season with the Chicago Cubs in 2015 as a nondescript right-hander, a guy with a below-average fastball and 3.95 ERA. In 2016, he started throwing his sinker and changeup more often and his fastball less often and went 16-8, led the NL with a 2.13 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
It will be interesting to see if they can find their 2016 form -- or at least their 2016 results. Porcello has a 5.32 ERA through four starts and has allowed a .298 average and five home runs. Hendricks has a 6.19 ERA through three outings and has walked seven batters in 16 innings and allowed four home runs.
For Porcello, it’s possible that his great 2016 was simply a product of BABIP and that he has been a little unlucky so far in 2017:
Aside from what happened when batters put balls in play, Porcello did improve his strikeout and walk rates, so there was something going on in 2016 besides good luck and good defense behind him. What’s interesting about his numbers is that, while he threw his sinker more, the improvement seemed to arrive not so much from his sinker being a dominant pitch, but the sinker making his other pitches -- especially his regular fastball -- more effective.
This season, batters are hitting .357 against Porcello’s sinker and .261 against the fastball. But here’s something to watch: Batters are swinging more often against the sinker, 53 percent of the time versus 43 percent in 2016. If the sinker isn’t a dominant pitch by itself, then it makes sense for batters to be more aggressive against it. This is perhaps an adjustment they’re making.
Anyway, Porcello certainly has had some bad luck, as batters are hitting .417 on ground balls against him compared to .217 in 2016. The MLB average is .237 on grounders. That .417 number will come down. Will Porcello be as good as 2016? It’s boring to predict regression because you can say that for any pitcher who had a great season, but Porcello likely will regress. I do, however, like him to post a sub-4.00 ERA, maybe in the 3.50-3.75 range.
Hendricks' 2016 season was built on hitting corners and inducing soft contact. ESPN Stats & Information tracks "well-hit average," or the percentage of hard contact given up. Hendricks had a .089 well-hit average in 2016, best in the majors; in 2017, he’s at .290.
So his early struggles are more clear. In particular, lefties are hitting .267/.371/.600 against him, and batters are slugging .636 against the cutter/sinker (different systems label the pitch differently). They hit .164 and slugged .299 against it last year.
The cutter was arguably the key to his big season, allowing him to throw fewer of his 87 mph fastballs and giving him another effective pitch against lefties. Note that his fastball velocity is down 2.4 mph (even though the tracking methodology has changed this year and fastballs are averaging about 0.5 mph faster as a result).
It's early and all that, but Hendricks’ drop in velocity is a red flag. The ineffectiveness of the cutter/sinker is a red flag. Part of the equation of being a great pitcher is doing it year after year, with your body being able to handle 200-plus innings without any decline in stuff. Maddux was able to do it every year. Keuchel followed up his Cy Young season with a poor 2016 (although has looked good early in 2017).
Which pattern will Porcello and Hendricks follow?