Saturday, September 14, 2013

The TRBB 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview Revisited

So, here we are. There are 15 games left in the season and the Pirates already have 85 wins. Today I was thinking about the season and how unreal it has been and it got me thinking about what I thought before the season. So I went to my Pirates preview from before the season and read what I wrote. There were some things I was right about and some things I was wrong about so I thought why not look at the questions I had before the season and see how close I was.

Below you are going to find the eight questions I asked after writing the previews for the hitters and pitchers (which you can go back and read by clicking the links). I left the questions and what I wrote and then followed it up by talking about what actually happened.

I think this is a nice reflective piece on the Pirates season. I know there are still games left and they are still fighting for a division title and a spot in the playoffs but it's always nice to take a step back and look at where they can from back in April before the season started and really how I (and most) thought about this team before the season.

So, here we go:

1) What is an underlying issue that needs to improve in 2013? 

Before the season: For me that is pretty easy, base running. This goes both ways also, not only were the Pirates awful at running the bases as a whole but they were equally as awful when you talk about holding runners on and throwing runners out. The Pirates ranked 28th in the league with 73 stolen bases, which isn't all that great in itself but when you couple that with the fact that they were thrown out 52 times it just makes it that much worse. The major league average on stolen bases is 73% and the Pirates came in dead last at 58% success rate. Nobody else was even close to being that bad as Arizona was just a spot better than the Pirates but they were successful 65% of their chances. Just horrible.

Now: The Pirates actually did a much better job of running the bases this year. Now, that is not to say that they have done a great job of running the bases but they have absolutely improved. To this point in the season the Pirates have stole 88 bases in 126 chances for a 70% success rate. The league average is 81 stolen bases for a 72% success rate so the Pirates are just about league average in stealing bases. It doesn't hurt that Starling Marte is swiping a ton of bases (while admittedly getting thrown out a good bit) while Andrew McCutchen is right behind him. Outside of those two there really isn't much going in terms of stealing bases. Russell Martin has nine but nobody else has more than three. I guess that isn't overly good but Marte has 33 and McCutchen has 27 so that is a big plus.

Before the season: On the other side of the coin you have the inability of the Pirate to be able to hold any runners or throw any base runners out. The Pirates had 154 base stealers against them last year that were successful and they were only able to throw out 19 base stealers. All season. That is good for a league-worst 11% caught stealing rate that is 16 points lower than the major league average and six percentage points lower than the next closest team. This really is on the head of Clint Hurdle for me as in the beginning of the season when he said he wanted his pitchers to focus on the hitters and not the base runners but as the season wore on it turned singles into pretty much automatic doubles and it cost the team runs.
Now: The Pirates may have made the biggest improvement here over last year than in any other aspect. The addition of Martin was good in many aspect but throwing out base runners has been the biggest plus. With Martin mainly behind the dish the Pirates have thrown out 33% of runners and only allowed 85 stolen bases. That is worlds different from last season. while A.J. Burnett still isn't slowing down the run game (20-of-22 are successful against him) the rest of the team has really stepped up from the "we don't focus on stopping runners" ideal that they had last season. For perspective the league average is 81 stolen bases allowed and 31 caught stealing.

2) What is the biggest worry for 2013? 
Before the season: The biggest worry for me is that the Pirates are just going to completely have a problem getting on base. They ranked 27th in all of baseball with a team on base percentage of .304 and they had a walk rate of only 7.4% which was only good for 25th in the league. Last year only two Pirates players (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker) finished with an OBP over .330 and that just isn't gong to cut it. The Pirates really struggle in a big way to get on base and that really needs to change. There are some big swing and miss guys in the lineup which will obviously lead to lower OBP but at some point a few guys need to take a walk and set the table for something to happen.
Now: This is really a tough question for me to look back on and answer. Right now as we sit today the Pirates rank eighth (of 15) in the National League teams in OBP (you can't really put this in a league average since the NL still uses pitchers and the AL doesn't). At this point the Pirates have a .315 OBP but I think it goes a little deeper than that. The Pirates pitchers have just been awful this season. Like, really bad. Collectively this season the Pirates pitchers have hit .097/.125/.097 at the plate this year with the league average for pitchers being .133/.165/.173. That doesn't seem like it would be overly significant but when you take the pitchers out of the equation for every team the Pirates have a .325 OBP which ranks 14th in the entire league.

The Pirates have seven players as of today that have a .330 OBP or better and their team walk rate of 7.7% isn't all that much better than last year but the Pirates have done a much better job of getting on base. The Pirates have also been hit by a league-high 77 pitches which is already 26 more time than they did last season.

Furthermore in the second half of the season the Pirates have a .266/.337/.426 line when you exclude the pitchers. That batting average ranks 12th in the entire league and the OBP ranks sixth. That is some pretty good hitting from the Pirates. Much better than I had them being with the lineup they had.

3) What is the biggest unknown for the season? 
Before the season: That has to be the pitching, namely the starting rotation. I know a lot of this team is sort of up in the air right now but with some injuries but when you break camp with Jonathan Sanchez as your number four you are going to be in a lot of trouble. I think up at the top there is some stability with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez but after that there is a lot of consistency questions. Can James McDonald be somewhere between outstanding (first half of 2012) and awful (second half of 2012)? Can Francisco Liriano come in and walk a few less guys to go with his strikeout per inning career average? Can Jeff Karstens stay healthy at all? Will Burnett be able to come anywhere close to what he was in 2012? These are just some of the questions and while the whole team is kinda in this mold the success or failure this season is going to come down to the starting rotation.
Now: The biggest unknown turned out to be the biggest strength. Sanchez and McDonald didn't last long in the rotation (combined for 10 starts) which is probably a really good thing. The top of the rotation was good with Burnett having a good year but the story has been Liriano. So far through 23 starts he's posted a 2.93 ERA and is striking out over a batter per inning (9.13) and cut his walks down from 5.00 batters per nine innings to only 3.49 this season. He is getting ground balls at a 51% rate and has been maybe the free agent signing of the year.

Burnett is striking out more batters than Liriano (9.73 per nine) and has a ground ball rate of nearly 57%. He has an ERA of 3.45 and even better in his FIP (2.78) and xFIP (2.96). Now both Burnett and Liriano have had some bad starts but you can't complain one bit about what they have done for this rotation.

Jeff Karstens could not stay healthy and to be honest I don't think anyone knows if he is still alive but guys like Charlie Morton, Jeanmar Gomez, and Gerrit Cole have done an outstanding job making this staff pretty damn good. Pirates starters rank sixth in the league in strikeouts per nine (7.69) and first in ground ball rate (53%) which is just simply outstanding.

4) Who is most likely to break out in 2013? 
Before the season: I couldn't really break it down to one guys so it will be two for me: Travis Snider and Starling Marte. Marte really has all the tools to be a successful player at the major league level. He still has some trouble with the strikeouts (27.5%) and a low walk rate (4.4%) which really makes his on base percentage mostly all batting average (which isn't a good way to rely on getting on base) but if he could get a little bit of plate deicipline then he could really be a dynamic player. He isn't going to give you a ton of power but he could be a 30 steal guy that can make things happen and if he is going to hit at the top of the lineup then that could be huge.

Snider is a former top prospect that really never got the chance. I think last year he was plagued with injuries that held him back but he has power and some pretty decent bat control. Hopefully with some health and some consistent at bats he can find a grove and give the Pirates what they thought they would get when they traded away Bran Lincoln. He struck out a little much last season but his walk rate was nearly 10% and you can't imagine he will have an ISO of .078 for a full season so I like Snider to break out a little bit this season.
Now: This was a little hit and miss. Marte has come on and played really well this season. He has been out for some time with a hand injury but so far in 123 games his hitting .282/.343/.443 with 10 triples and 36 stolen bases. Marte has been a little up and down as you can see here:

April/March 119 .327 .395 .477 .872 143
May 119 .243 .293 .383 .676 87
June 106 .293 .340 .545 .885 144
July 119 .248 .305 .367 .672 91
August 73 .311 .408 .459 .867 143
Sept/Oct 0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/14/2013.

So while he has been rally good overall it has been somewhat of a learning process for him. I would still consider this a pretty good season for Marte despite the fact that he is striking out nearly 24% of his plate appearances with only a 4.7% walk rate but he leads the team with 21 hit by pitches so that can make up for some of the lack of walks.

Snider has not been good. He is actually last on the team (hitters) with a -0.5 WAR and has a line of .221/.287/.333. He was hurt with a toe injury that might explain a little of the struggles but he was nowhere close to good.

5) When will we see Gerrit Cole and what will we see when we do? 
Before the season: The Pirates sent Cole back to AAA which made a lot of people upset, but it was the right thing to do. Is Cole better than a guy or two in the rotation now? Yes. Should he have been sent down? Yes. Listen, if this was a playoff team last year that didn't collapse and had a shot to do it again this year then I think bringing Cole up at the start of the season might be a good idea. The truth of the matter is that they aren't. Not really close. They could get lucky and have a chance but when that time comes around Cole will be with the big club. I would expect to see Cole sometime in mid June when it is certain that the Pirates will get a full extra year out of him. If you ask me I would rather have Cole for a full extra year than have him this year for a month and a half. Does he probably have to work on some things in AAA? Yea, actually he probably does. He only has six innings at the AAA level and only 132 innings in the minor leagues total. From everything I have heard he is still a little inconsistent so a few more months can't hurt. I would rather him be up a few months too late than a few months too early.

When he does join the team he should be a top of the rotation guy. He brings a wide array of pitches that can reach as high as 100 mph with his fastball and can throw his change up harder than some pitchers throw their fastball. It isn't all about speed as most major league hitters can time a fastball but it sure doesn't hurt to have that. This will be one of the most anticipated call ups in a long time and I really don't think he will disappoint. When he does come up I wouldn't be all that worried if he gets hit around some. He was the top pick in 2011 and really hasn't been around the block a ton. There is going to be a learning curve and he is going to take his lumps but he will also give us some glimpses of the top end guy that he hopefully will be for a long time.
Now: Cole made his debut June 11 when he pitched against the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates won that game 8-2 and he struck out two while giving up seven hits in 6.1 innings. Since then he has done a really good job of cutting down the walks which plagued him a little in AAA and he is walking less than two hitters per nine innings. He threw mainly fastballs in his early starts and was lighting up the gun as high as 101 but recently he has been using much more of his lethal off-speed which was highlighted by his nine strikeout performance against the Rangers in seven innings for a game score of 78. [here is an explanation of game score] I think people (myself included) expected a little more in the strikeout column (6.89 per nine) but in his last eight starts he has struck out 46 hitters in 49.2 innings while only walking 11. I will take that every day of the week. Oh yea, Cole's ground ball rate is over 50%. Yes.

6) What is going to frustrate you the most this year? 
Before the season: There are a number of things that are going to frustrate me this season and to pick out one thing it is tough to do so I will try. Last season the pure ignorance to even acknowledge that other teams stealing bases is a big deal or ignoring the fact that the Pirates are just awful at stealing bases. On top of that the Pirates will attempt to give teams free outs on far too many occasions with just dreadful bunts at the worst possible time. I just can't wait until Josh Harrison gets called in to pinch hit and then squares around to bunt only to pop it straight up into a double play. You know it has a better chance than not of happening. Or not using Jason Grilli in the eighth inning so he can be saved for the ninth inning when it won't matter because Jeanmar Gomez blows the lead in the eighth with the meat of the order up for the opposition. I mean Grilli is only allowed to pitch the ninth and not in a high leverage situation because, SAVES. (breathe Cory, breathe) Yea, I will be frustrated at that stuff.
Now: This stuff still happens and it still frustrates me. Now, I will say that Clint Hurdle has done a much better job this year of managing the team. He is an old school manager but he has opened up his mind about defensive shifts and the result of that is the Pirates being one of the teams that utilize them the most and makes them one of the leader in batted balls turned into outs. I already talked about how the Pirates have done a better job of keeping base runners close and the Pirates, overall, have ran the bases a lot better this year over last. So, there is some credit to go around in this aspect.

However, there still are things that just absolutely infuriate me about the Pirates. Hurdle loves bunting. Just loves it. The only guys on the team who I am convinced that won't bunt are McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Too many times there has been a runner on first and he either has Marte or Neil Walker putting down a bunt. This are your number one and two hitters in the lineup and you are forcing them to give away free outs. Mind you that you DECREASE your chances of scoring a run by giving away an out to move a runner up one base but you then guarantee that your best player, McCutchen, is almost always going to be walked and not swing the bat. Because that makes sense. The Pirates have also been brutally bad running the contact play when on third base with less than two outs. The problem isn't them doing it, it's that they do it all the time. Infield up? Run. Ball hit back to the pitcher? Run. I am not 100% sure if this is on the players or coaches but the coaches need to step in and tell these guys to stop being dumb.

I am not going to even touch how horribly wrong it is that Justin Morneau is batting (and starting games!) against left handed pitching while Gaby Sanchez sits on the bench.

While I am not a Hurdle fan, at all, I think he has done a better job. Do I think he is the guy that can win them a World Series? No, I don't. I think he costs this team more than he helps them but he has been better this year. I guess I should be used to the old school tactics he continually uses despite the data saying it is the wrong move but I will be angry when Neil Walker bunts in the playoffs when he is hitting second in the lineup. If you hit a guy in the first or second spot and you want them to bunt then they shouldn't be hitting first or second.

7) So, how many wins for the Pirates in 2013? 
Before the season: This is the million dollar question isn't it? Four or so years ago when he Pirates were literally the worst team in baseball I thought that 2013 might be the first year that the Pirates could make that move and probably get to .500 and maybe challenge for a playoff spot. Things haven't gone that well during that stretch and while I don't think they have been horrible I just don't think they are ready to make a playoff push. If you are wondering if I care about the 20 straight years of losing, well, I don't. Would it make any difference if the Pirates won 83 games this year and then go back under .500 for the next three seasons after that? Sure people would stop talking about the streak but it would just be a different talking point. Being .500 and not making the playoffs is the same as not being .500 and missing the playoffs. 
All that being said I think if some things break right the Pirates could break the streak. I think some things go well and others don't and the Pirates should be around 75-77 wins. I don't think it is going to be like last season where they are hot for half the year and horrible for half the year, rather I think they are pretty consistent throughout the season. We might see a their place finish in the division but I could see the Pirates finishing fourth, behind Milwaukee and ahead of Chicago.
Now: Oh man, was I dead wrong. I said "...if some things break right the Pirates could break the streak." Oh baby. They dominated the streak and are on their way to at least 90 wins and a possible NL Central title. I have no problem being wrong. I was wrong a lot in my preview (as you can see) but this was a nice change of pace. As I said above I thought this year was the first year they had a chance to break .500 and turns out I was (kinda) right about that. So, cool.

8) How will the NL Central finish?
Before the season: Here is how I have the NL Central going this season: 
1) Cincinnati 92-70
2) St. Louis 86-76
3) Milwaukee 82-80
4) Pittsburgh 76-86
5) Chicago 67-95

Now: How is really is as of the morning of September 14:

1) St. Louis 86-61
2) Pittsburgh 85-62
3) Cincinnati 83-65
4) Milwaukee 64-82
5) Chicago 63-84

The Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds have been the class of the division all year. Along with the Dodgers and Braves Barves they are the best teams in the National League. The Brewers really have had some awful luck with injuries and the Cubs are rebuilding but the Pirates really are the story of the season.

Hope you enjoyed. Leave your thoughts on the season (so far) in the comments.

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