Pirates in Serious Trouble

Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates came within one win of the National League Championship Series, and their star center fielder Andrew McCutchen took home the National League Most Valuable Player award. It was an amazing season, but thus far the success has not carried over to 2014.

After winning five of its first seven games, Pittsburgh has dropped 14 of its past 19 contests, to fall to fourth place. As a result, the Bucs dropped 11 spots in the ESPN Power Rankings this week, all the way back to 24th place. And this isn’t some short-term overreaction. The Pirates are in real trouble.

Not unlucky
When looking at the team level, one of the first things we look to is runs scored versus runs allowed. And just looking at that, we see the Pirates have scored 96 runs against 104 runs allowed (minus-8). No big deal — that should put them close to .500. But Pittsburgh is actually plus-13 runs in blowout games (games decided by five runs or more), which suggests their run differential is a bit misleading. The season is young, and we don’t want to give them too much credit for a couple of blowout wins. Furthermore, they are 7-6 in one-run games, a figure that doesn’t paint them as unfortunate.

We also could look at the team’s opponents, to see if they had been lined up against a murderers’ row of opponents in the early going. And the answer here is … sort of.

The Pirates have played only fellow NL Central teams so far, and in the Brewers and Cardinals, the division has two of the better teams in the NL (and the Reds have played decently as well). So, while these may be tough opponents, the Pirates aren’t going anywhere if they can’t beat them. They have taken four of six from Chicago, but are just 3-3 against St. Louis, 2-5 against Cincinnati and 1-6 against Milwaukee. There’s no way you can put a rosy face on those deficits, especially when you consider that the team has played more home games than away games.

Awful offense
The team is not built to be carried by its offense, but the offense needs to do better than it has. They have scored three runs or fewer in 15 of their 26 games. At the moment, they have posted a 91 wRC+ as a team, which is good for just 11th place out of 15 NL squads. Starling Marte‘s ground ball/fly ball ratio is much higher this season, and as a result he’s slugging just .317. New first baseman Ike Davis is hitting just .208 since joining the club, while third baseman Pedro Alvarez is hitting .169. And the shortstops, Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer, forget about it. Entering Sunday’s action, they were hitting .167/.228/.179, “good” for a 10 wRC+. Yes, the Pirates’ shortstops have been 90 percent worse than league average.

Now, that should come up obviously, but the reality is that the team has been below average at most positions. The team ranks just 21st in left field wRC+, 22nd at catcher, 23rd at first base, 24th in right field and dead last at shortstop. If you’re scoring at home, that’s just three of eight positions where they have an above-average offensive performer, and it could get worse. Russell Martin landed on the disabled list this weekend, and his replacements — Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez — are unlikely to equal Martin’s modest offensive production. Top prospect Gregory Polanco — who had been tearing up Triple-A — has been billed as a savior, but FanGraphs projects him for a modest .309 wOBA, which wouldn’t be much better than the production they are currently getting in right field.

Pitching isn’t any better
While the hitting has been subpar, the pitching has been even worse. By FIP-, the Pirates (at 118, 18 percent worse than league average) have the worst pitching staff in the game. Part of that woeful performance is from Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Grilli, and both have landed on the disabled list. As bad as they were, the Bucs were counting on them. And the club’s best hope for improvement, prospect Jameson Taillon, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this month, and won’t be a factor for the team this season.

Last year, everything was in harmony and the team was able to put together a very successful season, particularly on defense, where their use of shifts put them in a great position to win. But it’s hard to consistently get everyone performing at a high level, and the Pirates’ start is a prime example of what happens when key regulars underperform.

The Bucs’ playoff odds have already taken a hit, and when you consider the strength of their division, a return to the postseason is looking unlikely.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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Spa City
Spa City

Moreover, the Pirates will lose several key players this offseason, most notably their best pitcher (Liriano), their closer (Grilli), and their catcher (Martin).

Their bullpen has suffered from very foreseeable regression, their rotation has suffered from the loss of Burnett and the injury to Taillon, and most of their infield has been terrible. Alvarez has regressed offensively and defensively, Mercer has been a disaster and Neil Walker has been a butcher defensively. There are no prospects at 3B, SS or 1B, and their quality catching prospects are in the low minors. Alen Hanson is not going to play SS, and Tony Sanchez is unlikely to be more than adequate as a catcher.

The Bucs have a great outfield and a handful of quality pitchers. They might be able to get themselves in the widlcard race, but I see no reason to think they can field a consistent winning team.