Raise the Jolly Roger or Walk the Plank? Pirates Midseason Analysis

So, here we are again. For the third year in a row at the All-Star break, the Pirates are in contention for a spot in the postseason. Do the Buccos have what it takes to hold on the rest of the way this season, or do they sputter out in another epic collapse like last season? Sean Meyers and Patrick Williams break down the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.

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Sean Meyers
I don’t foresee a collapse like last year, although I am not certain Pittsburgh makes the postseason. I think they can play well for the rest of the season, but won’t continue at this torrid pace. That, combined with potential surges from talented teams like the Reds, Dodgers, and Nationals, could make September very interesting for the Pirates’ postseason hopes. The second wild card makes the Pirates’ chances for a playoff spot much stronger, and espn.com currently gives the Buccos nearly a 90% probability of making the playoffs. Personally, I think their chances would be much lower than that number. I believe their playoff hopes will come down to the final week of the regular season.

Patrick Williams
Good points, but even if the Pirates return to playing just .500 ball the rest of the season, they would win 90 games, something that I am sure a large portion of their fan base would be excited about. That being said, 90 wins does not guarantee a playoff spot by any means.

I do feel that this year they can hang on and make at least the second playoff wild-card spot. I think that this year they have improved in several key areas that will help them get over the proverbial hump and land them in their first playoff game since 1992. It should be noted that I felt the same way at this point last year, however.

And I am not a betting man, but if I were I would still be wagering a playoff spot on them if for no other reason that when I watch the rest of the MLB, I do not see anything that is blowing the rest of the field away. Now, as you stated, that could change because there are a few teams that are in a position to make a strong second half run, but with how great the Pirates first half has gone, it will really take a meteoric fall to not get to the playoffs. I don’t quite understand how ESPN gets that percentage, but they are probably on to something with that number.

Sean Meyers
If that is the case, this season will be an unquestioned success for the team. To me, the biggest factor in that success has to be the pitching, both the starters and the bullpen. The Pirates ability to get quality starts out of seemingly everybody they trot out on the mound has been unbelievable.

What are your thoughts on the starting pitching, and do you expect regression in that aspect in the second half, much like a year ago?

Patrick Williams
I feel that the starting pitching can hold up over the course of the season, barring injury. There are enough arms in the organization at this point that if one or two men go down that they can still tread water until they are back. This has already shown to be the case to this point. The staff is even stronger than last season and many would have said that pitching was their best asset at the midway point back then.

The Pirates built this team around pitching and as the pendulum swings back towards pitching and defense in professional baseball, they have set themselves up to be in good shape for a couple of years if things can pan out. They have a good mix of veterans and young arms to carry this team down the stretch and barring any major injuries I feel they should be able to avoid the falloff that they encountered last year.

Sean Meyers
I think Jeff Locke is strong regression candidate. Locke is a nice young pitcher, but I think his results have been atypical of his ability (8-2, 2.15 ERA in 109 IP, 10 quality starts).

Locke has issued 47 walks, tied for fourth-most in the National League. Conversely, he ranks only 41st in strikeouts, with 73 Ks. Ironically, Locke has found success this year by intentionally pitching out of the strike zone. Although strike zone analysis fluctuates slightly amongst data collections, Locke has thrown in the zone only 38 to 41 percent of the time, with league average around 45 percent. Locke ranks third in all of baseball in percentage of pitches thrown outside the strike zone.

Moreover, Locke throws his fastball two-thirds of the time, with its velocity averaging just over 90 miles per hour. Although he lacks an “out” pitch, Locke has thus far been able to induce weak contact. His .228 batting average allowed on balls in play is unusually low. In fact, over his entire professional career, Locke’s lowest BABIP at any level was .296 in AAA last season. The Pirates strong team defense has certainly aided Locke in this category. Although some skill is involved in determining BABIP, this stat typically levels off for pitchers over the course of the year, however.

To further prove that Locke has been a huge beneficiary of team defense and good fortune, his fielding independent pitching (FIP) is 3.81. Typically, this stat provides a true determination of a pitcher’s ERA by evaluating only what the pitcher controls, and not the fielders. These numbers indicate that Locke’s ERA could rise into the low to mid 3s by season’s end, which would represent a very impressive year nonetheless, but I think his current effort is unsustainable.

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Likewise, Francisco Liriano may also regress, although it appears as though several factors have worked in his favor since coming to Pittsburgh. After spending his entire career in the American League, Liriano has benefited from facing weaker NL lineups. Also, pitching in front of a solid defense, in pitcher-friendly PNC Park has helped rejuvenate the 29-year-old’s career.

He also has made a notable change in his approach on the mound, as he is throwing his complimentary pitchers more often than in recent years. For his career, Liriano has thrown his fastball approximately half the time, mixing in a slider on nearly one-third of his offerings, and a changeup about 18 percent of the time. This year, though, his pitch selection has nearly mirrored his breakout 2006 campaign. He is using his fastball 43 percent of the time, while using his slider on 37 percent of his pitches, and 20 percent changeups. As a result, Liriano has considerably improved his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which has helped produce a career-low home run rate.

While his strikeout rate is on par with his career averages, Liriano is giving up one less hit per nine innings, and he’s reduced his walk rate by .5 per nine innings. While his batting average against is slightly below his career numbers, Liriano has seen a drastic drop in his slugging percent allowed (.288 in 2013, .375 career mark).

Although some fans may believe that Liriano (9-3, 2.00 ERA in 76.2 IP) has fully returned to his dominant 2006 form, some peripheral numbers indicate otherwise. His fastball velocity, while still respectable, is down nearly two miles per hour for 2006. Also, while his walk, strikeout, and hits per nine innings rates are much better than his career numbers, they all fall well short of his 2006 rates. Finally, Liriano’s WHIP ranks 22nd in the league, equal to Matt Cain, who sports an ERA above 5. Although Cain is likely an outlier, the 10 pitchers closest to Liriano in WHIP have ERAs that range from 3.03 to 4.05. Although he may be better than he has been in recent years, I have a hard time believing Liriano will keep it up throughout the second half.

Patrick Williams
The Pirates got everything they could imagine and more when they signed Liriano this offseason. I can see the pitchers you referenced coming back to earth, but I also think that Burnett (4-6, 3.06 ERA and 9.9 k/9IP over his 16 starts this season) hasn’t hit any sort of stride and Wandy Rodriguez (6-4, 3.59 ERA in 12 starts) could pick up a bit more slack. You can always fall back on Charlie Morton for a spot start here and there and Cole is still an unknown commodity to many big league hitters. And even though their pitching repertoires couldn’t be more different, much like Tim Wakefield twenty years ago, if nothing else Cole could ride the fact that hitters do not have “a book” on him just yet through the rest of the season.

Sean Meyers
I believe Gerrit Cole (4-3, 3.89 ERA in his seven starts since his call-up) should stay in the rotation and, at times, he may prove to be one of the best starters. As a rookie however, he will certainly struggle on occasion, as he did early on Sunday against the Mets. If Locke and Liriano struggle, and Cole pitches like a rookie at times, it will put even more pressure on the bullpen.
What do you make of the borderline historic performance of the Buccos pen thus far, and will the relievers wear down as the year progresses?

Patrick Williams
When discussing the bullpen, it seems as though that is the one thing the Pirates can always seem to find a strong spot in. Closers are so valuable in the big leagues, whether or not they actually are as clutch as some will tell you is debatable, but it is certain that every team wants a good one and one they can rely on. The Pirates have always seemed to find someone to throw into that role. I think back to recent short-term success stories Mike Williams, Matt Capps, Jose Mesa, and Joel Hanrahan. These players came out of essentially nowhere to help a less than stellar team close out the games they were winning.

Today’s closers are no different. Although I do worry that they may be a little taxed by the end of the season, I think Clint Hurdle and the coaching staff has taken this into account and he gives off days when needed in hopes to preserve the arms. The middle of the pen (Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson, and Bryan Morris) has been amazing this year as well. At this point, I am starting to wonder if it is the scouts, the players themselves, or the coaches who are to be given the credit with the Pirates bullpen.

Regardless, they are doing the right thing. And remember, Hurdle has led a team to the World Series before. I would trust that he knows how to handle a staff over the course of a season to keep them performing at top condition, even though the last two seasons have pointed to failure down the stretch. I think that a lot of these players have never had to play over the course of a whole season and now that they have a taste of that under their belts that, finally, they may be able to close one out without suffering a collapse.

But, to me, the biggest change that helps these pitchers differentiate from last year to this year comes from behind the plate with the acquisition of Russell Martin. Martin has provided the consistent arm for gunning down runners on the base paths and has the tenure and calmness to handle a pitching staff.

Russell Martin

Sean Meyers
You mentioned Russell Martin being a key factor for the Buccos success. There is no doubt his defense and intangibles have paid huge dividends. In fact, Fangraphs’ metrics ranks him as the top defensive catcher in baseball. However, offensively, he is still just a slightly above average hitting catcher. (.239 BA, 8 HR, 34RBI) While he has helped stabilize the position, the Buccos still need more punch in their lineup.

They have been reaping the rewards from a breakout power season by Pedro Alvarez. The guy has unlimited power, but I think some fans are overvaluing him at this juncture. He’s still a low average (.250), low on-base percentage (.311), high strikeout (109 SO) player. Ranking eighth in the NL in slugging, Pedro’s power numbers are elite. He is hitting more line drives and fly balls this year, which has led to the power surge. His approach at the plate has not improved markedly, though, as he is sporting career-worst walk and strikeout rates.

I wouldn’t be shocked if he drops 20 or 30 points in average at some point over the second half. His power and vastly improved defense makes him one of the best 3b in the NL, but when including all of the great AL third basemen, Pedro probably ranks somewhere between seventh and tenth at the position. In fact, his OPS ranks seventh amongst all third basemen. When Pedro isn’t hitting the long ball, the lineup has too many holes.

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Shortstop, first base, and right field are possible positions of upgrade, but what do you think would be the best route to sure up the batting order?

Patrick Williams
You are correct. If the Pirates had even a marginal SS or RF who could hit over .250 with 10-15 homeruns they would be in much better shape. If Tabata can fill the RF hole, then that is a start. I don’t see Mercer being a long term solution at SS. However, I am in the minority in not minding the duo they are platooning at first base with Gabby Sanchez and Garrett Jones.

Baseball is a sport where stats do tend to level off over the course of the season. If that is the case for the Pirates, then I still think there are several players that haven’t reached their potential yet over the course of this season. Neil Walker and Garrett Jones come to mind. Conversely, Pedro Alvarez could fall back at any moment and go into a tailspin of a slump, as you’ve stated. Andrew McCutchen (.302 BA 10 HR 49 RBI) may bust out and have a hot July and August or fade away like he has done with the prior two seasons. There are a lot of variables and question marks with this team, for certain. Going out and getting a bat may not be such a bad idea, if the price is right.

Sean Meyers
I think maybe a guy like Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians could be an answer at shortstop, although it’s much easier to find a decent bat at first base or right field than at shortstop. Ultimately, the Pirates need to upgrade the bench, as Barmes, Harrison, Inge and McKenry aren’t good enough at this juncture.
As Zack Chakan mentioned in a recent article , Tony Sanchez might provide some help at catcher.

Meanwhile, upgrading the outfield could prove bit more risky. I think the Pirates are hoping that Tabata can take hold of right field, and that the Jones/Gaby Sanchez combo gets going at 1b. To me, though, it’s not going to be one magic move that helps solve every issue that may arise.

Patrick Williams
I have heard interviews with GM Neal Huntington where he has pretty much stated just what you are saying. And I think that Inge has no place on a big league roster if this is all he is capable of (.183 BA 1 HR 7 RBI in 49 appearances). It is time to part ways with that experiment.

Like I said though, I think that Jones and Sanchez are alright, they have just underperformed. I would much rather have those two than what a lot of teams run out to 3 position every day.
I do think that Tony Sanchez could be a nice bat off the bench for the postseason and he may make the expanded roster in Sept. However, I hear that he has had some issues and cannot throw a ball to save his life at this point. That includes tossing a pitch back to the mound. He would have to get that worked out before he is able to warrant a roster spot down the stretch.

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With all of that being said, the Pirates come out of the 2013 mid-summer break with a record of 56-37 and sit just one game out of the division leading Cardinals. They will lack being able to beat up a team like the Houston Astros down the second half, as they have switched to the American League and are no longer in the NL Central, but Pirates have shown a great ability to battle with the Reds and Cards and I think it should be anyone’s race. I give the nod to the Cardinals based solely upon their history and track record of winning, their ability to make decent deadline moves to bolster their squad, and their pitching and power at the plate. I do feel that all three of these clubs will make the playoffs this year. The Pirates taking one of two Wild Card spots, I predict the 2nd where they will lose in a one game playoff to the Reds. This scenario leaves Pittsburgh without having hosted a postseason baseball game in 21 years, but ending the drought of sub .500 campaigns and non-playoff baseball in the Steel City.

Sean Meyers
It’s going to take a combination of internal and external improvement, and most of all, composure. If the Pirates can display those attributes, there is no question they could be a team that succeeds in October.

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About smthegame

Sean Meyers is a 2006 graduate of Penn State University, majoring in journalism with an emphasis in sports. For the past three years, he has covered an array of sports and news events in the Pittsburgh area. In 2010 and 2011, Sean provided freelance sports coverage for the Tribune Review and Plum-Oakmont Patch. For the past two years, he has served as a general news and sports reporter for the Latrobe Bulletin. Last year, he joined the MSA Sports Network as a commentator for high school sporting events. Sean is a lifelong fan of sports, and he stays active by playing dek hockey and basketball.
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One Response to Raise the Jolly Roger or Walk the Plank? Pirates Midseason Analysis

  1. Crippy says:

    Reblogged this on Flashin' Leather and commented:
    This is a pretty nice entry about the Pirates.

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