One area that concerns me about the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates is the team’s bench. To me it just looks weak on paper and I have the feeling that has been the case for quite some time now. The Pirates depth or lack there of has been an issue for years and while it is steadily improving I believe some spots, especially the middle infield, are still lagging behind. My belief the Pirates bench was weak in past seasons, including 2012, was not really based on any research but rather jut an observational opinion. I decided to take a look at the numbers and see according to Fan Graphs WAR just how well the Pirates bench in 2012 stacked up to the other 4 teams remaining in the NL Central (Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs).
The first step to do this was determining exactly what a bench player was. I’m not merely looking for how well a team does with its pinch hitters but rather how well a team’s non-regulars do when pinch-hitting and when giving a regular starter a day off. Two obvious constraints came to mind one pitchers are obviously not bench players and bench players will not have as many plate appearances as starters. Using those two constraints I narrowed my list down to all non-pitchers and then eliminated anyone with 400 or more plate appearances. Four hundred was really just an arbitrary end point but it seems like a solid number for a regular starter, it represents roughly 60% of a 650 PA season meaning the player probably had to have played more than 50% of the time. Going even further I opted to eliminate any player with fewer than 50 PA. Players such as that likely didn’t have a chance to contribute much off the bench and were probably either short-term injury callups or September roster expansion players. These constraints limited the player pool to a manageable size for bench players but still left me with a few oddities such as Starling Marte and Rod Barajas being listed as bench players. Obviously those two and other like them are not bench players so I decided to look at the number of plate appearance the remaining players had per game played. A typical bench player should have a lower number because while they will make some starts a lot of their plate appearances will come as a pinch hitter or late inning replacement limiting their PA in those games to 1 or 2. Again I opted to choose an arbitrary dividing line of 3.3 plate appearances per game. It may seem random but it indicates that in at least a third of his games the player was receiving at least 4 plate appearances and to me that was a good enough dividing line. Finally I opted for one more constraint and that was removing all catchers. This may seem a little odd but typically speaking backup catchers receive a larger number of starts than a typical catcher and are often not used in pinch-hitting situations. In short catchers really don’t fit my standard ideal of what a bench player really is.
These constraints left me with a various number of players left for each team. The Reds had 4, the Cardinals and Brewers each had 7, the Cubs had 9 players and the Pirates topped the list with 10 such players. I looked at the total number of plate appearances each of these groups had and at the total number of WAR they produced on the season. The Reds were low and the Cubs were high but the other three teams all had right around 1200 plate appearances. So I decided to look at the stats on the basis of 1200 plate appearances which for the NL Central at least appears to be roughly the average number of plate appearances each “bench” received. The results can be seen below. I’ve also included the actual WAR and total number of plate appearances.
Cardinals: 5.1 WAR/1200 PA (5.4 WAR, 1263 PA)
Brewers: 1.9 WAR/1200 PA (1.8 WAR, 1118 PA)
Pirates: 0.8 WAR/1200 PA (0.8 WAR, 1255 PA)
Cubs: 0.4 WAR/1200 PA (0.5 WAR, 1538 PA)
Reds: -0.6 WAR/1200 PA (-0.4 WAR, 835 PA)
A little to my surprise the Pirates actually finished third. The Cardinals total was just incredibly insane and the Reds total was much lower than one would assume a successful team to be but then again they had very little reason to use it. For those of you interest the players included for each team I have listed below:
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Shane Robinson, Lance Berkman, Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers
Brewers: Nyjer Morgan, Cody Ranson, Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, Taylor Green, Jeff Bianchi, Edwin Maysonet
Pirates: Casey McGehee, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Drew Sutton, Matt Hague, Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Nate McLouth, Yamaico Navarro
Cubs: Bryan LaHair, Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Dave Sappelt, Adron Cardenas
Reds: Chris Heisey, Wilson Valdez, Miguel Cairo, Xavier Paul
In reality it is difficult to draw much from this. The Pirates bench wasn’t good but it was better than the Cubs and the Reds. That sounds good but the Cubs were awful in 2012 and the Reds used their bench only two-thirds of time that the Pirates or basically any other NL Central team did. One thing I did draw on was just how difficult it was to determine a bench for the Pirates and the Cubs. I had originally started out planning on picking the 5 most frequent bench players from each team but it became difficult to do that with the Pirates. Harrison and McKenry were easy picks but the next three proved impossible which is why I opted to go with the above formula. For the record the Pirates and Brewers would have been helped out the most if I would have included back up catchers in my analysis.
One thing I do think we can take from this is that there is room for the Pirates to improve on the bench. It might be unfair to expect the Pirates or any bench to rise to the St Louis Cardinals level but if the Pirates bench can improve to around the Brewers 2012 level which was approximately 1.2 WAR there is reason to believe some ground could be made up. The Cardinals are likely to see some sort of regression from the great 2012 season from their bench so it is possible the Pirates by improving to just 2.0 WAR from their bench could pick up as many as 3-3.5 games on the Cardinals just with their bench improving and the Cardinals returning to a more normal level. Bottom line the point I’m trying to make here and in my post The Bottom of the Roster is that the Pirates can make up ground not only by having their big names like McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker and Marte perform better but also by making some small but noticeable strides simply with team depth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Pirates could pick up 4-5 wins compared to the Cardinals just by strengthening their depth and having the Cardinals return to a more normal level that the Pirates.
A curious thought popped into my head the other day. As things stand right now the Pirates obviously need improved production to compete in 2013 and beyond but does that production necessarily have to come from the top? What about the bottom of the roster and the so-called replacement players. By replacement players in this sense I’m meaning the people who during a season get playing time but were not being counted on to do so by their teams. For the Pirates of 2012 this would be the Drew Sutton’s of the world. How bad comparatively is the Pirates production at that level.
I cam about thinking of this because of some numbers I’ve seen earlier which suggest the Pirates “hidden” offensive numbers, as I like to call them, were far below league average in 2012. Now what do I mean by hidden offensive numbers. Well the production from the 8 positions on the field are widely talked about but not the production from the pitcher or the team’s pinch hitters. WIthout going into too much detail as this isn’t what this post is really about the Pirates last season got a .245 OPS from their pitchers and a .513 OPS from their pinch hitters, the NL average was a .330 OPS from pitchers and .655 OPS from pinch hitters. I think those numbers speak for themselves so I’ll move on from here.
All this presented a real problem though because how does one begin to measure what a replacement player is? If the replacement players do well then they become not replacement players and that is something I’m not interested in measuring. I could spend a while trying to figure out a good way to make a distinction or I could find some assumption to make and while it may not be very accurate it would give me a place to start. I choose to go with the assumption route and the assumption I made is that teams, brace yourselves for this, aren’t going to give bad replacement level players a lot of plate appearances. Shocking I know. So I decided to look at the production of players with fewer than 100 PA. For the purpose of this discussion since I’m talking bottom of the roster offensive production I decided to include pitchers in my numbers. When I say production what I am looking for is a good overall snapshot of how the players did. For me there is no better stat for that than WAR. It has its problems yes but for a general discussion like this it is a good place to start.
Now the other issue here is I didn’t just want to find out the Pirates numbers I wanted to compare it to other so I choose their 4 closest competitors the rest of the NL Central. Since this is looking more ahead than behind I excluded the Astros from this discussion. Below are the numbers on how each of the 5 teams performed.
Cardinals: 21 players, 763 PA, 2.0 WAR
Reds: 17 players, 679 PA, 0.7 WAR
Brewers: 25 players, 721 PA, 0.5 WAR
Cubs: 24 players, 623 PA, -1.4 WAR
Pirates: 24 players, 811 PA, -2.3 WAR
Now just a couple of notes on each team.
The Cardinals strong number is fueled by Pete Kozma who posted a strong 1.4 WAR in just 82 PA and is also helped out by Lance Berkman receiving only 97 PA while posting a 0.4 WAR.
The Reds number is helped by Xavier Paul who posted a 0.5 WAR in 96 PA.
The Brewers number is arrived at with no real oddities although Alex Gonzalez, who they were counting on to be their starting shortstop is included here with 89 PA and 0.3 WAR.
The Cubs number is kept from being worse by Dave Sappelt who posted a 0.9 WAR in 78 PA. The also have Marlon Byrd who posted the lowest WAR of the group with a -0.8 WAR in just 47 PA
The Pirates have only two players in this group with a positive WAR, Jordy Mercer at 0.4 and James McDonald at 0.3. The lowest total belongs to Nate McLouth at -0.5 WAR.
*Note: The WAR totals are fangraphs WAR just to avoid any confusion
Now the Pirates replacement players as I have defined them were 3.0 wins worse than the division winning Reds and 4.3 wins worse than the wild card winning Cardinals. That is of course in itself not enough to make up the difference between the club but if the Pirates can cut that difference down in 2013 they become 2-3 games closer to those teams and that is a start. Another thing worth noting is that the Pirates lead the division in PA given to this group of players. Maybe this points to a lack of back-end talent and trying to figure out what works or maybe it points to some bad luck. I’m not sure but obviously you want more at bats going to the upper part of your roster. We can’t really determine much from this data but one thing I think is perfectly clear and that is the depth of the Pirates was an issue in 2012. The Pirates have made some moves to address that problem in 2013 and let us hope it works because if so that is a step in the right direction. The heavy lifting is still going to have to be done by the Pirates top end players but the guys at the bottom can make that load a little lighter by simply not being a hindrance.