The Pirates have seemingly stumbled out of the gate en route to their 6-6 start to the 2015 season, wasting some seriously good starting pitching performances on the way. Francisco Liriano gave the Pirates a chance on Opening Day by allowing two runs in seven innings before Tony Watson allowed a three run bomb to Todd Frazier. Two days later low run production spoiled A.J. Burnett’s return, where he held the Reds to two runs over 5.333333333. Those two got no love from the lineup their second time through the rotation and both held the Tigers to just one run each as they pitched lights out in the midst of a twenty plus inning scoreless drought. Clearly, the lack of offense has cost them some games in the early going.
Calling something a slow start is a relative term. The Bucs are actually off to their second best start in the last five years in terms of runs per game. They’re actually scoring a full run more over the first twelve games than they did in 2012. Really, Pirates fans should be used to the cold of April by now. While the season conversation on Twitter, message boards and in the media often drifts to some hashing out of the “what’s wrong with the Pirates _______” by now the problem in question usually resolves itself. Why? Because 12 games is too damn soon to know what you have in baseball.
Truth is, every blemish to start a season gets noticed because there isn’t any good or even decent to offset the bad. Starling Marte could and probably will go 3 for 32 by July. The difference is, he’ll have a couple of trademark hot streaks and two hundred other plate appearance to buffer the bad times.
It doesn’t take much to bounce back offensively this early either. The Bucs started Friday 29th in the league in fWAR. Seventeen runs and three games later, they were a much more respectable 22nd heading into action on Monday. Not only can a slow start get overblown, it can get brushed under the rug just as quickly. Last year, I thought there was a chance Josh Harrison would be DFA’d after he started 0-8 with five strikeouts. In the end he bounced back to where the slow start was completely forgotten and earned $27.3 million in the process. Much is being made of Jung Ho Kang season-opening struggles. While it’s not absurd to think he may be struggling to adapt to the majors coming from a highly hitter friendly environment or that he might need some time in the minors, it’s also possible that he’s on the wrong side of a small sample. If he went 3-4 with a double and BB in his next start, he’d suddenly have numbers representative of his potential. Bench players off to a slow start can flip the script with one good game. Teams off to a rough start can flip the script over one good weekend. For me, it’s just too soon for concern.
In general, the Pirates’ core has enough service time to have some established track records and, in general, they’re not writing home about their April performance. While he’s not part of the problem this year, Pedro Alvarez is a notoriously slow starter over the course of his career. His all around numbers are strong now, but they’re still depressed by a worse than normal K rate for El Toro. Andrew McCutchen hits a pedestrian .781 OPS in March and April over 508 career PA’s. That’s .075 points lower than his next worst month and sharply off the .910+ he produces from May to July. While April isn’t Neil Walker’s worst month, it’s pretty darn close. He has a career .719 OPS in April compared to a .712 in July. Though his early season track record is not nearly as established as the three other players I’ve noted here, Jordy Mercer posts an awful .437 OPS in April. Despite a low K rate and a high line drive percentage, the shortstop has started slow again in 2015.
Then there is the matter of some players being unlucky. I don’t like playing the luck card over a long enough sample, but in a short space it can be relevant. This is the case, in my opinion, anytime a player’s line drive percentage surpasses or equals their BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play). That list includes Marte, Harrison, and Mercer of the regulars and Andrew Lambo and Jung Ho Kang on the bench. Of course, the argument goes both ways with Francisco Cerveli and Alvarez possessing BABIP’s considerably higher than their line drive percentage.
At the end of the day, where the Pirates are now probably means very little in the long run. Sure, they’ve wasted some good pitching and some winnable games, but April is just not the sweet part of the schedule for this team. We’ve seen magical early summer runs turn in to the mundane from this team over the last five years. It’s almost hard for me to imagine the Pirates as anything but among the best teams in baseball in June and early July, because even in the disappointing collapse years, that’s what they’ve been. If they continue to ride the struggle bus and the offense doesn’t come around, you can count me among the concerned.
Little is real in forty plate appearances or twelve games. oo much minutia, be it luck or the microscope, distorts perception in the early going that just isn’t there over 162 games. Give them some time to come around.