The Pirates play a game tonight against another baseball team. Two guys will pitch. The game is probably at 7:05, or thereabouts. If you are watching the Pirates right now, you are clinically insane.no comments
While I started gathering thoughts for my post about Neal Huntington's future with the Pirates over the weekend, I kept getting stuck on the idea of how much blame a front office (or a coaching staff, or the players, or anyone really) should get for a collapse like the one the Pirates have endured this season. This is not to say that no one deserves blame for this sort of thin, this is to say that this kind of thing is not at all a normal event in baseball and so while it's easy to say, "It's happened to Hurdle two years in a row, FIRE HIM!" or "It's happened to Huntington two years in a row, FIRE HIM!" I'm not at all certain that that's the right or best way to look at things.
At the end of July, as the Pirates' play started to trail off a bit post-All Star break and some of the more skittish fans started to worry about the team collapsing, Rob Neyer looked at the chances that the team would fold up like they did in 2011 and came to this conclusion:
Now, it wasn't difficult to predict that the  Pirates would not finish in first place, or qualify for the postseason at all. It would have been exceptionally difficult to predict they would utterly collapse, going 22-46 the rest of the way and finishing 24 games out of first place. A collapse of that magnitude is moderately historic and simply cannot be predicted.
Which is why, without knowing anything else, we would not predict a similar collapse, or even much of a collapse at all, for this year's Pirates.
He then went on to detail all of the things that, to that point, made the 2012 Pirates better than the 2011 Pirates. In other words, we all knew the 2011 Pirates weren't as good as their 100 game record, but that collapse was still hugely unlikely. To that point we had every reason to believe that the 2012 Pirates were better than that, and even if they weren't that much better, well, that sort of collapse is difficult to duplicate.
Of course, we know now that the Pirates haven't just duplicated last season's collapse, but surpassed it. Jayson Stark tells us that this is the worst collapse after 108 games in baseball history and frankly, by the time this wretched season is all said and done, it won't even be close. Two years in a row, I've tried to tell myself (and anyone that reads this site) that expecting the Pirates to collapse because they played over their heads through 100 games is just gambler's fallacy and two years in a row, I've been wrong.
Instead of finding out some way to assign blame for this whole thing*, I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air and screaming "WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?" There was no obvious reason for this collapse looming behind the scenes on game 101, there's no obvious link between what happened last year and what's happening this year. There must be some connection, of course, but it's not something that we can say, "THIS! THIS IS WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE AND ONCE THIS CHANGES IT WILL ALL BE OK FOR THE PIRATES!" To be honest, even if you believe that these successive collapses are entirely the work of a front office that is incapable of building a good roster or a manager that can't keep his players focused for 162 games, the statistical probabilities of this happening for two straight years are staggering.
I'm a scientist. I like real answers. I don't like ascribing things to curses or throwing my hands up and saying, "God hates Pirate fans." It's just that sometimes, the Pirates make it really, really hard not to do those kinds of things.
*People are quick to do this right now, but I think that this is way more complicated than people are making it seem. Go back to the day of the Wandy Rodriguez trade and imagine that by the end of September Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke and Kevin Correia would all be mainstays in the rotation. Would you have known then that not only would James McDonald not find himself in the second half, but that Erik Bedard would be so bad the team would jettison him entirely and Jeff Karstens would get stuck in a weird injury limbo and AJ Burnett would regress back towards where you'd expect 35-year old AJ Burnett to be? And if you could have anticipated all of those things back in July, what else could you have done besides trading for Wandy Rodriguez and hoping that it was enough? That's not to let anyone off of the hook here, but to re-iterate that I think that this collapse is a complicated issue and when you try to assess jobs for managers and GMs as this season winds down that you have to look at a full picture of two years or five years and not assign undue weight to 50 games, even if those 50 games are awful, even if those 50 games are the freshest things on our minds. And again, this isn't me sugar-coating things for anyone or trying to duck handing out blame; I'm slow to base anything in baseball on the outcomes of 50 games, no matter how great or awful
Once upon a time, the New York Mets were 46-39 and in the thick of the NL wild card race. No one really expected them to be there, but with a combination of good starting pitching, some unlikely help on offense, and some good luck it seemed like maybe they were starting to turn things around. Since then, the Mets have gone 23-44. Their pitching has imploded, they've dealt with injuries, the good luck has gone away and for most of the second half they've been a depressing shell of a baseball team just playing out its string of games.
Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 63-47 and leading the NL wild card race. No one really expected them to be there, but with a combination of good starting pitching, some unlikely help on offense, and some good luck it seemed like maybe they were starting to turn things around. Since then, the Pirates have gone 12-30. Their pitching has imploded, they've dealt with injuries, the good luck has gone away and for most of the second half they've been a depressing shell of a baseball team just playing out its string of games.
This isn't the last season of the year for the Pirates or Mets, but it's pretty fitting that these two teams will be actively attempting to lose baseball games to each other this week. It'll probably be pretty hilarious to watch (Ronny Cedeno is involved!), but only if you can stomach watching the end of the Pirates' historic collapse. Kyle McPherson makes his first big league start tonight against Jenrry Mejia. First pitch is at 7:05.
Since Dejan Kovacevic first broke the story about the Kyle Stark-lead Navy SEAL training last week, I've been thinking about the whole situation and trying to figure out how much I really care about it. Last night, DK put up a second column that goes into more detail, and I was able to corral my thoughts a little bit better. They go something like this:
I don't care at all if Stark wants to put his players through crazy Navy SEAL training. It's three days, and we're mostly talking about young guys and trying to instill some work ethic. It seems a little intense and maybe a little extreme, but I don't really think it's out of bounds for the Pirates to do something like this at their fall instructionals.
I don't really care about Stark's slightly crazy e-mail, either. The Hells Angels stuff was a bad comparison to draw, but I think that invoking the name of any organized crime group is something that's done colloquially quite a bit by people too young to remember when those sorts of organizations were a bigger deal in the country (I'm talking about people my age, of course; Stark is seven years older than I am). I'm not necessarily condoning that kind of speaking/writing without thinking and I'm not denying that he comes off like a little bit of a crazy person, I'm just saying that neither of those things prevent him from being good at his job and I'm not really willing to judge him based on those things.
I'm honestly not sure that I care that an American League scout thinks that the Pirates' development program is a joke, either. The reality is that there are a lot of things we don't know about player development and I think that the biggest sin is not doing things differently. I'm not sure that the way the Pirates do things is the right way, mind you, just that I'm not sure that I care what other teams think about the Pirates.
I think that the development/scouting question is definitely a chicken/egg question and for all of the draft busts that the Pirates have had in the Huntington era, you can definitely point to the Rudy Owenses and Alex Presleys as players that no one thought had a chance that blossomed into Major Leaguers (well, I'm extrapolating for Owens here) under the Huntington/Stark regime. Who gets credit for Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco exploding this year? The scouting staff that found them, or the development staff that brought them into a new country and helped them adapt and use their raw talent? I definitely agree with the idea that the Pirates don't have as much talent in their system as they should given the money that they spent from 2008-2011 in the draft, but I'm not at all sure where to point that finger, other than to point it at the guy at the top. Neal Huntington is his own post, though; we'll talk more about him and Clint Hurdle and Frank Coonelly next week.
All of which is to say that a lot of the things that have been discussed about Kyle Stark in the last week are weird and off-putting, but I don't think they're necessarily damning to his ability to do his job. There's a big exception, though. It's really concerning to me that DK wrote his story calling Stark's methods into question last week and that that apparently lead to an avalanche of unsolicited criticism of Stark from within the team. It's one thing if players are complaining about unconventional training or other teams are skeptical of what the Pirates are doing, but it's worrisome to me that team employees are forwarding internal e-mails to the media to basically say, "You think this guy's crazy? Check this out!" Being unconventional is one thing, but creating an environment that leads to your employees just chomping at the bit to sell you out, well, now in that light, all that other stuff starts to look really bad. And of course, if people are just waiting to sell Stark out because he's a megalomaniac, that's on the people that have continually employed him every bit as much as it's on Stark himself.
I sincerely doubt that the Pirates will stand pat after a second straight collapse this winter, in terms of the people running the club. The biggest question I have after reading things like this is exactly how much change is necessary.no comments
You were surprised by this? I wasn't.no comments
The Pirates are 74-74. They haven't been under .500 since they were 24-25 on May 29th. Given the way things have gone of late, this may be the very last moment that the 2012 Pirates were an above-average baseball team. That ... is pretty sad.
The first pitch today is at 4:05, with Wandy Rodriguez and Mike Fiers on the mound. Also, you may have noticed WHYGAVS is a bit different today; this is part of Bloguin's site-wide re-design. It'll probably take me a few days to get everything worked out, but for the most part things should be the same. The one thing that is important to point out is that the comments sections still exist, you just have to click on the title of the post to get to the page with comments on them.no comments
The Milwaukee Brewers' seven stolen bases last night exposed the worst-kept secret in baseball: the Pittsburgh Pirates do not care about throwing out base stealers. They haven't all year, really. Runners have stolen 84 bases in 90 attempts against Rod Barajas and they've stolen 53 bases in 61 attempts against Mike McKenry. That's 137 stolen bases in 151 attemps. That's embarrassingly bad; the Pirates' CS% is about 9%, which is a third of the league average in 2012 of 27%. Barajas has a generally strong reptuation as a defensive catcher; in the five years prior to 2012 he's had caught-stealing percentages of 34%, 15%, 15%, 15%, and 25%. His career rate is 28%. Even if you take that skein of 15% seasons to mean his skills are declining, what we've seen this year is a stark departure from what was expected. The same goes for McKenry, who caught 36% of stealers when he was a minor league catcher. What that means is this: the problem goes well beyond the catchers. The Pirates have told their pitchers (and to an extent, presumably, their catchers) to ignore base stealers.
There's been a lot of wailing and tooth-gnashing over this at various points in the season, none moreso than right now, of course, as the Pirates hit rock bottom. It's undeniable that letting runners have free bases unimpeded is a bad idea, but there's more to it than that. Neal Huntington runs a front office that most people would consider to be a smart front office. He's got a stats team run by Dan Fox, who's certainly a sharp guy. Clint Hurdle (especially) and Ray Searage seem to be more old school baseball guys, but neither of them ever seem to complain about the carousel around the bases that's been turning singles into doubles all year against the Pirates. That says to me that whatever the reasoning is behind this decision, it's got both the front office and the coaching staff on board. That means it deserves some investigation. Why are the Pirates ignoring base stealers? What are the benefits? What does it actually cost them?
Let's start with the simplest question: How many extra runs have the Pirates allowed by virtually ignoring base stealers this year? There's an easy formula to calculate stolen base runs (hat tip: @nvasconcelos): SBR = (0.3*SB)-(0.6*CS). That is, if you steal two bases for every time you're caught, you break even. That means that the Pirates opponents have racked up in the ballpark of 36 runs on stolen bases this year. If we assume that the Pirates an average amount of base stealers this year (41 of 151), that number drops to about six. The Pirates have allowed 30 more runs on stolen bases this year than the average team, which translates neatly to about three wins. Since we're mostly talking in theoretical terms here, I'm going to be kind to the Pirates and say that they've cost themselves between two and three wins by ignoring base stealers; Barajas may well have been below average at catching stealers even with the benefits afforded other catchers, plus teams would run on them less often if they appeared interested in stopping them.
Two or three wins is not insignificant, though! It could well end up being the difference between a playoff spot and not a playoff spot for the Pirates this year, and that's true for any team in contention. The assumption on my part is that the Pirates must think that they're reaping some kind of benefit from this that off-sets the loss of those 2-3 games. I'm not privy to the Pirates decision making process, but I'd assume that the reasoning is has a couple of levels. One reason is that throwing from a slide-step is annoying and it messes with the rhythym of a lot of guys, which can affect a lot of things. Another reason is that if the catcher has reason to think a runner is going to steal and he's intent on stopping him, he's probably going to call for a fastball even if it's not a situation in the pitch sequence that he would normally call for one, which could result in hitters having a better chance to hit the ball than they normally would.
It's pretty hard to measure these sorts of effects, but let's try to get an idea. You might expect that pitchers being more comfortable in the stretch would result in the Pirates having a higher strand rate than their opponents. It doesn't; the Pirates' strand rate this year is 72.7% and the league average is 72.4%. The Pirates are basically an average pitching team (their team ERA+ is 97) and their strand rate is basically average.
We could pull this out for a bigger picture look: how do the Pirates pitch in bases empty vs. bases occupied situations as compared to the league as a whole? An easy way to do this is to use Baseball-Reference's tOPS+ splits, which lets you compare one split to total performance. In 2012, National League pitchers have a .705 OPS against with the bases empty and a .745 OPS against with at least one runner on base. That's a 95 tOPS+ with bases empty and a 106 tOPS+ with at least one base occupied (100 is average: since we're talking about pitchers here, below 100 is better than average, above 100 is worse). The Pirates' tOPS+ split for bases empty/occupied is 96/106. In plain English, the Pirates are no better with runners on base compared to bases empty than an average National League team.
It's a little more complicated than this, of course, but our superficial glance here tells us that the Pirates are giving away 2-3 wins this on the bases by ignoring base stealers and reaping absolutely zero appreciable benefits. I could be missing something, of course, but it's awfully hard to see how any sort of rational decision-making process lead to this sort of situation.
One of my very least aspects of being a Pirate fan is the sliding scale of expectations that comes with hopelessness. When a team enters a season with no real expectation to contend, win values are more or less meaningless. It sounds strange to say, wins and losses are meaningless distinctions once you separate out playoff teams from non-playoff teams; there are a million different ways to decide how well a team plays or how poorly they play and win/loss record is just one of them. It's much better to be an 85-win team that played like 90-win team and got unlucky than an 85-win team that played like an 80-win team with some good luck going forward, and we can make these sorts of judgments based on runs scored and allowed and pythagenpat and WAR and a host of other metrics.
That's to say that while about half of Major League Baseball teams enter every season with a binary set of expectations (make playoffs = success/miss the playoffs = failure), there's also a subset of teams that has to come in with goals that are much grayer. For most of my life, the Pirates have existed in this second set of teams and since 2005, it's been something that I've been acutely aware of. Every season starts like this for me (this is an approximation of what I wrote in March/April, not a direct quote from an old post):
Well, if James McDonald can find a third pitch to go with his fastball and his curve and throw strikes consistently, that's a big step forward for the Pirates. And if Andrew McCutchen can make The Leap that we've all been waiting for and Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez can become productive every day players and Charlie Morton can figure out how to pitch to lefties and maybe one of the Triple-A arms makes some progress and Starling Marte cuts down on his strikeouts in Triple-A and still brings the power that he showed in Altoona, well, this year will be a pretty good year for the Pirates even if they only win 75 games. I don't really think they'll win more than that, but if they win 75 this year and all of those good things happen, maybe we can talk about something better next year.
The problem with starting the year out with these sorts of expectations is that it's so easy to shift your goals once its clear that they won't be met, you barely even realize it's happening. Andy LaRoche becomes Pedro Alvarez. Lastings Milledge becomes Jose Tabata becomes Starling Marte. Kip Wells becomes Ian Snell becomes Charlie Morton. There's always another prospect and so there's always a way to make yourself hopeful that even if this year isn't the year, next year might be. That's not a critique of Pirate fans or anything more than a statement of reality. This is the way it is because it's the only way to be the fan of a baseball team pulling itself out of a long-term hole. Royal fans and Indian fans and Astro fans all do the same thing.
This is a lousy way to be a baseball fan. It's a spectral kind of half-existence. There are no real highs and there are no real lows; there are just baseball games and ever-shifting lists of goals that have to be met to get to baseball games that really mean something. It's a lousy way to be a baseball fan, but it's really the only way to be one at all if you're the fan of a team like the Pirates coming out of the Dave Littlefield era.
Beyond the obvious thrills of a playoff race, what was great about the Pirates' first 110 games this year was that it finally seemed to me like maybe the Pirates were going to ascend from that sliding scale of expectations rooted in the team having no chance to make the playoffs. That maybe this Pirate team would come back to Earth some over the final 50 games and maybe they'd miss the playoffs, but that the flag would be planted for everyone to see that the Pirates had finally arrived with a Capital A and that they don't need to sit back and wait on Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon to be a good baseball team, because these players that are in Pittsburgh will do just fine thankyouverymuch. That you, rhetorical Brewer/Cardinal/Red Fan, should be scared that Cole and Taillon are on their way because of the very fact that this young Pirate team with room to grow can win 85 games without them.
Instead, we Pirate fans have ... this. A team that is going to plummet from 63-47 to somewhere between 75 and 80 total wins. These sorts of collapse lead to questions; why did the pitching staff evaporate into thin air two years in a row? Is what Andrew McCutchen's done this year repeatable? Is what Pedro Alvarez has done this year sustainable? Is there room for either of them to grow? Who, exactly, is filling out the lineup behind these guys long-term? Snider and Marte are promising, but what do the Pirates really have there? It's hard to tell from here. What about Neil Walker? Seriously, what's his deal? Good hitter for a second baseman or good hitter? How long, exactly, will it take for Cole and Taillon to be ready? Because the pitching staff sure needs them yesterday, and any measures that go to fix the rotation between now and when those guys become part of it are likely to be band aids and while some band aids work (AJ Burnett), others just never stick right and fall off right at the very worst time possible (Erik Bedard).
That all goes to say that the Pirates have had some things go right for them this season and they've had some things go wrong for them (spectacularly so in the last month), but the reality is that I'm not at all certain that I feel like they're any closer to contening in 2013 than I did in March. That it's a possibility but far from a probability. I don't really have any interest in debating whether it's worse to have a hopeless season or a collapse season; I feel like a man in the desert that's seen a mirage. It's not so much that the Pirates will miss the playoffs this year or come up short of an 82nd win that bugs me; it's the feeling that not only is this team still adrift in 2012, but that it's no sure thing that 2013 will be better.
Once upon a time, however briefly, the Pirates were the favorites to win the second wild card in the National League. Then, they slipped and for a little while, they were a team that was frustratingly failing to take advantage of their competitors poor play. Then they collapsed. Now they're still playing pretty poorly, and they're 2 1/2 games out of the final wild card spot with 16 games left, in a cluster of four teams within 2 1/2 games of that final spot. That makes them a real longshot at this point.
Maybe that will sit better with them than being the favorites. Who knows? For now, though, the Pirates are a team that hasn't beaten someone other than the Astros or Cubs since August 29th. If they can't manage that task this week against the Brewers, it's unequivocally over. For real this time.
Goal 1: Keep that from happening.
First pitch tonight is at 7:05. Sleepwalking Pirates vs. Brewers. AJ Burnett vs. Yovani Gallardo.