Saturday, September 29, 2012

No Hitter No Big Thing - Losing Big Is

OK, everyone is outraged because the Bucs got no-hit. Don't be. There are lots of reasons to go postal over this club and its swoon, but last night's no-no wasn't one of them. After all, it is the seventh of the year, tying the MLB mark set back in 1990.

Homer Bailey wasn't overpowering but tossed a nice game, painting the edges all evening. He gave up three hard hit balls all night by our count, which is the Pirate MO of late. You need a little luck, too, starting with no bloops, bleeders or seeing eye rollers dinked to spoil the fun.

He got his horseshoe kissed when Scott Rolen's backhand try for Clint Barmes' ball skipped off his mitt and was ruled an error rather than a knock, once more when Pedro's liner was hit into the teeth of a shift, again when Garrett Jones' drive landed on the track instead of in the seats and Travis Snider's rope to right was an at 'em ball, and finally when Cutch was nailed trying to steal third. He might not be on the mound in the ninth if it was a 1-1 game.

Remember that Justin Verlander and Matt Cain were both one batter away from their own no hitters against the Pirates this season; their rabbit's foot was just one rub shy. Verlander gave up a ninth inning knock to Josh Harrison while Cain's bid was spoiled by a James McDonald single.

The last Pirate nine to be no hit was the 1971 squad, the team that won the World Series. They were the feared Lumber Company of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver and the boys, who had a .274 team BA that season. So it happens to the best of them.

But outrage focused at the last two months of play is understandable, heck, demanded if you care about the team. The club was 11-17 in August and 6-19 so far this month. The math works out to a 32% winning pace, or 52 wins over the season. That's sad.

Some mark the nosedive from when Cutch got clocked in Cincy, or the 19 inning win at St. Louis. We say it started at the deadline. Before that, the team was in a comfort zone, and everyone - the starters, the bench, the rotation and the bullpen - all had their roles well defined and were filling them capably.

Since then, the rotation picked up Wandy Rodriguez and lost Eric Bedard. James McDonald imploded, then Jeff Karstens went down and has been pretty much in the doghouse (and bullpen) ever since. So KC is back, along with Indy's Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, who are 0-5. That has been the root of many of the team's problems. Wandy added some stability with AJ, but without JK and J-Mick performing, the club found itself climbing out of a hole game after game.

The bullpen lost Brad Lincoln, and no one was ever brought in to take his swingman seventh inning/multi inning role, even though Chris Leroux and Bryan Morris were ready at Indy. Then they jettisoned Juan Cruz, another bridge arm. They added castaways Chad Qualls (6.75 ERA) and Hisanori Takahashi (9.82 ERA) and made Kevin Correia the long guy. They called up all of Indy's starters in September and used them from the pen before Leroux or Morris.

And since August, the lineup has been a jumble. The bottom of the order was and remained an abyss, hitting .224 in the 7-9 spots without the pitchers included; it's .197 with their at-bats in the mix. The top of the order was barely better; the 1-2 spots have hit a combined .247 with an OBP of .298. That's hardly setting the table.

Clint Hurdle was also tasked with finding playing time for Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata on Cutch's flanks. Losing Neil Walker put a gaping hole in the order. Brock Holt replaced The Kid's OBP, but not his gap power, lineup flexibility, or glove. Gaby Sanchez was the only position player added that fit in with the pre-August scheme, slipping into Casey McGehee's platoon spot.

The bench? Well, now that the ol' skipper has so many toys, the eighth and ninth innings are a scorekeeper's nightmare, with an army of pinch hitters parading to the plate, along with double switches enough to make a test pilot dizzy.

As far as a comfort zone goes, fuhget about it. Half the team realizes its on audition for 2013, so discipline and little things like hitting behind the runner or working the count are out the window; they all want to prove they're the next Cutch. And don't think it doesn't carry over to the big guys like McCutch and GI, who are carrying the weight of an underperforming club squarely on their backs. We don't think they're physically spent, but mentally worn down.

So to us, the reasons for the slide are pretty simple. In August, the FO tinkered with a team that was successful, but had obvious holes. And while they strengthened a couple of spots - Wandy and Gaby are upgrades - they created a couple of bullpen gaps, didn't do anything to bolster the top or bottom end of the order, and couldn't find a long-term difference maker at a price and fit they felt they could afford. Strike one.

Then in September, they called up half of Indy - they're carrying 36 players now - and adopted a "throw 'em against the wall and see what sticks" plan for playing time. That sent absolutely the wrong message, loud and clear, to the guys who were in the clubhouse all year - we're worried about 2013 and beyond, not about contending this season. Strike two.

The final straw wasn't anything the FO could be particularly faulted for - injuries happen, and who could have foreseen McDonald and Karstens falling off the face of the earth - but exposed the much ballyhooed system's lack of MLB-ready depth. Strike three.

That lack of depth and the failure to craft a blueprint to finish out this season, with a dose of the baseball god's fickleness, should be the source of your outrage, not Homer Bailey.


WilliamJPellas said...

That was an outstanding post and outstanding analysis, Ron. I was going to write something more or less similar, but I couldn't possibly say it any better. It seems to me that the Pirates management basically did everything wrong over the second half from a roster management perspective. You mentioned the lack of a reliable, multi-inning setup man. That definitely hurt, to be sure, but what hurt more was that Hurdle and the front office simply misused pretty much everybody they had left. Especially the relievers. Can anyone explain what Bryan Morris has done to become persona non grata in Pittsburgh? What about Daniel McCutchen, who, while no great shakes, nevertheless gave the team some pretty good work in 2011, work that was spread out over 70 (!!) appearances. Is Chad Qualls better than DC at this point in their careers? Yet McCutchen has almost completely disappeared since 2011, and as a former starter (same as Lincoln) he could definitely have made multiple, multi-inning appearances with no problem.

I don't really have an issue with the players they acquired at the trade deadline, except for Snider's apparent lack of conditioning. Why is it that so many guys the Pirates bring in seem to blow up their legs / hamstrings immediately upon arrival? I've complained about the team's ahem, "strength and conditioning" in the past, and it looks like more of the same. And what's the deal with Karstens? How did he land in Hurdle's doghouse when he is one of the few starters who's done anything at all over the past two seasons? (When he hasn't been hurt, of course, and yes, he's been hurt too often. Still....)

So I think we've seen a team that was a bit better than average that played over its head for awhile. When a few injuries and implosions hit---not many, please note, though the ones they had did hurt---but when that happened, there was no depth to sustain them. They then made things worse by a whole series of terrible decisions from a roster-management-who's-playing-and-in-what-role perspective. Very, very weird and, sad to say, demonstrably incompetent.

In short: good grief!!! :-0

Ron Ieraci said...

You're right on Will; roster management is the phrase I wanted but couldn't come up with.

Lincoln's trade begged for Leroux or McCutchen; Cruz's cut should have been Morris' opening.

I think Snider's biggest problem is that he's being misused as a top of the order guy, much like Marte; that's why Presley & JT are soaking up so many at-bats.

And they knew weeks in advance they'd call up Justin Wilson as a lefty out of the pen, but inexplicably left him in the Indy rotation rather than acclimating him to his big league role.

And going from a starter to a reliever requires a whole different set of skills in both prep and outlook. It's really not a fair shake for guys like Wilson, VandenHurk and company. K-Mac is the only one who took to it.

They're still collectors, Will, and until they become builders, Hurdle will still have a lot of square pegs for round holes at his disposal.