First Pitch: The Problem With the Pirates Offense

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had a few interesting tweets about the Pirates offense this morning.

Lately it seems like the Pirates can’t hit anything, and that’s probably because they’ve scored one run in three of the last four games. But the offense hasn’t been terrible. Cameron uses Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which measures a players runs created to the league average. The league average is 100, and every point above or below is a percentage point. Thus, the 134 for Andrew McCutchen means he is 34% above the league average, while the 75% from Travis Snider means he is 25% below the league average in runs created.

Cameron highlighted the guys who are getting a lot of playing time, although if you look beyond those guys, the bench looks pretty horrid. The Garrett Jones (104 wRC+) / Gaby Sanchez (115) platoon takes up one bench spot. Jose Tabata (135) and Travis Snider (75) take up another. From there, it’s not good.

Michael McKenry (59)

Clint Barmes (43)

Brandon Inge (22)

All three of those guys have been horrible offensively this year. McKenry has been horrible on defense, and if Tony Sanchez didn’t have some recent throwing problems, the Pirates could probably easily make a change. They might even consider that soon. Clint Barmes and Brandon Inge are basically the same player. Neither have value offensively, both have value defensively and for their leadership, and the Pirates really only need one of them on the bench. If you look at the actual wRC from Inge, the number is 2. He has been worth two runs offensively this year. By comparison, “Awful” is usually set at 40. Inge is on pace for 4 wRC this year, which means if the Pirates replaced him with an “Awful” hitter, they’d see an upgrade of 36 wRC, or about 18 over the remainder of the year.

It seems the simple solution is to upgrade the bench. But that doesn’t address a bigger issue with the Pirates offense. Take a look at the following starting lineups against left handers and right handers.

VS Right Handed Pitching

C – Russell Martin (113 wRC+)

1B – Garrett Jones (114)

2B – Neil Walker (130)

SS – Jordy Mercer (64)

3B – Pedro Alvarez (140)

LF – Starling Marte (108)

CF – Andrew McCutchen (124)

RF – Jose Tabata (168)

Jones has been struggling lately, which has brought his numbers down. Mercer is below average, although he’s an upgrade over Barmes (58 wRC+). Jose Tabata’s numbers are amazing, but come with a sample of 78 PA. By comparison, Travis Snider has an 84 wRC+ in 219 PA, so he’s not really a good option. Overall, this is a good lineup against right-handers.

Jose Tabata is one of three starters that struggles against left-handed pitching. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jose Tabata is one of three starters that struggles against left-handed pitching. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

VS Left Handed Pitching

C – Russell Martin (129 wRC+)

1B – Gaby Sanchez (177)

2B – Neil Walker (25)

SS – Jordy Mercer (225)

3B – Pedro Alvarez (76)

LF – Starling Marte (192)

CF – Andrew McCutchen (182)

RF – Jose Tabata (62)

With left-handed pitching numbers, you’re going to see some small sample sizes. For example, Jordy Mercer has just 39 PA against lefties. Most of the full season starters are around 70 PA. Martin, Sanchez, Marte, and McCutchen all have good track records against lefties, either in the majors or minors, so there’s not much reason to doubt them.

There are three key spots here where the Pirates could upgrade. Neil Walker’s numbers are lowered due to sample size, but he’s been bad in his career vs lefties, with an 80 wRC+. We’re starting to see a lot of teams turning Walker around by bringing in left-handers, so other teams are catching on to his issues.

Pedro Alvarez is right around his career totals. He’s a 76 wRC+ this year, and 74 in his career. I noted before the season that he had shown improvements in his power against lefties. Those improvements seem to have stopped.

2010: .114 ISO

2011: .132 ISO

2012: .171 ISO

2013: .159 ISO

He saw a power increase two years in a row, but that hasn’t increased again this year. No one likes the “Platoon Pedro Alvarez” talk. It is usually countered with his season numbers (.833 OPS, 23 HR). However, that production comes mostly from right-handers. Alvarez has an .884 OPS against right-handers, with 20 of his homers in 220 AB (11.0 AB/HR). He has a .629 OPS and 3 homers in 69 AB against left-handers (23.0 AB/HR). There’s some power against lefties, but he actually hits for average and gets on base against right-handers. You’re still getting almost all of his production in a platoon, and the production you’d lose would probably be replaced and improved upon by someone who could hit left-handers.

Finally there’s Jose Tabata (62 wRC+ vs LHP) and Travis Snider (-6). Neither have been good in their careers against left-handers. Unless the Pirates wanted to carry five outfielders, they would probably have to decide on one of these two. Tabata has been performing better against right-handers, although in a smaller sample. No matter who you choose, you’re probably going to need a platoon. Or just an everyday right-fielder to avoid having four platoon players on your bench.

Upgrade From the Top Down

A lot of people will point to the bench problems and say “fix the bench”. But that shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should be upgrading more important parts of the team. If you add an everyday right-fielder, then you move Jose Tabata and/or Travis Snider to the bench, which would be an upgrade over Brandon Inge and/or Clint Barmes.

If you add a platoon player, you’re upgrading the lineup when the team plays left-handers, which has more impact than upgrading a bench spot. But since Inge isn’t hitting anyone, you’d also upgrade a bench spot when the team is playing right-handers.

I know that it draws more attention when there’s a close game, and guys like Inge or McKenry are the only options available off the bench late in the game. However, a bigger impact could be made by improving the lineup against left-handers. Right now the Pirates lineup has some holes against lefties. When a team brings in a lefty reliever, then the Alvarez/Walker/Jones trio is neutralized. You can bring in Gaby Sanchez for Jones, but there’s no one to counter that move for Walker or Alvarez. And even if you’re talking about hitting against right-handers, the platoon options might not be great, but they would certainly be better than what the Pirates have now from their bench.

Links and Notes

**Download the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 12: Prospect Analysis on Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, and Tyler Glasnow. Also includes an interview with 2013 first round pick Reese McGuire.

**The newest episode of the Pirates Roundtable is up. This week we had Jim Rosati from North Side Notch, Ed Giles from In Clemente Weather, and David Manel of Bucs Dugout stopped by.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates International Signing Tracker.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Taking a Closer Look At Tyler Glasnow’s Impressive Numbers.

**Minor League Schedule: Heredia Looks To Continue Strong Start To Season.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Losing Streaks For Both Pirates Affiliates.

Pirates

**Pirates Collect Only Three Hits to Lose Fourth-Straight Game.

**Pirates Notebook: When Will the Bucs Play the Best 25?

**Pirates Place Neil Walker on Disabled List, Recall Josh Harrison.

**Pirates Had a Scout Watching Matt Garza.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • honusty

    What about Jeff Keppinger? Not a sexy deal, but a realistic one. He’s having a bad year, but historically he’s hit well versus left-handed pitching and can play 2nd, 3rd, and SS.

    • Blue Bomber

      This would make sense and couldn’t cost a whole lot. He’s produced in the past.

    • stickyweb

      Yes! A versatile veteren with good numbers historically, especially against LHP, who’s having a bad year. Oh wait, we already have one of those and he’s being blamed for the entire offense sucking.

      Seriously, I like seeing new names thrown out there as options, but one important thing about Keppinger is that he’s played almost full time (70 games & almost 300 PAs) this year and can you really count on him turning things around when his playing time is slashed?

  • https://profiles.google.com/115522615427589477970 Mike C.

    why would a 4man platoon be a bad thing?
    keep 1 rf, probably tabata. get a lefty hitting rhb rf.
    sanchez/jones at 1st.
    platoon pedro with james harrison or lambo or a trade.
    dtop inge and hopefully a descent rhb 2b/ss.
    drop fort for t sanchez.
    seems simple enough.
    sadly we’ll probably keep barmes for his Def+leadership.
    sadly the same for Fort.
    hopefully even clint has to know we gotta drop inge.
    other than the walker platoon partner, all seems doable.
    and in doing so, this upgrades the bench as well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ron.loreski Ron Loreski

      This “platoon Alvarez” stuff has to stop. I don’t care what Pedro’s OPS is againt LHP, he needs to be in the lineup EVERYDAY.

      And Lambo? You do realize he is another lefthanded batter that plays OF and 1B right?

      • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

        Ron, if they had another option against lefties at 3B he would be playing in place of Pedro. Alvarez has a .633 OPS ops career vs lefties and it is .629 this year so he is not getting better. He is also striking out in extreme amounts vs lefties. He is not good against them. It should be clear he may need to be platooned in the future if there was a better option. The future could be in a few weeks if the right deal could be made. It’s not like his defense justifies the horrible offense against lefties. Although his defense has improved this year…at least his range has.

    • Kevin_Young

      I love platoons (especially for a small market team), but i feel like you really don’t want more than 2. It can really limit your options off the bench. For instance, Gaby Sanchez ends up pinch hitting farrrr too often against RHP.

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    This is National League ball the team plays, and bench is important. Barmes proved again last night why he’s a solid player on the bench with really superior defense, not just good and a bat that is good enough to warrant the spot.
    Inge has never impressed me, here or previous job’s elsewhere hitting .200 – and although Harrison has gotten the nod most times, I was actually more impressed with DeJesus who appeared to me to have an advanced bat which when coming off the bench is what I’d want. OBTW he’s also batting around .340 right now.
    McKenry is just fine as the back-up, and that’s where he needs to stay. I don’t need Sanchez stealing playing time from Russ.
    Tabata makes a nice 4th outfielder, but we’re a year or two away from Polanco… Snyder was supposed to be that guy… so far he’s not. I’d like to see a move of Snyder along with prospects in the B range for a solid RF: Some names that come to mind are Delmon Young, Phils or Carlos Quentin, SD.
    Other than that I like this team and think they have as good a shot as anyone to get to the playoffs.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      PLEASE not Delmon Young. He’s a defensive liability and kind of a jerk. Quentin would be great, allowing for the fact that he is guaranteed to be injured 40% of the time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

    Why can’t sabre realize that slumps happen? In sabre land a good player goes 2-5 every single game, with an xbh, perfect defense, and no Ks. We can’t expect a team filled with low OBP hitters to be anything more than they are now. Yes, our bench isn’t hitting. Yes, our pitchers can’t hit. Yes, we got 20 games over 500 with these deficiencies. Yes, an upgrade would be nice.
    .
    What exactly is the news that we didn’t already know?

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.beam.16 Matt Beam

    Tim,

    The Pirates do seem to be worse than most at hitting with RISP and getting runners home when in 2nd base/no outs and 3rd base/1 out situations. I know Sabremetrics folks will start pointing to luck but I really do think there are guys who have bad mental and/or physical approaches in these situations and just can’t seem to get it done. I think everybody but Jordy has negative splits in these situations (and even he’s come back to reality in the last couple of weeks).

    There are guys who have a history of producing in these situations and don’t you think the Pirates need to acquire 1-2 of them for the stretch run?

    • Y2JGQ2

      Tim doesn’t believe in “clutch”. He’s a scientific guy and its not something which can do anything but regress back to the mean.

      HOWEVER- I fully agree that historically clutch bench players can help quite a bit. Reducing a pitching spot out of the pen and just rotating with minor league options when one of those pitchers needs a rest is perfectly fine with the depth we have don’t there between welker, reid, black, etc. Go find a Craig Wilson or Adam Hyzdu who can hit off the bench and do nothing else. Put him in that spot. I don’t care if he can play a position.

      I like Tim’s idea to get a full time outfielder, but realistically, upgrading the bench is MUCH cheaper and easier

  • Blue Bomber

    When we were playing the Phillies there was a lot of talk about Chase Utley potentially being moved. Pirates should call and find out. He could play 1st vs RHP and 2nd vs LHP. He has great career splits, and we would just have him for the rest of the year. Just a thought.

    • BostonsCommon

      I would be open to Utley, but I think I like Michael Young better, even though Utley has better numbers this year. Both would be rentals with a reasonable remaining salary, $5-7M through the end of the season. Young’s lefty splits are down a little this year, but hes been a career .831 ops guy against them. He can spell Alvarez or Walker against LHP. I would think you can also stick him at 1st, and push Jones into RF against LHP.

      • stickyweb

        I like Young better than Utley too. Utley’s numbers against LHP have been dropping the last few years and obviously what we need is somebody that can hit LHP. I like Young subbing in at 2B (and occasionally 3B) against LHP, but why sit Gaby against LHP? His OPS vs. LHP is .975 this year, career is the same as Young and he’s great defensively. The only time to play him is against LHP.

        • BostonsCommon

          That was a typo/brain fart, post should have finished with “RHP”. I was thinking, if you want to to keep Young in the lineup (not just against LHP), put him at first, and Jones in RF against RHP.

          The whole thing is, if you spend the prospects/cash to pick this guy up, you want his bat in the lineup almost everyday, even if it means moving him around the diamond. You’re basically replacing Inge with Young. And Young has the talent to actually do the things Hurdle wants to with Inge.

          • BostonsCommon

            Or put Jones on the bench and Tabata in RF, then you have a lefty with some pop of the bench late in the game. Either way, the lineup and bench significantly improve by replacing Inge with Young. I really like the versatility he would add. And he’s a vet with playoff experience, so Hurdle can have his cake and eat it too.

      • Blue Bomber

        Young would be a great addition also. Either way, if there is a fire sale in Philly, the Pirates should be involved.

  • steve19981

    Pedro isn’t that bad against lefties that he needs an everyday platoon. Now if he’s going to be given a day off, it might as well be against a lefty, but it doesn’t have to be a hard platoon.

    Walker is the real problem. He’s not Garrett Jones bad against lefties, but it’s not far off. My immediate thought after reading this piece and thinking a top down approach was to prioritize an upgrade at SS over RF. That would free Mercer into a platoon with Walker for now and cure two trouble spots. Problem is that there is nothing out there at short. You have to assume that Jimmy Rollins or Alexi Ramirez will be available just imagine the availability of true starter. Its possible that one or both wont be.

  • leadoff

    They either need a batting coach or a swift kick in the pants.
    Stats mean nothing when a guy is at the plate with someone on 2nd or 3rd with one or no outs, practically to a man the Pirate hitters and the opposing pitchers do the same thing. They pitch them away, the Pirate hitters try to knock it in the river, when doing this they reach (Reach being the optimal word) turn their wrists and hit that sweet little ground ball to the 3rd basemen or the SS or if the pitch has some mustard on it or bounces to home plate, strike out. You usually get one of the big three.
    I think what the Pirates will do going down the stretch is pretty much answered in this mini losing streak, when the chips are on the table they will choke, until they develop, they will not hit in critical moments, that goes for all of them. When you see them hitting with RISP at a fairly normal rate, that will be the improvement we need to see, that is when you can say things are looking up. Forget the stats, the Bucs are not at a place where they mean much. This team needs a little retooling offensively or it will be 4 straight years of collapsing, 3 is pretty much coming and this losing streak is not the reason for my thinking. The Pirates have to learn to cast away deadwood, they could part with 4 or 5 players off this roster in the next 5 minutes and it would only make this team better. When you turn to the bench for pinchhitting, what do you have? in reality what do you have? Not much, no one with a quality pinch hit record.
    I have heard, bring in a bat, a bat won’t help, guys like McCutchen have to hit in big situations and a bat is not going to do that, they are not pitching around him, they are pitching to him and they know where to pitch him with runners on base, if they miss he might get them, but usually they pitch to pretty safe zones with him. The next time he is up with a man in scoring position watch what they do and what he does.
    I believe McCutchen can produce in these situations if a coach or someone can get through to him to go the other way or take the walk, he does not have to do it all. He will go up the middle or the other way with no one on base.

  • MaineBucs

    Two problems with Keppinger. First, he is not producing that well this year and he is getting older. But, perhaps more importantly, he is signed to a 3 year contract for $5 mil per season. I don’t believe the Pirates should commit that type of money to a singles hitting reserve infielder.

    I continue to like Michael Young for the reasons cited by Boston Commons and stickyweb. Young could split time with Walker, give Pedro a day off, be a decent bat off the bench, and perhaps even play a game or two at first in a pinch. Further, there are no commitments to Young after this year and his cost should be considerably less than Utley.

    Hey, maybe we can convince Derek Lee to come out of retirement.

  • reddfoxx39

    First, lets be realistic. These 5 guys, if healthy, should be in the lineup everyday moving forward…..
    Cutch
    Marte
    Pedro
    Martin
    Walker. Yes Walker

    Three guys who should not be on the team August 1
    1. McKenry – easiest choice. He adds nothing, really. His bat is below replacement and his caught stealing rate is the worst in baseball. I understand Tony has some throwing issues, but it’s his time. He can work his throwing kinks out in the bullpen and with Martin. He would also provide a better late inning bench bat than anyone we have now.

    2. Inge – this has been discussed at length, but it’s just time. Every player has their time when it’s just over. I really wish it would have worked out and I understand the importance of guys like him in the clubhouse, but the team is suffering offensively with a guy who owns one of the worst splits in all of baseball. Serving as the 3rd catcher doesn’t equal enough value to warrant a roster spot. His replacement needs to be someone versatile who can play multiple infield positions like

    3. Snider – watching his late inning AB’s vs quality relievers is painful. No real power, no real speed, average contact rate, marginal glove. No more time to work out his mechanics on a playoff team. I think the Pirates know it. It was a decent gamble by Huntington, but it’s time to move on, at least from the MLB roster. Don’t know if he has options, but he’s gone. I for one would love to see Marlon Byrd on the Pirates. A veteran who is quietly having a great season in New York. It would cost nothing to get him and he would fit nicely between Pedro and Garrett. I think they keep Tabata around as OF insurance, but he’s no starter either.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

      No Walker, definitely NOT Walker

  • smurph

    I love how the baseball “experts” keep coming out with new stats to define how good or bad players are. How about this? Three of the Pirates 13 position players are batting below .210, and 5 of 13 are batting below .230. And they are 25th out of 30 teams in BA and 22nd in OPS. That is not good enough, no matter how good your pitching is.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      If you’re referring to wRC+, that’s not a new stat.

      Also, batting average is a horrible stat to use to judge overall value.

    • smurph

      In 7 of the Pirates last 9 losses they have scored either one or zero runs. In the 6 of those where they scored one run, the opponents scores were 4, 2, 3, 4, 2 and 2. Two of them were extra innings, and they still couldn’t score more than one run. Pathetic.

      • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

        They are definitely wasting some good pitching reinforcing me wanting them to get a deal for a hitter done before the deadline. I wish they would have gotten something done late June even. They know they need a hitter and I understand deals take awhile but we all know from watching the last two seasons of going into and coming out of the asb playing good baseball. With the Reds and Cards in the division a 7-13 streak could kill them and one new hitter infused into the lineup and getting hot would do wonders for the lineup. As bad as a few guys have been even someone just providing a .750 OPS agaist a lefty or daily from RF would be a huge improvement. Tabata helps but he is not enough.

        - Fred Langford