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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  • http://twitter.com/TheBlackStripe rutang

    2012 Pirates by position
    1B 236/290/403 23HR, 81RBI
    C 218/300/392 23HR, 68RBI
    1B and LF were the pirates weaknesses (compared to MLB avg production). C OPS was almost league average. 1B and LF were way below avg.

    • Kevin_Creagh

      The narrative throughout the season is that the Pirates need to improve C and SS, so we brought that up. Although Barmes had 1.7 WAR, that still ranked 10th out of 11 qualified SS in the NL this year. His 59 wRC+ was dead last. There is still room for improvement at SS.

  • john.alcorn

    The consensus is that you need 6 MLB average (2.0 WAR) or better position players. The Bucs have 3 for sure (Walker would have been strong if he didn’t miss September). Marte who will almost certainly be above 2.0 WAR due to his defense. Gaby Sanchez has been aboe 2.0 each year prior to his early season issues in Miami that corrected itself when he got here. That leaves C, SS, RF. It seems likely that Tabata, Snider, or Jones could be the guy in RF. That makes 6. It is also likely that Barmes will have a 2.0 WAR in 2013. Even with his terrible first two months he put up 1.7 WAR.
    It raises the question why you used WAR for a discussion on hitting. Wouldn’t wOBA or wRC+ be much better?

    • Kevin_Creagh

      The article was about BATTERS, not batting. If it were strictly about hitting, we would have used either (or both) of wOBA and wRC+. But we wanted to establish how many major league caliber players a team needs to be successful. That includes defensive contributions.

      • john.alcorn

        But your article is about run scoring, not qualiy players. “legitimate lineup”

      • john.alcorn

        You mention “good hitting” and “top hitting” teams several times.

      • john.alcorn

        Also, you can’t desribe SS as a weak position if you mean total contribution. Barmes was just fine there.

        • michaelbro8

          these days there just aren’t many very good/great shortstops around

      • Kevin_Creagh

        I’ll just address your myriad of concerns in one spot, John. At the outset of the article, clearly it was stated that WAR includes offensive and defensive contributions. However you want to wordsmith “hitting”, it pretty clearly means “batter WAR” and not “pitcher WAR”. For Barmes, I responded earlier that while he had a 1.7 WAR, he was 10th out of 11 qualified shortstops in WAR and dead last in wRC+.

        • john.alcorn

          Yeah, but the qualified SS’s are better than the non-qualified (that’s why they didn’t get to play a full year). Also, why restrict to the NL only.

          If you are using WAR then his wRC+ is irrelevant, his hitting is already figured in WAR.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Beam/100001016052787 Matt Beam

        4 things that hit me… 1) you can’t miss on your 1st round pick (ever) if you are the Pirates, Matt Weiters alone would make this look so much better 2) Garret Jones had a nice season for him and still didn’t break a WAR of 2.0 3) I would attempt to go after Nick Swisher who would definitely be in the Good and likely in the Strong category… not to mention he brings plate discipline and an excellent OBP, two things this lineup lacks completely 4) the only way the Pirates are significantly upgrading C or SS is through drafting and development because the Elite or Strong is this category are few and far between and not affordable any other way (SP falls into the same category and has gone better for the Pirates)

        • michaelbro8

          Swisher would be a great pick up

    • whiteAngus

      i agree, plus players numbers usually fluctuate, not counting the elite players of course. and what if we do get better numbers from SS and RF in 2013 but Cutch comes back down to earth a bit? Does this cancel out improvement of the problem areas?

    • azibuck

      The “consensus” is too simple then. The chart shows you need 4 strong (3.5 WAR) or better players, and two of those players should be elite (5 WAR). Two other Good (or average as you described it) players gets you to 21 WAR, where you’d still need a very strong pitching staff to contend, as a 21 WAR lineup appears to be about mid to upper-middle pack (10-15th best). Walker and Alvarez need to step forward, but that still leaves us short 1 strong player.

  • leadoff

    There are a lot of stats that could be used and I don’t think “War” is a good one. Lets look at it from a GM’s viewpoint. If there is a “War” stat that shows McCutchen’s “War” stat from July through Sept, I don’t think it would look like his stats from April to July. When did the Pirates slide, after the All-Star break, stats after the all-star break are stats I would be interested in.
    If a GM uses “War” only he would likely be changing players at 7 positions over the winter and in the process be weakening the team.
    Lets compare St..Louis vs Pittsburgh 2012 through the eyes of a GM.
    Pittsburgh beat St. Louis head to head in 2012
    St. Louis has the Pirates beat at only 2 positions on the field in their starting lineup. Catching and right field. Yet St.Louis is in the playoffs, WHY? Not because of “War”.
    They are better managed, better coached, don’t play as many rookies as the Pirates and they have better pitching for the long run.

    • Kevin_Creagh

      I would disagree that the Cardinals are only better at C and RF. Holliday is vastly better in LF and I would love to have either Allen Craig or David Freese (1B/3B). What WAR does not capture is how a player does in key situations or “clutchness”. The Pirates shrunk when the heat of the playoff race turned up — Cards players typically do not. I agree about the Cards being better coached and having better fundamentals. Those don’t turn up in WAR either.

      • leadoff

        I agree with you about Holliday, forgot him! But Craig and Freese would have to match up with Jones and Alvarez. Also maturation does not turn up in WAR, so I would take Alvarez over Freeze and I would not take Craig over Jones even though I think Craig is younger.

      • john.alcorn

        “clutchness” oh Kevin, you write a supposed SABR article then talk about “clutchness”. Ugh.
        Fundamentals do show up in WAR in the baserunning component you get credit for taking extra bases and not making outs on the paths. The ARM component considers holding runners at the correct base and preventing advancement. Plate discipline is certainly included.
        You are right that giving away outs with bunts is not included, but that’s game strategy.

        • Kevin_Creagh

          WAR does not distinguish between a HR hit when up 9-0 or down 9-0 and one hit to put your team ahead in the 8th inning. Also known as the Kevin Young Corollary.

          • Thom Kay

            John, don’t be a jerk. Also, “clutch” is a category on Fangraphs where they try to measure players’ hitting in high leverage situations versus their hitting in normal situations. The Pirates were ranked 8th in the NL, and the Cards 13th in the NL.

            • john.alcorn

              I’m being a jerk because Kevin posted a ridiculous article that varies in its approach and tells us nothing. His title is about “good hitters”, yet he uses the wrong stat to measure hitting. He goes back and forth about talking about a good team and a good hitting/batting team throughout.

              Discussing “clutch” in a WAR based article is ridiculous. You can measure WPA type stats retrospectively (as you said the Pirates were better than St. Louis, wrong again Kevin), but this is not a predictive stat.

              Clutch does not exist in WAR because it does not exist in reality, its SSS nonsense.

    • whiteAngus

      pitching wins championships. no team can win it without it.

      • john.alcorn

        Except the 87 Twins who had exactly 2 decent SP. I’m sure there are other examples, but too lazy to look it up.

    • iliketolikesmallthings

      Fangraphs WAR by position in 2012:

      Catcher – STL 6.7; PIT 1.71B – STL 4.8; PIT 2.72B – STL 1.1; PIT 3.33B – STL 5.7; PIT 2.9SS – STL 2.6; PIT 2.3LF – STL 5.3; PIT 0.7CF – STL 5.2; PIT 6.9RF – STL 3.7; PIT 1.7
      Not only did STL win at 6 of 8 spots (and dominate at 5 of 8 spots), but the Pirates second best position would’ve been just the sixth best WAR value on the Cardinals.

  • edave

    Shouldn’t the comparison be between the top 3 & bottom 3 teams in ‘runs scored’ as opposed to overall record?

  • piratemike

    Why sign one Hamilton when you can get two Barmes for the same price ……Quanity not Quality,son.

  • http://twitter.com/MrAwesomeWVU MrAwesome

    While Pedro, Walker, and even Marte can find themselves in the strong category, I strongly (no pun intended) advocate the need for the Pirates to go after strong batters. Hamilton may be out of our price range (even if its a one year build value type deal similar to Edwin Jackson) but Neal needs to go hard after the likes of Napoli (C), Pagan (OF) and BJ Upton. They could also use a solid bench bat like Hairston or Keppinger instead throwing out Harrison. They need a strong OBP guy at the top of the order, a strong RH power bat, and a good bench bat. Is that too much to ask here?

    • http://twitter.com/StevefromYukuDU Yukudukes

      Upton and Pagan’s bats don’t play as well in the corners. I think the Pirates are better off rolling the dice with Marte and Snider. I’d be very surprised if Marte didn’t at least put up average numbers as he’ll likely be the best LF glove by a wide margin next year. I could see him with 50 xbh’s as well. Snider is likely to get his last chance but he could hit for power and average while providing above average D in right. My concerns are injury and with so many options, Clint Hurdle won’t be able to help himself but to tinker with the lineup and not give Snider consistent enough reps.

  • BlueBomber72

    The Pirates need to find some hitters who get on base. They were last in the NL in walks and 2nd to last in OB%. With all the homeruns they hit, they could have been a very good and much more consistent team if they could have drawn some more walks. Tabata and Snider might offer some help internally (if they can stay on the field), otherwise they might have to sign or trade for help.

  • ecbucs

    this shows how far poor the offense is. it looks like in most years you need to get at least 25 war to even come in 4th or 5th. The Bucs best was in 2012 with 16.3 That is a pretty big gap. For pitching the gap is probably not as large but I’m sure the Bucs aren’t close to top 3 in that either.

  • Lee Young

    Good stuff Kevin. that’s why I love this site!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Lease/1032731036 John Lease

    The fact that the Pirates in 2009 and 2010 (and also 2011) are so close to other teams shows why WAR isn’t all that some think it is as a stat. The 2009 Pirates weren’t at all comparable to the Braves, except in WAR. The Pirates need better players, across the board. Other than McCutchen, is there anyone offensively on the Pirates who couldn’t be replaced easily? I’d even grant you Alvarez and Jones as above average. That leaves 5 holes filled with neverweres, haven’t proven themselves yet, and below average placeholders. There isn’t a store where you can go buy a Replacement Player. Having a stat about something that doesn’t exist isn’t exactly science.

  • James S

    What makes this so bad is that this is common sense stuff. Anyone who follows winning baseball teams knows that there needs to be more than one or two good hitters in a daily lineup. The Pirates have been trying to get by with one or two for many, many years and have even fooled many people into not noticing. This should have been the first point of focus for anyone upset with the Pirates annual losing seasons. Strangely though we rarely read or hear much about this at all. You really can’t blame the Pirates at this point when so many Pirates fans don’t even take the team to task for putting out such weak hitting lineups for the past 30 years.

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

      Very true. Only recently have the Pirates even put out lineups that feature players who are even below average ML hitters. Barajas and Barmes aren’t isolated examples, the Pirates have been littered with guys getting ‘one more chance’ to stick. Garrett Jones is about the only one who was worth anything, and lasted more than a season or two. Lastings Milledge is a perfect example.

  • st1300b

    This is a really great visual rep Kevin, and hopefully it will catch the eyes of Pirates management. An argument I’ve been making for years but that you have really laid out with gasping clarity. Thanks.

  • Buccos in 2013!

    This is great stuff, clearly pointing out some of the flaws in the 2012 team. Regarding WAR: People everywhere need gigantic understanding in new or way new statistics – yinzers obviously understand

  • gonfalon

    “We used the 8 guys shown on Baseball Reference as the nominal starters
    at their position to determine each team’s starting 8 hitters.”

    I’m not sure that’s the best methodology, as it doesn’t account for both halves of platoons (or near-platoons, like Barajas/McKenry in 2012).  It also leaves Garrett Jones’ two best seasons on the cutting-room floor.

    • Kevin_Creagh

      I agree.  We pulled the data for the “starting 8″ and the top 3 other players by at-bats into the spreadsheet.  However, we couldn’t decide on how to proceed with some small sample sizes (200 ab’s for some) and the wildly changing WAR on these reserves. 

      Overall, it wouldn’t have affected the Top 3/Bottom 3 ranks significantly and wouldn’t have cluttered up the analysis.  End result — the Pirates need more and better players.