Abandon Ship... in May?

Polanco Fail

By Ron Yurko (@flyingSerb21)

It’s easy to forget how long the baseball season really is.  In 2014 it seemed the Oakland Athletics were destined for glory, with blockbuster trades for aces like Samardzija and Lester it was clear the A’s were going for a deep run in the playoffs.  Except the MLB season is 162 games, and in mid-August the wheels fell off for Oakland.  The Los Angeles Angels overcame the A’s to win the AL West, leaving the A’s to lose a heartbreaker to the Kansas City Royals in the AL wildcard game.  What seemed to be guaranteed for months, fell apart in such a short amount of time.

After another extra-inning loss on May 20th to the Minnesota Twins, the Pittsburgh Pirates fell to 18-22 on the year and are 9 games back in the NL Central to the St. Louis Cardinals.  A quarter of the way through the season and naturally the reactionary Pittsburgh sports writers (used to covering football and hockey) are already playing the blame game on the failures of this team.  The media of course makes a living by blowing stories out of proportion, so its important to take a step back and look at the numbers of the 2015 Pirates thus far.

2014 vs 2015:

Through the first 40 games of the 2014 season the Pittsburgh Pirates were 17-23, a mere one game difference than the current 2015 team.  Last year’s team of course turned the season around, but went on to lose to Madison Bumgarner in the NL Wildcard game on the first and last day of Buctober.  Expectations for the 2015 team were the largest placed upon the Pirates in decades, with Buster Olney of ESPN even picking the Pirates to reach the World Series.  But things have been shaky so far, an 18-22 start is not living up to the hype.  But there are 122 games left to be played, and like last year’s team all is not lost with the 2015 Pirates.

One of the easiest checks to evaluate any team’s performance during the season is to look at their run differential.  So far, despite the losing record, the Pirates have actually outscored their opponents with 154 runs scored and 145 runs allowed.  This amounts to a Pythagorean Win - Loss record of 21-19, suggesting the Pirates have been unlucky so far.  Through the first 40 games last year, the Pirates scored 158 runs but allowed 171.  The starting pitching has vastly improved this year compared to the rotation at the beginning of last year which included the struggling Wandy Rodriguez (bad memories).  The 2014 team finished with a 88-74 record and a positive run differential with 682 runs scored and 631 runs allowed.  The Pirates will start winning more games, but a closer look at various statistics can provide insight into their early season struggles.

The Sinking Offense:

The storyline for the season so far has been the struggling offense who can’t provide the pitching any run support.  Naturally this led me to look at the team’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) which is .291 so far, which is lower than the .307 value the team finished with last year.  This is not an overwhelming difference, but is just another indicator of poor luck the team is experiencing.  A striking difference exists in the team’s current slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .242/.301/.368 compared to 2014’s final slash line of .259/.331/.426. Although to fans the Pirates seem to be stranding baserunners constantly, the team is actually hitting better with runners in scoring position with a slash line of .264/.335/.406 and BABIP of .315.  However, overall the offense is getting on-base at a much lower rate and also failing to hit for power.

One of the reasons the Pirates are getting on-base at a lower rate is due to the lower walk rate of 6.5% compared to the 2014’s of 8.4% (but similar K% of 21% and 20%).  This of course leads me to examine various plate discipline metrics in order to understand this drop.  The Pirates are not actually chasing more pitches outside of the strike zone this year (O-Swing% of 31.2% in 2015 compared to 31.1% in 2014) but the problem could be a side effect of the lack of power.  The Pirates are hitting more ground-balls, with a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 1.74, this year compared to last year, with a GB/FB ratio of 1.28.  The early season struggles of McCutchen and Harrison have been criticized constantly and probably have a reasonable effect on the poor overall offensive numbers.  The team rates should rise as both players will perform better barring any injury as their early season BABIPs of .250 and .277 are well off their respective career marks.  And although the loss of Russell Martin (.290/.402/.430) hurts, Francisco Cervelli (.286/.348/.352) has performed admirably with strong pitching performances to go along with his game.  A position however with noticeable difference is right-field, which primarily was Travis Snider’s (.264/.338/.438) starting position last year but has been solely Gregory Polanco’s (.234/.297/.326) this year.  Besides drops in each of the slash line stats, Polanco has been struggling to hit for power with a hideous 2.82 GB/FB ratio this year compared to Snider’s 1.58 GB/FB in 2014.  Polanco’s BABIP of .305 further suggests that bad luck isn’t the cause of his poor playing, he’s been fundamentally playing poorly and hitting more ground balls than expected.  And he also made a complete fool of himself at a really bad time… His stellar minor league performance has not carried over yet in the majors and, although he is only 23 years old, should be a concern considering how other top prospects in other systems are already performing such as Kris Bryant.  With Jordy Mercer’s numbers destined to rise (his BABIP of .202 is really bad luck) and Jung-Ho Kang performing (.313/.378/.450), the Pirates might consider playing Harrison in right field more, letting Kang stay in the lineup at third and possibly send Polanco back down in order to stay competitive this season.

The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates are a better team than their record indicates.  Several players have had some awful luck but the numbers are starting to turn around.  The team might consider however sending Polanco back down to AAA for more work, and let the productive players stay in the lineup.  But there are 122 games left and, if the 2014 Oakland Athletics mean anything, you just can’t predict baseball.

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