What They Did: 72-90, 4th Place NL Central.
Actual Runs: Scored 610 runs, Allowed 712.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 69.6 (2.4 below actual)
Restated: Scored 605 runs, Allowed 745.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 65.7 (6.3 above actual)
On July 25th of last year, 100 games into the 2011 season, the leaders of the NL Central were not the St. Louis Cardinals, who would go on to win the World Series, not the Milwaukee Brewers who would end the season comfortably winning the division, and not the defending-division-champion Cincinnati Reds. With a record of 53-47 after 100 games, the Pittsburgh Pirates were atop the NL Central. This was significant for two reasons: One, the Pirates had not had a winning season for 18 straight years, the longest such streak in professional sports in the United States and two, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in first place after 100 games! Alas, the Pirates went 19-43 over its last 62 games, and in the process compiled the worst record in the National League. Yes, even worse over that period, by four games, than the 106-loss Houston Astros who traded away any player with value by the end of July.
Had the Pirates just been lucky in the first half? The best way to measure luck is to look at runs scored and runs allowed. (See Toronto Blue Jays' preview for details.) The Pirates had a +6 differential after 100 games. That translates into 51 expected wins after 100 games. A two game spread vs. actual certainly isn’t significant. Nor were the Pirates unlucky at the end of the year; over the last 62 games Pittsburgh won the exact number of games as expected based on this measure. So, the drop-off had to be performance related. What accounted for the massive change? Surely there must have been some sort of obvious performance meltdown, and due to the magnitude it probably involved hitting and pitching.
It didn’t occur on the offensive side of the ledger. Pittsburgh scored 3.85 runs a game over its first 100 games in 2011. Over the last 62, the Pirates averaged 3.63 runs a game. That’s a drop-off but it’s not a meltdown by any means. For instance, had they scored 363 runs and not 385 in its first 100 games, the Pirates would have been expected to win 49 games instead of 51.
If it wasn’t runs scored, and the record essentially matched expectations, runs allowed had to skyrocket leading to the logical conclusion that the pitchers imploded. It’s true, runs allowed surged. The Pirates allowed 379 runs in the first 100 games (3.79 a game) and 333 over the last 62 (5.42 a game). However, as much as commentators, analysts, and fans will insist otherwise, I’m adamant in concluding that pitching wasn’t the culprit. Take a look at the three things pitchers have the most control over – strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate – split into the first and second halves of the season:
K Rate BB Rate HR Rate
First half 15.8% 8.4% 2.4%
Second half 16.8% 8.6% 2.4%
Look at that! Those are the three primary factors a pitcher can control. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Pirate pitchers performed worse in the second half of the year than the first. They walked batters at a slightly higher rate but they also struck them out at an even great rate. (The K/BB ratio was higher in the second half than in the first half, 1.96 to 1.89.)
There’s only one other facet of the game that could have caused the spike in runs allowed and it was solely responsible for Pittsburgh’s surprising start to the year and largely responsible for the second-half collapse. It’s defense and by the end of the year, Pittsburgh’s fielders performed exactly as they should have over the season, they just took the polar opposite of a linear path to get there.
Defensive Efficiency (DE) measures the rate at which a team converts balls hit into the field of play into outs. (This excludes home runs which aren’t hit into the field of play.) League average is about .700 or 70%. Opponents Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is essentially 1- DE, so league average is about .300. Here are Pittsburgh’s readings the three year’s prior to 2011:
BABIP MLB Rank
2008 . 316 28th
2009 .305 22nd
2010 .316 30th (last)
Pittsburgh has had terrible defenses lately and with the exception of a change at one position in 2011 (Lyle Overbay at first base), the Pirates were starting the same players that comprised the worst fielding team in baseball in 2010. The hitting and pitching didn’t change much from one half of the season to the other in 2011, but take a look at defense as measured by BABIP:
BABIP MLB Rank
First half .284 3rd
Second half .325 30th
Full Season .305 24th
The Pirates went from the worst fielding team in the league in 2010 to one of the best during the first half of 2011 with the same players. Frankly, that’s just not sustainable, because unlike hitting, players generally don’t show huge strides in fielding skills as they mature. For an entire team to be that much better, it takes changes in the make up of the unit, because defense, like offensive line play in football, resembles a choreographed ballet in which every member must move with regard to the other members. (Discussed in more detail in the Tigers’ preview here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2012/2/23/2012-preview-detroit-tigers.html ).
By remaining in the division hunt for two-thirds of the season last year, Pittsburgh held off the inevitable longer than could have ever been expected. However, if the Pirates don’t want the string of losing seasons to reach 20 after this year, they need to get better fielders. Unfortunately, I believe the Pirates’ front-office thinks the results in the first four months of last year were more indicative of team talent than the last two months were. As a result, the defense will probably be bottom-tier-bad again.
Pittsburgh does have a nice core of hitters, mostly in their 20s, and thanks to both the upward slope of performance along the aging curve at that age, and the addition of Clint Barmes at shortstop, Pittsburgh should score more runs this year. Barmes (.252/.302/401 lifetime batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) replaces the light-hitting Ronny Cedeno (.249/.297/.339) and adds above-average power for a shortstop.
One of the reasons Pittsburgh’s fortunes swing so drastically on the quality of its fielders is that for four years running Pittsburgh has been last or second-to-last in the league in striking out hitters. That means more balls get hit into play against Pittsburgh than any other team. Pittsburgh moved to correct that this year by acquiring A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard this off-season, two pitchers who historically strikeout close to a batter an inning. Alas, Burnett bunted a ball off his face the first day of Spring Training and will miss at least one-third of his scheduled starts. Still, any attempt to keep the ball out of the field of play and away from the fielders is a step in the right direction. Let’s face it, if you don’t want your crazy uncle to get drunk at Thanksgiving, it’s a good idea to limit access to the liquor.
To me the Pirates look like a team that is going to be a little better at the plate and a little better on the mound than in 2011. Pirates’ fans rejoiced this winter when Pittsburgh locked up star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a long-term contract that keeps him in the black and gold through 2017. It would be great to see Pittsburgh reward those same fans with a winning season in 2012, and while it looks like Pittsburgh will show incremental progress, a winning season doesn’t look attainable unless the defense improves dramatically.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Thanks to the presence of a potential superstar in Andrew McCutchen and the memory of its first-place run two-thirds of the way through last season, Pittsburgh is garnering some “chatter” this spring, among the commentators I follow on TV and on-line. Oddsmakers don’t seem to be swayed however and I share an identical outlook with them. The Pirates’ total wins over/under sits at 73 ½ and that’s the market I’d make as well.
74-88 – Fifth in NL Central
660 Runs Scored 728 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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