Saturday, October 12, 2013

Looking Back at the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

It has been a few days since the Pirates were knocked out of the NLDS and still it is hard to get a grasp on what I think and how I feel. As I said in the final game recap of the season the year has to be looked at as success but at the same time you can think of what could have been if one of those three losses went the other way in the NLDS. Watching the Cardinals and Dodgers play last night was tough to do. Not because I really care who wins, because I don't, but because I know the Pirates were that close to being one step away from the World Series. It's a tough pill to swallow but in the same respect you have to be excited about where the Pirates are going.

That is a conversation for a different time. This team is going to change a lot over the offseason and while there might not be any huge moves this is going to be a different team next year. Sure there will be most of the same guys back but as we learned with the Washington Nationals that just because you think you are going to be good for x number of years down the road doesn't mean you are going to be. That is the beast that is Major League Baseball and with the payroll constraints the Pirates have it will make it tougher to do.

Now, I would like to reflect a little on this season. A lot of people are going to be talking about the overwhelming successes of this year and they will be absolutely right. But, with all the success there were still bumps in the road and places where a bounce or two here and there and game five of the NLDS would have been at PNC Park and not in Busch Stadium.

Anyways, I just thought I would take a look at the good and bad from this year. It is something I gave a little bit of thought to during the week but right now I am just going to spitball a little. Most times when I sit down on Saturday mornings to write (which is the only real time I have to do more in depth stuff) I have an idea of what I want to say and the direction I want to go with it. Today is not one of those days. I don't think I am ready to let the 2013 Pirates go and with that I wanted to take a look back at that 2013 season. For every Andrew McCutchen there was a Jonathan Sanchez and while you don't want to see many of the Sanchez type situations they are a part of the story and you can't ignore that they didn't happen.

So I am going to bounce back and forth as things come into my mind. On we go.

Good
McCutchen. I am sure that I could just keep his last name there and you would know exactly what I was talking about but I don't think people are really going to appreciate how good he was this year. Last season McCutchen was a monster during the first half of the year but tailed off at the end of the season to all but kill his MVP chances. Last year he hit .327/.400/.553 with a 158 wRC+ and a .403 wOBA. Those are outstanding numbers that had he grade out at a 6.8 win player and consideration for the National League MVP. I talked much of the preseason that McCutchen was going to be good but probably closer to his then career line of .280/.370/.450 and that would have been more than OK with me. All he did was come out and have another breakout year but this time took it the whole way through the season. He hit .317/.404/.508 with a 155 wRC+ and a .393 wOBA. So while his first half carried him to MVP type number this year he played great the entire season and will most likely win the NL MVP award. He cut his strikeout rate by 4.6% from last year and struck out only 15% of his plate appearances while walking 11.6% of the time which was more than last season. His power went down this year in terms of home runs but he ended the 2013 regular season with 64 extra base hits while he had 66 all of last season. Not too bad. This is the cornerstone player that the Pirates (and their fans) were hoping he would be and he is locked up until at least 2018. This is far and away the best news of the season.

Bad
Brandon Inge and John McDonald. Woof. To be really honest I have no idea why either was even on the team or how they made the team. I know Clint Hurdle likes his veterans but this was going a little too far. There was probably a reason to have one of them as a backup but for all my money I would have just started Jordy Mercer on the opening day roster and kept these two on the sidelines. Inge appeared in 50 games for the Pirates this year and was good for a .181/.204/.238 line while McDonald appeared in 16 games and went .065/.171/.097. These guys brought nothing to the team and while they were both known for their defensive capabilities they really didn't even do that well. These are the types of moves that are going to happen when you have to get some players that will bounce back but even when these signings were made it seemed like a horrible idea. It will probably happen again and here is to hoping they turn out better.

Good
Francisco Liriano. Oh baby was this awesome. The Pirates probably could make a claim at having the two best free agent signings in baseball with Liriano being one of them. The Pirates signed Liriano around Christmas time (I think) and I was pretty excited about it. Then he broke his non-throwing hand in a strange accident and it almost fell apart. The Pirates and Liriano worked things out and it has been nothing but great things. After back-to-back years of more than 5.00 ERAs that included walk rates of over five per nine innings it wasn't easy for everyone to buy in. The Pirates took that chance and they won. During the spring they made a slight adjustment in his delivery and it seemed to work as he posted a 3.02 ERA, struck out over a batter per inning and walked only 3.5 per nine innings. It was more like 2010 Liriano than 2011 or 2012 and he was outstanding. There still were times when he struggled but in big games he showed up, like the Wild Card game when he embarrassed the Cincinnati Reds. Liriano is back next year and you have to be excited about the top of the rotation.

Bad
Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald. Sanchez was sort of in the mold as Liriano. The Pirates took a flyer on a guy who was brutally bad in 2012 and decent in 2011 and hoped they could turn the 8.07 2012 ERA with a 7.38 BB/9 rate and make him a useful backend starter. it didn't work. In four starts with the Pirates Sanchez posted an 11.85 ERA and while his walk rate was done (5.27) and strikeout rate was up (9.88) he was just really bad. McDonald was a little different story. In 2012 he was coming off a great first half, so good that he probably should have been an All-Star. The second half of 2012 was a different story. He was bad. Real bad. This season there was hope that McDonald could maybe find that happy medium as he wasn't too old to figure it out but if he was going to be the same as the second half of 2012 then he wasn't going to be able to help the team. He wasn't able to help the team. He started six games for the Pirates and had a 5.76 ERA and walked over six batters per nine innings. He spent much of the year on the disabled list before being designated for assignment at the end of the year.

Good
Russell Martin. I talked about the Pirates having maybe the two best free agent signings in baseball and while I think Liriano maybe could be the top it wouldn't be out of the question to say that Martin was the best free agent signing in all of baseball. The Pirates have been brutally bad defensively behind the plate. The Pirates have ranked as one of the worst teams at pitch framing and while there still isn't a good metric to represent that all you had to do was watch Ryan Doumit to know what I mean. This year was completely different. Martin is one of the best pitch framers in the league and also did a nice job at throwing out base runners. He threw out 36 base runners this year and gave up 53 stolen bases. Compare that to last season when Pirates backstops caught only 19 runners and had 154 stolen bases against. That alone is a positive. Martin added some offense also. While his average wasn't what you would ideally like it to be he got on base at a .327 clip and graded out as a league average hitter with a wRC+ of 101 and a wOBA of .315. I will take league average with the plus defense.

Bad
Pitcher hitting. The Pirates pitchers were embarrassingly bad at the plate. I know you probably are asking what the big deal about the pitchers hitting is since they only hit two, maybe three times a day but they weren't even close to league average. The league average for pitchers hitting was .135/.166/.174 while Pirates pitchers hit .101/.132/.101. That doesn't look like a lot but that takes the Pirates team batting splits from a .245/.313/.396 average to a .254/.323/.413 average without the pitchers included. The Pirates hitters themselves did a pretty nice job this year but the pitchers were brutally bad.

Good
Defensive shifts and Dan Fox. I am pretty hard on Hurdle for a number of reasons. I am not a huge fan of his and how he manages games and some of his roster/game day decisions are downright awful. But this season he went out of his old school mentality and opened up to some new school thinking. The Pirates hired Fox in 2008 and he slowly began to bring his analytical thinking to the forefront with it really showing up this season. Through data and analysis Fox, Hurdle, and his staff began looking at the tendencies and positioning fielders where they could be most successful. The Trib's Travis Sawchik broke this down in detail in mid-September and rather than me try to talk you through it go read that article. I know A.J. Burnett doesn't like the shifts but just because baseball has put the fielders in a certain place for its entire existence doesn't automatically mean it's the best way to play defense. This year the Pirates proved that.

Bad
Garrett Jones and Travis Snider. A pair of left handed bats that were supposed to be half of platoon positions at first base and right field, respectively. Both of these left handed bats failed in a big way and forced the other side of the platoon to play far too much in situations that they weren't going to be successful in. Jones was coming off a good year in 2012 where he hit 27 home runs and hit .274/.317/.516. This year he wasn't good. At all. He was .233/.289/.419 this season with only 15 home runs and is probably at a point in his career where the Pirates will not pay for him through arbitration and will be in search of a first base option. Snider was a guy that I was pretty excited to see this year mostly because I don't think we ever got a good look at what he could do due to various injuries and inconsistent playing time. That was much the case this year as he missed a bunch of time due to a turf toe problem and when he was in the lineup he hit for a .215/.281/.333 line and was the least valuable hitter on the Pirates roster according to fWAR where he was a -0.6.

Good
Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata. These were the platoon counterpart to Jones and Snider and these two had to carry the load. Sanchez was very hurt by having to hit against right handed pitchers as he hit .254/.361/.402 overall but only hit .204/.304/.315 against right handed pitching. Sanchez is a monster against left handed pitching hitting .333/.448/.539 in 2013 and over his career is a .300/.399/.496 hitter. He did his job and was forced into situations where he wasn't going to be successful due to Jones not having a good season. I am a huge Tabata fan. Always have been and always will be. He isn't going to do anything great but this season he had a nice year. I don't think it will get talked about too much due to the fact that he doesn't hit a lot of home runs but Tabata finished the regular season hitting .282/.342/.429 and finished with a 118 wRC+ and a .340 wOBA. I think if I told you that before the year you would have jumped up in the air and rushed to take it. I know Tabata gets hated on a lot for his past couple injury riddled seasons but this season he was good. Bottom line.

Bad
Losing Wandy Rodriguez. This was tough. Rodriguez wasn't going to be a guy like A.J. Burnett or Liriano who struck out a lot of guys and put up flashy numbers but he was a really solid number three that went out and got the job done every single time out. When he went down early in the

Good
Charlie Morton. A lot of people wondered why they gave Morton a tender offer this offseason knowing that he was going to miss half of the year. I wondered a little about it too but he came back the middle of the year and was probably the teams third-best pitcher. He was getting ground balls at a 63% rate and that is exactly what he needed to do. He still has some trouble pitching to lefties but with a 3.26 ERA you can't really ask much for more, especially considering that he was pretty true to that ERA with a 3.60 FIP and a 3.62 xFIP.

Good
Gerrit Cole. Oh baby. Cole came up halfway through the year and really didn't bust onto the scene. He was throwing a lot of fastballs and pitching to contact a little more with very few strikeouts. We heard about the lack of strikeouts in relation to his stuff through AA and AAA but it wasn't too awesome to see it in the big leagues despite his good outings. Well, we got to see that later. As he got comfortable and got used to pitching at the big league level he started throwing more of his secondary stuff. When that started to come so did the strikeouts. The 100 mph fastball was met with a filthy slider/curve combination and we saw the flashes of a staff ace MLB ace. This guy is just figuring out how to pitch at the MLB level and all he did was win game two of the NLDS and pitch well enough to win in game five of the NLDS. I can't wait to see this kid pitch in 2014.

Good
Hitting left handed pitching. I talked about how good Sanchez was at hitting left handed pitchers but that was really a Pirates thing. They crushed left handed pitching. Over the year they hit .262/.328/.407 while the league average is only .248/.312/.385. Guys like McCutchen, Sanchez, Mercer, and Marte thrive on left handed pitching. Mercer hit .410/.460/.692 against lefty while McCutchen went .388/.479/.650. Marte went .402/.466/.587 against lefties and I already touched on what Sanchez did. Scary good against left handed pitching.

Good
The bullpen. This might get dropped a little from the outings that Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon had but this entire bullpen was the highlight of the team. They were one of the best in baseball and it wasn't just the two guys I mentioned above that made them so good. It's guys like Justin Wilson and Tony Watson who were a pair of hard throwing left handed pitchers that made it miserable to hit against them. It was journeymen like Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro who I wanted no part of being on the team at the beginning of the year but they were outstanding all year. You really can't talk enough about those guys and what they meant to the team on the days where the starter couldn't go deep in the game or late situations where the middle of the order was coming up and they needed to get big outs. They are as much responsible for the year as anyone else.


Good AND Bad
Starling Marte. I have no idea how to categorize the year that Marte had. On one had he is a plus-plus defender that should probably be playing centerfield but he stuck in left field that is more like a second center at PNC Park. He also stole 37 bases this season and when he was on base he was a force that could score from first on a single to the right-center gap. The problem comes that I have no idea what Marte is like offensively. He finished the year hitting .280/.343/.441 and had a great start to the year which was all good. Marte hits leadoff for the Pirates which with his speed is nice when he can get on. When he can get on. That's the rub. Hitting at the top of the lineup and in front of McCutchen it would be great to have someone that could get on base. Now, Marte got on base a good deal but much of that relied on him getting hit by pitches. While it is all well and good that he was hit by 24 pitches the problem is that he drew only 25 walks. The entire season. His was rate was only 4.4% and that is something we knew was going to happen. He's a free swinger (as evident by his swing rates where he swings at 37% of pitches outside the zone) and sometimes that lends to good things but I am not really sure you can rely on getting hit by pitches as a supplement for walks. That is the frustrating part about watching Marte. He can go on wild hot streaks like he did at the beginning of the year but when he goes on cold streaks (like he did in the playoffs) it can be killer to the top of that lineup.

Good AND Bad
Neil Walker. Let me start by saying that I was never overly high on Neil Walker. What he has done with what the Pirates did to him (by switching him to ever position imaginable over the years) is commendable. He's gotten much better defensively at second base year-over-year and the defensive shifts have aided his defensive value to the team. The problem is that Walker is a platoon player that is being asked to play every day. Walker is pretty good as a left handed hitter where he was .256/.350/.455 with all 16 of his home runs and as a career player he is .278/.347/.451 with 50 of his 54 home runs from the left side. As a right handed hitter he is pretty bad. In 2013 he was .225/.281/.238 as a right handed batter and over his career as a right handed hitter he is .260/.316/.340. That just isn't going to cut it from the right side. He is a good platoon option from the left side of the batters box but is a liability from the right side. Hurdle made more of a switch to moving Walker away from hitting from the right side but I think the Pirates still see Walker as a main offensive cog in this year, which he is not.

Good AND Bad
Pedro Alvarez. I have written about Alvarez a lot on here in the past. I talk about the fact that nobody knows what kind of player he is and I still don't know if we ever will. Alvarez still struck out over 30% of his plate appearances and his walk rate was still below 8% but he was still able to hit 36 home runs. He has raw power that you can't teach and that is why he is such a polarizing player. I did a piece a few weeks ago that looked at how Alvarez actually cut his strikeouts down, by a ton, in September/October he struck out only 21% of his plate appearances and if you want to see the context of that then click on the link where I talk about it. He is going to hit home runs and strike out. He went .233/.296/.473 this season and he is frustrating. Frustrating because you see the big power and the things he can do when he puts the ball in play but then you see stretches where he doesn't look like he's ever seen a baseball before. I hope he is starting to figure out the plate discipline part of the game but his O-Swing% has increased in every single year (percentage of balls outside the zone swung at) and his O-Contact% (balls contacted on swings at pitches outside the zone) dropped by 7%. I have no idea.

and finally...

Good
The season. This one has to go out to Bob Nutting, Frank Coonley, Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, and the entire Pirates staff and front office. The Pirates finally broke that streak of losing seasons and what might be best about that is that will be just a small portion of what people talk about when we hear about this season. The Pirates didn't just get the 82nd win in the final week of the season. They got the 82nd win and then won 12 more games. They got to the playoffs. They hosted, and won, the Wild Card game and then took the St. Louis Cardinals to the brink in the NLDS. When this group came to the Pirates in 2007 they had a plan. It was a plan that was going to take time. It was a plan that focused on tearing everything down and building it back up. A lot of people didn't like this but it had to be done. Those guys took their lumps and they made mistakes. They did things they knew weren't going to be fan friendly but they knew they were doing things to make the team better for the long haul. We are finally starting to see that long haul. There are no guarantees in baseball and this could be a one year flash in the pan. I don't believe it is because of the depth the Pirates have but you never know. I am thankful for those guys and this plan. It is the sole reason the Pirates were relevant in 2013 and the reason they have increased wins every year since that disastrous 2010 season. This isn't about breaking the streak or just getting to the playoffs. As this group said when they got here this is about winning a World Series. I don't even know if there is an adjective to describe how far this team has come since 2007 but I assure you it is a great thing to see and hopefully this means more seasons like 2013.

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