Monday, May 18, 2015

38, Not Special

The Pirates are now 38 games into their 2015 season. Their record is 18-20. They're tied with the Cincinnati Reds for third in the division, 7.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and 3.5 behind the Chicago Cubs. They were above .500, 17-16, the morning of May 13, half a game behind the Cubs, but then they lost two in a row to a pretty bad Phillies team and two straight to the Cubs. The problems about which I've written persist:
  • They are 13th in the 15-team National League in both on base percentage (.300) and slugging percentage (.366). They're third to last in scoring at 3.8 runs per game because they don't get batters on (.282 on base percentage with the bases empty, 13th in the league). They're nothing special with runners in scoring position (.263 batting average, eighth in the league), but it's the inability to get runners on base in the first place that stands out.
  • Measured by park-adjusted OPS, the Pirates are below average at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base, and right field. 
  • I'm not ready to say that Andrew McCutchen is fixed. Yes, Pirates center fielders are above average this year, but that's partly because in three games filling in for McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are a combined 7-for-10 with a 1.727 OPS. Yes, McCutchen has a .279/.366/.443 slash line in May after a wretched .194/.302/.333 April, but this is Andrew McCutchen we're talking about here; he hit .318/.406/.505 in his career in May going into the season. As I pointed out a week and a half agoJeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote a great breakdown of McCutchen's season, and he noted that McCutchen isn't shifting his weight from his right to left leg during his swing as much as in the past (presumably because of left knee problems), and as a result, he's not hitting with power to left field. That's still pretty much the case. Below, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, is McCutchen's spray chart from May 2014 and May 2015. As you can see, he's still not getting base hits to left field. (The circles are mine.)

  • They've been saved by their pitching. Their 3.16 starters' ERA is tied with the Mets for best in the league, and the 3.14 relievers' ERA is sixth. The rotation after A.J. Burnett (prediction: at age 38, he's not going to maintain a 1.38 ERA), Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano has been shaky, and closer Mark Melancon has allowed at least one baserunner in eleven of his 16 one-inning relief appearances, or 69%, compared to a league average of 58%. Overall, though, the pitching's carried the team.
  • But the defense has been a disappointment. By one advanced fielding metric (derived from scouts watching every fielding play by every team), Defensive Runs Saved, the Pirates are tenth in the league this year after finishing second in 2013 and fourth last year.
So, all told, it's been a story of weak offense, a lack of performance from the team's superstar, and a strong pitching staff stymied somewhat by a lackluster defense. The result has been the club's 18-20 record after 38 games. In Pittsburgh's long history, this has happened 16 times before. Some of the teams that started 18-20 were bad: the 2008 Pirates were 18-20 after 38 games en route to a 67-95 season, and the 1998 and 2000 clubs, also 18-20 at the start of the season, were only two games better. But the 1979 Pirates started 18-20 as well, and they were world champions. If I were clever, I'd insert a Sister Sledge joke here.

Next Up: The Minnesota Twins

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Twins are 17-11, the third best record in the American League. Picked by many (including me) to be the worst team in their division, and very possibly the league, they're second to the 21-7 Astros as the most surprising team in the league over the past month.

What's Going Right? Their starting pitchers, wretched last year (a cover-your-eyes 5.06 ERA), are seventh in the league in ERA, 3.88, over the past month. After a slow start offensively, the Twins have scored the second-most runs in the league over the past 30 days. They're first in batting average (.275), fifth in on base percentage (.329), and ninth in slugging percentage (.410).

What's Going Wrong? When you see a team with the Twins' batting numbers, you can conclude that they get a lot of singles but not much else. Over the past 30 days, they offense is twelfth in the league with a 7% walk rate and they've hit the fourth-fewest homers. They've scored a lot of runs because of a league-leading .336 batting average on balls in play that's almost certainly unsustainable.

When I wrote my rant about the Twins in February, I complained that their strategy of seeking pitchers who induce contact rather than pitchers who get strikeouts is out of sync with contemporary baseball. They're last in the league, by far, in strikeout percentage (14% of batters faced; the league average is nearly 20%).

The bullpen ERA over the past 30 days is 4.14, fourth worst in the American League. 

Who's Hot? Second baseman Brian Dozier (.276/.376/.524 slash line), third baseman Trevor Plouffe (.295/.374/.453) and right fielder Torii Hunter (.294/.342/.529, six home runs) have been the offensive stars over the past 30 days. Starters Kyle Gibson and Mike Pelfrey have combined for a 2.42 ERA over eleven starts, though with a strikeout rate so low (7.6% of batters faced) that it seems unsustainable. Closer Glenn Perkins is 11-for-11 in save attempts with a 1.42 ERA over the past month.

Who's Not? Nobody on offense really stinks of late, though the Twins have gotten a lack of sock from the traditional power positions of DH (primarily Kennys Vargas, two home runs) and first base (primarily Joe Mauer, none). Over the past 30 days, Perkins, Ryan Pressly, and Blaine Boyer have combined for a 1.22 ERA over 37 innings. The rest of the bullpen has a 6.30 ERA over 50 innings. 

What's the Outlook? You could probably tell from the tone of this that I don't expect the Twins to remain this good. The two-game series with the Twins at PNC Park starting tomorrow could be an opportunity for the Pirates to recover from their recent 1-4 run as they prepare to host another surprisingly good team, the Mets, over the weekend.

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