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June 2, 2014

10 Reasons the Pirates are Still in the Playoff race

Posted By Jim Falbo

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Tags: Baseball Pirates Pittsburgh Pittsburgh PA Pittsburgh Pirates Sports

The Pirates have played disappointing baseball as a whole so far in 2014. The rotation has been subpar, and there have been several black holes in the lineup. Currently the Pirates are 26-30, 7.5 games out of 1st place and 3.0 games (and 8 teams) behind the Wild Card leader. Despite the poor start fangraphs.com estimates that as of 6/2 the Buccos have a 21.1% chance to make the playoffs.

Here are 10 reasons that the Pirates could gain entrance into the 2014 Postseason.

1. Proximity: Being just 3.0 games out of the playoff hunt will always keep any team within striking distance. They are literally a short hot streak away from gaining the lead for a Wild Card spot.

2. Behold, the Polanco cometh: Despite the recent offensive spark by Josh Harrison, Pirates right fielders have aggregately provided little offense. The Pirates have received a combined batting line of .260/.314/.373, 7 HR, and a 94 wRC+ from their right fielders. Add in subpar defensive and base running metrics and the Pirates right fielders have been worth 0.0 fWAR. Gregory Polanco will be patrolling the right field grass in front of the Clemente wall very soon. He will provide an immediate upgrade defensively, as his range and arm rate as plus tools. His great speed should translate into plus base running ability, and he should be a legitimate threat to steal each time he reaches 1B, although he has only been successful in 12/17 SB attempts this season (70.6% is slightly below the MLB average). This season Polanco has flourished against upper level minor league pitching while posting a line of .349/.411/.552, 6 HR. Expecting Gregory to post those kinds of number at the big league level is a bit far fetched, but he will undoubtedly produce more offense than the right field position has seen thus far.

3. The Big Bull will Bust out: Pedro Alvarez has posted an ugly 2014 batting line of .223/.308/.391, 10 HR, and a 96 wRC+. Despite the poor peripheral results, there is evidence that his offensive approach has improved. Exhibit A: Pedro Alvarez has considerably lowered his strikeout rate to 22% in 2014, he struck out at much higher rates in 2013 (30.3%) and in 2012 (30.7%). Exhibit B: Alvarez has had bad luck. His 2014 BABIP of .246 is unsustainably low. In 2013 he posted a low BABIP of .276, and in 2012 he posted a BABIP of .308. League average for position players is nearly .300, if you adjust Pedro’s 2014 batting average using the league average BABIP you’d get an Alvarez batting average of .262, even after factoring in the heavy shifts that take away hits, Alvarez should hit slightly higher than .250 the rest of the season. Bad luck has also hit on Alvarez’s HR/FB% in 2014. In 2014 16.4% of his fly balls have been home runs, while in 2013 26.3% and 2012 25.0% of his fly balls were home runs. Expect him to homer on approximately 25% of his fly balls the remainder of the season.

4. Aces in the hole: Francisco Liriano was slated to be the Pirates ace in 2014, but his 4.62 ERA through 64.1 innings has been a major letdown. But his 3.47 xFIP suggests that he’ll be much better in the future if he can normalize his hideous 14% HR/FB rate to the tune of 10%. Liriano has a 9.23 K/9 and has an exceptional 52.2 GB%. going forward Liriano’s largest concern is his 4.2 BB/9 rate, nearly 0.5 above his career average. If Liriano can decrease his BB/9 rate to 3.5-3.75, and normalize his HR/FB%, while maintaining his GB% and K/9 rates, there is a great chance he’ll pitch like a legitimate #1 starter for the remainder of 2014. Gerrit Cole was an absolute beast during The 2nd half of 2013 when he posted a 2.85 ERA, 8.92 K/9, 2.26 BB/9 75.2 innings. His 2.72 FIP and 2.80 xFIP over the 2nd half showed that his numbers were right in line with his advanced metrics, and that he was not aided by luck. Cole was expected to continue that form in 2014, but has disappointed by posting a 3.80 ERA in 71 innings, albeit with a high HR/FB rate. His 3.51 xFIP suggests that normalized HR suppression will increase Cole’s run suppression. Looking forward Cole has Justin Verlander like stuff, the kind of stuff that could make him the best pitcher in baseball. If he can strike out more hitters, while maintaining his 52.2GB%, Cole will emerge as the unquestioned ace of the Pirates.

5. wRC+: What? Here’s a brief description from Fangraphs. “Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average. League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than league average. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average.

wRC+ is also park and league-adjusted, allowing one to to compare players who played in different years, parks, and leagues. Want to know how Ted Williams compares with Albert Pujols in terms of offensive abilities? This is your statistic.”

The Pirates rank 26th in MLB in runs scored, but The Pirates position players have compiled an aggregate 104 wRC+, good for 11th best in among MLB teams. What’s incredible is that they’ve posted this in spite of the offensive black holes at SS and RF. Some players will tail off and others will definitely improve, but this team should score runs at a near league average rate going forward.

6. #SharkTank: The Pirates bullpen was the backbone of the team in 2013 posting a 2.89 ERA, good for 3rd best in all of baseball. In 2014 they’ve followed it up by posting a 2.85 ERA, 6th in MLB…what? Yes, even though the bullpen has seemingly pitched poorer in 2014, the results have been about the same as 2013. This year the tank has posted a 3.79 xFIP, which suggests we could see the group pitch worse going forward, but hold your horses! Bryan Morris is out of the picture (3.80 ERA, 4.48 xFIP), and Casey Sadler and others who replace him should be able to match Morris’ number, if not improve upon them. Jason Grilli (3.46 ERA, 4.20 xFIP) looks healthy and his stuff looked good last night despite the two walks. Tony Watson (1.06 ERA, 2.54 xFIP), Justin Wilson (2.91 ERA, 3.50 xFIP), and Mark Melancon (2.33 ERA, 3.06 xFIP). If those 4 can maintain their current paces, the “Shark Tank” will be “chompin’ bats” all summer long.

7. Shortstops can’t possibly play any worse: Aggregately Pirates shortstops (mainly Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes) have “hit” .204/.252/.267, 1 HR, and a 43 wRC+…and yes that was painful to type. Defensively they’ve actually combined to be a net positive, but when calculating all factors they’ve been worth -0.4 fWAR, that’s 2nd worst in all of baseball behind the Tigers. Out of the 213 MLB player who have amassed 150 PA, Jordy Mercer ranks 205th in fWAR (-0.5), and 212 in wRC+ (36). You could say he’s been one of the worst if not the worst starting player in all of baseball in 2014. In 2013 Mercer hit .286/.336/.425 and a 112 wRC+…if he can approach those numbers during the duration of this season he’ll get the majority of the SS reps and greatly improve the Pirates offense , if not Barmes will bring his usual good defense/no hit skills to the everyday lineup, and Mercer could be on his way to Indianapolis.

8. Bench: The Pirates have the ability to compete late in games when situations call for a substitution. Josh Harrison has emerged as an offensive threat and has performed well as a spot starter, Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis each provide a power threat off the bench, Jose Tabata is a career league average hitter (career 101 wRC+) which makes him an above average pinch hitting option. Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez have been capable backup catchers when spelling Russell Martin. Barmes is an excellent defensive replacement…other than a great pinch runner, the Pirates have a very versatile bench that can help us win games late. Travis Snider should be the odd man out once Polanco is with the Pirates, that’s why I didn’t include him above.

9. Depth: The Pirate have had pitchers such as Casey Sadler, Jared Hughes, Vin Mazzaro, Brandon Cumpton, and others emerge as contributors to the Pirates in 2014. Cumpton is now a member of the rotation, while Hughes and Sadler are currently with the team. Jeff Locke and Vance Worley give the Pirates two viable starting candidates if a starter goes down, or a spot starter is needed. Casey Sadler and Nick Kingham could also emerge as starting options later in the season. Andrew Oliver has thrown gas and been especially impressive lately out of the Indianapolis bullpen, he could see time in the shark tank this summer. Andrew Lambo (when healthy), Chris Dickerson (ditto), and Jaff Decker give the Pirates OF and bench depth if needed. There is also a glut of versatile MLB experienced infielders at AAA Indianapolis who could help fill in the Pirates bench if needed.

10. Depth Part Deux: It’s no secret that the Pirates have a wealth of talented prospects in their minor league system. If the Pirates believe they can contend for a playoff spot near the end of the trade deadline they have the necessary talent at their disposal to acquire nearly any asset they need without depleting their farm system. I would rule out a David Price blockbuster deal, as he would cost a premium talent such as Tyler Glasnow, but I could see several deals like the Byrd/Buck, and Morneau trades take place.

Jim Falbo
About Jim Falbo

Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball coverage. Live from the Bullpen! #SharkTank