Every off-season you see the same type of analysis when it comes to evaluating how a team has improved for the following season. It’s always a basic formula that subtracts the players who are leaving from the end of the season roster, and adds in only the players who project to be on the 25-man roster on Opening Day the following year. And the whole process is wrong.
The Pirates saw A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, Garrett Jones, Clint Barmes and others walk as free agents at the end of the season. Byrd, Morneau, and Jones have signed elsewhere. Barmes just re-signed with the Pirates today. Burnett is still in limbo, deciding whether he will retire.
The Pirates have added Edinson Volquez, Chris Stewart, Jaff Decker, and Miles Mikolas so far this off-season. And you can add Barmes, just so he appears on each list.
The incorrect way of evaluating things compares these two lists. Edinson Volquez isn’t as good as A.J. Burnett. The Pirates lost Byrd, Morneau, and Jones, and so far they’ve only added one player for those positions: Decker, who is a depth option. Barmes is back, but most people don’t place the proper value on defense, even though the Pirates won with defense last year. And that means the addition of Stewart is also questioned.
Overall, if you’re using the wrong method to evaluate how next year’s team looks compared to the 2013 team, then things will easily look worse. But again, that’s the wrong way to evaluate things, and I’ll show you why.
The simple solution is that the end of the year roster has nothing to do with the fact that the Pirates won 94 games, made the playoffs, won the Wild Card game, and lost in five to the Cardinals in the NLDS. The responsibility for all of that comes from the roster over the entire season. Likewise, the record during the 2014 season will be impacted by every player who appears in the majors next year. You can’t just compare the last day of one year with the first day of another year. You need to compare every day of one year with every day of another year. So let’s do that.
The Wrong Evaluation: The Pirates will bring back Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton, but they’re downgrading from A.J. Burnett to Edinson Volquez.
The Right Evaluation: The Pirates will be bringing back Liriano, Cole, and Morton. A key difference is that the 2013 Pirates only had Cole and Morton for half a season. They had Liriano for five months. They could have all three players for a full season in 2014. Even though Burnett to Volquez is a downgrade, the rotation already includes built in upgrades. I’d say the value of half a season extra of Cole (who is now adjusted to the majors), half a season extra of Morton (has his command back), and one extra month of Liriano, plus Volquez is a better situation than the 2013 pitching staff.
But what about injuries? It’s true you can’t count on six months from Liriano, Cole, and Morton. Injures do happen. But in the “Wrong Evaluation” you’re not really accounting for injuries either. The risk is the same in both evaluations. The difference is that the right method points out that you have a chance for the top three starters to pitch more than they did in 2013. Also, I’d point out that the 2013 team saw 11 starting pitchers in the first three months of the season. It would be hard for the 2014 injuries to top that early season turnover.
The Wrong Evaluation: Jeff Locke was great for the first three months of the season, then fell apart in the second half. He’s not going to do that again in 2014.
The Right Evaluation: Jeff Locke was great for the first three months of the season, then fell apart in the second half. That’s actually a pretty common thing that happens to players on every team, every year. Here are other Pirates examples of players who had a few good months that stood out from the rest of the year:
2012: James McDonald – 2.44 ERA through the end of June
2011: Paul Maholm – 3.17 ERA through the end of June
2010: Ross Ohlendorf – 3.02 ERA in the final two months
We can also go back and include the annual Pirates pitcher who had a great season, raised hope, then never put those numbers up again. The point is that every year a player outperforms expectations. It might not be Jeff Locke next year, but to act like 25 human beings will only either perform to expectations or perform below expectations is taking a very unrealistic and “glass is completely empty” view.
The Wrong Evaluation: The Pirates are downgrading in right field from Marlon Byrd.
The Right Evaluation: The Pirates only had Marlon Byrd for one month in 2013, and for the rest of that season they had the same outfielders they will have in 2014. Worst case, those outfielders have another combined horrible season, and then they call on top prospect Gregory Polanco in late June or July.
But Prospects Aren’t Guaranteed: Neither is the production of “established” major league players. Also, if you’re thinking this about Polanco, you’ve probably never seen Polanco, and you’re ignoring that he’s currently demolishing the pitching in the Dominican Winter Leagues. That pitching is largely the equivalent of Triple-A or better.
The Wrong Evaluation: The Pirates need to upgrade at first base this off-season or they won’t be as good as last year.
The Right Evaluation: The first basemen last year who were responsible for hitting right-handers were bad. The Pirates don’t have a first baseman yet, but none of the available options are worse than what Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau did in 2013, and the Pirates are almost certain to add one of the available guys by the time the off-season is over.
That’s a lot of speculation: Anyone looking at the first base market shouldn’t be worried about whether the Pirates will eventually get a first baseman.
The Wrong Evaluation: The Pirates didn’t have anyone who could hit on their bench last year, and focused too much on defense. They’re doing the same thing this year with Clint Barmes and Chris Stewart, and they won’t get lucky again.
The Right Evaluation: The Pirates had a clear plan to win using pitching, ground balls, and advanced defensive positioning and shifts. They won because of this plan, not luck. They will stay strong defensively by keeping Barmes, and they will only get stronger boosting the defense with Stewart.
Explaining Luck: Usually “luck” is a word used when you have no explanation for why an event occurred. When you do have an explanation for why an event occurred, and you just don’t want to accept that, you can’t just ignore the explanation and chalk it up to “luck”. The Pirates were largely successful last year because of their focus on defense. This can’t be called luck.
The Budget and Depth
The Wrong Evaluation: The Pirates could have used Tony Sanchez instead of Chris Stewart, one of their internal infielders instead of Barmes, Jeff Locke instead of Volquez, and used all of that money for a better player.
The Right Evaluation: The Pirates won last year despite injuries because they had amazing depth. Using Sanchez over Stewart means that you’ve got one less player between you and another 2011 catching situation. The same all over the field. Even if a player starts the year in Triple-A, he could still impact the team during the 2014 season. If you think the upgrade brought on by one player is more important than depth at three or four different positions, then you’re putting yourself at major risk of having a bad all-around team.
The 2013 Rotation: If there was a poster for the importance of “Depth”, it would include members of the 2013 rotation.
Let’s Ignore Everyone Else
The Wrong Evaluation: We should only focus on players leaving and players coming in. Everything else will be the same.
The Right Evaluation: The Pirates have a lot of young players on their team, and young players are more likely to improve year-to-year as they gain experience.
The Doomsday Prediction: Try to avoid Doomsday predictions where everyone who had a good year can’t possibly repeat, everyone who had a normal year will get worse, and everyone who had a bad year will stay the same. Every year some players outperform, some underperform, and some perform to expectations. If your scenario is “What if (list of everything going wrong)?” then you don’t have a realistic scenario.
Look at How the Team is Built
The Pirates are trending upwards. Last year they added Gerrit Cole for the second half of the season. This year they will have him for a full season and he will already be adjusted to the majors (SEE: September 2013). Right away, on paper, that’s an upgrade. And that kind of thing is going to happen every year. Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco are next in line. Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Alen Hanson are possibilities in 2015. The Pirates are now in position to keep getting better and better each year thanks to their farm system.
They also have a young team, with most of the key players under team control. If you look at the guys they lost from the 2013 team, the only player who is really significant is A.J. Burnett. Marlon Byrd was good, but was only around for a month. Everyone else is easily replaceable. Let’s assume Burnett doesn’t come back. That means you’re losing a pitcher who had a 4.0 WAR last year. But let’s also consider the full season values of Cole, Morton, and Liriano. You’re adding an extra 4.2 WAR in 2014 with those three available all year, based on their 2013 WAR. Plus you’re adding Volquez to that mix, who was worth 0.4 WAR in a horrible season last year, but should see improvements under Searage.
That’s just back of the napkin math. There are a lot of variables involved here. Those three pitchers might perform better or worse than their 2013 numbers. Burnett might perform better or worse. Injury concerns all around. But the point is that the Pirates are really only potentially losing one important player. Even with his loss, the 2014 rotation looks stronger overall, or at least equal to the 2013 rotation, which was one of the best in the league.
Bottom line is that the Pirates had a legit contending team last year. They didn’t lose much from that team, they’ll have a lot of players for a full season this year, and they’ll have upgrades that they didn’t have last year. It might be easier to just compare the rosters at the end of September and the beginning of April, but it’s also wrong. The right way to do things is to look at the big picture and compare the entire year of one season to an entire year of another. Usually the best way to evaluate two years…is to actually evaluate two years.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is finished! Well, probably by the time you’re reading this in the morning that will be true. If you’re reading this right when the article goes up at midnight, then hopefully I just have three more reports to finish. I’ll be sending in the order for the first shipment of books Friday afternoon. I can’t really guarantee Christmas delivery, since I don’t have much control over the USPS, but I’m going to try and get the books out by the end of next week, and hopefully have them arriving the 23rd or 24th. What I can say is that if you don’t have an order in tomorrow afternoon, I can’t guarantee that your order will go out with the first shipment next week. Basically, order tomorrow if you want to ensure that I have a book to ship to you next week when I get the first shipment. Place your pre-orders here.
**Pirates Agree to Terms With Clint Barmes. I like that Barmes was brought back. They’ve got a roster full of ground ball pitchers, so it only makes sense to bring back one of the best defensive shortstops to help with that system.
**How Much Bargaining Power Does James Loney Have? More thoughts on the first base market. Even though players are being taken off the market, I still think the Pirates could be in a good position to land Loney, and for less than his current asking price.
**2013 Rule 5 Draft: Wei-Chung Wang Drafted by the Brewers. A bit of a surprise that Wang was drafted, and that he was even available. Find out why in the article. We had him as the number 30 prospect before the draft.
**Winter Leagues: Big Games From Lambo and Polanco. John Dreker recaps all of the latest Winter League results.