How the Pirates are fueling NL Central's rise as black-and-blue division

The Pirates' penchant for throwing inside has created some cantankerous situations. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- Relations have been relatively civil in recent seasons between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, which makes this National League Central rivalry stand out.

This season, the Pirates have already gotten into it with the Chicago Cubs over a series of hit batsmen that included Jung Ho Kang being plunked by Jake Arrieta. It only seemed appropriate that Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo would later come to the plate accompanied by the Taylor Swift song, “Bad Blood.”

The Pirates and Cincinnati Reds had a game earlier this season in which six batters were hit by pitches and both managers and two players were ejected.

These types of hostile episodes have become commonplace in recent seasons among teams in the NL Central, which has become baseball’s black-and-blue division. Since 2013, the Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs rank first, second and third in hit batsmen in the major leagues. The Pirates are viewed by some as the instigators of all the bad blood, though the root cause may be entirely incidental.

The Pirates, like the Cardinals and a lot of other major league teams, are fixated on inducing ground balls and avoiding home runs and extra-base hits. Part of their pitching philosophy is to be aggressive inside, to jam long-limbed power hitters, and the numbers bear that out.

In data compiled by ESPN Stats and Information, the Pirates have missed inside with 37 percent of their pitches this season, the most in the majors. Since 2014, they are also tops at going inside, missing to that location with 35.5 percent of their pitches.

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage described the team’s core philosophy to pitch inside “for strikes, purpose and, sometimes, confrontation.”

“We’re not looking for fights. We’re not picking fights." Searage said. "It’s just that we have to pitch to both sides of the plate.”

Sometimes, the intentions are clear and the anger remains contained. Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz never looked Gerrit Cole's way after he was hit by two pitches Friday night, because one of them merely grazed his jersey and the other was a 78 mph breaking pitch. Other times, especially when the number of batters struck begins to mount, it leads to retaliation and, sometimes, benches clearing.

“Pittsburgh’s one of those teams that loves to come inside,” Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton said. “If they hit you, they don’t mind it. Once they hit a batter, they come back in again. It’s the type of pitching they do.”

Hamilton said he is slightly more cognizant of inside pitches when he plays Pittsburgh, more aware that he might need to get out of the way. Cardinals outfielder Stephen Piscotty said he is as well.

“You’ve got to be ready for anything with those guys, man,” Hamilton said. “It’s always fun playing them, don’t get me wrong. It’s always going to be a challenge. They throw inside, somebody’s going to get hit. It’s a series you want to play. It kind of hypes you up.”

The Cardinals have a similar ground ball-oriented approach, though their methods are slightly different. It varies by pitcher, but their organizational approach is to teach -- and court -- pitching that works in the bottom of the zone and relies on late movement. Most Cardinals pitchers throw a sinker as a primary part of their arsenal.

“There are some guys who don’t want to mess around in there. Other guys are going to have to make their pitches in there to get them out,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.” I don’t think it’s an overarching philosophy. I grew up in Milwaukee’s organization and there it was, ‘Every free pitch you get, we’re going in and we’re going off the plate inside.’ We don’t necessarily subscribe to that.”

Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake, who has spent his career in the NL Central aside from a few months with the San Francisco Giants last season, is among those who thinks the need to pitch inside is effective. He said he doesn’t typically assume the opposing pitcher is trying to hit his team’s batters, though he recognizes he must sometimes protect his own.

“My initial thought is, ‘OK, he’s just trying to throw inside and it got away from him,’" Leake said. “It also depends on the location, the person got hit. If you’re getting hit below the neck, I don’t think we need to look too far into it unless it happens again.”

The Cardinals and Pirates are about halfway through the season series in what, so far, has been an intense but civil competition. In the first eight games between them, there have been eight hit batsmen, six of them the work of Pirates pitchers. But there have been no bench-clearing incidents.

The Pirates are called Pirates, after all, and they’re willing to take on a bit of a roguish reputation if it helps them win games, whether opposing hitters like it or not.

“Now, it’s part of our reputation,” Searage said.