Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates: Low Expectations, High Aspirations?

Perennial basement dwellers, the Pittsburgh Pirates have managed to defy all expectations last year and managed to finish 4th in the division, and while still a sub .500 team as of this writing are still building on the “success” of last season. Their rotation looks a good bit different now, and the addition of a pair of veterans has probably been a good thing for the team, it’s hard to immediately say how much it will help in the standings.

Brad Lincoln made 8 starts for the pirates last season and was worth an ERA+ of 80 after giving up 25 earned runs over 47 & ⅔ innings. He’s made 1 start for the Bucs this season
going 6 innings and giving up 2 earned runs. He looks to be more of the de facto long reliever for the Pirates this season but could easily step in with a potential injury or an extended period of ineffectiveness somewhere in the rotation. As a reliever he’s garnering a lot more strikeouts than he has in the last 2 seasons and has never had a huge walk rate, which hasn’t changed. Lincoln is probably a bit better now than he was a year ago, but it’s hard to imagine him up and winning a starting job mid season without someone else really dropping the ball.

Jeff Karstens unfortunately went down early this season after two productive if not overwhelming outings. He looks to return to his spot in the rotation sooner rather than later. Karstens seemed to have finally put it all together last season. Looking at 2 starts and an inning before injury sidelined him isn’t exactly great sample size to work from (it’s probably only slightly more accurate than asking a drunk buddy how he’ll pitch when he comes back), but that’s been my method so far, so crap sample or not, that’s all we’ve got to go with. He wasn’t striking much of anybody out in the early going, but that’s never been his M.O. so we can probably let that go and celebrate the total 2 walks in 12 innings he’s allowed. As is the case for any pitcher who strikes out 2-3 batters per outing, Karstens relies on pitching to contact, which worked out better for him last year when he was actually getting ground balls, but in his whole 12 inning sample we’d seen 27% of contact result in line drives. It’s hard to say that Karstens is going to come back and pick up where he left off, testing his outfielders every 5th day, that probably had a lot to do with his shoulder bothering him.

A.J. Burnett showed up in his first start of the year after breaking an orbital bone during bunting drills and made the Yankees look like a bunch of chumps for letting him go. He has since had all of 1 bad game, wherein he gave up 12 runs in less than 3 innings to the very same Cardinals that he blanked for 7 in his return to the NL. He has otherwise given up 2 runs, and gone no less than 6 innings in every start not against the Cards. So, outside of one truly  bad start, Burnett has looked like vintage Burnett much more so than the 3 years in NY, AJ’s strikeout numbers are right on point, while he’s walking fewer than he has at any point in his career. He is however also sitting right on his career home run per 9 rate in his first 6 starts. His BABIP is up a bit over his career, sitting at .321 which is higher than it was in 2 of his 3 years of Yankee tenure, so that might come down, might not. He seems to have rediscovered the ground ball though, so that could help him this season. He’s been wildly inconsistent in his groundball rate throughout his career ranging from highly effective seasons well above 50% and above average seasons in the low 40s so what he’s doing now really doesn’t help forecast anything about success, but it does probably mean his curveball is working again. His BABIP is likely mostly attributed to his 23% of balls in play going for line drives, they are however staying in the park, which they haven’t done over the past few years despite having given them up about 6% less of the time. Burnett looks to be a steal for the Pirates who have 2 years of Burnett left, though they’re not paying for too much of it.

Charlie Morton isn’t quite wowing everyone at the moment, but he’s also not pitching so poorly as to have him run out of town (In all fairness, I don’t know how bad a pitcher would actually have to be for Pirates fans to run them out of town, he did spend 17 starts racking up a 7.57 ERA in 2010 and has held onto the job for 2 years since). He’s walked 10 batters so far in his first 39 & ⅓ innings and has struck out 24, so he’s also pitching to contact, and the 11 hits per 9 leads me to believe he’s pitching to a lot of it. I’d say that a great deal of them have been bad luck, doubly so because he’s getting a lot of ground balls and has effectively limited line drives to a very manageable 16% of balls in play. Morton has given up 5 homers so far in his 39 & ⅓ innings to equate to a little more than 1 per 9 so he’s a little homer prone in the early going. Overall, Morton might be exactly what we’re seeing out of him at this point in his career. He’s not suddenly going to look like an ace, but he will probably go 6 give up 3 most of the time for the Bucs.

Kevin Correia put together a stellar April, and then promptly decided that he was much more comfortable out of the spotlight and has subsequently managed 2 textbook quality starts(6 innings 3 runs and 7 innings 3 runs) and two starts that looked like what Josh Beckett does when he’s not allowed to play  enough golf between starts. Now, Correia isn’t exactly worthless, he has been steadily making 6+ innings per start outside of one I’m sure he’d like to take a mulligan on in Miami and a weak but not totally damning start in Atlanta. Correia is has managed all of 16 strikeouts in his 46 innings so far, on the flip side of that coin, he only has 15 walks (5 of which came in that game in Atlanta). His peripheral stats look like he’s made some changes to his plans on the mound, or he’s gotten relatively lucky so far and is soon to start providing more of those 3.2 inning 6 ER starts than the 6 inning 1-2 run starts he started the year with. Correia is nearly an even 50/50 split between grounders and fly balls, which is great, though it’s significantly higher than he’s put together outside of his 2010 season. He is also limiting line drives to a pretty minimal 13% of balls in play. also something he’s never really done before. I’d have to assume Correia is going to continue regressing some and probably look more like he has since the beginning of May than he did in April.

James McDonald has suddenly decided he’s tired of being a league average pitcher and has stopped walking batters, is striking out more than 1 batter per inning, and has been the best starter in the rotation by over a full run so far. Now, that’s all well and good, but it may well be too good to be true. McDonald does have 58 strikeouts, he also has only 18 walks in his 57 + innings. His WHIP is sitting below 1.000, and has given up all of 2 homers so far. He’s never in the last 4 years done anything that would indicate that this is sustainable. Now, he has had his flashes of brilliance, and if that’s happened to come full circle, maybe fixed a hitch in his windup, or is finally feeling comfortable in the bigs, I don’t know, it’s pure speculation. I do know that he’s doing a very good job of limiting the damage across the board, but very little has changed in his stat line. He’s still a fly ball pitcher, though slightly less so than ever before, it’s a few year trend so far, getting a few more grounders each year. He’s also not too far off his career for line drives at 17%, little better than the league, and not at all unreasonable. What does get me is that his BABIP is almost 40 points lower than it has ever been before, so some of this has all but got to be luck. I can’t say that He’s up and become a true ace, but I can’t see what is 100% unsustainable. Even if his BABIP and WHIP normalize, he’ll still be looking better than last year. I’d be surprised to see him continue to completely shut out the long ball, but he’s keeping men off base pretty well so even when they do happen, they don’t look like they’re going to hurt him too bad.

Erik Bedard is looking a lot like last year’s Erik Bedard, similar, high strikeout total, not unreasonable walk rate, and a tolerable WHIP. So far he’s walked 18, allowed 46 hits, and struck out 48 in his 46 innings. Now, Bedard has been an injury risk for every team he’s played for. His last, and only, full season came in ‘06 for the Orioles and it looks like this year won’t be any exception to that. Bedard left a game after a 5 pitch 1st inning on May 9th with back spasms. Since then he has given up 8 runs in 11 innings which brought his ERA up almost a full run from a very dominant 2.57 to a much more “not bad for the NL” 3.52.  That all said Bedard isn’t doing anything out of line with his career, so he could very well continue being a very good, no. 2/fringe ace when healthy, the biggest question mark with Bedard is always exactly that, “Is he healthy?”.

Overall the Pirates have the 4th best ERA and have allowed the 6th least home runs. They are however 13th overall in strikeouts, so they’re going to live and die on contact and the reliability of their defense. They are fielding the most anemic lineup in the National League at the moment, scoring the least runs, and having the lowest OBP in the league. That’s no way to support a respectable pitching staff, and they need to make some changes to really contend for a wildcard spot, let alone the division. The Bucs are a year or 2 away from anything particularly noteworthy, but there’s some promise there. I would expect them to stand pat rather than become sellers at the deadline, though someone like Bedard who’s on a 1 year contract might be worth flipping if a bat with some contract length becomes available.

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