I’m not a full-on sabermetrics guy, but I like stats. As a first -grader, I even had one of those calculator watches so I could figure out batting averages on the kickball field. I also used to do fantasy baseball when we still called them Rotisserie Leagues; but I try not to get lost in the numbers. OPS is a neat summative stat, but ZIP and CERA make my head spin a little. I question the validity of many of these numbers. They might be interesting, but strikingly few of them have any relevance in the moment of a two-out 1-2 count with a runner on second and a guy at the plate that’s been slumping just shy of an oblique strain. Or if they do, I’m not willing to kill the part of my humanity that’s blocking my ability to see it.
That said, I do know enough about some of these stats to realize that the Pirates’ run differential is not good. That -34 on the right side of the standings does not bode well. And with a full quarter of the season completed, the Pirates’ record (20-24) might be the best thing about this team. But there are many among us that continue to point out some reasons why we shouldn’t give up hope just yet. The Pirates played the toughest start-of-season schedule of any team in the majors. The pitching has been awesome. There’s no way they can continue to hit this poorly. Clint Barmes is better than this; he should be hitting at least .200 by September!
I remember reading an article about why certain teams beat their run differential win expectancy. The punchline was that teams with good bullpens can pull it off. They might be able to add 5 wins or so by holding a disproportionate number of 1- and 2-run leads. Blow-outs often start early, so they tend to even out. But the close games go to the teams with solid 7-8-9th inning pitching. The Pirates bullpen is good, right? Is there some hope here?
There are a few problems with using this theory with today’s Pirates. For one – the Pirates bullpen is more likely (than most) to be pitching against the opposition’s starters. There’s a notion that, uniformly, starters > relievers. (That’s why they’re starters…) Teams often talk about getting into a bullpen to have a better chance of piling up runs, but the Pirates offense just isn’t doing that. No matter how amazing the Pirates pitching has been so far, opposing pitchers have been better – far better. In fact, league pitchers are holding their Pirates opponent to a .612 OPS. Again – not a stats guy but that’s really, really good pitching. League pitchers are holding their Pirates opponent to 2.86 runs a game. (And that includes 5th starters and mop-up guys…) No news to anyone reading this – but the Pirates can’t hit.
The problem isn’t just at shortstop. The problem also lives at first, second, thirdish, right field, left field, and behind the plate. If this were last year and I was following performances like this in Boston, any one of these failing positions would be back-page headlines, non-stop radio whining, and uncomfortable interviews with the manager. But in Pittsburgh, this year, this is happening at 6.5 positions. From reading the articles and analysis, I’m getting the sense that this is historic. (Yay! History!)
The problem isn’t just Clint Barmes, and the solution isn’t just at shortstop, either. The Pirates aren’t simply one hitter from their 82nd win. Or are they? How would a legitimate #5 hitter change the flow of this line-up. What if we had McCutchen-Alvarez-Youkilis in the middle of the order? What if Neal Huntington got all freaky and started scooping up American League DH types to stand on the field between at bats? I still think the Pirates should have taken a run at Manny Ramirez.
I think it’s clear – the Pirates need to do something. Simply sending Nate McLouth, Clint Barmes, the absent first-basemen, and the others packing isn’t a solution. The team’s pitching is too good to give up on this team. Calling up AAA guys will just make the team in Indianapolis worse… (HA! Kidding…) No really, calling up minor leaguers will give us more of what we saw at the end of last year: a bunch of guys trying not to get sent back down – trying not to make a mistake – rather than a team trying to win.
Make a run at Youk. Pry Manny from Billy Beane’s sweaty little hands. Throw some nutritional supplements and a couple of boxes of wet-wipes at a guy like Jason Giambi. Forget the defense for a while! Score some friggin runs.