At some point in the near future — perhaps even within the next 48 hours or so, if you believe Ken Rosenthal, which you probably should — the Pirates are going to finally make the move that their fans have been desperately waiting for and promote outfielder Gregory Polanco. If you’ve been following this situation at all, you know most of the background there. Polanco is 22, he’s tearing up Triple-A (.353/.412/.552), he’s reportedly a plus defensive outfielder, and when he teams with Andrew McCutchen & Starling Marte in Pittsburgh, it might just be the best defensive outfield in the game on day one. Considering that the primary Pirates right fielders have been Travis Snider (56 wRC+ when playing right), Jose Tabata (76) and Josh Harrison (a shocking 139 that belies his 78 career mark entering the year), Polanco’s presence will be a welcome reinforcement to a disappointing Pirates club — even if he isn’t likely to go all Yasiel Puig on the league immediately.
When he does, we’ll all marvel at his talent and laugh at the lip service the Pirates paid to him “not being ready” and complain that the silly “Super Two” rules provide incentives for teams to keep their best players in the minors, and we’ll all miss the greater point about the Pirates: other than a bit of better defense, Polanco isn’t going to change the fact that the pitching staff is really, really disappointing.
Like, this disappointing, not including last night:
They were the worst in April. They were the worst in May. If you prefer RA9-WAR rather than FIP-based WAR, it’s 27th. If you like FIP, they’re 29th. ERA has them at 15th, which is something. You’d have to do some serious contorting to make the argument that the Pirates have anything other than a considerably below-average pitching staff.
Here, in one handy little table, is why that’s such a problem:
Last year’s roughly-average offense is this year’s roughly-average offense. Last year’s outstanding pitching, fifth in both FIP and xFIP, has become this year’s anchor. Last year’s 94-win dream season has become this year’s 28-30, tied-for-3rd place in the NL Central disappointment. If you do one thing the same, and the other thing worse, you’re going to be worse overall. Sometimes, baseball really is that simple.
Some of this wasn’t hard to predict, of course — the Pirates never could have counted on Jeff Locke returning to his ridiculous first half form from 2013, which he didn’t — and to a certain extent, it was. In March, we ranked the Pirates rotation No. 22 in the Positional Power Rankings, saying that:
The 2014 Pirates will be a good test of whether last year’s breakthrough was the result of good pitchers having great years, or whether the organizational context made the arms look better than they were through aggressive shifting and defensive contributions. Replacing A.J. Burnett with Edinson Volquez is a significant gamble, but the Pirates have to be encouraged by their success with rehab projects of late; if they turn Volquez into a quality starter, then we’ll have to shift a good portion of the credit for the 2013 success from Burnett and Liriano to the organization as a whole.
Burnett hasn’t been the same in Philadelphia, though he’s been dealing with a hernia. Volquez has had his moments, and has actually managed to limit his control issues, but major home run problems mean that he’s much closer to replacement level than he is to anything approximating Burnett.
But really, the huge downgrade from Burnett to Volquez is just one of the problems. Six atrocious starts given to the since-DFA’d Wandy Rodriguez is another. And here’s yet another: compare all pitchers who had at least 10 innings for the Pirates both last year and this year (not including last night), and you’ll notice that every starting pitcher’s xFIP is higher. The two main cogs in the bullpen, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, are higher. Only Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are showing an appreciable improvement, and Hughes is somehow doing that despite being all but unable to collect strikeouts.
More often than not, a Pirates pitcher is simply not having the same effectiveness as they did last year. As a whole, Pirates pitchers are striking out fewer (7.72 K/9 last year, 7.37 this year), walking about the same, and allowing far more homers (a best-in-MLB 0.62 HR/9 last year, 1.02 this year). That’s partially because Burnett’s groundball ways have left, and Rodriguez & Volquez have replaced him with big homer problems, but it’s also because Liriano has taken an unsurprising step back, and because Cole has merely been good, not the dominant young ace we saw down the stretch last year.
Remember, last year, the outstanding Pirates defense made their pitchers look better, and for the most part — maybe a bit more Ike Davis, a bit less Garrett Jones — it’s the same defense. DRS still thinks they’re great, UZR/150 does not, and I won’t begin to delve into those differences here, other than to say: their BABIP is just about identical. Last year, it was .285. This year, it’s .286, with both numbers being slightly better than league average. The defense is still helping the staff, which is why the Pirates still rank as one of the teams most outperforming their FIP. It’s just that the staff is starting from a lower baseline now.
So how does it get better? That’s the problem, particularly with top prospect Jameson Taillon out for the year with Tommy John surgery, Not having any more Rodriguez starts is a huge help, though replacement Brandon Cumpton isn’t likely to be a season-saver. If Liriano can merely pitch to his peripherals — his ERA is 1.20 runs higher than his xFIP — that’d be a big boost, too, though we should know by know how foolish it can be to count on Liriano to be effective for two years in a row.
And really, that’s the problem. There’s no top pitcher here, where last year, you may have argued the Pirates had three. Burnett is gone. Liriano is his usual inconsistent self. Cole has been more good than great. Charlie Morton is an acceptable mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter. Volquez is Volquez. There are 41 pitchers who have been worth at least 1 WAR this year, and the Pirates don’t have any. They fare a bit better in RA9-WAR — Watson is No. 37, then no one until Cole appears tied for No. 70 — but it’s a staff who didn’t replace last year’s best pitcher and wasn’t prepared for inevitable steps back from their other building blocks.
Polanco is coming, and that should help the lineup. But he’s not going to be on the mound, there isn’t much help coming from within, and unless Neal Huntington shocks us all with an incredibly unlikely move for a James Shields or a Jeff Samardzija, the inability of the Pirates’ pitching to live up to what they showed in 2013 is going to be what prevents this team from returning to October, despite all the worry about their offense.
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