First Pitch: Pirates Can Contend With a Below Average Offense

After every Pirates loss, the reaction is usually panic and mass hysteria. After every win, the reaction doesn’t really meet the same levels on the opposite side. If you didn’t look at the team’s record, and just looked at how people were reacting to the season and each individual game, you’d think the team was on pace to lose 100 games or more.

The Pirates are actually 18-21. Over a full season that’s a 75-87 record, which would be a three game improvement over last year. So why the doom and gloom?

Simply put, it’s because the offense has been horrible. There’s no denying that, not that I’ve seen anyone try to deny it. The Pirates rank last in the majors with a .217 average. They rank last with a .269 OBP. They rank 29th with a .342 slugging. And their .611 OPS is also last.

While the offense has been horrible, the pitching has been great. The pitching staff has a team ERA of 3.39, which ranks sixth in the majors. And it’s not like last year, where every member of the rotation is due for a massive regression. The ERAs and xFIP numbers for each starter are as follows:

Pitcher – ERA / xFIP

James McDonald – 2.68 / 3.21

Erik Bedard – 3.07 / 3.25

A.J. Burnett – 5.12 / 2.63

Charlie Morton – 4.35 / 3.53

Kevin Correia – 4.50 / 4.62

The idea behind the doom and gloom mentality seems to be that the pitching will inevitably collapse like last year, and the offense won’t see any improvements. I’d say it’s a “glass half empty” mentality that Pirates fans are used to, but it might be more accurate to describe the situation as the glass being completely empty, and shattered on the floor.

Take a look at this post I did last July when I was pointing out the eventual regression for the pitching staff. Notice the xFIP numbers, compared to the ERAs. The best of the bunch was a 3.71 xFIP, by Charlie Morton. Everyone else was in the 3.71-4.15 range, with three starters sitting in the 4.15 range. James McDonald was the exception, sitting at 4.50, although that included his first four starts, which were more a result of his limited work in Spring Training.

xFIP is the best indicator of future ERA. In short, it basically says the ERA the pitcher should have had, if you take out fielding factors, and neutralize HR/FB rates. Last year the best Pirates’ starter had a 3.71 xFIP, and only two were below a 4.15. Look at the numbers above. The lowest xFIP (not counting Kevin Correia) is Morton’s 3.53. McDonald and Bedard are due for small regressions, but should still be great pitchers. Burnett and Morton are due for huge improvements, and that does include Morton’s start tonight.

I think this tells us two things.

1. The rotation is surprisingly good. As bad as the offense has been, the rotation has been just as good.

2. Kevin Correia shouldn’t be in the rotation. Seriously, they have Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke as options. There’s no reason to keep Correia in the rotation at this point. Move him to the bullpen and save him for an emergency.

The rotation is the only reason that this team is 18-21. If the rotation had a regression, and sat around a 4.00 ERA, this team would be one of the worst in baseball. But that’s not the case. And looking at the numbers above, that doesn’t seem like it will be the case.

Then there’s the offense. It’s a reverse situation. If the Pirates improved to even a below-average offense, they could contend. That’s just a testament of how good the pitching has been. This is also encouraging. The Pirates can actually do something about this. They can seek an offensive upgrade, or they can wait for players to start hitting.

The latter doesn’t seem likely. It’s always hard to imagine players going the opposite direction of their current performance, especially when they’re playing poorly. It was only a few weeks ago that I didn’t think Rod Barajas could turn things around. Now he’s hitting for a .314/.333/.657 line in 35 at-bats in May. That’s a small sample size, but not much smaller than the 49 at-bats in April where he hit for a .143/.222/.184 line.

Pirates fans are panicking, but the Pirates shouldn’t panic. They shouldn’t cut half the roster and call up half of Indianapolis (who have combined for one run in their last six games, by the way). I think they should be thinking about some moves, but thinking about them over the next few weeks. The guys I’d be watching, and their potential replacements:

Clint Barmes – Jordy Mercer

Casey McGehee/Garrett Jones – Matt Hague

Nate McLouth – Gorkys Hernandez

Once the calendar turns to July, I think we can realistically start talking about trade options, as trades for major pieces don’t typically come before June 30th.

Fans live and die with each game, but a team has to take a more patient approach. You’ve got to give players around two months to establish themselves. I think Rod Barajas is an example of that. Everyone wanted him gone a few weeks ago. Now he’s hitting well, but is it legit? On the flip side, Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones were looking good in their respective platoon roles at the start of the year. Both have struggled in the last few weeks. Was it just a hot streak in April, or is it just a slump now? These are things the Pirates need to dedicate time to figuring out.

The offense needs help, whether that comes from players turning their seasons around, minor league call ups, or eventual trades. But the good thing is that with the quality of the pitching this year, the offense doesn’t need as much help. They don’t need to be a top offense, or even an average offense. The team is on pace for 75 wins with the number 30 ranked offense in the league. Just think how things would look if they moved up to the 20-25 range.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 6-0 to the Tigers, and were almost no-hit by Justin Verlander.

**Prospect Watch: Not much offense from Indianapolis either. Nancy Zinni has more, plus an update on Jordy Mercer.

**Kristy Robinson was in Altoona tonight, and has updates on Brandon Cumpton, Jarek Cunningham, and Mike Colla.

**The Pirates called up Gorkys Hernandez today.

**The Pitch F/X preview for the Detroit Tigers.

Analysis

  • “Kevin Correia shouldn’t be in the rotation. Seriously, they have Brad
    Lincoln, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke as options. There’s no reason to
    keep Correia in the rotation at this point. Move him to the bullpen and
    save him for an emergency.”

    Don’t forget that we have Karstens coming back.

    .

  • If the offense can improve to the point of being as bad as it was last year, the Pirates will finish at .500.

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