Lack of whiffs, leather in Pittsburgh

To be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan is to experience frequent heartbreak and heartburn. Surely, not all is hopeless. The current front office, led by GM Neal Huntington, scouting director Greg Smith and director of player development Kyle Stark, has made a concerted effort to invest in young, cost-controlled talent. Pittsburgh opened a state-of-the-art training facility in the Dominican Republic last year, spent more money in the amateur draft than any team over the period of 2008-2009 and the club figures to open up the wallet again this year for top-rated high school arms Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Andrew McCutchen is already a star, and Pedro Alvarez could reach that level of performance. Recently-promoted Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln could be above-average big leaguers, too.

But in terms of on-field results, the Pirates are still cannon fodder for opponents. Pittsburgh has been outscored by 181 runs. That’s the worst run differential in the majors. The Bucs are 25-50, yet the team’s Pythagorean record is 19-56. Winning one-third of your games, while outpacing your underlying performance, is a sure sign that something is seriously amiss.

Given that run differential, it’s no surprise to find the Pirates at the bottom of the barrel in most categories. The offense is 15th in the NL in wOBA (thanks, Houston!) The relievers are 11th in xFIP, and the starters rank dead last.

That last figure lets you know that Pittsburgh’s starters aren’t getting the job done in terms of the aspects of pitching over which they assert the most control. But while the team’s collective 4.99 xFIP is poor, Pirates starters have an obscene 5.75 ERA. That’s 1.11 runs higher than any other NL team, and the -0.76 run split between Pittsburgh’s xFIP and ERA is the biggest negative differential in the league. Buccos starters are bad to begin with, but their performance is exacerbated by laggardly leather. It’s the worst combination imaginable — a starting staff that puts the ball in play often, and a group of defenders who cover little ground.

As a team, Pirates starters have 5.18 strikeouts per nine innings. Only the Washington Nationals have punched out fewer batters per nine frames, though Stephen Strasburg is looking to single-handedly change that state of affairs. Pittsburgh’s starters have allowed the highest rate of contact in the NL at 85.7 percent (81% MLB average), and no club has induced fewer swinging strikes than the Bucs’ 6.2 percent (8.3% MLB average).

So, Pirates starters put the ball in play often. Unfortunately, Pirates defenders have done a pretty lousy job of converting those balls put in play into outs. Pittsburgh ranks 14th in the NL in Ultimate Zone Rating. Per 150 defensive games, the team has been -7.3 runs below average. On a related note, Pirates starters have the highest BABIP in the NL, at .329.

The paucity of whiffs doesn’t figure to change in the months to come. Here are Oliver’s projected K rates for Pittsburgh’s current starters (and the injured Zach Duke) for the rest of 2010:

Zach Duke: 4.6 K/9
Jeff Karstens: 4.9 K/9
Brad Lincoln: 5.4 K/9
Daniel McCutchen: 5.4 K/9
Paul Maholm: 5.6 K/9
Ross Ohlendorf: 6.1 K/9

Will the defense improve? After all, the Pirates have undergone dramatic roster changes recently. Oliver has little good news to report on this front, either. Here are the rest-of-season defensive projections for Pirates position players who figure to take the field often. The projected percent of the team’s playing time at the position is in parentheses — the playing time at each position won’t add up to 100 because I’m only listing the guys who figure to be starters (note: Oliver uses a different defensive system than the aforementioned UZR):

Lastings Milledge (15% LF, 40% RF): -6.8 Runs
Garrett Jones (65% 1B, 25% RF): -2.4 Runs
Neil Walker (70% 2B, 20% 3B): -1 Run (Walker suffered a concussion following Ryan Church‘s hardest hit of the year; unfortunately, Church connected with Walker’s head instead of a hanging curve ball.)
Bobby Crosby (10% 2B, 20% SS): -0.8 Runs
Pedro Alvarez (60% 3B, 15% 1B): -0.3 Runs
Jose Tabata (85% LF, 5% CF): 0 Runs
Andrew McCutchen (95% CF): +0.6 Runs
Ronny Cedeno (80% SS): +7.5 runs

Some of the playing time situations will shake out differently. Most nights, the Pirates figure to go with Jones at first, Crosby at second (until Walker returns), Cedeno at short and Alvarez at third, with a Tabata/McCutchen/Milledge outfield. But you get the idea — most of these guys project as below-average defenders moving forward. Given the lack of bat-missing ability of Pittsburgh’s current starting pitchers and the questionable D behind those low-K arms, you’ll have to forgive Pirates fans for salivating over the prospect of a rotation fronted by the likes of Taillon and Allie.

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