First Pitch: Pirates Have Solved One of This Year’s Biggest Problems

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.

The Upgrades

Marlon Byrd, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer will give the Pirates a boost against lefties down the stretch. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Marlon Byrd, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer will give the Pirates a boost against lefties down the stretch. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Result

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.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Cumpton Bounces Back; Heredia Throws Five Shutout Again.

**Minor Moves: Kelly Shoppach Released; Carlos Paulino Promoted.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates2 Drop Playoff Series to Tigers.

**Minor League Schedule: West Virginia Could Clinch Playoff Spot Tonight.

Pirates

**Frank Coonelly: Pirates Plan Payroll Increase, Ticket “Price Adjustments”.

**Byrd Homers in Debut, Morton Fires a Gem as Pirates Win 7-1.

**Jeff Locke Optioned to Double-A Altoona.

**Pirates Option Tony Sanchez to Altoona

**Vic Black Is the PTBNL in the Mets Deal.

**Pirates Received $250,000 From the Mets.

**Wandy Rodriguez’s Visit to Dr. James Andrews Goes Well.

**Injury News: Progress on All Fronts.

**Pirates Notebook: What Now for Jose Tabata?

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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  • jamminjoe66

    Pedro’s no’s against lefties not to mention he’s still a little bit of a threat against lefties. While Barmas & his overrated defense which he showed again last night is never a threat. He just refuses to make a simple on balance throw. He shouldn’t even be on playoff roster. Can’t wait till next year when he’s coaching LL’s how not to play baseball fundamental’s

    • buster09

      SMFH at comments like that. You are exactly the same kind of ” fan ” who thought Morton should be released or DFA’d in July. Learn why a MLB SS has to throw on the run a lot for starters.

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

    i agree with the platoon philosophy wholeheartedly. unless the team has a bunch of playerers like Cutch, Miggy, Trout etc. platooning is a very good way to get value out of lesser talaented hitters on the team.
    Gabby, JHay(surprisingly),Mercer and now Byrd are very platoon options vs lefties.
    I know som fans might be nervous of starting these guys, especially if it’s a playoff game, but i hope the team follows through with this strategy to the end.

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

    surprised Barmes is doing Worse vs lhp, though only 50 vs rhp 200 abs could be the reason.
    don’t know enough of hague and D’Arnaud to to really say they’ll be an upgrade, whichever position they’ll play, defensively or with they’re bats.

  • emjayinTN

    When the roster expands, it is an option, but with a 25 man roster it has it’s shortcomings when 12 of the 25 are pitchers. With 8 starters and a backup Catcher, that leaves 4 guys. Right now we are short at least one SP so we have been able to add another bat – sort of a 26th player. If we have SP’s who can be sent down, that would mean another bat for the next 3 days, and then the roster expands and they can all come back. With Cole pitching today, that may be a possibility.

  • joe g.

    I wouldn’t platoon Alvarez. Walker, Sanchez, Jones yes, but Pedro is a different kind of player. He has rare game changing power and is only in his second full season in the bigs. I’d compare him to Stargell who struggled early in his career against LH’s. maybe you platoon him on occasion, but with his offensive potential, he should be given every chance to learn how to hit lefties.

    • emjayinTN

      He hit the ball the opposite way the first AB and crushed a ball up the middle that Gennet made a great play on to rob him of a base hit. I agree that platooning him should be on a different basis than Walker, Sanchez, and Jones. Back-to-back seasons of 30 HR’s and already 32 HR’s in 2013 is reason enough to keep Pedro in the lineup against all but the very toughest LHSP’s in the majors.

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

        His season totals have nothing to do with his numbers against lefties being poor.

  • axc201

    The bucs have only faced 30ish lefty starters all year. I doubt they will face many more down the stretch. However, Mr Kershaw is the obvious reason this line up is so vital. In that Buc-tober scenario el toro should either bat seventh with russel eighth or come off the bench. Coming off the bench Hurdle can practically guarantee he will face a righty out of the pen. Instead of the other manager shutting down Pedro with any odd lefty sitting down there. Sadly that option puts awful Barmes in. Ideally- Marte-mercer-cutch-Byrd-gabby-Harrison-Pedro-Martin-liriano would give us as good of a shot as anyone in the nl vs Clayton.

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

    joe g, i agree with u up to a point.
    we give him chances to learn, but NEXT Year.
    this time in the season is no time to be learning anything.
    it’s all about producing results for the POs.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      I agree; I went back and looked at Stargell’s splits, and he progressed from being an absolute disaster against lefties to being more than adequate against them by the late Sixties/early Seventies. Still, this is not the time and place to be running a developmental lab for Pedro–he’s an out-making black hole against lefties at this point in time, and the Pirates have a better chance against lefthanders if he’s sitting.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Platooning walker has worked and is a great option with the way Harrison is playing. He is proving his worth right now and I hope he keeps it up. He will prove to be very important if he does. Just throwing this out there, but if Barmes scares people at SS if Mercer plays 3B in a possible platoon for Alvarez, how about Martin at 3B with Buck catching. Just a thought? I am not totally convinced you need to platoon Pedro.

  • IC Bob

    I don’t think I platoon Alverez but I may drop him down to 6th or 7th in the order against LHs and move up Gabby. I personally think Alverez is a little to easy to pitch to even against RHs and would be better in the 5th hole against RHs as well. This give Cutch protection late in games when a team starts a RH but roles out the situational LH.

  • leadoff

    Martin moving down in the order finally happened, I did not think Clint would wake up and make this move, he surprised me.
    I like it so much better when Morton or Locke pitches than I do when Burnett pitches, when Burnett pitches he controls the game, when Morton or Locke pitches Clint controls the game. Morton loaded the bases, Clint took him out, Burnett in the same scenario Clint probably leaves Burnett in til he gives up 5 or 6. Burnett is no better at getting out of trouble when he is done than any other pitcher.
    I do not like players that control the manager, I hate it. I understand they are all individuals and a manager has to treat them differently, but situational moves trump treating players differently.

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

    You were on a roll until you got into Matt Hague or Chase d’Arnaud as a platoon partner for Pedro. Hague is a butcher at 3B, and d’Arnaud is OPSing .684 against lefties in AAA; I doubt he hits much better against ML lefties than Pedro would.

  • MaineBucs

    I completely agree with the idea of platooning Walker. Harrison added a real spark last night and Mercer also appears to be a capable 2nd baseman, as well as someone who smokes lefties.

    I am less inclined to platoon Alvarez, but I fully support the idea of moving him to the 5th or even the 6th spot in the line-up vs. lefties. While Alvarez strikes out way too frequently against lefties, he is the best power threat on the team and his power can be a quick difference maker and alter how a manager chooses to use his bullpen through-out the game.

    While it’s easy to say that I liked last night’s line-up because it scored 7 runs, regardless of the number of runs scored I would simply state that I liked last night’s line-up.

    Harrison has been hitting well of late when he starts and has the type of speed you want at the top of the line-up.

    With the way Mercer is hitting lefties, you want him to get as many as bats as possible against the lefty starter.

    McCutchen – nough said.

    Byrd – Good numbers against lefties and the 2nd most home runs of anyone on the team.

    Alvarez – I may have flipped Sanchez and Alvarez, but not a bad choice.

    Sanchez – Must start against lefties.

    Martin – Much better to see him in the 7 hole than the 4 or 5 hole.

    Tabata – Doesn’t have big splits against lefties, so I believe he was the most logical hitter to bat 8th. Although he is no longer a speedster, he does hit more singles and doubles than homers and is the type of runner a pitcher should be able to move to 2nd on a bunt.

    • Andrew

      Not to single you out MaineBucs, (other have written similar thing), but there is no potential power payoff from Alvarez against LHP (SLG .312; ISO .119 this year & .342; .119 for career.) Tim writes that in this in article and dissertation worth of others. Interesting note that Pirates have faced a lefty starter only 26 times so far, NL average is 39. Scheduling has limited the damage of Hurdle/Pirates being averse to the platoon.

      Those who are adverse to Mercer at 3rd/Barmes at SS (or Hague/d’Arnaud) consider how likely that Alvarez will be moved to 7th against LH starters versus mentioned replacements. I think it is more optimal to have a black hole in 7th/8th spot than 5th, which is not only giving away an out but allowing best hitters to be pitch around.

      It’s frustrating and self defeating to see Alvarez in the 5th spot against left-hand starters, he has collected the most PAs (120) against LHP and is worse on the year against left hand starters (small sample sizes), as opposed to relievers. This is the opposite of what is usually seen with hitter with platoon splits. There is no argument founded in fact to oppose an Alvarez platoon.

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

    What’s stopping a team from starting a LHP, and switching to a RHP after 1 inning or so?
    I’m sure it’s got to do with the “unwritten rules” or “integrity of the game” etc.
    but some might just call it gamemanship.

    Hypothetically, If we end up in a one game WC game vs the Reds, what’s stopping them from starting LHP Cingrani, our lineup now stacked with RHBs like Sanchez, JHay, and sub in RHP Latos after the first inning?

    sure that might sound like a jackass move to make, but in a ONE game WC winner moves on game, I don’t see why not.

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

      It would be pretty obvious that they were bringing Latos in. He would have to start warming up before the game to get ready to start.

      Also, who says the other team doesn’t call your bluff and just prepare for Latos? In that situation do the Reds stick with the rookie lefty in a huge playoff game, or do they just bite the bullet and bring in Latos?

      That would be the thing to do in response to that action. Either way you have the potential to be screwed by the matchup, but this way you put them in a worse position by having a rookie pitcher in the playoffs. Plus you save your bench.

      • https://profiles.google.com/110662152366084767261 Laura Day

        27 outs in the game. Not sure what the bluff is. Latos has about a 2% chance of a 9 inning complete game so relievers would be needed one way or another.

        Mike C’s suggestion should be a better approach than the standard starters goes 6-7 followed by relievers. Eventually this will be the way things are done.

  • https://profiles.google.com/106508220943703406151 Kevin Anstrom

    Teams should do exactly what you are suggesting. Starters almost never throw complete games so relievers are used every game. Empty the other teams bench if they want to match righty lefty.
    In a one game playoff the Pirates could use Wilson for the first 9 hitters then switch to AJ. Or start Cole / Gomez and put in Liriano in the 3rd.

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

    Either way, Cincy and St. Louis don’t have a scary lefty SP, so no big worries from our part.

    But Atlanta has Minor and to a lesser extent Malhom and Wood as their LHPs.
    LA has the scary Kershaw, plus Ryu and maybe Capuano?

    As the Buccos fair much better vs RHPs, I’d say I’d rank the teams I fear most if met in the POs as :
    LA
    Atlanta
    St.Louis
    Cincy

  • smurph

    I am not on the platoon Pedro bandwagon for a few reasons.
    1. He has not seen that much LH pitching, so it is a fairly small sample. His first two seasons it took him awhile to adjust to ML pitching, both LH and RH. He has gotten better, and there is a good chance he will improve against LHP, but only if he gets regular ABs against them.
    2. He still puts fear into LHP because of his power, and they will pitch him very carefully.
    3. If the opponent brings in a RH reliever, they know he will be in there, and the Pirates don’t have to waste a PHer.
    4. You can drop him to 6 or 7 in the lineup, and he is just as effective as having Barmes in there,

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

    I totally disagree with platooning Pedro and Walker every time. Against the Kershaw’s maybe. but if you make them platoon players they will never get any better. If we plan on resigning either of them it’s going to be at a cost that you don’t want to be paying a platoon player. I’m not a big stats guy. Sometimes a players presence in a lineup is more important. These guys are too talented to make them platoon players at this point in their career. . Neil Walker is struggling against lefties batting right handed for 1 reason only. limited reps Let’s take a look back at some of his numbers as a right handed batter in previous years, It’s evident that Walker is just having a down year. fans underrate Neil Walker.In 2010 he had 112 AB’s vs LHP He hit .295/.344/.464/.809 hmmmm that doesn’t sound like a platoon player In 2011 his numbers fell to a 269 Avg and fell a little more in 2012. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have a switch hitter in your order. Even if Walker could hit 250 ish as a right handed batter that would be an enormous part to the offense. Its definitely not that he can’t hit lefties its that he needs to get more reps against them. You dont see a lot of lefties but This is fixable. Im going to assume Walker is more the player he was in 2010 -2012 than he is this year. Yeah that player who hit 283 with 86 rbi,36 doubles and 12 Hrs in his first full year after a monster 1/2 a year in 2010 and on pace for 20 Hrs and 85 Rbi last year before the injury