Why is Ryan Church Stealing Time From Lastings Milledge?

Over the past seven games, Ryan Church has made the start in right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates five times.    Church is currently hitting for a .186/.240/.321 line in 156 at-bats this season, while Lastings Milledge is hitting for a .271/.341/.377 line in 247 at-bats.  Neither player is running away with the starting job, but Milledge clearly is doing better, which raises the question as to why Church is stealing so much playing time.

Dejan Kovacevic asked John Russell about this the other day, and got the following response as to why Church has been getting so many starts recently:

“We’ve seen some good things in Ryan’s last four starts — he got the big double for us — and that’s what he’s capable of doing. If he can do that, it’s a nice complement with him and Lastings. We’ve got two guys we can put out there. Yeah, if you look at the numbers, it can be tough to see why you keep going with him. But the guy’s always hit pretty well in his career. We’re just hoping to get him on track.”

That response doesn’t really provide any answers.  There are a lot of possible reasons why Church could be starting over Milledge, but no reason makes sense.  Looking at the reasons one by one:

The Big Hit

There’s a big reason why I have a strong bias towards statistical analysis: it tells the truth.  There is often too much emphasis placed on a single play, good or bad.  People usually look for affirmation, not information.  They’re looking for proof to back up a belief they have in a subject.  So if the Pirates believe Church can be a good player, they’re going to look at plays like the double Russell referenced as the rule for Church, and not the exception.

I don’t really believe in “clutch” stats, because they’re often fueled by the above bias.  “Clutch” situations are expected.  Fans remember a player’s failure in a “clutch” situation more than they remember a player’s success in a “clutch” situation.  It’s also impossible to verify “clutch” numbers, since “clutch” situations aren’t really defined.  That said, there is a stat that shows how a player can impact his team’s chances of winning, and that stat is FanGraph’s Win Probability Added (WPA).

In short, each team starts with a 50% chance of winning at the beginning of each game.  Every play has a positive or negative WPA, which either increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning.  The downside is that the stat is entirely dependent on offensive plays, so defense isn’t factored in.  On the season, Lastings Milledge ranks third on the Pirates with a 0.85 WPA.  Ryan Church is the other end of the spectrum, with a -0.89 WPA.  So while Church had a big hit recently, Milledge has had a much bigger impact on the season.

Past Performance

Russell also cited Church’s past performance, although I don’t really find anything special.  Church posted an .891 OPS in 196 at-bats in 2006 with Washington.  In 2007 he had an .813 OPS in 470 at-bats.  That dropped to a .785 OPS in 319 at-bats in 2008.  In 2009, Church had a .722 OPS in 359 at-bats between New York and Atlanta.  Church has been on a steady decline since his 2007 season.

Milledge had a decent year in 2007, with a .787 OPS, but hasn’t returned to that level, with his best season being a .731 OPS since the 2007 season.  Milledge has shown flashes of potential, including the majority of the 2010 season.  After a .229 average and a .570 OPS in the month of April, Milledge has hit for a .293 average and a .790 OPS from the beginning of May.

Church is 31 years old.  Milledge is 25 years old.  Church is clearly in the decline of his career.  Milledge still could realize his potential, and is having a much better season than Church.  If the Pirates are going to invest time in someone turning their career around, it should be Milledge.  They have Milledge under control through the 2013 season.  Church is only under control through the 2011 season.  Not only is Milledge more likely to improve as his career goes on, but he’s under team control for a longer period of time.  There is no reason why Church should be getting this development time.

Other Possible Reasons

I can’t really think of any legit reasons for Church to steal time from Milledge.  Every idea that is floated around makes no sense.

First, there’s the defensive aspect, but Church has a -36.2 UZR/150 in right field, while Milledge has a -27.0 UZR/150 at the same position.  Milledge has been bad, but Church hasn’t been better.

Then there’s the platoon splits.  I haven’t researched whether there is a hard split going on, with Church facing right handers, and Milledge facing left handers.  Milledge is doing great against left handers, with a .305 average and an .894 OPS, although he’s struggling against right handers, with a .255 average and a .624 OPS.  However, that’s still better than Church, who is only hitting for a .198 average and a .593 OPS against right handers this year.  The point of a platoon is to get a guy who is only good against one of the two groups of pitchers.  A platoon makes no sense if one player can’t hit anyone at all, which is the case here.

They could be trying to showcase Church for a trade, but that seems ridiculous.  Right now, they have about three weeks left before the trade deadline.  Church isn’t going to do anything for his value in three weeks.  The only hope for the Pirates is a repeat of the Eric Hinske deal, where they pick up Church’s remaining salary to get some lower level prospects.

Even if they don’t like Milledge, there are better options than Church.  Start Andy LaRoche in right field.  That’s a crazy idea, but it can’t be worse than Church right now.  Or maybe start LaRoche at first and move Garrett Jones to right field, which makes a little more sense, since LaRoche can help the Pirates more than Church.  But there’s no reason to not like Milledge.  He’s been one of the best hitters on the team since the calendar turned from April to May.

It’s not like this is normal.  Almost every player in the lineup plays every day, with the exception of the shortstops, and that’s because neither Ronny Cedeno nor Bobby Crosby have stepped up to take the job. Milledge has clearly been better than Church, to the point where he should rarely get time off, yet he’s rarely playing in the past week.

The only thing I can think of is a borderline conspiracy theory.  Milledge is arbitration eligible for the first time next season.  By holding him out, they can probably make him more affordable.  That’s a crazy theory, but this is such a crazy situation that only a crazy theory would make sense.

Of course there’s one theory that makes perfect sense: maybe they’re trying hard to get Anthony Rendon.  It makes perfect sense, because starting Ryan Church over a hot hitter like Lastings Milledge is an excellent way to tank in the standings so that you can land Rendon.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Watch 7/10/10

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