Monday, October 1, 2012

What Went Wrong, Went Wrong Fast: a Eulogy for the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

"What went wrong, went wrong fast," John Irving once wrote and with those words, his protagonist in The Hotel New Hampshire revealed the death of his mother and younger brother in a plane crash. As a reader, you know it's going to happen; maybe not a plane crash, but you know that something horrible, something awful, something unspeakable will happen. You know this because Irving is a master of foreshadowing. (Also of pathos, which is probably relevant when discussing the Pirates, too.) Because Irving is just so damned good at it, you know what's coming, but you don't know it, which is to say that you feel something -- your Spidey sense is all tingly and at the same time, the novel is new to you. When it happens, the impact is like a sledgehammer hitting you in the face and yet, a tiny voice in the back of your brain says, "Oh, I knew that was going to happen."

The calamity which is the back end of the 2012 baseball season for the Pittsburgh Pirates season reminds me so much of Irving's crash:  the late season death keel is something we could have predicted -- well, maybe not to the extreme that has played out on the field -- but still we could have seen it coming, or at least parts of it.

The Pirates had us drunk on success and their record of 62-46 on August 6th. They have won just 15 of their last 51 games since.

Looking back on it, we can see that the problems, at least some of them, were always there. We ignored them because the team won in spite of them. And also, we were having fun, dammit! But the issues grew like tumors, erasing all the good times in May and June. What went wrong, went wrong fast.

The Pirates cannot play small-ball. Despite being such a small-market team, they show no aptitude for playing small-ball, which is to say, they rarely move runners around the basepaths with smart at bats. Very few of them show any discipline at the plate. They strike out a crapton -- at 1,313 whiffs this year, only the Houston Astros have more in the NL. They have the second fewest walks in the NL and the second fewest pinch hits in the NL. Didn't those guys read 'Moneyball.' Or at least watch the movie?

The Pirates are an awful base-running team. Simply awful. Even if they had the plate discipline to move guys around the base-paths with smart at bats, runners are forever making base-running gaffes and getting picked off when attempting to steal. Let's just say it now, despite his lightning speed and many gifts, McCutchen is simply awful when he attempts to steal 2nd. He's got 20 stolen bases, but he's been caught stealing a dozen times -- that's not a good percentage. As a team, they have the worst stolen base percentage in the National League at just a woeful 57%. When you view that stat in it's totality, which is to say, look at the flip-side, base running becomes an even bigger disadvantage, because

Teams can run at will on both Rod Barajas and Mike McKenry. It pains me to say this, because both Barajas and McKenry seem like good guys, but it is downright embarrassing at times. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Milwaukee Brewers stole seven bases -- SEVEN -- against the Buccos in a single game. That has to be some kind of record or something. Were I an opposing manager, I'd tell every single guy on my bench -- every one, from the back up catcher to the middle relievers -- that if they got on base, they had the green light to steal. I don't care how slow or old or inexperienced or broken down you are -- you can steal bases on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In short, they miss out on opportunities because of a lack of discipline at the plate and god-awful base-running, two key components to a little thing called scoring runs. For whatever reason, these Pirates don't, can't or won't do it. How many times have you seen the Pirates strand a guy on 2nd or 3rd?  Rather than get singles or even productive outs, the team relied on McCutchen, Jones, Alvarez and Walker to hit dingers, which worked pretty well in the first half of the season, but when the home runs cooled off,

The starting pitching came back to earth, starting with the wheels coming off J-Mac. I can't even begin to tell you what went wrong with McDonald except to say that he lost control. I mean that literally -- in the first half of the season, he was walking about two guys per game; in the back half of the season, the walks came fast and furious, as he gave charity bases to five Brewers in just 4 2/3 innings on July 13th, to seven Astros in 5 innings on July 29th, and, well, you get the idea. I had really thought that the first half of the season was J-Mac progressing, in a pretty straight line, up, up, up. I suppose we should have seen that it just wouldn't be that easy, but he was the team ace in the first half of the season and when he stumbled,

There was nobody there to fill the gaps. Jeff Karstens struggled with injuries most of the season and Charlie Morton was lost from jump go. What had once seemed like a rotation that could withstand some dips, slumps and minor injuries, was a rotation reliant on one guy -- A.J. Burnett.

As to the rest of the pitching, the bullpen never did recover from the loss of Brad Lincoln at the trade deadline. And while we're talking about trades,

Let's toss a big dose of blame on GM Neal Huntingdon for pulling the trigger on the trade of Casey McGehee to the Yankees for Chad Qualls. I understood the thought behind the Lincoln for Travis Snider trade, no matter how it turns out, so I'm in the strange position of defending, or at least not freaking out over that move. But Chad Qualls has no business on any MLB roster, a fact which is apparent to any expert who has watched more than five innings of baseball. Chad Qualls is a 34 year old piece of luggage that is missing one wheel, with a broken zipper to boot and who, in eight decidedly non-essential appearances for the Pinstripes came rolling into Pittsburgh with a 6.14 ERA. Nice. I'm no Casey McGehee apologist, but that's a pretty lop-sided trade and it played out on the field exactly as we all thought it would -- anytime Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage brought Qualls in from the bullpen, it was like handing a can of kerosene and pack of matches to an arsonist.

Could we, as fans, have seen it coming? Probably so. The signs were there. But I was so drunk on success that I even wrote a post saying that the Pirates would not sustain another late season swoon. We couldn't really expect Andrew McCutchen to hit near .400 all season, right? I guess it was too much to expect Burnett to throw a shut-out every time he stepped onto the mound. You can't expect all the key players to stay healthy every day through a 162 game season. And, in retrospect, it was too much to think that the base-running would get better and that the strike out ratio would go down, rather than up.

Beyond which, we're Pirates fans. We should know better. John Irving also wrote, "Sorrow floats." I guess he is a Pirates fan, too. 20 years and counting, yo.
John Irving, author, American icon and Pirates fan

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