First Pitch: It’s Hard For the Pirates to Win When These Five Players are Struggling

We’re almost a month into the 2014 season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are off to a rough start. They’re 10-16, the offense has been poor, and the pitching has been closer to middle of the pack than a top group this year. There are calls for Gregory Polanco to arrive on a daily basis, along with any other help the Pirates can find. Guys like Polanco would help, but the truth is that this team is seeing several of their expected top performers struggle. As long as that is happening, they’re going to continue to lose, with or without Polanco and company from Triple-A.

You can’t make much of the stats from the first month of the season. To put things in perspective, this time last year Andrew McCutchen had a .661 OPS, while Travis Snider had an .812 OPS. McCutchen went on to win the NL MVP award, while Snider struggled and had a horrible season. So while the five players below have struggled, that doesn’t mean they’ll play the same way the next five months. Almost all of them should bounce back and play up to expectations. But if you’re looking for a big reason why the team is currently performing so poorly, the results from these players is a good place to look.

Starling Marte – It’s not a huge difference, but right now, Marte is being out-hit by Travis Snider. He’s also one OPS point behind Jose Tabata. That should put the early part of his season in perspective. He has been getting on base at a better rate with walks, but that’s not helpful if the rest of his game — the power and the ability to hit for average — aren’t there as well. Having your leadoff hitter put up a .308 OBP and a .612 OPS isn’t going to do much for the offense.

Pedro Alvarez – Even if the Pirates had someone setting the table, they aren’t getting a lot of production from the middle of the lineup. Pedro Alvarez had a hot start, but has since cooled, and has a .667 OPS in 93 at-bats. Alvarez, Marte, and most of the number two spot candidates (Snider, Tabata, Russell Martin) are currently combining to give the Pirates three guys with a sub-.700 OPS in the top four spots of the order. They have no one setting the table, and even if they did, they’d have no one bringing those guys in.

Charlie Morton – He has a 4.35 ERA in 31 innings, with a few rough starts. Morton was looking like a solid middle of the rotation starter at the end of the 2013 season. If he can get back to that — and I think he can — then that would be a big boost to the team. I don’t think the offense will continue to struggle like it has, but even with a weak offense, the Pirates have shown that they can win with pitching and defense. Having Morton bouncing back would be a big help there.

Francisco Liriano – After his last start, Liriano has a 3.97 ERA in 34 innings, with a 34:14 K/BB ratio. Those aren’t bad numbers, but he’s not pitching like the ace of the staff. I’ve never bought the “every other year” theory, which points out that Liriano hasn’t put up two good years in a row. It’s correlation, but there’s no reason why Liriano wouldn’t be good two years in a row. I think he will rebound, but not having an ace for the first month of the season definitely hurts — especially when the offense has struggled.

Jason Grilli – I don’t think there were many people expecting Grilli to repeat his dominant 2013 numbers, especially the performances prior to his injury. However, I also don’t think many people were anticipating what we’ve seen so far out of the right-hander. He has blown three saves in seven attempts. He is striking out less than a batter an inning. It’s only eight innings, and he’s currently on the disabled list with an oblique injury. The hope is that his struggles in that small sample size are due to the injury. I rely on the larger sample that he has put up the last few years, but you can’t ignore the fact that he has blown the lead in three games so far this year, with two of those games ended up in losses. The Pirates are 12-14 if he converts those two saves.

Links and Notes

**Week In Review: The Injury Bug Hits the Pirates at the Major League Level

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell Has a Big Day at the Plate

**Reese McGuire Placed on the West Virginia Disabled List

**Pirates Promote Casey Sadler, Option Jared Hughes to the Minors

**Draft Prospect Watch: Updates For All the Top Prep Players In 2014 Draft Class

**Prospect Highlights: Walk-Off In Indianapolis, Gift Ngoepe Showing Improvements

**Minor League Schedule: Kingham Takes Mound For Altoona Tonight

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.

Share This Post On
  • pilbobuggins

    Poor situational hitting and lack of fundamentals can be placed at one doorstep, poor coaching.

  • Bryan Graham

    To me this is just how the Pirates are. I know thePirates offense is better than this and they will show it, but when they go into their team wide hitting slumps, they really do it right.

  • marty34156

    Liriano is pitching like Francisco Liriano. Most years Liriano is, at best, a 3.75-4 ERA type of guy that’ll rack up a ton of strikeouts. However, Frankie, like every other pitcher, will have those couple top notch years. Last year being one (also see 2006 and 2010). There is no problem with having a LHP that’ll give you 200 innings, around 200 Ks, and an ERA in the 3.75-4 range. Problem is, the Pirates need him to be that dominant ace. Especially with no Jameson Taillon coming in June, and Charlie Morton struggling.

    • emjayinTN

      marty: Both Liriano and Morton have had the “every other year” blues, which is hard to understand, but the stats do not lie. I thought this being a contract year for Liriano would be so much of an incentive that he would break that trend. Morton is pitching well, but seems to have that one inning jump up and kill him and the team. Could it be a simple matter of losing concentration every so often? And, any listing of Pirate players not performing would be incomplete without attention to our SS combo of Mercer and Barmes at the plate – pitiful.

      With regard to Polanco, I think Tabata and Snider are playing well in RF and have both contributed some clutch hits. Both are hitting around .260 with good numbers for RBI’s and good W/K numbers. I guess if we expect Polanco to come in and bat .300+ and save our season, we could make a case for his early promotion, but I hope we are not thinking Superstar right out of the box. We have one of them in CF and it took him a few years to get his feet on the ground in the majors.

      • marty34156

        I’m not worried about Morton. Ever since he overhauled his delivery he has been a completely different pitcher. Very strong in 2011, probably dealt with a little fatigue down the stretch. 2012 started well then his last few starts, starts in which he has since said he couldn’t throw anything but fastballs due to elbow pain from the soon to happen TJ surgey, got roughed up a bit. Last year he was, next to Cole, probably the Bucs’ best pitcher from the time he debuted on. Morton will be fine.

        I agree SS is a joke, this is why all offseason I said the Bucs needed to address SS. Jordy Mercer is simply a terrible baseball player. He’s a 27 year old no glove, no bat SS. At least Barmes can field, and therefor should be playing everyday.

        There is zero reason for Polanco to be iN AAA, none. Sure Tabata and Snider haven’t been awful, but they haven’t been great either. Polanco is a huge upgrade over both defensively, and an upgrade over both offensively. I see no reason he can’t do what Cutch did when he got called up in 2009. .285 average or so. Shoot, I’d even expect Polanco to have more pop right away than Cutch. Due to the fact he’d be a lefty hitting at PNC Park, and the fact he’s a bigger stronger kid than Cutch was.

  • Matt Beam

    Marte is a good player, just not a good leadoff guy

    • emjayinTN

      He has to lower that ridiculously high K/W Ratio.

      • emjayinTN

        Sorry, my connection failed. He is highly susceptible to breaking pitches, and because he is so aggressive, guess what he is getting? He has his toes right up to the plate, so he is getting a lot of inside corner pitches also – good MLB-caliber hitters have to constantly adjust to how they are being pitched and he obviously has not had that course as yet.

  • glassers

    Marte seems lost at the plate right now . He has way to many strike outs .

  • gregenstein

    The only guys on the offense pulling their own weight are Cutch and Walker. To a lesser degree, Martin and Gaby Sanchez (when he plays). The pitching hasn’t been up to snuff either. Middle of the pack pitching combined with lousy hitting equals every Pirates team circa 1993-2011.

  • goober21

    Eventually I would love to see McCutchen become a Rickey Henderson-type leadoff guy with Marte hitting 2nd (after he practices his bunting skills for a couple of years) and Polanco in the 3 hole. Marte could be a great guy to bunt someone over and still leg it out for a single instead of automatically giving up an out.

  • R Edwards

    You need to add the new first baseman to that list, as well as Mercer.

  • smurph

    At some point in May or June, K-dro will go on one of his streaks, where he hits 6 homers in 2 /12 weeks. But the fact is, if he were on a good team he would be the 7th or 8th best hitter in the lineup. I don’t think he will ever be a guy you can build your lineup around. He is not dependable. Teams will walk Cutch, because they know K-dro is an easy way to get out of an inning. You need a SS, but in one or two years you will also need a 3B. I’ll take an all-around, above average defender who hits 15-20 HRs, hits .270 and is a tough out when the game is on the line. I would like to know what Pedro’s career numbers are with RISP in innings 6 through 9 in one-run, two-run or tied games. It has to be absolutely horrible.

    • Andrew

      Baseball Reference has clutch stats in there splits, for his career Alvarez’s OPS in Late and Close situations is 100 points lower, I think this may be due to the use of LOOGYs. He was actually good last year in these situations, but as you write he is a flawed hitter with elite power. High strike out guys will always be streaky and are never good options high in the lineup.

      • piraddict

        The Pirates should start batting Pedro 7th until he proves that he has changed his approach, and OBP results.

  • Andrew

    The Pirates pitching has not been middle of the pack, maybe the bullpen. Pirates starters are 13th in the NL in EAR (4.17), 14th in FIP (4.50), and dead last in xFIP (3.91). They seem to have morphed into the pitch to contact Twins with 6.74 K/9 14th in the NL. Wandy’s trip to the DL should help but the Pirates cannot hope to compete when Volquez is pacing your rotation.

    • marty34156

      Cole has back-to-back dominate starts. He’s starting to take off. Liriano has been better than his numbers. One bad inning did him in his first start vs St. Louis, and two bad pitches sunk him vs Milwaukee. Morton will be okay. The rotation will be okay.

      • lfhlaw

        Yup several days ago, I did the Quality starts for the month of April and there have been now 11 quality starts(starting pitchers who go 7 innings with 3 or less runs given up) which correlate well with our record. Volquez paced with 4 out of 5 (that last one being the last game 3 runs and then the 2nd HR by Peralta to make it 6-0 in the middle of 7th)
        Cole had had 1 quality start until his most recent one. while some of the Starts could’ve been quality starts, unearned runs/errors also played into those Quality starts. So it’s a combination of the team just not being completely on the same page yet. 3 components, good pitching, good defense, and an offense to score runs. Sometimes we have pitching and no offense. other times we have pitching, offense and then defense lets us down. All 3 facets have to be working to get the pirates going.

  • leadoff

    There are some obvious reasons for the Pirates losing ways this year, someone said to me the other day that the Pirates look like they just don’t care right now. I have to agree somewhat. I watch Billy Hamilton run around the bases without much effort to stop him, I watch one of the slowest players in the league (Molina) tag up from second on a fly ball to center field and make it easily to third, I watch Volquez give a good effort to keep a game close and I see a routine double play ball to third and a team that can’t complete a double play to get Volquez out of the inning with a wide throw to first, the guy running to first (Molina) again, the Pirates made him look like Jessie Owens, next thing you know they have six runs. This lack luster defense hurts when hitting is as bad as it is right now. Hurdle is supposed to be the big motivator, I don’t really see any motivation right now. Just a bunch of hitters missing pitches right down the middle of the plate and a defense without any hustle.

    • smurph

      Hard to argue, leadoff. When I saw the team leader jog in on a basehit to one of the fastest players in ML history, I knew it would be an easy double. This just shows a lack of sharpness and intensity.

  • pilbobuggins

    To sum up all these posts I reiterate this, bad fundamentals and lack of hustle equal bad baseball. Bad baseball by good players equal bad coaching.

  • Stephen Stull

    Why is nobody talking about Mercer? He has been the worst hitter in the lineup so far and his offense was supposed to carry him at the position since he is average fielder. He is swinging at everything and IMO could use some time back in AAA to get it right.

    • marty34156

      Mercer sucks. Has done nothing positive this year.

      • lfhlaw

        last year we always though Mercer was stop gap and somewhat of an upgrade offensively from Barmes, but he almost looks like Barmes 2.0, although Barmes may still have a slight edge on defense.

  • leadoff

    Hurdle had a great year in Colorado and took the next year off and got fired, I wonder if history is not repeating itself? after he go fired the same team took off. There is so much “this is early stuff being said” and all it does is give a team an excuse for not winning, it is early for the teams that are beating up on the Pirates also.

  • leadoff

    If I were the Pirates I would shake this team up big time for about a week. I would send Marte and Mercer down, I would move Alvarez into the 7 hole and get him out of the 4 hole, he leads the world in my favorite stat LULOB, “Leave UM Left on Base”. Put Harrsion in the game anywhere, bring up Lambo, stick him in right field, Bring up Decker and stick him in left field. I guarantee this lineup would fight, they might not win, but present one is not winning anyway, this way a message would be sent to a lot of players. I would also try to move Snyder, they are not far away from bringing Polanco up.

    • IC Bob

      Glad your not managing. Panic is not the answer. You don’t send down your 2nd best OF in Marte. You get him back to doing what he does best. It seems to me he is trying to hard to take pitchers and now he is completely out of whack. He needs to get back to who he is and stop trying to be what everyone seems to think he should be. With guys like him he will eventually develop a better eye but right now he has no aggression at the plate. Even when he hits it he doesn’t drive the ball. He will get it going soon. As for Mercer I am not sure he is going to make it but Barmes is not the answer.

    • marty34156

      Lambo is awful and an AAAA player, Harrison is a bench guy for a reason, and Decker can’t get above the Mendoza Line at AAA. If you honestly think giving any of those three significant playing time would help you’re insane. They’re still pretty far away from moving Polanco, we won’t see him until June 10th. Because, money.

      • lfhlaw

        I don’t know if Lambo is awful, but he has a better eye than Marte at the moment. He does have alley power like Tabata most likely and has hit a ton of doubles. however, he has yet to hit a Homerun this year in comparison to last year when he was tearing the cover off of AAA Ball. He’s a useful piece, and possibly may be a good 4th OF or 1B for another team or trade bait, but awful, I wouldn’t say that yet. it’s not like he’s pulling a Jaff Decker in AAA.

    • R Edwards

      You do realize that Jaff Decker is hitting less than .200 in Indy??

  • marty34156

    This team really should sign Stephen Drew. SS is such a mess, Mercer is atrocious and won’t get much better, he’d help a lot. Calling up Polanco would, obviously, be smart too. But we won’t see him until June 10th for the same reason Drew will never be in Pittsburgh, Bob won’t open up the checkbook.