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Whither All the Lefties in the Pirates’ Minor Leagues?

Tony Watson may be the last homegrown lefty pitcher you'll see for a while Photo from Wikipedia

Tony Watson may be the last homegrown lefty pitcher you’ll see for a while
Photo from Wikipedia

Perhaps Neal Huntington is the superstitious type. After all, the modern word “sinister” is derived from the Latin word sinestra, which means “left hand”. I’ve known a sinister left-hander or two in my life. Maybe this is a reason for why there are an alarming lack of left-handed pitchers in the Pirates’ minor league system.

Of course this isn’t really the reason (I hope not), but why is it that the Pirates are shipping lefties out and not drafting them in June drafts to re-stock the system?

It all started innocently enough on June 15th when the Pirates sent LHP Blake Taylor to the Mets as the player to be named later in the Ike Davis deal. Although Taylor has a good deal of upside, he’s at least four years away from potentially making the Majors. This was a good use of the farm system to get an asset for the 2014 season. Obviously, things didn’t work out with the now non-tendered Ike Davis, but that’s beside the point.

At the end of the season, three left-handers declared for minor league free agency. Adam Wilk already has signed with the Angels. Jhonathan Ramos and Rafael Perez are still free agents. None of the three are a great loss.

Power left-handed reliever Andy Oliver was lost in the December 11th Rule 5 draft to the Philadelphia Phillies. If he doesn’t make their roster or if they can no longer keep him on the Major League roster at any point in 2015, he gets offered back to the Pirates. Oliver has good stuff, but terrible command of it and is already 27. For the rebuilding Phillies, he’ll probably stick all season, as they can use him to replace Antonio Bastardo.

Bastardo was acquired in a trade with the Phillies to replace the departed LEFT-hander Justin Wilson. Wilson was flipped to the Yankees in exchange for C Francisco Cervelli. Oh, the player sent to the Phillies for Bastardo? Left-handed quasi-prospect Joely Rodriguez from the AA roster.

In a vacuum, losing any of these players is no great loss. But as a collective, it shows that there are an alarming lack of bodies that throw from the sinister side. The Major League squad is fine; there are five lefties on the 40-man roster (Liriano, Locke, Watson, Bastardo, LaFromboise), but what about in the minors as a replacement down the line?

After losing Oliver and Wilk, Triple A Indianapolis only has Daniel Schlereth and Duke Welker, neither of whom are viable options long-term and may not even return in 2015. Double A Altoona only has soon-to-bust 2009 draft pick Zack Dodson and a 31-year old from Taiwan, Yao-Hsun Yang, that I refuse to believe is a real baseball player. High A Bradenton has three organizational arms that will probably never get past Double A in the form of Orlando Castro, Thomas Harlan, and Josh Smith. Low A West Virginia has only Cody Dickson, who is what passes for a left-handed starting prospect for the Pirates right now, and organizational arm Will Kendall.

Further compounding the issue, the Pirates only drafted three left-handed pitchers in the 2014 draft out of their 40 picks. Only one ended up being signed by the Pirates. John Sever had a very impressive debut season (40 IP, 30 H, 17 BB, 63 K, 1.33 ERA). We’ll see how highly they value him — if he skips Low A and goes to High A, there may be something there that they really like. The year before, in the 2013 draft, the Pirates only drafted four lefties (all four signed), but Blake Taylor was already traded and two others are just fillers. Only Cody Dickson has promise.

The Pirates (correctly, I should point out) believe that a pitcher should be able to get lefties and righties out. They feel carrying a left-on-left reliever is a waste of a valuable roster spot. That’s all well and good, but there is strong evidence that it’s a good idea to have a left-handed pitcher available to get left-handed hitters out, as shown by the 2014 stats across Major League Baseball (pitchers excluded):

.242 AVG/.305 OBP/.350 SLG .264 AVG/.329 OBP/.414 SLG
655 OPS, 85 wRC+ 743 OPS, 109 wRC+
.255 AVG/.324 OBP/.394 SLG .253 AVG/.310 OBP/.392 SLG
718 OPS, 102 wRC+ 702 OPS, 97 wRC+

As you can see, lefty pitchers vs. lefty hitters have the weakest hitting splits of the four divisions. It would seem like this is an advantage that teams would want to plan for at all times and make sure they have a constant supply of lefties percolating through their system. Conversely, lefty pitchers versus righty hitters, of which there are far more of, have the least favorable splits. Are the Pirates simply playing the odds of not facing that many dangerous left-handed hitters? Or is it not necessary at all?

Maybe the Pirates looked around the National League, especially the NL Central, and saw this list of left-handed hitters that get regular playing time:

  • Reds — Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Billy Hamilton (switch hitter)
  • Brewers — Adam Lind, Scooter Gennett (switch)
  • Cubs — Anthony Rizzo, Chris Coghlan, Luis Valbuena, Miguel Montero, Arismendy Alacantara (switch)
  • Cardinals — Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay
  • Nationals — Bryce Harper, Denard Span
  • Braves — Freddie Freeman
  • Mets — Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Curtis Granderson
  • Marlins — Christian Yelich, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (switch)
  • Phillies — Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Ben Revere, Cody Asche, Dominic Brown
  • Dodgers — Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson
  • Giants — Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco
  • Padres — Yonder Alonso, Seth Smith, Will Venable, Alexei Amarista (switch), Yangervis Solarte (switch)
  • Rockies — Justin Morneau, Corey Dickerson, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez
  • Diamondbacks — Ender Inciarte

Aside from Anthony Rizzo, maybe Bryce Harper, and an if-healthy Joey Votto, is there anyone on that list that strikes fear into the heart of Clint Hurdle, to the point that he has to bring a lefty in to face him? Probably not, especially if his right-handers can get lefties out effectively.

Without checking all of the above players’ individual splits, it’s hard for me to believe that most of them don’t have terrible splits versus LHP’s. But maybe the Pirates are looking at the same list of players and not worrying about, preferring to acquire the most talent they can, regardless of what hand they throw with.

That would truly be a sinister strategy.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.