Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Season In Review

This has been one of the more interesting Pirates seasons that the city has seen since probably the 1997 season when the consecutive seasons of losing was much, much, younger. Alas this season was no different than past seasons in some aspects, including that the Pirates only managed 72 wins and lost 90 games and hit their 19th losing season in the last 19 years. At the beginning of spring training if someone came up to you and told you that he could guarantee 72 wins I think everyone would have probably took that and thought it was going to be a productive year. Now we sit here and a lot of what I am seeing and hearing is that the Pirates had a terrible year and that they can see this team going back to losing 100 games again next year.

This thought has me scratching my head as the Pirates played some pretty good baseball all the way through mid July before just playing bad baseball down the stretch. Tim over at Pirates Prospects put this perfectly in one of his evaluations about this season when he said that a lot of people are focusing on the last two months of the season and how bad they were but they are totally forgetting about the first four months of the season where the Pirates were sharing first place on and off. I get the frustration with the last two months, and hell, I am frustrated just as much as the next guy, but you have to look at the whole season. There were good and bad things that happened but you can’t tell me that progress wasn’t made and that this season wasn’t one of the best to watch in a long time.

There were so many different things that happened through the season that it is really hard to pinpoint a handful of things to talk about in a season recap. For every good start by Charlie Morton there was a terrible three strikeout game by Pedro Alvarez. For every 4-for-4 game for Andrew McCutchen there was a whooping that a team put on Ross Ohlendorf. I guess for this season recap I am going to break it down into three different fields: The Good, The Bad and The Unknown.

Hit the jump for the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Season In Review

The Good

-Although he finished with a whimper over the last month or two of the season Andrew McCutchen took the next step in becoming one of the best players in baseball. McCutchen finished the season with a .259/.364/.456 triple slash line and had a career best wins above replacement (WAR) of 5.7, which is a full two points higher than he was last season. He also took his power numbers up a little bit hitting 23 home runs which was seven more than he hit a season ago and hit just about as many doubles and triples as he did last season. McCutchen also made great strides in his defensive game this season. While some people were calling him a good centerfielder coming into the season I think a lot of people really thought that was a fallacy. Last season his UZR/150 was an abysmal -12.9 which was good for 18th out of 19 qualifying centerfielders. This season McCutchen improved to a 3.3 UZR/150 which ranked him seventh among 20 qualifying centerfielders. Also a plus on the season was that McCutchen dramatically increased his walk total from a year ago and it was the highest for a season in his in any level since becoming a pro. He walked 13.1% of his plate appearances which shattered his previous high of 11.5% which he did in AAA Indianapolis in 2008. Although his walk rate went way up so did his strikeout rate, which is not good. McCutchen struck out in 18.6% of his plate appearances which was 5% more than last season and almost 2% more than his rookie season in 2009. He was put down on strikes 126 times this season and he did it a bunch in the second half of the season so that will be something to watch going forward. I still don’t think that McCutchen has reached a “complete phase” yet of his game, especially offensively. I think that when he learns to hit the ball to right field with some consistently he will be a much more dangerous hitter and could vault him into the discussion as one of the best players in the entire game.

-After the 2010 season Charlie Morton was left for dead by a lot of Pirates fans, but in 2011 he proved those haters wrong and was one of the true stars of the staff from start to finish. As you may know I am sort of a Morton fan boy and though he was going to have a pretty good season but as a whole I think that he was really one of the true standout successes in 2011. Morton refined his pitching style and went with a Roy Halladay look and for points of the season he pitched just like Halladay. Morton picked up 10 wins on the season after only two wins in 2010 and lowered his ERA from 7.57 in 17 starts in 2010 to 3.83 in 29 starts in 2011. An area that Morton was head and shoulders better in 2011 was giving up the long ball. This season Morton’s HR/FB ratio was only 5.8% which ranks fourth lowest of 94 qualifying pitchers and was much lower than his 18.1% last year. A huge reason for this drop in home runs per fly ball is that a lot of balls weren’t hit in the air against Chuck this season. Morton was the definition of a ground ball pitcher with a ground ball rate of 58.5% ranked third among pitchers and that helped him to a healthy 72.5 left on base percentage. The problem with the high ground ball rate is that Chuck doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts when he may need them. He struck out only 5.77 batters per nine innings this season and had a pretty high walk rate of over four batters per nine innings so everything wasn’t gravy for Chuck. When he would get in trouble with walks he was prone to give up runs if he couldn’t get the ground ball double play but I am not even going to complain because of the wildly successful year he had. If he can tighten up the control and walks next year he is going to be that much better next season. Another thing that Chuck needs to work on is how to pitch left handed batters. This might be his biggest flaw of the season as lefties hit an astounding .357 off of him and earned walks in 14.5% of their plate appearances. Not good. Righties on the other hand hit only .214 off Morton and had a .255 average on balls in play which is pretty good.

-I singled out Morton but you can really throw some more pitchers into that basket as guys who had a strong year. While the whole staff wasn’t always great I think two more starters that gave the Pirates a chance every night they went out on the field were James McDonald and Jeff Karstens. I think going into the season everyone thought that James was going to be one of the staff aces this season. He started off my missing most of spring training with injuries and had a bad first four starts of the season where he only pitched 18.2 innings and had an ERA over 10. After those four games though McDonald really settled down and pitched to a 3.49 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .260 average in his 27 other starts. Overall McDonald’s huge flaw this season was throwing a ton of pitches and not getting deep into games. He only went seven innings or more twice and averaged over four walks per nine innings. Other than that James was very good this year and seemed to be learning on how to pitch and not just throw as the season went on so you have to chalk up his season as a huge success. Jeff Karstens was a guy at the beginning of the year that I said every team needed to have. He was a good long relief man in the pen and could give you five innings on a spot start, but I was blown away by what he did this season. After Ohlendorf went down with a shoulder injury Karstens was thrown into that starting spot and didn’t get taken out of the rotation the rest of the year. He ended the season with a 9-9 record with a 3.38 ERA and a 4.00 xFIP. Who exactly saw this coming? What started as being scared when he got into the fifth inning we were disappointed when he wasn’t getting into the eighth. It was a true transformation of a pitcher that seemed to find it. None of his pitches are out pitches and throwing a high 80’s fastball you aren’t going to get by with a lot of mistakes but this truly was a nice year for Jeff. He did give up a little more home runs than you like (11.5% HR/FB) but a lot of those were solo home runs (luck). He ranked tops on the team in LOB% (77.4) and kept the walks down (1.83/9) so it was a successful year. With a pitcher like this you think he would be a heavy ground ball pitcher, but Karstens was not. He got ground balls only 46.2% of the time and that really highlights how good he was this season hitting his spots and not getting himself into trouble.

-Offensively the team wasn’t that good this year and that is something that a lot of people can’t deny but I was pretty surprised with the year that Neil Walker had. Before last year I really didn’t think Walker was a guy that could play at the big league level and he proved me wrong. Last year Walker hit at a .296 clip but did so at a pretty high BABIP (.340) so for this year I wasn’t expecting a lot especially considering he was a pretty big liability defensively. This season his BABIP normalized to .315 but Walker still had a pretty healthy .273/.334/.408 line with 36 doubles and 12 home runs. Walker was a big streaky this year but as the season went on I thought he got a little more consistent with his hitting. A huge part of Walkers offensive game that I was happy with was reducing his strikeout rate. Last season he was pretty strikeout prone and at the beginning of this year he was doing so at an alarming rate but really fixed his pitch recognition and lowered his K% to 16.9% (17.7% in 2010) and went up in his BB% to 8.2% (7.2% in 2010). Overall his triple slash numbers all took a hit from last year but I was planning on them going down a lot more than this so I really do think Walker had a nice offensive year. Defensively Walker was pretty bad in his rookie year with a -17.1 UZR/150 but really bounced back and only was a -2.5 UZR/150 this season. This was Walkers first full season at second base and you can tell he is getting more comfortable at the position so that is nice to see. He is never going to fool anyone as a Gold Glove guy but it was nice to see the improvement on making plays in the field.

-The defense was pretty outstanding this year. You can talk about the pitchers as much as you want but if you want to be successful while pitching to contact then you have to have a good defense behind you. I will talk about Ronny Cendeno later but he was a massive improvement in terms of UZR and Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker took huge strides in their defensive games this year. With Pedro Alvarez out of the lineup the hodge podge amount of third baseman that played surprisingly well. With pitchers like Morton and Karstens on the mound you need to be able to field your position and the Pirates made the plays this season. Last season the Pirates were dead last in the league in defense with a -63.6 UZR and a -8.5 UZR/150 but this season the Pirates jumped up to 20th in the league with a -12.5 UZR and a -2.8 UZR/150. Sure they aren’t where they want to be but an increase like that is really great to see.

-It may seem foolish but a huge win for this year was showing the fan base that the Pirates COULD win some games and beat some of the big name teams. It might seem foolish to say now but the wins against the Phillies and Red Sox set up the huge out lash when the Pirates went down the tank. The Pirates averaged over 24,000 fans a game this year (22nd in the league) and nearly hit 2,000,000 fans for the entire season. This was much more than the past as they average just shy of 20,000 in 2010 and 2009 so getting the fan base committed was a huge step. It used to take fireworks nights and giveaways to get fans in the stands but this season it was just as much the play on the field that was getting people in the stands in July. It was really nice to see and I can bet you anything the players appreciated it and fed off of it. It has been such a long time since the fans had something to cheer about and it really didn’t take much for this city to back the team. They are hungry for a winner and when it comes PNC Park will be SRO on most nights.

The Bad

-It would be hard to go through a bad segment in this recap without talking about Pedro Alvarez. Pedro had a dreadful season that saw him suffer through two separate injuries while also bouncing up and down from AAA Indianapolis while he was healthy. Word is that Pedro came to spring training out of shape and you could tell as he just didn’t look good at the plate all season. He ended the year only playing in 74 games and getting 262 plate appearances with the Pirates hitting .191/.272/.289. Things honestly couldn’t go any worse for Pedro this season and there are people already calling him a bust. I think that is taking it a little over the top but I don’t think that people should just brush this off anymore. Pedro struck out in over 30% of his plate appearances this season and only walked in 9.2% of them which is very disturbing. Last season Alvarez supported a healthy .205 ISO but this season that number dropped to .098 and that was evident with only four home runs and nine doubles. All in all it was just Pedro never looking comfortable. He seemed as if he was pressing and it doesn’t help that everyone has massively huge expectations for the kid to turn this team into a winner and be a 40 home run guy. The one thing I look at and have some hope for is that Pedro only has one year’s worth of plate appearances under his belt (648) so it isn’t like he has 1,500 PA’s and still having these problems. Sure, it could end up like that but I am hoping that with this down year he can show up to spring training more in shape and with a renewed spirit for next season. A lot of people are making a big deal about him not going and playing winter ball but that means nothing to me. Maybe Pedro needs to get away and clear his head. I personally think he needs more instructional work than in-game work, but that is just me.

-I expected a lot out of Ross Ohlendorf this season but it looks as if he is no longer going to be a part of the Pirates plans going forward. After missing a massive chuck of the season with a shoulder injury he came back and got absolutely rocked. Since coming off the DL in late August Ohlendorf went 1-3 with an 8.40 while opposing hitters hit .374 off him in only 30 innings pitched over seven starts. The velocity is down and he can’t locate any of his pitches and he has only two wins since the 2009 season. I know pitchers wins are overrated and that he pitched pretty well in the 2010 season despite a 1-11 record but he looks much worse than that this season and I am not sure if there is a spot for him on the roster next year. I know this might be s surprise for a spot in the bad list but when he came back I expected him to at least give the team a chance to win and he couldn’t do that at all. He had one good start but it was followed by two more terrible ones so this was a real disappointment to me. I was dead wrong about Ross this year.

-The second half was a terrible, terrible, thing for Pirates fans to go through. On July 26, 2011 the infamous Jerry Meals game happened when the Pirates lost 4-3 in a wild and crazy 19 inning game and at that time the Pirates were 53-48 and only one game out of first place and had a +5 run differential. After that date the Pirates finished the season 19-42 and got outscored by 97 runs on that stretch. In the first half of the season the Pirates hit for a .247/.315/.365 triple slash line and hit at a .241/.301/.371 line over the second half (last 72 games). The real turnaround was on the pitching staff. In the first half of the season they were outstanding with a 3.46 ERA and only let hitters hit for a .256 average while having good numbers in other statistics (.706 opp OPS, .288 BABIP) but the second half told a whole different story where the ERA went up by over a run (4.78) and hitters went off by hitting .288 off them for a .796 OPS and were hitting well above average on balls in play (.326). I mean things just weren’t good for the pitching staff. Kevin Correia had a second half ERA of 7.23 and went on the DL, Paul Maholm’s ERA went up to 5.75 and he went on the DL while the team WHIP was at 1.527. That isn’t going to win you many games and to say it was bad might be giving you a lot of credit.

-Going into the season I actually thought the offense was going to be the strength of the team when looking at the three major aspects of the game (offense/defense/pitching) but I was 100% wrong on this. The offense hit only .244 this season (t-6th lowest in MLB) and struck out the third most in all of baseball (1,308). The Pirates only supported a OPS of .646 and just never really got on track. I thought after starting slow they would be able to pick it up but the Pirates lineup was largely made up of contact hitters and not a lot of players that could put the ball in the gap which made it increasingly hard to come back from more than a few runs down late in games. I have no idea what the front office is going to do this offseason but it needs to be addressed.

-This portion of the “bad” section but I guess it could have easily been in the “alright” section, but I see this as more of a weakness of the team and for some reason I think that people might disagree with me on this just because of the likeableness (is that a word?) of the players and not the actual production. The Pirates bench was terrible this season and was much worse when some of the regulars were going down due to injury. The Pirates bench for much of the year consisted of Josh Harrison, Brandon Wood, Michael McKenry, Matt Diaz and Xavier Paul. I know you are wondering how that group of bench players can disappoint, but it was not good production-wise. Of the aforementioned players Harrison had the most productive year with a .272/.281/374 line with a .287 wOBA and a 79 wRC+ followed by departed outfielder Matt Diaz who hit .259/.303/.324 with a .280 wOBA and 74 wRC+. Those were the good numbers of the bunch. I am not going to sit here and say that all these players were bad because they all brought something to the team. Wood had some power, Paul was able to use his speed to create some runs and Harrison was just a scrappy player that seemed to get the job done. The problem is that none of them were reliable bench players that could come in and be competent spot starters. McKenry came over and did some nice work early but his triple slash line was .222/.276/.322 by the end of the year and his defense wasn’t able to make up for the lack of offense. It is tough to consider this group as a whole a positive when you really can’t even rely on them to come off the bench to pinch hit. Maybe I am a little more pessimistic on this than most but this group of guys wasn’t a positive this season.

-This year the front office went out and tried to add to the big club with a few free agent signings and this was a HUGE bust. The two big games were Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz. At the beginning of the year I was OK with both signing. Garrett Jones wasn’t good against hitting lefties and that is what Matt Diaz did best. In a season’s worth of plate appearances comeingt into the year Diaz was hitting around .330 against lefties so this could have been a nice signing. Looking at Overbay he was a strong defensive first baseman who hit 20 home runs the year before and could sure up a position of flux for the Pirates. Both of these signings turned out to be massive disappointments as neither player finished the year with the team as Diaz was traded to Atlanta and Overbay was DFA’d and picked up by Arizona. Overbay played in 103 games before he was let go and struggled to hit .227 with only eight home runs and a .649 OPS. Moreover Overbay was brought in to be a strong defensive player but his -5.8 UZR was the worst since the 2006 season. Diaz was much of the same story. I touched on his numbers in the previous point but he just struggled all year to do anything and when he did it was a bloop single of a roll over through the left side. No power as he failed to hit a home run all season and finished with a .324 slugging percentage. I know making signings on older players is tough but this couldn’t have gone much worse for Neal Huntington and company.

The Unknowns

-The big unknown from this season is the question of which team is the real Pirates team? The one that was successful in the first 100 games or the team that was one of the worst in baseball over the last 62 game? Are they somewhere in the middle? Is the pitching going to be serviceable or are they going to have to look for four more starters this season? I think for a lot of people this would be a lot easier of a question if the script was flipped and the Pirates played bad baseball to start and then finished strong, but that just isn’t how it went. I think the Pirates are still a little ways away but with strong drafts in the last few years and the development of players such as Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman we could see another talent infusion in Pittsburgh in 2013 when Jamison Taillion and Gerrit Cole are ready to pitch.

-Is Ronny Cedeno going to be back as the Pirates shortstop? In my opinion this shouldn’t be an unknown, this should be a definite. Cedeno should be back on this year and he should be the starting shortstop for the Pirates on opening day 2012. Cedeno had probably his best overall year as a Pirate and we saw huge strides in his defensive game where he finished the year ninth among 22 qualifying shortstops in terms of UZR and UZR/150. I talked before about how Charlie Morton, and a lot of the other staff, relied heavily on the ground ball and they had massive amounts of success with it and Cedeno is a huge reason for that. Having a shortstop that you know is going to make the plays is huge and Ronny was pretty money this year. Ronny was just about the same on the offensive side where he hit .249/.297/.339 and he was an extremely streaky hitter but I will take that out of the eight spot if he is going to play good defense. I think this is more of a no brainer for the Pirates to bring him back since it is a club option for only $3M and there is nobody in the system that is even close to being ready to fill in the everyday roll of shortstop.

-Honestly, who is going to catch for the Pirates next season? This season the Pirates used eight different catchers which included: Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, Jason Jaramillo, Michael McKenry, Eric Fryer, Wyatt Toregas, Dusty Brown and finally Matt Pagnozzi. Both Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder have expensive team options for next season so there is a decision that needs to be made. Doumit’s option is for the 2012 AND 2013 season which would pay him $7.25M in ’12 and $8.25M in ’13 and if they exercise the option they pick up both years automatically. I can’t see the Pirates doing this whatsoever as Doumit has had a history of getting injured and hasn’t been worth that much money offensively or defensively. Since coming into the league in 2005 Doumit has only played in over 85 games just twice and supports a serviceable .271/.334/.442 with a 106 OPS+. I think Doumit can be back but it is not going to be with the Pirates picking up his options but rather the team working out a deal to keep him. I would not be shocked at all if he is not in a Pirates uniform next season. Snyder’s team option is for $6.75M and I can’t see the Pirates picking this one up. This year he did start the season much better than last but with back issues and back surgery and being 31 next year I can’t see this happening at all. On the same front I don’t see Brown or Toregas being in the picture for a true starting spot so right now it really comes down to Jaramillo, McKenry, Fryer and Pagnozzi. I still think Fryer needs some work although he is intriguing and McKenry is probably a backup at best. Do you trust Jaramillo to be the man if Doumit isn’t back?

-One of the pitchers on the staff who might not be back is Paul Maholm had a really nice year for the Pirates but just like Doumit and Snyder Maholm is going to have a heafty team option for 2012 of $9.75M. Woof. This year Paul went 6-14 in 26 starts and a 3.66 ERA and a 2.1 WAR. Like Morton Maholm had a low HR/FB ratio of 7.5% and stranded a good bit of runners at 72.1%. The problem with paying Maholm that money is that he isn’t going to strike out a lot of batters (5.38/9) and this is only his second sub-4.00 ERA in a year where he pitched over 50 innings. I would like to see Paul come back but it probably isn’t going to be for the club option he has. I could see the Pirates trying to work out maybe a three year deal to keep him in the city for a much more reasonable dollar amount. You take him out of this rotation and you have no lefties in your starting five. I am not sure how big of a deal that is to you but I would like to have at least one in there even if it is a soft tossing one. If he can pitch like he did last year then it would be worth working out a deal. I think Paul is one of the guys that actually wants to be on this team and loves the city and everything it is about. If there was a guy that was going to be back out of Maholm/Doumit/Snyder I would put my money on Maholm and that would be the guy that I would want back out of those three.

Closing Thoughs

Over the writing of this season recap I had some discussion with a lot of people on twitter as they commented on the Pirates season. I was not surprised that a lot of them had the feeling they had been let down and that it had been a lost season by what happened. I understand that sediment 100% but I can’t say that I agree with it. In March if I told you that the team would be 72-90 I think everyone would have jumped at that opportunity. Granted I know that is hindsight and that it is easy for me to say something like that but it is true. The expectation was raised with the strong start to the season but that was just the beginning of what we might see over the next few years. The changes of a team going from 57 wins to a playoff team in one year is very hard to do. Has it been done? Yea, but that doesn’t mean it happens every year or that it should be expected. This was a wildly exciting season and I am already excited to see what happens in the offseason and what 2012 holds in store for us. As I went over there was good and bad things that happened this year and still a number of question marks but we could be in a much worse position than we are right now. If I can ask one thing of the year it’s to not let the last two months of the season overshadow the first four. Every month counts the same and there was plenty of good baseball played in the 2011 season to be excited and happy about.

I know there are a lot of thoughts on the Pirates and even though you might have a different view from what I saw I think we could both be right. Weird to say but that is exactly what this kind of season was like. Let me know what you think in the comments.

As always Lets Go Bucs!

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