First Pitch: The Spark the Pirates Needed to Turn Things Around?

For tonight’s article, I was planning on writing about how the Pittsburgh Pirates were pretty much out of the playoff race. Then they came back in the ninth inning with two home runs, winning it on a walk off homer by Starling Marte. The new topic? The same topic.

I’d write about how that might be the spark the Pirates need to turn things around, but that might be making too much out of one really good win, which was three outs away from being yet another poor loss. We don’t know if this will be the spark to allow the Pirates to turn things around, or if that home run and yesterday’s day at the plate for Marte is a sign that he’s turning it around.

What I know is that the Pirates need this to be the spark to turn things around. They’re currently 11-18. By most simulations of playoff odds, it will take 86 wins to make the Wild Card game this year. If the Pirates want to make 86 wins, they need to go 75-58, which is a .564 winning percentage.

That’s not impossible. The Pirates were 79-56 from the start of May until the end of the season last year, which is a .585 winning percentage. So they have won at a similar rate before. But the Pirates this year have not been playing anywhere close to the Pirates from last year.

I also believe that this team is better than they’ve shown in April. I wrote this week about how Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are bounce back candidates. Those aren’t the only two. There have been several position players and pitchers on this team who have played below expectations, and several of them have advanced metrics that say they will bounce back.

It’s not just me saying that the Pirates should have been better. Dan Szymborski, the creator of ZiPS, had a stat today showing that the Pirates have seen their playoff chances drop by 42%.

That shows that the Pirates had a much better chance of reaching the playoffs at the start of the year. They were seen as a team that had a good shot of making the playoffs. And now their odds have plummeted after a horrible month in April.

That’s pretty much the story of the season so far. The Pirates came in as a team that could contend, and they were very disappointing in April. Now they’re in a situation where they have very little room for error. They need to flip the switch. They need the opposite of their recent 4-15 stretch.

In short, tonight’s game might not be the spark they needed, but their season is at a stage where they desperately need this spark to turn things around.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Alen Hanson Heating Up, Wyatt Mathisen Hits First Homer

**Draft Prospect Watch: Trea Turner Scores Five Runs in Carlos Rodon’s Win

**Prospect Highlights: Homer From Alen Hanson, Ngoepe Continues to Hit

**Minor League Schedule: Doubleheaders For Altoona and Bradenton on Saturday

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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  • bucsws2014

    Great finish. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much emotion from Pedro as he showed when he heard the crack of Marte’s bat.

    OTOH, Justin Wilson continues to worry me. I’m not going to say the BP sucks as it’s still slightly above average. But compared to last year, it does. Last year we had three lockdown guys. This year none, although I have more faith in Watson than anyone else out there.

    • leowalter

      What you see from Wilson so far this season is exactly the reason he isn’t a starter : erratic command.

  • EWS34

    April 2014 seems like one of the worst months for this franchise. Their top ranked minor league system has a high amount of top prospects on the dl and the parent club has under performed. I hope last nights game does turn things around. They do need a couple of players to step up and play above expectations.

  • emjayinTN

    ZiPS? Playoffs? How about just winning a series? Anyway, when 4 guys we depend upon heavily all have games we think they should have every game, good things happen. Cannot express how much that game meant to the 2014 Pirates. Walker, ‘Cutch, Alvarez, Marte! I remember when Marte was at AA somebody was talking about him taking the same path to the majors as ‘Cutch – as a leadoff hitter who will gather power as he matures, and will eventually be in the middle of the order. Small sample size, but he does seem more comfortable down in the order, and taking the ball to the back wall of the bullpen in CF should be proof to him that he can hit it out to any part of PNC, not just LF. I am enthused that he might even discover the jetstream to RC; it took Andrew about 3 years to make that connection.

    I can live with what we have in the lineup if those 4 guys play up to our lofty expectations. Now all we need is some batting help from Jordy Mercer. He is struggling at the plate, but I think he is still close to the Top 10 of MLB Shortstops defensively, with only 2 errors, and that is golden to a team with GB pitchers. He hits the ball, but “at em” like the first two shots last night that resulted in DP’s. Patience. He is a solid ballplayer and hitter and he is just a little snakebit right now.

    • bucsws2014

      Gaby’s DP ball was smoked. Mercer’s were not. IMO, Mercer is not even having quality ABs – and we’ve seen a lot of quality ABs lately from pretty much everyone else, including Cole.

      • Matt Beam

        agree, his confidence is zilch at the moment

  • Matt Beam

    SS continues to be a big black hole of non-productivity

    • lfhlaw

      Yup but even with that blackhole last year, we did well. The problem is this the rest of the lineup is failing at the moment aside from maybe Cutch and Walker. Alvarez in Streaks.

      • Matt Beam

        don’t disagree but you’re not getting the same defense either

    • R Edwards

      As is first base when Davis plays….BTW….Garrett Jones with 5 HRs and .282 avg

  • sweetleb

    6 runs on 17 hits not very good, also the black hole at short stop ,no hit limited range for barmes and mercer may need to be address, rf. tabata my be the full time starter and gaby should get 75% of the ab’s at 1st.

  • leadoff

    Ready to throw in the towel with a loss! Tim, let me help you, lets start with the Pirates still have the most depth in their division. The Cards, Reds and Brewers have no depth, depth wins in the end. The Cards can’t find a 2nd basemen or a center fielder even though they traded for depth at both positions. The Reds have no minor league depth, the Brewers have no minor league depth. Last night has little to do with the scheme of the whole season. The Pirates will be around at the end of the year. It takes a while for the Pirates to make changes, moving Marte down was discussed here before the Pirates did it. Moving Mercer up has not been discussed, but should be, he will hit if they move him out of the 8 hole, very tough place to hit in, much like number 1 spot, as soon as they realize Mercer has to be moved up, this offense will click. The minor league pitchers brought up show their depth, the AAA team still has lots of depth left of it.

    • emjayinTN

      l: I disagree with the thought that #8 is a detriment. That is the position where pitchers from opposing teams will want to throw strikes for two very good reasons – with less than 2 outs they do not want to allow the pitcher to bunt the runner up, and second, if, even with 2 outs, and they can get the #8 for the 3rd out, they can start the next inning with a non-hitter (except for Gerrit Cole).

      • Y2JGQ2

        Emjay- sorry, I have to agree with leadoff here, he’s exactly right about the 8 spot. Its been proven for years. Mercer didn’t hit in that hole last year, its the most difficult place in an NL lineup to hit, no doubt.

  • Red_Skully

    We’re finally seeing the Marte that was so exciting in the Pirates minor leagues. Marte is a much better playing when he tries to hit the ball rather than trying to get on base. The Leadoff spot made Starling tentative at the plate. Out of the leadoff spot, he just attacks the pitch.

  • Josh Dz

    this could be a spark… I thought there have been 6 games where they have beaten themselves…. your one or two 7-3 streches from being right in it… the brewers are the only team above .500 in the division

  • pilbobuggins

    I said a couple of weeks ago that the pitates coaching staff needed to shake the lineup and they finally did,now if we can just get hurdle to pull pitchers out when trouble starts not after they have been shelled.

  • piraddict

    Serious question, can R. Martin actually play SS? He wanted to for Canada in the Olympics and was denied, but was that a joke or could he actually do a passable job at it? The Pirates offensive lineup would improve substantially given the performance of the shortstops on hand with R. Martin at SS and T. Sanchez catching.

    • piraddict

      Suggested Lineup until the arrival of Polanco or Pedro’s OBP increases:

      1st: SS Martin
      2nd 2B Walker
      3rd CF Cutch
      4th 1B Gabby
      5th RF Lambo
      6th LF Marte
      7th 3B Alvarez
      8th C T Sanchez

    • leowalter

      OMG ! That has to be one of the weirdest comments I have seen on any Pirate site as long as I have been watching them. Are you truly serious ?

      • piraddict

        It’s only weird if Martin can’t do it. The SS hole in the lineup is serious. They are basically hitting two pitchers out of the nine men in the lineup. Barmes has proven he can’t hit and is on the downside of his career. Mercer looks lost right now, I am not sanguine about a quick fix. How long can the Pirates wait for him to come around if they are to maintain a slim hope of making the playoffs? Is there anyone in AAA who is ready to step in? Blake Davis has a .241/.328/.426/.754 line, but this is good for him over his minor league career. He has 59 MLB at bats in 2011 and did okay. But he is not really a prospect. D’Arnaud has proven he can’t hit. The guys in AA, NGoepe and Hansen are too green. Not fair to bring them up. So other than Davis their internal options are not even slim, they are none. Steven Drew would still cost a number one pick, way too expensive of an option until after the compensation requirement expires. So let’s look at Martin: besides catcher he has played at 3B and RF for the Pirates so we know he is versatile. Can he throw? Obviously yes. Can he field grounders? Well, would anybody hesitate to play him at 3B? Does he have the lateral quickness to cover the hole and up the middle? Completely unknown to me. But obviously Martin thinks he can do it or he wouldn’t have volunteered for the Canadian position just to make a fool of himself before the whole world. What if they had said okay? Martin will have to go through rehab in the minors before he is ready to play as a catcher anyway. He could possibly rehab at SS instead or as well as C. Could he possibly be worse than Harrison who has played SS for the Pirates on rare occasions? Maybe not. So Martin at SS is really not that weird, just totally unexpected and outside the box, and also borne out of desperation. You could think trade market, but who would we give up for whom?

        Maybe Davis is an option. But at this point I would be happier with Martin (when healthy) at SS instead of Mercer/Barmes.

        • leowalter

          Ha ha…..oh man,you are killing me. I might remind you,this isn’t American Legion ball,but the Major Leagues.

          • piraddict

            So what’s your alternative Leo, continuing to play Mercer / Barmes? They’re killing the Pirates. If the Pirates May is as bad as their April their playoff chances are pretty much over. They have a narrow window to turn things around and can’t afford the luxury of doing nothing at any non performing position. I don’t know if Mercer is out of options, but traditionally players need to rediscover their swing in AAA, not in MLB. In the meantime, when the Pirates need to win now, they shouldn’t keep putting out players hitting below the Mendoza line. Maybe Harrison would work in the short term until Mercer rediscovers his stroke in the cage if not AAA. Or Martin, if he were healthy. If I recall Martin’s story correctly he was an infielder with the Dodgers before they suggested he try catcher (probably out of organizational need since Martin rose through their system so quickly). Maybe Martin’s a frustrated mental SS, always wondering if he could have been the next Derek Jeter. You don’t know he can’t play SS, you are just presuming so. Start thinking outside the box Leo. Desperate times demand desperate measures. In the meantime, if I can brighten your day with a good belly laugh, I am glad to do so.

          • piraddict

            The dimensions of the American Legion field are the same as a MLB field.

        • Josh Dz

          wow! just wow! that fact that you think Martin can play SS is beyond Laughable… it is the single most important defensive position on the field (outside of the battery) ….
          and the fact that Canada would not even remotely consider it for the WBC should tell you enough of it… My thoguhts on that was that Martin did not want to go to the WBC and that was his way out by saying he would only play SS…

          and yes he would be way worse than Harrison… and thats why Harrison is not even in the ballgame at SS… if they thought Harrison could play SS he would have gotten a shot… but he can’t an a everyday basis…

          Martin to SS… wow

          • piraddict

            I think I saw Harrison at SS yesterday, care to comment?

          • piraddict

            What proof do you have that Martin would be worse than Harrison? Your substituting your presumption for proof. I didn’t say I knew Martin could play SS. I asked the question, and suggested that it would be worthwhile to find out given the Pirates’ pathetic production at SS at the moment. Given Martin’s quickness around the plate fielding bunts, etc. I think it’s quite possible he could handle SS. But guessing isn’t proof, experimenting provides that.

        • Josh Dz

          also the fact that you are weakening both positions by moving your best Catcher to a position he can’t handle… yes T sanchez is playing well, but he can’t handle a pitching staff the way Martin can, the staff throws better to Martin… he is one of the best defensive catchers in the league….

          • Y2JGQ2

            If Tony just never had to throw a ball to first base, we’d be fine, can we set up some sort of relay? 2 errors on a strike 3 throw to first so far and another bad throw to first later in the game today on a potential rundown……..if he doesnt fix his routine throwing issues, he’s going to be DH’ing in anaheim very soon

        • Y2JGQ2

          If JayHa isn’t a shortstop, Martin sure as hell isn’t one.

          • piraddict

            You don’t know that Y2, you are just guessing.

      • Kip Winner

        You have been behaving better and I think Lonley Lib may be taking your crown.
        BTW, how do you ‘watch’ a site? Maybe you guys in Altoona roll differently than the rest of us.

  • Monsoon Harvard

    I wish that talk of Huntington possibly dealing for Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius had gone somewhere. He has a good glove and a decent enough bat, sort of like a young Jay Bell type. He hit .252 in his rookie year with a little bit of pop last season. He would be a wise investment if he is still on the table.

    • leowalter

      A lot better idea than moving Russell Martin to SS Monsoon !

      • piraddict

        Yes it is possibly a better idea, depending on what the Pirates would give up. Using Martin temporarily doesn’t cost any players or prospects.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I was really excited about this…..there will come a point where we don’t think mercer is going to turn it around. He may just need a month in indy to get his confidence back, but no ss depth means you can’t do that. We gotta do something, we can’t have Barmes out there

    • Bob Ross

      They almost have to send Mercer down. He needs to get back on track without the pressure on the major league level.