Going into today, the Pirates are one of four NL Central teams clustered between .500 and two games under. Milwaukee got hot after the Pirates won a series in Amityville, or whatever it is they call that ballpark, so they’re four games over. I can’t see the Brewers keeping their staff ERA under 2.00 for long, so I’m skeptical about then. The Cards, on the other hand, may be better than they seem so far, but I’m not too sure about that, either. Cardinal Devil Magic doesn’t seem to work any more. So the NLC could be headed toward a division-wide freakshow.
Anyway . . . .
I root for the Steelers, but I don’t follow them as closely as I do the Pirates. In particular, I don’t look at Steelers’ fan sites or comment sections. I’ve had other fans tell me, though, that the criticisms of the Steelers’ front office are much more vociferous and, uh, off-balance than those directed toward the Pirates. This seems pretty weird to me, because the Steelers for the last half-century have been one of the elite franchises in all of sports.
There’s certainly no point in having fan sites if fans aren’t going to criticize their teams. It is true, though, that sports executives, coaches, scouts, etc., have more experience and better access to information than fans. So I figure that, to at least some extent, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Until, that is, they’ve behaved in such a manner as to show that they don’t deserve it.
Which brings us to the Pirates. Looking just at events after 2015, their decisions were not only consistently wrongheaded, but wrongheaded in consistent patterns. It wasn’t just bad execution, it was bad strategy. There was the obsession with years of control. There was the obsession with replacement-and-below veterans, which I took as a desperate attempt to insulate the team from falling much below .500. There were the many moves that were obviously motivated entirely by finances, not just short-term finances but by a determination to lock in profits at a certain level for years into the future. To me, the Pirates not only forfeited the benefit of the doubt, but earned a presumption that all their moves were driven by bad ideas.
It’s hard to get out of that mindset, even with all-new management. An initial off-season where the big addition was Jarrod Dyson didn’t help. It’s been hard to believe, in particular, that any decision remotely resembling a rebuild — with the exception of cutting payroll, of course — would get made.
So flash forward to this spring and a couple of the roster battles. Judging by everything I saw online, it was widely expected that the Pirates would keep Chasen Shreve over Sam Howard. It was universally believed that they’d keep Todd Frazier over Phillip Evans. Especially because both Howard and Evans had options. Yet the front office passed over this cornucopia of veteranosity and kept Howard and Evans.
Wonder of wonders, they simply seem to have kept the better players. Maybe by the end of the year Frazier will outhit Evans. It’s hard to deny, though, that Evans earned a roster spot and, more recently, has earned more regular playing time. And there’s some actual upside; Evans is a classic case of a non-toolsy player who gets overlooked, but who just hits and also plays passable defense. If he continues to hit, he could be a helpful player for the Pirates for five years.
Howard also presents more upside than his competitor. Shreve is a reliably replacement-level reliever (-0.4 fWAR for his career). Howard showed last year he can at least do that, but he might have more to offer. His heavy reliance on the slider makes me nervous, but Derek Shelton seems to be adjusting for that by using Howard mainly as a guy to get the last out or two of an inning. And he’s cut the slider usage from 62.3% to 57%. (That doesn’t count yesterday, when he threw five sliders out of six pitches.)
For whatever reason, Howard’s four-seamer velocity is up about 1.5 mph from his career norms. If you check his pitch charts at baseballsavant.com, he appears to be throwing high fastballs more consistently than in the past. (Oddly, Howard’s four-seamer has well above average movement and his slider has well below average movement.) That may account for a sharp increase in his whiff rate, which was already high, to the 100th percentile (again, before yesterday). Of course, he’s also walking a lot more, but he’s allowed only three hits in 7.1 IP. Two, unfortunately, left the park. There are pluses and minuses with Howard, but the Pirates appear to have had specific reasons for thinking they kept the better lefty.
Another example is Erik Gonzalez. He’s batting .291, albeit with one walk in 52 plate appearances, which is . . . awful. He had a good start last year, too, and it didn’t last, but there are some differences in his hitting. Mainly, even though he still swings at everything, his K rate is way down. Just from observation, it seems like he’s toning it down with two strikes and trying to go the other way. His spray charts over the last three years do show a shift toward the opposite field. He’s also batting .292 with two strikes, compared to a career average of .133. He’s also increased his launch angle in each of the last two years. So maybe the Pirates correctly concluded that he could get better. (And I don’t find that easy to type.)
I’m a long ways from giving this front office the benefit of the doubt that I’d give the Steelers. (The center field situation hasn’t exactly been a success, for one thing.) But I’m getting to where I don’t automatically assume every move is a blunder.
Song of the Day
For those who think the Pirates will contend this year . . .