Are the Pirates Rotation Struggles Due to Injuries to Mercer and Harrison?

A lot has been made lately about the horrible state of the Pirates’ defense this year. I touched on the defense being an issue for the Pirates earlier this week, noting that it will probably see some improvements when Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer return. But even with those two in the lineup, the Pirates have struggled this year defensively.

Another issue for the Pirates lately has been their starting rotation. A lot of their starters have been struggling, including a few of the guys who were doing great in the first half. I started digging around with the numbers, and found that the defense might actually be the problem here as well.

The Pirates have been successful the last few years in large part to their pitching and defense. They’ve added a lot of heavy ground ball pitchers, employed defensive shifts, prioritized catcher defense, and put defense ahead of offense in the infield. This led to some poor offensive results at times (especially with Clint Barmes in the lineup), but a pitching staff consistently playing over their heads

As I noted, the Pirates have had a poor defense this year, due to horrible play from Pedro Alvarez at first base and Neil Walker at second base. Walker ranks 20th out of 22 qualified second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved, and last out of that same group in UZR/150. Alvarez ranks dead last out of 21 qualified first basemen in both categories, and it’s not even close. But what we’ve seen lately has been atrocious. And I believe it’s all due to the loss of Mercer and Harrison.

Both infielders went down around the All-Star break, with Harrison going down before the break, and Mercer going down right after the break. The result since has been that Mercer was replaced by Jung-ho Kang at shortstop, and the Harrison/Kang combo was replaced by Aramis Ramirez at third base.

At shortstop, Kang definitely has the better bat, but Mercer has the better defense. Mercer has a 1.0 UZR/150 this year, while Kang is at -9.0. Those numbers from Mercer match up to last year, when he really made strides to be a solid defender at shortstop. And Kang’s numbers match up with the eye test that shows he can play the position, but can’t be a defensive asset at the position.

Then there’s third base, where Kang profiles much better with a 3.0 UZR/150. Harrison hasn’t been great at the position, but has a -2.3 UZR/150, which isn’t horrible. Both of those are much better than Aramis Ramirez and his -12.5 UZR/150. Once again, this is a number that matches up with the eye test.

When Mercer and Harrison return, it will allow the team to upgrade defensively at shortstop with Mercer over Kang, and upgrade defensively at third base with the combo of Kang and Harrison over Ramirez. And if you’re wondering the potential impact here, let’s take a look at the breakdown of the starting rotation before and after the All-Star break. (NOTE: Stats run through Friday night, and don’t include last night’s start from Charlie Morton).


As I noted, the Pirates lost both Mercer and Harrison around the break. So most of their games before the break were with both players in the lineup, and most since the break have been without both players. The pitching has definitely been down since the break, and it might seem like a coincidence that this came at the same time the defense saw two major blows. But looking at the numbers above, it seems like the defense might be playing a big role here.

The first thing that stands out is the rotation out-performing their advanced metrics in the first half, and under-performing the advanced metrics in the second half. There isn’t much of a difference in the xFIP numbers, but the ERA sees a big drop.

Breaking down the things a pitcher can control, the strikeouts, walks, and home runs all seem to be similar to the first half numbers. The ground ball numbers are down, although I’m guessing that’s probably due to J.A. Happ replacing A.J. Burnett.

The final part is where things really get interesting. The rotation was allowing respectable numbers in the first half, with a .300 BABIP, a 75.4% strand rate, and a 9.2% HR/FB rate. The strand rate is a bit unlucky in the second half, and the home run rate went up a bit, but there’s a massive difference with the BABIP numbers. The Pirates went from a normal .300 BABIP in the first half, to an extreme .371 in the second half.

Now it’s possible that the starting rotation collectively just started having problems and became much easier to hit after the All-Star break. But considering how the strikeouts, walks, and home run numbers are all relatively the same, I find that hard to believe.

What makes more sense is that Harrison and Mercer went down, which led to inferior defensive replacements at their positions, which in turn led to the pitching staff giving up an unlucky amount of hits on balls in play. All you have to do is compare the defensive numbers of Mercer versus Kang at shortstop, and Harrison/Kang versus Ramirez at third base to see how much of a downgrade the team saw with these injuries. And since the rotation really started falling apart right after those injuries, it’s easy to draw a correlation between the injuries and the starting rotation struggles.

I don’t know for sure that the loss of Mercer and Harrison led to a much weaker rotation in the last month. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the rotation suddenly finds their first half magic when those two come off the disabled list. The defense will see an upgrade at that time, which will be much better for the pitchers whose problems mostly revolve around allowing an unlucky amount of hits lately.

  • to BuccosFanStuckinMD,

    1. Never, ever underestimate the pitching abilities of coaches such as Ray Searage and Jim Benedict. They saw something in Blanton and Happ. Look at the immediate results. It’s not luck.

    Further, they’ve had success with big names Liriano and Volquez, lately with former Orioles Brault and Tarpley in the minors and with so many other pitchers in turning their careers around. The Pirates brass is to be congratulated for putting together these coaches with their pitching philosophy that has resulted in our third straight season of high success!

    Go Bucs!

  • Is Pitt the only team to see a higher BABIP this month? Seems hitters get hot this time of year throughout the league. I’m sure Tim is onto something w Mercer & Harrison injuries, but not sure it’s the primary reason.

  • I think we are chasing variance here or least we cannot draw any strong conclusions. BABIP is a complication of many things, and you cannot with much of any certainty isolate one factor, whether that is 1/2 of the infield defense or hard hit rate, and state that this is the reason for its rise or fall.

    I agree with the idea that an infield of Alvarez, Walker, Kang, and Ramirez is below average at every spot, in some cases well below. But I’m not sure using 300 or 400 innings of UZR and then extrapolating that out to 150 games is a good way to do that, and it is a big jump to then tie that 70 points of BABIP.

    As others have noted, the Pirates pitchers are giving better contact in the 2nd half, higher hard hit rate, higher line drive rate. The biggest culprits are Burnett, Morton, and Liriano. Burnett and Morton saw thier hard hit rate jump, Liriano his LD rate. However these two things don’t correlation well with BABIP.

    • Taking Cole, Liriano, Locke, Burnett, and Morton looking at just ground balls first and second half, 1st half BABIP .218, 2nd half BABIP .265. If you take out Burnett, who is injured, and/or received an unequal distribution of the bad defense, saw his BABIP on grounders jump from .247 to .472, The 1st half .209, 2nd half .223 are the number overall.

      Looking at ground balls to the left side, 1st half BABIP .225 2nd half BABIP .256, again removing Burnett 1st half .207, 2nd half .220.

      I’m dying on the hill but, I don’t think the make-up of left side of the infield should shoulder the blame. Pitchers giving up better contact seems more at fault.

      As far as stranding less runners, 22 steals in 26 games, with no one caught isn’t helping. Compared with 55 steals and 23 caught in first 88 games.

  • Only problem is, the article opened with how horrendous the right half of the infield has been this year, and the return of Harrison and Mercer won’t help that significantly (a few spot starts at 2B for Harrison won’t greatly affect the cumulative defensive numbers at that position).

  • I’m sorry but the the groundball rate being down in 2nd half because of Happ replacing AJ is clearly wrong. Most of our starters have fallen a good bit, some dramatically.

    Cole GB percentage fallen from 52 to 41%
    Locke from 52% to 46^
    Liriano from 54% to 50
    Morton from 61 to 53%

    Happ is at 40% but has only thrown 10 innings out of about 232 as a staff. The drop in ground balls has VERY little to with Happ and much more to do with the fact every other starter is down considerably.

    • The reason the ground ball out percentage us down could be due to a reduced range from the infielders

  • Christopher Athari
    August 16, 2015 11:59 am

    Did I miss it or did you accommodate for AJ’s injury during this time?

  • I, for one, am not looking forward to Kang being out of the lineup every night. The guy has the 2nd best OPS on the team and has been, in many ways, one of our best two players the last month and a half. JayHay is fine and all, but honestly I don’t want him replacing either Kang or Polanco. Polanco has found his stroke and us confident and aggressive. I think the odd-man-out would be Walker. I am not honestly sure if the defensive upgrades would be worth what we potentially lose in offense…especially as we head down the stretch where these guys who are producing at a high level need consistent at bats to continue their strong numbers. Kang at 3B is fine…better offense and defense than ARAM, but we will lose offense with Mercer back…and who knows where JayHay slots in.

    • They really should pull walker at the end of games secondary to his poor defense. They will find a place for kang make Harrison super utility again

  • I’m also not seeing same disparity in BABIP listed in article(Tim said he pulled these Friday night) but as of today I’m showing a 342 BABIP vs 295 BABIP in 1st half. Clearly a big difference, but not as big as listed in article. I strongly believe the issue is hard contact percentage which has gone from basically league best to league worst from 1st to 2nd half.

    • It is the just the rotation not all pitchers.

      • Starters first half hard contact less than 28. Starters in 2nd half over 35%. Very big difference

        • I’m aware of this but the correlation between BABIP and Hard Hit Rate isn’t strong at all. I think your theory is the better one but trying explain BABIP by looking at one component is a bit of rabbit hole.

  • BABIP is a very misused and misleading stat. The biggest change between the 1st half and 2nd half of the season? Hard contact percentage. At 34.4% we have 3rd worst hard contact percentage in MLB(both AL and NL) in 2nd half after being at 26.9% in 1st half(4th best in MLB). So with a dramatically different percentage of balls being hit hard I would expect a considerably worse BABIP. The pitching problems go well beyond just losing Mercer and Harrison.

  • I expected a mix and match infield this year, but more for the splits, and working in Kang with Harrison bouncing between 3rd, 2nd and/or RF. I had no idea they would be this bad defensively. Maybe too much mix and match, injury, and offensive ineptitude.

    Not sure what this means in 2015, but I hope next year they aren’t afraid to make some moves in the offseason to improve it. If I was the GM, I would trade Walker and go with Harrison/Hanson at 2nd like Zach mentioned. Walkers not going to first with his contract situation. Josh Bell looks to be there by June anyway.

    I think they can do better than Mercer but it won’t be easy. SS is just a black hole in the league right now.

    • I, likewise, am interested in seeing what we could get for Walker this offseason…I really don’t want Kang out of the lineup and while Walker’s bat is OK I really do not think they’ll move him to 1B and we have better options at 2B defensively while not losing a ton offensively.

  • Good points, or it’s the fact Cole is tiring since he’s reaching/at his career highs in starts/innings, Burnett came back down to earth and tried to pitch through injury, Locke is pulling his usualt second half trick, and Morton just sucks pretty much 4 out of 5 starts on average (not to mention Liriano’s struggles recently)…but I do agree the defense has been awful, and I hope your right

    • But to Tim’s point, one would expect the issues that you are noting to translate to a drop in performance in metrics that are specific to the pitcher, including K%, BB%, and HR/FB. That really hasn’t happened based on the graphic in the article (which is well done by the way!)

      • Except hard hit rate has gone through the roof which is 100% pitcher dependent

        • That the Manager’s fault, right ?

          • No Leo it’s not. It’s our starting pitchers not pitching nearly as well as they did in 1st half. It is more than just poor defense behind them(which is an issue, just not the only issue)

            • Well since you said it, must be true. Even though the article actually shows backing behind the idea that the defense is part of the reason the pitching is doing poorly. Yes, the SP isnt as good but its absolutely due to defense to some degree.

              • LOL OK reread my post and then try again. I never said defense was NOT an issue. I said evidence seems to suggest it is NOT the only problem. I also pointed out that the intimation that the ground ball % in the 2nd half being down so much is a result of Happ replacing AJ is not accurate. Furthermore the BABIP #s are not accurate, at least not as of this morning using fangraphs(and I have hard time believing the babip has changed that much since Friday though that’s possible). Dramatic change in hard contact percentage from the 1st to the 2nd half. That is not directly impacted by poor defense. In theory, you could argue that poor defense makes pitchers throw more pitches at a higher pitch count leading to harder contact but that seems a bit of a stretch. Defense is an issue for sure. I also think there is evidence to suggest the starting pitchers just aren’t pitching as well they did in 1st half independent of the defensive problems.

            • Oh man ! You don’t know how much I appreciate that information. There seems to be more than a couple low info commenters on here today.

        • Tim rarely discusses things that dont support his article, has always annoyed me.

    • “Morton just sucks pretty much 4 out of 5 starts on average…”

      So. A “Gem” is game score of 65 or more, so since the baseline for GSc is 50, let’s call a “Suck” a game score of 35 or less.

      Morton has two starts out of 15 that are a “Suck”.

      He has another 5 that are sub-par (35-50), 4 that are above-average (50-65) and 4 Gems.

      So he’s had 7 of 15 below-average starts, and 8 of 15 above-average starts, He’s exceeded a GSc of 65 twice as often as he’s been below 35.

      So, no, he doesn’t just suck pretty much 4 out of 5 starts on average. He pretty much sucks 1 out of 5 starts on average.

      You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.

      • This !

      • Facts and people disliking Morton really never go together.

      • Game Score, WAR, and any other new-ish stat that has been arbitrarily created or used in more abundance within the last 5-10 years I do not subscribe to…I know most people are jumping on board with them (and that’s perfectly fine), but I’ll go based on the eye test and intangible contributions to the team

        • Morton suffers from not being able to raise his game when trouble beckons. As such he loses more games than he should, and wins far fewer than he should, too. I think this may be why you’re saying what you’re saying.

        • Your eyes are clearly in need of major correction. Do you use a cane or seeing eye dog?

        • It’s obvious you don’t subscribe to (or understand) anything that adds to one’s understanding of the game.

          • Hey, dipshit, see above, or below, or maybe up your ass or anywhere else you want to look for your cocky attitude

        • Arbitrarily created? Oh i get it, you mean you ‘don’t understand it’. Sorry you don’t subscribe to the metrics that all winning professional baseball clubs now do. Must be an interesting way to go through life, just denying anything you can’t be bothered to figure out.

          • Okay, asshole, I was trying to have a respectful coversation, but if you want to get smart about it, you just proved me right when you said “baseball clubs NOW DO,” as in relatively recently, nice try though…

      • Drops the mic!

      • I’m pretty sure Tim just said 2 days ago or so that a 60 game score is considered average…..

  • Mercer is far, far undervalued as a SS by Pirate fans! He’s no Jack Flash (who I loved watching), but I can’t wait to get him back.

    Also, can’t wait to get PRNW and E-dro off of the right side of the infield.

    • Regarding the right side of the infield, are you talking this year or next year? If next, just curious, what would you do with Walker, and who would you pick to replace him?

    • Mercer’s fielding is fine, it is his bat that is below par, even for a SS. Walker would probably be okay at 1B, but his lack of range at 2B has taken a step for the worse this season.

      • That is one of those myths put forth by those who ignore facts. His oWAR in 2013 was +2.2 and it was +1.8 in 2014. That means he was above average both years. Were it not for the injury, he was headed for positive WAR again this year.

        • Mercer’s offensive performance in 2015 has been worse than the prior two years. The past isn’t too relevant today. After all, Pedro was an All Star in the past two years. What does that have to do with his play in 2015?

          • Also, positive WAR isn’t really the goal for a championship team. You want well above MLB average WAR for the position at each position. Not that any team has that, but that is the goal.

            • positive Owar and a positive dwar would put him well above average, so i’m really unsure where you are going with your statement here

              • I’d have to write a letter to fully explain myself. No time today, maybe another time.

              • Y2JGQ2, positive WAR doesn’t mean you are above average. I means you are above replacement level. Average is usually a few wins above replacement level, depending on the position.

                • I’d love to see some figures to back this up, because I have always wondered what WAR is truly “average” since you have to take bench players and starting players in order to be fair on what average is. Average shortstop is different from average starting shortstop of course

          • Pedro was an all-star once, not in the past 2 years. Pedro’s hitting this year is actually pretty good and way better than last year. Jordy’s OPS is certainly going to be low, he is a horrible april and may hitter, and needed that last month he’s been on the DL (which was when he was at his hottest last year and was this year as well before he got hurt) to get back to where he was last year. Mercer’s play has been actually really consistent with last years if you look at his performance month/month

            • What I was saying about Pedro is that even though he was an All Star within the last two years, that isn’t important when considering his production this year. Pedro’s contribution to the team is to hit home runs and create RBIs. In his All Star season of 2013 he hit 36 HR and drove in 100 runs. If you project Pedro’s 2015 production to date ( 18 HR, 58 RBI ) through the end of the season you get 25 HR and 82 RBI, which is down considerably from his best season to date (and what he is being paid to do). Part of that is that he’ll have fewer AB (475) due to his being removed due to awful defense. But that’s part of the point. If your potential contribution is offensive power, but your defense is so bad that you can’t stay on the field, what good are you? Yes Pedro is hitting better than last year, but 2014 was awful. So saying that he is doing better than last year is “damning by faint praise”. Pedro’s a great guy! I hope he does great for the balance of the season and that NH is wise enough to trade high on him to an AL team with the need of a LH power hitter for a DH, because that is where Pedro’s future is.

              Regarding Jordy, why is it acceptable to play a regular who is awful at the plate for April and May every season? As I said above his defense is fine. But his offense this season is below “par” again, and certainly below what the Pirates should accept from a regular. I think that the Pirates see it the same way, and that is why they went out last off season and spent $5MM to get Kang whose historic position has been SS. Now after watching Kang’s play at SS I’d say his performace is only adequate, he’s better suited for 3B. But the point remains that Jordy was seen as the “weak link” and SS was the position most in need of spending $$ to upgrade last off season.

              • To your first sentence, It certainly is when a player has consistently succeeded in certain parts of the year and struggled in others and isn’t an age where he should be declining. My point with Jordy is, we are already past April and May, so why would we bench him in September? I’m not talking about starting him in April and May, he has shown he is succesful in the latter half of the year, so why in hell would you have him on the bench when he comes back? To punish him for sucking early in the year? Makes no sense. I don’t think he was ever seen as a weak link last year, but that is an opinion and I won’t argue with an opinion. My opinion is that he remains by far the best choice for this team to be the starting shortstop and will likely continue to be until such time as one of those top picks makes their way through the system

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 16, 2015 10:11 am

    A few thoughts and observations about last night’s game….

    (1) NEVER, EVER run on Cespedes – he has a howitzer!
    (2) Blanton was the unsung hero – and he has FAR exceeded my expectations when he was acquired. To date, he has been the best deadline acquisition. He kept the Mets at 3 to allow for the extra inning win. I underestimated him.
    (3) I don’t care if Morton is throwing a perfect game, he needs to be automatically pulled after 6 innings. That seems to be his wall. Was pitching a great game, and then had the big inning in the 7th – the big inning is something he seemingly cannot avoid.
    (4) Polanco has been really hitting well – and going the opposite way a lot which is good to see.
    (5) Today its Harvey vs. Locke – won’t be easy. We’re the underdog today.

    • Yeah he cant avoid the big inning….where his defense flubs an out and he gives up 3 rather than 2. With non poor defense at 3B, he’s got 2 outs with 1 run given up.

      Yes, he’s less effective deep in game. But its absurd to act like he’s unable to avoid it and its all on him. The defense is making the pitching staff look worse than it is when they have to get 4 outs multiple times a game.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        August 16, 2015 1:36 pm

        His ERA is 4.50 – he can’t blame his defense.

        • Oh we are using ERA and saying the defense doesnt impact ERA….well at least that isnt flawed at all.

        • Well sometimes he can, because being a ground ball pitcher, balls you don’t get to or misplays like ones we saw polanco doing the other day….but i agree, he is completely ineffective after 6 innings regardless of defense

    • Morton can’t stand the thought of prosperity. Unless it’s against Cincy in their park for whatever reason.

    • I completely agree with all of this- good post!