The Relevance of Randall Simon and Gerrit Cole

Memories . . . .

Remember Randall Simon?  Not a question Pirate fans ask every day, I guess, although at this point some folks might even remember him fondly.  Anyway, Simon came before all the fancy data like barrels and exit velocity, but he did leave a pretty strong impression.  My impression of Simon as a hitter (and I’m referring to hitting baseballs, not sausages) was dominated by two impressions:  he swung at everything, and he often hit the ball incredibly hard.  The big problem was that he didn’t hit it hard in a productive direction very often.  He hit some of the loudest foul balls and highest popups I’ve ever seen, and he pounded balls into the dirt like he was digging post holes.  Simon’s approach at the plate, in effect, was to punish the ball rather than punishing the pitcher.  They’re not the same thing.

I thought of Simon when I saw these tweets from Jason Mackey:

This Pirates team ranks last in modern franchise history (1900-present) in: K% — 24.3 (on pace for 1,424 Ks over 162, also last)
BA — .218
OBP — .281
wRC+ — 69
There are more, obviously. But these, to me, are a few of the real attention-getters.

And . . .

Pirates also have a hard contact rate of 34.2% that’s the best since this stuff was tracked compared to a regular contact % of 73.0 that’s the lowest.
My conclusion: Too much trying to kill the ball and not enough situational/smart/staying-within-yourself at-bats.

(I should point out here that the 34.2% hard contact rate may be the Pirates’ best — I didn’t check that — but it ranks only 22nd in MLB this year.)  My conclusion, which may or may not align precisely with Mackey’s, is that the Pirates are basically a team of Randall Simons.  They focus on hitting the ball hard to the exclusion of all else.  They swing and miss a ton, have the NL’s lowest walk rate, and hit a lot of balls hard, yet they’re last in MLB in SLG and HRs.  They also hit the ball on the ground more than any other MLB team except Miami.

This shouldn’t be a huge surprise.  Batting coach Rick Eckstein has talked about having little concern for launch angle and instead focusing on hitting the ball hard.  Manager Derek Shelton has repeatedly said the hitters need to be more aggressive.  That’s especially bizarre considering that the plate discipline figures show that they’re far too aggressive.

All of this in turn reminds me of a comment in one of the recent threads, can’t remember which, wondering why the Pirates are so attached to Erik Gonzalez.  (As I type this, he just struck out with two on and nobody out.)  Gonzalez, of course, has turned back into the player he’s always been:  low AVG, terrible OBP, middling power.  But the simplest answer is always best.  The Pirates are so attached to Gonzalez because they like the type of hitter he represents.  He hacks away aggressively and gets some impressive exit velocities.  The sub-mediocre end results don’t seem important.

The burning question, of course, is how so many hitters did so well last year, like Bryan Reynolds, Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman, then fell off a cliff this year with the same hitting coach.  Obviously, I don’t have the answer, but an even marginally competent front office would go into the off-season determined to find an answer, not to mention a solution.  I can’t help but wonder, though, whether Josh Bell’s propensity for tinkering served him well this year.  He had an OPS of .507 on August 26.  Since then, his OPS is .999.  This is completely speculative, but it’s hard not to think he may have decided to scrap whatever approach he was following and go back to the Old Ways.

A second burning question is exactly how alarmed to be about this.  Are the Pirates, for instance, going to turn Liover Peguero into Erik Gonzalez?  I’ve read a couple of times in the last few days that Ben Cherington plans to make a lot of changes in the scouting and development areas.  Whether this is truly new info or a rehash of Cherington’s comments in the pre-pandemic days, I couldn’t tell, but it’s consistent with discussion about how his late hiring made it very hard to make staffing changes.  Opportunities will certainly abound.  I’ve also read that many teams have made extensive layoffs and many more are expected to follow suit.  Even without the pandemic this would be inevitable, as most teams are going to lose about two minor league affiliates.  So lots of baseball people will be looking for work.  Then again, the Pirates are owned by Bob Nutting.  Even the Dodgers are cutting a lot of staff, so what will the Pirates do?

Revisiting the Cole Trade

I’m sure everybody’s just dying to do this.  But this is a somewhat optimistic take on it, in an indirect way.

The article that Alleghenys linked in the comments earlier was, typically for Kiley McDaniel, extremely interesting.  The take on the Pirates’ transaction strategies — somewhat analytical but very low-risk — seemed right on point to me, at least as applied to Neal Huntington.  We have very little data on Ben Cherington, as he’s made only one non-trivial trade and a bunch of waiver claims.  I don’t see how McDaniel’s characterization of the Pirates could have been based on much other than Huntington’s tendencies.

Part of McDaniel’s description of a low-risk approach was quantity-over-quality.  That certainly seems to fit Huntington to a T.  What always bugged me about the Gerrit Cole trade was that Huntington’s approach seem to be checking off boxes rather than acquiring maximum talent.  The Pirates at the time needed a third baseman.  Check.  They needed a starter to replace Cole.  Check.  Bullpen arms are always a need.  Check.  Never mind that none of these guys profiled as anything special.  Certainly none had a ceiling in the same quadrant of the cosmos as Cole’s.  Huntington himself even waxed enthusiastic about how the Pirates, in the trades for Cole and Andrew McCutchen, got four players who would help them in the majors in the upcoming season.  With the focus entirely on the number; no mention of how good anybody would be.

Happily, the Starling Marte deal was very different.  (Were there even any others since Cherington took over?  At least any that didn’t just involve Sid Cash?)  Cherington went for two guys far from the majors but with actual, identifiable ceilings.  The rhetoric has been of the right sort, too.  Cherington has talked about adding talent and not just filling specific holes, which I like to imagine means he won’t be doing check-the-box trades like the Cole deal.  Note, for instance, that he didn’t insist on a catcher for Marte, which I’d bet is what Huntington would have done.  As badly as the team needs a catcher, it needs talent more.

So maybe the Pirates’ approach will change going forward.  But we’ll need a lot more evidence.