Stallings back with Bucs after good year in Minors

After struggling last year, catcher hit better than .300 at Triple-A

Stallings back with Bucs after good year in Minors

MILWAUKEE -- Jacob Stallings made it to the Majors last year because the Pirates had a need for catching help and he had a reputation as a strong defender. His work behind the plate is still highly regarded, but Stallings also has caught the Pirates' attention with his bat this season.

Stallings, called up to join the Pirates on Sunday, hit .301 with a .789 OPS in 62 games for Triple-A Indianapolis. To put those numbers in perspective, only two qualified hitters in the International League posted a higher average, and only seven finished with a higher OPS.

Finishing with an average over .300 -- after a pinch-hit single in the final game of the regular season -- resonated with Stallings.

"It was cool," he said. "I think that's a pretty cool number in baseball any time you can do it."

The 27-year-old batted just .214 with a .602 OPS for Indianapolis last year. What changed? It began last fall, Stallings said, when he had five hits in seven at-bats for the Pirates.

"I think it was the confidence that carried over from last year," he said.

Stallings also credited his improved two-strike approach, which he started to overhaul in Spring Training after striking out against Masahiro Tanaka and Aroldis Chapman in the same game. He began choking up more and letting the ball travel deeper, and the adjustments paid off.

"I was kind of like, 'Why would I be good with two strikes if I don't ever practice it?'" Stallings said. "We brainstormed and came up with something that felt like it worked for me. I was lucky enough to grasp it, and it worked pretty well."

Stallings' improvement could have an impact on the Pirates' catching depth heading into next season. Francisco Cervelli will return as their starter, and they must make a decision on veteran Chris Stewart, who has a club option for 2018. Prospect Elias Diaz will be out of options next year, making it more likely he replaces Stewart as Cervelli's backup.

Considering the position's proclivity for injuries, however, the Pirates prefer to have four Major League-ready catchers between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. With a reliable glove and a capable bat, Stallings may be prepared to take the third catcher spot on the depth chart.

Around the horn

• Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has agreed to a two-year contract extension, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report. His current deal had been set to expire after this season. The club has not announced the agreement or commented on the rest of the coaching staff's status.

• Reliever Dan Runzler retired the only batter he faced Monday night, his first Major League appearance since Sept. 30, 2012, when he pitched for the Giants. He spent the past five years in the Minors and the independent Atlantic League before getting called up by the Pirates on Sunday. Runzler, 32, posted a 3.05 ERA for Indianapolis and earned rave reviews for his positive influence in the clubhouse.

"There's not a guy we've talked to that came out of the bullpen that wasn't impacted by Dan at some point in time of the year," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Good for him. That was fun. It was so much fun, we'll try to do it again."

• The Pirates will skip Trevor Williams' next start. The rookie right-hander has pitched 139 1/3 innings this season, 4 2/3 innings shy of the career-high mark he set in the Minors in 2014. Chad Kuhl, Ivan Nova and Gerrit Cole are scheduled to start this weekend in Cincinnati.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.