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.

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.

Pedro is Not Pablo; He’s Pete

There are some who believe that Pedro Alvarez is a similar player to Pablo Sandoval, who just signed a 5-year, $95 million free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox. I don’t see it that way.

Pedro Alvarez was 27 years old during the 2014 season and he has been in the major leagues since his age-23 season of 2010. Here are the respective numbers for Alvarez and Pablo Sandoval from ages 23 through age 27:

Alvarez    :     Sandoval

BB Rate:   9.2%   :   7.5%

K Rate:     29.6%   :   13.4%

Isolated Power:  .201   :    .159

wRC+:   104   :   116

Batting Average:  .235   :   .283

On-Base Percentage: .307   :   .336

Slugging Percentage:  .435  :   .442

OPS:  .742  :   .778

In the key predictive areas of BB%, K%, and Isolated Power, Sandoval is just 68.6% comparable to Alvarez from ages 23 through 27.

The fielding numbers of the two players are also vastly different. Fangraphs rates Alvarez defense at 22.2 runs below average from ages 23-27. Sandoval is rated as 18.3 runs above average. Alvarez’s Defensive Runs Total is -17.0. Sandoval’s Defensive Runs Total is +10.0.

From ages 23 through 27, Sandoval was 14.8 Wins Above Replacement. Alvarez’s WAR was just 5.9.

Now, let’s take a look at the player who is most comparable to Alvarez, from ages 23 through 27, in the key areas of BB rate, K rate, and Isolated Power.

Alvarez   :    Player C

BB Rate:   9.2%   :   8.0%

K Rate:  29.6%   :   27.9%

Isolated Power:  .201   :   .200

wRC+:  104   :   104

BABIP:  .295   :   .300

Batting Average:  .235   :   .242

On-Base Percentage:  .307   :   .309

Slugging Percentage:  .435   :   .443

OPS:   .742   :   .752

In the key predictive areas of BB rate, K rate, and Isolated Power, Player C was 93.6% comparable to Pedro Alvarez from ages 23 through 27.

Alvarez’s fielding is also more similar to that of Player C than it is to that of Pablo Sandoval:

Fangraphs:  Alvarez -22.2  :   Player C  -36.4

Defensive Runs Total:  Alvarez -17.0  :  Player C  -7.0

From ages 23 through 27, Player C’s WAR was 5.5. Alvarez’s was 5.9.

And who is Player C?

Pete Incaviglia.

McCutchen Hits Back After Being Hit

Andrew McCutchen may react angrily when he is hit by a pitch – as he appeared to do last night when he was nailed twice by Brewers starter Matt Garza. But the numbers say that neither being hit nor raising his ire comes close to throwing Andrew off of his game.

McCutchen has been hit 9 times this year. These are the dates when he was hit and his numbers in the game after he was hit.

9/9 vs. Philadelphia: 2-for-4 with a HR and a BB

9/5 vs. Cincinnati: 3-for-5 with 3 singles

8/2 vs. Arizona:  1-for-2 with a BB and a sacrifice fly.

7/22 vs. Los Angeles: 1-for-4 with a double and an RBI.

5/22 vs. Washington:  0-for-4

5/1 vs. Baltimore:  1-for-4 with a double and 2 BB.

In the games after being hit by a pitch, McCutchen’s batting line is .333/.406/.593 — .999 OPS.

We might expect a big performance from him today against the Brewers. But it could be a mere coincidence that he has done well in the 7 previous games that followed his being hit by a pitch.

Expect Extra-Base Hits Against Cubs Starter Wada

Starting pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, who will take the mound against the Pirates tonight, has been hit for a .218 Isolated Slugging (ISO) by right-handed hitters this year.

What is “isolated slugging” and why does it matter that Wada’s is .218?

Isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average and the league average is .143 for right-handed hitters versus left-handed pitchers.

Tsuyoshi Wada’s ISO is 75 points higher than league average . . .  He has been getting pounded with extra-base hits by right-handed hitters – even though his batting average on balls in play against them is 25 points below league average. He has essentially turned the average right-handed hitter into Miguel Cabrera, who has a .206 overall ISO.

Here are the ISOs of Pirate right-handed hitters versus LHP and the Expected ISOs that they would have against Tsuyoshi Wada:

Andrew McCutchen:  .258 /  .393

Gaby Sanchez:  .186  /  .284

Jordy Mercer:  .159  /  .242

Josh Harrison:  .158  /  .240

Starling Marte:  .122  /  .186

Neil Walker:  .105  /  .160

Jose Tabata:  .051  /   .078

Russell Martin:  .015  /  .023

How high is McCutchen’s .394 Expected ISO vs. Tsuyoshi Wada? Babe Ruth’s career ISO was .348.

Wada has been hit for a .760 OPS by right-handed batters. That is 27 points higher than the league average for left-handed pitchers vs. right-handed batters of .733.

Could this evening be “Bombs Away in Pittsburgh, PA?”

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The Cost of Moving Pedro to First-Base

Pedro Alvarez provided the Pirates with 3.1 Wins above Replacement Level last season by hitting 36 home runs with a .770 OPS – and playing league-average defense at third-base.

That last sentence is in italics because it makes a difference – and Pedro Alvarez’s 2014 UZR/150 of -18.6 say that he no longer plays anything close to league-average defense. He has simply lost the ability to make the throw from third to first. And if he must be permanently assigned to first-base, it is going to cost him money and cost the Pirates wins and trade value.

Third-baseman, on average, do not hit as well as first-baseman. So, Alvarez – as a 3B – hitting for a .770 OPS and playing league-average defense is more valuable than Alvarez – as a first-baseman – hitting for a .770 OPS and playing league-average defense. Let’s take a look at the difference.

The MLB average batting line for 3B in 2013 was .259/.322/.411 — .733 OPS. The average for 1B was .261/.336/.436 — .772 OPS. As a 3B, playing league-average defense, Pedro Alvarez was provided a lot of value in 2013. As a 1B, he would have been ordinary.

Therefore, the solution to Pedro’s throwing problems is not as simple as permanently assigning him to first-base. There is a cost involved with that move. The questions are how much; and whether that cost is enough to make it wise for the Pirates to give Pedro plenty of time at 3B to prove that he is a first-basemen.

Here is the math.

Alvarez’s 36 home runs and .770 OPS were worth 3.1 WAR last year as a league-average defensive third-baseman. If he had done the same at 1B, he would have been worth 1.7 wins. That’s a big difference, to both Alvarez and the Pirates.

Alvarez’s free agent value at 3.1 WAR is about $15.5 million per year. Moving to first-base and posting a 1.7 WAR would cost him about $7 million per season, giving him an approximate value of $8.5 million/year when it comes time for him to sign his next contract.

If teams don’t believe that Alvarez can play either 3B or 1B and he ends up as a DH with a .770 OPS, his WAR falls to 1.2. That would give him a free agent value of about $6 million per year. (All, of course, assuming that his hitting rebound from his .717 2014 OPS back to his .770 2013 OPS.)

And, for the Pirates, there is a great difference in the trade value of a third-baseman with a 3.1 WAR and a 1B with a 1.7 WAR or a DH with a 1.2 WAR.

Pedro Alvarez should push hard to be given significant playing time at 3B early next season. And the Pirates should give it to him – while promoting “body armor days” for anybody with the courage to sit on the first-base side at PNC Park.

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Episode IV of “The Pitiful Pirate Offense”

The Pittsburgh Pirates had the best offense in the N.L. in June. See the full story at this Link


  1 Andrew McCutchen .343 .410 .686 1.096
2 Pedro Alvarez .299 .396 .483 .879
3 Josh Harrison .317 .358 .465 .823
4 Russell Martin .271 .440 .357 .797
5 Starling Marte .293 .361 .400 .761
6 Gregory Polanco .288 .374 .375 .749
7 Jordy Mercer .267 .299 .436 .735
8 Travis Snider .275 .310 .400 .710
9 Jose Tabata .318 .385 .318 .703
10 Neil Walker .255 .321 .362 .682
11 Clint Barmes .250 .333 .313 .646
12 Ike Davis .183 .330 .268 .597
13 Gaby Sanchez .211 .250 .289 .539
14 Chris Stewart .192 .323 .192 .515


Two Pitchers the Pirates Can and Should Acquire

Gerrit Cole is on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue. Francisco Liriano could be headed there with an oblique strain. Jeanmar Gomez has been banged for 6 home runs in 33 innings. And Casey Sadler is a 23-year-old who has pitched only 56.2 innings at AAA.

So, it might be time for the Pirates to look outside the organ-I-zation. And there just happen to be two pitchers of interest who have become available for next to nothing. At the same place from which they rescued Jason Grilli. See the Rest of the Story at this Link