2013 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

The Pittsburgh Pirates lasted an extra month into the 2012 season. This isn’t a condescending dismissal of their playoff hopes, but a crucial fact to analyze for the organization’s 2013 outlook.

On July 25, 2011, the Pirates tied St. Louis for the NL Central lead. July 25th was the tenth and final day that the Pirates consistently shuffled between the top spots in the division, completing a month in which the Pirates inched closer to their competitive goal. In one forgettable fortnight, Pittsburgh won 2 of 14 games, falling 10 games back before the middle of August. Although they scored 385 R and allowed 379 through July 25, their 2-12 fortnight preceded a 225 RS / 333 RA season close that spurred a 19-43 record.

It’s difficult to write this without sounding facetious or cruel, but compared to their 2011 collapse, the 2012 Pirates have some success to work from in 2013. The team did not experience as quick a fall in 2012, and their performance was steadier as they fell out of first place. Between July 3 and July 18, 2012, the Pirates fought for first place in the NL Central, building their record to 49-38 before two consecutive losses on the 15th and 16th of July. Unlike their previous season, they hung around, posting strong winning streaks at the end of July and into August. This time, their series of consecutive losses started in the middle of August, and were scattered in brief series before their September collapse.

You’re probably asking, “Why does any of this matter?” First and foremost, any question about the 2013 Pirates roster must address whether the roster is actually a contending roster in the NL Central. Following two consecutive losing seasons that featured late season collapses, one must analyze the progression of these Pirates teams to figure out which way to spin the narrative. Secondly, we can address a related issue: were the Pirates realistic contenders in either 2011 or 2012?

On May 31, 2011, the Pirates closed the second month of their season with a series-opening victory at New York. This victory raised their record to 25-28, with 199 RS / 206 RA. This victory opened a month of June that featured seven one-run victories by the Pirates — who turned 105 RS / 106 RA during that month into a 16-11 record. The Pirates used this wave of close victories to close in on the NL Central competition, ultimately completing their month of June with a series-clinching victory at Toronto. 41-39 was the Pirates’ mark, showcasing a team that capitalized on every ounce of their 304 RS / 312 RA.

That fateful July came, in which the Pirates reached first place, only to hit a difficult losing stretch. In this era of wild card baseball, a team that hovers around .500 and stays within shouting distance of a divisional leader always appears to be a playoff contender. Fans and front offices always hope that those close calls can turn into Championships, and several wild card franchises have emboldened clubs that might not have the best roster, but can get hot at the right moment. Pittsburgh got hot at the wrong moment, and used every shred of their run differential to claw into the divisional picture. It didn’t work in 2011.

In June and July of 2012, the Pirates posted consecutive 17-win months, both thanks to strong run differentials and an offense that suddenly scored more than 5 runs per game. At the close of May, the prospects of such a run looked impossible, as the Pirates bats hardly managed 3 runs per game through their first 50 contests. While the 25-25 club surely outplayed their 147 RS / 176 RA differential through May, the club ultimately scored more runs than they allowed from that point on. In fact, if one looks at the 2012 Pirates’ performance from June through October, the Pirates actually underplayed their 504 RS / 498 RA performance over the last few months.

Prorated for 162 games, that June-through-October Pirates club scores approximately 730 runs, while allowing approximately 720 runs. This four month projection obviously builds off of the strongest months produced by this Pirates club, and yet we end up with a run differential that modestly places the club between 80 and 85 wins; perhaps a great bullpen and timely hitting pulls that club closer to 90 wins.

Building from a team’s strengths is something that needs to be a part of a best-case scenario. This best-case scenario builds from the Pirates’ strongest 112 games; yet, it feels like it doesn’t capture the potential of the club, or the full picture of the organization. Are the 2013 Pirates on track for an 80-85 win season?

Clint Hurdle scratched every run that he could out of his 2012 Pirates. The veteran skipper employed 133 different batting orders (before pitchers), combining his cast of upstarts in almost every conceivable manner. The greatest asset to his batting order was his star centerfielder, Andrew McCutchen, who played 156 games batting third for the Pirates. After that? Garrett Jones batted fourth 96 times, Pedro Alvarez batted sixth 81 times, and Clint Barmes batted eighth 80 times. At key positions throughout the batting order, the Pirates were unable to find consistent contributors; if you felt that the Pirates’ batting order could be characterized as “McCutchen-and-everyone-else,” you were almost right.

For approximately 60 brilliant days, the Pirates’ batting order clicked. Jones’s and Alvarez’s best months came during August, but their June and July were arguably their most consistent months of the season. Neil Walker posted his two best months during June and July, opposing his other slumping months. Andrew McCutchen followed a scorching hot May with a great June and exceptional July, before tailing off. These months were especially notable since regular outfielder Jose Tabata was injured; role player Drew Sutton appeared and produced a couple of solid months; so did Casey McGehee. Just about the only two players that didn’t have strong June and July campaigns for the Pirates were Barmes and Rod Barajas.

McCutchen (July, 104 PA): 12 XBH, .446/.510/.739
McCutchen (June, 119 PA): 17 XBH, .370/.420/.676
Walker (July, 111 PA): 16 XBH, .358/.423/.674
Alvarez (June, 96 PA): 12 XBH, .262/.354/.571
Jones (June, 76 PA): 8 XBH, .300/.342/.557
McGehee (June, 89 PA): 9 XBH, .291/.360/.532
Jones (July, 97 PA): 12 XBH, .283/.309/.554
Alvarez (July, 92 PA): 8 XBH, .253/.326/.494
Walker (June, 119 PA): 9 XBH, .292/.370/.415
Tabata (June, 91 PA): 7 XBH, .263/.356/.382
McGehee (July, 90 PA): .221/.256/.384
Sutton (June, 35 PA): 4 XBH, .313/.371/.438
Sutton (July, 64 PA): 8 XBH, .230/.250/.410

Overall, the Pirates scored 42% of their 651 runs during June and July, thanks to a strong distribution of their extra-base hits during those months. These months provide stark contrast against the club’s April, May, and September, during which the club averaged less than 3.20 RS/G. For 2013, one must ask, if these months of production indicate the Pirates’ ceiling, how can the Pirates turn that potential for production into regular runs scored?

The Pirates’ outfield has a couple of new faces in prominent roles in 2013; or, perhaps more accurately, a couple of newcomers from the 2012 squad have an opportunity to bolster the Pirates’ offense with expanding roles patrolling PNC’s grass.

Travis Snider is only 25 years old, but he already has 1062 PA under his belt, accumulated during four partial seasons in Toronto from 2008-2011, prior to his 2012 trade to Pittsburgh. In limited time, Snider has demonstrated the type of walk-and-power ceiling that the Pirates’ offense needs.

2010 (319 PA): .248 K / .066 BB / .044
2011 (202 PA): .278 K / .054 BB / .015 HR
2012 (185 PA): .259 K / .092 BB / .022 HR

2009 (AAA, 204 PA): .230 K / .137 BB / .069 HR
2011 (AAA, 277 PA): .159 K / .090 BB / .014 HR
2012 (AAA, 246 PA): .171 K / .138 BB / .053 HR

Snider’s batting profile in the Pacific Coast League is much more extreme than his performance at the Major League level. This leaves questions about how Snider can capitalize on his power and patience potential in an expanded role at the MLB level.

Starling Marte stormed into Pittsburgh during the middle of the 2012 season, giving Pirates fans another glimpse at one of their future regulars — and, hopefully, another star. Marte turned his extremely high strike out rate — and low-to-moderate power and walks — into an all-hit, .254/.300/.437 batting line. His six triples and 12/17 SB showed off his speed, suggesting that Marte could be a player that draws value from his extremes.

2012 (182 PA): .275 K / . 044 BB / .027 HR

2011 (AA, 572 PA): .175 K / .038 BB / .021
2012 (AAA, 431 PA): .211 K / .065 BB / .028 HR

Marte’s moderate power potential adds a valuable weapon to his speed, giving the youngster yet another way to accumulate extra bases. While Marte has never relied heavily on a disciplined approach to produce at the plate, his performance in the high minors suggests that his contact profile might not be as extreme as his 2012 campaign in the NL. If Marte can shift his contact/discipline profile, he should be able to provide a serviceable production level to the Pirates’ top order.

One of the benefits of the Pirates’ offensive surge in June and July is that their runs scored hid a pitching staff that was slowly declining. While their 4.07 and 4.04 RA/G tallies in June and July were not necessarily bad, they declined from the club’s stellar April and May marks. Injuries and ineffectiveness slowly settled into the staff, and the Pirates pieced together a gang of replacements to complete the season.

April: 3.00 RA / G
May: 3.93 RA / G
June: 4.07 RA / G
July: 4.04 RA / G
August: 4.82 RA/G
September / October: 4.77 RA / G

One of the benefits of switching around the Pirates rotation midseason is that several young hurlers received a chance to work at the big league level. While the Pirates can rely on two veterans at the top of their rotation, the fate of their 2013 season will rest with their aggregate of low rotation pitchers. Here, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and Jeff Karstens have an opportunity to solidify the Pirates rotation and guide the club to the playoffs.

April through July:
Brad Lincoln: 59.3 IP / 19 R (2.88)
A.J. Burnett: 124 IP / 46 R (3.39)
James McDonald: 130.7 IP / 52 R (3.58)
Jeff Karstens: 51 IP / 23 R (4.06)
Wandy Rodriguez: 6 IP / 3 R (4.50)
Kevin Correia: 110.3 IP / 59 R (4.81)
Erik Bedard: 104.3 IP / 60 R (5.18)
Charlie Morton: 50.3 IP / 30 R (5.37)

August through October:
Kyle McPherson: 26.3 IP / 8 R (2.74)
Wandy Rodriguez: 69 IP / 30 R (3.91)
Jeff Karstens: 39.7 IP / 18 R (4.08)
Kevin Correia: 60.7 IP / 30 R (4.45)
A.J. Burnett: 78.3 IP / 40 R (4.60)
Jeff Locke: 34.3 IP / 21 R (5.51)
Erik Bedard: 21.3 IP / 16 R (6.76)
James McDonald: 40.3 IP / 33 R (7.37)

Karstens was one of the Pirates’ most consistent pitchers in 2012, but his season was limited due to injuries. On the other hand, McDonald contrasted a strong performance early in the season with a late season collapse. In some ways, his ability to consistently work throughout the season mirrors the Pirates’ own storyline for making it through the season. Locke represents one of the new waves of young Pirates arms to reach the big leagues, and his presence in the rotation could be a sign of younger, sharper arms to come.

The Pirates have a gang of top prospects that they hope can work in their big league rotation soon. Meanwhile, the big league club has a group of bats that they need to depend on to build their 2013 contention hopes. In this regard, the Pirates have one of the clearest two-tiered success scenarios for 2013. In the first case, their big league bats develop, earn another season under their belt, and perhaps advance another step in their ability to contend and compete throughout 162. Make no mistakes about it, this Pirates roster is a roster that needs to compete; the club hasn’t posted a winning season since 1992, and there’s only so long that one can spin “they-contended-this-deep-into-the-season” narratives.

However, should the Pirates fail to contend for the NL Central title or a playoff spot, they have another group of prospects on the way. This presents the organization with a clear opportunity to determine who’s going to work with McCutchen in bringing greatness back to Pittsburgh. It’s difficult to build this type of silver-lining into a club that’s worked on “win-now” trading deadlines for two consecutive seasons, but there is a real sense that Pittsburgh’s best years are yet to come. Yet, there is a best-case scenario in which the Pirates compete on the field while the organization measures their coming prospects’ place on future rosters; the Pirates’ best season could conceivably result in a new-look club for 2014.

2012 Preview

BaseballAmerica. BaseballAmerica, Inc., 1999-2013.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, 2001-2013.

John Dewan & Ben Jedlovec. The Fielding Bible III. Chicago: Acta Sports, 2012.
Bill James. The Bill James Handbook. 2010, 2013 consulted. Chicago: Acta Sports; 2009, 2012.

IMAGE: http://raisethejollyroger.com/2012/07/andrew-mccutchen-to-participate-in-home-run-derby/

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