First Pitch: Looking Deeper at the Black Hole at the Bottom of the Lineup

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas over the off-season, looking at each player for values other than offense. So far on the season, both players have put up some horrible offensive numbers. Yet each is getting playing time. Barmes is getting playing time because of his defense. His 17.5 UZR/150 leads all qualified major league shortstops. Barajas is getting time mostly for his ability to work well with the pitching staff. UZR isn’t perfect, but it’s the best attempt at quantifying defense. It’s nearly impossible to quantify a catcher’s relationship with the staff, as most stats on the subject (CERA, for example) are untrustworthy.

The trade off for the defense and the work with the pitchers is that on most occasions, the Pirates have what amounts to three pitchers batting at the bottom of the order. Heading in to Saturday’s game, Barmes had hit in the 7-9 spots in 112 out of the Pirates’ 143 games. Barajas had hit in the 7-9 spots in 80 of the 143 games this year. Barajas has the most games in the seven spot, and Barmes has the most games in the number eight spot.

I wanted to get an idea of just how bad the bottom of the order was compared to the rest of the league. So I looked at the 7-9 hitters (non-pitchers) for the Pirates, and compared them to the 7-9 hitters (also non-pitchers) for the rest of the teams. The numbers are in the chart below, with a breakdown to follow.

Ranking

I sorted the list by Runs Created. The Pirates ranked 30th of all teams. Their 118.89 runs created from the 7-9 spots fell about 36 runs below the MLB average, and about 23 runs below the National League average. The American League was much higher, as would be expected since they have the designated hitter, and form their teams knowing they’ll have nine hitters batting for the large majority of the season.

If we go by the 10 runs equals one win scale, that means the bottom of the order has cost the Pirates two wins compared to the National League average.

Breakdown

It’s bad enough to have the worst ranking in the majors. But that ranking takes in to consideration all hitters that hit in the 7-9 spots. To get an idea of the impact from Barmes and Barajas, we’d have to look deeper.

Barmes and Barajas only saw about half of the 1328 plate appearances for the Pirates in the 7-9 spots. In that time they hit for a .222/.269/.335 line in 689 plate appearances, which was good for a 54.92 runs created.

The rest of the hitters in the 7-9 spot (non-pitchers) hit for a .222/.296/.392 line in 639 plate appearances, for a 64.35 runs created. The other hitters combined for what amounts to one extra win, despite 50 fewer plate appearances.

The hitter from “the other guys” with the most playing time in these spots is Michael McKenry, who has 64 games in the 7-9 spots. Josh Harrison had 54 games played, although 35 of those were off the bench. By comparison, McKenry started 45 of his 64 games. No one else has a significant amount, with a lot of players coming in under 20 games.

Alternative to Barmes

**Clint Barmes had a .226/.256/.321 line in 406 plate appearances in the 7-9 spots this year.

**Josh Harrison had a .242/.286/.368 line in 105 plate appearances in the 7-9 spots this year.

**Right now the two combine for 39.29 runs created.

If we gave Josh Harrison all of the plate appearances Clint Barmes had (406) and gave Barmes the 105 plate appearances for Harrison, and kept their same ratios, the two would combine for a 42.71 runs created. That might be a bit flawed, since Harrison might not perform the same with more plate appearances, and the same could be said for Barmes in a reduced role.

Alternative to Barajas

**Rod Barajas had a .214/.286/.357 line in 283 plate appearances in the 7-9 spots this year.

**Michael McKenry had a .269/.362/.525 line in 188 plate appearances in the 7-9 spots this year.

**Right now the two combine for 54.73 runs created.

If we swapped the plate appearances, just like the Harrison/Barmes swap, the two would combine for 61.58 runs created. The disclaimer from Barmes/Harrison might not apply here, as we’re not talking about a significant change in plate appearances here.

Conclusion

The impact here is small. If the Pirates had NL average production from the 7-9 spots, they’d have two extra wins. We’re not taking in to account the defense, which may or may not make up for those wins. The two wins is small, but at the same time, two extra wins puts the Pirates one game out of the Wild Card race, rather than two games.

There isn’t really a good alternative to Barmes right now. Josh Harrison and Brock Holt would see big drop offs defensively, probably to the point where they’d reduce any value they added offensively. Jordy Mercer might be a good long-term option, but he usually struggles when he first gets to a new level. He hasn’t gotten much playing time, and currently has a .608 OPS.

The same can’t be said for Barajas. The Pirates have Michael McKenry, who has some of the best numbers on the team. As shown above, if the roles were reversed, and McKenry took 100 plate appearances away from Barajas at their same productions, the Pirates would add seven runs created. That’s nearly one win by just giving McKenry about 100 plate appearances from Barajas.

Barmes has the advantage of strong defense at shortstop. The strength for Barajas is supposed to be his work with the pitching staff. But I can’t imagine the value of that relationship takes a massive drop if McKenry gets more playing time. You could argue that McKenry and Barajas have the same value defensively, which makes it inexplicable that McKenry isn’t getting the majority of the starts with his superior offensive numbers.

It might not make a huge difference at this point, but the Pirates should be giving the majority of the playing time to Michael McKenry, rather than Rod Barajas. Keep Barajas in to catch A.J. Burnett, but give McKenry the other starts. Maybe his offense regresses as a starter, but I can’t imagine it would go beyond the point where he is on the same level of Barajas. It might not have a huge difference at this point, but with the Pirates two games out of the wild card race, every win helps.

I wouldn’t bench Barmes at this point. As noted above, his defense ranks as the best in the majors. His offense on the season isn’t good, but his numbers aren’t atrocious in the second half. He has a .628 OPS since the start of June, and a .689 OPS since the beginning of August, with today’s numbers included. If you add in his defense, that’s a player who adds value. He’s not going to be up there with the best in the league, but it’s not a guy you rush to replace.

Barajas, on the other hand, needs to lose some playing time to McKenry. There’s no reason Barajas should be getting 60% or more of the starts behind the plate right now, especially when you’ve got an alternative with similar defense and some of the best offensive numbers on the team. Again, it might not make a big difference, but every advantage helps at this time in the year.

Links and Notes

**Win a Free Pair of Pittsburgh Pirates Headphones From BiGR AUDIO. Today is the last day to enter the contest.

**The Pirates lost…no, wait. They won! 7-6 over the Cubs.

**The Dodgers beat the Cardinals, putting both teams in a tie for the wild card spot. The Pirates are two games back. If they win tomorrow, they’ll remain two games back, since one of the other teams will take a one game lead. Milwaukee is 2.5 games back, and Philadelphia is 3.0 games back.

**Pirates Notebook: Bucs Snap Skid; Is McDonald’s Spot Safe?

**The Pirates History series, run by John Dreker, will be moving to a new location. Check out the new page on Facebook.

Tim Williams

Author: 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.

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  • L G

    Although I don’t believe in catcher’s ability to make pitchers that much more effective, what do you take from the Trib’s Rob Biertempfel’s report that the

    “Pirates pitchers have a 3.58 ERA with Barajas and a 4.02 ERA with Michael McKenry. Because catcher ERA alone is not a reliable indicator, the Pirates developed a more comprehensive stats program.” “The Pirates’ analysis considers variables such as length of innings, pitches per inning and what happens with runners in scoring position.”

    Is there some value to this or is this just more hog-wash to justify playing the FA mistake Barajas?

    • salempirate

      Iisn’t it likely/possible that the Pirates pitchers were much sharper in the early season and Barajas was catching almost daily, hence “distorting” the numbers. ERAs have risen monthly since the hot April start. Since the ASB all the pitchers have headed south and Barajas has had little or no positive impact behind the plate.
      Keeping Rod as a coach would be great. There is no reason to resign him to take up roster space, not that you advocated that.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I thought that was interesting. However, I’m having a hard time imagining a statistical model that would make up for the drop in offense from McKenry to Barajas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    Not only would I bench Barmes, I would pack his bags for him, drive him to the airport, and send him on his merry way. I would be interested to know what his defensive number are over the last 2 months, but the eye test says he has been horrible in this span. We have Holt who was filling a much needed hole as a leadoff hitter who has SS experience, why can’t we see if he can do it? Hurdle has him listed as the 4th best option, really? Maybe if Shrek keeps him entertained he will move in front of Holt also. Now lets not also forget about Mercer, again was never given a chance to play consistenly and to my knowledge there is little question about his defensive ability. The only possible reason that Hurdle could possibly have to run Barmes/Barajas out there every game is their contracts, neither have been adding any value to the roster. I like Harrison, but he is a very bottom of the bench option and should basically only be playing when he is swinging a hot bat. If this truly is Hurdles decision to run these clowns out there every game or regularly, then he needs to pack his bags also. For crying out loud, give somebody a legitimate shot at it.

    • emjayinTN

      I liked d’Arnaud and I like Holt. But, if you have played the position and have a middle infielders glove, is that all it takes? Many FO folks in this game live and die with stats like UZR – how much you get to and what you do with what you get to are extremely important considerations. Barmes has been solid at the plate the past 2 or 3 months, and please explain what we do with the $5.5 mil we owe Clint Barmes for 2013? Barajas is making $3 mil and his job is to bring Michael McKenry and Tony Sanchez along. His presence was the biggest sell for AJ Burnett, OUR BEST PITCHER IN 2012. And, Barajas and Barmes have been worth much more than 2 wins with their leadership in the clubhouse, which is another area where stats do not exist to measure the importance of leadership. Big flaws and we are still in the most successful season since 1992? Teamwork.

    • whiteAngus

      if you want a legitimate shot at the playoffs, you really should leave Barmes at SS for now. his glove is legit and you dont need UZR to prove it. once the pirates are eliminated, then you can go ahead and give holt/mercer more starts at the 6.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Brock Holt is not a good defensive shortstop. He would really hurt on the field.

      • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

        Yeah, he’d suck based on never playing there in the majors. It’s better to have a guy you know can’t hit, and can boot a groundball or throw with the best of them, because his UZR rating rocks.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          Holt has played there in the minors, and he wasn’t a good defender. Why would he be good in the majors?

          • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

            Honest question, not trying to be a smart a**. Is Holt’s defense that bad at SS that if he proved to be a .300 hitter in the leadoff spot that it would negate what his bat was doing? Maybe he is that bad, I don’t know. This still though doesn’t explain why Mercer never got a shot at it, from what I have seen on this site he is solid defensively and was hitting well at AAA. I know AAA isn’t the majors, but there are pitchers with a higher average than Barmes.

            • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

              I think it’s a big “if” for Holt. Right now he has 49 at-bats. He would have to hit for average, but also put up a good OPS with that. He doesn’t hit for much power, so a lot of that is going to have to come from his OBP. It’s not impossible, but I’d say it’s improbable.

              I can see why Mercer isn’t starting over Barmes. Mercer usually starts a level slow. I can’t see why Mercer isn’t starting over Harrison when Barmes gets time off. He’s better than Harrison defensively (the Pirates have said this), and his slow start at this level is the same as Harrison, who has been in the majors much longer.

          • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

            Barmes has little value offensively. Why think that he’ll suddenly start hitting? He booted another one yesterday too. Holt’s played short enough in the minors that he deserves a chance, Barmes can be a defensive sub. Or Mercer, or Harrison. Barajas hit a homer yesterday, but HE still stinks. McKenry should be getting the majority of starts. If the Pirates have no one on the 40 man roster who can play a decent shortstop OTHER than Barmes, that’s a big problem too.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Barmes OPS for the season is .565. His UZR rating is perhaps the ONLY thing rating him as acceptable. ALL of his other fielding stats are down from last year. Except for errors, which is up.
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/barmecl01.shtml
    And for all this, he’s getting a 500K raise next year! Until yesterday, he’s managed 6 total bases in September. He has been on FIRE in walks in September, drawing 5 while only striking out 5 times, until yesterday. Which makes it hard to understand why he had 1 walk in April and 1 in May, and 2 each month of June, July and August. Did he suddenly figure something out? Pitchers started fearing him? He was a HORRIBLE FA signing for that money and for 2 years. And Barajas was worse. He should only catch when his pal pitches, although they aren’t doing too well together recently.

    • whiteAngus

      yawn.

  • Chase

    Last week Tim, you wrote an article on why we should be patient with Hunnington and defended the job he has done, and now you write an article that essentially says he made two of the worst signings ever.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The article from the other day was looking at the overall results, and pointing out that the firing talk is an emotional reaction to the recent losing. It’s not saying that he’s been perfect.

      This article points out the impact that Barmes and Barajas have on the offense at the bottom of the lineup. It hardly says they’re the worst signings ever. It is saying that they should move on from Barajas and give more playing time to McKenry.

      • Chase

        So in other words…they were awful signings…

        Sorry, just a frustrated fan talking…

  • RandyLinville

    Interesting stuff, Tim. Thanks for breaking this down so thoroughly. One question I have is what happens synergistically if you have both better bat options at 7 and 8? In other words, this is looking at replacing Barmes with Harrison in a box and then replacing Barajas with McKenry in a box. Wouldn’t it make sense that if upgrades were made at both spots that there would be an extra lift because both spots were now better (ie longer innings, more rallies, more chances for both runners to get on base in the same inning)? In other words, I would think that swapping both out would lead to a bigger lift than only the two games that swapping them out individually would suggest. I’m not sure if there is a way to determine that without running a statistical model that projects a full years worth of games or something along those lines with various lineup options – Barmes/Barajas then Barmes/McKenry then Harrison/Barajas and lastly Harrison/McKenry. My guess – and maybe I’m wrong – is that the Harrison/McKenry option would project to more than a two game lift compared to the Barmes/Barajas option.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      It would be hard to quantify that, since we’re talking about stuff that doesn’t show up easily in the stat sheets (rallies, how often both runners got on base in the same inning, etc).

      Just looking at the individual impacts, the Pirates could upgrade more by replacing Barajas. They could upgrade offensively by replacing Barmes, but considering his defense I’m not sure if the offensive upgrade would outweigh the defensive downgrade. Having one bad hitter at the bottom of the lineup isn’t so bad as long as he has that defense. But two bad hitters hurts, especially when Barajas doesn’t seem like much of a defensive upgrade over McKenry, and is clearly a downgrade offensively.