By now you’ve probably read several season recaps for the Pittsburgh Pirates. You might be starting to move away from the disappointment of the Pirates losing the Wild Card, while looking forward to the off-season and next season. I wanted to wait a few days to do my season recap and off-season preview, just to digest everything that happened this year. In doing so, I came to the realization that the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season went a lot like a season in the television series Boardwalk Empire.
For those of you who haven’t seen the series, Boardwalk Empire always goes the same way. Going into the season, there is a lot of promise for the possibility of the show, although the show is always slow to pick up in the first half of each season. By the middle of the season, you’re wondering why you’re still watching this. Then, things start to pick up. The last three weeks of the season end up being amazing. Then, the finale is a bit disappointing, and usually is the last time you’ll ever see some of the best characters on the show. I can’t think of a better way to summarize the 2014 Pirates.
The Slow Start
One of the flaws with Boardwalk Empire is that they introduce a new bad guy each season. It takes most of the first half of the season just to establish this character in his role. As a result, nothing big happens during the second half of the season. Of course, a bigger issue with the show is that they keep characters around too long. Once you’re on the show, you seem to stay on the show for good, even if you don’t even help the plot (Margaret, for example).
In the Pirates’ case, they started the season off slow. It took some time to introduce a few of the new guys. Meanwhile, there were guys who were, let’s say, in previous seasons who didn’t belong in this season. A lot of this took place on the pitching side of things.
When it came to new guys on the team, Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley made the biggest impacts. Volquez was the big reclamation project for the Pirates, signed in the off-season for $5 M. Worley was a smaller scale project, acquired for cash considerations from the Twins at the end of Spring Training. Volquez had a spot in the rotation from day one, and while he started off slow, he eventually ended up with the best ERA of any full-season starter, along with the most innings from any member of the rotation.
Worley was added to the rotation after injuries to Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. He ended up putting up the best ERA of any starter on the team, and did this over 110 innings. His revival came after Jim Benedict worked with him in extended Spring Training, getting his mechanics back on track to where he was before his injury at the end of the 2012 season. Worley looked like the pitcher he was before his injuries ruined his mechanics and derailed his career in 2013. The fact that the Pirates have him under control for the next four seasons makes his addition a steal.
The additions of Volquez and Worley helped the Pirates’ rotation in the second half, although the first two months of the season included Worley in the minors, Volquez not looking great in the majors, and everyone else on the team struggling at times. Wandy Rodriguez was the “Margaret” of the Pirates this season. He was kept around because he was under contract, but he really had no place on the team after his injured elbow pretty much ended his career. Rodriguez was hoping to come back healthy and productive this year, but the results were horrible and he was replaced early in the season.
The Pirates didn’t just have issues with Rodriguez. Francisco Liriano struggled the first two months, before his injury. Gerrit Cole looked more like a league average starter than a top of the rotation guy. The bullpen struggled, with Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris both having issues and both being traded in mid-season deals. In both cases, the players immediately turned things around with their new teams, looking like the dominant late-inning relievers the Pirates needed early in the season.
Even the offense, which rated as one of the best in baseball this year, struggled early. Here were some of the numbers at the end of April.
Neil Walker – .722 OPS
Russell Martin – .697
Josh Harrison – .641
Starling Marte – .612
Jordy Mercer – .404
Things Started to Pick Up
The Pirates could have made some drastic changes by mid-season. They could have panicked and blown things up, especially in mid-May, when they were eight games under .500 and eight games out of first place in the NL Central. Instead, they stuck with their plan.
“As the season continued to evolve, we counted on our depth, and we believed in the moves we made over the winter, that we were going to hold strong with those,” Clint Hurdle said about the season turning around.
As mentioned above, the Pirates did make some changes early in the season, specifically getting rid of Rodriguez, Grilli, and Morris. But the depth and off-season moves came through, starting in June. When Cole and Liriano went down with injuries, it was Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and Vance Worley stepping up for most of the summer to boost the rotation. Edinson Volquez was mostly a league average starter at-best the first two months of the season. The final four months saw him putting up a 2.45 ERA, although his 4.17 xFIP suggested he should have been putting up more league-average numbers.
Perhaps the difference there, and for most of the pitchers, was due to the defensive changes the Pirates saw in the second half. As a team, the Pirates finished 6th in the majors this year in Defensive Runs Saved. One of the biggest factors here was Josh Harrison emerging as an everyday player, and providing strong defense all over the field. This really helped out at third base, where Harrison started for most of the final two months of the season. That led to a huge upgrade from Pedro Alvarez (-5 DRS in 823 innings) to Harrison (+9 DRS in 518 innings). If we play the “what if” game and give Harrison all of Alvarez’s playing time at third base this year, the Pirates probably would have seen an extra 20 runs saved, good enough for two extra wins.
Along with the fielding picking up, the offense also picked up. I mentioned the players above who struggled in April. Here were those same players in the second half of the season.
Neil Walker – .842 OPS
Russell Martin – .857
Josh Harrison – .887
Starling Marte – .975
Jordy Mercer – .753
When you add in Andrew McCutchen’s .875 OPS, and the .880 OPS from Travis Snider, you get a lineup that was just devastating in the second half. By the way, Starling Marte was amazing in the second half, and for most of the season. That was somewhat quiet. He’s easily the “Al Capone” of the Pirates — a guy who you know isn’t going anywhere, and who is quietly one of the best characters, even though he doesn’t get the billing as one of the top characters. What I’m saying is that Starling Marte is kind of under-appreciated, and there should be a Boardwalk Empire spin-off with the Al Capone character.
The Strong Finish
The Pirates needed something to reverse their 10-16 start to the season, and get them in the playoffs. They got that in September, going 17-6 in their final 23 games to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. That amazing stretch followed a three game series where the Pirates were swept by the St. Louis Cardinals. The series could have been a dagger to the 2014 season. Instead, Clint Hurdle met with his team after the series, and simply told them “If we play our best ball, we’ll be in.”
“This one was more of an organizational victory I think for us and for the team, as a city,” Hurdle said about reaching the playoffs this year. “To get back in it a different way as a different group, we had to dig this one out of the dirt. It actually speaks very well as a microcosm of what this city is all about.”
The changes mentioned above were big factors in September. Edinson Volquez put up fantastic numbers in the final month. Francisco Liriano returned from his injury and looked like an ace down the stretch. Gerrit Cole finished strong at the end of the year. The offense continued their strong run. The defense continued performing well.
Perhaps the biggest change at the end of the year came from the bullpen. I wrote last week about how the bullpen ended the season with the best xFIP in baseball in the final month. The addition of John Holdzkom — signed out of indy ball in June, spending most of the 2014 season in Indianapolis, then emerging as a dominant MLB reliever in September — was a huge boost. There were other additions at the end of the year, although the biggest boost came from guys who were struggling that turned things around. Those guys included Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez.
Overall, the Pirates had everything working for them down the stretch, ranking near the top in baseball in offense, defense, starting pitching, and relief pitching.
Disappointing Finale and Beyond
That strong run in September didn’t really matter when you consider that the Pirates struggled in their final games of the year. They entered the final weekend with a small chance to take the NL Central from the St. Louis Cardinals. They lost the final two games with Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole on the mound. Two wins would have put them in a tiebreaker for the NL Central. The losses meant that Edinson Volquez needed to start the Wild Card game.
Volquez wasn’t good in the game, but it didn’t really matter. The Giants had Madison Bumgarner dealing, and unless Liriano or Cole threw a complete game shutout, the Pirates would have had no chance against the Giants.
So now we enter the 2014 off-season, with the Pirates possibly seeing their most “Boardwalk Empire” moment of all. The show has a tendency to get rid of the best characters every year, which probably leads to the slow starts the following season. The Pirates, meanwhile, will see Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano as free agents this off-season.
Martin has been a huge factor in the team winning over the last two years. You could argue that he was the MVP of the Pirates this year when you consider the impact he has in improving the pitching staff. That impact is probably going to make him one of the most coveted free agents this off-season. It’s not going to be impossible for the Pirates to bring him back, but it is going to be improbable, especially if a team like the Dodgers, Rangers, or Red Sox get involved in the bidding.
Liriano is also a pending free agent, after being the best starter on the team the last two seasons. His loss might be easier for the Pirates to handle, since they’ve shown a strong ability to find starting pitching for cheap prices. Liriano, himself, is an example of this. Worley and Volquez are two recent examples. And if the Pirates have any shot at bringing back Martin this off-season, then they’re going to need to go the reclamation route with pitchers this off-season.
The off-season is going to be very active, with a lot of interesting story lines, which I’ll go over later tonight in First Pitch. Before that happens, I need to catch up on Boardwalk Empire, because I’m about three episodes behind, and I’m hoping to get past the slow start of the season to the three episodes each year where things get interesting.