Last week I was covering the Pirates in St. Louis, and was asked a question after the lone loss of the series. I was asked why I didn’t focus on the lineup choices for that night. My response was that it wasn’t something that I considered an issue (the Pirates went all right-handers with a focus on defense to combine strategies with a lefty on the mound and Charlie Morton starting for the Pirates).
If you’ve ever watched “How I Met Your Mother”, one of the best episodes is the “Intervention” episode. Throughout the episode, the characters point out traits about other characters that no one else in the group noticed. Immediately, after pointing it out, you’d hear glass shattering, and it was suddenly impossible for the group to ignore the traits any longer.
That weekend in St. Louis, the glass shattered in my head. I suddenly noticed the lineup trends. And it wasn’t really the trends in the actual lineups I noticed. It was the complaining about the lineups that suddenly was impossible to ignore.
Before that Sunday game, there were more lineup complaints. The Pirates went on to win the game 7-1, taking two of three against the Cardinals, unlike their loss the night before. But the victory didn’t add any confidence in future lineups. I’ve noticed that before each game, there are always complaints about the lineup.
Never mind the fact that the Pirates have won six of nine since leaving St. Louis.
Never mind that they’re 27-15 since the trade deadline.
Never mind that they’ve crawled to three games back in the NL Central, while staying four games up for the top Wild Card spot.
Guaranteed that before every game, there are going to be some complaints about the lineup that the Pirates put out there. Granted, these complaints aren’t always from the same people. Some people complain when Jordy Mercer is starting. Some complain when Mercer is sitting. Some complain when Jung-ho Kang is benched. Some complain when Aramis Ramirez is benched. Some complain just to complain. And so on.
Here is the actual problem with the lineup: it’s not traditional. Or, the idea of traditional, which is the same guys going out there every single night.
The Pirates made a few trades at the deadline to give their bench a boost. They added Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse, and both have been fantastic since joining the team. Morse came into today’s game with a .326/.408/.512 line in 49 plate appearances. Ramirez struggled at first, but has picked up his offense recently, with a .250/.314/.625 line in 35 plate appearances in September.
They’ve also had a boost from guys who were already on their bench. Sean Rodriguez has been one of the hottest hitters on the team since the deadline. It’s definitely not sustainable, but a lot of the lineup complaints the last few weeks have been about him, and he’s come through in a lot of occasions (excluding the one game where he started at shortstop and made some key errors that lost the game early).
During the early part of the season, the bench was struggling and there was a desire to have players who could come off the bench and get a hit, or step into the lineup when needed. The Pirates have that now.
But like I said, the problem is that this lineup isn’t traditional. They’ve got two platoon players on the right side of the infield in Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. When a left-hander is on the mound, those guys are usually out of the game. A big problem for most of the year has been poor defense, and now they’re playing Jordy Mercer at shortstop more often to counter that problem. But Mercer doesn’t hit as well as Jung-ho Kang, who doesn’t field as well as Mercer, so now the complaints go from poor defense to a lack of offense at that spot.
Mercer getting more playing time means that they need to put Kang at third — where he’s better defensively — which results in a need to find time for Aramis Ramirez. He’s finding that at first base now, although this creates another problem when they bench a hot hitting Pedro Alvarez, or find less playing time for Morse. And then there’s Josh Harrison, who isn’t hitting like his 2014 season, but can still add value off the bench at several positions.
The Pirates don’t have eight guys who play every day of the week, with five guys on the bench who make the occasional start. They’ve got guys on the bench who would be starters with a lot of teams, and deserve playing time. They’ve got enough players playing well that no matter who they start, they’re going to be benching someone who is on a hot streak.
Then there’s the “Golden State” approach that they talked about before the season, where they aimed at working as a team, giving individuals days off to keep them fresh. From a total playing time standpoint, this actually isn’t much of an issue. Andrew McCutchen is on pace for 676 plate appearances, up from 648 last year. McCutchen was the only player on the roster last year who had more than 600 plate appearances. The next closest was Neil Walker with 571, and he was the only other player over 555. This year, Walker, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are all on pace to top 600 plate appearances.
Then there’s Jung-ho Kang, who seems to draw the most complaints when he’s out of the lineup. Based on his season numbers, he’s on pace for 514 plate appearances. However, if we use his second half numbers (thus discounting the early season trends when he wasn’t an everyday guy), then we see that he’s playing for a pace that would equal 570 plate appearances in a season. Kang has never had more than 538 plate appearances in a season in his time in Korea.
You can understand why the Pirates would want to ease him into the majors and give him scheduled days off. At the same time, they’re not really giving him a ton of time off, as he’s still receiving a lot of playing time. In fact, heading into today’s game, he ranked fourth on the team in second half plate appearances, behind the Dream Outfield©, and ahead of any other infielder (including three plate appearances ahead of Neil Walker). Those same trends hold true the last month, and the last two weeks (although he’s actually third on the team in the last two weeks, with Marte seeing a drop in playing time).
The “Golden State” approach seems to be about strategically giving guys days off, no matter the schedule. It’s not holding back playing time, and in fact, playing time is being increased for most players, possibly because they’re staying healthy all season.
The Pirates have four guys who are on pace for over 600 plate appearances this season. They’ve kept injury prone guys like Francisco Cervelli and Neil Walker healthy all season. They’ve got more players performing well than they have spots in the lineup. I don’t think all of this is in spite of the lineup maneuvers.
Overall, Kang is probably the best example of what’s wrong with the daily lineup complaints. He’s getting more playing time than any other infielder. He’s getting slightly less playing time than the outfielders, but enough to make him the equivalent of an everyday starter. He’s going to have days off, just like any other player. The idea that he can’t be benched is unrealistic, as it ignores that every player sits. And complaining about how much he sits either ignores that he’s not really sitting that much, or ignores that he’s not used to 600 plate appearances per year.
As for the other players, similar situations exist. You’ve got more good players than lineup spots, and usually the lineup complaints are a matter of preference, while ignoring that the guys going in the lineups are performing well. There will be some moves that lead to losses, and those are never forgotten. But there are also moves that lead to wins, and those are never remembered.
The trend will probably continue that there will be lineup complaints before every game. If the Pirates lose, it will be attributed to the lineup, rather than the fact that even a 100-win team loses 62 times a year. As for me? I’m going to continue focusing on the bigger picture, where the Pirates have the second best record in baseball, continued success despite different lineups, and plenty of players staying healthy, on pace for career highs in plate appearances, and playing to their best numbers.
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**Pirates Name Max Moroff and Yeudy Garcia Their Player and Pitcher of the Year. We just wrapped up our own Player and Pitcher of the Year decisions, and will be announcing those tomorrow. The Pirates made their announcement today, going with Moroff and Garcia, who both had big breakout seasons.
**Pirates Notebook: Vance Worley Replaces Radhames Liz. The Pirates called up Worley today and designated Liz for assignment.
**Chad Kuhl Promoted to Indianapolis. He’ll get a start in the playoffs if Indianapolis wins one of their next two games.
**Pirates 2015 Fall Instructional League Schedule and Roster. The first game is tomorrow afternoon.