Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back To Earth

OK, the Bucs big stretch of games has turned against them; should we be surprised? Well, surely at the magnitude of losses, rolling like a Mississippi flood. But the fact that the overachievers have had a rough row shouldn't be.

First, consider how strongly the starters had held up their end of the deal up until the Phillie series. We knew that Kevin Correia was a career 4.60 ERA guy coming in; now he's at 4.78. James McDonald was getting his first test run as a starter, and he's held his own at 7-5/4.23.

Charlie Morton was coming off a season that could have doomed him to AAAA status, but he reinvented himself and has a fine 8-6/3.80 line. But he's still learning; and being able to repeat a new motion for every pitch takes time. Additionally, lefties have been killing him, so he has to add to his arsenal to blunt their sting.

Paul Maholm may just be 6-12, but his 3.54 ERA isn't a mistake. Now that he's working both sides of the plate, he's become much more effective.

The good news is that we can expect all four of those guys to stay right around their current ERAs. Correia should be a little sharper and the other three steady as she goes judging by their xFIPs (weighed Fielding Independent Pitching), so they're all at a sustainable level now, something they weren't at three weeks ago.

That leaves Jeff Karstens, who slowly became the glue man of the staff after taking over for Ohlie and stretching his arm over the weeks. His line of 8-6/3.05 has been a godsend to the staff. But his real time stats versus his xFIP of 3.98 show a pretty large gap; he's the least likely to be able to sustain over the next few weeks. But his sample is small as a starter (as also are Morton and McDonald's), so we'll see.

Hey, the pitchers have done a remarkable job, and even Sabermetrics say they should be holding teams to four runs per game, a huge improvement over last season.

The bullpen needs a breath more than anything else. The 19-inning loss wasn't the start of a curse on the season, but it was a curse on the pen.  It really hasn't been right since; innings have piled up, guys are being tossed regularly into high leverage situations that shouldn't be, and roles have become muddled.

Clint Hurdle is old school in that his closer closes; we'd like to see him use Hanny in high leverage, late inning spots more often instead of icing him for a save that lately hasn't been coming. That, in fact, has been part of the pen's problem - they've basically been working a man short since the Atlanta series.

No matter how good the pitching, the holes in the eight position spots are hard to ignore. Injuries have taken a big toll; there was a time when the Pirates were running third teamers at third, short, left and behind the plate, and no team is that deep. And no matter who was playing, first and third, two premium power slots in the Pirate scheme, were black holes, and right field hasn't been chipping in very much. It's hard to build a lineup around McCutch and Neil Walker without a supporting cast.

To the FO's credit, it realized that the team was more than a bat or two from being contenders on paper, and opted to stay the course rather than lose a touted prospect or two. So the Bucs are back to earth now. And in the long view, that's a frustrating but not so bad thing. The powers can evaluate the team in the cold light of reality instead of the karmic six week run for the roses.

So it's time to adjust our goals; let's cross our fingers and hope that 18-year run of losing seasons is snapped, and enjoy the run that revitalized Pirate baseball.

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