In the comments yesterday, Eephus brought the pre-season post in which I say this:
My gut says that this is a 65-win team at worst and a 75-win team at best, but that’s not important.The truth is that the number of games the Pirates win isn’t all that important this year when compared with how they win them. If Tabata and Walker and Alvarez have huge years, but the 1B/RF consortium collapses on itself and the pitching is terrible outside of McDonald and Morton and the team only wins 65 games, that’s not an awful year. If Alvarez and Walker and Morton lay eggs, but Overbay and Diaz and Doumit/Snyder and Cedeno rake while Correia and Maholm put up articificially low ERAs and the Pirates win 75 games, that’s a bad year.
And so here we are at the All-Star Break with the Pirates four games above .500 and one game out of first place, but with Neil Walker and Jose Tabata struggling in various aspects of the game, Pedro Alvarez in Triple-A, and the whole of the turn-around being driven by a pitching staff with what is probably an unsustainable and artifically low ERA.
At the time I didn’t think I needed a playoff disclaimer, but I suppose I do now. It goes without saying that if this club can find its way into the playoffs without Neal Huntington selling the future to the Robot Devil, that all bets are off. Even if it happens because Lyle Overbay bats .450 after the All-Star Break and Neil Walker only hits .125, making the playoffs is always the goal and it can’t be a bad year if that happens (with, again, the caveat about not setting the entire franchise blueprint on fire for just one season).
But really, we came into 2011 excited about four young position players and only one of them has blossomed. The Pedro Alvarez case is pretty open and shut right now (he was bad, he got hurt, let’s hope he doesn’t suck as bad as he did in April and early May), but Tabata and Walker’s seasons deserve a bit of a longer look.
The first thing to note is that the offensive environment in 2011 is really quite a bit depressed compared to 2010. Neil Walker is hitting .264/.329/.388, which is a .727 OPS. Intuitively, that seems ugly, but when it’s normalized for park factors and to the league it’s an OPS+ of 104, which means that it’s (barely) above league average. To give you an idea of how much offense is down this year, last year Jose Tabata had a .746 OPS and that was also good for an OPS+ of 104. That means that Walker’s .727 OPS this year is roughly equivalent to Tabata’s .746 last year. The same goes for Tabata, who’s right at the league average OPS+ of 100 despite hitting only .265/.351/.354.
I’m only mentioning this to create some context: Walker and Tabata aren’t the only two guys struggling this year. OPS — league adjusted or otherwise — is a bad stat to judge either one of them with. Tabata, as a speedy leadoff type guy who’s best skill right now is reaching base, is always going to be undervalued by OPS and Walker, who’s more of a slugging infielder that doesn’t walk a ton, is always going to be overvalued.
So let’s start with Tabata. His power outage this year is definitely a bit worrisome; he came into camp in great shape, lasering line drives all over Pirate City and everyone predicted a big power breakout, but after homering three times in the team’s first 15 games, he’s got no homers, no triples and just 11 doubles in the ensuing 56 games. Still, Tabata hasn’t been a complete waste this year. He got off to a red-hot start, hitting .317/.427/.524 in the team’s first 16 days, then fell completely off of the planet for almost six weeks. Between April 19 and June 7 (37 games) he hit .200/.299/.264 with just eight doubles in 147 PAs. Since then, though, he’s been a pretty good leadoff hitter. From June 7th until his injury, he hit .329/.372/.370. His walk rate is way up this year, to 11.1% from 6.3% last year and as a result, his OBP in 2011 (.351) is higher than it was in 2010 (.346) despite his batting average being 30 points lower. If you see Tabata profiling as a leadoff hitter, that’s pretty encouraging. Part of Tabata’s struggles this year are due to a low (for him) BABIP. In general his minor league BABIPs were around .350, which is close to the .339 he had for the Pirates last year. Since he’s a fast guy and only about one in four balls he hits are flyballs, he should be able to sustain a higher batting average on balls in play than the league average, which is around .300. While he was slumping, though, he was at just .226.
I don’t think Tabata’s ever going to be a traditional slugging left fielder, and because of that I think this year hasn’t been a complete disaster for him. His on-base skills are improving, he’s probably been a bit unlucky this year, and he’s still providing a plus glove in left field for the Pirates. If he comes back and keeps getting on base and finds a few more gaps in the second half, I’m going to guess that we’ll view his 2011 season much differently than we are right now.
Walker’s problems are actually pretty easy to diagnose: he can’t hit left-handed pitching. In 253 plate appearances against righties from the left side of the plate, he’s hitting.289/.352/.453. Obviously, that’s excellent from just about any position and it’s a huge boon coming from a non-traditional power spot like second base. It’s good enough that it overshadows Walker’s deficiencies at defense, which are glaring. As a right-handed hitter, though, he’s been brutal. Against lefties (I’m specifying the pitchers here because he tried batting righty against RA Dickey and Tim Wakefield) he’s hitting just .216/.280/.289 in 107 PAs.
You can check Walker’s minor league numbers: he’s almost always had a platoon split that shows struggles from the right-hand side of the plate. It wasn’t always as pronounced as this year, but it wasn’t against big league pitchers and there weren’t LOOGYs, etc. Because Walker had almost no platoon split at all last year, I’m tempted to say that we’re dealing with a small sample size, but I find it awfully hard to believe that Walker would be doing worse against lefties this year if he only batted from the left side. If things don’t get better, I’m going to start vocally recommending he pull an Orlando Merced and drop the switch-hitting act. Still, like Tabata, he’s got an entire second half to turn things around and he’s doing some good things at the plate this year. His walk rate, which is something we were all worried about after some terrible OBPs in the minors, is up a tick and as mentioned, he’s mauling right-handed pitching pretty consistently.
Walker’s other big value, as mentioned, is that he’s a second baseman. If he can slug .450 and get on at a .350 pace, that’s big production from second. We really only have a small sample to work with right now since he hasn’t played second for that long and he’s barely got one full big league season under his belt, but the early returns aren’t great. UZR absolutely hates him; it says that for his career he costs the Pirates in the neighborhood of 13 runs over 150 games. Though he’s improved a bit this year, he’s still roughly in the Dan Uggla zone. John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved is a bit kinder to him this year, putting him at -2 on the season instead of the -5 UZR records. If you parse out the Baseball Information Solution numbers that FanGraphs gives, you can see he’s making more plays both in and out of his defensive “zone” this year, which is encouraging. He may never be a great defender at second, but if he can just be a bit below average his bat may make up for the rest.
Obviously neither guy is having the sort of season that we Pirate fans wanted to see in 2011, but I wouldn’t say that either one of them is having a disaster season. Instead, I think it’s more fair to say they’ve both clearly got aspects of their game that need work. That probably shouldn’t be surprising: Tabata’s extremely young and Walker’s trip through the minors was not an easy one. They’re both drawing more walks this year, they’ve both had very good stretches at the plate, and you can point to aspects of their games that are improving. I think that both of them are very important to watch in the second half: they’re not where they need to be, but there’s still plenty of time for both to make progress.