2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

Oddly enough, I really am going to Pittsburgh soon.  My brother just got a job there, so I’m helping him to move.  There are a lot of fun things in the general Pennsylvania area (Eric and Brian both live there!), but the Pirates are not one of them.  The Pirates managed to have another lousy season in which the only interesting thing that they did was get involved in the middle of the trade where the one guy from Boston who coudn’t tuck his shirt in wound up in L.A.

Record: 67-95 (6th place, NL Central)
Pythagorean Projection: 66.68 wins

Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs

MVN Blog:
Pittsburgh Lumber Company

Other Pirates Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors

Overview: After enduring so much pain for so many years (where have you gone, Doug Drabek?) I suppose that the residents of Pittsburgh would rather than I not belabor the point.  2008 was not a good year.  We’ll leave it at that.

What went right: If you’re a hardcore fantasy owner, you both know and hate Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit.  If you don’t own him, you hate him because you want to know how the guy who does own him figured out that there was this fantastic catcher in Pittsburgh of all places who would come out of nowhere to become one of the more valuable catchers in baseball.  (I had him on my NL All-Star team!)  If you do own him, you probably want to strangle him for being a poor man’s version of the other “good in real life, not so much in fantasy” catcher, Brian McCann.  Lots of doubles, but fewer HR than might be expected to go with them, doesn’t strike out much, and hits a healthy number of line drives.  Doumit is one of those guys that you can sound intelligent by knowing about.  In a conversation that turns to baseball (which among guys takes all of what, 10 minutes?) you can drop in his name among the “under-appreciated players” in the game.  You can point out that at the end of the year, he led the Pirates in OPS once you discount Xavier Nady and Jason Bay (both traded).

My wife and I were watching the All-Star game before it started (she humors me every year for one day… the fact that it’s right near our wedding anniversary helps) and we saw the introduction of Nate McLouth.  Mrs. Cutter’s response was to start singing Queen’s “Princes of the Universe.”  If you don’t get why that’s funny, you wouldn’t understand our relationship.  Anyway, McLouth did seem to be immortal at times during the first half of the 2008 season.  Then people stopped caring at all about the Pirates.  And McLouth’s season went down the tubes.  Or did it?  McLouth did hit 19 home runs before the All-Star break and only 7 after, but his OBP was unchanged, primarily because teams started walking him more often, both intentionally and unintentionally.  I know the studies on protection have been done, but especially after the trades of Bay and Nady, how exactly else can you explain this?

What went wrong: The pitching.  Specifically, Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell.  In 2007, they looked like two guys who had a bright future in front of them.  They were supposed to be the two guys on whom Pittsburgh built it’s championship team… or at least their push to .500.  The Pirates were so awful in the pitching department overall that they ranked last in the NL in runs allowed.  Or first… depending how you look at it.  Gorzelanny and Snell both had a similar culprit.  Both started walking guys left and right, and eventually, it came back to haunt them.  Snell was a little more unlucky than Gorzelanny.  Snell did see a jump of almost 2 walks per nine innings, but he did have a BABIP of .358, suggesting some unluck-itude in the field.  The concerning thing about Snell is that he also started giving up a lot of line drives.  Last year’s 16% LD rate seems to be an aberration, although given his track record, 24% also seems to be a little on the high side too.  The rest of his peripherals were steady.  He’s probably closer to the guy he was in 2006 than 2007. 

Gorzelanny is another story.  In addition to his rather Mephistophilic ERA of 6.66, his walk rate went up by almost 3 per nine innings.  A guy with a sub-90’s fastball just can’t do that.  Gorzelanny did have some bad luck in the HR/FB department, but I’m at a loss to explain how two pitchers suddenly have that big a spike in their walk rate out of nowhere.

Yeah, that about sums it up: The Pirates paid Matt Morris $9.5 million dollars in 2008 in a bid for some sort of respectability.

A Pirate looks at 30?: Yes, that’s a cheap Jimmy Buffett reference.  There really weren’t many Pirates this year who will be looking at 30 in the next few years, so Freddy Sanchez, all of 31 next year, counts as a senior citizen on this team.  Sanchez also had an awful season in 2008, with a .271/.299/.371 line and a sub-replacement -1.8 VORP.  This from the 2006 batting average champion (the most celebrated paperweight in the world!) was not acceptable?  Did Freddy lose his groove?  I say no.  Sanchez is a man built for batting average.  He hits a lot of line drives and rarely walks.  But Sanchez was a bit unlucky.  In 2006, he had a similar batted ball profile, but a .370 BABIP.  In 2008, he was below .300.  Sanchez was lucky in 2006 and unlucky in 2008.  In 2007, however, you got a good reflection on his talent level… and assuming that he reverts to form, he won’t find that his occupation just isn’t around.

Meet the new breed of Pirates pitcher: “Closer” Matt Capps doesn’t walk anyone.  OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the man does walk fewer than one man per nine innings.  New Pirate GM Neal Huntington came from the Indians organization, which has emphasized a pitching philosophy of “do whatever you want, just don’t walk the guy!” and so probably has a soft spot for the Capps.  In fact, assuming that Huntington brought the Indians philosophy with him, expect to see extended looks for guys who are low-walk, high-grounder pitchers.   Capps is more of a flyball pitcher, so he’s not an exact match, but there’s another guy whom I’m guessing will get a look, much to the chagrin of the Pirate punditariat.  Franquelis Osoria (what a name!) walked fewer than two per nine innings and is a majority ground ball pitcher.  Despite his rather awful mainline stats (6.08 ERA… ouch!), it hides the fact that all of his luck indicators were all on the bad side (high BABIP, high HR/FB, low LOB%).  He’s a better pitcher than he showed last year and you’ll probably get a chance to see for yourself.

Last year, I wrote: But, a word of caution about [Adam] LaRoche: a lot of people wanted to interpret his 2006 season as a breakout season, which is why the Pirates were willing to give up the remarkably consistent Mike Gonzalez in order to obtain his services. A big improvement in performance, can be one of two things, a legitimate breakout in which a player has actually become a better player or a statistical outlier. LaRoche’s 2007 stats bear an eerie resemblance to his 2004 and 2005 stats. Uh oh.

But maybe not all is lost: LaRoche did cut down a bit on his strikeouts and increased his walks and his batted ball profile is a little more tilted toward fly balls.  He did suffer a bit of a drop off in HR/FB, which suggests a possible power outage, but absent an injury, the best prediction is that it would rebound to his career average of around 15% (up from 11% this year.)? He’s a better hitter than he looked like last year.? But I wouldn’t bet on him to be like his 2006 self.

LaRoche’s 2008 peripheral stats were eerily similar to his 2007 stats.  Even his .270/.341/.500 slash line in 2008 echoed his .272/.345/.458 line in 2007.  There were some minor fluctuations here and there, but basically, LaRoche put his 2007 season on the Xerox machine and hit copy.  Which means that 2006 is really starting to look like the outlier in all of this.  He’s not a bad player, but I bet Pirates fans(?) are probably feeling a little stung still.  They thought they were getting the player they saw in 2006… and perhaps more because he was theoretically on the ascent.  Hey, at least, when they got Andy on the team, they could say that they have both LaRoche brothers on the same team.

But for the record, LaRoche’s HR/FB in 2008 was 15.6%.

Here’s an idea: The Pirates are seriously considering re-signing Jason Michaels.  (Well, OK, some news sources have said that the Pirates are seriously considering re-signing Jason Michaels.)  Michaels, who was obtained from the Cleveland Indians for… nothing really… came to the Pirates and put up a sub-replacement level performance.  So, the Pirates, who are in the middle of a youth movement and have almost no payroll, would sign a 33-year-old guy who’s not even a replacement level player to a contract that will pay him more than the MLB minimum?  How about no.

Outlook: First things first.  Just because a bunch of players are young, it does not mean that they will be really really good in a matter of 2-3 years.  They might, and certainly most of them will be better than they are right now, but the goal is to make them World Series worthy.  If much of the Pirates’ roster was 23 or 24, I could see a little bit more reason for optimism, but the guys that have been appearing over the last year are in the 25-26 range.  And can you really make the case that a whole bunch of them show signs of nascent stardom?  The trades of Bay and Nady should be sending the denizens of Western Civilization Pennsylvania a message.  Come down to PNC Park and watch us rebuild… again.  Seeing that my brother will be living in town, I might just go visit him and do that.

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4 Responses to 2008 Sabermetric Year in Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. DanC says:

    It seems like the Pirates went on the “Let’s build a new stadium! That will make us competitive!” line of thought, and forgot about the “We need talented players other than Jason Bay” part.

  2. Nancy says:

    The Pirates weren’t so impressed by Osoria, I think. He was released and became a free agent a couple of weeks ago. My guess is that they decided that he wasn’t worth the wait, and they would rather go with some of the newer or younger talent.

  3. I hate to contradict (actually, I’m typically a 23-year-old curmudgeon!), but Ryan Doumit by my measure is one of the most overrated fantasy v. reality catchers from the fantasy perspective; this year’s THT Annual will address this. It surprised me, but it’s due to his .318 AVG being ridiculously high, relatively speaking.
    And nice Brian Wilson reference. If we can get Brian Wilson and Corey Hart together, we’d have something.

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    I hadn’t seen the thing on Osoria. I stand corrected. Might still be a good pickup for some other team. I could see Doumit being a little over-valued there as well, but he does have talent that is hidden from people who just focus on fantasy stats, which is why I consider him under-rated as a real player.

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