Monday, April 9, 2012

The Hit Collector

Matt Hague, 26, was on the bubble. Despite hitting .309/12/75 at Indy in 2011 and .400 in the spring with 7 homers, he didn't know if he was coming north with the club. But due to a posse of pitchers going down in camp and a sprinkling of early off days, the Bucs went with an extra bat, and Hague - "The Hit Collector" - made the cut.

The Bellevue, Washington native was an All-State pitcher and outfielder at Kentwood High, and stayed local by attending the University of Washington. He was a jack-of-all-trades there, playing third base, outfield, and also pitched in relief. After his junior year, the Indians drafted him in the 11th round of the 2007 draft.

He passed on the Tribe's offer, and transferred to Oklahoma State University for his senior year, presumably to improve his status. His stickwork was impeccable: Hague never hit under .350 in college and had a good showing in the Cape Cod wooden bat league. The Pirates took him in the 9th round of 2008's draft as a third baseman.

There was lots of company that year, as the Pirates stocked up on college corners: Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Jeremy Farrell and Matt Curry all joined Hague in looking to make a mark in the organization.

Hague signed quickly - as a senior, he had little leverage, and was inked for a $25,000 bonus - and started off at short-season State College in the New York-Penn League. After a handful of games and a .333 average, he was promoted to the Low A Hickory Crawdads of the Sally League, where he put up a .321 BA

The following year, Hague started with the High A Lynchburg Hillcats of the Carolina League, where he was switched from the hot corner to first base. He finished third in league with a .293 batting average. Staying on a fairly fast track because of both production and age, he began 2010 at Class AA Altoona. His bat kept smokin' as he put up a .295/15/86 line for the Curve.

He moved to AAA last year, and  led the International League in hits (165) while batting .309 and earning All-Star honors. He showed discipline and a good eye while journeying through the minors, generally compiling a K rate of about 11% and a walk rate of 8% and a career .371 OBP.

But the thing he probably desired the most he didn't get - a September call-up to Pittsburgh. The Buc FO has a history of being selective in September, and Derrek Lee owned the late-season innings at first. However, he wasn't forgotten. The Pirates placed him on their 40 man roster during the off season.

Hague got a camp invite, too, but was considered a long shot to make the roster even after his strong showing at Indy. As a first baseman, his power was suspect. In the past two years he has 27 homers, 67 doubles, and a .450 slugging % at Altoona and Indy. His ISO of .150 over that span isn't particularly encouraging. Think of Hague as Steve Pearce (now in the Yankee's system) with a better bat and weaker glove.

At Bradenton, he got some work at his original home, third base, and quickly reminded the coaches of why he was switched. But while his glove may only work at first and maybe as a corner outfielder, he continued to sizzle at the plate, leading Clint Hurdle to dub Hague "The Hit Collector."

As cut-down time neared, it appeared that the final infield spot would come down between him and Josh Harrison, but the injury situation gave them both a ticket to ride. But that's temporary. Both Charlie Morton and AJ Burnett could return before May, and one of the Pirate bench players will have to go then.

Hague was the feel-good story of camp, and may have a future in Pittsburgh. It's improbable that he'll ever be a starter - his speed, glove, and modest power all work against him - but he puts the ball in play and has pretty good minor league split numbers, making him a strong pinch-hitting candidate and potential part time/platoon starter.

As he showed yesterday. Called upon to pinch hit (for Pedro Alvarez, yet) with a runner on second and two away in the eighth inning, he stroked his first MLB knock and brought the tying run home for his initial big league RBI.

Those are the kind of at-bats that keep guys in the majors. But Hague is going to have to fend off a crowd. Casey McGehee platoons with Garrett Jones at the MLB level, while Nick Evans and Alex Dickerson lead a pack that is chasing him along the farm system. For right now, though, it's the Hit Collector's time in the sun.

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