When we last left the Pirates’ pinch hitters, they were bringing down the team’s offense with an astounding lack of punch. The Pirates hit .176 in pinch-hitting situations last season, with just two home runs in 227 at-bats, both second to last in the National League.
The main culprits in the Bucs’ dreadful hitting off the bench were the players that got the most pinch-hit chances: Josh Harrison (4-for-29), Jeff Clement (3-for-20) and Alex Presley (2-for-17). And don’t forget Yamaico Navarro and Nate McLouth combined to go 0-for-25 as pinch hitters in 2012. Clement, Navarro and McLouth are all gone, and Presley is unlikely to make the Major League roster to start the season.
Coming off such an unproductive season, including a .513 OPS from the pinch hitters, labeling the Pirates’ reserve players as “weak” and “not a very strong supporting cast” seems appropriate. With all the turnover that teams’ position players usually undergo, though, I looked at how the Pirates’ bench players are projected to perform offensively compared to the rest of the National League.
PECOTA: 4th out of 15
The answer? Quite well. I used two sets of projections to see how the Pirates stack up to the rest of the league. The first set was Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, and their True Average (TAv) stat that measures total hitting ability and adjusts to the hitter-friendliness of a team’s park. If you’re new to TAv, it scales to mimic batting average, so imagine the numbers below are like batting average.
(Mathematical nitty gritty: Each team’s bench players are based on the roster on MLB Depth Charts. Since better hitters usually get more at-bats than worse players off the bench, I weighted projections as such. The best players get 30% of the plate appearances, second-best 25%, third-best 20%, fourth-best 15% and worst 10%.)
- Washington Nationals – .259 TAv
- San Diego Padres – .257
- Cincinnati Reds – .256
- Pittsburgh Pirates – .255
- New York Mets – .254
- Philadelphia Phillies – .252
- Arizona Diamondbacks – .248
- Chicago Cubs – .248
- Los Angeles Dodgers – .247
- St. Louis Cardinals – .244
- Colorado Rockies – .244
- Milwaukee Brewers – .243
- San Francisco Giants – .241
- Atlanta Braves – .240
- Miami Marlins – .236
The top of the list is not a surprise. The Nationals and the Reds led the NL in pinch-hitting OPS in 2012, and the Padres were in the top half of the league despite hitting in run-suppressing Petco Park.
The biggest reason the Pirates project to rebound so well is the bat of Gaby Sanchez, who ranks second in projected TAv among expected bench players on MLB Depth Charts (behind Philadelphia rookie Darin Ruf). Despite a .216 TAv in an awful 2012 season, PECOTA projects Sanchez to collect a .273 TAv in 2013. The projection system, as often noted by Baseball Prospectus Editor-in-Chief Ben Lindbergh, “has a long memory.” As such, it projects Sanchez will perform closer to his two previous seasons with the Florida Marlins, in which he posted far better TAv results of .276 and .284.
Also in the mix for strong seasons based on PECOTA’s TAv stat are Jose Tabata (ranked 14th of 75 NL bench players) and Mike McKenry (ranked 4th of 15 NL backup catchers). Tabata is another player PECOTA expects to improve offensively from last season, based on success before the 2012 campaign and the fact that players usually improve at age 24.
The other two players MLB Depth Charts expects to open the season on the Pirates bench are infielders Josh Harrison (.242 TAv) and Brandon Inge (.234 TAv)
ZiPS: 3rd out of 15
The other projection system I used was ZiPS, developed by sabermetrician Dan Szymborski. The rankings ZiPS spit out were not drastically different, which makes sense considering both systems draw from the same few years of performances. The only alteration was using OPS+ from ZiPS, which adjusts OPS to the park and scales to 100 as league-average.
- San Diego Padres – 94.2 OPS+
- Washington Nationals – 91.2
- Pittsburgh Pirates – 91.1
- Cincinnati Reds – 91.0
- New York Mets – 87.4
- Philadelphia Phillies – 86.7
- Los Angeles Dodgers – 86.7
- Arizona Diamondbacks – 86.4
- Chicago Cubs – 85.9
- Milwaukee Brewers – 85.1
- Colorado Rockies – 84.2
- San Francisco Giants – 84.2
- St. Louis Cardinals – 83.0
- Miami Marlins – 73.1
- Atlanta Braves – 72.5
Again, the Padres and Nationals come out on top in bench performance, and the Pirates are almost dead even with the Reds. The bottom two teams do not defy expectations; the Marlins threw away every above-average offensive player not named Giancarlo Stanton or Logan Morrison, and the Braves were the only NL team more horrific than the Pirates in pinch-hitting last season with a .475 OPS.
Sanchez (an above-average 101 OPS+) and Tabata (93 OPS+) lead the Bucs once again in ZiPS projections, followed by Harrison (85 OPS+), McKenry (83 OPS+) and Inge (81 OPS+).
And Here Come The Caveats
Both PECOTA and ZiPS expect all five Pirates bench players to perform at decent-to-average offensive levels in 2013. But projection systems are not soothsayers, and they have their quirks. If you think Sanchez will look more like the 2012 version than previous versions, then PECOTA and ZiPS look optimistic.
PECOTA may also overrate Triple-A first basemen. Remember how it projected Darin Ruf as the NL’s top-hitting bench player? It also says Clint Robinson would be the Pirates’ second-best offensive player in 2013 if he gets Major League at-bats. I don’t see it from the 28-year-old with little MLB experience.
The selection of bench players is also more arithmetic than science. The rosters from MLB Depth Charts are quality and consistently updated, and allow us to project among the teams apples-to-apples. But at this point, the 25-man rosters are pretty much just a guess from Jason Martinez, albeit an educated one. In addition, the current guesses at rosters exclude injured players that will not be ready in early April, and obviously team’s benches are going to change drastically as the season goes on.
Given all that, the bench projections are more rough estimations than exact expectations. It does seem easy to expect that the Padres and Nationals will field good pinch hitters, while the Braves and Marlins will likely be on the crappy end.
When the Pirates face a left-handed starter, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider will probably be the first two hitters used as pinch hitters by Clint Hurdle. When a right-hander starts, Sanchez and Tabata will probably be Hurdle’s first calls. Those players stack up well compared to other NL bench players, and could be the keys to a drastic improvement from a poor 2012.