Why the Wheels Could Come Off of the Pirates Season

ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney has predicted that the Pittsburgh Pirates will win the 2015 World Series.

Many feel that the current Pittsburgh roster is better than those of the Pirate teams that won the top Wild Card spot in 2013 and 2014.

And everybody, including me, believes that the Pirates will again be strong contenders for the post-season.

But I’m not willing to ignore the many question marks on this team. Here they are, in no He oparticular order:

* Pedro Alvarez: In his last 725 plate appearances, dating back to the 2013 All-Star break, Alvarez has hit .224/.299/.411 — .710 OPS. He offers little more than power and even that was lacking in 2014. His HR total dropped from 36 in 2013 to 18 last season. Players with Alvarez’s skill-set tend not to age well. Baseball-reference.com lists Butch Hobson as the hitter most comparable to Alvarez. At Alvarez’s current age of 28, Hobson hit .228/.281/.349 — .630 OPS, with 11 HR in 352 PA. At 29, he had a .657 OPS and his career was essentially over.

* Josh Harrison: He was spectacular last year, hitting for an .837 OPS. But that came with a .353 BABIP, which was 78 points higher than his previous career BABIP. His expected BABIP last year (based on line drives, flyballs, groundballs, and infield hits) was .320 and would have dropped his OPS to .775. His career OPS, prior to 2014, was .649. Regression is very likely.

* Corey Hart: He missed all of 2013 after having surgery on both knees and, in 2014, he hit for a career threatening batting line of .203/.271/.319 — .590 OPS. But those are just the most well-known concerns about Hart.

Even in his heyday as a Brewer, Hart’s numbers were greatly aided by playing his home games at Miller Park. In Hart’s career as a Brewer, he had an .891 OPS at home. But when he went on the road – as a Brewer – that number dropped to .762. In 2012, Hart’s last season with the Brewers, he hit for an .987 OPS at home, with 22 HR in 302 PA. On the road, he had a .703 OPS with 8 HR in 320 PA. Even if Corey Hart is healthy, PNC ain’t Miller Park.

* Starling Marte: “What?! Are you kidding me? Starling Marte is more of an MVP candidate than a question mark?!”

In the second half of 2014, Marte hit for a .975 OPS in 206 plate appearance. In the 504 plate appearances he took immediately prior to that – dating back to the 2013 All-Star break – Marte hit .256/.331/.384 — .716 OPS. And those struggles were not a matter of bad luck. He struck out in 28.4% of those 504 PA and his BABIP was a very high .358 during that time.

I understand that Marte has great potential and he demonstrated what he is capable of doing in the 206 PA he took in the second half of last season. But the fact that he hit for a .733 OPS in the second half of 2013 and a .708 OPS in the first half of 2014 says that Starling Marte is no guarantee.

* Gregory Polanco: Polanco has been given the starting RF job – without having to win it – on the strength of nothing more than two excellent months at AAA last season. After being promoted to Pittsburgh, he posted a .650 OPS and looked lost in the outfield. In 2013, he hit for a .762 OPS at Double-A. (The Next Dave Parker or . . .?)

Steamer projects that Polanco will hit for a .689 OPS. Zips has him at .714 and Baseball Prospectus pegs him for a .700 OPS. He may not yet be ready for the major leagues. And the Pirates could end up greatly regretting their trade of Travis Snider (.776 OPS last year) to the Orioles for two fringe prospects, who have yet to play above Single-A.

* Catcher:  Francisco Cervelli doesn’t have to hit like Russell Martin did last season. Russell Martin is not going to hit like Russell Martin did last season. But Cervelli does have to stay healthy and give the Pirates something close to his .729 career OPS. And staying healthy has been a problem for Cervelli.

If Cervelli goes down, the Pirates are left with a choice between Chris Stewart’s very good defense and .596 career OPS; or Tony Sanchez’s moderate hitting potential (career .789 OPS at AAA) and potentially disastrous defense.

* A.J. Burnett: He should be much better than the 4.59 ERA he posted with the Phillies last year. But he is now 38 years old and even his 3.95 xFIP was 14 points worse than the MLB average for starters last season. He could be very good. He could be very bad. And that’s why he’s a question mark.

* Charlie Morton: He is recovering from hip surgery. The last time he did that, he came back to soon and ended up needing Tommy John surgery. If he is healthy, he is the quintessential #3 starter. But is he healthy?

* Vance Worley: As another astounding Pirate reclamation project, Worley had a 2.85 ERA and 3.54 xFIP last year. But let’s not forget what made him a reclamation project: In 2013, he posted a .721 ERA and 4.76 xFIP.

Question Mark: Which Worley will be on the mound for the Bucs this year?

* The Bullpen: Mark Melancon was one of the best closers in baseball last year and Tony Watson is an All-Star set-up man. After that, they are all question marks.

Antonio Bastardo has a terrific strikeout rate and is equally as good against right-handed hitters as he is against lefties. But he struggles with control (4.78 BB/9 last season) and he had a 3.94 ERA and 3.81 xFIP last year.

Jared Hughes pitched effectively last year, but he is not a set-up man. His K rate is low and he depends heavily on fielding and the random placement of the groundballs he induces. His BABIP last year was .246, helping him to an extraordinary 1.96 ERA. In 2013, however, his BABIP was .333 and his ERA exploded to 4.78.

Jon Holdzkom looked great last year; in his first 9 innings in major league baseball, after starting the season in the Independent Leagues. That is the definition of a question mark.

Radhames Liz: He is 31 years old, hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2009, and owns a career 5.92 xFIP.

Arquimedes Caminero: He is 27 years old and spent 7 years in the Florida Marlins minor league system, while pitching just 19.2 MLB innings with an xFIP of 4.41.

Regardless of the question marks, the Pirates do look like contenders; but let’s not pretend that there’s no chance of the wheels coming off.

Starling Marte is No Guarantee

In the second half of 2014, Starling Marte hit like an MVP candidate in 206 Plate Appearances. And those 206 PAs have some expecting him to contend for the 2015 MVP.

But Marte wasn’t so good in the 504 PAs prior to the second half of 2014; for the full year between the 2013 All-Star break and the 2014 All-Star break.

2014 2nd Half 206 .348 .408 .567 .975 8 5.8% 18.0%
July 2013 – July 2014 504 .256 .331 .384 .716 8 6.3% 28.4%



Charlie Morton: The Most Average Starter in Major League Baseball

Being the “most average starting pitcher” in major league baseball is a good thing. It means you’re better than half of the other starting pitchers in the best baseball league in the world. And the pitcher right at the center of that league in 2014 was Pirate starter Charlie Morton.

Take a look at how Morton compares to league average in the statistics which attempt to measure a pitcher’s overall performance.

Morton MLB Average for Starters
ERA 3.72 3.82
FIP 3.72 3.78
xFIP 3.78 3.81
WHIP 1.27 1.27
SIERA 3.73 3.85

Of the 140 MLB starters who pitched at least 100 innings in 2014, Morton ranked 60th in SIERA, 68th in FIP, 71st in xFIP, and 83rd in ERA. The average of those four Morton rankings comes in at 70.5 of 140; as close to being exactly at the mid-point as one can get.

Morton also compares well to the league average batting line. MLB hitters had an average line of .251/.314/.386 — .700 OPS. The league’s line against Morton was .247/.332/.349 — .682 OPS.

Morton was exceptionally good at limiting extra-base hits; as evidenced by his slugging percentage against, which was 37 points below league average. 7.2% of MLB plate appearances resulted in extra-base hits. Against Morton, that number was just 5.4%. Morton’s “on-base percentage against,” however, was 18 points higher than league average; primarily because he was also baseball’s most dangerous pitcher. He led the league by hitting 19 batters with pitches.

Most consider Charlie Morton to be the Pirates fourth best starting pitcher. Some think he shouldn’t even be in the rotation. But if we’re ranking pitchers as numbers 1 through 5, league-wide, it doesn’t take an Arquimedes to calculate that #3 is the mid-point. And Charlie Morton – baseball’s “most average starting pitcher” – comes in right at the middle of the mid-point; making him the Major League’s quintessential #3 starter.

When Gregory Polanco was a Phillie

What’s not to like about a 23-year-old, 6’5, 230-pound, left-handed outfielder with speed and power potential, whom scouts consider a five tool player?

It sure does sound like Gregory Polanco has all the makings of the next Dave Parker. But the 23-year-old described in the first paragraph is not only Polanco, he is also the 2011 version of Philadelphia Phillie Domonic Brown.

Everything that is being said, today, about Polanco was said about Brown several years ago. For instance: In 2010, Baseball Prospectus wrote, “On a pure tools level, (Domonic) Brown has it all . . .”

In 2011, Brown was rated the major leagues’ 4th best prospect by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Prior to last season, Gregory Polanco was rated 10th by Baseball America and 24th by Baseball Prospectus.

And there was reason for Brown to be rated so high.

In Brown’s first AAA season, he hit .346/.390/.561 — .951 OPS. Polanco, in his first season at AAA hit .328/.390/.504 – .894 OPS.

In Brown’s first season at Double-A, he hit .279/..346/.456 — .801. In Polanco’s first season at Double-A, he hit .263/.354/.407 — .762 OPS.

And here is one more similarity between Brown and Polanco.

The full sentence from Baseball Prospectus’ 2010 comment on Brown goes like this: “On a pure tools level, Brown has it all . . . but with his mere 3 home runs in 147 Double-A at-bats, Darryl Strawberry comparisons are more than a little premature.”

Polanco had only 6 home runs in his 243 Double-A at-bats and followed that up with just 7 AAA home runs in 274 at-bats last season.

At age 27, entering his fifth season in Major League Baseball, Domonic Brown now has a career batting line of .248/.308/.412; giving him a career OPS that is just 6 points higher than Jose Tabata‘s.

This is not to say that Gregory Polanco will be a bust. It’s not even to say that he will not be the next Dave Parker. (Though spending 19 years in the majors with a career line of .290/.339/.471 and 339 HR is highly unlikely for any rookie.)

But it is to say (contrary to what many seem to say) that Gregory Polanco is no sure thing.



POLL: Has America Done More Good or More Harm in the World?

Some will complain that “This is a Baseball Blog and it should stick to baseball. If I want politics I’ll go to a politics blog!”

But, more than anything else, this blog is my blog and I’m interested in this question.


Which Pirates Pitcher gave up the Lowest Percentage of Line Drives?

2014 Pirates Pitchers Line Drive Rates

Brandon Cumpton 28.1%

Jeanmar Gomez 25.1%

Stolmy Pimentel  22.2%

Charlie Morton  21.5%

Tony Watson  20.5%

Vance Worley 20.3%

Jeff Locke  19.9%

Mark Melancon 19.7%

Gerrit Cole 19.0%

Francisco Liriano 18.7%

Jared Hughes 18.5%

Edinson Volquez  16.8%

Justin Wilson 14.4%

Team Average  19.8%

League Average 20.8%



Pirate Line Drive Leaders

There are some big surprises near the top and bottom of the 2014 Pirates line drive percentage list.

1. Chris Stewart 29.6%

2. Ike Davis 24.8%

3. Josh Harrison 24.0%

4. Starling Marte 23.5%

5. Neil Walker 22.6%

6. Jose Tabata 21.8%

7. Clint Barmes 21.2%

8. Jordy Mercer 20.1%

9. Travis Snider 19.4%

10. Russell Martin 19.3%

11. Gregory Polanco 19.1%

12. Andrew McCutchen 18.7%

13. Gaby Sanchez 18.4%

14. Pedro Alvarez 15.8%

Team Average: 21.1%

League Average: 20.8%