New Castle News

July 6, 2013

Independence Daze: Can Pirates keep up pace of July 4? Probably not — but don’t despair

Larry Kelly
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The best record in baseball? The Pittsburgh Pirates had 52 wins on the Fourth of July — your Pittsburgh Pirates.

Are they the best team in baseball? Is it sustainable? Is a total collapse in the cards yet again?

No, no and no.

They aren’t the best. The back of the baseball card tells me that they won’t continue to pitch and win at this rate. But the good news is I don’t see a total collapse in the future. Here’s why.

Baseball more than any other sport is statistically driven. Hence Bill James the author of the Baseball Abstract and Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, have become rich men.

Somebody should have told me when I was studying all those box scores as a child to have written a book or interviewed for a job in baseball (maybe it’s not too late — New Castle native Jack Zduriencik is the General Manager of the Seattle Mariners, after all). Back then, they would have laughed at me. Sabermetrics had yet to become a term synonymous with the statistical analysis of the game that I love — baseball.

I know what you’re thinking. Kelly is a Pirates hater. No, I love the Buccos. He’s jaded after 20 losing seasons in a row. There is a little truth in that thought. Even the great Muhammad Ali could not have taken as many punches as I have as a Bucco backer for the last 20 years and kept standing.

 I want to believe — I do. But like my dad always said, “I’ve seen the movie before and I know how it ends.” I’ve been watching baseball for more than 50 years. The season is long and arduous. You can get hot for awhile, but sooner or later you will play the way the back of your baseball card says you should play.

So here we go.

As of the July 4, the Buccos ranked 24th out of 30 teams in baseball in offense. As a team they were hitting .242. They ranked 12th out of 15 teams in the National League. They were 22nd in runs scored and 21st in OPS (on base percentage and slugging percentage).

In 2012, when the Buccos completed their 20th consecutive year under .500 at 80-82, they ranked 24th in offense in all of baseball and 14th out of 16 in the National League.

Hence from an offensive standpoint, the team is virtually identical.

Is there hope offensively? Yes. The good news is that I don’t have to watch at-bats from Clint Barmes seven days a week anymore. Watching Barmes’ at-bats is like Chinese water torture. Once or twice a week is not too bad but a steady dose will make your head explode.

Barmes’ replacement at shortstop, Jordy Mercer, at this stage of his career will never be confused with Cal Ripken Jr. at the plate, but there’s hope.

Starling Marte is 24 years old. To be a corner outfielder on a championship team, he will need to hit with more power. In 1,796 career minor-league at bats, the equivalent of three full seasons, he had 39 home runs. That’s on par with the 13 career MLB homers in 490 ABs as a big leaguer. But his OPS in the minors was .823 and in the majors .777. There is hope because he is so young.

We still need a right-fielder and a first baseman that can rake, but the average life expectancy of a man in American is 75, so I still have a few more years to hope.

And finally Pedro Alvarez — I don’t care how many times he strikes out. He is a run producer and game changer. In my view, batting average is the most overrated statistic in baseball. The last time I checked, the team that scores the most runs wins. You either drive them in or score them. Pedro does both. The great offensive players combine for 200 runs in a season when you combine RBI with runs scored. With a half-season left, Pedro’s combined totals are 96.

So why do I say that the Pirates are not the best team in baseball and that their winning percentage is not sustainable? In one word — pitching.

At this point in the season, the Bucs have the best pitching staff in all of baseball. Sound familiar?

Last season at the all-star break, the Pirates staff ranked fourth in ERA, second in runs scored and third in WHIP (walks and hits per inning) in the National League. After the break, their team ERA went from 3.38 to 4.38 and dropped to 13th in the NL while their runs against also dropped to 13th. As a result, the Bucs blew a 16-game advantage on .500.

One of the main culprits of last year’s collapse was Jason Grilli, the Pirates closer. Just like this year, his first half was lights out. In the second half, he pitched like the back of his baseball card said he should pitch. Grilli’s career ERA is 4.17. Last year, his second-half ERA was 4.34. Grilli is 36 years old. As of July 4, his ERA was 2.15. It’s unusual for 36-year-old men to reinvent themselves. It could happen — that’s why I play still baseball in an over-50 league. But my guess is that Grilli will return to form in the second half of the season. In fact, if his last few outings are any indication, he may have already gone from Superman to Clark Kent. He’s given up eight runs in his last four outings.

What about Mark Melancon, you say? His ERA is currently 0.82! Bob Gibson in his heyday wasn’t that good. His strikeout to walk ratio is 10 to 1. That is better than anybody currently in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Melancon is 28 years old. Normally a player will reach his full potential by age 27. Melancon has been in the Major Leagues since 2009. He has pitched almost 200 major league innings. His career totals include an ERA of 3.40 and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3 to 1. Melancon’s ERA is four times better than his career ERA and his strikeout to walk ratio is more than three times better. Can this continue? Baseball history says it cannot.

The median ERA in all of baseball is 3.98. The Pirates 2013 ERA is 3.12 — almost a full run better than the median.

If the Pirates have hope, it will be because of the young pitchers on their staff for whom their baseball card has yet to be written. I know that Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett have been hurt, but that’s what happens to men in their mid-30s. Burnett is 36 and Rodriguez is 34. Moreover Rodriguez’s career record is 91-92 and his ERA is 4.01. Burnett’s career ERA is also 4.01. As they continue to age they won’t get better. Trust me — I know.

The hope is with Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole. Locke has been the team’s best pitcher. His ERA is 2.12, that ranks second in all of baseball behind Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers. Moreover, he’s 25-years-old and has not reached his full potential. His minor league career numbers are not overly impressive — ERA 3.60 in 154 games. But he’s still growing as a player. We won’t know who he is for a few more years.

Cole is 22 years old and was the number one pick in the MLB draft of 2011. In 38 career minor league starts, his ERA is 2.84, while opponents hit .217 against him. He is still raw and will get hit around a bit. But barring injury, he looks like a legitimate No. 1 starter.

The wild card for this season is Francisco Liriano. Everybody in baseball had given up on him because of injury. Hence that’s why Neil Huntington was able to sign him. If dumpster-diving was an Olympic Sport, Neil Huntington would not only be on the USA team, but he would be the captain!

But this time, the blind squirrel might have run into an acorn. Liriano has been pitching like he did when he was with the Twins and one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball. Liriano, who pitched against the Chicago Cubs yesterday, is 8-3 with an ERA of 2.20.  He hasn’t been that good since 2006. But Liriano was a stud before his injury. Moreover he’s 29 years old and still in his prime. If he can stay healthy, he can make a huge difference for the Bucs. Liriano has been slapped around the last few years. He was 6-12 last season with a 5.34 ERA. But I’m of the opinion that injury had a role in his recent struggles.

So are the Bucs the best team in baseball? Not even Greg Brown would be so brash to say that with a straight face. Will they keep winning at their .627 pace of July 4 — no shot. But will they collapse — I don’t think so.

If they do, then the NCPD better up their patrols of the Mahoningtown Viaduct because I might do a swan dive into Wolfe’s Iron and Metal.

Please don’t let that happen. Let’s go Bucs!

(Larry Kelly is a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. and an occasional contributor to the sports pages of The News.)