Let's kick of 2010 with a positive line of thinking (yikes; not getting my first post of the year in until January 4th -- sorry about that, holiday, family, friends, travel, lack of news, and such all contributed to my MIA status the last ten days, but that's all over now and it's time to get back on track). Despite all of the negativity that surrounded the Pirates and their 2009 season and despite all of the questions people have about Neal Huntington's ability to build a bullpen, the Pirates actually allowed 116 runs less in 2009 than they did in 2008.
Their total of 768 runs allowed was still about 40 runs north of average and it was only good for 11th in the National League, but it's certainly much better than the 884 (worst in the NL by 59) runs that they allowed in 2008. The fact of the matter is that the Pirates got better at something in 2009, and though we've all made some generalities about how that happened (better defense, some Joe Kerrigan, a VanBenschotenectomy), I think it's worth a deeper look. After the jump of course.
Using the sweeping brush of replacement level, we can see that the Pirate fielders improved a UZR of -26.2 in 2008 to a +30.1 in 2009. If we could do a direction translation from UZR to runs on the field, that'd be half of our difference right there. The pitchers improved, too, though, jumping from 36.2 runs above replacement in 2008 to 78.4 in 2009. Combined, that's a 92+ run improvement by the Bucs that's in the ballpark of its real life counterpart of 116 (I'm simpilfying here, of course, but what I mean to say is that this is an acceptable way to measure the improvement the Pirates made in preventing the other team from scoring in 2009)
Fielding, and the offensive runs sacrificed to improve it, is something I've touched on in the past and will certainly touch on again in the future, but the pitching we can (kind of) quantify. So where did the Pirates improve? Below are the values in runs above replacement (RAR), wins above replacement (WAR), and a translation to dollars for the Pirates' pitching staff in the last two seasons all from FanGraphs (actually, that's where all the numbers from this post are from). These numbers are based on FIP and the gritty details are available in an awesome series of posts by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs.
|John Van Benschoten||-7.8||-0.7||($3.10)|
The easiest conclusion to draw from these two charts is that rather than getting better, the Pirates really got less bad in 2009. In 2008 they had 13 pitchers accrue a total positive value of 90.9 runs above replacement, but they also had 13 pitchers below replacement level for a total of -54.5 runs. The 2009 squad had 18 pitchers come in at replacement or better for 100.2 runs and only ("only" being a relative term here) eight below replacement, costing the team a total of 21.3 runs.
In effect, the Pirates employed more effective pitchers and fewer ineffective pitchers in 2009. It's also plain to see that this improvement came almost entirely in the rotation. Matt Morris, John Van Benschoten, and Tom Gorzelanny were three of the big offenders in 2008 and they combined to pitch 8 2/3 innings, all by Gorzo and all out of the bullpen, in 2009. None of the below replacement pitchers for the Pirates in 2009 were regular starters. Neal Huntington acquisitions (Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Hart, Virgil Vasquez, and Dan McCutchen) combined to make 83 starts in 2009, so it's clear that he played a role in the improvement in the rotation. Since there will probably be three Huntington acquirees in the rotation when 2010 kicks off (Ohlendorf, Morton, and Hart or McCutchen will all be in the rotation until Brad Lincoln presumably bumps either Hart or McCutchen, depending on injuries of course), his influence on the rotation isn't going away.
What's interesting to me is that two relievers that Pirate fans have complained the most about losing in recent months, Sean Burnett and Jesse Chavez, both graded out as below replacement in 2008 and 2009. Also, John Grabow was below replacement in 2008 and just barely above replacement in 2009 and Matt Capps was truly awful last year. It strikes me as very unlikely that the guys slotted to replace them (Javier Lopez, Vinnie Chulk, Chris Jakubauskas, Hart/McCutchen, maybe Jack Taschner) will be worse than they were. Some might have good ERAs or bad ERAs, but the talent level really isn't that different. In fact, I have a fairly high opinion of Hart (who I think will end up in the pen because he's better suited there), Jakubauskas, and Lopez and honestly I think that when 2010 ends we all might think it was a big waste of time to be as worried about the bullpen as we are right now.
With the rotation featuring more Charlie Morton, less Ian Snell, and maybe an improving Ross Ohlendorf (depending like a bajillion factors ... have I mentioned this Ohlendorf guy at all?), it should be at least the same and maybe better in 2010 as well. The defense without Jack Wilson, with a full season of Lastings Milledge, and with guys like Jeff Clement involved of course raises questions, but it really seems to me that the pitching staff is probably going to keep moving in the right direction in 2010. We probably won't see another 116 run improvement in the runs allowed column (that would place them fifth in 2009's National League in runs allowed), but the pitching staff is getting there.
Tomorrow: where the lost runs on offense went and ways to get them back.