First Pitch: The Start of a Collapse, or the End of Some Bad Luck?

The Pittsburgh Pirates lost their seventh game in a row tonight. Call off the rest of the season. The collapse is starting. And all of the other things that are said any time the Pirates go in a slump.

Of course we could also look at how the Milwaukee Brewers lost seven in a row in early July. One month later, the Brewers find themselves in first place in the NL Central, sitting 2.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, and currently riding a five game winning streak. It’s almost like a seven game losing streak in a 162 game season DOESN’T mean the end of the season.

So what does this losing streak mean?

For one, it means the Pirates are probably going to play poorly when they’re missing their MVP, their starting second baseman, and their starting shortstop at various times. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jordy Mercer were all in tonight’s game. However, Mercer missed the previous four games, McCutchen missed the first six games, and Walker missed three of the six games. Tonight was the first night the Pirates had more than one of those guys in the lineup during the recent losing streak. It was also the first time all three were in the lineup since August 1st.

As I pointed out earlier today, a big problem the Pirates have had this month has been a result of these injuries. These injuries, plus the struggles from Pedro Alvarez, mean that Michael Martinez, Brent Morel, and Jayson Nix have gotten more starts for a contender than players like Martinez, Morel, and Nix should be getting. Now that these players are returning, that will be changing. Martinez already went down to make room for McCutchen. Morel will probably go down tomorrow when Gerrit Cole returns. And Nix probably won’t be on the roster once Clint Barmes returns, which could be next week.

Going forward, the lineup is going to be looking a lot better, although it didn’t do well tonight. The bench is going to be looking a lot better as well. That leaves the pitching staff.

The Pirates have seen some struggles lately from their rotation. Prior to blowing up tonight, Francisco Liriano had been looking like an ace since the All-Star break. Charlie Morton had struggled before going on the disabled list. Vance Worley has had two bad starts in a row. Jeff Locke has had some issues lately, although his 3.94 xFIP since the All-Star break suggests he shouldn’t be this bad.

Unless you’re a top of the rotation pitcher, you’re going to see a bad stretch at some point during the season. In the Pirates’ case, they are seeing a few different bad stretches at the same time. I don’t think these struggles will last from Worley or Locke. I think if Morton comes back healthy, he will also get back on track. If Gerrit Cole returns tomorrow and looks like the 2013 Gerrit Cole, then that would be a big boost in the short-term. In the long-term, I think the rotation will be fine. I’m basing that on how they looked for two months, along with their advanced metrics, and not how they’ve looked for the last few weeks.

The bullpen has been an issue this season, and one I’ve written about several times over the last few weeks. The Pirates need middle relief help to keep games close, or get leads to their late inning guys. They added John Axford, but it’s too early to tell whether that will be enough. They did see some additional problems this week. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been two of the best relievers in baseball this year. However, they blew back-to-back games last week, which only added to the Pirates’ struggles. I don’t know if the middle of the bullpen is fixed, and I think that’s a real concern. But I’m not concerned with Melancon or Watson based on those two games.

In summary, the Pirates have had the worst month you could imagine. They’ve seen a lot of important players go down with injuries, which has put bench players in starting roles, and Quad-A players on the roster. They’ve seen several of their starting pitchers slumping at once. They’ve seen their two best relievers blowing saves. They’ve seen the middle relievers continue their struggles.

The injured players have almost all returned. I don’t think the starting pitchers will continue to slump. I don’t think Melancon and Watson will continue blowing saves. The middle relief might struggle, but the Pirates have had those struggles all year, and they were contenders up until the point when McCutchen and Walker went down. Maybe that’s not just a coincidence. In fact, it would be ridiculous to call it a coincidence that the Pirates’ slide started after these two players went down.

Fortunately, the other teams in the NL have issues, and that means that the Pirates are only two games back in the Wild Card race, even with their recent struggles and losing streak. So they’re not exactly out of the playoff race. They’ll get a boost going forward due to a healthy lineup and a better bench. I don’t think the pitching staff will continue to struggle the way it has the last few weeks. Overall, I don’t think this is the start of a collapse. I think it’s just a case where everything that could go wrong, went wrong, and did so all at the same time. The fact that the Pirates are only 7-11 this month, and have only lost seven in a row is pretty amazing when you consider those circumstances.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is on sale in the Pirates Prospects store. The paperback version has dropped to $14.99 plus shipping. We currently only have one case of books remaining, and the offer is only valid while the books are in stock. There is also an eBook version available for $9.99. The 2013 Prospect Guide is on clearance for $1.

**Prospect Watch: Big Night For Keon Broxton, Alen Hanson and Mel Rojas Homer

**Josh Bell Placed on the Altoona DL

**Pirates Losing Scout and Former Pitching Coach Mike Steele

**Andrew McCutchen Activated From the DL, Michael Martinez Optioned to AAA

**Top 10 Pitchers: Glasnow Leads Amazing Week; Heredia Might Be Turning Things Around

**The Pirates Bench Shows the Real Problem With This Team, and It’s Not the Bench

**Morning Report: A Trio of Struggling Projectable Righties

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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  • EWS34

    Let’s hope you are right, I don’t see this team being better next year.

  • bucsws2014

    The Royals are 22-5 in their last 27. Immediately prior to that they had a 9-18 stretch. They’re doing it with a staff of James Sheilds, Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie. They do have a lights out closer (Holland) and a very good pen. Their overall offense is middle of the pack. Their pitching is middle of the pack.

    There is no way anyone is convincing me the Royals have better personnel than the Bucs. Yet they have 70 wins vs the Bucs 64. What they have done is avoid injury issues to their starting pitching and key personnel.

    Sure, Bucs likely need to go 22-14 (.611) for the 2nd WC, but they just had a 15-9 (.625) stretch, so that’s certainly possible.

    • Frank Brank

      Comparing Shields, Ventura, or Duffy to anyone in the Pirates’ rotation is completely unfair to them. Duffy has out-pitched his peripherals big time but he would still be the best pitcher on the Pirates this year. Not a single starter in this rotation is as good as those guys. Oh yeah, and the Royals are the best defensive team by a good margin. Wade Davis and Greg Holland are the best back end of a bullpen in the majors, easily. They also have the highest ranked WAR player in Alex Gordon in left field.

      Yes, the Pirates can go on a run but in the end the pitching won’t be good enough as they remain the worst in the MLB by a large amount. Their highest rank starter is Charlie Morton and he’s out-pitched Kevin Correia by 0.1 WAR. Their defense is spotty and sometimes awful. They could certainly make the WC but comparing them to the Royals is comparing two complete opposite teams.

      • bucsws2014

        “the pitching won’t be good enough as they remain the worst in the MLB by a large amount”

        Really? Funny, I would’ve thought that honor belonged to Colorado or Texas. FWIW, the White Sox, Astros, D’Backs, Phillies, Jays, BoSox or Yankees would probably all be happy with Bucs pitching, too.

        Hyperbole is never a good way to win a debate.

        FWIW, looking at WAR for position players, Bucs have the advantage over KC in CF, 1b, 2b, 3b and C. KC gets the other positions, DH and total bench. Bucs WAR is slightly higher overall.

        And if you want to make the point that KC starting pitching is far better than Bucs pitching, you would then also have to concede that the Pirates’ plan to stock up on ground ball guys is wrong, as KC gives you an absurdly high % of fly balls in comparison.

        As far as the pens go, interesting to note KC has only 5 more Ks and 5 fewer walks, with a BAA that’s a mere .013 better. So it’s got to be pretty much all Davis & Holland.

        • Frank Brank

          The variance of hitting is much higher than pitching. You win games by consistently throwing. Did you miss the part where the Pirates best starter this season is in a virtual tie with Kevin Correia in terms of value? Talk all you want about this rotation being better than this etc., etc. But the truth is that it isn’t. Charlie Morton vastly out-pitched his peripherals last year and did it again this year until his recent demise. Liriano has extreme control issues. Vance, Locke, and Volquez are fine for what they are and that’s replacement level starters, nothing more. They decided to depend on one guy who is sitting on the DL for some time and has been below average this year to his standards and our expectation.

          They largely lack the ability to strike anyone out and to say their total 3.6 pitcher WAR is better than any of those teams is crazy. It’s truly incredible that they’ve won this many games to be honest. I’m not a front office basher, either. I largely support their approach, it just didn’t work out this year. The Royals obviously aren’t as good as the stretch they are on now but to compare to complete opposite teams is asinine.

          Isn’t getting flyballs in a pitchers park sort of a good thing, too? Especially when you have three superior defenders out there like they do? I’m all for groundballs but if you can create flyballs in a pitcher’s park, does it really matter? In the end, the Royals have a 12% advantage over the Pirates (99 FIP- to 111 FIP-) and 14% advantage in ERA-. Much worse offensively? Sure, but that’s the secondary aspect of winning games.

          The Pirates proved last year you can win games by pitching and playing defense. They proved this year you can have one of, if not the top, offense in the NL and not make the playoffs when you can’t pitch. I run my own projection system on expected winning percentage based on metrics and pitching is almost twice as weighted as offense. I don’t adjust for future schedule yet but I have them as an 82 win team and FanGraphs says 83. I trust my projections and didn’t have them as anymore than an average team all season. The Royals are on pace to win almost 90 games with a terrible offense for most of the season. That should tell you all you need to know.

          • bucsws2014

            The 3.6 WAR number for Bucs pitching that you’re using is good for explaining the current record, but not projectable as most of the guys in negative figures (Grilli, Mazzaro, Wandy, Frieri, Morris) who are a combined -2.6 are no longer with the team.

            The guys still on team have a combined 6.2 WAR. That’s not good, but it’s better than 3.6.

            As far as fly ball vs ground ball pitchers, I don’t necessarily disagree with you as far as an advantage in home games. But for those 36 away games vs NL Central, that’s probably not a good strategy. However, I do agree that if you do design a team around ground balls, your IF defense needs to be above average, which the Bucs aren’t.

            • pilbobuggins

              I’ve been scracthing my head for awhile over the pirates use of ground ball pitchers without having at least above average defenders behind them, while I agree with the premise the results leave quite a bit to be desired.

          • Andrew

            What are talking about? A 0.3 to 0.4 run gap between ERA and fielding independent numbers is not vast, that likely isn’t even a standard deviation outside realm of normal variation, and Morton RA-9 and FIP WAR were
            the same last season. Replacement level is 0.0 WAR, for their careers, Worely is 2.2 RA-9 WAR per 200 innings, 2.4 FIP WAR. Locke per 200 innings 1.3 RA-9 WAR, 0.8 FIP WAR. (Volquez does suck, all of his value this season is based on BABIP.)

            Comparing the Royals to Pirates is not how to evaluate a model. Fangraph’s BaseRuns has the Pirates as .522 team year to date, Baseball Prospectus’ 3rd order winning percentage .524. I interpret that not as a miracle they won this many games but they are under-performing. The Royals .492 and .494 respectively, so they are out-performing by 7-8 games. Attempting to find causality for the variance is a fool’s errand.

            I have never seen anyone state that hitting has more variance pitching, and I have read the opposite, in that good pitching can come out of nowhere. Winning games is a product of run scoring and run prevention, these should be weighted equally.

            I agree with the idea that they lack top end pitching as the Pirate have a rotation full of 3.7-3.8 FIPs when the NL average starter is 3.81, and you cannot replay the games at this point, but I have to strongly disagree with the way you have gone about it making this point. I think the Pirates were protecting Liriano, Cole, and at mid-season Tallion to fill those roles, and Morton to be #3, injuries to all of them will wreak a rotation.

        • wkkortas

          I would not “pens” and “KC” in the same sentence. That probably still makes a few hockey fans have flashbacks.

      • leadoff

        Not talent wise, performance wise yes.

  • ClayDog

    So, now that Cutch, Walker and Mercer are back, the woeful starting pitching (of late), the woeful bullpen (most of the season) and woeful defense (all season) will improve??? And I thought it was a spotty talent issue and a lack of any moves by the FO at the trading deadline and, really, off-season, if you consider them, that hampered our chances of getting to or going deep in the playoffs. Phew!

    • Jason DeTesta

      This is an honest question so please don’t take it as trying to start an argument, you seem to be suggesting that the struggles of the team are due to the FO not making moves so what moves do you think should have been made that would have prevented the situation they are in? I would contend that outside of the bullpen issues the struggles would not have been corrected by the addition of 1 or 2 players so to correct the issues you would be talking about multiple moves that are required and more prospects lost to correct the issues. When it comes to the bullpen, again does 1 arm really improve the pen enough and who were the players available that could have improved the pen? I’m not fully backing the approach the FO has taken but in all honesty I think the issues were more out of their control or unattainable to improve.

      • ClayDog

        JD – I’m as rabid a Buccos fan as you will find. I grew up and live in New England, but have listened to or watched virtually every game since 1971, and have traveled to Pittsburgh and many other cities over the years to root them on. So, I bleed black and gold, but I am frustrated that after 20 years of futility, the FO seems content only to have a “contender” vs. a team that can win it all. The notion that this team will improve when the prospects arrive merely is selling hope to starving fans, but not likely to occur unless the FO also signs a few legitimate ML players. Step one this season would have been signing a bonafide starter in the offseason (after Burnett “retired”) and then another at the trade deadline vs. only going after reclamation projects (I.e., Volquez and Worley), which are iffy propositions. With that, Volquez, Worley, or both, could have been moved to the pen, which has been shaky all season. Also, giving up on Morris and Grilli were clearly mistakes, given what they’ve done since. I don’t claim to have had a crystal ball, and can’t say that I knew better at the time, but the Pirates FO must be judged by how their moves play, and those were awful. So, now imagine a club that had someone like Doug Fister or Scott Kazmir (each signed at reasonable prices in the offseason), plus one of Jason Hammel, John Lackey, Jeff Samardja, Jon Lester or David Price, or another quality veteran starter who might have been had, in the rotation to complement Liriano, Locke, and Cole, when he returns. (Hurdle and the FO could then decide what to do with Morton). At the same time, the pen could have shed or avoided entirely the likes of Cumpton, Pimentel, Frieri, Gomez, and Sadler in favor of Morris, Grilli, Hughes, Wilson, Volquez, Worley and Melancon. Sure, the team would have had to part with some prospects, but, name one prospect who is going to help this team significantly this year, next year or the year after, with the kind of impact and certitude that these MLers would provide? Funny things happen to sure-fire prospects… They get injured (see, e.g., Taillon and Bell) and their trajectory and/or ML timetables change, they underachieve (e.g., Tony Sanchez, Jose Tabata), they make it, but are just OK and not the ML stars they were once hyped to be (e.g., Travis Snyder, Pedro) or they achieve greatness, but only after the Pirates give up on them (e.g., Jose Bautista). The point is that the FO should lever prospects to make the ML squad better now (by trading them) or MUCH better later, by hanging onto them and making sure other key ML pieces are still around (e.g., Russell Martin, Liriano) when the arrive. Otherwise, it becomes a revolving door of mediocrity and futility. Make sense?

        • Lambo

          Fister was traded to the Nationals. He wasn’t signed. Kazmir, although he had a good year last year, was probably still seen as a reclamation type project. I would’ve been ok if they signed him, but he is making close to AJ Burnett money, for someone that had a 5 ERA 2 years ago.

          Obviously I can’t name with certainty a prospect that will be an impact in the future, but do the MLers come with certainty? The A’s have been going down, and they signed 4 of the pitchers you’ve mentioned. Hammel has done 0 in Oak. The Shark has been up and down. And they traded a major offensive piece for those players. For the Pirates to make the same trades, my guess is you’re looking at Polanco (lower ranked than Addison) and Marte. So you’d have those pitchers, with Snider and Lambo and JHay in the OF.

          Certainty is not something you can buy. You do as much research as you can, and you hope you find it. Looking at a big group of prospects, you need the success rate to be lower to find impact talent. Can I name one prospect that will impact next year? No. But out of Bell, Taillon, Sampson, Kingham, Hansen, Lambo, and even Rojas, I bet you one of them will.

        • smurph

          I have to agree with Lambo here. If you look at what Oakland gave up for those pitchers, they abandoned their past MO of building through their minor league system. At the time of the trade with the Cubs, Hammel’s numbers were very similar to Samardjia. Yet Hammel has been horrible. And if the A’s don’t win it this year, they will not have young players coming through the system to reload with. they traded most of them away. Look at what the Cubs are doing. They might be the team to beat in the NL Central in 2016.

  • jaygray007

    Going forward, they should be fine. but i can’t act like the losing streak doesn’t stink. playoff odds cut by more than half.

    Regardless, 2014 is by no means the end of a window. As long as they either bring back Martin or bring in another $13 to $15 million player to replace his earmarked pay (DK reported that they are willing to pay a fair or more than fair price for him) and at least partially fix the broken guys to be at least ALMOST what they used to be (Wilson, Alvarez are the most disappointing guys to me), the 2015 team will be fine.

    • Jared

      2015…the Bucs will have a shopping list for sure if they want to stay competitive. They MUST bring Martin back. They need another SP. They need another reliable bullpen arm (and I wouldn’t be opposed to them going the “proven closer” route just so Watson and Melancom could slot back). And they’re going to need a bench bat or two. Barmes can go…Stewart can go…if Alvarez is going to play 1B then Davis can go and we can get another utility bat. There IS work that will need to be done and the Pirates are likely to have to go beyond the $90M payroll mark to add the pieces. But we still have Walker, Mercer, McCutchen and Marte. Polanco will improve by leaps and bounds I think. But there WILL be work to do.

      • leadoff

        Last I checked they lost 7 in a row and Martin was the catcher for most of that. They can loose 7 in a row and probably 11 in a row with Martin or without Martin. There are no “Musts”, just players that play to their potential. Maybe they need to add a little better coaching, especially defensive coaches. When you lose like they are, it clearly shows that there is no one player that is a “Must”.

        • pilbobuggins

          Maybe it’s just me leadoff but I’m pretty sure hurdle is the worst bullpen manager in baseball hands down, I can’t count high enough to add up the number of times he has mistaken the pitching staff as friends who’s feeling he does not want to hurt instead of pitchers who are in trouble and costing the team. Faith is a great thing, it just don’t win you many ballgames,smart use of the pen does, apparently clint has a lot of faith, just not a lot of smarts when it comes to the pen.

      • jaygray007

        The frieri/grilli salary spot of ~$4 mil will be gone.
        wandy’s 8
        Liriano’s 8
        Martin’s 8.5
        Volquez’s 5
        Barmes’s 2
        Pedro’s or Ike’s… let’s just say 4

        That’s 35ish off the books.

        with that i’d buy…
        Martin 14
        Liriano or McCarthy 10
        Barmes 2
        and i’m sure with all of the arbitration and guaranteed contract raises to other players, they’d still have enough to bring in a nice bullpen addition in the mold of the Dotel addition a few years ago for $4 mil.

        so 40 off the books from this year’s salary of under 80 in addition to the extra 10ish that they were clearly willing to spend on either Burnett when they offered him 12…

        they have a lot of money to play with next year

  • IC Bob

    Good article Tim and I tend to agree with you. I would however not call Morel, Martinez or Nix quad A players. That doe a disservice to all the quad A players of the past.

    • leadoff

      All of which are better defensive players than Alvarez or Davis.

      • leowalter

        You forgot about Walker.

  • leadoff

    Keep thinking they hit rock bottom, but they keep showing me that the bottom is further down. I think it is easy when a team is down to see nothing good about them, their savior (Cutch) has returned, but is he the real savior? IMO, this is a team game and the Pirates as a team are playing very bad baseball, one player is not going to save them, each player starting to play up to their potential is what needs to happen, it is as simple as that. This team is badly out of sync, no pitching when they get hitting, pitching and no hitting, leads into the late innings and can’t hold them, timely errors, plays that should be made that are not. How they get into sync is the million dollar question, but blaming it on talent, bad players does not cut it, this team is loaded with good players, get out a little bit and watch the rest of the teams in baseball, they don’t have better players, they are just playing better.

    • pilbobuggins

      Exactly, the lack of fundamentals on this team is a glaring hole in everything from pitching to fielding to baserunning and hitting. When one guy has these issues you blame him, when a whole team has these issue you blame the coaching or lack of.

  • dr dng

    Thanks.
    -
    Nice article to help me to fight off my feelings that this could be a replay of the 2012 season.
    -
    One thing you did forget to mention is Alvarez being the victim of space aliens.
    (That is the only way I can explain it.)
    -
    Anyway, an awful lot of my hopes are going to be placed on tonight’s game.
    Then of course the game after that etc.
    -

  • leadoff

    Among the doom and gloom of the Pirates current situation, there are a couple of bright spots. Marte’s maturation process appears to be on track and Snyder appears to becoming the player the Pirates thought they were trading for, he could be the Brandon Moss of this team, unfortunately Polanco will go to right field and Snyder will go to the bench, only to emerge as another Moss or Bautista for some other team.

  • pilbobuggins

    While I agree with tim that a seven game losing streak is is not the end of the season, it’s the timing of it that gets me. When other teams that are contending are picking up their game with intensity and purpose, the pirates seem to be following the wise advice of clint I.e. never to high or never to low, this is sound advice right up until the playoff push kicks into high gear, then you better show some intensity and bring your a game. I don’t see either one from the pirates right now and if the pirates can’t get up for these games I hate to think what’s going to happen to them next week. I can only hope they find their fire before it’s to late.

  • Bryan Graham

    Put a fork in them, they’re done. It’s not just that they have lost 7 in a row, it’s how they lost the last 7 and “bad luck” as Tim calls it has nothing to do with it. It’s signs of a bad baseball team, making error after error and the pitchers can’t get anybody out. Actually the least of their problems was the offense when they had the likes of Martinez, Nix, and Morel in the lineup. It may not happen this year, but at the end of last season Melancon started to get hit around, was the last game the start of that for this year? Watson’s been less devastating recently which should be expected and the rest of the pen other than Hughes is just plain bad. As for the starters, does anybody really think they can get on any kind or real roll with a bunch of coin flip starters (good start or give up 6 runs) who have been more apt to give up a bunch recently. There is an old saying that says “if you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse” and after the end of last season they definitely didn’t do anything to get better and now they’re paying for it. Let the hate begin.

    • jaygray007

      Having Martinez, Nix, and Morel at the same time WAS bad luck.

      It’s bad luck to lose Cutch, Mercer, and Walker all around the same time as well as having a previously decent 3b just forget how to throw. Rotten luck, if you ask me.

      and yeah they COULD go on a run. because those coin flip starters got the team from… what was it… 8 games under to 8 games over in like 60 days earlier this season.

  • Spa City

    To lose 7 straight during a pennant race is a collapse. This shows how much the Bucs rely on Andrew McCutchen. Without him, the Bucs are a cellar-dwelling team.

  • leowalter

    Last,but not least : lets see a show of hands from all of you who accused NH of everything but treason and blasphemy for saying that
    Polanco actually had issues to work on and that he really should have stayed at AAA for a longer period of time, Maybe now you can see what he was talking about ?