What caused the second-half collapse in 2009?

Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Brandon Moss get to know each other - jmd41280, Flickr.com
Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Brandon Moss get to know each other - jmd41280, Flickr.com

In today’s Q&A, Dejan responded to a fan who asked if there is any hope for 2010.

KOVACEVIC: Depends on your definition of hope, Kevin.

If you seek hope in the form of a 20-win improvement to end the streak, odds are excellent your “wallowing” will continue into 2011. It seems wildly unreasonable to project a huge upgrade from a team that added so little in the offseason to a roster that played historically, mathematically some of the worst baseball seen in Pittsburgh in more than a century.

I don’t disagree with Dejan’s first point. It is highly unlikely that we will see the Pirates win 82+ games in 2010. But I would argue that the team did much to improve the weaknesses that caused the major post-trade deadline freefall.

Here are the nine position players that accumulated the most playing time after July 31.

PA wOBA
Ryan Doumit 187 0.319
Steve Pearce 139 0.291
Delwyn Young 196 0.276
Ronny Cedeno 166 0.313
Andy LaRoche 206 0.347
Lastings Milledge 235 0.324
Andrew McCutchen 263 0.394
Garrett Jones 250 0.388
Brandon Moss 149 0.276

Of the three least productive hitters from this period (Moss, Pearce and Young), none are expected to start in 2010. Young was replaced by Akinori Iwamura, while Pearce and Moss have been ousted by Jeff Clement. All three players are questionable to even make the team this year, due to the additions of Ryan Church and John Raynor. Doumit and Milledge, who were both below average after the deadline, were coming off wrist and finger injuries respectively. It is reasonable to expect some marginal improvement from them in 2010. Excluding Cedeno, the rest of the offense looks pretty solid. Shortstop still appears to be a hole.

So the Pirates upgraded much of what ailed them on offense. Let’s check out the pitching.

IP FIP
Zach Duke 66.2 4.85
Paul Maholm 66.1 4.42
Charlie Morton 58.1 4.52
Kevin Hart 53.1 5.26
Ross Ohlendorf 52.2 4.83
Daniel McCutchen 36.1 5.29

The rotation struggled after the deadline, but Duke, Maholm, Morton and Ohlendorf all pitched better beforehand. It is realistic to expect them to pitch closer to their overall season numbers than their stats from the final two months.

The bullpen was also below average after July 31, posting a 4.46 FIP in 175 innings. However, the only two relievers still with the team were very good, albeit in a small sample.

IP FIP
Joel Hanrahan 21.2 2.92
Evan Meek 6.0 2.87

After the trade deadline, the Pirates bullpen struggled, so it was revamped. The starting rotation was ineffective, but those same pitchers were significantly better earlier in the year. The majority of the most unproductive hitters were replaced with better options, and the middling ones could reasonably be expected to improve. There are reasons to believe that the Pirates will be much more successful than the team that won at a .305 clip after the trade deadline (don’t expect .500 ball, though). In addition to what I have already discussed, I think there is another reason that is being mostly overlooked.

In a 2010 Pirates preview at Bullpen Banter, Stephen Kuperman made this excellent point.

While the Iwamura pickup was a respectable one to shore up the infield, the best move that the Pirates made this offseason was simply to not rock the boat. After a ton of upheaval during the season that introduced a lot of new faces, a little stability was exactly what the Pirates needed.

Last week, former Pirate Nate McLouth made a similar observation.

“You understand what they’re doing, trying to get as much talent into the system as possible. Trading people away was the way they thought was quickest. It’s tough because you can never underestimate how much chemistry and being with people for an extended period of time really matters. It does matter. Even though baseball is kind of an individual sport inside of a team sport, that kind of stuff still matters — seeing familiar faces every day who you’ve seen for the last year or couple of years. It’s tough, knowing guys are going to be shipped out. I guess they said they’re done with that now, but it’s nice to have that familiarity and that’s something they just don’t have right now.”

McLouth has always been a guy that just seems to “get it” more than the typical player. While many Pirate fans were busy arguing over his recent comments, turning the situation into a Nate vs. the Pirates issue, I think most missed some perceptive and honest thoughts that McLouth shared. I am generally the person that scoffs at the mention of valuable team chemistry, as those discussions are generally based on external circumstances. For instance, Eric Hinske was labeled as a great teammate on the 2008 Rays (a winning team), but he was considered a poor locker room presence with the Pirates (a losing team). But I look at this situation a bit differently than I typically would. The Pirates essentially turned over the entire roster in the middle of the season. Even a talented group of players needs some time to gel.

The front office is giving this new group of players a chance to develop into a team. Fans want to see big changes now, but that approach reeks of impatience. Impatience is the last thing we need to see at this point in the rebuilding process.

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