With less than 20 games remaining in the season, the Pirates find themselves fighting the Cardinals for the NL Central title (again), while also attempting to fend off the Cubs for home field advantage in the Wild Card game should they fail to catch St. Louis.
As Tim discussed the other day, this is perhaps the exact situation in which the Pirates should give all the opportunities to their best players in this critical month. With the injury to Jung Ho Kang in yesterday’s game, however, that approach suddenly requires adjustment.
Both ZiPS and Steamer projected Kang to have a .323 wOBA, 107 wRC+, and contribute 0.2 fWAR over the last two and a half weeks of the season. However, I suspect those numbers are somewhat bearish because it’s difficult to project performance for a player with such little major or minor league experience.
It’s within the realm of possibility that his replacement(s) could hit that projection in a limited sample, but the odds would obviously be much better if Kang himself were available. Kang’s .287/.355/.461 line and 4.0 fWAR are second only to Andrew McCutchen among Pirates position players, and that is undoubtedly difficult to replace.
There is at least some cause for hope. Prior to Kang’s injury, the Pirates have been deploying their depth players and getting some timely results:
Bear in mind that RE24 is a contextual stat, so with that I’m indicating the changes in run expectancy that the player actually contributed, rather than trying to define an underlying set of skills.
Based on their plate appearances so far in September, I think it’s fairly obvious to think of these players in groups:
Regular Starters: Cervelli, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco
Infield Rotation: Alvarez, Walker, Mercer, Ramirez, Harrison
Bench Players: Stewart, Rodriguez, Snider, Morse, Ishikawa, Decker, Florimon, Diaz
The first group of players will factor into nearly every game, receiving the vast majority of plate appearances at their primary position. The second group will man the infield positions in various combinations, and the final group are the primary pinch hitters, defensive replacements, and spot starters.
I led with offense, but it’s important to remember that defense plays an important role here as well. After all, a run saved is worth just as much as a run scored. Balancing the choice to get a player’s bat in the lineup with their defensive ability at a given position makes these decisions more complex, especially in a one game sample.
With Kang’s injury, the infield combinations are far less bountiful. I expect that, if only for the sake of defense, Ramirez and Mercer will get the bulk of the starts at their natural positions, leaving first base open for Pedro Alvarez. Sean Rodriguez may see a spot start at first against left-handed pitchers, e.g. Clayton Kershaw on Saturday night.
As you can see, since September 1st, many of the decisions how and when to utilize depth players have gone well for the Pirates. One can hope that in the wake of the Jung Ho Kang’s injury, the Pirates will do what they can to get similar production from their remaining depth options.
Preparing Depth Players to Contribute
We know that the Pirates organization has placed value on being able to play multiple positions, something that has served Josh Harrison well, and may do the same for players like Adam Frazier and Max Moroff in the future.
That increases flexibility for the team, and also helps maximize the number of opportunities for a player to get into each game. While it may not necessarily alleviate the problems with lineup construction, it helps to have players who can fill different roles reasonably well as needed.
The return of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer from the disabled list near the end of August was particularly complicating for the Pirates, since they acquired Aramis Ramirez at the trade deadline to bolster the infield while Mercer and Harrison were hurt. With rosters expanding shortly thereafter on September 1st, suddenly a shortage of depth options quickly became a surplus.
“We actually gave everyone a heads-up when we felt Mercer and Harrison were close to coming back,” Hurdle said after Sunday’s game. “This is gonna affect different people at different times. We continue to communicate with them; we let them know what roles may be coming their way during the game, and we’ve had buy-in from every guy.”
These lineup decisions and in-game adjustments obviously impact players like Sean Rodriguez and Michael Morse, who are used to bench roles. But as the Pirates tried to best utilize their gaggle of infielders, it started to impact established, veteran players like Ramirez, and key contributors to previous Pirates playoff teams such as Harrison, Mercer, Walker, and Alvarez.
“The guys that you’re moving in and out are used to playing, and you try and pick optimal spots for them,” Hurdle added, noting that Dave Jauss and Brad Fischer play an important role in this process. “You trust players to play, and you give them opportunities to play. I think that’s one thing we’ve been able to do very well here, is they know they have the freedom to play.”
Travis Snider echoed Hurdle’s perspective on Sunday: “Clint does a great job of expressing that to us every day, no matter what your role is, just be ready to go. And when your name’s called, just go up there and give it your best shot.”
The Pirates now face a different challenge than what they had planned for, and one wonders if Kang’s injury might serve as a rallying point, driving a bit more focus and perhaps better execution in the next two and a half weeks.
All Hands on Deck!
At least some poor performances and injuries are expected every year. The Pirates had been able to rearrange their depth options into a better kind of problem until Kang’s injury forced a change in approach. For what it’s worth, the newer group of bench players and September call-ups have provided decent results so far, in a small sample. It’s possible that solid production will continue, but it’s easily as possible (if not more) that it won’t.
For better or worse, the stakes are often very high when bench players make their appearances, which you see reflected in the relatively large RE24 numbers for players with a small number of plate appearances. Those high-leverage opportunities usually leave no middle ground between being the hero or the goat.
I’m sure that the performance of the infield and putting together optimal lineups will continue to be something that everyone keeps an eye on as we prepare for the playoffs. For now, we can perhaps be optimistic that at least recently, the depth options have answered the call.