First Pitch: Why Do Bad Pirates Hitters Become All-Stars Elsewhere?
The Pirates have been frustrating lately. The offense has struggled, losing a lot of close games, and failing to come up with runs in situations where at least one run should be expected. What might be even more frustrating is looking around the league and seeing former Pirates having success at the plate, despite struggling in Pittsburgh similar to the way the Pirates are struggling right now. Consider these four players, who all play a position of need, all played for the Pirates in recent years, all struggled with the Pirates, and would all serve as huge upgrades this year with their current numbers on other teams.
Nate McLouth – He was absolutely horrible with the Pirates this year. He hit for a .140/.210/.175 line in 57 at-bats with the Pirates, and his defense wasn’t really making up for that. McLouth signed with the Orioles, and now it seems like every time you watch highlights, he’s making a difference for the team. He currently has a .279/.350/.418 line in 122 at-bats, and has made a few big plays on the field. A lot of the hitting is due to Camden Yards being hitter friendly, although PNC Park should have been hitter friendly to the left-handed hitter.
Brandon Moss - The Pirates added Moss as one of the four pieces in the Jason Bay trade. He was supposed to come in and fill one of the starting corner outfield spots, adding some power. In parts of three seasons with Pittsburgh, Moss combined for a .228/.295/.373 line in 569 at-bats. This year he joined the Oakland Athletics, and currently has a .262/.327/.568 line in 206 at-bats, with 18 homers. To put that AB/HR ratio in perspective, that’s a homer every 11.44 at-bats, or 48 homers in a 550 at-bat season. Moss is being used more as a platoon player, getting most of his time against right-handers. Still, his numbers are impressive when you consider he would be an upgrade over Garrett Jones, who has been one of the best hitters on the team this year.
Pedro Ciriaco - The shortstop has cooled a bit since his hot start, although he’s still hitting for a .300 average and a .720 OPS in 190 at-bats. Since going 3-for-5 with a homer on August 26th, Ciriaco is hitting for a .148/.164/.167 line in 54 at-bats. He could be coming back to Earth, which wouldn’t be a surprise, since he has a career .649 OPS in Triple-A and a career .656 OPS in the minors. In short, it was unlikely that he was a mid-.800 OPS hitter. However, if he settles in as a .700+ OPS guy in the majors, he could make the Pirates look foolish, especially since he hit for a .748 OPS in limited playing time last year. And by limited playing time, I mean they started Ronny Cedeno and benched Ciriaco, even though the team decided to move on from Cedeno in the off-season. Considering his minor league numbers, it’s unlikely that Ciriaco will continue with an OPS over .700. If he somehow does, it will raise the question of why the Pirates didn’t play him more often last September, when the games didn’t matter and when Cedeno was on his way out.
Ryan Ludwick - The Pirates traded for Ludwick last year to give the team a boost at the deadline. He hit for a .671 OPS in 112 at-bats, which was similar to his time in San Diego. This year he’s playing for the Reds, and has been a key part of their success. Ludwick is hitting for a .275/.345/.534 line in 393 at-bats. That’s not just because of Great American Ballpark. He’s hitting for an .858 OPS on the road. The Pirates were definitely right in letting Ludwick go. They would have been crazy bringing him back for over $7 M this year considering his stats last year. But somehow his bat has been revived, and $7 M looks like it would have been a fair price for this production.
In the discussion about whether Neal Huntington should be fired, one of the topics that is always brought up is that he can’t find hitting talent. I don’t like looking at the situation that way. It’s too black and white. I think there’s a much bigger topic to focus on. Why do all of these bad Pirates hitters go and realize their potential elsewhere? Huntington hasn’t found any long-term answers for the corner outfield spots yet. But one of the failed solutions was Brandon Moss. If Moss hit like this in Pittsburgh, the Jason Bay trade might not look like such a disaster.
Huntington added Ryan Ludwick at the deadline last year to be a starter. The team struggled for the final two months of the season, and Ludwick alone probably wouldn’t have prevented that, even with this year’s numbers. But then again, look at the impact Ludwick is having this year in Cincinnati. Is that what Huntington had in mind when he dealt for the outfielder?
The Pirates could use a corner outfielder this year with both Jose Tabata and Alex Presley struggling. Huntington addressed that issue coming in to the season, adding Nate McLouth for $1.75 M. The Pirates are paying all but a pro-rated portion of the league minimum of that salary while McLouth leads the Orioles in a playoff race that actually features contending teams winning.
As for Pedro Ciriaco, you just wonder why he was called up from Indianapolis about five thousand times, but only given 33 at-bats. I’m sure Jordy Mercer would like to know if there’s a way to avoid this fate.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about all of this is that there’s no answer. Why do players struggle with the Pirates, then do what the Pirates signed them to do with someone else? It happens too frequently to be a fluke. It’s happened with multiple hitting coaches, so either the Pirates have had a bad string of coaches, or that’s not the issue. In Ciriaco’s case it could be because they have a tendency to prefer veterans over young players, even if the veteran has no future with the club. But the other players were given plenty of playing time, so it’s not like all of these players were booted too soon. It could be the atmosphere of playing in Pittsburgh and the expectations in the clubhouse, but you’d think that would be different this year. It could be scouting and preparing for opposing pitchers. How many times over the years (including this year) have the Pirates made a no name pitcher look like Cy Young?
Whatever the case, this is possibly the most important question facing the Pirates. I’m less interested in a debate on whether Huntington can add hitters or not. We probably aren’t having that debate if the above players put up their current numbers while they were in Pittsburgh. I’m more concerned with why those hitters fail to live up to expectations in Pittsburgh, only to almost immediately do what was expected of them elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s no apparent answer. It could be Huntington, the hitting coach, the scouting department, or the clubhouse atmosphere. And because there’s no standout answer, we’re left watching Jose Tabata hit for a .655 OPS, while that thought dances in the back of our minds that some day he could make his contract look like the massive value it was supposed to be. Only that will happen immediately after joining another team, after he struggles with the Pirates and leaves with little or no return.
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