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Bench This!

Lately I’ve been hearing some talk about how the Pirates bench is a weak spot on the team not only this year but last year. This got me wondering if such a statement was really true so with this season still new I focused on last year and did some research to figure out how each team’s bench performed. The most difficult part of this assignment of course is figuring out just what constitutes a bench player. There are many ways to go about this but here at Battling Bucs we like to keep things simple so we created our criteria entirely on games played and plate appearances. Now these criteria may seem somewhat arbitrary but I set a minimum of 50 PA, a maximum of 400 PA and to weed out midseason trade acquisitions and callups I cut anyone who averaged more than 3.1 PA per games played.

The reasoning behind those numbers are quite simple. A player who spent two months with a team getting about a start a week and an occasional pinch hitting appearance would get about 50 PA and a player who spends a whole year on a team starting about half the games and getting frequent pinch hitting appearances would get about 400 PA. The 3.1 PA/G mark is based off the qualification for the batting title and is used to prevent midseason acquisitions liked Marlon Byrd from qualifying. Some other lesser criteria used to determine the list was limiting the players to non-pitchers and focusing solely on National league bench players as AL bench players are used a bit differently.

After filtering the players through this criteria I was left with 98 players and 100 instances (two players qualified for two teams). Using Fangraphs I was able to get the player’s fWAR, and his runs above/below average offensively, defensively and running the bases. This group in 16,353 PA worked out to have a -0.5 fWAR and be 437 runs below average offensively, 53.3 runs below average defensively and 4.2 runs below average running the bases. Scaling this down to a full season worth of PA (650) we get: 0.0 fWAR, -17.4 Off, -2.1 Def, -0.2 BsR. Below are the results for the individual 15 NL teams sorted by fWAR/650 PA.

Team: PA, BsR/650, Off/650, Def/650, fWAR/650

Braves: 741 , 0.4 , -3.9, 2.3 , 2.0

Cubs: 901, -4.4, -5.7, -0.7, 1.4

Giants: 1376, 0.0, -19.6, 9.2, 0.9

Cardinals: 1102, 2.3, -7.8, -4.7, 0.7

Reds: 1062, -1.5, -16.6, 3.4, 0.6

Mets: 1284, 0.4, -10.0, -3.7, 0.6

Brewers: 1328, 1.2, -18.5, 3.1, 0.4

Pirates: 1401, 0.0, -17.6, -1.2, 0.1

Dodgers: 1553, -2.1, -20.0, 0.3, -0.1

Phillies: 949, 0.8, -18.9, -8.2, -0.8

Diamondbacks: 798, -1.1, -18.2, -9.8, -1.0

Rockies: 925, 1.4, -22.5, -5.5, -1.0

Marlins: 1009, 3.2, -22.8, -6.1, -1.0

Padres: 1024, -0.7, -21.0, -13.2, -1.6

Nationals: 900, -3.0, -35.3, -5.1, -2.3

What you may or may not notice here is the Pirates come in 8th in terms of fWAR/650 and are almost an exact match for the league average production meaning their bench performance last year really wasn’t that bad. Just as a point of reference the players making up the Pirates bench in this exercise are Gaby Sanchez, Clint Barmes, Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Tony Sanchez, Michael McKenry, Brandon Inge and Travis Snider.

Of note in the above numbers is the difference between plate appearances ranging from the Braves with only 741 PA from their bench all the way up to the Dodgers with 1553 PA. The Pirates ranked 2nd in plate appearances given to bench players coming in at 1,401 and truth be told this probably leads to the belief of the team’s bench being poor. On a rate basis the Pirates bench grades out as the sixth best offensively in the National league last year but on when factoring in playing time the Pirates bench ranks the 4th most runs below average.

What the above numbers seem to indicate is that the Pirates bench all in all wasn’t too bad last year and was actually right around average but in general benches are bad and having to rely on it as much as the Pirates did has the affect of magnifying the issue. Looking at the top three benches it looks like the Braves and Cubs succeeded in part by limiting the exposure of their bench and the Giants succeeded by stocking it with strong glove men. In fourth the Cardinals appear to have had a legitimately good bench led by the presence of Matt Adams.

My take away from all of this is quite simple: There is a reason a bench player is a bench player and that is because they aren’t good enough to start. The Pirates could definitely stand to upgrade their bench some but the truth is the best way to probably do so is to limit the amount of time your bench players receive and that makes sense because after all b definition bench players are the worst players on the team.

Note: I know my selection method wasn’t perfect but it was meant to give a quick snapshot of every team’s bench. Chances are it missed out on some backup catchers who rarely pinch hit and it included a few players who earned starting jobs later in the year but I think overall it gives a quick and mostly accurate picture.

Buc’n Battle Report: Saint Searage?

Saint Searage?

It is only 14.1 innings and that proves absolutely nothing but Volquez’s start of the season should at least have us thinking about our letters to Pope Francis asking him to name pitching coach Ray Searage a saint. After all a saint needs to have performed a miracle and if Volquez keeps pitching at anywhere close to this level I think we have one here.

Maybe there is no such thing

As a pitching prospect. The Pirates ranks took another blow this week as Luis Heredia was removed from his start after throwing just one pitch. The issue appears to be his shoulder and it is reported to be minor but this still isn’t good news. Hopefully Heredia will be throwing again in a matter of days/weeks not months but shoulder injuries always worry me. Heredia was already nearing disappointment status after basically a lost 2013 season which saw him show up out of shape another set back would drop him down to just an ordinary prospect.

AAA Hitting

The story at AAA has been Gregory Polanco and his torrid pace but lost in all of that is the fact Andrew Lambo is starting to hit pretty well. It is still probably too early to have changed the Pirates minds but sooner or later he is going to have to get his shot over Ishikawa who after a good start is regressing back to what we knew was coming.

AAA Pitching

It is always nice to add depth and by adding Jeff Locke and Vin Mazzaro back in the ranks in AAA that is just what the Pirates did. Locke should serve as the sixth starter and with the shaky beginning the rotation has had he might be needed sooner rather than later. It is more difficult to guess as to what role Mazzaro will have as Hughes and Welker will likely be the top two options to fill a hole in the bullpen thanks to being on the MLB roster but if a reliever goes down with a long term injury the Pirates may turn to him.

Wei-Chung Watch

Two weeks into the season and amazingly enough Wei-Chung Wang still hasn’t made his major league debut. The Brewers appear like they really want to hold on to him but don’t want to play him. With their good start likely raising expectations you have to wonder just how long they can continue to field in essence a 24 man roster.

Central gets tougher

I hate to admit it but this Brewers team is a strong one. I still don’t think they are the best team in the division that belongs to the Cardinals but I had a sneaky suspicion they might be able to challenge for the second spot and so far things are trending that way. Still the bullpen is playing over its head right now and the offense is performing at a level they aren’t capable of maintaining so they will regress but even so I expect them to be in the race for most of the year.

Consistency

I am quite amazed the Pirates have made it two weeks without having to make a single adjustment to the Opening Day roster. Such a thing usually doesn’t happen as a player is bound to come up with a minor early season injury. Another thing that amazes me is just how regular the Pirates everyday lineup has gotten. Hurdle typically likes to mix things up a bit and with non cookie cutter platoons at 1B and RF I expected to see a good bit of it. Now as for if these things are good or not I think the former definitely is while the later well the jury is still out on it.

Morales and Drew?

With Morales and Drew still not signed the talk is shifting to them signing after the draft. Naturally with a hole at 1B and a struggling SS the Pirates are popping up as a potential landing spot. Given there is still plenty of flexibility in the budget a thing not a lot of teams have this seems like a reasonable suggestion. Personally I like the idea of signing Drew to give the offense a boost should Mercer not come around but I’m a bit more skeptical on Morales for the simple fact I don’t really view him as an everyday 1B.

Week Ahead

More division games. I know just a little under half the games the Pirates play this year will come against their division mates but starting out with 26 such games in a row is a bit of a long stretch especially considering just how good the division is. I know most were hoping the Pirates would just come out firing but let’s be realistic here if the Pirates can just hold their heads above water in their own division going a touch above .500 their playoff chances still look pretty decent. With all that being said the Reds aren’t playing really well right now and the Pirates need to defend their home when the Brewers come to town.

Why I like Ike?

As a five star general during World War and the United States of America’s 34th President what isn’t to like about Dwight D. Eisenhower also known as Ike. The man oversaw a prosperous time in the country’s history and … whats’ that … I have the wrong Ike. This is supposed to be about baseball? Umm … ok I can make that work.

Scratch all that apparently this article pertains to Ike Davis, 1B for the New York Mets. Recently the New York Mets have opted to install Lucas Duda as their regular first baseman and with Josh Satin serving as his backup and platoon partner that really leaves little role for Ike Davis to occupy. Defensively Davis is limited to 1B meaning he isn’t an ideal bench player and with no DH in the NL it isn’t likely he will get regular at bats relegating him to just pinch hitting duty. It gets even worse for Davis though as soon Chris Young will be pushing towards a return and will force the Mets into a decision. I’m not entirely certain which players have and don’t have options for the Mets but it appears quite certain the make up the team would work best if the player Young replaced was Davis. All of this has led some to speculate the Mets would be open to dealing Davis and an obvious fit for a left handed first baseman would be a team with hopes of contention who is starting  someone like say Travis Ishikawa at first base.

Davis is far from an ideal fit for the Pirates but all of this does not mean he isn’t a useful fit for them. Davis had a strong rookie season for the Mets back in 2010 but followed that up with an injury shortened 2011, a disappointing 2012 and a disastrous 2013. Still despite all of that I contend Davis remains one of the better options for the Pirates. Courtesy of FanGraphs here is a leaderboard which shows how various players rumored to be available to play 1B have fared against right handed pitching since the start of the 2011 season (note this excludes Davis’s best year). Take note of who has the highest wRC+ in this time period. In a bit of a mild surprise in a list that contains such names as Corey Hart, Adam Lind and Kendrys Morales the best hitter over the last three years against right handed pitching has been Ike Davis.

I’m as willing to admit as anyone that Davis has his faults. Straying away from baseball for a second and in to a field I am not at all familiar with we reach his recent case of Valley Fever. From what I can tell often once a person gets over it they are not susceptible to it anymore but that isn’t true in all cases and I’m not familiar enough with Davis’s specific case to know whether that applies or not. Either way this in itself is one thing outside of his performance that bears considering. The disease doesn’t seem to do much except make a person extremely fatigued but for a baseball player that is obviously a very bad thing.

Moving on to on the field issues brings us first to Davis’s strike out rate. Let’s be honest here the last thing the Pirates need to do is add more strike outs to this lineup. Davis strikes out a lot nearly 1 out of every 4 at bats which in a lineup featuring Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez would just add to the list of frustrating swings and misses. However the one thing he has that those other don’t is the ability to take a walk as his walk percentage for his career is around 12% meaning he walks once for about every two strike outs. This ability allows him to post a solid OBP despite his low batting average and high strike out rate.

The other red flag that sticks out is his underwhelming performances the last two seasons but 2012 can be explained in part at least with his battle with Valley Fever. The Pirates would have to trust their medical staff on whether this would be an ongoing issue. Last year though was more of a product of a poor season but as a silver lining he did begin to hit well down the stretch before getting injured. At 27 years old it seems unlikely Davis’s skills would already be on the decline so his strong finish shouldn’t be completely ignored. His recent poor play does make him a risk but if he wasn’t a risky acquisition there would be zero chance of the Pirates or any other team for that matter of acquiring him early on in this season.

The next obvious question becomes is Davis better than the Pirates current plan? Well this is an impossible one to answer for the simple reason that we really don’t know what that plan happens to be. Right now Travis Ishikawa is getting the lion’s share of the starts but is that a temporary thing until Lambo or McGuiness shows something or is it how the Pirates are planning on holding down the position this year. Ishikawa is off to a solid enough start and if he can continue playing near this level replacing him would not be something necessary but he has a track record which seems to indicate what type of player he really is. Ishikawa is a good glove 1B that has a good approach at the plate but he lacks the power to be a true impact bat for the position. Upgrading upon that is something the Pirates surely want to do.

Now we come back to the Andrew Lambo situation. He is really the key piece to all of this. How exactly do the Pirates view him? Is it as a potential long term solution to their hole at 1B or is it as a project (like Jeff Clement) with a lot of upside but a low chance of panning out? If the Pirates really believe Lambo can be their 1B giving up assets (both players and cash) for Davis wouldn’t be worth it but if they see him as no more than a project something should be done and Davis right now is the obvious solution.

Now just what might it take to acquire Davis from the Mets? In the offseason it appeared the Mets were shooting for the moon asking for a young quality pitcher someone who would be comparable to the Pirates Nicholas Kingham. I think it is fairly obvious now with Davis being demoted to bench duty that he isn’t going to get them that kind of a return. Still Davis isn’t exactly going to be free I have saw some speculating on a Locke for Davis swap and while I believe that is still probably a bit much it is certainly getting closer. One thing is for certain though and it is the Mets primary target in exchange for Davis is a controllable starting pitcher. The Pirates have several options there and if they wait it out perhaps they will be able to get him at a low enough price that it makes sense to deal away from their starting pitcher depth.

Davis is far from an ideal candidate for the Pirates and he comes with risks and the downward trend his career has been on is certainly concerning but even so he remains a quality option against right handed pitching and with Gaby Sanchez in the fold that is really what the Pirates need. Travis Ishikawa is playing well enough right now that 1B is not really an issue but to me it appears inevitable that he will revert to what he truly is and when that happens the Pirates are going to be forced into doing something to solve the position. Perhaps Lambo will prove to them he is worthy of a chance or perhaps another external candidate will become available and be a more attractive option than Davis but for the time being Ike is the best option out there and really that isn’t a bad thing. When it comes down to it none of us may love Davis but we should all certainly like Ike.

Buc’n Battle Report Week 1

As I said in my rebirth post there will be no reoccurring features however I am going to attempt to do one post every week or so that highlights what I believe to be the significant news surrounding the Pirates and I’m going to throw my opinion/thoughts on the matters out there. It is going to feature a touch of whatever I feel like is important be it off the field antics, on the field play, promotions, minor league results, etc. The tentative name I gave it is Buc’n Battle Report report which has a few obvious meanings which I won’t go over but suffice to say it plays on the view of the baseball season being a long grind and needing of weekly updates on where things stand.

Barry Bonds Presents MVP trophy to Andrew McCutchen

I am too young to remember Bonds’ time with the Pirates and as such I hold no ill will to him for his departure or for his shortcomings in the 1992 NLCS. As for the steroid controversy I am less sure where I stand on that issue but I’m not willing to crucify the guy and exclude him from all baseball events. As for the Pirates decision to have him present the trophy I think it was a great decision to try to have all the former MVP back for the moment and it felt incomplete without Parker and would have felt more so with out Bonds. I’m happy with the mix response Pittsburgh gave him as that feels about right although had I been there myself I probably would have chosen to remain quiet.

Instant Replay

The Pirates were involved in a lot of interesting replays early on but the noise about the process seems to be calming down. I am in favor of the use of replay but there are certainly quite a few bugs that need fixed in this current iteration of it and chief among them on my list is the whole challenge process. Managers are milking it with these slow walks out to the umpires only to stand around and faux argue until a signal is received. An eye in the sky would surely help speed up this process and improve its accuracy.

Jameson Taillon to have Tommy John Surgery

This is obviously not good news but the fact that it occurred before he was on the major league roster is the silver lining. The Pirates will not lose his service time to the surgery and recovery and will still control his rights through 7 major league seasons. Of course the more immediate news here is how this affects the Pirates pitching depth which is obviously significantly as the Pirates will not be able to get another pitcher inside or outside the organization this year who could have the mid season impact Taillon could have had. His loss will sting but I still feel the Pirates have the depth to carry them through this. The news is bad but it most certainly isn’t crushing and it is better now than later.

Edinson Volquez’s Strong Debut

7.2 innings on the week while allowing only a single run. Not exactly the kind of start most Pirates fans envisioned for Volquez. I think lost in all the negative talk about Volquez is the fact that Volquez really does have the stuff necessary to become a very good starting pitcher and all that eludes him is the ability to put his pitches where he wants them. Now that is a big thing eluding him and by no means is it now fixed Volquez will inevitably have a few games in which he looks awful but the start has been great and will hopefully build some early season confidence not only in Volquez but in the eyes of the fans.

Bunting

I would prefer to see a stop to the senseless bunts (there are a select few which are fine) but at the very least if you are going to bunt have the players practice it more and become decent at it. The combination of poor bunting ability and senseless bunting is going to wind up costing this team a game sooner or later.

Contract Extensions

Not much to say here the extensions given to Hurdle and Huntington were well earned and I hope they continue improving as the next few years go by and if they do the Pirates very well may find themselves with one of the better GM/manager tandems in baseball.

Minor League Recap

Not much to say a week in the A OF which appears to be dripping with talent has a bunch of early hamstring issues which will hopefully get resolved. Aside from that it was nice to see Polanco get off to a good start, Allie join AA and Battling Bucs sleeper prospect Max Moroff have a solid first week. On the pitching side on things a few more starts like the one Kingham had this week should land him in AAA shortly and good to see Cumpton with a solid season debut in AAA.

Major League Action

The early results seem to show this team looking a lot like last year’s and that is a good thing. The bats should produce some more runs this year as they will surely get luckier when runners are one and the power this group has should translate to some more offense as well. The right field and first base situations are so far so good as the four players have all had solid starts to the year. Tony Sanchez looks like a man who shouldn’t be sent down but in the name of depth he will be and that isn’t all that bad of a decision. Grilli and Melancon don’t quite look as lights out as they were last year but asking for that would be too much as long as they remain a steady duo things will be fine. All and all things seem to be trending in the right direction.

The Rebirth

It has been a little less than a year now since I shut down this blog. I know most of my readers (few as they were) have likely moved on without really feeling the blog’s absence but the same can not be said about this author. Baseball holds and has always held a special place in my heart. The game in some ways is just simply magical and it captures the imagination like no other sport can. Several times during this past year I have felt the desire to renew this site but I have always held back because I just didn’t have the time to commit to it. Then about a week ago I got a chance to write a guest post for a great new Pirates blog called Saber Bucs. It wasn’t much just an attempt at figuring out future contract extensions but it was enough to get my juice flowing again. However I still realize I don’t have it in me to commit to this site daily but I’m at peace with now and I’m going to set out to do what I had always planned to do with this site and that is just write my opinion on what is one of my strongest hobbies, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The site won’t feature any reoccurring articles and it will probably go days if not weeks between posts and I know I won’t garner much if any following but I’m going to write not for views or followers or anything else but for me and the joy I get following the Pirates. I’m at a fairly stressful time on my life right now and the Pirates are my great escape. For those that choose to read the few articles I churn out over the next few weeks, months, years, decades or however long I manage to keep this going I thank you but for me this is about something a bit more personal.

So all it might be in a bit of a different form but Battling Bucs is back!!!

Shutting Down Battling Bucs

As is probably pretty evident by now the frequency of my postings here at Battling Bucs has dwindled down to almost zero over the last couple of weeks. This is due to conditions in my life making it harder for me to find time to commit to blogging. I have a new full time job taking some of my time, I have a wedding I am in the process of planning taking some of my time and many other factors are pulling my attention away from this wonderful blog. Although it didn’t even make it two full years this blog has meant a lot to me, no it never got to be ultra-popular or anything like that but it provided me with an outlet to speak my piece and post my opinions on a franchise dear to my heart, the Pittsburgh Pirates. It has been a great run and I’d like to thank all my readers. Your site views have been much appreciated.

For the last three months before April began I pored just about everything I could into this site and that made it great I shot up the MLB blogs leader boards all the way into the top 30 and I was climbing. My desire is to go on and see if I can’t make a run at the top spot but I don’t have the time or resources to make that possible. I guess you could say LIFE is forcing this closure. It is the ending of an era for me and in a way kind of the end of my college days, yes I have been out of college for almost a year now but this blog was born from those days and kept me connected to them. I always say I am lucky in that my childhood still lives on and in some ways always will. I have two things left keeping me tied to it The Simpsons and of course the Pirates but even those two are in some ways fading. The Simpsons for as great as the show has been is nearing the end of its run and the Pirates very soon are going to post a winning season (maybe not this year or next but its coming) officially ending the chapter of poor baseball I have endured all my life. Being a little philosophical here for a moment life or more specifically time as it does with everyone has defeated me and now I must move on.

My passion for the Pirates still grows everyday and I catch as many games as I possibly can. My desire to write about them and share my opinions and analysis with others is still there as well. Make no mistake I’m not done blogging but I can no longer upkeep this site. As some of you are probably aware a short while ago I joined some other bloggers over at the Pittsburgh Sports Forum and started writing some posts for them. I will continue to do so and I hope you all will come over there and check out my posts. It is a better outlet for me in this transition time in my life. Who knows when things settle down and if life provides me with the opportunity Battling Bucs could one day rise again but for the time being it shutting down.

One last time I would like to thank everyone who has read my site these last almost two years. It has been a pleasure to share my opinions with all of you. May our Pirates do something truly special this year and may this year be the start of a magnificent run.

Let’s Go Bucs!

Hitting, Where are thou?

Once again the Pirates find themselves with no hitting to begin the season. This year if you can believe it has actually been worse than the start of the 2012 season. It is mind-boggling that a team can hit this bad at the start of the season but it is happening. Once again though people are overreacting some, the Pirates are not this bad of a hitting team. Make no mistake they aren’t a good hitting team but they aren’t a historically bad hitting team either. In the coming weeks the Pirates will likely rebound some and becomes the below average offensive team they are but that still leaves us with the question of why we are once again seeing such a poor start.

Any number of factors could be in play here. It is possible the team did an inadequate job getting the hitters ready during spring. It is possible the collection of hitters the Pirates have assembled could be prone to poor starts. It is possible it could just simply be bad luck. Or it could be something else or some combination. It is impossible to figure out just what is at play here but I’d like to take a deeper look at the mix of hitters the Pirates have in their lineup.

The Pirates lineup is loaded with high strikeout guys. The major league average strikeout rate for non pitchers last season was 21.4% so keep that in mind when looking at these numbers.

Russell Martin: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Garrett Jones: 20.0% K rate in 2012

Gaby Sanchez: 17.2% K rate in 2012

Neil Walker: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Pedro Alvarez: 30.7% K rate in 2012

Clint Barmes: 21.5% K rate in 2012

Starling Marte: 27.5% K rate in 2012

Andrew McCutchen: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Travis Snider: 25.9% K rate in 2012

Jose Tabata: 15.5% K rate in 2012

The above are the Pirates 10 regular players. A fair number of them were below the average K rate last season but only two Sanchez and Tabata were significantly lower. What does that mean? It means on days when Snider and Jones both starts which should be against just about every right handed pitcher the Pirates are fielding an entire lineup of players who are going to strike out in at least about 1 out of every 5 at bats. In theory that isn’t a big deal but of course the strike outs don’t come exactly 5 at bats a part. Players get cold and when average to high strike out players get cold guess what they strike out a lot. Not exactly rocket science there. Strike outs in return limit the number of balls put in play and limit the chances of getting a good bounce. Without a good bounce hitters continue to hit without runners on where they see fewer pitchers to hit so they continue to struggle and the strike outs continue to mount. It’s all a cyclical effect. A couple hitters start off cold and struggle to put the ball in play creates fewer good hitting opportunities for the players hitting well so they in return get cold and start hitting fewer balls and striking out more. What this Pirates lineup lacks are some low strikeout guys who can work counts and get on base or even players who just manage to make contact a lot.

The Pirates find themselves in a tough cycle to break out of. Ideally a lineup like this would have a different type of bench supporting it but the Pirates really don’t have that. Sanchez and Tabata can mix things up a little bit but McKenry and McDonald are largely useless to change much. The last bench player Harrison is an interesting player though. Harrison won’t work hardly at all but he won’t strike out much either so having a bat like him who will make contact in the lineup could be a good thing. Problem is unless you are facing a left handed pitcher where do you play him? The Pirates really can’t sit Walker or Alvarez against right handers and Harrison isn’t good enough defensively to warrant starting him over Barmes, Marte or Snider. I thought this past weekend when facing two left handers in a row was a perfect opportunity to play Harrison for a couple games and see if his contact skills couldn’t ignite some sort of spark but alas that didn’t happen. In reality that is all Harrison brings to the table the ability to make contact on a consistent basis and that is something this Pirates team desperately needs.

With all that being said the Pirates non pitchers currently have a ridiculously low .169 BABIP. Simply put that isn’t going to continue forever and in time more balls will begin to fall in and the Pirates will in return score more runs. Still even with bad luck playing a huge role in this current offensive mess it would be nice if the Pirates lineup had or at least could be complimented with some good contact hitters who can manage to get on base at a high level. The front office has done a fair job of assembling some decent arms and some decent power hitters but it has been a miserable failure at balancing out the lineup and providing it with any kind of useable depth.

Battling Bucs is Cutting Back

I must sadly report that with life catching up with me I am going to have to trim back my posting here at Battling Bucs. I have been doing everything I could to try to keep up my post per day rate over the last month and a half but I will no longer be able to do so. The site won’t end as I’ll continue trying to do a couple of posts per week and I’ll chime in with my thoughts on important Pirates moves. You can still follow me on Twitter and I’m doing some blogging on Pittsburgh Sport Forum so you can also check me out there. I’m not going to disappear from the online Pirates  fan community but I will have to scale back. I guess life catches up with all of us in time. Thank you to all of you who have stopped by and read my blog and I hope you continue to do so even if it will be running at a reduced pace.

Opening Day!!!

Apologies in advance to the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers who opened last night but today is the true honest to goodness Opening Day. Nothing warms my heart more than those two little words, this is the best day on the calendar year for me and a true holiday. On today of all days anything really does seem possible. Every Pirates season I can recall has finished the same way in disappointment but no matter the outcome the one day that does not and can not disappoint me is Opening Day. There is just something magical about it. There are a few days every year in which we say the Sports world creates an unofficial holiday. Most prominent are probably Super Bowl Sunday, the beginning of March Madness and possibly the Olympics. More so than any of those days though Opening Day feels truly special more like a religious day than just a sporting day.

Those other days I mention aren’t holidays simply because of the sport. March Madness takes on its holiday like form largely do to office pools and gambling. Super Bowl Sunday takes on its holiday like feel largely do to the event and not the game. And the Olympics are more a celebration of human achievement than a celebration of any particular sport. Opening Day however, to me at least, has nothing like that attached to it. It is quite simply and purely the celebration of baseball. It is a day to sit back, remove all the noise (PEDs, lack of competitive balance, etc) and focus on the greatness of the game. The feeling of it, the sights, the smells are impossible to describe. For me everything just seems better this one day a year, my senses feel heightened and I walk with a spring in my step.

The reason for this great feeling I and I’m sure countless others feel is difficult to describe. There is just something about baseball some force which draws us to the games. No matter how bad our teams may be the ones who truly get baseball stick with it and ride the season through until the bitter (or sweet) end. If you can’t feel this force it is nearly impossible for me or anyone else to describe what it can do to a person but if you feel this force you will know immediately what I am talking about here.

The last couple of weeks have seen many disagreements between Pirates fans and baseball fans in general but today is the day we sit that all aside and welcome our game back. For this is truly a special and magical day. Enjoy it, live it and take in the magic. This is a day of great hope and where anything truly feels possible. There is no other day quite like today. Opening Day is here and the world is right again.

Leading Off

Going into this offseason I identified to key areas in which I felt the Pirates needed to improve. The top priority was and should quite frankly near always be starting pitching depth. The Pirates worked on that this offseason by tendering Morton, resigning Karstens, (allegedly) signing Liriano and adding a few players like Jonathan Sanchez and Vin Mazzaro to serve as depth. The second area I pointed out was their lack of OBP and by extension top of the order and specifically lead off candidates. To address this the Pirate have done … well … nothing. Russell Martin was added and while I have heard some rumblings he might bat 2nd that really shouldn’t be an option except possibly against left handed pitching. So it appears the Pirates are going to try to address this problem internally. Let’s take a close look at the options:

The first thing we need to ask is what exactly does a team want in a leadoff hitter. The typical lead off hitter is viewed as someone who is fast and can steal bases but more importantly it is about getting on base and to a smaller extent making pitchers work. Since the primary goal of a leadoff hitting is getting on base I am going to focus most of this discussion of OBP but as a secondary number I will look at BB and K rates and finally as a third number I am going to look at stolen bases. Looking at those stats and comparing them to the league I get a very rough estimate that a good leadoff hitter should meet at least the following criteria: .330 OBP, 8-10 BB%, 15-20 K% (so 2:1 K:BB), 25 SB at a 75% rate. Those are reasonable estimates of minimum production teams would be expecting out of good leadoff hitters. So to compare the Pirates players to those standards I will use their 2013 ZiPS projections.

Russell Martin: .328 OBP, 10.3 BB%, 16.1 K%, 7 SB, 78 SB%

Michael McKenry: .297 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 24.8 K%, 1 SB, 50 SB%

Garrett Jones: .309 OBP, 7.7 BB%, 21.1 K%, 5 SB, 71 SB%

Gaby Sanchez: .324 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 14.6 K%, 3 SB, 75 SB%

Neil Walker: .328 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 18.5 K%, 8 SB, 62 SB%

Pedro Alvarez: .313 OBP, 10.2 BB%, 31.1 K%, 2 SB, 67 SB%

Clint Barmes: .289 OBP, 5.5 BB%, 18.7 K%, 3 SB, 50 SB%

Josh Harrison: .299 OBP, 3.7 BB%, 12.1 K%, 12 SB, 67 SB%

Jordy Mercer: .286 OBP, 5.4 BB%, 18.2 K%, 5 SB, 56 SB%

Chase d’Arnaud: .285 OBP, 6.4 BB%, 21.6 K%, 24 SB, 83 SB%

Starling Marte: .310 OBP, 4.3 BB%, 22.8 K%, 24 SB, 67 SB%

Andrew McCutchen: .369 OBP, 11.4 BB%, 18.0 K%, 23 SB, 68 SB%

Travis Snider: .310 OBP, 7.4 BB%, 22.7 K%, 9 SB, 69 SB%

Jose Tabata: .329 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 15.0 K%, 19 SB, 61 SB%

Jerry Sands: .304 OBP, 8.5 BB%, 25.0 K%, 4 SB, 80 SB%

Alex Presley: .308 OBP, 6.1 BB%, 18.0 K%, 15 SB, 65 SB%

Well as should have been expected no one met all the criteria listed and in fact no one at all met the 25 SB criteria. Since the Pirates do not have an ideal leadoff hitter (something we already knew) I think it is time to look at the best of the flawed options.

OBP > .330

Only one Pirates player projects to have an OBP over .330 and he is obviously the best choice to bat leadoff but the problem is he is the same guy who is the best choice to bat 3rd, 4th, 5th and well really anywhere in the lineup. With an ideally balanced lineup Andrew McCutchen is the obvious choice to be a leadoff hitter and if he can improve his stolen base efficiency he would be as near perfect a lead off hitter as one could make. However we all know he has more value to the Pirates batting in the middle of the lineup and driving those runs in than he does sitting atop the lineup, getting on base and ultimately staying on base.

OBP > .320

The Pirates have 4 players who have an OBP in the .320s and without an obvious choice to leadoff it would make sense that the player should come from this group. Those players are Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Looking at the secondary numbers I posted each of these players BB% and K% look fairly good as well as the BB% are at the very least near 8% and the K% for all of them is less than 20%. Where the divergence happens though is in the SB department, only one of these players, Jose Tabata is any sort of threat on the bases and while he does have the speed to swipe bases he like most other Pirates isn’t good at picking his spots. Still there is little doubt that outside of McCutchen the Pirates player best suited for the leadoff spot is Jose Tabata but there is a problem with that as Tabata’s 2012 struggles has made it very likely that he won’t be in the starting lineup. Gaby Sanchez is in a similar position as he is only expected to get consistent at bats against left handers. That leaves us with martin and Walker. In an ideal world where the leadoff hitter is determined only by the ability to get on base Martin batting lead off against lefties and Walker against righties makes a ton of sense as both players do a really good job getting on base against those particular handedness. In practice Martin is a catcher and catchers no matter how much they are suited for it rarely if ever lead off. I would not dismiss the possibility of Walker doing so however.

OBP > .300, BB% > 7.5%

Next up are 3 players who do not put up the best on base percentages but show a decent knack for working a count as shown by their projected BB%. These 3 players Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Jerry Sands. On the surface none of these 3 look like a leadoff hitter and when you dig a little deeper that becomes even clearer. Alvarez’s strike out rate is projected to be above 30% and his power bat is too valuable to have at the top of the order and he is better suited for a slugger role somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Similar to Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates count on Garrett Jones for his power and middle of the order presence. He doesn’t strike out a ton though and is actually has a fairly high OBP against right handed pitchers so using him at the top of the lineup against them shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. THe other player Sands faces a similar situation to Tabata as there is probably just not a whole lot of playing time to be had by him. Even so with a projected 25% strike out rate and a low OBP the top of the order probably isn’t a good place for him.

OBP > .300, BB% < 7.5%

There are 3 more players with a projected OBP above .300 but all of them do not walk a lot. They are Starling Marte, Alex Presley and Travis Snider. First I’ll deal with Travis Snider, he is a lot like Garrett Jones in that the Pirates are going to be expecting him to provide power but that his OBP is decent enough that using him near the top of the lineup can not be completely dismissed in the right situations. The other two players Starling Marte and Alex Presley fit the look of a traditional leadoff hitter. Both are speedy outfielders that can steal a base fairly well. However both have some OBP problems and Marte has a strike out problem. Presley is in the same boat as Tabata and Sands and in actuality is probably worse off so it is unlikely he gets enough playing time to be a real leadoff hitter candidate. Starling Marte appears likely to be the Pirates first choice as a leadoff hitter but his projected numbers show he really isn’t a good fit for that role. He can steal some bases but he will really work a walk and is projected to have a strike out rate more than 6 times greater than his walk rate.

OBP < .300

I have 5 other players listed above but they have even greater on base problems than the ones I have already discussed. McKenry is a solid backup catcher with a little power but he quite obviously has the OBP nor the speed to handle lead off duties. Clint Barmes is expected to be the everyday starting shortstop but that is more for his defensive prowess than anything with the bat. He quite simply should see nothing but the bottom of the order. All that leaves us with is the 3 primary candidates for the reserve infielder jobs in d’Arnaud, Harrison and Mercer. Each one has his strengths but none of their strengths are really getting on base. d’Arnaud is a decent enough base stealer but can’t hit well enough to get on base at a decent enough clip, Mercer is a solid defensive player but once again is lacking with the bat, and Harrison is a little better with the bat and is a decent base runner but lacks a true position and doesn’t have the plate patience nor the OBP ability to make any sort of leadoff hitter.

So what does all of this tell us? Quite simply that the Pirates are going to have to patchwork their leadoff spot and their top of the order. All things should be on the table. Players like Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez need to be considered for the top of the order even though they aren’t your prototypical choices. Neil Walker shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a #2 hitter as he has the ability to be a competent lead off hitter at least against left handers. I am going to share my own ideas for lineups below and then discuss my rationale behind them.

vs RHP

Walker, 2B

Jones, 1B

Cutch, CF

Alvarez, 3B

Marte, LF

Snider, RF

Martin, C

Barmes, SS

vs LHP

Tabata, RF

Martin, C

Cutch, CF

Alvarez, 3B

Marte, LF

Sanchez, 1B

Walker, 2B

Barmes, SS

In my lineup against right handers I am having Walker lead off because he is the Pirates best OBP man against right handed pitchers outside of Andrew McCutchen. The second spot in my order came down to Garrett Jones and Travis Snider both of whom can post decent OBPs against right handers while providing a little pop but Jones is more proven in that regard and I want the younger Snider concentrating more on unlocking his power pontential rather than trying to set the table. The middle of the order I kept the same for both lineups as I think Cutch fits well in the 3 hole and that it is time for Pedro to get a real chance to inherit the clean up job. Marte is more of a run producer than a leadoff hitter so batting him 5th gives him a oppurtunity to do and if he develops he could possible move up to the 3rd spot which would allow Cutch to inherit the lead off spot. Rounding out the lineup I have Martin and Barmes who I hope will at least be competent. If Martin sits McKenry can just slide right into the 7th spot.

In my lineup against lefites I start with Tabata as I am not ready to give up on him quite yet and feel it would be for the best to sit Snider against left handed pitching. Outside of McCutchen, Tabata is clearly the player that best profiles as a leadoff hitter so this will give him a chance to audition for that job. The second spot came down to either Martin or Sanchez and I went with Martin because I feel Sanchez brings a little more power lower in the lineup and I feel that Martin’s track record of posting a high OBP against lefties is just a touch better than Sanchez’s. The middle of the order stays the same as I want those guys to try and establish themselves. I dropped Walker the whole way down to the 7th spot because when he is forced to bat right handed he really struggles. I wouldn’t mind seeing him swapped with Sanchez though and batting 6th. And of course Barmes rounds out the lineup. When Martin sits move Sanchez up to the 2 spot and insert McKenry in Sanchez’s spot.

My lineups may be a little unconventional but I feel they make the best use out of what is the poor assortment of top of the order candidates the Pirates currently have in their stable.

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