Regardless of how you felt about the last two years, it’s clear that the Pirates had a goal of bringing an influx of talent in to the system through the use of trades, the draft, and other smaller methods like minor league free agency and the Rule 5 draft. You may like the players we’ve received or you may hate the players we’ve received, but there’s no doubt that the Pirates have added a lot of prospects to the system, including options at the upper levels.
Over the last week there have been two position battles that have stood out: Brandon Moss vs John Raynor for the final bench spot, and Kevin Hart vs Daniel McCutchen for the fifth starter role. Lost in the talk of who should make the team is the fact that the Pirates have now entered Phase Two of the rebuilding plan.
Take Kevin Hart for example. He’s had a horrible Spring. He’s been wild, his control is off, and there’s really no reason to start him based on the numbers he’s put up so far. Plenty of people have argued for Daniel McCutchen to win the job over Hart, citing his Spring Training numbers. Let’s ignore the fact that we’re talking about four innings of work for each pitcher. In the past, you would hear claims that the Pirates are going with their player rather than a player drafted from a previous regime. Looking at the two battles, the one thing that Moss, Raynor, Hart, and McCutchen share in common is that they were all brought in to the organization by the current management group.
So when the Pirates mention that they prefer Hart because of his stuff, and because they feel he has a bigger upside than McCutchen, you’d have to believe them. Maybe you disagree with their opinion. Maybe you’d rather have McCutchen starting with a play-it-safe approach for the fifth starter role. And that’s Phase Two in a nutshell.
We’re now in the phase of the rebuilding plan where we’re not analyzing whether to keep the players acquired by previous regimes versus giving the new guys a chance. We are now analyzing which players acquired by the current management group are the best choices. In short, we’ve gone from analyzing whether Huntington was right in blowing up the 2008 team, to whether he’s right in which of his players he selects for jobs. Actually, I don’t think the 2008 argument will ever go away, but it’s certainly not as hot of a topic as something like Hart versus McCutchen.
As for Hart/McCutchen, coming in to camp I favored Hart for similar reasons as the Pirates. Hart has great stuff, but has a problem with control. In 2009 he had a 2.60 ERA in 27.2 innings with the Cubs before the trade. However, that was due to luck, with a .235 BABIP and a 90.2% strand rate. The league average is .300 and 70% respectively, which means that Hart should have seen more balls fall in for hits, and a bigger percentage of base runners scoring (plus additional baserunners with the extra hits). With the Pirates, Hart pitched 53.1 innings with a 6.92 ERA. However, he was unlucky this time around, with a .372 BABIP, and a 60.6% strand rate.
So we know that Hart isn’t as good as his 2.60 ERA (which we don’t need the above analysis to prove), but we also know that he’s not as bad as the 6.92 ERA. The question is, where does he fall in the middle ground? Hart’s FIP was 5.16 with the Pirates last year. Meanwhile, Daniel McCutchen posted a 5.19 FIP in his 36.1 innings with the Pirates.
Most people would say that McCutchen had the better season, due to his 4.21 ERA. The truth is, McCutchen was lucky, while Hart was unlucky. McCutchen posted a .277 BABIP and a 79.3% strand rate, both very lucky when compared to the league averages for starters. So don’t expect the 4.21 ERA to repeat itself in 2010. Like Hart, the question for McCutchen is where he falls below the 4.21 mark? Based on the FIP numbers, he’s equal with Hart.
I find myself getting drawn in to the Daniel McCutchen camp, but then I stop and ask myself what we’re basing our opinions off of. Hart and McCutchen have similar ratios in their time in the minors. Hart has an 8.6 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 166 innings at the AAA level. McCutchen has a 7.2 K/9, a 1.6 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 261 innings at the AAA level. Hart strikes out more people and allows fewer homers, while McCutchen allows fewer walks. Hart’s appearances in the majors have been a mixed bag, with good stretches as a reliever (2007), poor stretches as a reliever (2008), lucky stretches as a starter (2009, Cubs), and unlucky stretches as a starter (2009, Pirates). The common trend is that they’re all small sample sizes. You’ve got the same thing with McCutchen, who posted good numbers on the surface in 2009, but was very lucky in a small sample size.
Topping that all off, we have one of the smallest sample sizes of all: Spring Training stats. Having 13 walks in 4.2 innings is never good, and definitely not settling, but where do we draw the line on giving credit to Spring Training numbers? How about Zach Duke’s 6 walks in 8.1 innings? Duke normally walks a batter a game, and so far this Spring he’s walking almost a batter an inning. No one cares about Duke though, because he has over 800 innings with a 2.4 BB/9 ratio. We know what is expected of Duke, and we know for sure that the six walks are an anomaly of Spring Training.
That’s pretty much the problem with Hart. We don’t know what’s expected of him. He’s established no track record. He’s good at times, and he’s horrible at times. If there’s one trend we can pick out here, it’s that people fear the unknown. The same could be said for McCutchen. That’s why we grab on to anything we can as a sign of what’s to come. The only problem is that Spring Training really doesn’t give you a true indication of what a pitcher can do. So odds are we see the Pirates go with Hart, at which point we’ll be able to debate whether they were right or wrong in their decision, based off of Hart’s production in the regular season. And that’s what Phase Two is all about.