Losing 100 runs (the bad version)

Yesterday we tackled the improvement in the Pirate pitching staff in 2009, noting where improvements in defense and the starting rotation made the Pirates a better team last year. Today, we have to tackle a much more depressing subject; the team’s drop from 735 runs in 2008 to 636 in 2009.

This task is less straightforward than pitching. When discussing pitching, we can just say that “DEFENSE!” helped the pitchers and leave it as an amorphous cloud. When discussing offense, it has to be taken into consideration that the players that scored 99 fewer runs in 2009 were also partially responsible for the 116 saved in the field.

More on this, plus a longer discussion about replacement value and the true talent of the 2009 Pirates, after the jump.

The short version of this is that we know where the Pirates offense went in 2009; Jason Bay and Xavier Nady left, Adam LaRoche didn’t hit well in his time with the Pirates, Ryan Doumit didn’t hit well at all, Nate McLouth was traded early in the season, and only Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones had offensive performances worth writing home about. It’s not a mystery where those offensive runs went.

The rub, of course, is that by replacing Bay with Nyjer Morgan/Lastings Milledge, McLouth with McCutchen, giving Brandon Moss and his good glove a decent amount of playing time, and generally improved infield play (especially from Jack Wilson and Andy LaRoche), the team’s defense improved dramatically. Luckily for us, FanGraphs calculates team value for offensive players by including UZR and making it all into one team “Runs Above Replacement” stat for everything except pitching. That means that we can see that the Pirates were 128.7 runs above replacement (that’s 53.7 batting runs — calculated from wOBA — below average [not below replacement, they're two different things, if you're not familiar] with a -26.2 UZR) in 2008 and 142.3 runs above replacement (-86.4 on offense, but +30.1 on defense) in 2009.

That means that all of the offense-for-defense switching the Pirates did in 2009 actually put them on the plus side of the ledger. The problem, of course, is that the Pirates weren’t a very good team in 2008, so the improvement was incrementally small enough that even though their offense/defense improved by a total of about two wins and their pitching staff improved by four wins (in the abstract sabermetric sense), the 2009 team itself managed to finish 4 1/2 games behind the 2008 team, in terms of actual record.

If you read yesterday’s post as well, it should intuitively make sense that the Pirates’ record undershot their performance in 2009; the team’s run differential improved slightly in 2009 (they scored 99 fewer runs, but allowed 116 fewer) and their pythagorean record was 67-94, a half game better than their 67-95 pythag from a year earlier. If we simply count up the wins above replacement calculated by FanGraphs, we see the +14.2 wins from offense/fielding and the +8.1 wins from pitching. I believe I read (though I can’t find the link now) that replacement level was calculated to be about 46 wins in 2009 (it’s a sliding value from year to year, but it’s always around 45), so WAR indicates that the Pirates actually played like a 68 (or so) win team last season.

Viewing it this way really, for me, drives home how far the Pirates would have to come to even be a .500 team in 2010. They would essentially need a one-win improvement at each position on the diamond and each slot of the starting rotation to go from 68 wins to 81 wins. Put another way, the Pirates are like an 18-handicap golfer that needs a stroke on every hole. That’s a huge amount of improvement to expect in one season from a group that’s not radically different. For example, FanGraphs readers have projected Andy LaRoche to hit .267/.346/.430, a considerable increase over his .258/.330/.401 line from 2009, and if his defense stays about the same, that would produce about a one-win improvment for him over the course of a full season. That may be a feasible amount of improvement for a guy like LaRoche, but given that we’re starting some positions at a deficit (coughronnycedenoandbobbycrosbycough) when compared to 2009, it’s not a realistic goal for the team.

We know this already, of course, but seeing it laid out like that is still a little depressing.

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.