We just crossed the 20% mark of the season, which means that even though there a lot of season (80% worth) left, there’s enough in the rear view mirror to start to evaluate for trendlines.
At times this season has felt like metal grinding on metal for the Pirates, as their offense has been anemic for large swaths of the season. The good news for them is that even though they are 17-16, the rest of the non-division-leading teams are all hovering around .500, too, with some teams already putting price tags on their players for summer sales (Phillies, Brewers, Rockies). So let’s go around the field and examine each position for either sustainability or if there will be some “progression to the mean”.
We’ll be using BABIP in this article, which stands for Batting Average of Balls in Play. It takes homers and strikeouts out of the equation to evaluate a player. The league-wide average is typically .290 to .300, but I always like to look at a particular player’s BABIP history, as well. A player like Starling Marte has always had very high BABIP’s from his minor league days to his time in the majors, thanks to his ability to drive the ball hard and use speed to get infield hits. We’ll also be referencing Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is a measure of how much offense a player produces above the average amount of 100 — a 110 wRC+ means a player produces 10% more than an average player.
Francisco Cervelli was brought in via trade from the Yanks (in exchange for LHP Justin Wilson) with the hopes that he would provide enough offense and defense to lessen the blow of losing Russell Martin. His line of .253 AVG/.303 OBP/.301 SLG (wRC+ of 72) won’t make anyone forget Martin, but Cervelli is the 2nd best catcher this year in terms of pitch framing with 43 extra strikes gained for 5.8 runs saved to date.
Martin was a luxury last year that most teams don’t have. A catcher historically has been a defensive stalwart that occasionally chipped in on offense. If Cervelli would be able to bring his line up to his career rate of .275 AVG/.344 OBP/.372 SLG, then he would be an incredibly valuable commodity.
VERDICT — Cervelli will improve slightly.
Defensively, Pedro Alvarez isn’t going to threaten for a Gold Glove this year, but he hasn’t been a complete and utter embarrassment, either. For a guy that is essentially learning a new position on the fly, he’s been OK, not great.
Offensively, Pedro Alvarez should be allowing the last of his ardent supporters to see that this is what he is. His .208 AVG/.306 OBP/.417 SLG (95 wRC+) is just slightly below his career line of .233 AVG/.307 OBP/.434 SLG (104 wRC+). His BABIP of .234 versus his career rate of .292 indicates that his triple slash line will rise, probably right up to those career levels. Yes, he has five homers and his walk rate is a solid 12.6%, but that’s all he provides. He’s just not a great offensive player, even if he hits 30 homers this year.
VERDICT — Alvarez will improve slightly.
Like the balance wheel in a fine Swiss-made watch, Neil Walker is once again putting up solid numbers and allowing everything to rotate around him smoothly. His under-appreciated line of .288 AVG/.360 OBP/.423 SLG (121 wRC+) is due for a little regression, as his BABIP (.330) is higher than his career average of .308. He’s miscast as a cleanup hitter, but that’s more due to the mental hangups of Alvarez not being able to handle the 4 spot. The arrival of Jung-ho Kang (more on him later) and the presence of Josh Harrison/Jordy Mercer seem to be signalling that 2015 could be Walker’s final season in Pittsburgh. I imagine the Pirates will try and shop him this offseason while he still has one year of team control left.
VERDICT — Walker will regress slightly.
Let’s just cut right to the chase — Jordy Mercer has been atrocious with the bat (.186 AVG/.245 OBP/.216 SLG, 24 wRC+). However, his defense has been rock solid all year and spectacular at times. The good news is that we’ve seen this show before, as in last April/May when Mercer was putrid as well. On May 31st, 2014, Mercer was sitting at .199 AVG/.234 OBP/.274 SLG. From that point forward, he was very good and finished the year at a respectable line of .255 AVG/.305 OBP/.387 SLG.
The difference this year is the presence of the best Korean import since Kia, Jung-ho Kang. Seriously, I’m going to talk about him later. Trust me.
Mercer’s BABIP of .217 is comically low (.291 career), so there should be some progression to the mean coming soon.
VERDICT — Mercer will improve, but how much leeway will he be given?
I wasn’t a fan of the long-term deal the Pirates gave Josh Harrison and I also thought he was in for some regression, but I sure didn’t envision him cratering this badly to start 2015. For all the reasons stated in the regression article, Harrison overperformed in 2014 with a BABIP of .353, but by the same token he’s been hamstrung by balls not falling in 2015 with an unimaginable BABIP of .191.
GM Neal Huntington felt that Harrison was probably gripping the bat too tightly in an effort to justify his new contract, which is a sentiment I agree with. Harrison may not replicate his 2014 season (like Russell Martin, it was probably a confluence of good things resulting in a career year), but he can still be a very useful complimentary player for this team. Mercer does not have a long-term contract in his back pocket, so I think that Harrison will be given more room to work his plate issues out instead of getting replaced by Kang. Just be patient…I’ll get to Kang shortly. Geez.
Starling Marte has been the engine of the Pirates’ offense in the early part of the season with a team-leading 8 homers and 5 stolen bases as part of his .277 AVG/.325 OBP/.518 SLG (129 wRC+) line to date. It’s a different type of season for Marte, as his previous high of homers has been 13, but he hasn’t completely sold out for his power — his K rate has increased from 24.0% to 26.6% from last year. His BABIP of .315 is actually low as compared to his mind-boggling career rate of .359 so there’s still some room for improvement.
Defensively, Marte is doing Marte things. He would be the starting center fielder for virtually every other team in the Majors and his arm is a weapon that teams are testing less and less.
VERDICT — Marte will improve slightly, which scares the rest of the National League.
Has anyone written anything about Andrew McCutchen and his early-season slump? Haven’t noticed much chatter about it. I’ll keep this short(er) and sweet — he’s hurt in some form or fashion and his slumping power is affected by it. His .219 AVG/.308 OBP/.342 SLG (84 wRC+) is laughably below his career line of .296 AVG/.383 OBP/.493 SLG.
His BABIP of .245 is well below his career BABIP of .332. I don’t really have to sell you too much on this verdict…
VERDICT — McCutchen will improve greatly…as long as his knee allows him.
Gregory Polanco has had a muted season so far. He’s been steady, not flashy, on offense. His 10 stolen bases are shiny, but he’s not been a super effective leadoff man with his meager .320 on-base percentage. His overall line of .271 AVG/.320 OBP/.381 SLG (92 wRC+) is OK, but it’s important to remember that he is only 23 years old and this is his first full season.
Defensively, he had some gaffes and mental lapses in the field early on this season, but he’s stabilized that facet of his game as well.
VERDICT — Polanco will improve slightly
Are you thinking I’m going to jump right out and talk about Kang? Ha! Not yet.
The bench overall has been very good this year and light years ahead of recent incarnations. Sean Rodriguez has been tearing the cover off the ball with a .394 AVG/.412 OBP/.515 SLG line in 35 small sample size at-bats. Chris Stewart has been a cromulent back-up catcher, nothing more, nothing less. Corey Hart hasn’t shown much in his limited 28 at-bats.
But the real breakout star has been the stylish Jung-ho Kang and his .333 AVG/.386 OBP/.529 SLG triple slash line. His defense has been above the line at three different positions (2B, SS, 3B). Clearly, he deserves more playing time with Mercer and Harrison’s struggles. The league will adjust to him and exploit some things in his busy swing, but the Pirates will play the hot hand for the time being.
VERDICT — The bench doesn’t cause me heartburn when one replaces a starter, so that’s a good sign.