First Pitch: What Could the Pirates Have Done Different to Win the NL Central?

The Pirates are wrapping up a pretty special season. They currently have 96 wins, with three games to go against the Cincinnati Reds, and three of their best pitchers going. They need any combination of two wins or Cubs losses this weekend to clinch home field in the Wild Card game for the third straight year. They have the second best record in baseball, and one of their best win totals in franchise history.

Yet the problem is that they’re in second place, all due to the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals are having a much better year, and are in the same division. I chalk this up to an unfortunate circumstance, rather than something the Pirates did wrong which could have avoided this situation. Before the season, if you would have said that the Pirates could win 98-99 games (assuming they win the series against St. Louis), then I doubt anyone would say “But what can they do to improve on that number?”

But I wanted to entertain that thought now by taking a look at their position-by-position WAR totals, just to see if there was a specific area where the team could have improved before the season, which might have allowed them to surpass the Cardinals. In the process, I found that their season was even more amazing, due to the high value moves that were made.

Catcher – 4.5 WAR, 2nd

Francisco Cervelli was a huge surprise, and one of the best catchers in baseball. His backup, Chris Stewart, was strong for a backup, and together they made up the second best group in the NL, behind the Giants. The Pirates were faced with the difficult task of replacing Russell Martin, and they somehow managed to get better production, while committing about $81 M less guaranteed money than Martin received.

First Base – 0.1 WAR, 11th

This is the biggest area where the Pirates might have been able to improve prior to the season, and the biggest area where they should try to improve heading into next year. Pedro Alvarez was almost replacement level due to his defense, despite having one of his better offensive seasons. Michael Morse did well and provided a big boost off the bench with an 0.5 WAR, and that boost off the bench was sorely needed, as we’ll get into later. The first base position represents a theme for the entire lineup, and that was poor defense.

Second Base – 3.3 WAR, 5th

This wasn’t all Neil Walker, as Josh Harrison brings a 1.0 WAR to this total. He’s double counted, as he also shows up with the same total at third base. The Pirates weren’t going to be improving over Walker at the start of the year, and the production they got was expected.

Shortstop – 3.8 WAR, 2nd

I’m going to mix the shortstop position with…

Third Base – 4.8 WAR, 3rd

I’m mixing these two because FanGraphs includes Jung-ho Kang in both lists. He had a great season rotating between the two positions, but it’s hard separating the values for either one. The Pirates had Aramis Ramirez and Josh Harrison at third base (0.8 combined WAR), and Jordy Mercer at shortstop (0.2 WAR). But while he was healthy, Kang played a huge role on the right side of the infield, giving the Pirates a star at one of these two positions on any given night.

Left Field – 2.1 WAR, 10th

The Pirates are hurt here due to the bench players, and not their starter. Starling Marte has a 3.3 WAR this year, but the left field position takes a big hit from several guys who are slightly below replacement level, including Jose Tabata at -0.2 WAR and Andrew Lambo at -0.6 WAR. Perhaps a better bench would have solved this problem, although most of the guys on this list were injury replacements for the bench, and the favored bench player at the start of the year (Travis Snider) has been replacement level since rejoining the team.

Center Field – 5.7 WAR, 2nd

There’s not much to say here with Andrew McCutchen making up the bulk of the position. Although I will point out that it’s pretty impressive that this is his worst year over the last four years, with a 5.8 WAR, and the Pirates are still having their best record during that span. A lot of this is probably due to the poor start to the season, which definitely hurt the Pirates, but wasn’t really something they could do anything about.

Right Field – 0.5 WAR, 12th

Once again, this isn’t as much due to Gregory Polanco (2.0 WAR) as it is the bench players. Some of them were double counted here, with Lambo and Tabata showing up in both left and right field. Corey Hart shows up here, along with showing up at first base. This continues the trend that the bench was an issue for most of the year.

Overall Offense

The biggest issues for the offense were first base and the bench. Specifically at first base the issue was defense, and that was a problem all around the field. Depending on which metric you looked at, the Pirates were anywhere from the middle of the pack in the NL to the bottom of the pack. They were lower in UZR, although that throws out any play with defensive shifts. They’ve done will with Defensive Runs Saved the past few years, and didn’t have a horrible season this year, ranking fifth in the NL. However, their DRS was 2, which was down from 36 last year, and 68 the year before.

If you’re looking for 3-6 extra wins, you’ve found it here. Of course, the flip side to this is that they sacrificed defense to go with guys who had strong offensive seasons, like Jung-ho Kang at shortstop, Neil Walker at second, and Alvarez at first. Unless you find a guy who can play strong defense with the same offense (aka, a superstar), then you’re probably going to downgrade the offense and upgrade the defense, meaning that a defensive upgrade isn’t going to bring those extra wins without any losses from the current total.

The bench was an issue at the start of the year, but not really something that would have been solved by keeping Travis Snider. He had a great first week of the season in Baltimore, but would have spent that time on the bench behind Gregory Polanco in Pittsburgh. After that, he was replacement level, and was eventually released by a Baltimore team that needed outfield help. A better bench might have led to 1-2 extra wins, at best, but unless those wins came against the Cardinals, they weren’t making up ground here.

Starting Rotation – 16.8 WAR, 4th

The biggest complaint here will be Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. Some people will say that Morton and Locke cost the Pirates the division. But the reality is that the Pirates had one of the best rotations in baseball, and that included Morton and Locke. Morton had an 0.9 WAR, and Locke had a 1.6 WAR.

Locke’s WAR ties for 82nd out of 154 qualified starters (using 70+ innings as a qualifier, just to get 150+ starters on the list, or five per team). Morton tied for 113th on that list. When you look at the ERA, they are both much lower, with Locke at 118 and Morton at 129.

This could point back to the defensive problems. Both pitchers had much better advanced metrics, and FanGraphs WAR is based off FIP, rather than ERA. They’re both heavy ground ball pitchers, and unlike Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett, they don’t strike out a lot of guys, which makes it harder to offset the defensive issues behind them.

You could say that Morton and Locke could be upgraded over, and you’d be right. But it would be difficult to find an upgrade, and the truth is that a better defense would have probably upgraded their numbers (although I’d put a big blame for Morton on his struggles versus left-handers, more than simply bad defense).

As for the rest of the rotation, the Pirates made one of the best moves of the year when they acquired J.A. Happ, who put up a 2.0 WAR for them in the final two months, and was a huge replacement for A.J. Burnett, and eventually pushed Locke and Morton to fifth and sixth starter roles, while also allowing for much-needed rest for Liriano and Cole.

Bullpen – 4.5 WAR, t-2nd

The Pirates had the best relief combo in the majors in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. They added Antonio Bastardo as their second lefty, went with Arquimedes Caminero as a project, used Jared Hughes as a seventh inning guy, and for the most part, these moves worked. They later upgraded the middle relief spots, adding Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria at the deadline. It’s hard to find fault with any of their moves here.

Where Could They Improve?

Looking at the overall season, it’s hard to find many cases where the Pirates made a wrong move. In fact, in most cases, they made some of the best moves in baseball.

Francisco Cervelli acquired for Justin Wilson to replace Russell Martin, and then they replace Wilson by trading Joely Rodriguez for Antonio Bastardo. That’s a series of shrewd moves that not only replaced Martin’s value, but saved a ton of money.

Jung-ho Kang signed for $11 M guaranteed, plus a $5 M posting fee, and then going on to put up a value over double what the Pirates paid to get him. That was the steal of the off-season.

A.J. Burnett was a bit of a gift, since he wanted to end his career in Pittsburgh, and gave the team a discount. But they managed to fix him and get him back on track again.

They got a value reliever at the start of the year in Caminero. They got a value reliever mid-season in Joe Blanton. And they got the biggest value of the deadline when they landed J.A. Happ for Adrian Sampson. The deadline values also included Blanton, plus trades for Joakim Soria, Michael Morse, and Aramis Ramirez. Based on the combined WARs, the trade deadline brought an additional 3.6 WAR.

The biggest complaint, once again, was the bench and the defense. But changing the defense means you go a totally different route with your infielders, and the bench has a minimal upgrade. Neither move would have guaranteed they caught the Cardinals.

There is one other thing that stands out here, which I haven’t covered above. That is their record against NL Central teams, specifically the Reds (6-10) and the Brewers (9-10). Winning records against those two teams, who ended up as two of the worst teams in the NL, would have definitely closed the gap against St. Louis. On the flip side of this, they went 11-1 against the Dodgers and the Mets. They also went 6-1 against the Giants, which is the only non-playoff team above .500 right now. They probably wouldn’t be as close to the Cardinals without these performances.

I’m not sure what the trend really says with their records against the Reds and Brewers. Obviously you want to win those games, but it’s not as easy as just wanting to win them. If it was, baseball would be a pretty easy game. And the fact that the Pirates have done so well at every position, and have done so well as a whole on the season, including beating up on some of the best teams in the NL, makes this more frustrating. It’s definitely not a talent issue, and the fact that they’ve beat up on other losing teams shows it’s not a preparation issue. It’s frustrating to not have an answer, but it seems like this could be chalked up to the randomness of baseball. It’s something where you can point to those games and say that a few extra wins against the Reds or Brewers would have won the division. But there’s really no solution presented here.

The reality is that the Pirates were a great team this year, and made some of the best moves in baseball. Their biggest problem is that the Cardinals were better, and also had some value moves of their own, along with stronger depth and defense. Going forward, the Pirates should definitely focus on that defense, while trying not to lose too much of the offense. They should also try to improve their depth some more, and that will happen next year with all of the top prospects ready to make the jump to the majors.

As for this year, if the Pirates were in any other division, we’d be celebrating what an amazing season they had, and talking about all of the great moves that got them here. Instead, they happen to be in the division with the only team that’s better, and I have a hard time faulting them for that stroke of bad luck.

**I’m flying up to Pittsburgh tomorrow to cover the final series of the year. I’ll stick around in Pittsburgh for a few days after that, covering the Wild Card game on Wednesday, and then hopefully it will be off to St. Louis after that.

**Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell Lead a Loaded Altoona Top 10 Prospect List. We continue our top 10 season recaps with the most loaded team in the system this year, the Altoona Curve.

**Garcia and Tucker Among Best Prospects in the SAL. The breakout player of the year gets some good recognition. The BA lists are a bit weird, as their team lists can often conflict with their overall lists. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cole Tucker gets rated higher than Yeudy Garcia in their Pirates top 30 at the end of the year, even though Garcia was rated higher in the SAL list.

**Two years ago on October 1st, this happened. Hopefully a strange series of events will also lead to the Pirates beating up on another ace next Wednesday. Although it’s much more difficult to make a chant out of “Arrieta”.

First Pitch

  • I have the best chant idea…prior to the PED laced Arrieta, i heard that his HS classmates would tease him in swim class by calling him AREOLA……something about the huge area around his nipple or something LOL….lets flash him back to high school….
    AIR-E-OLA…could have it done in rounds between RF and LF….goofy as it is….any edge might help

  • How bout not rostering the horrible Radhames Liz and avoiding the negative 2.07 WPA he contributed some killer losses to Cards, Cubs and Brewers. His inability to close out the game vs the Cards in April was a huge one. Would have been 2 game difference in standings alone.

  • No one wants to hear it, because it’s like a religion around here to praise the Snider trade, but the fact is that if you replace our backup OF’s performance through July with Snider’s performance through July, that’s two wins right there.

    • It wasn’t the trade of Snider but the assumption that Corey Hart could be an effective bench player and be good defensively in RF or 1B that was the problem. Replace Hart with say a Deibinson Romero (3B/1B) or Jaff Decker (OF) and the Pirates would have won several more games by avoiding the miscues Hart made.

    • Its literally not 2 wins, at least go read up on WAR and you’ll see why thats an absurd comment. Almost no player is worth 2 wins in 2-3 months.

      • Using bbref, Snider was a +1 player for the Orioles, and all the backup OF the Buccos rolled out combined for around -1.

        If you use fangraphs, you get snider at +0.3, and Tabata, Hart, Lambo, and Hernandez, Lombardozzi at -1.6.

        I know the math is tricky, but it does work out to a difference of 2. Maybe next time look it up before assuming you know the answer.

        • No offense, but thats either being intentionally dumb or just not caring. The way you are using that difference does not mean we would have literally gained 2 wins in the standings.

  • –Never pitched Morton or Locke after about 2/3 of the season, they lost whatever they had; everyone saw it but manager..

    (Going forward.Cut Morton, Locke and Pedro or trade them for whatever they can get, ideally with PA going to the AL. Resign JHapp.)

    –With BP strength, should have pulled Morton and Locke–ignoring how bad they might feel–at the slightest appearance of letting too many men reach base by whatever means.

    (Going forward, learn this lesson from 2015.)

    –Didn’t spend enough time teaching OF and base running fundamental–with Polanco the worst example.

    Spend more time with our starting OF, “teaching them” how to cover for one another, how to hustle to balls and get strong accurate throw in every time–since you can’t assume an aggressive runner won’t try for the extra base–and have Bill Virdon or some hit 500 balls a week off the RF fence, wall, screen, scoreboard so Polanco would get some idea of bounces.

    Better yet, recess and rebuild the wall so that the off the wall bounces are truer.

    (Going forward, stress this next Spring since it wasn’t done or done properly this Spring.)

    –Hurdle got too enamored with SRod’s utility play and failed to notice his lame bat.

    (Going forward, learn from this 2015 mistake.)

    First Base was a waste land.

    (Going forward spent a lot of BN’s money and try to sign FA Chris Davis per year for $25 Mil for five years; plays the corner OF positions and against lefty pitching; has hit 40 or more dingers in two fo the past 3 years. Make Bell his backup, playing all three of those positions and learn from on the job training.)

    (Excuse any typos.)

  • Nobody’s mentioned Hurdle yet, so I’ll throw in…

    Clint has often bemoaned that there are two seasons – the regular season from April through August and then September, when rosters are expanded.

    However, he himself has exhibited two different seasons in an altogether different way: from April through August he was reticent to remove a starter (and sometimes relievers) when it was readily apparent to everyone watching that the roof was about to cave in. Yet in September, he’s suddenly Captain Hook.

    IMO, a few earlier hooks in the first five months might’ve produced an extra win or two.

  • Tim you really ought to know that you can’t use accumulated WAR to analyze a team. It is not a counting stat. The offensive component of WAR is, but the defensive component is a rate stat. The combination of the two makes for an interesting tool for individual players, but you can’t just add it up and come up with a “team” number.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the limitations of this kind of analysis, but I fear that some of your readers may not be, so I thought I’d chime in.

  • Also, Kang needs to stop throwing bats into the stands.

  • On thing in the article was not mentioned.
    Yes, I realize its hard to improve on 96+ wins,
    but a big decision was made early in the season.
    It was decided to go with Locke over Worley.
    What if the decision had gone the other way and
    Locke had been moved to the bullpen?
    Do you think we would have added a win or two
    or lost and additional game or two?
    I also realize than in the long term plan, prior to the
    injuries, neither were supposed to be in the lineup
    after July.

  • I may have missed it in Tim’s excellent piece. Or someone else may have mentioned it. But they need to do something about the stolen bases. With AJ retiring, it may improve right there, but there are other violators. And sorry but Vita Bella is not innocent either. He will probably give up 100 SBs before the year is over which is 60 more than the top catchers in the league. Thats a lot of extra bases. I know its not all on him, but some of it is.

    I would also like to see the TOOTBLANS cut down, but im not sure Pirates Prospects and their commenters recognize that “advanced stat” yet. 😉

    • While we do make blunders that can be avoided, to a certain degree our speed has allowed the players to be more aggressive and thus at times more prone to TOOTBLANS for some fans.

      Not all TOOTBLANS are created equal, and some come with the idea that plus speed means take more chances.

      Also, Cervelli sitting at 15th in baseball in CS. So not great, but if we assume a portion of that is thanks to poor times to the plate, he’s really doing okay.

      • All fair Luke. But i still think Maddon and Matheny are going to run as much as they can until Cervelli and the Pirates can stop it.

        I dont want NMR to hit me with #analysis and I know you know this. But man, even that snap throw to first Martin had, kept teams more honest.

        • Ha, I try to save that for the real winners.

          Both of your points are grey areas for me, FWIW. I don’t think there was really any evidence that the Pirates were hurt by allowing a few more stolen bases with two outs than other teams, but I also don’t think it’s a bad idea to stop doing that.

          I’ll also very much agree with you on Cervelli’s role. Teams run on reputation as much as they run on numbers, in my opinion. Yadi isn’t close to being what he once was, yet you *still* don’t see guys running on him. The pitchers deserve the lion’s share of blame, but Cervelli doesn’t seem to be making clubs think twice very often.

          As for the running game, I’ll call BS on Luke’s theory by simply citing the TOOTBLAN definition. Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop. I don’t see many folks complaining when Marte or Polanco are thrown out aggressively trying to stretch a single into a double, I see people getting upset when either of those guys wanders around a base without any clue of the situation before inevitably being caught like a deer in the headlights.

          The TOOTBLAN’s make it hard for folks to realize those guys are actually good baserunners overall because those mistakes are a hell of a lot easier to remember than a good baserunning, but I don’t blame them on anything but focus.

          • I think the more times those players make the obvious mistakes, the more a small but not insignificant number of fans overreact to any questionable call those runners make that results in an out. I’ve seen more fans than i’d like assume if those guys are out by more than a bang-bang play its a mistake.

            The obvious, true TOOTBLANS are valid but personally i do see fans assuming any Polanco or Marte play that results in him out by 2 feet is dumb. We basically agree that they make more mistakes than they could, but i hold the position that people overestimate how often that happens because of the reputation and not the reality of their baserunning skill.

            I also think Marte has gotten better at it than when he first arrived, and the most egregious stuff this year has been Polanco. Which hopefully bodes well for Polanco going forward.

            • Marte was one of the most valuable base runners in the game, this season he has been less aggressive and is merely average.

              • Idk, im not ready to make a full and complete link between Marte’s struggles and just being less aggressive. I’d wait another year to see if its an anomaly or if he really is being less aggressive and thus worse.

                Not an easy area to gain a ton of insight from due to a ton of factors going into his success rate going 1st to 3rd and 2nd to home. Some will blame Sofield, some his aggressiveness, and im sure some might write it off as pure luck.

                • I’m also not terribly confident in BsR ratings in the first place. A 4-run difference between Neil Walker and Starling Marte seems awful tough to justify.

                • My point is Marte isn’t a better base runner.

                  • My point is, you dont know that at all. It could be, but 1 years sample size is nowhere near enough to make that statement definitively. Marte had a worse year, but the reasons for that can be many and varied.

                    It’ll take more than one poor year to really see that clearly. He wasnt a better baserunner this year, but it could be due to a ton of other factors or pure noise.

                    • You started off by saying Marte appears to better at certain aspects of base running, this isn’t demonstrated in his performance this season.

                      I’m not commenting on his true talent just merely his performances relative to the two prior seasons, he took extra bases at a lower rate, grounded into double plays at a higher rate, stole bases at the same rate thus his overall rating is worse.

        • The potentially more “scary” thing for me is they were clear the previous year that they made SP’s times to the plate and controlling the running game a priority. Then, it disappeared for guys like Morton. Im relatively not terrified at doing it differently with 2 outs, but AJ and Morton are just too slow to the plate.

          Odd that they focused on it, fixed it enough to make it a non obvious flaw (along with a great catcher) but then the issue creeps back up.

          • I mean, you did point out the one variable that unquestionably changed; the catcher.

            The *assumption* is that those pitchers got worse, but it’s not like we have anything close to proof.

            • Well AJ returned, which is pretty clearly a step down since AJ really doesnt pretend to be quick to the plate. Martin wasnt the only change in variables.

              I guess it’d be a case study with Morton. He seemed to be focusing on other parts of his game (release point, etc) and back to being very slow to the plate. AJ and Morton make it very tough to control the running game, and its amplified by Cervelli being non elite at throwing runners out.

          • I thought Cameniro had issues with it too.

            • Could be, i didnt really look at relievers as its a really SSS and idk if its really all that fair to judge from one season and assume the cause is any one thing.

              Caminero could be the issue due to slow times, or a few decent times could have resulted in poor throws from a C. They also might see Stewart at C more times than a SP or another RP.

  • The primary reason the Cardinals are ahead of the Pirates is their pitching OPS against w/RISP. They are the only NL playoff team with a better OPS against w/RISP [.618] vs. OPS against with nobody on [.709] (I was too lazy to look at all the other teams). This is similar to what they did in 2013 with batting w/RISP. The good news for next year is that this not a repeatable “skill”; the bad news, is they will just find something else to excel in!!

    Question for Tim (or anyone else for that matter): I thought that earlier in the season (maybe at the All Star Break), the Pirates were leading (or close) in pitching GB% and % of converting GB into outs. Is that still true?

    • Good thought, but the real reason the Cardinals won so many is that their #5 pitcher as ranked by ERA was Michael Wacha (3.38) who went 17 – 7. Their #4 was Lannce Lynn (3.06) who went 12-10. Their combined record was 29 – 17 compared with Locke (4.49) and Morton (4.81) who combined for 17 – 20. No ned to look any further than that. The good news is that in the playoffs only the top 3 pitch. The Cardinals won’t be able to use their greatest strength except in relief., which will help the Pirates should we beat the Cubs.

      • We can agree to disagree on this, but I believe that you’re looking at the results while I’m looking at the underlying cause of these results. I believe that the reason the Cards pitchers are having these kinds of results is the way they pitch w/RISP, which again is not repeatable. I mean, Garcia, Martinez & Lackey have all lowered their ERA by over a full run this year. Why is that?

        As a team, if they pitched the same w/RISP as they did with the bases empty (which every team except the Cards has pitched WORSE, so I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here), they would have a total team OPS against of .709. The two teams closest to that stat are the Giants (.701 w/618 runs scored against) and Miami (.717 / 663). Both of those are more runs scored against than the Pirates.

        The conclusion here is that if the Cardinals weren’t lucky pitching w/RISP, they would have given up more runs than the Pirates and scored fewer runs than the Pirates. That most likely would have led to fewer wins than the Pirates.

        Be that as it may, I am actually more interested in the question I asked about the GB % & converting GB into outs.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    October 2, 2015 10:42 am

    How about:
    (1) showing up against the likes of the Reds and Brewers
    (2) doing something to address the disaster called first base (I would have moved Walker there or brought up Bell, and played a combo of Kang, Hanson, at second base)
    (3) Not insisting that having Morton and Locke in the rotation down the stretch was adequate – there were inhouse options, that although were not perfect, were better tha those two.When they did not do the bold move of giving Glasnow a start or two, to see how he could handle it, they conceded the division. Even the kid in Altoona – Kuhl? He would have been an upgrade over either of Morton and Locke. When AJ was hurt, we were playing with a 3 man rotation.

    • #analysis

    • You lost me after #1, brother.

    • Step 1: Over state position on Pirates record against Reds and Brewers
      Step 2: Either say defense or Pedro and act like Walker could play 1B with little to no practice, but (and its crucial) ignore how his offense rates as a 1Bmen
      Step 3: Say Locke and Morton and rant
      Last Step: Act like Glasnow is a “bold” move and not stupid.

      Thus completes the list of your posts about 75% of the time. Pick 2 of those 4 and press post.

      • If the Pirates really wanted to win they shoulda brought up Montana DuRapau because stats.

        • Id appreciate that promotion just to hear our announcers say his last name the first few times they had to.

      • I do not agree with moving Walker to 1B with little to no practice. I am beginning to think that those who have been calling for him to move to 1B are not crazy and that the lost offense might be made up for with improved defense at both 1B and 2B.

        • Harrison likely the guy who moves to 2B, so even the improved defense comes with (likely) less offense. So you gain defense at 1B and 2B, lose offense at 2B, and hopefully get similar wRC+ stuff at 1B.

          I dont hate the move, but i dont see it as highly rewarding. They arent playing Hanson at 2B on OD, so someone has to cover 2B or 3B until Kang is healthy. And once Kang is healthy, Hanson isnt really the best option for 2B.

  • Maybe if would of kept Pedro in games longer, we might of won more games. Yes, everyone knows about his defense. He mad a lot of errors. I don’t think he ever found a glove he was comfortable with.

  • I think this is a pretty good look at the Pirates strengths and flaws, by stripping away context by using WAR you lose some information, (the Cardinals were the 2nd best team ever at stranding base runners,) but there isn’t really a better way to do it.

    Also good point about the Pirates records inside and outside the Central, I dislike analysis of the season that treats all the good outcomes as given and then purports the Pirates could be better if they changes this or that bad outcome.

    The one area I disagree with is Lock and Morton, by Runs Allowed WAR both were replacement level pitchers, yes sub-par infield defense is going to hurt ground ball, lower strikeout pitchers more, but they didn’t help themselves. Both struggled from the stretch, by FIP.

    Pitcher: Bases Empty / Runners On
    Locke: 3.27 / 4.75
    Morton: 3.79 / 4.66

    The NL average increase in FIP in these situations is around .25 points. Morton’s inability to hold runners didn’t help.

    In some ways the Pirates hand was forced, but when you have an organizational philosophy of, pitch framing, turning ground balls into outs, and limiting extra base hits in a pitcher’s park, and you begin trading fielding for hitting there will be some spillover effects.

    • You nailed it, Brother Andrew!

    • Andrew, answer this for me (because I am, slowly, coming around to this idea)…how do you think a shift of Walker to 1B from 2B and moving Hanson/Harrison would impact the defensive numbers on the right side of the infield. You would get greatly improved UZR at both 1B and 2B as well as (likely) fewer aggregate errors. Neil Walker’s expected offensive contribution is, likely, .750-.760 OPS. He has had a .750+ OPS in each season from 2012-on. Pedro has a .783 OPS. Walker has a 107 OPS+/wRC, Pedro has a 112 OPS+/wRC…the slight loss in offense offset by the huge improvement in defense (likely) would make the switch a plus, no?

      Walker is a -7.6 UZR 2B…Pedro a -13.1 UZR 1B. Josh Harrison is a 0.0 UZR 2B.

      I think the loss offensively from the downgrade at 2B from losing Walker to 1B and the loss of Pedro offensively with Walker at 1B would be more than made up for by the defensive runs saved.

      Thoughts?

      • I think you are going to need more granular data like BABIP on grounders to the right side, and defensive numbers with shifts included. How much value does a glove first 2nd basemen or all glove have on a team that shifts heavily.

        I never viewed Walker to first as a tenable situation, you would cost him greatly in free agency and for the Pirates you are setting a pretty strict ceiling on what type of value you can get at 1B while paying Walker $10 million. Find a cheap stop gap with a little more upside.

  • The Pirates had a great year, and in my opinion will win the play in game. 4 things I took away that the Buccos could improve upon are the following;
    1) fundamentals of baseball 119 errors is way to many. 20 by Pedro really sucked. If you want to win more games quit giving the other team extra outs.

    2) Small ball, we don’t have a big bat we have to get a couple hits in a row. We don’t run the bases well either, which probably why we don’t steal as much has we should. Marte should have 40 steals and Polanco should have 30, Cutch around 20. No one can bunt to move the guy over.

    3) Morton and Locke, EV was a little to much $ when he went to KC. But if you switch him out w Locke we probably win the division. I would move on from Morton also he struggles 4 months out of the year. Hope they resign Happ and he takes AJ spot and the young guns are up by June 1st.

    4) days off, we gave too many guys days off all year. The basketball theory sounds nice. But in the 4th qtr all of Golden States keys guys played. Hurdle gave guys days off against divisional opponents all year.

    Dream thing for me would be get Dee Gordon from MIA. This would solve the day off problem by moving players, give us a true lead off hitter that can steal second and get better defensively.

    Next year the Buccos will call up 4 exciting young players. Hope they are all great, also next year Kang, Polanco and Marte will be better also.

    • I wanted to sign EV AND Frankie last year. I was disappointed when they let him go.

    • I really hope the Pirates front office takes this season seriously and does a couple things this offseason:

      1) Get more depth (so we can field a team similar to what we had when Kang was healthy)

      2) Find at least decent depth options to challenge Locke/Morton. I would re-sign Happ and try to get another pitcher as well as a depth option with some upside (like Happ). This team has talent but we have given away way too many wins when we trot out Morton and Locke. They do not even give us a shot to win if we cant score more than 5 runs!

      As for Dee Gordon, I think the Pirates could get a “poor man’s” Dee Gordon-like performance from Alen Hanson. Let’s just say he can put up a .700 OPS with good defense at 2B. That is, essentially, what Gordon put up last year for LA. I think Hanson is good for 30 steals (Gordon stole 64). Add that to Polanco (30) and Marte (40 in a full season?) and the Pirates would be in a decent position. I hate to see us move Walker because of depth concerns…but I would like to see Hanson get a shot.

      • One of the deepest teams in the league needs more depth. Good luck. All we need is a team that has a ton of starters on the bench and all is well. Enough starters that an actual starter can get hurt and we have his replacement plus the replacement for the replacement.

        • Except for the fact that a lot of that depth is evaporating in the offseason. No Aram, no AJ, Soria and Blanton potentially gone…and decisions o Pedro and Walker. So, yes, we need to maintain our depth.

          • Your infield is still going to have, at some point in the season, Mercer/Harrison/Kang, and likely 1 of Walker or Pedro at least. Thats already covering the 4 infield spots, with a guy in AAA capable of providing depth if needed. Meaning you are a FA backup IF type away from done. A not over the hill 3B/SS backup and you have better depth that most.

            Yes, we cant get rid of Pedro+ Walker and sign no one and be fine. But without really trying we’ll have decent depth going into next year. Sign 2 bench guys for the infield, 1-2 SPs and your fine. Already deep at C, already pretty deep in the infield, plenty of options in the OF if someone goes down. I dont spend time worrying about the bullpen and replacing Gomez/Mazzaro/Worley/Blanton because i just named 3-4 guys people thought we needed to keep in that role.

  • McCutchen’s poor start in April was bookended in September though they did continue winning.

    • True, but I think Cutch was below the bar for different reasons in those two months. In April he just stunk. In September I think the loss of Kang in the 4 hole really hurt him. Teams simply wouldn’t pitch anything over the plate. He got frustrated and swung at pitches he shouldn’t have and had a low BA, but with the walks had a high OBP.

      • Kang was mostly hitting in the 5th hole, but with Ramirez and Kang behind him teams had to really worry about the heart of our lineup. They dont any more.

        Clint Hurdle NEEDS to play Cervelli in the 2-hole with Marte batting 5th behind Ramirez.

  • Points to include in this analysis:

    1. Pitcher injuries. The Pirates lost starts from potential contributors AJ Burnett, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham and even Kyle McPherson. Taillon’s absence was especially painful because the Pirates could count on him to provide numerous quality starts.

    2. Position player injuries: It would have helped had Lambo remained healthy and had provided offense off the bench. Moreover, Harrison hit well after a slow start. His injury cut off his resurgence just when he appeared to have returned to his 2014 norm. Kang was a 4-win player before his injury abruptly terminated his season. Hart’s injury seemed inevitable, and his career likely has come to an end.

    3. The Cardinals had their share of injuries. But, their pitching staff performed well above the mark set by the more reliable pitching metrics. This Cardinals team was not as good as its record.

    If the Pirates manage to beat the currently remarkable Arrieta, I like our chances playing the Cards and Mets or Dodgers.

    • I’d say monday night’s game was the Cardinals season in a microcosm. 16 LOB. How many times can a team play with fire and walk away from it? That game was as frustrating to watch as last night’s Steeler game.

      • Not that there’s a perfect way to measure this, but I bet you didn’t realize the Pirates were the 8th best team in Major League Baseball with runners in scoring position. 3rd best in the National League.

        Those games like Monday are obviously the ones we remember the most as fans, but that also skews our perception as to how good club the actually was.

        • Oh, I absolutely realize how good the Bucs are with RISP. The Cardinals ability to continually escape jams was what made it so frustrating.

          • Ahh, I see what you’re saying.

            • I’ve been accused of drinking the P2 Kool Aid on other sites.

              • Ha, yeah, the last dying gasps of an ignorant argument seem to always include the words “Kool Aid”.

                I’ve cut down my Pirate commenting to this site only because there’s enough disagreement that it isn’t an echo chamber of guys patting each other on the back for parroting the same ideas while also rarely stooping to those silly, tough guy arguments.

        • I would wager that the Pirates win that game if JHK is in the lineup.

    • Steve: Throw Brandon Cumpton in No. 1 right behind AJ Burnett. Taillon was going to be a half-year pitcher at best due to his rehab, and Kingham was a maybe. The guy who has really stepped up in 2015 is Chad Kuhl – he had only a few bad outings, throwing a FB in the upper 90’s, and is a 50% + GB pitcher. I thought he should have been promoted to AAA before the end of the season, and I think his success made other pitchers available for trades to help the team down the stretch.

      • Kuhl reminds me of McPherson. Let us hope he remains healthy.

        I thought of mentioning Cumpton, but I did not consider him a significant loss when compared to the others. His ML success was always a surprise to me.

    • FWIW, McPherson pitched in relief at AA for the Rays.

      • Yep. He wasn’t providing mid-rotation starts for the 2015 Pirates because injuries wrecked his once promising career. These injuries made him an organizational player.

    • Good points Steve. Our Pitching depth was sorely tested by all those injuries. Although counting on Taillon for “to provide numerous quality starts” is not even close to being a given. Been many a good MLB SP who struggled mightily when first called up.

    • I like our chances against the Cards and Mets/Dodgers as well…but the first game is the hard one…and we needed to win the division. April was a big culprit and so was our issues without our division.

      The loss of Kang is HUGE in my opinion (if not a completely obvious statement). He was the one other really dangerous bat in the lineup and also gave the option to Hurdle to put Ramirez at 1B and give us, maybe, marginally better defense at the position while having the same bat. His loss is a monumental loss to this team and changes the complete makeup of the lineup. No coincidence that Cutch has struggled since it happened either.

  • How could Lambo be a -.6 when he had about 20 ABs. The guy missed the entire year. Fact of the matter is the Cards played awesome this year as did the Bucs. No shame in how we finished. I personally would not have counted on both Locke and Morton to be good but then again I am not sure we were not forced into it by injuries.

  • “Unless you find a guy who can play strong defense with the same offense (aka, a superstar), then you’re probably going to downgrade the offense and upgrade the defense, meaning that a defensive upgrade isn’t going to bring those extra wins without any losses from the current total.”

    Probably the most important line of the entire article, and basically sums up why the “what could the Pirates have done differently” question is so difficult.

    It’s easy to say “defense”. Of course it was defense! But that’s really living in the fantasy world where we get to keep all of a given player’s good things *and* fix all their bad things. Baseball doesn’t work like that.

    The Pirates, quite obviously, will have an extremely difficult time improving this team. You don’t win 95+ by accident. But what I could see them do is more of a re-tooling. They’ve very clearly pushed the direction of the organization toward a high contact, defensively versatile player type. Moving on from Walker and Alvarez would be somewhat of a final step toward that sort of transition at the Major League level. Just hope for a massive improvement by Josh Bell in the first few months of next season.

    • If you are talking about his work at AA and AAA, it would be near impossible for him or anyone else to make a massive improvement on what he did in 2015. But, I am pretty sure the first few months of 2016 will be spent marking time at AAA until Mid-June! If they want to keep Walker, and he wants to stay regardless of position, he could be our starting 1B for most of the first 3 months.

      Do you or anyone else know what the LAD gave to the Pirates in the way of money for 2015 and 2016 for Morse? That could tell a lot about whether he stays or not.

      • You missed the entire point of my post if you think it would be near impossible for Bell to make an improvement.

        Alvarez has hit exactly league average for a first baseman. That would be an excellent, if not unexpected, result from Josh Bell initially. What Alvarez struggled with was defense, and Josh Bell was still dropping basic catches in the last game of the season. Yes, a massive improvement needs to be made in order to count on him being the contact/defense guy the Pirates have been moving towards.

        As for Morse, I had a couple guys give me a really good explanation a couple weeks ago that I’ve totally forgotten…I think it ends up being something like $4m that the club is on the hook for next year.

    • With the exception of Cervelli and perhaps Kang one can make a cogent argument that the rest of the position players underperformed compared to their potential. The 2016 Pirates can inprove without changing any players simply by having all the players perform at their potential.

    • There is one thing that was missed in this article and I think is a big contributing factor in “what the Pirates could have done”…Managing. There were so, so many odd, if not completely crazy, managerial decisions throughout the year that contributed if not down-right-caused losses by the Pirates. If managers had a WAR, Hurdle’s wouldn’t be positive.

      • I see no actual proof of this other than fans constantly going “he costs us wins”. Which means fans literally think we have 100-110 win talent and Hurdle stops us from being one of the best teams in a few decades.

        Hurdle absolutely makes mistakes, but fans of all teams do this dance where they hate their managers faults and treat them as so bad its deadly and ignore the fact that nearly all managers have one area they kinda suck at. Hurdle absolutely isnt a replacement level manager that is stopping this team from winning more games. What he might cost ya in a few in game “what is he doing” he might easily win back in his ability to get the most out of players and keep a team very much together.

        Cards fans hate Matheny for parts of his game, but PGH fans act like he’s largely great at what he does. You switch them, i guarantee the same thing would happen.

  • This team had warts, (every team does….even the 27 Yankees had poor catching), but we won 96 and maybe NINETY-NINE games!

    I will take that every year!

  • The Pirates were lucky to some extent. Cervelli wasn’t projected to be as productive, Kang was a crap shoot even though they scouted him extensively and Happ turned into a real surprise. Next year they need to make some pretty drastic decisions with Walker and Alvarez. They need to look at defensive improvements at RF, 2B and 1b. Yes RF! Whether Polanco is the answer or not he needs to improve. Also base-running was a disaster. That could be coaching.

    • You had better check the numbers on base running. You might be surprised.

      • Yeah, bleacher report listed their top 40 corner OF and Polanco was in the teens. They praised his baserunning. I know earlier this year I said when Meadows is ready, the Bucs should trade Marte but I’m starting to change my tune. Marte might be a free swinger but he’s the best defensive OF in the NL and he’s mentally strong. I’m not sure Polanco ever will be. I think the biggest thing that separates Marte, Cutch, and Kang from Polanco and Alvarez is mental toughness. Polanco and Alvarez are loaded with talent. I know that’s a recurring topic of discussion. I also think it’s a reason why the Cards continue to have success. I think they purposely seek out mentally tough players. Look at Piscotty and Grichuk. They are a pair of all-American boys that have always succeeded and ooze confidence.

        • Quite possibly the most racist thing anyone has ever said on this site.

          • Dude, you gotta elaborate. Was it something I said? I could go into detail about how the Cards like the Patriots, Colts, UNC, Duke, and Gonzaga B-Ball teams succeed with an inordinate amount of white players. It’s just an observation. If I were to actually provide an opinion that they succeed specifically because of that then that would be racist. I guess I could’ve pointed out another example but I think upbringing has something to do with it. The fact that Piscotty and Grichuk are white is simply a coincidence. McCutchen is black and he oozes confidence. I guess me saying “all-American” could be construed as racist but that wasn’t my intent and I apologize if it was taken that way.

            • I’ll certainly give you the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t your intent, but I personally believe pushing narratives like that – even if only making an “observation” – only furthers the very real prejudices that exist. Bad timing considering the bullshit Bud Norris article this week.

              • Yeah, I see what you mean. I also think we shy away too often in engaging in any such dialogue for the sake of not offending anyone. I think Jason Whitlock has addressed it before with the Pats and Colts. I just can’t help but think when I watch a shot of the Cards bench that there they’ve got a lot of white guys. I thought the same thing when I watched the Steelers lose to the Patriots. I thought, “dude, the Pats have a white running back and white receiver and they are actually good”. Is it a coincidence or is there something more tactical on behalf of the Patriots roster building? Obviously, anytime something like that mentioned, a slippery slope is being walked but it all goes back to the productivity of the dialogue. I’m not trying to fit a narrative at all. I read that Bud Norris article. I both understand it and don’t. I can’t say that I didn’t get a little upset when I’d watch Carlos Gomez get all demonstrative. I feel the same way when Ovechkin gets all crazy after a goal. At the same time though, if I were in the major leagues, I’d probably watch a homer or 2 as well. When I was in Pony League, I destroyed a ball about 30 feet over the fence. I was a gap-to-gap doubles hitter. I never hit a homer before. I watched that bad boy until it the ground before I started my trot. I think there’s definitely a difference between Jordany Valdespin flipping his bat and Big Papi admiring a homer. I also think the “unwritten rules” thing is BS. Just play the game. If a guy hits a homer off you, strike him out next time. Don’t throw at his head. If Latin players want to be more showy, let them. They are good and add quality talent to the game. The Pirates wouldn’t be where they are without them.

                • I appreciate the reply.

                  FWIW, you certainly didn’t offend me, a (formerly) blond haired, blue eyed ‘merican male. Conversation is fine, or else I wouldn’t have said anything in the first place, I’m just not sure much is ever gained by starting with a stereotype.

        • Some organizations view mental toughness as innate, nature, others view it as something that can be taught, nurture. I haven’t checked the Team Leaderboards split for mental toughness recently but I find it hard to believe that an organization that employs Kyle Stark wouldn’t be ranked in the top half.

    • Why is it luck if the guys they bring in do well? They were lucky to have their decision making process work out well in multiple moves?

      Make move+it work out=luck.
      Make move+player does poorly=morans.

  • It’s a shame the bench faltered this season…It was looked at as a strength at the beginning of the year if I remember correctly.

    • Seriously flawed analysis is needed to make the claim that quite possibly the deepest team in baseball had a flawed bench.

      They didn’t.

  • Pirates had one of their historically best seasons ever. The fact the Cards were even better doesn’t diminish what the Pirates have done. And thankfully in the system MLB currently has in place, the Pirates could have a chance to undo in 5 games what STL did in 162 games.

    Let’s go Bucs!

    • Agree, they played much better than expected, and the Cardinals played just a little bit better. I hope the problems with the bench do not cause problems again next year. For pitching, our BP is very strong going forward and possibly bringing up a SP is the answer for the bottom of the Rotation rather than going onto the market to find better. I hope they find a way to sign Happ for 3 years as the immediate replacement for the retiring Burnett.

      Then decisions/moves involving Alvarez, Bastardo, Walker, and Morton, who combined for more than $24 mil of our team salary in 2015, will have to be made, and these are tough decisions especially for the latter two.

      • It’s nice that our 2 best position prospects in AAA play the exact 2 positions that Walker and Alvarez play.

  • Lind would’ve been an awesome pickup. Probably “the” thing that would’ve thrown them over the top…but this team played incredibly well. Bastardo and Caminero finally came around. Happ, Soria, and Blanton gave everything…and more…that could have been expected. Cervelli or Kang? Wow, it’s nice to have two major contributors to argue between for major pickups…

    What it came down to was this: the Cards were just better. They ditched a solid hurler and pulled in a guy with, almost, a WAR 2.0 higher than Cutch, they lost their top pitcher and kept on rolling. Oh, and Lackey’s production for a quarter of what the Pirates spent for Vance Worley?…can’t compete with that..

    Heck look at the STL rotation of Lackey, Wacha, Martinez, Lynn, and Garcia…for less than $18M, they got 140 starts, 861 innings, and a 2.92 ERA.

    The Bucs finished close…maybe closer than they should have.

    I love my Bucs, but…take note…the Pirates are going to finish closer to the Cubs than they will the Cards…and the Cubs have the means to sign Price, it only gets harder from here.

    • 2nd half Adam Lind: .270/.355/.410 (102 wRC+, 0.4 WAR)
      2nd half Pedro Alvarez: .253/.338/.517 (134 wRC+, 0.7 WAR)

      Brewers missed a huge opportunity to trade Lind when people actually thought he was good.

      • Ah, sorry for the confusion…I was talking about the proposed pickup of Lind during last off season. His 3ish WAR during the first half of the season would’ve been a major help to a team that struggled in the early going.

        • Even at that, I have a really hard time trusting players who are much, much better at Miller Park than elsewhere. Lind had massive home/road splits, to the point where expecting anything close to how far he played over his head in the first half to happen in PNC is a stretch for me.

          He would’ve made the team better, sure, but I don’t think by more than a win or so.

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