Thursday, March 28, 2013

Your baseball optimism is misguided

Drew Silva at NBC's Hardball Talk is the latest to drink Uncle Clint's Olde-Timey Restorative Brain Tonic, specially formulated to balance the humours, strengthen the blood vessels and stave off the flux.

The Big Question: Can the Buccos break .500 for the first time since the 1992 season?

No.

It is absolutely possible.

Fine. Will it happen, though? No.

The Pirates finished only four games under the .500 mark (79-83) in 2012 and seem capable of significant improvement in 2013.

Until you actually look at their roster, I suppose.

Andrew McCutchen has been a star for years but truly had a breakout 2012 campaign, posting career highs in batting average (.327), homers (31), RBI (96) and runs scored (107). His .953 OPS was higher than his previous best by a whole 112 points.

His batting average on balls in play was .375. The norm is .300. Anything beyond about .310 is sheer, stupid luck — both unsustainable and beyond the player’s control.

Maybe some regression is coming, but then again maybe it’s not.

It is. In fact, McCutchen was so outrageously lucky in the first half last year that he posted a .407 BABIP. A regression of 32 points in the second half might have been even luckier. Cutch is good. But he’s not .375 BABIP good because that does not exist.

McCutchen isn’t the only difference-maker in the Pirates’ lineup. 

Of course not. This team is outrageously deep. That’s what makes it great.

Starling Marte hit .286/.347/.500 with 12 homers, 13 triples and 21 stolen bases in 100 games last season at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting called up to Pittsburgh and giving the National League a taste of his potential down the stretch.

Starling Marte is what we at FTC like to call a stupid asshole. He walks in less than 5 percent of his plate appearances. He swings at 46 percent of the pitches he sees. About 35 percent of those pitches are outside the strike zone.

He’ll bat leadoff this year

This is such an atrociously bad idea.

…in front of Neil Walker, who proved his legitimacy in 2012 by producing a career-high 14 home runs in 129 games while lifting his average, OBP and slugging percentage all from where they were in 2011.

What you want in the top of any batting order is someone who is good at getting on base. For the purpose of and every other argument, let’s define getting on base as not making an out. By this criterion, Walker would be a better choice as a leadoff hitter than would Marte. Walker draws about twice as many bases on balls as Marte, and he strikes out significantly less, too. Don’t get me wrong, Walker is still a poor choice for a leadoff hitter. In fact, this team has no leadoff hitter. Marte is being tabbed for this job because he’s fast, and in the conventional wisdom of baseball managing — a school of thought that has about as much enduring pertinence as the notion that swinging a live chicken over your head is good luck on Yom Kippur — you want a fast guy at the top of the lineup so that he can get on and steal second, which is something else the Pirates have no business attempting if they’re serious about scoring more runs.

Hint: They aren’t.

Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones also produced a career-best home run total last season, slugging 27 in 145 games. He had 16 homers in 148 games in 2011. 

I like Garrett Jones, but this is just not happening again. At his very best, Garret Jones is half of a good platoon at first base or right field, or a nice piece to have for your bench if you’re a team making a run. Garrett Jones is none of the following:
  •      An everyday player
  •      A force to be reckoned with
  •      One of the great poets of his generation
  •      A beekeeper
  •      Someone who could be accurately described as having adequate plate discipline
To that last point, Garrett Jones is the guy who comes to the plate after the opposing pitcher walks the three guys in front of him on eight, six and four pitches, respectively, and then swings at the first pitch he sees.

And then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is entering his physical prime at age 26 and tallied 30 big flies last year at age 25. 

I don’t know if it says more about Drew Silva’s opinion of his audience or his inability to effectively command the English language that he feels the need to point out that since Pedro Alvarez is 26 years old, that means he was 25 last year. This is the kind of analysis you can’t get from counting on your fingers because you don’t have enough fingers.

When did everyone on Yahoo become Perd Hapley?

The Bucs have a handful of legitimate power bats,

No! They don’t! They have two-and-a-half power bats. That’s not a handful. Even if one of those guys was going to hit 60 home runs this year, what the Pirates have on hand would not constitute a handful of anything. Not power hitters, not savvy veterans, not proven winners. Not leadership, grit, hustle or chemistry. Not even jelly beans. The Pirates have one premiere player (McCutchen), one legitimate power threat who costs the team runs by playing out of position (Alvarez), two decent, veteran pitchers (A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez) and several handfuls of totally useless crap.

and free agent acquisition Russell Martin should only help the run-production.

I’ve yet to hear a coherent explanation as to how a 30-year-old guy whose numbers have steadily declined over the last six years to the point where he hit .211/.311/.403 last year, despite the outrageously low .222 BABIP, is worth this money when the Pirates have a) Tony Sanchez, a guy they drafted, handed $4 million to, and who posts respectable on-base numbers at triple-A, but= won’t get a chance because the organization seems to have developed a baseless hatred of him, and b) Michael McKenry, who is younger than Martin, cheaper than Martin and offensively superior to Martin in nearly every meaningful category. Some fringe numbers say that Martin is exceptional at framing pitches, and that there might be as many as two or three runs a year to be had in that undervalued little gem of a quality. Management decided it was worth $17 million over two years, and the Yankees, who currently have zero catchers and don’t give any semblance of a fuck about the luxury tax threshold, decided that they’d just as soon play a ghost man at catcher and ask the ump to throw the ball back to the mound after every pitch rather than retain Russell Martin for that money. This is an organization that knew when it re-signed Alex Rodriguez, it was bidding against itself and wound up overpaying by a measly $100 million, but did it anyway. When you outbid the Yankees for a player, that’s a really terrible sign.

This is not a bad National League offense,

This offense is atrocious. This team’s collective OBP is going to wind around .300. It might even sink below if they insist on giving Travis Snider and Jose Tabata equal playing time. And let's not forget about Alex Presley, who Neal Huntington has kept around as a present for all the fans too young to have ever seen Midre Cummings play.

and the rotation looks better than it has in over a decade.

The rotation is an absolute catastrophuck. But yes, it does look better than it has in about ten years. Keep in mind where the bar is.

Wandy Rodriguez registered a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings with the Pirates last season after arriving in a July 25 trade with Houston. The veteran left-hander owns a 3.48 ERA in 934 2/3 innings since 2008. A.J. Burnett has found new life in the Steel City and was almost ace-like in 2012, spreading a 3.51 ERA over 200-plus frames. James McDonald has flashed potential, and Gerrit Cole — the No. 1 overall pick from 2011 — is expected to reach the major leagues in June.

James McDonald went from being one of the ten best pitchers in the league in the first half to being appointed to the Ryan Vogelsong Chair in Mop-Up Duty in the second half. James McDonald is a question mark at best. The Pirates cut Jeff Karstens, then re-signed him for a reasonable amount, but that doesn’t matter because he’s hurt. The Pirates gave Charlie Morton a one-year deal for $2 million, despite the fact that he’s coming off of reconstructive elbow surgery which will prevent him from pitching in rehab until at least June, and pitching effectively for the rest of his natural life, since he wasn’t that good to begin with. The Pirates gave Francisco Liriano $14 million for two years, only to have that deal put on hold when he injured himself in the offseason doing god only knows what in Venezuela. Months later, the club and Liriano agreed to reduce the contract’s value to $12.75 million, which I guess is just the same deal, pro-rated for the time they expect him to miss while he recovers from the injury (FTC projection: six months). The rap on Liriano is that he’s batshit insane and “has great stuff.” But there is no indication at all, be it factual, statistical or anecdotal, that he has any idea where a given pitch will go once it leaves his hand. This is why he strikes out 14 guys per game and walks 19 each inning.

These aren’t your older cousin’s Pirates. Las Vegas gives them an over/under of 77.5 wins. I like the over, and I think they can approach something like 85 victories if their most important players stay healthy all year.

Vegas is smart. That’s why it’s called Vegas. Drew Silva, on the other hand, is a moron. That’s why he writes for Yahoo, takes the over and assumes that nobody important will get hurt.

The Pirates held a share of first place in the National League Central on July 25, 2011, only to go 19-43 over their final 62 games. They had a share of first place on July 18, 2012, and then came another late-season fade. Fair or not, much of the blame for this inability to finish strong has fallen on the broad shoulders of manager Clint Hurdle.

Broad and manly as Clint’s shoulders may be, the person accountable is Neal Huntington. He built the team. He chose the players. Did Hurdle’s stupid insistence on bunting whenever possible and playing Rod Barajas all last year help matters? No. But he can’t control how good his players are, and it’s not the players’ fault that they suck.

The Pittsburgh bullpen isn’t great. Last year’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, was traded to Boston this winter in a six-player swap. Jason Grilli was very good last season and should do fine as the new ninth-inning man, but getting leads to him may be an issue. Mark Melancon, who came to Pittsburgh in that Hanrahan deal, posted a 6.20 ERA across 45 innings with the Red Sox in 2012. Tony Watson is solid but not dominant, and Jared Hughes fits that same profile. It’s not an especially exciting group.

The bullpen isn’t going to be a huge problem. In fact, the one thing that the Pirates’ current front office has shown a special aptitude for is building palatable bullpens out of spare and unwanted parts. Are they exciting? No. But they also will not be the reason this team finishes under .500. We’re going to wind up blaming that on the offense and starting pitching and manager and front office before we’ll be in any position to point fingers at Jared Hughes for not being sexy enough, or Mark Melancon (a great bounce-back candidate, btw) for not having terrifying facial hair.

Those back-to-back late-season tumbles have only been made possible by back-to-back early-season success, which has helped pumped life into one of the most well-designed sports stadiums in the world.

The trouble with unsustainable success is that it’s unsustainable.

PNC Park hosted 2,091,918 fans in 2012, up from 1,940,429 fans in 2011 and 1,613,399 million in 2010.

Approximately 12 of those fans have heard of third-order winning percentage — a statistic that while the Pirates were 16 games over .500 in July said, “don’t you get too comfortable there, son, because I’m about to light the house on fire.”

Pittsburgh is among the best pro sports towns in the country, and Major League Baseball is always going to better off when its team there is worth watching.

This might be the first article in the history of sports journalism to offer the standard Pittsburgh platitudes and not include the phrase “blue-collar.” That, in a nutshell, is the most important thing about this piece; that is its enduring legacy.

“Raise the Jolly Roger” and all that.

At some point this year, we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about how far we’re going to allow this “pirates” theme to go. It’s a fine name for a baseball team, but its origin has more to do with white collar crime and contention over labor laws than it does with anything involving rag-tag bunches of drunken misfits with guns and wooden limbs who sail around on schooners, raping, pillaging and lighting their hair on fire. Plus, Greg Brown is the most obnoxious man in America not named Joe Buck.

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