First Pitch: Pirates’ Hitting will Become a Playoff Problem If Not Addressed

Travis Snider Pirates

Travis Snider is not fully healthy to play yet, and the Pirates need as many hitters as they can get. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

SAN FRANCISCO — If you are in my age group or are a frequent visitor of a service called The Internet, you know about “First-World Problems.”

(Hi, I’m James Santelli and this is the hackneyed start to my First Pitch column.)

Starbucks is no longer serving your favorite frappuccino? First-world problem. New printer not working? First-world problem. Want to watch episodes of Sports Night, but the show is no longer on Netflix and I don’t subscribe to Hulu Plus? That’s a first-world problem, but it’s one that should get our collective attention first.

In the same realm, the Pirates’ overall hitting at this point in the season is the equivalent of a first-world problem. This team is on pace to score about 633 runs this season, a total that would come near the results of last year and 2009 and surpass the awful teams of 2010 and 2011. As Pittsburgh teams go, the current offense is not a bad one but certainly not a good one.

But to get a better context of the Bucs’ offensive performance, we need to look at how the team compares to other National League teams in 2013. Let’s use Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) from FanGraphs, which includes baserunning and adjusts to the ballpark.

  • Catcher — 6th (of 15 teams)
  • First Base — 10th
  • Second Base — 7th
  • Third Base — 6th
  • Shortstop — 10th
  • Left Field — 4th
  • Center Field — 1st (Andrew McCutchen for MVP)
  • Right Field — 15th

If you recognize the Pirates’ weak spot is in right field, you are very attentive and smart. Did you watch Sports Night?

So yes, the Bucs are getting fair-to-middlin’ offensive production from every position (even if the infield is a bit weak) except for right field. It is no surprise that RF is also the position that has seen the most different starters in Pittsburgh’s lineup this season. From leading start-getter Travis Snider (48 games) to Russell Martin getting the call June 4 in Atlanta, eight players have formed a patchwork for the Pirates, and fans may see a 9th or 10th starter in Felix Pie or Russ Canzler at some point.

Lack of right-field production is a significant problem for a few reasons, not the least of which because it is considered a power spot for most teams. Having a poor defensive right fielder is not as much a liability as a poor defensive shortstop or catcher, so you will see plenty of teams grin and bear a slow player in the corner outfield because he can swing the bat well.

Every other National League playoff team has an elite or near-elite hitting right fielder. The Dodgers have Yasiel Puig. The Cardinals have Carlos Beltran. The Braves have Jason Heyward. The Reds have Jay Bruce. These are great players. I don’t think it is unfair to say Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are not great players. They have potential, but potential in a pennant race and five bucks still won’t bring back that Starbucks frappucino.

We are now about five weeks from the start of the MLB playoffs, which means the focus will turn from the day-to-day grind of the regular season to the fact that the Pirates have a better-than-98-percent chance to get some kind of postseason berth. We will start using terms like “division lead” and “magic number” not as abstract concepts but harsh-yet-exciting realities.

What’s the RF Solution?

Garrett Jones Pirates

Garrett Jones should stay in the Pirates’ lineup, as his bad second-half numbers are just the bad luck of batted balls being caught. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

I have been on Justin Morneau Watch (patent pending) in earnest since a week before the July 31 trade deadline. I predicted on a July podcast that the Pirates would acquire the Twins’ first baseman to push Garrett Jones to right field. The Bucs reportedly showed interest, I pointed out that Morneau remains an effective hitter against right-handed pitching, but the twain never met.

The facts then are the facts now: Morneau is still a capable, veteran first baseman with good hitting ability and the Pirates still need to alleviate their poor production from right field. Only now Morneau has cleared waivers and we still have no idea if he wants to leave Minnesota or not.

This seems like a good spot to address people’s issues with Garrett Jones, moreso than just his overall power numbers being worse in his age-32 season. His production is worse in the second half, and Jones acknowledges it. The veteran says he is “maybe getting a little pull-happy” but and has to adjust his hands to square up more pitches. Fans should not be worried, because Jones’ struggles are mostly bad luck.

His .195 batting average since the All-Star Break is mostly due to bad luck — Jones has a .219 BABIP since mid-July and is not striking out more or walking less than in the first half. Jones should not be benched, and his luck will turn.

Does the fact that the Pirates did not place a waiver claim on a player mean they have zero desire to acquire that guy? Not exactly, general manager Neal Huntington told the media earlier this week.

“It doesn’t mean you have no interest. It may mean there’s not a great fit,” Huntington said, though he was not asked specifically about Morneau. “It may mean that [a team] thought somebody else was gonna claim him, so they claimed six other guys instead of him. I don’t know… Post-waiver-deadline trades do happen on guys that have cleared.”

Huntington added that it appears fewer players have been placed on waivers this year, but the bigger issue is that teams who were not willing to move hitters on July 31 may not be more keen to deal on August 31. The Chicago White Sox were willing to trade outfielder Alex Rios to Texas this month, and the Chicago Cubs traded outfielder David DeJesus, though the Nationals’ motivations for acquiring him remain unclear.

With nine days until the August 31 waiver trade deadline, a couple teams have made moves, but it’s not as if Huntington and the Pirates are wallflowers without a dance partner.

“People seem to miss that it still takes two teams to do a deal,” Huntington told me Wednesday. “Just because a player cleared waivers doesn’t mean that his holding team is motivated to move him… There still has to be the ability to satisfy what the other team is looking to get in return.”

An Immediate Need?

Felix Pie Indianapolis

Felix Pie is on the team now, but can the Pirates even afford starting a stopgap for a full week? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The GM did add that the team is looking for opportunities, but he will not show desperation as deals may still be developing.

However, the Pirates find themselves in something of a bind. The company line over the last week has been clear: win today’s game. Transactions that added Andrew Lambo and Kris Johnson to the Pirates for separate short periods of time were done, the team says, to have the strongest group of 25 players to win that day’s contest.

But winning the games in front of them has become tougher with outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata sidelined day-to-day by injuries, leaving manager Clint Hurdle with a short bench for all intents. Felix Pie and his .325 season on-base percentage in Triple-A had to fly across the country because the Pirates had precious few other options to start in left field at Petco Park and probably for the four-game series at AT&T Park.

“We brought up guys we feel are capable of doing the job,” Hurdle said after Wednesday’s loss. “I don’t know if we could better select somebody than what we have right now.”

Even if you think Andrew Lambo is the panacea for what ails the Pirates’ right-field production (and I think the Bucs need more than Lambo’s .306 career OBP above Double-A, even if the power surge is real), Lambo can’t even return to the active roster for another six days because he was demoted for Johnson to pitch last Sunday. The Pirates will play another five games until then, trying to stay just ahead of St. Louis and Cincinnati for the prized division title.

The rosters expanding on September 1 will allow Hurdle to potentially deploy situational hitters and baserunners like Canzler and Pie, but that will not be enough to jump-start a stagnant offense.

Conclusion

Marlon Byrd Mets

If you’re sick of seeing Justin Morneau’s headshot on this site, here is a smiling Marlon Byrd.

The Pirates should not be emphasizing the importance of building a roster to “win today’s game” one minute and then starting Felix Pie as the leadoff hitter the next. Call it disingenuous or call it hypocritical if you would like, but it is mostly just a bad strategy to stay ahead in the National League Central and win playoff games.

There is bound to be a hitter out there to plug in at first base or right field. If Morneau will not leave Minnesota, call about Hunter Pence. Call about Marlon Byrd. Call about David DeJesus.

Having a starting lineup that is right around league average is not the standard the Pirates should be setting for themselves anymore. As phenomenal as the team’s run prevention has been, any day the offense flounders can sink a possible win.

One weak spot in a lineup? That’s now a first-world problem for the Pirates, because a championship contender should have no weak spots.

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Bell Hits 12th Homer; Strong Starts For Rodriguez and Creasy.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Tough Losses For Both Teams As Season Winds Down.

**Cunningham Picks Up Three Hits, But Curve Continue Losing Skid.

**Minor League Schedule: Both Glasnow and Taillon Start Tonight.

Pirates

**Gerrit Cole “Disappointed” Over Pirates’ 2-1 Loss to San Diego.

**Pirates Have Some Interest in Morneau; Yankees Not Discussing Deal.

**Pirates Call Up Felix Pie; Ryan Reid Optioned; Wandy Rodriguez to 60-Day.

**Francisco Liriano’s 2013-14 Contract Details.

**Pirates Notebook: Why Felix Pie Joined the Bucs to Lead Off.

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • Curtis

    If GJones had been in RF all season for the Bucs, where would he rank among NL RF’ers? Where would Morneau rank among NL 1B’s?

    • James Santelli

      If Morneau played every game for the Pirates at 1B, the Pirates would rank about 8th at that spot instead of 10th. Keep in mind that the ranking could be better — Morneau would likely platoon with someone.

      Let’s say for your question Jones were in a RF platoon with someone like Gaby Sanchez, of equal ability hitting lefties. The Pirates’ offense would rank about 10th at that spot instead of 15th. Also bear in mind that Jones is rated below-average defensively at both spots, but he can survive at either one.

      • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

        Just out of curiosity where is this lefty crushing right fielder and why hasn’t he been playing?

    • ginbear

      This isn’t quite the same, as I’ve only calculated this using OPS, etc …but as of today:

      First Base:
      Jones+Sanchez platoon splits = .251/.330/.437. .767 OPS ranks 6th in the NL.

      Morneau+Sanchez platoon splits = .291/.363/.499. A .862 OPS would theoretically rank 4th in the NL.

      RF vs. RHP:
      Snider/Lambo/Presley/Tabata = .240/.305/.356 (.661 OPS)
      Jones = .249/.305/.428 (.733 OPS).

      It should be noted that Tabata has a .712 OPS vs. RHP, so Jones wouldn’t be a huge upgrade. San Diego is 11th in RF with a .732 OPS; Phlly is 12th at .718. So somewhere right around there

  • brilemon

    So… Are we now ready to do the “insane” and not just “stupid” since we actually CAN win it all? Anyone wish we would have understood this earlier? Hindsight being 20/20 and all… I think NH did the right thing… But no one will win the WSring with quad A prospects.

    • James Santelli

      I don’t want to toss out the “Flags Fly Forever” argument because I certainly would not want to trade Taillon, Polanco, Hanson, etc. But I think a little bit of insanity in trading a mid-level prospect may be warranted. The Pirates have had a good bit of luck to be in first place, and they ought to capitalize.

  • johndw28

    James I really appreciate your perspective on most issues but I think it’s a bit dubious to say Garret Jones issues will be rectified by a regression in luck. Imo, he was quite good in April, bad in May and June, good in July and awful in August.

    At the All Star break( where you are saying his BABIP should take him back to) he had an OPS of .721 which to me is just not good enough considering his awful splits(horrid vs lefties).

    And on just an eyeball test- I disagree that most of his problems are just back luck. When you look at his at bats lately- forget how it ends up on box score… he just doesn’t seem to be taking quality at bats or working counts well at all. He looks lost and overmatched imho. I think they HAVE to get Morneau or somebody who has decent splits.

    • buster09

      + 1 john ! From what I have seen out of most of Jone’s ABs the last 2 weeks,it is going to take more than some good luck for him to add anything to this offense. Those 3 strikeouts yesterday against 2 right handers were the the perfect examples of his problems.

    • Cato the Elder

      I don’t know where James says that Jones BABIP will take him back to his pre-All-Star-Break numbers, but if he did, then that is a dubious claim. Not because of “eye ball tests” but because before the All Star Break Jones had a BABIP of .307 which is equally unsustainable. He should regress toward his career BABIP of .287 which is much better than his post-All-Star BABIP of .194.

      For the record Jones’ season BABIP is .286 or right in line with his career .287 BABIP.

    • James Santelli

      It’s a good critique, Johndw, but read my first sentence of that paragraph again — where I bring up his power issues. The power is not coming back at Jones’ age. But his luck in the second has been DREADFUL, and I am much more willing to let regression to the mean run its course than bench Jones against righties (which I saw many people suggest). If Jones looked lost, it would show up in the strikeout/walk numbers.

  • Cato the Elder

    Sports Night : criminally under appreciated :: The Newsroom : criminally over valued

    Justin Morneau is “The Newsroom”

  • emjayinTN

    Jones’ comment that “maybe getting a little pull happy” is about as lame of an excuse as a guy with MLB credentials could ever utter. You are getting paid $4.5 mil and somewhere in that “stash” maybe there’s a few bucks available for a DVD Recorder. Everybody on the Pirate team could use a little film study, but when you hit under the “Super Mendoza” which is < .100, it is one helluva lot more than a "maybe". He is definitely swinging where he thinks he can do the most damage, but the damn pitchers are just not cooperating! He is ordering pitches on the inner third of the plate and the pitchers are throwing on the outer third of the plate.

    You state he is unlucky because he has a .219 BABIP since the AS Break – can you explain that line of reasoning to somebody who is semi-literate about advanced metrics?

    • Cato the Elder

      Watching this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhrXb4Ch37s

      Garrett Jones career BABIP: .287 over 2475 career plate appearances

      therefore Jones’ .219 BABIP in ~ 100 plate appearance since the ASG is almost certainly bad luck.

    • Andrew

      Additionally, Jones Swing% and Contact% over the 2nd half are at/around career levels thus his walks and strikeouts are stable. His “approach” hasn’t changed. If you want to argue that he is making “bad” contact (and that there is more to his low BABIP) he has hit an absurd amount of infield fly balls on the year. Also his 2nd half batted ball data might help your argument. However, how do you separate noise from 100 PAs, with around 70 BIP.

      I feel Jones has become a scapegoat for every offense struggle (He has been bad over the last two weeks). Most of these complaints are just fatalist, there were potential upgrades (not panaceas) available and there are upgrades available now, but at what cost? I know the payoff between the coin flip and NDLS is huge, (and might even cover the $3 million Morneau is due). However, does Morneau get you there? I think the above characterization of Morneau is accurate at this time.

      • michaelbro8

        But there ALWAYS has to be someone to blame, right ? It can never be that the opposing pitcher was pretty damn good, or the other team played a good game. (I think the next time I see that stated in any Bucs blog post will be the first time). It always has to be someone’s fault. Kind of fits American society thinking in general.

    • James Santelli

      I will say emjayinTN that the “pull happy” quote was not given context, and for that I apologize. Jones is certainly not making excuses for his poor play, as the “pull happy” reason surrounded a lot of other explanations for his struggles. I wanted to focus on the interesting part of Jones’ quote, but I did leave out the context. No one knows Garrett Jones has to do better more than Garrett Jones.
      —-
      As for the BABIP, sure. Remember the concept of regression to the mean? BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a perfect example. Unless you are incredibly fast or hit the ball as hard as Andrew McCutchen, most players’ BABIP will regress to .300 over a large enough sample. BABIP is not a stat that measures talent. So when I say Jones is unlucky because of a terrible BABIP, it simply means his poor numbers are the result of 78% balls he hits finding gloves. Over the rest of the season, you should expect only 70% of those to find gloves, which will make Jones’ numbers look better.

  • https://profiles.google.com/109244063945873319632 Matthew McCarty

    If you look at production from July on (when Tabata came back) RF has not been the issue. It has been GFJs cold streak. Tabatas health is what brings in the question mark.

    Roster flexibility takes a big hit if you add Mourneau, which would dedicate 2 guys to 2 positions. He is also susceptible to cold streaks and can be pitched around. Best bet to fix the lineup without jacking up the roster would be someone that can hit left and right decently and can play 1B and another position.

    If chase headley clears, he could take over GFJs role at first and spell Pedro at 3rd, and also be a 5th OF.

    • johndw28

      Regarding Matthew’s comment on Headley I would rather have Morneau for the remainder of this year. Headley would be a nice reclamation project but hasn’t looked good to me the few times I’ve seen him play the last couple weeks(not including Pirates series).

  • https://profiles.google.com/109244063945873319632 Matthew McCarty

    And I know headley is having a down year but when you have to shed prospects, at least have them for next year. Is rather see tabata every day since him marte and cutch are the only guys that can’t be thwarted by bringing in a reliever for one batter.

    • Y2JGQ2

      The only way you’d ever see Tabata every day is if you put him in a bubble so he didn’t injure himself. I’ve never doubted Tabata’s ability, and still don’t….but he’s been injury prone since he was 18 years old. He’s literally been healthy a full year 2 times in his professional career that now spans at least 7 years. That’s the problem and it can’t be fixed by a better attitude or more film study

  • skliesen

    I agree Jones should not be benched, but only because there’s nobody else on the roster better suited to play 1st vs RH pitching. Certainly not because I think he’s overdue to start raking. He’s swinging at bad pitches and rarely squaring up meatballs.

    Bottom line is Pirates need Marte, Walker, and especially Cutch and Pedro to carry the load. Most, if not all, of the other everyday players are just not getting it done right now.

  • IC Bob

    Jone unlucky? I think he hits one out of ten balls hard if he hits it at all. I keep thinking thinking we will get somebody, anybody to help this team but with only 10 days left I think its fair to question Huntington now. Its a true disgrace to have Felix Pie starting on this team. Lets get a guy. I am getting tired of hearing what we can’t do. Its really sad watching this team slowly start giving everything they worked hard for up. A quality move at the trade line would have likely been worth two wins by now. Instead we are on the verge of third place in the division and Arizona breathing down our necks. The sad part is there is no one to blame but the front office who has just sat on its hands here. II guess we will wait until we are in third place to truly make a panic move.

    • Cato the Elder

      “A quality move at the trade line would have likely been worth two wins by now.”

      That is absurd.

      Also, you realize you are wringing your hands over losing 1 game of ground to the Cardinals and 1.5 games to the Diamond backs over the course of 3 weeks and 20 games, right? We’ve been 1 game under .500 in that span, not great, but not the end of the world. Given that there are about 40 games left in the season, I think calling Arizona whose 8.5 games behind us, breathing down our necks is a little unrealistic. And frankly, we’ve been in a 3 way race for the division all season. They haven’t given away everything they worked for. Try to enjoy it for goodness sake!

      • Y2JGQ2

        Normally Cato i’d agree with you except for one thing. We’ve had 3 extra innings games since the deadline go over 13 innings. Its actually quite possible that a position upgrade could have made the difference in scoring 1 additional run in two of those games prior to us losing. I’d have to look at the RF and IB position to see if they added any value during those games to the runs that were scored, but its actually not that absurd given the specific circumstances, but hindsight is 20/20 and serves no purpose regardless

      • IC Bob

        I am not saying their breathing now but another week of this and they will be. I also believe we are giving it away. Their is still a chance we stop that but inaction will cause us to lose our lead. Also yes I think we would have won one of those 16 inning games with any competent hitter in the line up. I also think at least one other of the other heartbreaking losses goes our way.

  • leadoff

    I think the people that are supposed to hit on this team need to hit, the Reds probably have the most complete lineup and they are in 3rd place. The Cards have a lot of problems with 3rd and SS offensively, but the guys that are supposed to hit, hit, that is the difference in the offenses. The stats are averages and do not tell you how many times the top or middle of the lineup don’t hit in crucial situations, a crucial situation could be the 2nd inning with a guy on 2nd and no outs if you lose by 1 run.

    I do not believe they can buy a quick fix or trade for it. If they get a guy like Morneau and he hits a double, who brings him in? I totally agree that there is not a clutch hitter on the 25 man roster and for that matter on the 40 man. Hague might be the closest thing to it, but they don’t like him, so that is out, they gave him his couple of bats and decided he does not hit for power. A bench player that is clutch might be a one dimensional player and the Pirates hate the thought of having one dimensional players on their 25 man roster.

    • stickyweb

      “Hague might be the closest thing to it, but they don’t like him, so that is out, they gave him his couple of bats and decided he does not hit for power.”

      In Hague’s best power season, his AB/HR was almost 34. His minor league carreer number is 50. His MLB career figure is infinity since he has no HRs in 70 PAs. Nobody needed to decide he doesn’t have power. He simply doesn’t have power.

      He may be clutch (if you believe in that sort of thing) or the closest thing the Pirates have to it, but stats to back that up would help your point.

  • johndw28

    I’d also add what is concerning to me regarding Jones is Kennedy is a pitcher he has destroyed in the past and looked completely overmatched yesterday which makes me think he is having some very large confidence issues at moment(just watch how he carries himself) And I don’t know how long we can afford to wait for him to come out of this funk.

  • piratemike

    I have a feeling when the Pirates leave AT&T Park Pence will be leaving with them.
    .
    But that feeling is just wishful thinking.

  • https://profiles.google.com/109244063945873319632 Matthew McCarty

    Slahes from July

    Mourneau July 175/266/330/596
    Jones July 261/311/493/803

    Who’s to say who will have the hot bat in September and October? Mourneau is too streaky IMO

    If Tabata had enough ABs, he would be 9th in the NL and 16th in the MLB in OPS for RF. This team hits plenty of homeruns otherwise.

    Adam Lind would have been an interesting flyer but we are past that point now I think

    • James Santelli

      That’s why we play the percentages, Matthew. Andrew McCutchen could have a bad september and Jose Tabata could have a great September. But it is not likely. Morneau is more likely, in my mind, to have a good September than Tabata or Jones.

      • Y2JGQ2

        When your mind becomes an abacus- send me a note :)

      • https://profiles.google.com/109244063945873319632 Matthew McCarty

        right but we have to play all the percentages.

        Morneau hasn’t hit well in the month of September since 2006. This is usually because he is hurt and sitting out, and because he is streaky. Now if we are to believe now is when he finally completely healthy for the first time since 2010, then by all means go for it. I don’t have enough information to make that determination.

        But if its just because he is “hot right now”, he has posted back to back months of 800+ OPS exactly once the last 3 seasons. Cutch only has 3 total months of sub 800 in that timeframe. I just don’t see how the percentages would be conclusive weighed towards Morneau over GFJ or Tabata.

        Or to summarize: if the scouting says he’s raking as a result of finally being healthy, then go for it, otherwise no need to roll the dice. The Bucs have been relying on good defense all year. Mourneau at first and GFJ in RF would be a downgrade, no?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD

    Can someone enlighten me as to how David Dejesus is an upgrade of any significance over what the Pirates already have? He has little power and has a mediocre average.

    I’ve said for weeks that Byrd was the player to get – I assume the Mets asking price was outrageous.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101720953322063229074 Spirit of79

    An excellent read, James. Well done.