2012 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

A step ahead of the rebuilding Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates experienced one of their most difficult seasons in their climb to be competitive. Stocked with more of their prized youngsters in 2011, the Pirates hung in the National League Central race until the end of July. In fact the Pirates stayed within one-to-two games of the division lead for most of July, driving them to make deadline deals for Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee.

For as long as they stayed in the divisional hunt in July, the Pirates fell out of contention even faster in August. The club’s struggling offense stopped producing runs in August and September, and their pitching staff suddenly lost their touch, suffering injuries and ineffectiveness. By August 9, the Pirates were more than 10 games off of the divisional pace after a stunning 10 day swing.

One of the most difficult aspects of rebuilding a ball club is taking the next step from a competitive club to a contending club. Previously, I thought there was no difference — I thought that anyone that built a competitive club would have a chance to contend for the divisional title. However, over the last few years, watching the Brewers’ rebuilding, it became clear that competitive teams can indeed play competitive ball without having a true chance at the divisional title. Once a team gets those youngsters to the big leagues, it’s a matter of getting them to play for all 162 and work through the grind of the season.

Enter the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates. Their front office looked at the 2011 season as a set of growing pains, rather than an impetus to start it again, and their club returns many familiar faces from July contention and the dog days of August and September. One of the media’s “sexy” or “dark horse” picks for years, the Pirates now face the very real next step from competition to contention.

The Pirates worked with pitchers that did not necessarily post the best fielding independent ratios, but nevertheless extremely limited batted ball damage through the first half of 2011. Despite posting a 1.06 FIPratio — good for an expected runs average of approximately 4.53 at PNC Park — the Pirates’ rotation only allowed 243 runs through their 538th inning. One of the reasons the Pirates were unable to compete in the second half was their pitching performance — the club’s starters allowed nearly as many runs in the second half as they allowed in the first, only this time they did so in 385.7 IP. Furthermore, due to injury, the Pirates had to rely on more replacement starters in the second half.

First Half:
Karstens: 19 G, 98.7 IP, 34 R
Correia: 20 G, 116.7 IP, 59 R
Maholm: 19 G, 121.7 IP, 45 R
McDonald: 18 G, 97.7 IP, 51 R
Morton: 16 G, 97 IP, 47 R
Ohlendorf: 2 G, 8.7 IP, 7 R
Lincoln: 1 G, 6 IP, 2 R

Second Half:
Karstens: 11 G, 63.7 IP, 35 R
Correia: 7 G, 37.3 IP, 31 R
Maholm: 7 G, 40.7 IP, 27 R
McDonald: 13 G, 73.3 IP, 35 R
Morton: 13 G, 74.7 IP, 35 R
Ohlendorf: 7 G, 30 IP, 31 R
Lincoln: 11 G, 41.7 IP, 25 R
Locke: 4 G, 16.7 IP, 12 R
Thompson: 4 G, 7.7 IP, 6 R
Burres: 5 G, 14 IP, 6 R

It is remarkable how thoroughly the pitching collapsed for the Pirates — it’s not simply that one or two pitchers faced trouble; virtually the entire staff had difficulties replicating their first half success. Beyond their regular starters, their replacements worked 31 overall games in the second half, allowing 80 runs in 110 innings. This collapse affected nearly the entire pitching rotation, and it’s a rather extreme example of what can happen when performance regressions, injuries, and replacement starters converge at the same time.

My opinion of the A.J. Burnett trade changes like the days of the week. One day, I think it’s exactly the opposite of the type of move the Pirates should make; now is not the time for them to focus on long-term commitments to players that might be on the downturn of their career cycle. On the other hand, the Pirates rotation was short on full season workhorses, pitchers that could work more than 180 innings at a decent clip.

One of the other severe factors for judging A.J. Burnett is the shift in park environment. At PNC Park, Burnett will rely more on batted balls in play than he did at Yankees Stadium. While the upside of this is that Burnett has a good chance to allow fewer than 20 home runs, the downside is that his strike outs may also be limited by way the ballpark plays. As a result, Burnett — like the other Pirates pitchers — must rely on the Pirates’ defense, and that could put Burnett in a situation where he improves on his performance in New York without reaching an average level of performance.

At the very least, Burnett should provide the Pirates a strong innings-eating boost in their mid/low rotation, which is one way for the club to stabilize their pitching staff. If Burnett can embrace the park and work within its confines, there’s a chance that he could produce a solid, average-or-better campaign for the Pirates.

Guesswork: Burnett’s Career Averages at PNC w/ Pirates’ defense (?): 837 BF, 140 K/62 BB/15 HR; 620 BIP, 424 BIPOuts, 6 random outs (career .714 LOB%); 190 IP, 89 runs; 84 FIPruns. Best case scenario: above average #3, average #2 starter.

Edit: After submitting this article, news broke that A.J. Burnett suffered an eye injury during a bunting drill. Since Burnett is purportedly flying to Pittsburgh to have his eye examined, I am unsure of how to note the extent that this affects his 2012 season.

Over the last few years, a batch of new, young superstars emerged in the NL Central. Andrew McCutchen serves as the young superstars’ centerfielder, honing his strong speed into a true power/speed threat. Not unlike Ryan Braun’s batting stats a couple years back, McCutchen is slowly changing his batting profile while his surface stats remain relatively consistent.

2009: .164 K%, .110 BB%, .024 HR%
2010: .136 K%, .107 BB%, .025 HR%
2011: .186 K%, .131 BB%, .034 HR%

Over the course of a couple of years, McCutchen spanned both ends of the average-contact spectrum, moving from a near-contact approach to a near non-contact/disciple approach. The young speedster suddenly built his power profile into a true home run threat, and even though his strike outs increased, he improved his walks at an extreme rate.

McCutchen can now boast his first 20/20 season at one of the NL’s new prime positions. While his batting approach may have moved away from the contact edge of the spectrum, McCutchen delivers the Pirates’ strongest combination of power, speed, and discipline, anchoring their batting order.

One of the unique things about the Pirates’ rotation is that they rely so heavily on moderate fastball/sinker pitchers that do not strike batters out at strong ratios. James McDonald was their only starter, prior to acquiring A.J. Burnett, that cracked the typical average strike out rate between 18% and 19%.

A.J. Burnett: .200 K% 2009-2011; .214 K% career (.489 GB%)
James McDonald: .197 K% 2009-2011; .195 K% career (.376 GB%)
Kevin Correia: .157 K% 2009-2011; .159 K% career (.429 GB%)
Charlie Morton: .147 K% 2009-2011; .146 K% career (.526 GB%)
Jeff Karstens: .132 K% 2009-2011; .123 K% career (.412 GB%)

As a result, it is extremely difficult to project the group’s performance via Fielding Independent Pitching stats, because these guys will be punished by the statistic. Since they do not truly rely on strikeouts, their other ratios are skewed (we can see that some of these pitchers succeeded in 2011 by limiting their home runs and walks, even though they posted poor FIP due to their strike out rates.

Strikeouts are certainly significant for pitchers to develop longterm careers and build ceilings into their performance. A pitcher that can strike out batters at an average rate (or better) will have more room to figure things out than a pitcher that already walks the line of “doing everything right” to try and get outs. The Pirates have a group of guys that will indeed need to do everything right, and infield acquisitions such as Clint Barmes or Casey McGehee (yes, McGehee) should help the pitchers work magic on their groundballs.

If limiting the damage is a mantra for the Pirates’ hurlers, flexibility will be a keyword for the bats. The club boasts youngster Alex Presley in left field, which allows the Pirates to split time between Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee at first base. Low-risk/high-reward candidate Nate McLouth adds more outfield depth for the club, and Jones can still work the outfield if needed. Furthermore, youngster and former BaseballAmerica top athlete (in the Pirates organization) Chase d’Arnaud offers depth behind Clint Barmes and Neil Walker (and maybe even Pedro Alvarez). If certain match-ups are more beneficial for Jones and McGehee, the Pirates also have an opportunity to play both players at the infield corners.

“What does any of this matter?,” you ask. Well, I gather that one of the aspects that helps a club move from a competitive club to a contending club is (a) a young core of good players (like McCutchen, Walker, and even Alvarez), and (b) a deep set of players that can allow a club to hide certain weaknesses in certain areas. McGehee/Jones (1B), Alvarez/McGehee/d’Arnaud (3B), Tabata/Jones (RF), Presley/Tabata (LF), and McLouth (OF) and d’Arnaud (IF) give Clint Hurdle a lot of different looks. This might sound like a baseball fantasy, but Hurdle can swap around serviceable players in situations that fit their batting profiles.

Pedro Alvarez flashed his power game in 2010, crushing 16 HR (and 21 2B) in 386 PA, but it disappeared in 2011. The youngster battled ineffectiveness and injuries during his second limited season at the big league level. However, the 25-year old already boasts a strong walk rate, which makes his extreme strike outs easier to swallow.

During his AAA-rehab plate appearances, Alvarez slugged .432 for an Indianapolis Indians club that could not match the International League average .400 SLG), and he posted strong patience/discipline ratios.

Alvarez is likely to build his approach around extremes — he may not rely on a simple contact approach, working on batting balls in play, but he has already proven (even in limited time) that his extreme approach can yield a high slugging percentage in the big leagues. If the young third baseman stays healthy and gets a chance to establish a rhythm at the big league level, he has a chance to offer one of the most extreme batting profiles in the NL to the Pirates. His high power potential could instantly lead the Pirates’ bats in terms of slugging percentage, even if he also leads the club in strike outs.

The Pirates are getting to the point where they will say that a divisional title is their best case scenario, and simply competing for a sizeable portion of the season is not a moral victory. Some of the Pirates’ youngsters and pitchers were sidetracked with injuries in 2011, but they return a core of players that can play solid baseball for extended stretches of the season. 2012 will be their chance to make the next step, and consistent compete throughout the entire season, hopefully to gain a shot at divisional contention.

There is a sense in which “this is it,” for the Pirates, as they graduated their three-top prospects from 2006-2010 to the big leagues. They have another set of prospects in the works, but their next goal is a tangible MLB goal, rather than one of success throughout the entire system (that’s not to say that the club isn’t interested in minor league progression; rather, it’s simply a point that a successful season for the Pirates will now be judged moreso on their MLB performance).

If their top young players can successfully gain another year of MLB experience while improving their performance, depth in other areas of the club will allow Hurdle to augment strong, regular performances. Rotational depth should allow the club to rely less on replacement starters than they did throughout 2011, and newcomer A.J. Burnett could provide yet another no frills, serviceable arm to their rotation.

A lot will need to go right to keep turning those groundballs into outs for the pitchers, and to keep their young core progressing at the MLB level, to result in a division championship. Yet, there really are not many good examples of MLB teams that don’t need a lot of elements to click to win their divisions. The difference with the Pirates, this year, is that one need not make a “sexy” pick or a “darkhorse” pick. They have a core that competed for half the season last year, and the front office augmented that core with depth. Now the question is, will it work?

I am not sure if Pirates fans view their team the same way, but it looks like it is time to start judging the Pittsburgh nine by their ability to progress their core to the next level.

Stats from FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and MLB.com.
Depth charts from MLB.com.

BaseballAmerica.com. Top 10 Prospect (2006, 2007, 2010). BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2011.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
James, Bill. The Bill James Handbook 2012. Chicago: Acta, 2011.
Perrotto, John. “Pittsburgh Pirates Top 10 Prospects.” BaseballAmerica, November 21, 2011. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2011.

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