New Castle News

October 9, 2012

Larry Kelly: Pirates’ latest flop was in the cards — and the deck isn’t exactly stacked

Larry Kelly
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Sooner or later, Superman reverts back to Clark Kent.

For a little more than half of the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were, indeed, Superman. But a baseball season encompasses a grueling 162 games, which, eventually, reveals the true identity of those pretending to be super heroes.

The grim truth is that sooner or later, you will play to the level that the back of your baseball card suggests you should play.

Until you’re about 27 years old you have room for growth. We really don’t know who you are. It’s scary that Andrew McCutchen, who will be 26 tomorrow, can get even better than his breakout season. And Pedro Alvarez, who has been beaten up more times by Pirates fans than a rented mule, can get a lot better and more consistent. He’s only 25 years old. Neil Walker, at age 27, is a baseball player who has all-star potential.

However, notwithstanding the work of McCutchen, Alvarez and Walker, when you look at the Pirates body of work in 2012, they were not a very good baseball team. There are 30 teams in the major leagues. The Pirates finished the season ranked 25th in batting average; 27th in on-base percentage; 24th in runs scored; 28th in strikeouts; 28th in walks and 24th in fielding percentage. They scored 651 runs and gave up 674. Not the stuff that inspires championship dreams.

The decline in the offense between the pre- and post all-star game statistics was not dramatic. Before the all-star game, the Buccos were ranked 22nd in batting average and runs. After the all-star game, they were ranked 21st in runs and 24th in batting average. The offense, although pedestrian, was not necessarily the reason that the Pirates were one of the worst, if not the worst team, in baseball for the last two months of the season.

The reason the Bucs fell from 16 games over .500 in August to a losing record at year’s end was all about their pitching. Their team pitching ended the year ranked near the middle of major league baseball. They were ranked 13th in ERA; 19th in WHIP (Walks and Hits per innings pitched); 18th in strikeouts; 17th in walks given up and 19th in runs against.

But the contrast between the pre- and post- all-star game statistics was dramatic. Before the all-star game, the Pirates were ranked fourth in the National League in ERA; second in runs against and third in WHIP. But soon after the all-star break the roof caved in on the Buccos. Their ERA went up a full run from 3.38 to 4.38 and dropped their rank to 13th in the National League. Their rank in the NL dropped to 13th in runs against and 11th in WHIP.

The question around town was why the drop? It’s simple — Superman went back into the phone booth and became Clark Kent.

Simply stated, the Pirate pitchers began pitching like the back of their baseball cards said they should pitch.

James McDonald, pre all-star break, was throwing like Sandy Koufax. His ERA was 2.37 and his WHIP was .97. His strikeout to walk ratio was more than 3 to 1. In the second half, his statistics ballooned to an ERA of 7.52, a WHIP of 1.79, and strikeout to walk ratio of less than 2 to 1.

In short, good old James began to pitch like, well, good old James. McDonald will be 28 this month. His career ERA is 4.21; his WHIP is 1.39 and his strikeout to walk ratio is less than 2 to 1.   

 In the first half of the season, James McDonald was impersonating a pitcher he never was in his career. Unfortunately, in baseball, at age 28 you are who you are. While a transformation can occur at ages 22, 23, 24 and 25,  it doesn’t usually happen after that.

So too, Jason Grilli was impersonating somebody he wasn’t. He pitched like Goose Gossage in the first half of the season. His ERA was 1.87, his WHIP was .95 and his strikeout to walk ratio was almost 4 to 1. Unfortunately, for the Pirates faithful Grilli returned to form after the all-star break. His ERA was 4.32 and his WHIP was 1.40. What does his baseball card say about Jason Grilli? His career ERA is 4.34, his career WHIP is 1.41 and his career strikeout to walk ratio is less than 2 to 1.

Don’t get mad at Grllli for his second half collapse. At age 36, Grilli merely returned to form.

So, too, did Joel Hanrahan return to form in the second half of the season. But I won’t bore you with the details. By now you get my point.

Finally, the Pirates had a losing season for the 20th consecutive year despite the fact that some players had career years, which they probably can’t duplicate next year.

A.J. Burnett won 16 games at age 35. His second half performance included an ERA of 3.38, WHIP of 1.19 and strikeout to walk ratio of more than 3 to 1. His career numbers are 4.05 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and strikeout to walk ratio of a little over 2 to 1. I don’t know too many players who get better after age 35. It’s unlikely that Burnett will be able to repeat this season at age 36, especially without the pathetic Astros to push around next year.

Garrett Jones also had a career year at age 31. He had career highs in home runs with 27, RBI with 86 and a batting average .274. His career batting average is .259 while his career OPS (on base and slugging percentage) is .788.

By comparison Joey Votto, who is the first baseman for the division champion Cincinnati Reds, hit .337 and had an OPS of 1.041 this past year.  At age 29, Votto’s career numbers are .316 BA and .968 OPS. That’s the profile of a first baseman on a championship team.

Evan if Jones can repeat his career-best year, his statistics pale in comparison to a first baseman on a championship team.

To be a championship team the Buccos are in need of impact players at first base and in both corner outfield positions. They need legitimate major leaguers at shortstop and catcher. That’s unless you’re OK with the shortstop hitting at the Mendoza line and the catcher allowing more than 170 stolen bases while throwing out 19! I’ve coached little league teams that did a better job of throwing out base runners!

 Is help coming from the minor leagues? I don’t think so. Under Neil Huntington’s watch, the Pirates have just one player in the starting lineup — Pedro Alvarez — who was drafted by him! Starling Marte, who started at the end of this season, was an undrafted free agent signed in 2007 before Huntington arrived in September of that year.

When speaking of Huntington’s inability to draft major league talent, Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it best: “It is impossible to be that bad at the draft. You could pin tails on the actual donkey with less embarrassment.”

I love the Pirates. I still watch every night. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this.

I still think that I’m dreaming and that sooner or later somebody will wake me up when this nightmare is over.

(Larry Kelly is an attorney with the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. He is a former sports writer at The News.)