How Many Good Hitters Do the Pirates Need For a Legitimate Lineup?

By Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli

What does a team with a high WAR for hitters look like?  Why does it seem like the Pirates can just never measure up with the rest of the National League in terms of WAR for batters?

Steve DiMiceli and I sifted through the WAR data from 2008 to 2012 (using Fangraphs’ WAR) for all the NL Teams.  The five years of data makes for a good representative sample and also dovetails with the full tenure of Neal Huntington as GM.  We used the 8 guys shown on Baseball Reference as the nominal starters at their position to determine each team’s starting 8 hitters.  Once all the data was collected, we tiered the WAR’s into the following 5 categories:

Elite — greater than or equal to 5 WAR

Strong — between 3.5 and 4.9 WAR

Good — between 2.0 and 3.4 WAR

Sub-Par — between 0.5 and 1.9 WAR

Detrimental — less than or equal to 0.4 WAR

Keeping in mind that WAR encompasses both batting and fielding contributions, the chart below shows the top 3 and bottom 3 teams for each year in terms of hitters’ WAR.  Also within the chart is the team’s record that year and the breakdown of how many of each type of hitter they had for that year.

Year Team Total WAR Record # Elite # Strong # Good # Sub-Par # Detrimental
2008 PHI 31.8 92-70 3 1 2 2 0
  STL 30.4 86-76 3 0 2 3 0
  NYM 29 89-73 3 0 1 4 0
                 
  SF 12.6 72-90 1 0 2 2 3
  WAS 9.7 59-103 0 0 3 2 3
  CIN 8.5 74-88 0 1 2 1 4
                 
  PIT 15.6 67-95 0 1 2 4 1
                 
                 
2009 PHI 32.4 93-69 2 3 2 1 0
  STL 26.1 91-71 1 1 4 2 0
  LAD 24.5 95-67 1 2 3 2 0
                 
  ATL 13.3 86-76 0 2 1 3 2
  PIT 13.3 62-99 0 1 2 4 1
  SF 13.2 88-74 1 0 1 4 2
  NYM 12 70-92 0 1 1 5 1
                 
                 
2010 CIN 30 91-71 2 3 1 1 1
  PHI 28.3 97-65 2 3 1 2 0
  SF 28.1 92-70 2 1 3 2 0
                 
  LAD 15.3 80-82 0 1 3 3 1
  HOU 12.6 76-86 0 1 3 2 2
  PIT 12.4 57-105 0 1 2 4 1
                 
                 
2011 MIL 27 96-66 2 3 0 1 2
  ARI 25.2 94-68 1 3 1 2 1
  STL 25.1 90-72 3 1 1 3 0
                 
  PIT 11.3 72-90 1 0 1 3 3
  HOU 11.2 56-106 0 0 4 1 3
  SF 10.9 86-76 1 0 1 4 2
                 
                 
2012 ATL 29.3 94-68 3 1 3 0 1
  MIL 29.2 83-79 2 2 2 1 1
  STL 28.2 88-74 2 3 1 2 0
                 
  NYM 13.1 74-88 1 0 1 3 3
  COL 10.5 64-98 0 0 2 4 2
  HOU 6.3 55-107 0 0 1 3 4
                 
  PIT 16.3 79-83 1 0 2 3 2

We included Pittsburgh’s team WAR for each year during the 2 occasions that they were not already in the bottom 3 of the league.  Some interesting conclusions can be extrapolated from this year, both obvious and more sublime.  The first is that good hitting teams win.  Not exactly a stop-the-press moment, but of the 15 teams in the Top 3 all had at least 83 wins.  However, the corollary of that is not always true — not all of the bottom 3 teams were comprised of losing teams.  Three of the 16 bottom teams (there was a tie in 2009) had winning records, indicating that their pitching staffs must have been fantastic that year.

The top hitting teams all had multiple players combined in the Elite and Strong categories.  In fact, only 1 team out of the 15 top WAR teams had less than 3 combined players in these categories (St. Louis in 2009 — thanks Albert!).  As you can see in the chart above, Pittsburgh has not had more than 1 player between these two categories in the past 5 years.  Had Walker not been dealing with finger and back issues for the last 1/3 of the season, he surely would have raised his 3.3 WAR up to the Strong category of 3.5, but he didn’t.  The Pirates don’t necessarily need to be a top 3 hitting WAR team to be successful, but this chart shows how short they have been falling to those types of teams in the past 5 years.  At a minimum, McCutchen will need two teammates (most likely Walker and Alvarez) to step up into the Elite and/or Strong categories for the Pirates to have a legitimate lineup of quality players.

The other issue at hand is that the top 3 teams each year also minimized their Sub-Par and Detrimental players.  Only 1 of the 15 teams had 4 players in these combined categories.  An additional 4 teams had 3 players either Sub-Par and/or Detrimental, leaving the other 10 teams to have either 2 or fewer players in these categories.  For comparison, the Pirates have had at least 5 players each year since 2008, with 2011’s team having 6 combined players in the Sub-Par and/or Detrimental category.  With only 8 starters, you can start to see why the Pirates have had so many woes with batters.  However, it is also worth noting that every team had at least 1 player that could be classified as at least Sub-Par.

The two weakest offensive positions this year for the Pirates were at catcher and shortstop.  Barmes did contribute 1.7 WAR to the Pirates in 2012, but that was nearly all the result of his defensive work.  Over the past 5 years, there have been 39 (out of 80) player-seasons where the shortstop contributed 2.0 WAR or better to his team, making him at least a Good-level player.  The Pirates have not had any of those seasons over the past 5 years.  At the catcher position there have been 40 player-seasons, or 50% occurrence, in the past 5 years where the catcher has contributed at least 2.0 WAR.  The Pirates did have 1 of these seasons with Ryan Doumit in 2008.  It would be more difficult to upgrade these spots, as there has been only a 50% rate of achieving Good-level, than it would be to upgrade a corner OF bat (54% occurrence of 2.0 WAR).

Whether the improvement will come from internal upgrades (Walker and Alvarez top this list), full time status for players like Marte (1.2 WAR in just over a quarter-season), or free agents, the Pirates will need to get 2-3 additional players into the Elite or Strong categories to have a well-balanced hitter WAR in 2013.  If not, more sub-standard performance from highly-valued offensive positions may follow.

Author: Kevin Creagh

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