Comparing the Pittsburgh Pirates to the National League’s best teams (Part 2)
By Tyler Waite
By all accounts, the Pittsburgh Pirates should be a good team this year. They hope to compete for both a division crown and a deep run in the playoffs. They have a perennial NL MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen, budding superstars in Starling Marte and Josh Harrison, and a potential ace in Gerrit Cole. But how does this young team stack up against the best teams in the National League: specifically, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Washington Nationals, and the St. Louis Cardinals?
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On Monday, I compared the Pirates to those three teams based on their outfields, infields, catching, and starting rotations (in case you missed it, check it out here). But a team needs much more than that in order to be successful. Let’s take a look at some of these other factors.
The Kansas City Royals proved last season how important a good bullpen can be. Many teams have question marks in terms of who will take up the last spots in their respective bullpens, but the stability of the back ends of the bullpens of the best teams in the league always seem to be a constant.
The Pirates have some question marks in their pen, but not at the back end. Mark Melancon returns as the closer, and with his devastating cutter, figures to continue the dominance he’s displayed the last 2 years. Tony Watson will pitch before him as the 8th inning/setup man, and, coming off of a breakout, All-Star season, will add to the dynamic duo at the back end; Melancon and Watson each had ERAs under 2 last season. Offseason acquisition Antonio Bastardo will be a good arm to have in the middle innings, but the rest of the bullpen isn’t determined yet. However, those competing for the final bullpen positions all seem to be impressive.
[The Pirates] have a perennial NL MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen, budding superstars in Starling Marte and Josh Harrison, and a potential ace in Gerrit Cole
The Dodgers have question marks of their own in their revamped bullpen, but once Kenley Jansen is healthy, he’ll be as dominant as any closer in the league, as he’s had an ERA under 3 in each of the 5 seasons he’s pitched in the majors. Veteran Joel Peralta comes over from Tampa Bay to potentially serve as the setup man, and Brandon League and J.P. Howell will help out in the middle innings. The Cardinals have a back end as dominant as any with closer Trevor Rosenthal and setup man Seth Maness, both of whom had ERAs under 3.50 in each of the past 2 seasons. Jordan Walden, Randy Choate, and Matt Belisle will contribute for the Cards in the middle innings. The Nationals will primarily look to closer Drew Storen and former starter Tanner Roark, the odd man out of the team’s super rotation, to replace their dominant reliever from 2014 in Tyler Clippard, who was traded this offseason. Both Storen and Roark had ERAs under 3 last season.
This was easily the toughest category to determine. The Dodgers have too much turnover in their pen and too many question marks beyond Jansen, but the Cardinals, Nationals, and Pirates all have dominant back ends. However, I had to go with the Nationals. The Pirates may have the best back end, but the rest of the bullpen was a liability for them last season, even though it has the potential to be great this year; they have to prove it first.
It’s hard to measure defense without looking at advanced metrics. By looking at team UZR (ultimate zone rating) from 2014, and by using the eye test, we can get an educated idea of which defenses should be good in 2015. In 2014, the Pirates had a team UZR of -40.3, while the Dodgers had a team UZR of -8.3, the Nationals, -6.3, and the Cardinals, 28.5 (according to Fangraphs). By these metrics, 3 of the 4 teams were not very good defensively in 2014.
The eye test proves to be just as valuable for evaluating defense. For the Pirates, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison stand out as positives. Mercer didn’t have a single throwing error last season, while Harrison was a huge improvement over Pedro Alvarez at third. However, Pedro’s defense may still be an issue at first base. The Pirate outfield has the speed to run down any ball, and should be a huge strength for the team.
The Pirates may have the best back end, but the rest of the bullpen was a liability last season, even though it has the potential to be great this year; they have to prove it first
The Cardinals now have Jason Heyward, who may be causing many people to question the validity of WAR with how much his defense adds to his value. Peter Bourjos is a great outfielder to use in a late-game switch for his great defense, although an infield of Jhonny Peralta, Matt Adams, and Kolten Wong in three of the positions seems to be offensively-oriented. The Dodgers have an older infield across the diamond, and with age comes a decrease in speed, which could hurt on defense. Yasiel Puig, however, is a huge strength in the outfield for his speed and energy. Denard Span and Bryce Harper can cover a ton of ground for the Nationals, while the team’s infield is young and fast.
UZR is interesting, as an eye test might disagree that the Cardinals have the best defense. I disagree as well. Overall, I would take the Pirates defense over the rest. The only liability (although it is a big one) is Alvarez, and with his move to first, he should see less opportunity to field balls.
From a managerial standpoint, Pirates fans know and sometimes love Clint Hurdle. His face is always red, and he can never chew enough gum. But he brings more than gum to the table: he’s a players coach, and he’s passionate. However, his late-game decisions are often questionable. Mike Matheny took over a star-studded Cardinals team with a whole lot of history from legendary skipper Tony La Russa. Matheny’s still young, and should only get better with age. Don Mattingly manages one of the game’s biggest markets and has dealt with all-out brawls and multiple big egos in one room. Matt Williams failed to take the Nationals to the World Series last season, as was expected. Expectations are just as high for his team this season.
I have to go with Hurdle here. Matheny took over an already great team and Williams is only entering his second season. Mattingly is managing a team with the highest payroll in baseball by far, while Hurdle manages one with one of the lowest payrolls. While some of his decisions are questionable, the players love Hurdle, and he’s taken the Pirates to back-to-back playoff berths after a 20-plus year hiatus.
The bullpen helped carry the Royals to a World Series berth last season, as did defense and coaching. These elements of the game are extremely important, and will be vital to the powerhouses in the National League in 2015. Stay tuned for the third and final part of this series, where I evaluate intangibles and make a final conclusion as to how the Pirates stack up against the best teams in the NL.
Next: Comparing the Pittsburgh Pirates to the National League's best teams (Part 1)