Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Questions Answered and Grading the Pirates

Here at Bucco Central, about a month ago, I wrote a post asking if Pittsburgh could ever be a baseball town again? Now that we're sitting smack dab in the middle of the dreaded All-Star break, I can say this:

Question. Answered. In the affirmative. 

Just one quick example:

--  Attendance at the Pirates game against the Cubs, the Friday before the All-Star break:  37,140.

--  Attendance at a comparable game in 2010, also right before the all-star break, also against a division rival (the Milwaukee Brewers), also on a Friday night:  27,767.

Where'd those extra 10,000 fans come from?

Winning. It's such a simple formula. Nobody goes to a baseball game because they can hear .38 Special and all of their hits like, "Hold on Loosely," and "Hold on Loosely," and, er, um, "Hold on Loosely." (Okay, this is Pittsburgh, so probably some people go to a baseball game to see .38 Special, but not that many.) I've been to  four sellouts this season -- four -- which, I think may be more sellouts than they had all of last year.

Behold, the power of winning.

Back in March, had you told me the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates would be 47-43 and 1 game out of first place in the division, I would have very kindly given you detailed directions to the Western Psych Step-Down Unit.

I also would have assumed that the Pirates built a record like that around Pedro Alvarez' bat. Going into the year, I figured the best way the Pirates could win would be with Alvarez generating a lot of instant offense. Get Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen on base in front of him and watch Pedro jack the ball into the PNC Park topiary.

But the Pirates, as you may have heard, have done it with pitching, more pitching, stellar bullpen pitching, and a shut-down closer who gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when the Pirates are nursing a lead going into the 9th. Joel "Warm Fuzzy" Hanrahan. But most people just call him "the Hammer."

Let's grade it out, position by position:

Starting Pitching:  A. If I'm grading the pitchers individually, it has to look like this:  Karstens - A; Correia - A; Maholm - A; Morton - B; McDonald - B. But as a group? Definitely an A. Using the formula of 7+ innings with 3 or fewer runs as a quality start, they have 19 such quality starts. Using 6+ innings as the cut-off, they have 45 such starts. Like I said, starting pitching -- A (leaning towards A+ if Morton can find his groove again.)

Relief Pitching:  A-. Though the starting pitching has done such amazing work, the bullpen has been great, as well, if a little less steady. Chris Resop shows flashes of complete and utter dominance, but when he's off, he is off. Same with Jose Veras. Daniel McCutchen has been steady Eddie for the team though and, the kid, Tony Watson has been good with occasional signs of great. Daniel Moskos is a lingering headache from the David Littlefield era (you don't use your No. 1 pick to get a middle of the road, middle reliever), but at least Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle are getting some decent innings from him.

Closer:  A+.  What can I even say about Hanrahan? In addition to the saves, I think his confidence, the way he works on the mound, his presence, gives the whole team an emotional lift. You can't tell me that going into the 7th and 8th innings of games, Andrew McCutchen isn't always thinking, 'If I can just get us ahead by one run, the Hammer will close it out ...'

1st Base:  C.  I know, I know, Lyle Overpay. I get the joke. But I still like the guy, for some reason. Clearly, the Pirates signed him to get more from his bat and he hasn't lived up to his reputation as a great glove guy with 8 errors this season. They need more from him. At the bag and in the batter's box. Period.

2nd Base:  B. Neil Walker's 59 RBI's lead the team, but I'd like to see that average up. Way up from where it is at .264. The good news is that, in the last 7 games before the break, he hit .475, so maybe he's turned a serious corner in terms of making contact. He's turned 59 double plays in the field, and I really like his presence on the field more than anything else. I think he's just a good, steady leader for this team.

Shortstop:  B-. Ronny Cedeno's a vacuum cleaner in the field and I really enjoy watching him work out there, but he's got a 10 cent head at the plate. We've seen Chase d'Arnaud out there for 9 games and he's less steady in the field, but a much better batter. Yeah, he's only hitting .221, but I've never seen d'Arnaud try to bunt with the bases loaded. Just saying.

3rd Base:  Incomplete. The Pirates did not use their #1 pick on Pedro Alvarez in order to test out guys like Brandon Wood, Josh Harrison and d'Arnaud at this spot., so I'm not going to grade them, just Alvarez. He was not performing well (at the plate at least) before his leg injury, averaging 1 strike out for every 3 at bats. I know that home run hitters whiff more than contact guys, but with only 2 home runs for his 42 strike outs, something is rotten in the state of Pedro. That said, I think Alvarez knows how to hit minor league pitching. He has to learn how to hit major league pitching and how to weather slumps, etc. When he comes back, he has to play every day, even if Hurdle has to move him to 7th or 8th in the batting order.

Catcher:  B. This was a hard grade to give out, given that the Pirates have had 7 different catchers behind the dish through the first half of the season. Based purely on performance (both defensively and offensively), I'd have to grade the position with a lower grade than a B, but ... that the Pirates have managed to raid the trash heap and keep chugging along is impressive. Okay, I admit that the grade did get a little bump upwards based on Michael McHenry's dinger last week against the Cubbies. It's hard not to root for McHenry.

While we're here, I'm not a fan of Ryan Doumit. God, it feels good to just get that off my chest. He just reminds me of the bad-old days of Jim Tracy and John Russell and David Littlefield. That is probably unfair to him, I know. And I also know that he's a better hitter than McHenry, or at the very least, has much better power numbers. But McHenry's defensive ability is exponentially better than Doumit's; moreover, let's not overstate Doumit's bat -- he ain't exactly Stan Musial at the plate. When/if Doumit's healthy, I'd still rather see McHenry as the regular catcher, with Doumit giving him a rest and being used in pinch-hitting situations. Or bundled in a trade and sent away, but that is for another post.

Left Field:  B+. I'm a big Jose Tabata fan. I just am. I'd like to see the strikeouts come down and the stolen bases go up, but I think the guy is an exciting player who has only begun to mine his potential. His speed in the field creates outs for the pitchers. In equally exciting news, the same can be said for his replacement, the 10 year-old Alex Presley. (Just kidding. Presley's 14 years-old.) I was looking forward to seeing the kid, mostly because I like to get a look at some of the prospects, but he is making a strong argument to stay with the big club even when Tabata returns. I probably would have graded Tabata by himself as a B, but Presley's been so fun, I had to bump the grade up slightly.

Center Field:  A+. That was easy. He hits, he flies, he makes spectacular catches. The kid is electric. He is the most exciting player I've seen around here since Barry Bonds was lithe. I'm not kidding.

Right Field:  C-. This is a disappointing spot. Well, I guess disappointing isn't the right word because I didn't expect all that much from the platoon of Matt Diaz and Garrett Jones. Right field is a spot where you need some pop in the bat. Jones has it, but his hitting is so inconsistent. Diaz is on my rat's ass list, which is to say, if he leaves, I don't give a rat's ass. I love Hurdle swapping them out to put the speedy Xavier Paul in there late in games, but Paul is a contact hitter and a speed guy, not a power hitter. I think he has value to the team, but I think that's more as a utility outfielder and a defensive stopper late in tight games.

If the Pirates are in the market to bring on some talent at the trade deadline (and Ogden Nutting says that they may be), this is clearly the spot they need to upgrade, more than catcher, and even more than 1st base. But, again, the question of whether the Pirates should buy, sell or stand pat is grist for another post, one that I feel coming on very soon.

[Photos:  topiary -- countingbaseballs.mlblogs.com; Veras -- bleacherreport.com; Walker - sports.yahoo.com; McHenry -- timesonline.com; McCutchen -- post-gazette.com]

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