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.

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