First Pitch: What Led to Last Year’s Collapse and Why This Year Is Different

The Pirates have lost four of their last six games, losing a series each to the Phillies and Cubs. That sent the team plummeting to having the best record in baseball still, even after those losses. Yet, as with any loss, the word “collapse” gets thrown around, as if losing a series is something that could only mean a collapse, rather than just something that happens to every team.

The “collapse” term gets thrown around so much that I thought I’d take a look at what actually led to the collapse last year. The losing was just the result. There were many factors that led to that losing down the stretch, and a lot of those factors don’t exist this year.

The pitching depth has already been tested this year. (Photo by: David Hague)

The pitching depth has already been tested this year. (Photo by: David Hague)

The Pitching

The pitching staff fell apart down the stretch, with the rotation suffering the most. The pitchers in the final two months of the season combined for a 4.39 ERA, compared to a 3.55 ERA in the first four months. Looking specifically at what happened:

**A.J. Burnett struggled in August, with a 5.18 ERA in five starts. He was excellent in September, with a 2.98 ERA in seven starts.

**James McDonald had a 7.52 ERA in the second half of the season.

**Jeff Karstens was injured at the end of August, then returned in a relief role in September. Jeff Locke took his place and had a 6.30 ERA down the stretch.

Burnett, McDonald, and Karstens were the best starters for the Pirates last year in the first half. McDonald completely fell apart in the second half. Burnett struggled in August, and Karstens was injured in September. When you combine all of that, you were missing two of the top first half pitchers in each month in the second half of the season.

By comparison, that would be like the Pirates losing two of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, or Jeff Locke in the final two months of the 2013 season.

Why This Year Is Different: Nothing says the Pirates won’t lose starters due to injuries. And this time last year I don’t think anyone would have expected James McDonald to completely fall apart. One difference this year is depth. The depth wasn’t tested last year, and the pitching staff fell apart when they had to turn to their depth. This year the depth has already been tested, to the extreme, and so far it has passed the test. Also, the Pirates have been using shifts much more often this year, which seems to be fueling the pitching staff and allowing a lot of pitchers to perform better than their advanced metrics.

Andrew McCutchen and The Offense

Maybe it was a result of getting hit by Aroldis Chapman, or maybe it was a coincidence, but Andrew McCutchen slumped in te final two months. He hit for a .247/.343/.419 line in 215 at-bats following the game where he was hit by Chapman. That’s compared to a .373/.433/.630 line prior to that incident.

The offense in the first four months of the season, minus McCutchen, combined for a .659 OPS. The final two months without McCutchen were a bit better, with a .672 OPS. However, that’s still not good, and since McCutchen was also slumping, that meant the entire team was hitting for a .684 OPS in those final two months.

Why This Year Is Different: This is still a problem. The offense this year without McCutchen has a .682 OPS, which is bad, but better than the first four months last year. The Pirates need to address their offensive struggles. Right field should be a priority, and it wouldn’t hurt to add platoon players at second and third to hit lefties. One good thing about this year is that it’s not just McCutchen carrying the offense. Russell Martin, Starling Marte, the first base platoon, and Pedro Alvarez have all stepped up at times.

Stolen Bases

Here are some numbers from Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry in the caught stealing department from last year. WARNING: You can’t un-see what you’re about to see.

In the first four months of the season, McKenry and Barajas threw out 8 of 94 base stealers. In the final two months they threw out 11 of 79 base stealers. The percentage went up slightly in the second half, although it was still bad. What was worse is that teams were running at will in the final two months. Opponents averaged 0.91 stolen base attempts per game in the first four months. They averaged 1.34 per game in the final two months. Even though the caught stealing rates went up slightly, they were still very low, leading to a lot of free bases.

Why This Year Is Different: Russell Martin.

The Brewers

Remember when the Pirates couldn’t beat the Brewers? That was last year. And down the stretch they played them nine times, losing eight of those games. They only played Milwaukee six times in the first four months of the season.

Why This Year Is Different: The Pirates are 9-4 against Milwaukee. On that same note, they have winning records against every team except Atlanta (3-4), the Dodgers (2-4), and the Nationals (1-2). They have a ton of games down the stretch against the Cardinals and the Reds, but they are 9-6 against those two teams this year.

Last Year vs This Year

The one red flag each year is that the offense has struggled. There is a silver lining there, that it’s not just Andrew McCutchen carrying the team this time around. But they’re going to need some sort of upgrade at the deadline. One big bat isn’t going to do it. They’d probably have more overall success with a few platoons, since not many players on this team can hit lefties. Also, that would help upgrade the bench.

There are some things that you can’t control, such as injuries. If the Pirates see two of their top starters go down or start to struggle over an extended period, that would be cause for concern. But it might be less of a concern this year due to the depth the Pirates have. They’ve already seen the rotation assaulted by injuries. They’ve seen their top two pitchers go down for extended periods, and yet others have stepped up. This is a team that has been tested on that front.

It’s also not a team that is giving away free bases anymore. Russell Martin has been a huge boost against the running game. The defense overall has been great, thanks in part to the use of shifts. I don’t see either of these changing in the second half.

The record against Milwaukee might be the biggest sign of a change. The Pirates are beating every team they play this year. The teams that do beat them aren’t destroying them like Milwaukee. There is no version of the Brewers this year where you know it’s a loss before the game even happens. That tends to be the case when you have the best record in baseball.

There are things that could happen that lead to a collapse. But just losing a few games is not a sign of a collapse. A sign of a collapse is something that causes losses, and projects for more losses in the future. Outside of the offense struggling, there was nothing in the last six games that said the first 81 games were a fluke. There was nothing in those games that suggested the team would have more problems going forward.

In short, if Pirates fans are going to scream “collapse” after every loss, then it’s going to be a long-long second half. And hopefully the Pirates will continue to have the best record in baseball while some fans are screaming doom and gloom.

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.

**Prospect Watch: Taillon Has a Good Start; JaCoby Jones Gets a Start at SS.

**Cubs Break Through in Extra Innings to Win Series.

**Tyler Glasnow Named a Breakthrough Prospect by Baseball America.

**Pirates Activate A.J. Burnett; Option Ryan Reid to Indianapolis.

**2013 15th Round Pick Max Rossiter Retires After One Game.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Lose Twice As Bats Go Cold.

**Minor League Schedule: Cumpton Back With Indianapolis Tonight.

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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  • esd4

    I don’t want to suggest that the Pirates will collapse, but I think this article is a bit too glib about the weaknesses of this team. The pitching this year has plenty of potential for collapse. The overworked, overperforming bullpen could (and probably will) regress. Locke probably will, too. Morton and Liriano, both of whom have a noteworthy history of inconsistency and implosion, could pull James McDonalds in the second half. And the depth in the rotation is no longer as good as it was, given what look to be season-ending injuries for Wandy, McPherson, Irwin, and Karstens. Again, I’m not saying the team will collapse, but if you’re looking for underlying reasons to suggest that a ton of losses are possible, the vulnerability of the pitching staff, as well as the mediocrity of the hitting, has to be a concern.

    The reality is that, just like in 2011 and 2012, the Pirates have played way over their heads in the first part of 2013. On paper, they’re a .500 team or so. And in half a season, a .500 team on paper can certainly play awful baseball. If you throw a couple key injuries into the mix, things can get ugly. We’ve certainly seen it before. The most important, and most basic, difference between this year’s team and those ones is that this one is just flat-out more talented. Plus they’ve got a bigger head start. Still, they’re not talented enough to be immune from collapse. And they are the Pirates, after all.

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

      You know what? If your doomsday scenario plays out where everyone has a bad second half, plus a few key injuries come into play, then yes, they will collapse.

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

    I’m not convinced, sorry. I have been predicting “The Collapse III” since they started playing well enough to have a collapse. I’m not an alarmist and say it’s here because they lost a couple series to below .500 teams, every team has peeks and valleys. It just looks like a carbon copy of the last 2 years to me, pitching way over their heads, way overworked bullpen, and a below average inconsistent offense. The Pirates wont do enough at the trade deadline to give any significant boost to the offense. They need upgrades at 1B, RF, and the bench at least and I just don’t believe the pitching will hold up or is as good as it has been. I very much hope they prove me wrong, but I wont believe it until I see it. I guess we will see how much management believes it by the trades they make or don’t make. If they go after scrubs like Gaby Sanchez or Snider, then you’ll know they don’t believe in the hype either.

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

      Why 1B? Gaby Sanchez has been huge this year. He has a .991 OPS against lefties. That’s his role in the platoon. They could really upgrade the offense by adding a few more guys like that for other positions.

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

        That’s all well and good, but he has 135 plate appearances vs. right handed pitchers and only 69 vs. lefties according to baseball-reference.com. He is hitting .204 against righties of which he sees almost twice as many times as he does a lefty. So explain to me how his role in the platoon is to face lefties when he only hits against them half of what he does righties? Also, Gaby Sanchez had been demoted to the minors when the Pirates picked him up. Picking up a guy like that isn’t exactly something that is going to make a team feel like management is behind them. Lastly, Gaby’s sample size against lefties this season is about 18 games worth, not exactly a huge sample size. I’m sure his lifetime OPS against lefties is probably pretty good, but not .991 good.

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

          That would be on Hurdle. No clue why Sanchez is playing vs right-handers, other than they just wanted Jones to play RF and felt Sanchez was better than the RF options at the time. That has happened a few times.

          In his career, Sanchez has an .885 OPS vs LHP.

  • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

    Offensive black holes: RF, 1st Base, 2nd Base, the bench.
    If these remain unaddressed or if the incumbents fail to upgrade their games, then the pitching staff as a whole must remain remarkable if the team will do more than treat water (sit near the McClatchy Line) for the rest of the year. I hope Tabata regains his mojo, which he displayed during his rookie year. If Jones and Sanchez continue to struggle, the Pirates will find it hard to improve their offense in any meaningful way. They are the cleanup hitters, and Jones hasn’t done much during the past two months. Walker could help by rediscovering his game.
    The offense is a problem, however. Its inability to score a lot of runs only serves to pressure the pitchers to perform at a peak level. The Pirates will not win many games when the pitching staff fails to perform.

    • maguro

      Walker is basically the same guy he’s always been, I find it strange that so many Pirate fans think he’s been stinking it up this year.

      Walker 2011: 106 wRC+
      Walker 2012: 111 wRC+
      Walker 2013: 108 wRC+

      This is who he is. He’s never going to be a superstar, but his production is still more than adequate from 2B.

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

        My argument has been that he needs a platoon partner against lefties.

    • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

      The offensive black hole at first base is putting up a .783 OPS. That would rank 13th out of 26 qualifying MLB first basemen. It’s better than some scrubs named Morneau, Trumbo, and Pujols.

      • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

        Yet mediocre is not good enough. It remains a black hole, especially since Jones has struggled for months.

  • Monkshot

    The last 3 years have have one glaring similarity. It’s the starting pitchers not logging enough innings and causing the bullpen to be over worked and eventually lose effectiveness. In 2011 we were ranked 2nd worst, in 2012 we were 10th worst and this year 2nd worst in all of baseball in Starting Pitching Innings Pitched. This needs addressed, the starters need a chance to get themselves out of trouble a little more often.

    I also feel its time to give Sanchez a chance as the back up catcher. I wish I had stats for this but it seems like teams not only run successfully when McKenry is in there, but we are significantly worse offensively.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I hope you’re right Tim, but as a Bucco follower for over 50 years (gawd that was hard to type! When the bleep did I get sooooooo old), I will not relax (or ‘unlax’) until we get to win number 82.
    .
    And, I hope # 82 comes in AUGUST!!!!!
    .
    Old Fart Foo

  • deacs

    Going 2-4 last week made me nervous but I feel better after reading this. Let’s be honest – none of us thought they’d go undefeated when they went on that streak 2 weeks ago so we shouldn’t panic when they lose a couple games they should’ve won. So while the offense makes me a little nervous the starting pitching depth is what I think we can all fall back on as fans. That and Russell Martin stopping the merry go round on the basepaths that we had last year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jarrod.ranone Jarrod Ranone

    wow I was wondering how many yinzers would jump off the bandwagon. your article is 100% correct.
    i’ll bet any amount of money that in the past decade or two or three, that every playoff team in the history of baseball at one point went 2-4 during a 6 game stretch. any takers?

  • Y2JGQ2

    I will say this: If martin or Mccutchen get injured. Or if Locke and Liriano lose their edge around the same time, the collapse would happen. As other bloggers have said, our starting pitching depth is now gone. Wandy hopefully will be back, but not necessarily. McDonald may be done, Karstens is done. Irwin and McPherson are done. That leaves our current 5 starters plus Gomez and Cumpton. Still that’s not awful- but it could be. If we get Wandy back, I think we will be fine, but that’s a big “if”.

    That being said, we are definitely better suited to avoid a disaster than last year, but maybe instead of a 40-50% chance of disaster, its a 20% chance

  • IC Bob

    I am not as doom and gloom as some. I will say that as of this time, there is not one bench player outside of Sanchez who should be on this team come August. Our weakness is in depth. Inge, Barmes and Mchenry are beyond bad. It truly becomes exposed everytime one of those guys plays.They bring poor bats as well as average or below gloves. Snider needs everyday ABs so lets send him down (if we can) and bring back Pressley. All that guy does is hit. I know their are a bunch of players out there that we can get that can do what Inge does and also hit and at this time of year probably wouldn’t cost us more then a C level prospect. Lets get it done Neal!!

  • piratemike

    Every time someone expresses their doubts about this teams staying power they are portrayed as some SCREAMING fan.
    I didn’t see any irrational fans in the post above, they explained the reasons they doubted the team can hold the course they are on.
    Just because I have strong doubts about the team as now constructed doesn’t make me a traitor or an evil person.
    I watch every game I can hoping they will win, if I didn’t have that hope I wouldn’t bother but I’ll be damned if I will leave my common sense behind when I watch this team play and I see the weakness everyday and pretend they are not there.

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

      Actually, it was this that I was referring to:

      https://twitter.com/TrendsPGH/status/354042873794142208

      The fact that the word “collapse” was trending in Pittsburgh last night after a 2-4 stretch when the team has the best record in the majors is pretty ridiculous.

      You’re right about the team having weaknesses. But every team has a weakness.

      • piratemike

        When a teams offense is ranked in most categories near the bottom it is a lot different weakness then teams like the Cards or Reds. Those teams have problems here and there but overall are well balanced.
        The Pirates offense puts the team in a position to be so out of balance as to undo all the efforts of the pitching staff.
        I’m not complaining or am I angry it is just a fact of were the Bucs are at this point in time.

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

          It would be an interesting comparison to see how exactly the Cardinals and Reds are balanced, compared to the Pirates.

          • piratemike

            I know you said exactly. I’m not a sabermetric ( I can’t even spell it ) guy but the Pirates are # 1 in pitching, # 12 in batting and 14 in fielding.
            the Cards and Reds are #3 & 4 in pitching and # 1 & 3 in batting and # 2 & 3 in fielding according to the stats on the ESPN stats page today.
            Just by looking at their rankings the Cards and Reds seem to be more balanced.

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

              Batting is a concern, but for fielding they rank tied for 4th when you use the advanced metrics. Cardinals are 28th and Reds are 11th.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    Someone who runs another Pirates website cites a noted Pirates’ center fielder as saying something along the lines of “Every season has its peaks and valleys; you just have to avoid the Grand Canyon.” The last two games are the first time the Pirates have lost two in a row since the beginning of June. After their 1-5 start, they have lost as many as three in a row only once. In their worst 10-game stretch, they went 4-6.

    The biggest difference I see is that they have multiple starting pitchers who are capable of stopping a losing streak. You feel like AJ, Liriano, Cole, and even Locke (and Wandy if he comes back) can go out there and shut down the opposition on any given day.

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

      That’s all well and good, but the offense still has to score at least 1.

  • vanderbilt

    I think the home run contest is what affected McCutchen in the second half of last year. I hope it doesn’t affect Pedro if he is in it this year!

  • https://profiles.google.com/104665323987886559641 Darrell Jones

    Queue the violins! What I don’t understand is why people can’t simply enjoy this season. The Pirates are in almost every game and are a really fun team to watch. Enjoy it!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/johan.graybow Johan Graybow

    ba obp slg ops war
    Matt Holliday .266 .350 .439 .788 1.1
    Pete Kozma .234 .281 .297 .578 -0.4
    Jon Jay .246 .326 .340 .666 0.7

  • http://www.facebook.com/johan.graybow Johan Graybow

    Zack Cozart.235 .264 .367 .631 0.0
    Todd Frazier .243 .335 .408 .744 1.5
    Xavier Paul 62 156 19 38 9 0 5 25 62 19 40 0 .244 .330 .397 .727 0.1
    Devin Mesoraco 49 153 16 38 7 0 4 19 57 19 32 0 .248 .326 .373 .698 0.4
    Ryan Hanigan 45 143 13 28 6 0 2 14 40 18 17 0 .196 .293 .280 .572 -0.2
    Derrick Robinson 60 122 10 31 6 1 0 7 39 13 33 2 .254 .331 .320 .651 -0.1
    Chris Heisey 31 91 8 18 7 0 3 9 34 4 23 2 .198 .227 .374 .600 -0.6
    Jack Hannahan 49 85 7 19 4 1 0 9 25 8 21 0 .224 .295 .294 .589 -0.3
    Cesar Izturis 34 79 3 16 4 0 0 6 20 7 7 0 .203 .267 .253 .521 -0.5

    • http://www.facebook.com/johan.graybow Johan Graybow

      Zack Cozart .235 .264 .367 .631 0.0
      Todd Frazier .243 .335 .408 .744 1.5
      Xavier Paul .244 .330 .397 .727 0.1
      Devin Mesoraco .248 .326 .373 .698 0.4
      Ryan Hanigan .196 .293 .280 .572 -0.2
      Derrick Robinson .254 .331 .320 .651 -0.1
      Chris Heisey .198 .227 .374 .600 -0.6
      Jack Hannahan .224 .295 .294 .589 -0.3
      Cesar Izturis .203 .267 .253 .521 -0.5

    • http://www.facebook.com/johan.graybow Johan Graybow

      every team has starters that are underachieving and every team has bench players who are not very good. People need to chill out and look at every other mlb team.

  • http://www.facebook.com/johan.graybow Johan Graybow

    Look at Atlanta they have

    Simmons .251
    Heyward .229
    J. Upton .243
    Freeman .306
    McCann .304
    Uggla .205
    B. Upton .175

  • smurph

    Good article, and opinions, good and bad are welcome. We won’t see a collapse this season. There, I said it. Will the Pirates maintain their .609 winning % and win 99 games? No. There, I said that also. If they can play .500 baseball the rest of the season, they are almost guaranteed a WC spot. I would hope they could be a few games over .500 from here on out which would have them contending for the division. Obvious reasons they won’t “collapse”:
    1. Russell Martin, throwing out close to 50% of basestealers.
    2. Much better starting rotation, depth wise and talent wise. Remember how we kept hoping Bedard and Correia would somehow pitch better than they had throughout their career? Bedard, Correia and McDonald in the rotation last year. Nuff said.

    • smurph

      Did I mention the Pirates have a pitcher (Gomez) whose ERA is close to 2.00 in his starts that is their 6th man in the rotation? Did I mention they just sent down a RP to the minors who also has about a 2.00 ERA?

    • piratemike

      smurf , The only problem I have is that when fans are treated like some kind of traitor if they express doubts about the team.
      I understand there are a lot of people who hate Nutting and his F.O. and will write things just to spite people who believe in the Pirates but to put people who care about the team but have reservations about them in the same category is wrong.

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

        I’m not saying anyone is a traitor. Personally I don’t think that way. I think if there’s reason for doubt, then express doubt. But right now I don’t see a reason to doubt the team. Going from “they went 2-4 and they have some weaknesses” to “Collapse 3.0″ is a huge leap. Every team goes 2-4 and every team has weaknesses.

  • piratemike

    Sorry Tim I wasn’t thinking about you when I wrote that.