The Pirates and Contextual Improvements

The Pittsburgh Pirates are 36-32, two games back in their division and one game behind the Mets or Giants for the second wild card spot. The last time the Pirates were playing this well was July 25, 2011, after James McDonald pitched very well in a road game against the Braves. The next night, the Pirates lost the infamous 19-inning contest and were never the same again. They won 19 of their final 61 games and finished 72-90.

Losing that particular game wasn’t the real reason the team floundered down the stretch. Their pitching was solid but the offense was relatively inept. Some pitchers regressed after performing above their heads, but the offense never improved. It wasn’t a talented enough core, and their prized deadline acquisition — Derrek Lee — got hurt after five games and essentially missed a month. His gaudy .337/.398/.584 slash line with the Pirates was misleading, as he returned to action after the team was clearly out of the race.

Ryan Ludwick didn’t help matters either, as he sputtered after joining the team. However, despite my inclinations at the time, the Pirates were smart to look for players like Lee and Ludwick. While those players are perceived as marginal upgrades if used in specific roles for most offenses, the Pirates didn’t have most offenses. These players weren’t costly and potentially represented significant improvements to the Pirates situation.

Seeing as they are approaching similar territory this year, the team has another important decision to make: go for broke and trade valuable prospects for impact major league talent, or look for this year’s version of Lee and Ludwick.

The Pirates currently have the worst offense in the National League. It’s a close battle with the Padres, but as of now the Buccos .287 wOBA ranks at the bottom. They have a putrid .230/.286/.374 slash line. The Pirates have collectively mirrored the extremely disappointing lines of Brennan Boesch and Justin Smoak.

They are averaging 3.6 runs per game, have the second-lowest walk rate and the highest strikeout rate in the league. The team doesn’t make a ton of contact and has just a .276 batting average on balls in play. While that will get better as the season progresses, lacking offensive talent is a surefire way to limit the improvement.

Looking at their roster, there are only three players with league average or better offensive performance: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Josh Harrison. Harrison isn’t a true .440 SLG hitter, and Alvarez is striking out over 30% of the time. While both have performed relatively well to date, McCutchen is the only one contributing now who is likely to maintain his pace down the stretch.

The offense is incredibly weak, which obviously doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances, but helps them from the standpoint that somebody like Cody Ross could represent a big-time upgrade. Ross could end up being the 2012 version of Lee and Ludwick as someone who doesn’t cost much but has the potential to really help the team.

Ross has a .375 wOBA this season with the Red Sox, and has a career .340 mark. A notorious lefty-crusher, Ross has a .374 wOBA against southpaws over the last four seasons. But while he hits much better in a platoon role, he has an overall .335 wOBA since 2009 and would immediately become the second-best offensive player on the team. ZIPS projects Ross to hit .258/.325/.448, with a .333 wOBA, from here on out, which would also put him right behind McCutchen. And given his slugging percentages in recent years, Ross add another element of power to a weak lineup.

With Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the mend, the Red Sox are about to have a very crowded outfield. While Ross clearly has value as a fourth or fifth outfielder batting specifically against lefties, the Red Sox might look to trade him if they fall out of the playoff picture. He is the exact type of player the Pirates would covet.

The Pirates have made it clear that they are targeting offensive upgrades and likely won’t wait until the end of July to make their move. They have a number of talented players under control for several more years, at which point top prospects should be ready to make their impact in the majors. It’s unfortunate that the offense is this bad, but it does allow them to make significant improvements without trading away top talent.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


80 Responses to “The Pirates and Contextual Improvements”

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  1. chris says:

    They lost 19 of their final 61 games and finished 72-90 – I think something might be wrong with your math

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  2. CabreraDeath says:

    Bucs are 36-32, not 36-30, fwiw.

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  3. JS7 says:

    It should say: the Pirates only won 19 of their last 61 games.

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  4. Cutch's Dreads says:

    I think you mean that they *won* only 19 of their last 61

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  5. Russell says:

    They won 19 of 61. If they lost 19 of 61, they would have won 42 of 61. Took me a second too.

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  6. Joe says:

    Sorry Eric, your math is way off. If they lost 19 of 61, that meant they went 42-19 down the stretch, which obviously didn’t happen.

    You meant to say lost 42 of 61….

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      • The Foils says:

        Holy crap. What is happening these days?

        First the Todd Helton article and now this?

        We all know what the author’s saying, so it’s not even worth bringing it up. But if it does need to be brought up, bring it up ONCE. Read the comments before you pick a nit, and maybe you’ll find that shutting your mouth will save everyone time and effort.

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      • The Foils says:

        That shouldn’t have been a reply to Eric, obviously, but to Joe et al.

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      • Ian R. says:

        To be fair, it’s possible that some of the comments were written before the first error-catching comment was posted. Even if you refresh the page immediately before you start writing a comment, it’s entirely possible that somebody else will beat you to the punch.

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  7. Slats says:

    The Pirates are going to have a scary rotation in the next few years.

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  8. Ben says:

    I think you meant they WON 19 of 61 a.k.a. went 19-42 to end the season.

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  9. Pat says:

    If they lost 19 of 61, they’d have finished the season going 42-19, with 95 wins and would have won the wild-card. Also, the Pirates still haven’t been 6 games over .500 since July 25th. They’re only 4 over today and their season high is 5. Nice article, but on a site where stats are so prominent, you might want to double check them…

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  10. PiratesHurdles says:

    You may want to mention that over the most recent 3rd of the season they are scoring over 4.5 runs per game and are 4th in mLB in run scoring this month.

    Sure its small sample (23 games), but so is the 45 game stretch that resulted in them being ranked so poorly.

    They have obvious issues, but they probably arn’t the worst offense in baseball going forward. The do need 1 steady bat without question.

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  11. lets repeat the same thing over again says:

    Dear Mr. Seidman,

    After reading your article, “The Pirates and Contextual Improvements” (6/22/12), I noticed a potential error in your analysis.

    You claim that the Pirates “lost 19 of their final 61 games,” but according to historical records at BaseballReference.com and MLB.com, the Pirates actually *won* only 19 of their final 61 games.

    Either your error is simply a typo, which seems most likely, or you intended to purposefully mislead your audience. If the former, all is forgiven. If the latter, you should be ashamed, and I will be contacting the CPFB (if/when they begin to exist).

    Sincerely yours,

    Sarcastic Lawyer

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  12. PiratesHurdles says:

    You also really misrepresent Alvarez’s season. He has been exceptionally streaky with 2 great weeks in late April-early May flanked by awfulness until a new hot streak just started last weekend. There is little reason to think he can be any worse than he has been.

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  13. S. Urista says:

    Can’t believe no one’s pointed this out yet, but ‘They lost 19 of their final 61 games and finished 72-90′ should be ‘They *won* 19 of their final 61 games’.

    You’re welcome.

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  14. Caveman Jones says:

    The Red Sox are just two games out of a wildcard spot at the moment. If they are still within striking distance around the deadline then I don’t see why they would trade Ross when he has been everything they hoped he would be and more. Yes, they are getting CC and Ellsbury back, but their only other RH OFer on the 25 man roster is is Darnell MacDonald. Don’t see the motivation.

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  15. Denvil says:

    What about a Pirates trade for a player like Bryan LaHair? Might cost more, but Heredia and something should get it done.

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  16. Michael Scarn says:

    Even if the Red Sox still are in the playoff race at the deadline, I expect they will be, this trade would still be beneficial to both teams. With Nava’s emergance, Kalish, and Sweeney, plus Ellsbury and Crawford, moving Ross for an immediately helpful part would still work. I could see Ross for Juan Cruz and a C level prospect helping both squads.

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  17. Scott says:

    So, Eric, what do you think the Bucs would have to give up to get Ross? A mid-level prospect like Jeff Locke? Or maybe a big league bullpen guy like Juan Cruz?

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  18. Matthew says:

    Good article. I just wonder if Ross would be the best fit for the Pirates at this point. I think they’ve got to focus on finding a high OBP guy, and not necessarily worry about power. A good chunk of their lineup – Alvarez, G. Jones, Barajas – already is made up of low-OBP, guys with lots of pop in their bats. Perhaps Youkilis would be a better trade target, if we think he’ll return to his historically high walk percentage.

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  19. Chummy Z says:

    Tiny nitpick, but they won 19 of their last 61.

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  20. PiratesHurdles says:

    Chase Headley makes the most sense, longer term control, upgrade 3B defense and move Pedro to 1B. They have enough B and C level prospects to give up 2 or 3 to get it done.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Noway the Padres deal Headley. He is an allstar talent! No team has enough in their system to trade for him.

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    • Drew says:

      2-and-a-half years of the Headley is gonna take more than a few B and C prospects.

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      • PiratesHurdles says:

        You would have thought that 6 years of Rizzo would have cost more too.

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      • Drew says:

        Well SSSS (the first S stands for Super!), but Cashner is starting (as he should) and looking just fine. I’m not happy with Alonso’s production, but Padres’ have a ton of corner infield types if he doesn’t shake out.

        If the Pirates want a top-3B (and they’re not the only buyers who do), they’re gonna have to pay up.

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  21. baty says:

    I wonder how quickly they might move Gerrit Cole this season. Guys like Morton, Karstens, Correia, and Lincoln are better suited in relief. Their rotation should be a strength of theirs for the next several years, so why not surprise us by picking up one more strong SP with a few more years of control, or even roll the dice on a younger underproducing Phil Hughes/Wade Davis kind of guy.

    If for some reason, the Pirates are still in it 30 days from now, I would not be surprised to see Gerrit Cole thrown into the 5th slot anyway. They could use more building towards their current pitching strength because i’m not sure if a couple more bats would be a significant enough difference without another starting pitcher to counter potential regression, or make what they’ve sustained even better down the stretch.

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Not saying it wouldn’t be a good idea, but I would be shocked if it happened. Huntington has been amazingly slow paced and disciplined with player development.

      The also need to see what they have with Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens who are having great years at AAA. If anything they could deal Bedard for a bat.

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      • baty says:

        I imagine both will be needed, but I would be shocked to see either last in the rotation as more than temporary place holders.

        Locke has way more value as a left handed relief pitcher. He throws well enough against lefties to maybe make it work. He’d be a replacement option in the bullpen if the Pirates deal away MLB pieces, or he’d be a piece to package in a deal for someone else. I don’t see any possibility of him lasting in a starting rotation.

        I could almost say the same for Rudy Owens, although he might have more of a shot to take a rotation spot for a period of time.

        Even though they are putting up decent numbers in AAA, both are pushing 25 and both still don’t seem to have enough to offer while going through a lineup 3-4 times a game.

        I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or even both dealt within the next month. The Pirates have a surplus of mediocre pitching prospects, so I’m guessing that’s where they’ll be looking first for trade packages.

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Also, I don’t see much regression with them. Most of the players are underachieving vs career norms, not over achieving. Cutch can be explained by true talent improvement as could McDonald. The rest are having average to below average seasons.

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      • baty says:

        I was thinking more along the lines of SP regression. Their lineup could perform better as the season progresses, but if the rotation flattens out, they’re back to a 75-87ish kind of season.

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      • PiratesHurdles says:

        I don’t think it will happen with so many games left against CHC and HOU, its 27 of their remaining 94. They also have 9 vs COL and SD, so more than a third of the schedule is against the worst 4 teams in the NL.

        They only play one team currently above .500 between now and August 3rd, and that’s SF at PNC. Amazing how front heavy their schedule was.

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      • baty says:

        It is easy to forget the string of great pitchers the Pirates faced to open the season. They did have a tough schedule.

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  22. j6takish says:

    Kevin Youkilis seems destined to become a pirate

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  23. So this is why I’m getting so many Google Alerts?

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  24. Guy says:

    You’re trying too hard…..why don’t you sit this one out?

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  25. Brian says:

    It would help to not continue starting a shortstop who is the worst hitting everyday player in MLB.

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  26. lambert58 says:

    So, we lived through this last year to some extent. This year feels like it could end a little better for us than last. That said, I am not big on the idea of “going for it” if it ends up costing us very much. The hope for a lot of us was that the team would remain competitive the whole year, and finish somewhere above .500. Personally, I think we may have a shot of doing that as constructed. You know what will happen….we’ll run out and get one of these guys and they will stink up the joint. Then we lose a prospect for nothing.

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  27. Gary York says:

    Hmm . . .

    Major typo in the Helton article and now this. Two articles in a row.

    SSS, yes but their EUMWIP* is at an historic high. On the other hand their EUPWIP/CUCWIP**, as a percentage, remains close to 0.

    *EUMWIP = erroneous use of major words in play
    **CUCWIP = correct use of cogent words in play

    No need to panic just yet.

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  28. Sam says:

    I don’t think Boston would be interested in dealing Ross. He’s a right-handed outfield bat, and considering Crawford/Ellsbury/Sweeney/Kalish are all left-handed, they need him there. I’d see Boston shop Sweeney or Nava, though, for sure. Nava could be a great help to Pittsburgh, even when his huge BABIP comes down.

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Sure, a career minor leaguer like Nava and a bust hitter like Sweeney are just what we need. Gotta love Red Sox fans, wasn’t it just a week ago that they thought they could get a top 50 prospect for Youkilis?

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      • JCA says:

        Remind me what part of a .314 / .350 / .431 line against RHP this year and a .298 / .352 / .406 career line v. RHP makes Sweeney a bust or useless v. RHP? Pirates have no line up flexibility to take advantage of a platoon? Not even worth kicking the tires?

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      • Michael says:

        Nava is younger than Ross, is hitting better than Ross, and is under team control. If the Pirates are looking for undervalued assets, Nava could be great for them.

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      • PiratesHurdles says:

        Nava and Sweeny have zero trade value, stop kidding yourself. Its like saying Kevin Correia has value because he’s a solid innings eater with an ERA just over 4. Ugh.

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  29. Walt in Maryland says:

    The Pirates are much more likely to fall out of the playoff race than the Red Sox are.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I think if you compare their divisions, it’s relative. Red Sox are a better team than Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh has a much easier road.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Pirates played one of the toughest first half schedules in baseball, and have the easiest schedule in the game for the rest of the year.

      I think the playoffs are likely!

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  30. Mr Punch says:

    Nava and Sweeney aren’t high-value players, but they’re helping the Sox, and could help the Bucs. Or not, of course.

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  31. Michael says:

    Nava could be a more likely and perhaps better Red Sox OF to target than Ross. With two lefties returning (Ellsbury and Crawford), the Red Sox are more likely to deal an extra lefty like Nava, Sweeney, Podsednik, or Kalish than one of their two righties Ross and McDonald. Plus, it seems the Pirates worst skill is strike zone recognition and Nava does that very well. He’s a no-name that might come cheaper than a former NLCS MVP, and he’s under team control, whereas Ross is a free agent after the season.

    Together, Nava and Youkilis would be a great score for the Pirates’ offense. Their pitching would have to take a hit though.

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    • Michael says:

      Sorry, I didn’t see the other Nava conversation when I posted.

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    • TJD says:

      Re: pitching taking a hit, not likely. The Red Sox need 40-man roster flexibility more than anything (11 MLB-ready relievers! Egads!) so they’d want in return mostly players that don’t need a spot on the 40.

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  32. Matt says:

    Since the pirates want young guys on the cheap – Alex Hassan (AAA outfielder with a consistent 370+ obp at all levels) might be the way to go a they could probably have him for a beer and a sack of potatoes (i.e player to be named later our cash considerations). Junichi Tazawa and Alex Wilson would be solid bullpen choices as well for a young team.

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