First Pitch: The Pirates Should…But the Pirates Will…
I was talking with David Todd on Twitter earlier today, discussing the potential Jordy Mercer move. Yesterday on the Bucs Dugout podcast, David talked about what the Pirates will eventually do, and noted that he would rather see the Pirates send Mercer down to receive regular playing time in Triple-A. I’ve been writing for the last week — including last night — that Mercer should remain on the roster, the Pirates should give him Brandon Inge’s playing time, and they should cut John McDonald.
David is arguing that Mercer should go down, and I’m arguing that Mercer should stay up. Surprisingly, that’s not the key difference between our arguments. The key difference is how we’re approaching each argument.
Most of my arguments on this site are based on what I think the Pirates should do. In this case I think they should release McDonald, make Inge the new McDonald, give Mercer all of Inge’s playing time, and give him a few starts a week between second, short, and third (all positions that he’s played in the minors). The main reason for all of this is that Mercer has always started slow at each level, and this would allow him to ease into the majors, aiming at taking over at shortstop full-time in 2014.
David’s argument is based on what the Pirates will do. In this case he feels that if Mercer was on the roster, Clint Hurdle probably wouldn’t give him the playing time I’d like to see above. Therefore, he’d be better off in Triple-A getting regular at-bats, rather than wasting away on the bench.
I agree with David here. That’s probably how it would go down. I feel like the difference between our approaches highlights the real problem here: who is running the show in Pittsburgh?
It almost seems that Clint Hurdle has more control of the Pirates roster than anyone else, even to the point where Neal Huntington has no say in how each player is used. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it comes across that way because Hurdle is the manager, so he’s going to get credit/blame for any usage. Hurdle does have some pull, but at the same time if you ask anyone in the organization if Player A could be an option to take over at shortstop, you’re going to get a “Clint Barmes is our shortstop”. I know that from experience the last two years. Everyone seems to be on the same page, whether it’s a group decision, or they’re all in line with the decision once it’s made.
The thing about the “What the Pirates should do” approach is that it’s all subjective to the individual person’s thoughts. The best example I could give is Gerrit Cole. A lot of Pirates fans would have wanted him in the majors on Opening Day. Then you’re going to have more who want him up right when he gains that extra year of control (which has already passed). There’s also the group that wants him up after the first good start of the season, or the first time Jonathan Sanchez can’t make it out of the third inning. Finally there’s the group I’m in, which feels the Pirates should take their time, let him develop in Triple-A, and focus on making him the most valuable pitcher he can be for his entire career with the Pirates, rather than focusing on getting a few extra starts in 2013.
Each of the above groups will think they are right, and anyone (the Pirates included) who disagrees is wrong. But that doesn’t mean the people who disagree are wrong. It’s just a difference in opinion. As I said, my approach on this site is to say what I think the Pirates should do. A lot of times I disagree with their approach. Sometimes I’m right (suggesting trading Hanrahan as early as July 2011 to get max value), and sometimes I’m wrong (saying that Wandy Rodriguez wasn’t a good acquisition with concerns that he might not have anything left at this stage in his career).
That’s going to be the case for a lot of people. At the same time, there are a few topics where Pirates fans are almost unanimously on one side of things, and where I feel the Pirates are absolutely wrong. It’s a game I like to call “The Pirates Should, But the Pirates Will”. Side note: In my head it was sounding like Louis CK’s latest joke “Of course, but maybe”, which led to me watching hours of Louis CK videos on YouTube.
The Pirates Should…
…release John McDonald. In the post-game quotes tonight from Rob Biertempfel, Clint Hurdle said the team wanted to keep McDonald and will probably send Mercer to Triple-A, because you want to maintain all of your assets. My immediate thought was probably the same thing that others were thinking: John McDonald is an asset? He’s got a .276 OPS on the season. He’s 2-for-30 at the plate, and his defense hasn’t been that great in his limited time on the field. He’s not an asset, and he provides no value to the team. They have a strong defensive shortstop in Clint Barmes, so you don’t need a strong defensive backup on the bench. They’ve got the veteran leadership route with Brandon Inge. They also have backup middle infielders who aren’t great, but are much better than McDonald. Even if you don’t want to keep Mercer on the roster, there’s Josh Harrison, Ivan De Jesus, and Chase d’Arnaud when he returns from his injury. There was never any reason to have McDonald on the roster, and even if Mercer doesn’t stick around, the Pirates will be fine without him.
But the Pirates Will…
…keep John McDonald. And there’s no reason why. And that’s frustrating that a small market team would trade for prospects like Pedro Ciriaco, Argenis Diaz, and Ivan De Jesus — who profile as strong defensive backup middle infielders — then barely play those players and give a guaranteed roster spot to someone like McDonald at $1.5 M. That’s not how small market teams should operate. It also makes you question what Neal Huntington is even doing trading for those players. I don’t mind a veteran starter like A.J. Burnett or Wandy Rodriguez. I don’t mind a veteran catcher like Russell Martin. But veteran bench players? That’s a prime area to use younger talent and ease them into the majors. Don’t think that can be done? Check out the history in St. Louis.
The Pirates Should…
…ignore all the rules about managing a bullpen, and manage based on leverage. Sixth inning, two on, no outs, and up by two runs? Time for Jason Grilli. Seventh inning, two on, one out, up by one run? Bring in Mark Melancon early. It’s insane that every team in the majors manages their bullpens in the same automatic, no thinking required, role-specific way. We have so much data on leverage, and evidence that pitching in a certain inning requires no magical skill. Yet every team goes by the book. The first team that gets away from this will have an advantage. They’ll be mocked every time the bullpen blows a lead, and that’s inevitable no matter what system you use. But I guarantee that a team focused on using their best relievers in the highest leverage situations will have more success than a team using their best relievers only in the 8th and 9th innings.
But the Pirates Will…
…do the same thing every other MLB team is doing. That means if the game is on the line in the sixth inning, we’re left to hope that Justin Wilson can get out of a jam and get the lead to the eighth inning. Otherwise, Mark Melancon isn’t pitching that day. It’s a situation full of irony. You don’t want to use Melancon in the sixth because you can’t use him in the eighth. But because you don’t use him in the sixth, you’re less likely to see him in the eighth because you will no longer have the lead. It’s also extremely frustrating that you can’t use Jason Grilli anytime outside of the eighth inning, but you can warm him up and bring him in to get the final out in the ninth inning of a 7-2 game, all because the tying run is on deck and that qualifies as a save situation.
The Pirates Should…
…never bunt again. Maybe in those rare cases where the team is tied or down by one run in the final inning, and they’re only playing for one run. But take the situation Thursday night in the 7th inning. Jose Tabata starts off with a pinch hit single. Starling Marte then bunts him over to second. That leads to the Mets bringing on a lefty with Travis Snider, Andrew McCutchen, and Garrett Jones due up. The only one who can hit lefties is McCutchen. The Pirates countered by bringing in Gaby Sanchez, which isn’t a bad move. Sanchez flew out, McCutchen was intentionally walked, and Jones strikes out swinging against the lefty. The problem here is that you took the bat out of your best hitter so far, Starling Marte. Maybe they go to a lefty no matter what. But then again maybe Marte comes up with a hit and you’ve got first and third with no outs. Either way, when you’ve got a runner on first and no outs, the run expectancy is 0.85. When you’ve got a runner on second with one out, the run expectancy is 0.6492. On average you’re less likely to score a run after the sacrifice bunt than you were after the leadoff single. And when your hottest hitter is the one doing the sacrifice bunting? Well that just makes no sense at all.
But the Pirates Will…
…continue playing small ball that flies in the face of advanced statistics. Sacrifice bunts early in the game, and with no regard to who is bunting? Check. Playing for one run on a team that is built for the big inning and the long ball? Check. Having Marte bunt in that situation in the seventh, but hit in the same situation in the ninth (where it made more sense to bunt, since it was a tie game in the 9th, and playing for one run in that situation makes more sense)? Check. This is similar to the bullpen usage. It’s not just people reacting and second guessing a situation. It’s people knowing that a situation is a bad move before it even happens, because there’s tons of data telling us so. The Pirates have an entire department that looks at advanced statistics. You would think that group would speak up about some of these things and try to find a competitive advantage. We lived with the “No Doubles” defense and the “Give Away All the Stolen Bases” pitching staff. So why not go with an unconventional approach that already has the data to support it?
I don’t know if these things are the fault of Hurdle or Huntington. You’d think the game moves would be Hurdle, for obvious reasons. The McDonald acquisition could be Hurdle. He did talk about how he received many phone calls praising the pick up. At the same time, Huntington is Hurdle’s boss. So even if Hurdle is making the calls, it falls on him. Giving away free outs, using the bullpen in the same ridiculous way that every other team uses their bullpen, and keeping useless veterans on the roster…none of these are good small market approaches. Someone is doing something wrong here. Is it the stats department? Are they not pointing out that you shouldn’t give away outs, that you should focus on leverage with bullpen usage, and that John McDonald’s OPS wouldn’t even be a great batting average? If they are pointing out these things, then who isn’t listening? Is is Hurdle? Is it Huntington? Is it both?
There are a lot of situations where you could play the “The Pirates Should” game. You can even play that game when talking about firing Hurdle, Huntington, or both. Some of those situations only boil down to a difference in opinion. But there are situations like the examples above where the Pirates are doing something that is obviously wrong, and for whatever reason they continue to take that action. These kinds of things make you question who is running the show with these decisions. And if these decisions ultimately lead to another losing season, or cost the Pirates a shot at contending, they make you question whether the people who are making these decisions should still be making the decisions.
It’s easy to say that it’s Hurdle who is making the call in all of these cases. But again, Huntington is Hurdle’s boss, and should have the power to release McDonald, order the bullpen to be used in a smart manner, and avoid playing small ball. Maybe that’s just my love for the Billy Beane approach showing, where the manager is basically a yes-man, and the GM runs the show. It certainly doesn’t seem like that’s the situation in Pittsburgh.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.
**Check out the new episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 3: What To Do With Alvarez, Gomez, and Mercer; Casey Sadler Interview.