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Locked in at the plate, Jason Delay providing offensive boost for the Pirates

Mar 28, 2024Mar 28, 2024

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Who would have thought that a player who started Spring Training unsure whether he’d make the Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day roster would be leading the club in batting average a month into the season?

Probably no one in or outside of the Pirates organization. And yet Jason Delay, who beat out Tyler Heineman and Kevin Plawecki in the spring for a chance to back up Austin Hedges behind home plate, is doing just that.

Delay has appeared in 13 games and, through 38 at-bats, is hitting .368.

Granted, his plate appearances occur with far less frequency than everyday players such as Ke’Bryan Hayes (team-high 96 at-bats) or Bryan Reynolds (93 at-bats). But Delay’s offensive contributions to the Pirates (18-8) so far this season, which include a home run, four doubles and seven RBIs, have come as a pleasant surprise for the club.

Making his MLB debut with the Pirates last year, Delay in 57 games batted .214 with 33 hits, six doubles, a home run and 11 RBIs.

“He has become a better hitter at the big-league level,” manager Derek Shelton said. “And that’s really hard to do. I’ve had multiple people from our organization and other organizations highlight that this guy knows what he’s doing with the bat. … We’re just really pleased.”

Stability at catcher was an issue in 2022, with Delay among seven players the Pirates utilized there.

Hedges, an eight-year veteran with firm defensive credentials, was signed last December.

However, Hedges hasn’t exactly been known for steady offensive production.

His career-high batting average in a season, set in 2018 with San Diego, is .231. But in his seven MLB seasons spent as a regular player, Hedges has failed to hit .200 five times, with his lifetime batting average standing at .189.

This season with the Pirates, Hedges is slashing .188/.257/.219 with a .476 OPS.

Delay, by comparison, owns a .368/.415/.553 slash line and .967 OPS.

It remains to be seen for how long the 28-year-old Delay can continue to swing such a hot bat.

But as far as his own offensive accomplishments are concerned, from the parts of two seasons he’s now played with the Pirates, to his journey through the minor leagues and even dating back to his college days at Vanderbilt, where he was teammates with Reynolds, Delay is operating in uncharted territory.

“I feel good at the dish right now,” Delay said. “I feel like I’m seeing the ball well. Definitely made some adjustments this offseason, even after Spring Training.

“ … I closed my stance off a little bit; I feel like that helps me stay into my hip and not dive as much. I also lowered my hands.”

Delay credited tweaks to his batting stance as playing a significant role in his robust offensive output to begin the year.

“Knowing that offense hasn’t always necessarily been my strength, I’ve always been open and willing to tinker with things, try things out,” he said. “When something works, I roll with it and stick with that.”

While Delay’s offense has provided a solid boost to the Pirates, he remains committed to a defense-first approach.

Namely, that means building rapport with the Pirates pitching staff to create a plan of attack for a given team’s batters as well as executing, pitch by pitch, with whomever is on the mound.

“It feels good right now, but my focus is always on defense,” Delay said. “If I go 0 for 3 but I catch really well, I’m still happy at the end of the game. If I have a good plan with the starter, control (an opponent’s) lineup, I’m happy.”

Delay has caught 11 games for the Pirates to date, two of which have been with Roansy Contreras on the mound.

Delay and Contreras had a familiarity with each other, having come up through Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis together in 2021 and ’22, which has translated to a good working relationship in Pittsburgh.

In their last game together, April 15 at St. Louis, Contreras delivered a quality start of six innings, two earned runs, three walks and six strikeouts but took a no-decision, with the Pirates eventually winning 6-3 in 10 innings.

“I have a lot of confidence in Delay,” Contreras said. “It goes back to the minors. We know each other from the minors and we come up here. I feel like Delay knows me a lot and where to make pitches. I feel a lot of confidence in Delay behind the plate.”

The pitcher Delay has worked most with has been Vince Velasquez, with Delay catching three of his five starts, most recently on April 23, a 2-1 Pirates win over Cincinnati in which Velasquez picked up the victory behind a seven-inning, 10-strikeout performance.

That was a far cry from the first time Velasquez and Delay were in the lineup together, on April 8 against the White Sox, when Velasquez lasted just 2 ⅔ innings and took the loss, having allowed five runs on six hits.

Since then, Delay and Velasquez managed to go back to the drawing board, determining the best way to pattern pitches against hitters.

The result? Wins for Velasquez (April 13 and 23) the last two times Delay has been behind home plate.

“He’s done a really good job with being there, shadowing exactly what Hedges does,” Velasquez said. “(Hedges) has a little more experience, caught a lot more guys, but I think (Delay) does a really good job with being in the conversation with what we’re trying to accomplish.

“… I feel like I’ve got a guy I’m throwing to that I can actually trust to establish that communication and trust with what we’re trying to sequence and what we’re trying to do.”

Justin Guerriero is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Justin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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