I’ve had a lot of campaigns this year when it comes to the Pirates. Jeff Locke will regress. Charlie Morton deserves to be in the rotation. Francisco Liriano is the ace of the staff. Jeanmar Gomez has The Will to Win. But the one that has held the biggest significance to the Pirates’ standings has been their inability to hit left-handers. Well, that and Jeanmar Gomez and his #TWTW. All year I’ve pointed out that the Pirates had horrible results against lefties, thanks in large part to three positions that could have benefitted from a platoon, or an everyday player.
Tonight we got a chance to see what happens when you put a lefty crushing lineup against a left-handed starter.
The Opponent: Tom Gorzelanny
He’s not the best starter, with a 4.57 ERA in 43.1 innings prior to tonight’s outing, although he does have a 3.37 xFIP, so he’s been a bit unlucky. His ERA in relief has been dominant, and he has cut down on the walks in the rotation, so there’s no reason why he should be doing worse as a starter.
Right Field: Finding an Everyday Player
The Pirates have gone through a lot of right fielders this year. Travis Snider. Jose Tabata. Alex Presley. Andrew Lambo. The problem is that none of them can hit left-handers. Well, the bigger problem is that none of them have hit anyone, with a few hot stretches from Tabata, and Lambo being excused due to a very small sample in his rookie year.
The Pirates needed someone who could hit lefties in this spot, but also someone who could just hit. That’s why the Marlon Byrd trade made so much sense. You could look at first base as a big need with Garrett Jones struggling against right-handers. But Jones is only a month removed from an OPS over .800 in July. He’s got a chance to turn things around, plus he has a platoon partner. That chance wasn’t as likely with right field.
Byrd had his homer off a right-hander tonight, but he did have two great at-bats against Gorzelanny, including a 14-pitch at-bat that might have led to Gorzelanny struggling the following inning.
Second Base: Platooning Neil Walker
Walker has struggled against lefties this year, but that’s nothing new. He has a .653 OPS against lefties in his career, spanning 525 plate appearances. I asked Walker last month whether he would ever consider batting left-handed against lefties, but he said that outcome would be worse. It makes sense, as he’s seen almost zero at-bats in his career against lefties from the left side of the plate. The Pirates don’t need to try and get Walker to bat from the other side. There is a much simpler solution: a platoon.
Tonight they started Josh Harrison at second, which is something that has happened more often as of late, but should happen every time a lefty is on the mound. Harrison had a big night, going 3-for-4, which only added to his 1.259 OPS on the season against lefties (in a small sample size). Harrison was also crushing lefties in Triple-A, with an OPS over 1.000 in 72 at-bats (another small sample size). Harrison doesn’t exactly have a large sample to work on, but Walker does. And in that large sample, Walker has shown he can’t hit lefties. So even with the small sample size, the Pirates are better off riding it out with Harrison against left-handers, rather than going with Walker, who we know can’t hit lefties.
Third Base: Moving Pedro Alvarez down in the order
The Pirates moved Alvarez down to the fifth spot tonight, putting Marlon Byrd batting cleanup. I like that order against lefties, because it provides some protection for Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen crushes lefties, but in the past teams have been able to pitch around him and attack Alvarez. Marlon Byrd also crushes left-handers, so you can’t pitch around McCutchen anymore.
Personally I would platoon Alvarez. That’s always met with a negative reaction, and people citing the fact that Alvarez has 32 home runs. When it comes to a platoon, Alvarez doesn’t have 32 home runs. Alvarez has three home runs. He has 29 against right-handers, with an .857 OPS. He has three against left-handers, with a .600 OPS. If you platoon Alvarez, you still get almost all of his production. You also improve on a big weakness in the lineup when a lefty is starting.
My lineup against lefties would include Josh Harrison at second base, Clint Barmes at shortstop, and Jordy Mercer at third. If you’re looking at that in terms of everyday production, it doesn’t look good. But if you’re looking at it simply in terms of production against lefties, it looks great. I will note that Barmes has struggled against lefties this season, so you could go with Mercer at shortstop and start someone like Matt Hague or Chase d’Arnaud in September when rosters expand, since both do well against lefties.
It’s a one game sample size, but the results tonight were great. The Pirates took an early 4-0 lead, giving plenty of support to Charlie Morton, who was dealing. The results come with the small sample size disclaimer, but I don’t even think you need a big sample size here. The theory makes sense. If you put in a bunch of guys who can hit left-handers, you’re going to do better against left-handers. It’s science.
The Pirates’ lineup against right-handers features Alvarez and Walker in high spots. Right field is also a position where you expect offensive value, and the Pirates weren’t getting that consistently against any pitcher this year. All of this was a problem against lefties. The guys you were relying on to perform were struggling, and shouldn’t have been in the lineup against lefties to begin with.
The Pirates can do some damage down the stretch against left-handed starters with their new additions. Marlon Byrd is going to be an upgrade on both sides of the game. Josh Harrison has been performing well since being added to the team full-time in late-July, and deserves the platoon role at second. And if you want to platoon Alvarez in September, there will be options to choose from. Otherwise, moving him down in the order is the right call. He’s a cleanup hitter against right-handers, but he doesn’t belong in the number four spot against lefties. Then you add Jordy Mercer, Gaby Sanchez, and Russell Martin (who hasn’t been as good this year, but has good career numbers) and you’ve got a strong group of lefty mashers.
This has been a problem with the Pirates’ offense all year, and slowly in the last month they’ve solved the problem. Don’t be surprised if future results are similar to tonight.
Links and Notes
**The newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is up: P3 Episode 18: Prospect Talk With Pirates Farm Director Larry Broadway.