4/9/2014 8:57 P.M. ET
In closer's world, Bucs valuing setup men
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- Major League Baseball has recognized the importance to the modern game of the closer and honored the contributions of the best to assume that role with the creation of the Mariano Rivera/Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year Awards.
Considering for whom the awards are named and the voting guidelines laid out, however, they are perhaps "Closer" of the Year Awards that will ignore the equally invaluable work of setup men.
Men like Mark Melancon, who last season had the following line in eighth innings: 1.00 ERA in 36 appearances, with a .430 opponent OPS and 39 strikeouts.
"For some reason, the hype has been about the ninth inning, and I get it, I've been there," said Melancon, who was Houston's primary closer in 2011 and served in that role for a long stretch in 2013 when Jason Grilli was out with a forearm injury. "But you don't just win the game in the ninth. Still, I don't think [the new awards] discredit setup men. Based on the names on top of it, it's a natural. That's cool."
The player eligible to win the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award (Mariano Rivera's name is attached to the American League Award) was even more outspoken about the sect it could ignore.
"You're talking to a guy who has done everything in the middle," Grilli said. "I think the most undervalued position is middle relief. Those guys get no credit, and I'm very biased about it because I know how hard it is."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle supported the notion that it was time for setup men to get their own official award. (MLB.com's GIBBY Awards include setup relievers but are separate from MLB's awards.)
"I think we've learned to value the 'hold,'" Hurdle said. "There is a growing appreciation for what middle relievers give you."
McCutchen shuns Zoltan 'Z' for new team sign
CHICAGO -- The "Z"oltan is dead. Long live the …
"… Water pistols. And we're not shooting them -- just twirling them," Tony Sanchez said about the Pirates' latest bonding mechanism, careful to keep it politically correct.
When a Pirates player gets a key base hit to drive in a run, he pulls into his base, makes like Wyatt Earp twirling his Colt .45s and -- this is the dramatic part -- thrusts both hands down as if holstering his weapons.
"They're not heavy artillery; they're Super Soakers," explained Andrew McCutchen, who besides being in charge of center field apparently is also in charge of team image. "We just got tired of the Zoltan. New beginnings. That's all … just having fun with it."
After two years of flashing the "Z" -- inspired by the character in the film, "Dude, Where's My Car" -- Pirates players have taken to the new gimmick.
And the instigator was the same player who a year ago was responsible for the revival of the "Z," which had made its first appearance early in the 2012 season.
"Captain Cutch," Sanchez said, grinning. "He's got a bag full of tricks, and this was one of the options we talked about, and we all agreed on it. We thought this would bring us together the most.
"We twirl 'em and throw 'em in the holster when we drive in a run. Hitting is contagious. Any way you can up the vibe, it's a good thing."
• A good indication of the early-season plate discipline Pirates hitters have shown: Last season, they had double-digit strikeout totals in about one of every three games (50 total). Through seven games this year, they fanned 10-plus times only in the 16-inning marathon with the Cubs.
• Jeff Locke (right side strain) threw 82 pitches over six innings on Wednesday in a rehab start for Class A Advanced Bradenton, allowing two runs on five hits with a walk and 10 strikeouts. His catcher was Chris Stewart (right knee surgery).
• Prior to Tuesday night's eighth inning, the last time Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez had walked in the same inning was in Game No. 100 last season, when both drew walks to help set up a four-run, tying rally in the ninth inning at Nationals Park.
First number, last word
32: Walks drawn by the Pirates through the season's first seven games, tops in the National League; last year, the Bucs ended the season tied for seventh in the league in walks (469).
"What do you leave behind? Those men have made their marks, and this is a great way to remember them. We'd be in San Diego and hear those bells, and I knew we were done." -- Hurdle, on the legacies of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman honored by having relievers' awards named after them, and the sense of finality upon hearing the song "Hell's Bells" escort Hoffman into a game.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.