You can’t lose 90 games without a lot of things going wrong. In the case of the 2011 Pirates, there were some problems that were different, at least for their current front office, and some that were grindingly, depressingly the same. There were also some problems that maybe had a silver lining. Let’s look at the main issues.
The Pirates don’t venture too often into the free agent market. It seems to be a recurring pattern. The GM signs Pat Meares and Derek Bell, gets burned, and gets fired soon after. A different GM comes in and, after a while, signs Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, gets burned, and gets fired. Not a pattern you’d think the next GM would want to repeat.
Or is it? After wisely giving the free agent market a pass—and we’re talking major league free agents here, not guys available for minor league deals—Neal Huntington found himself with money to spend last winter. The result was Lyle Overbay, Kevin Correia and Matt Diaz. I’m not counting Huntington’s fourth major league free agent, Scott Olsen, because he was a low-risk flier whose failure had no effect on the team.
We all know the result. Overbay and Diaz tanked at the plate. Correia was a little different and seems to get a pass after going 12-11, which led the team in wins. He shouldn’t, though. He really pitched well only in April, when he had a 2.90 ERA. It jumped to 4.15 in May and increased every month after that. His record was a product of amazing run support. The Pirates as a team finished 14th in the league in runs per game. If they’d scored as much for all the other starters as they did for Correia, they’d have finished first. That’s right; with Kevin Correia on the mound, the Pirates were the best-hitting team in the NL. He also continued some of the trends that led the Padres to wave good-bye after the 2010 season, including the second half collapse. His problem with gopher balls continued. The fact that he had a major issue in 2010 with longballs in gopher-stomping Petco Park should have raised a red flag. He also was unable to pitch effectively after the early innings, which was a problem previously in his career. His 2011 ERA by inning, excluding his one relief appearance:
In addition, the bottom fell out of his strikeout rate, as it dropped from its pre-2011 figure of 6.6 per nine innings to 4.5. Correia is a replacement-level pitcher who can’t be counted on to pitch many innings, either per game or per season, but he’s signed for another year. At least if he’d been Matt Morris he’d be gone by now.
Overbay’s problems were also easily predictable. He was 34, which is old for a hitter who’s merely solid, as opposed to a very good hitter like, say, Derrek Lee. He’s also slow and unathletic, which made him a high risk for an early decline. And in fact he’d been declining. His overall numbers had been dropping steadily for several years, his strikeout rate had been climbing, and he was hitting significantly fewer line drives. He couldn’t reasonably have been expected to produce anything other than below-average numbers.
Diaz’ collapse couldn’t really have been predicted. He’d always hammered left-handed pitchers before 2011. The only times his hitting fell off were a couple stretches in which he wasn’t healthy, including the early part of 2010. There was no reason to think he’d collapse that suddenly. Signing him to a two-year deal probably wasn’t a good idea, but Huntington was at least able to relieve the team of that problem and acquire a marginal relief prospect, Eliecer Cardenas, in return. And the concept behind Diaz’ signing at least was a good one, as it showed, at long last, that the Pirates were willing to consider platooning.
It’s a hard lesson for fans who, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, see the free agent market as the be-all and end-all of baseball success. There may be more evidence this off-season, as the Pirates would like to re-sign Lee, but early indications are that he doesn’t want to come back to Pittsburgh. We saw the same thing last winter, when the Pirates went hard after Jorge de la Rosa only to discover that he really just wanted to stay in Colorado. The reason the Pirates end up with guys like Overbay, Burnitz, Meares and Randa is that those are the only guys who’ll sign with them. It’s a losing game for the Pirates and they paid a price for trying to play it last winter.
This is getting old. The Pirates’ NL rank in OPS (on base plus slugging) the last three years:
You’d think they’d be able to do better. It’s supposed to be hard to find offense up the middle, but the Pirates have had good offense with Andrew McCutchen in center for three years, Neil Walker at second for two, and now and then from Ryan Doumit behind the plate. The problem is that they’ve been chronically unable to find hitters at the corner positions, where it’s supposed to be relatively easy. Here’s the Pirates’ NL rank in OPS at the four corner positions over the last three years:
1B: 13th, 16th, 15th
3B: 10th, 9th, 15th
LF: 11th, 14th, 11th
RF: 11th, 13th, 15th
You can’t win doing this, not in this plane of existence. You can’t do it with this offense by relying on pitching and defense. You can’t do it with a “balanced lineup” that just doesn’t happen to have that 40-HR guy. You can’t do it with speedy slap hitters. You just can’t do it.
There weren’t any signs of organizational progress in 2011, either. Just the opposite. And I’m not just talking about Pedro Alvarez’ implosion, or the disappointing seasons from Walker and Jose Tabata. These have been discussed extensively. The Pirates’ offense was just plain painful to watch, as hitters flailed away helplessly night after night, repeatedly seeing opposing pitchers set career single-game highs in strikeouts. The strikeout problem was a team-wide issue. The 2010 Pirates, anemic offense and all, were right in the middle in whiffs, ranking 8th. In 2011, they were 3rd, just 15 behind the league-leading Nationals. It’s one thing to fan a lot when you’re hitting eleven HRs more than the league average, as the Nats did. It’s another to do it when you’re near the bottom in longballs, 36 below the average, as the Pirates were. The sharp increase in whiffs wasn’t the result of personnel changes, either. There were 13 hitters who played for the Pirates in both 2010 and 2011. In 2010, those 13 hitters struck out in 19.0% of their at-bats. In 2011, the same hitters fanned 21.8% of the time, nearly a 15% increase. Even the team’s new hitters were affected. The Pirates had six hitters (Overbay, Diaz, Lee, Ryan Ludwick, Xavier Paul, and Brandon Wood) who were not with the team in 2010 and who had at least 100 major league at-bats prior to joining the Pirates. All but Wood struck out at a higher rate than their career norms, in most cases significantly higher.
Is it something in the water? I don’t know. It seems to me from watching games that Pirate hitters not only swing at too many pitches outside the strike zone, but also seem to try to pull nearly every pitch, making them extremely vulnerable to breaking balls away. The data shows some support for this. Pirates’ hitters in 2011 saw fastballs less often than all but four other major league teams. Those four other teams—the Phillies, Brewers, Cubs and Blue Jays—all had a lot more power than the Pirates, suggesting that they saw a lot of off-speed stuff because pitchers were afraid to throw them fastballs, while the Pirates saw a lot of off-speed stuff because they’re easily fooled by it.
I’m not a hitting coach, but something is clearly very wrong here. The team’s front office is having a great deal of trouble evaluating hitters, and the coaching staff had a great deal of trouble in 2011 getting their hitters to take a viable approach at the plate. The team won’t reach .500, much less contend, until that changes drastically.
Benches can be hard to evaluate. Part of that is because bench players are more apt to have extremes in performance due to smaller sample sizes. In most years, you’d expect a team to have a bench player or two having an outstanding year, just by chance. That doesn’t seem to happen with the Pirates, though. (Remember the illustrious utility infield triumvirate of Chris Gomez, Luis Rivas and Brian Bixler?) It’s also hard sometimes to judge which are the bench players. That was true of the Pirates for much of this year, as a cascade of injuries blurred the distinction between regular and backup. Still, you can track the evolution of the Pirates’ bench starting at the beginning of the season until roughly July, when it gets too confusing. On the whole the bench was very bad, as the team’s composite .552 OPS by substitutes shows. (The NL average was .613.)
The Pirates opened the season with a bench of Matt Diaz, Steve Pearce, Rule 5 pick Josh Rodriguez, John Bowker and whoever wasn’t catching. The catching part worked out great until everybody got hurt. The rest . . . not so much. Diaz was a disaster. Pearce was actually one of the team’s better hitters at the time he got hurt in late May. He came back just long enough to suffer a 3-for-39 meltdown, then got hurt again, leaving him with a dismal OPS+ of 44. His Pirate career is probably over.
The Pirates quickly jettisoned Bowker and Rodriguez for Xavier Paul and Brandon Wood. Rodriguez’ standing dropped so fast that the Pirates got him back from Cleveland for cash and he went to AA to serve, in Clint Hurdle’s words, as “organizational depth.” Wood was a sensible risk to take. The former “blue chip” prospect wasn’t as horrible as he was with the Angels, but he still posted an OPS+ of only 73, which isn’t much good. Hurdle seemed to take a shine to Paul, but he wasn’t much good, either, posting an OPS+ of 78. Paul was easily the team’s most frequently used pinch-hitter apart from Diaz. He looked hopelessly overmatched against hard-throwing late-inning relievers, posting a dismal OPS of .253, with 21 strikeouts in 43 at bats. The team’s pitchers did better, with a .269 OPS. If you can’t pinch-hit, you can’t be a fourth outfielder.
The strangest facet of the Pirates’ bench all year, though, was the recurring phenomenon of Pedro Ciriaco. I don’t know how many days he spent on the roster. It’d take a Harvard MBA to figure it out, but it was a lot. When Ciriaco wasn’t with the Pirates, he spent his time proving he couldn’t hit AAA pitching to save his life. (He had a .543 OPS there, to be precise, with a ten-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio.) Still, he kept coming back, even though the team seemed to have no use for him. At one point he spent an entire month on the roster and got six plate appearances. Effectively, the Pirates spent large portions of the season playing with a 24-man roster. A good bench does not include an empty roster spot.
Despite the poor performance, there were some positive signs. In his first couple years, Huntington’s philosophy seemed to be that the best bench players are washed-up veterans like Craig Monroe, Bobby Crosby and the afore-mentioned Luis Rivas. The idea apparently was that younger players can’t get acclimated to the majors as bench players. This is demonstrably untrue; in the Pirates’ own recent history, Rob Mackowiak and Craig Wilson both got established in the majors as bench players and were very good in the role. Huntington in the last couple years has shifted to younger players who may still have some upside remaining. So far they haven’t worked out, Wood, Rodriguez and Delwyn Young being examples. They seem to be grooming Josh Harrison for a utility role, which is far better than signing somebody like Rivas every year. So the team’s approach, at least, has the potential to be more productive than it was two years ago.
On the downside, Hurdle has made clear his desire for speed-and-glove guys on the bench, which probably explains a lot about Paul and Ciriaco. Giving 43 pinch-hit at-bats to somebody as obviously hopeless in the role as Paul doesn’t say good things about the team’s handling of its bench, whether it’s Hurdle’s fault for using him or Huntington’s for putting Hurdle in a position where he needed to use him. A team that gets bottom-level offense from the corner positions can’t afford to carry no-offense players on the bench. And the Pirates are going nowhere until they do something about their offense.