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.
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.
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.
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
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**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.
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