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.

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, 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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