Slow starts, Gregory Polanco and everything else

On Monday, I opened up the Pirates’ Baseball Reference page and noticed something: for as bad as they’ve looked in April, their run differential isn’t really hugely out of whack. In their 26 games, they’ve score 96 runs and allowed 104. It was a long shot, but if the Pirates had played these two games in Baltimore as scheduled they could’ve finished this April with the same dead-even differential as they had last April.

I thought about this a little bit more, and it seems to me like the reality is that almost all of the angst about this Pirate team flows directly out of two pitches to Ryan Braun on Easter weekend. If the Pirates win those two games, they would be 12-14 and five games out of first place instead of 10-16 and nine games back. I’m not really all that interested in playing “what if” games or excusing the Pirates for their poor play or ignoring some of the things that I think are wrong with this Pirate team. All I’m doing is pointing out that the line between “horribly, inexcusably bad” and “yeah, that start was pretty bad but it shouldn’t be tough to bounce back from it,” is incredibly narrow in the early part of the season.

That makes it really hard to sort out what’s bad because it’s a problem and what’s bad because it’s early. In the last week, everyone has been wailing and gnashing their teeth over the offense and the absence of Gregory Polanco, but honestly, I think the offense’s biggest problem to this point in the season has been bad luck. ESPN’s Mark Simon tweeted out a chart yesterday that showed every team’s batting average on hard-hit balls. The Angels lead the league with a .793 average. The Braves and Diamondbacks are in the middle of the pack at .688 and .677. The Pirates are next-to-last at .581. They’re in the same place with their .259 BABIP. Yes, they strikeout a little bit more than I’d like. Yes, a couple of guys look lost at the plate, but the real root of the problem is that the offense has been almost hilariously unlucky to this point. I don’t know if that’s a function of seven games against the Brewers and their shifts or just the universe tilting the wrong way for a month, but the odds say that more balls that the Pirates hit are going to start dropping and more runs are going to score when that happens.

Honestly, all of the Polanco talk right now is starting to border on craziness. Two years ago, most of us had no idea who Polanco was. One year ago, he was playing in High-A Bradenton. Nine months ago, he was treading water in Altoona. Since then he’s started putting up monstrous numbers from the Dominican Winter League to the Grapefruit League to the International League, but the amount of baseball he’s played against real competition is awfully slim. I honestly won’t profess to know either way whether the kid is ready for the big leagues or not — I suspect that he is, but I haven’t seen him with my own eyes at any point this year — but I do know that it’s silly to change your stance on him or to conclude that he’s got nothing left to work on based on a 24 game stat line at the Triple-A level.

Even leaving the very significant Super Two status aside (if you haven’t, please read this Bucs Dugout piece about what a difference this really makes), rushing prospects is a very real concern that bit the Cam Bonifay front office hard. I’m not saying that moving prospects quickly affects all prospects or that Polanco would be over his head if he were called up today, I’m saying that if and when he does get the call this spring or summer, he’s going to make his debut with relatively little upper-minor league experience and that carries risk even with someone as talented as Gregory Polanco. Every day he spends in Triple-A is another day of upper minor league experience and a little bit more insurance against that kind of risk. It’s easy to argue that Polanco is one of the Pirates’ 25 best players and that they’d be better off with him in right field, but the honest truth is that the decision is just way more complicated than that both financially and in terms of what’s best for Polanco’s career long-term. Obviously you can make the argument that the upgrade Polanco represents* outweighs all of the risks of calling him up early, but that argument is pretty far from the slam dunk that most of the frustrated fans are making it out to be.

Leaving the question of Polanco and the offense aside, the real concern with this club has to be the pitching staff. Francisco Liriano doesn’t look quite right, Charlie Morton doesn’t look quite right, Wandy Rodriguez threw meatballs for a month before going on the disabled list, Gerrit Cole has been uneven, Edinson Volquez remains Edinson Volquez, Jameson Taillon is out for the year, Kyle McPherson is out for the year, and the list goes on. With or without Polanco, I think that this Pirate team is basically an average offensive team. If they’re going to dig themselves out of the hole that April has put them in, the pitching staff is going to have to pull its weight in the same way that it did last year. That’s going to require quite a few turnarounds and solid performances from places that I don’t think we’re expecting to find them.

None of this is impossible, of course; if a few line drives find gaps and the Pirates get a couple of strong starts from Liriano and Morton, they might find themselves at .500 before Mother’s Day. They are capable of better than what we’ve seen this year, but it’s also true that the hole that they’re in now won’t be terribly easy to dig out of given the start the Brewers are off to. What that 12-16 record really means is that they’re going to have to start digging soon.

*If you do some quick back-of-the-envelope math you can figure that if Polanco’s debut month were to go perfectly, he’d offer the Pirates somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0 WAR in his first month, which we can use as shorthand since we’re probably about a month away from his debut. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider combined represent something between 0.25 and 0.5 WAR over the course of most months, though they combined for a net -0.2 in April. The point, though, is that what we’re arguing for when saying the Pirates should call Polanco up now is probably worth less than one win on a typical WAR scale. While it’s true that every win counts and that the Pirates could use some wins right now, you don’t get anywhere as a baseball team by just completely disregarding all future considerations for what is in all likelihood a pretty small immediate payoff. Unless you’re the Brewers, who have probably sacrificed to the Great Old Ones or something. 

Image credit: Graham Richardson, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.