Pirates Projected Among NL’s Top Four Benches

When we last left the Pirates’ pinch hitters, they were bringing down the team’s offense with an astounding lack of punch. The Pirates hit .176 in pinch-hitting situations last season, with just two home runs in 227 at-bats, both second to last in the National League.

The main culprits in the Bucs’ dreadful hitting off the bench were the players that got the most pinch-hit chances: Josh Harrison (4-for-29), Jeff Clement (3-for-20) and Alex Presley (2-for-17). And don’t forget Yamaico Navarro and Nate McLouth combined to go 0-for-25 as pinch hitters in 2012. Clement, Navarro and McLouth are all gone, and Presley is unlikely to make the Major League roster to start the season.

Coming off such an unproductive season, including a .513 OPS from the pinch hitters, labeling the Pirates’ reserve players as “weak” and “not a very strong supporting cast” seems appropriate. With all the turnover that teams’ position players usually undergo, though, I looked at how the Pirates’ bench players are projected to perform offensively compared to the rest of the National League.

PECOTA: 4th out of 15

The answer? Quite well. I used two sets of projections to see how the Pirates stack up to the rest of the league. The first set was Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, and their True Average (TAv) stat that measures total hitting ability and adjusts to the hitter-friendliness of a team’s park. If you’re new to TAv, it scales to mimic batting average, so imagine the numbers below are like batting average.

(Mathematical nitty gritty: Each team’s bench players are based on the roster on MLB Depth Charts. Since better hitters usually get more at-bats than worse players off the bench, I weighted projections as such. The best players get 30% of the plate appearances, second-best 25%, third-best 20%, fourth-best 15% and worst 10%.)

  1. Washington Nationals – .259 TAv
  2. San Diego Padres – .257
  3. Cincinnati Reds – .256
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates – .255
  5. New York Mets – .254
  6. Philadelphia Phillies – .252
  7. Arizona Diamondbacks – .248
  8. Chicago Cubs – .248
  9. Los Angeles Dodgers – .247
  10. St. Louis Cardinals – .244
  11. Colorado Rockies – .244
  12. Milwaukee Brewers – .243
  13. San Francisco Giants – .241
  14. Atlanta Braves – .240
  15. Miami Marlins – .236

The top of the list is not a surprise. The Nationals and the Reds led the NL in pinch-hitting OPS in 2012, and the Padres were in the top half of the league despite hitting in run-suppressing Petco Park.

Pecota projects Gaby Sanchez to be closer to his 2010-2011 numbers in 2013.

Pecota projects Gaby Sanchez to be closer to his 2010-2011 numbers in 2013.

The biggest reason the Pirates project to rebound so well is the bat of Gaby Sanchez, who ranks second in projected TAv among expected bench players on MLB Depth Charts (behind Philadelphia rookie Darin Ruf). Despite a .216 TAv in an awful 2012 season, PECOTA projects Sanchez to collect a .273 TAv in 2013. The projection system, as often noted by Baseball Prospectus Editor-in-Chief Ben Lindbergh, “has a long memory.” As such, it projects Sanchez will perform closer to his two previous seasons with the Florida Marlins, in which he posted far better TAv results of .276 and .284.

Also in the mix for strong seasons based on PECOTA’s TAv stat are Jose Tabata (ranked 14th of 75 NL bench players) and Mike McKenry (ranked 4th of 15 NL backup catchers). Tabata is another player PECOTA expects to improve offensively from last season, based on success before the 2012 campaign and the fact that players usually improve at age 24.

The other two players MLB Depth Charts expects to open the season on the Pirates bench are infielders Josh Harrison (.242 TAv) and Brandon Inge (.234 TAv)

ZiPS: 3rd out of 15

The other projection system I used was ZiPS, developed by sabermetrician Dan Szymborski. The rankings ZiPS spit out were not drastically different, which makes sense considering both systems draw from the same few years of performances. The only alteration was using OPS+ from ZiPS, which adjusts OPS to the park and scales to 100 as league-average.

  1. San Diego Padres – 94.2 OPS+
  2. Washington Nationals – 91.2
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates – 91.1
  4. Cincinnati Reds – 91.0
  5. New York Mets – 87.4
  6. Philadelphia Phillies – 86.7
  7. Los Angeles Dodgers – 86.7
  8. Arizona Diamondbacks – 86.4
  9. Chicago Cubs – 85.9
  10. Milwaukee Brewers – 85.1
  11. Colorado Rockies – 84.2
  12. San Francisco Giants – 84.2
  13. St. Louis Cardinals – 83.0
  14. Miami Marlins – 73.1
  15. Atlanta Braves – 72.5

Again, the Padres and Nationals come out on top in bench performance, and the Pirates are almost dead even with the Reds. The bottom two teams do not defy expectations; the Marlins threw away every above-average offensive player not named Giancarlo Stanton or Logan Morrison, and the Braves were the only NL team more horrific than the Pirates in pinch-hitting last season with a .475 OPS.

Sanchez (an above-average 101 OPS+) and Tabata (93 OPS+) lead the Bucs once again in ZiPS projections, followed by Harrison (85 OPS+), McKenry (83 OPS+) and Inge (81 OPS+).

You can download my projections spreadsheet here.

And Here Come The Caveats

Both PECOTA and ZiPS expect all five Pirates bench players to perform at decent-to-average offensive levels in 2013. But projection systems are not soothsayers, and they have their quirks. If you think Sanchez will look more like the 2012 version than previous versions, then PECOTA and ZiPS look optimistic.

PECOTA may also overrate Triple-A first basemen. Remember how it projected Darin Ruf as the NL’s top-hitting bench player? It also says Clint Robinson would be the Pirates’ second-best offensive player in 2013 if he gets Major League at-bats. I don’t see it from the 28-year-old with little MLB experience.

The selection of bench players is also more arithmetic than science. The rosters from MLB Depth Charts are quality and consistently updated, and allow us to project among the teams apples-to-apples. But at this point, the 25-man rosters are pretty much just a guess from Jason Martinez, albeit an educated one. In addition, the current guesses at rosters exclude injured players that will not be ready in early April, and obviously team’s benches are going to change drastically as the season goes on.

Given all that, the bench projections are more rough estimations than exact expectations. It does seem easy to expect that the Padres and Nationals will field good pinch hitters, while the Braves and Marlins will likely be on the crappy end.

When the Pirates face a left-handed starter, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider will probably be the first two hitters used as pinch hitters by Clint Hurdle. When a right-hander starts, Sanchez and Tabata will probably be Hurdle’s first calls. Those players stack up well compared to other NL bench players, and could be the keys to a drastic improvement from a poor 2012.

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James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • Andrew Smalley

    Good stuff, James. Very informative.

    Seems like a good addition to the staff, Tim.

  • piratemike

    I read a lot about Pecota and Zips but I never read about the outcome of their projections. How accurate are they?

  • BuccoMike

    I like Yelich a lot from the Marlins impressed with that kid only 21 year old kid.

    Pirates i think should pick up the phone and talk with the Yanks about Garrett Jones over to the Yanks mainly cause Big Tex might need surgery and Jones is a good option for them at first base, defensively there was times over there were he stunk it up has some power might be able to hit .260 to .270. Dont know exactly what the buccos could get for Jones probably a couple AA prospects.

  • Jon Williams

    I like Tabata a lot. I think he’ll be starting again before too long. I just don’t believe in Snider.

  • leadoff

    I don’t know if I agree with a 4 spot for the bench, but I think it is a lot better as this author has it constructed than most.
    IMO, the finished product out of ST might look a little different, Tabata does not have the team made yet, Inge does not have the team made yet and the Pirates are searching for a veteran backup catcher, so there could be changes in the next couple of weeks.

    • whiteAngus

      if Tabata is out of options, I would assume that he has already indeed made the team. Presley has one option remaining.

      • leadoff

        IMO, they are not worried about losing Tabata if they cut him, his salary in a couple of years would be more than they would want to pay a backup. Don’t forget they have a couple of outfielders named Bell, Barnes and Polanco coming and Tabata’s chances of ever being a first stringer on this team are pretty slim.

        • Kevin_Young

          False…Tabata is a lock.

  • bucsfan1978

    They obviously didn’t consult Smizik on this one. Then again, they used both math and logic……

    • Lee Young

      I agree with Smizik

      There is NO WAY these guys finish that high. Just because you have ‘viable’ players on the bench, doesn’t mean they’ll be good at pinch hitting.

      I’m usually optimistic, but this article’s conclusion (and I am NOT denigrating James’ writing) has very little chance of happening in real life.


      PH Foo


      • James Santelli

        I did link to that Smizik post in my third paragraph, so I took a look at it.

        And you’re right, Lee, that pinch hitting is a different skill from regular hitting. A hitter needs to change his mindset when he’s coming up “cold” in the 7th inning. That said, being a solid hitter to begin with is a good place to start, and all of the Pirates’ bench guys can carry a bat decently.

      • leadoff

        Disagreeing or agreeing with Smizik would not be to the point.
        Smizik is saying the bench will be weak, the author is saying where they rank compared to other teams. I don’t think the bench will be weak when they start the season this year, because it has been addressed over the winter and is still being addressed. The ranking does not mean much except to say that the bench will not be weak this year.

  • bucsfan1978

    Also, a great first article James!!

  • bohringer9

    I’ve seen some research that suggests building a versatile roster, with basically 9 “starters” (10 in the AL), where the 9th player can be inserted into the lineup regardless of which player is injured, is very effective. The theory is that the average team will miss a whole season’s worth of games from starters, so having one additional starting quality player is not overkill, but optimal. The Rays really have had those kinds of rosters recently. I don’t think the Pirates have that kind of roster.
    Also I’ve heard an A’s front office official talk about “building from the bottom”. That it’s much cheaper to pay for small upgrades to your 25th man then your 1st, and that strategy allows even small-market teams to upgrade 5+ roster spots. I think that while the Pirates’ bench will be improved, they really haven’t embraced this philosophy either. I think it would have been a good move for Huntington to move in a new direction with the generally poor performance from the bench in recent years.

    • AJ21PSU

      Trading for Gaby Sanchez was to improve the bench. Forming a platoon with Garrett Jones gives you a strong righty/lefty off the bench every game. Brandon Inge was also brought in to help out with the bench making it more versatile and giving it a veteran presence if he can make the team.

  • bohringer9

    I do like the jones/sanchez for sure, but if you consider Sanchez as out “9th starter” then it’s very hard to work him into the lineup for a number of possible injuries. This strategy basically needs you to have two catchers/shortstops I suppose, and is easier in the American League, where you can keep the C/DH, or if you have a ryan doumit or ben zobrist. I also hope we platoon snider and tabata. I liked the Inge signing, but I don’t think I’d use him in a platoon with Pedro. He should be useful off the bench, but you don’t really know about pinch hitting. I don’t think he’s all that versatile at this point of his career, and I don’t think his defense is good anywhere, but that said, I still like the bench better than last year.

  • Kevin Anstrom

    Great article James.

    How does the signing of McDonald change things?

    • James Santelli

      Thanks, Kevin. And good question. My guess at this point is that Brandon Inge will not make the team, and John McDonald will. They are both good defensive infielders, but McDonald can play up the middle.

      McDonald is not as good a hitter as Inge, but that swap does not adversely affect the Pirates too much in my formula. The Pirates stay in 4th in PECOTA using TAv, and they drop from 3rd to 4th in ZiPS using OPS+ (Not surprising, considering the Reds and Pirates were so close in the results).

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