Joe Knows: Whither Goest the Pirates


Whither Goest the Pirates. A Guest Post by Joe

When May 15 rolled around in the 2009 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had 16 wins and 20 losses, not great but not horrible.  When they took the field on June 15,  the Bucs had 23 wins and 40 losses.

The box score from May 15 shows Akinori Iwamura at second base and Ryan Church in left field.  For much of the season, Iwamura had played second base and for many games Lastings Milledge was in left.

Now fast forward to the present and the box score will show Neil Walker at second and Jose Tabata in left.  Walker and Tabata have both put up better stats than the players they replaced.  The Pirates also upgraded the starting pitching by adding Jeff Karstens and dropping Charlie Morton.

How did a team improve three positions and get worse?

The answer is that they did not get worse, they are just losing more games.  In their first 36 games they gave up eight or more runs 11 times.  In the 27 games since May 15, the Pirates gave up eight or more runs only twice.  Through May 15 they had a record of 6 wins and 1 loss in one-run games and 4-0 in two run games.

Since May 15 they are 3-5 in one-run games and 1-4 in two-run games.  They are playing better and losing more often.  Think that makes no sense?

Look at it this way, instead of getting beat 20 to 0 they are getting beat 4-3.  The Pirates are a team with very little margin for error.  They do not have the hitting to overcome giving runs away.  Take game two of the Tiger series, Pirates lead 2 to 1 into the seventh inning, but a two out error allows two runs to score.   The Pirates come back to tie the game and then lose in the tenth inning.  If the Pirates don’t make the error, perhaps they beat the Tigers 2 to 1.

The less talent a team has the fewer mistakes they can overcome.  It doesn’t take great talent to do the little things right.  Some fielding errors stem from lack of talent, but others stem from lack of fundamentals or lack of concentration.

Base running errors are all from a lack of understanding fundamentals.  Working the pitcher is more a fundamental than a skill.  Another example of a skill is fouling off several pitches, while fundamentals include not swinging at the first pitch after the pitcher issues two walks to the batters in front of you.

Combine lack of talent with lack of fundamentals and you have a team that loses a lot of games.  Position by position the lack of talent is obvious.

The team has two catchers, Doumit hits well enough for a catcher but his defense is not major league average while Jaramillo is a bit better defensively but a poor hitter.

First base is a position in flux.  Clement wasn’t hitting and is gone, Pearce is injured, Jones plays first well enough and hits well enough to make first reasonably talented.

At second, Walker looks good so far but it’s too soon to know if will adjust as pitchers adjust to him.  At shortstop Cedeno would be a reasonable backup, but does not field or hit at a starting shortstop level.  Andy LaRoche has not been hitting and his fielding has been below average for major league thirdbasemen.

Left field is now Tabata and it’s far too soon to know what he will do, but he looks good so far.  Center is McCutchen and he is clearly above average major league talent.  When Jones is playing first, the Pirates have weak bench players in right. Ryan Church is hitting below .200 and Lastings Milledge is around.250 with no home runs.

The starting pitching has talent, but not enough to overcome mistakes.  If you throw a 96 MPH fastball you can get by with slightly missing your spot sometimes, but if you throw a 91 MPH fastball and miss your spot it becomes a home run.

The Pirates pitchers have allowed the third most homers in MLB.  Even when the starters pitch well, the lack of offensive talent makes it hard to win. Against the Tigers, Maholm gave up one run in six innings and Karstens one run in seven innings, but the Pirates lost both.

The Pirates are also the only team in the majors without a pitcher who gone 8 or more innings this season. They are one of three teams without a complete game.

The pen is one area the team has talent. Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek would be welcome on any team in baseball, but they can’t pitch every day.

Fans are clamoring for Pedro Alvarez to be brought up and he should be able to put up better numbers than LaRoche, but don’t expect that to bring a lot more wins.

Put it all together and you have a team that is slowly improving, but not enough to bring more wins.  As the team plays together and players get experience, the Pirates may start to win a few more games.  Also expect the law of averages to swing back and the record to be around .500 in one and two run games.  What will the Pirates’ record be on July 15?

Your guess is as good as mine.