December 24, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Matty Alou

A championship is awarded for one season, but it represents the work of many years. Today we salute a player who was no longer around when the champagne bottles were popped - but who was certainly integral in building the 1971 World Champion Pirates and the 1970s dynasty.

In December 1966, Matty Alou was known primarily as Felipe Alou's younger brother. He was a career .260 hitter with no power who never walked. Alou had enough speed to cover a lot of outfield ground, but the Giants had Willie Mays in center field and nobody needs a left fielder who can't hit.

Pirates manager Harry Walker, though, saw a hitter who hadn't been given the right coaching or enough playing time to develop. In the type of move that would be laughed at by sites like this one today, Pittsburgh shipped pitcher Joe Gibbon to San Francisco for Alou and even threw in reserve catcher Ozzie Virgil. A lefthander with a 3.61 career ERA, who could start and relieve, shipped off for some guy who hit .231 with two home runs the year before? It was a desperation move for a Pittsburgh squad which at that point had no center fielder on its roster. But it was a desperation move that worked.

Matty Alou was well known as a dead pull hitter - a dangerous recipe for a pure contact guy. Teams could play their outfielders shallow and toward right field, rendering Alou's bat ineffective outside Candlestick Park. Walker taught him to choke up on the bat and spray the ball between the outfielders. Defensively, Alou moved to his natural position, center field. He led off every day against righthanders. Against lefties, Walker would keep Alou on the bench until he was needed for defense or to pinch hit in a hey spot.

Walker had hoped to make Matty Alou into a .280 hitter, but he failed - he made a .340 hitter. By the time he collected four hits on October 2, Alou was the National League batting champion at .342. It was his 55th multi-hit game in only 121 starts. He hit .346 at Forbes Field, .338 on the road; .338 in the first half, .346 in the second half; .315 in his worst month; .364 in his best; .335 during the day, .345 at night. He scored 86 runs, incredible for a platoon player in the pitching-dominated 1960s. Defensively, he was perfect for the spacious Forbes center field. He finished a career-best ninth in MVP voting. The Pirates contended until the final weekend but finished just short of the pennant.

"The harder Matty Alou attacks a baseball, the more it bleeds," wrote the Associated Press's Dick Couch.

Pittsburgh's 1966 outfield may have been the best ever for any team. Roberto Clemente scored 105 runs, hit 29 home runs and drove in 119, all career highs, and won his sixth of 12 straight Gold Gloves and his only MVP. In left field the Pirates had a young slugger named Willie Stargell, who hit .315/.381/.581 with 33 homers and 102 RBI in only 485 at bats. Manny Mota had a career year off the bench, batting .332/.383/.472.

Continued Excellence
In 1967 the league batting average dipped from .256 to .249 and the league ERA was 3.38. Alou was either unaware of this or didn't care, so he hit .338 - third in the league. He had 54 multi-hit games in only 125 starts, and scored 87 runs, 13th in the league and ahead of most everyday players. Unfortunately, though the outfield had another historically great season, the Pirates' pitching was ninth in the league and the club went only 81-81.

A friend of Mota named Rudolfo Perlu, who had fled Fidel Castro's Cuba with a family of ten, lost his Brookline home to fire that summer. Alou invited Perlu's entire family to stay in his apartment. "I don't want any publicity on this," the batting champion told the Post-Gazette.

The 1968 NL was the most difficult league for hitters in the modern era. The league batting average was .243 and the league ERA was 2.99. Alou hit a cool .332 - second in the league. Although he was displaced from his leadoff spot by Maury Wills and still rested against lefthanders, he had 56 multi-hit games. Alou was rewarded with more MVP votes and his first All-Star honor, but Pittsburgh slumped to 80-82 and sixth place.

Most fans no doubt were happy with Alou's performance thus far, but 1969 would be his greatest season as a Pirate. Manager Larry Shepard, who had taken over in '68, decided that there was no point in benching one of the league's best hitters against lefties. He returned Alou to the leadoff spot and batted him there every day. Playing in all 162 games, he held his own against lefties, batting .284, and hit a career high .351 against righthanders for a .331 season average - fourth in the league. He scored 105 runs and led the league with .231 hits and 41 doubles. Alou had 70 multi-hit games, got MVP votes and made another All-Star team. The Pirates improved to 88-74, foreshadowing their dominance in the coming decade.

Alou returned in the same role in 1970, his final year with the Pirates. Unfortunately, this is the year he probably should have been platooning as he hit only .259 against lefthanded pitching, .313 against righties. He still had a good year with 97 runs scored, 201 hits and a .297 average, and still had good range in center. Pittsburgh now had young hitters like Richie Hebner and Al Oliver to complement their All-Star outfield. The Pirates had good enough pitching to win a weak NL East with an 89-73 mark but were swept out of the NLCS.

End of an Era
By the 1970-71 offseason, the Pirates wanted to move young first baseman Al Oliver to his natural position in center field. Matty Alou was the odd man out. He was shipped to St. Louis for pitcher Nelson Briles and backup outfielder Vic Davalillo, both of whom were key contributors for the 1971 World Champions. Without the talents of Alou, there never would have been Nelson Briles's two-hit shutout of the Orioles in Game 5 of the World Series.Few outfielders are valuable without power or plate discipline. Matty Alou was the rare exception. A catalyst at the top of the order, he averaged 20 steals, scored at least 87 runs in four of five seasons, and batted .331 or better four straight years. He was impossible to strike out and his speed and contact abilities induced countless errors by opposing defenses. He filled a major hole in the Pirates' defense, completed the best outfield Pittsburgh has ever seen, and helped usher in the 1970s dynasty. For that, he is truly a great Pirate in history.

Atkins Will Compete for 1B/3B Job

The Pirates announced the signing of Garrett Atkins yesterday. Atkins is a righthanded corner infielder who will make $800,000 if he's on the major league roster. I expect him to make the team as a backup at first and third base.

That's a far cry from the $4 million Atkins got from the Orioles on a one-year deal last offseason. He turned out to be the Orioles' Akinori Iwamura as he hit .214 with one home run and was released in July. He'll try to resurrect his career in Pittsburgh. What makes this intriguing is that Atkins is one of several players who was an outstanding hitter under Clint Hurdle's instruction and then fell apart when Hurdle left Colorado. From 2005-2008, Atkins hit .301/.364/.482 and averaged 87 runs, 36 doubles, 22 homers and 105 RBI a year. In 2006 he scored 117 runs and drove in 120. Even in Coors Field that's excellent production from a third baseman.

In 2009 and 2010, Atkins hit only .223/.299/.326, performances which doomed him to a sub-$1 million contract. But he will be only 31 this year and still owns a career batting line of .285/.350/.449, .294/.379/.467 off of lefthanders. Don't be surprised if he's platooning with Lyle Overbay by May. Atkins hasn't hit lefthanders for two years, while Overbay hasn't hit southpaws in his career.

Also signed to a split minor/major league contract was Josh Fields, another righthanded hitter who figures to compete with Atkins for the backup corner infield job. Fields is a former top prospect with some pop in his bat, but he never learned either plate discipline or contact hitting leading to a career batting line of .234/.303/.431. Coupled with below average defense, that makes Fields look like AAA filler. But he'll still be only 28 and he hit .306 with three home runs in 50 at-bats with the Royals last year. Stranger things have happened, see, e.g., Garrett Jones in 2009.

December 20, 2010

Brewers Are The Favorites - Now What?

The last time this year's edition of the Brewers boasted a winning record, the club was a whopping 2-1. Absurd and unexpected breakout seasons from Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and Corey Hart could not counteract the fact that this was a deeply flawed club. Their sluggers helped on defense about as much as Green Bay Packer wide receivers; their pitching staff was a mess of Parras and Narvesons. The lineup was the baseball version of U2's "All that You Can't Leave Behind;" you could turn it off after track 5.

Entering this offseason, the primary Brewer-related question was where the club would ship star slugger Prince Fielder. Milwaukee was bringing back only one good starting pitcher and two solid relievers; there were no plans in place for how to handle Game 2 of the 2011 season. The minor league system was barren. Unquestionably it was time to rebuild. Get some value out of Fielder before he inevitably bolted to the East Coast after one more losing season.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin started quietly - a Mike Rivera here, a Carlos Villanueva there. Then in his first blockbuster deal, Melvin plucked Toronto's emerging ace Shaun Marcum. I suspect Marcum isn't familiar to many readers, but the fifth best WHIP and the third best ERA in the 2010 American League isn't messing around - not when you make five starts against the Red Sox and four against the Rays.

The price was steep - top second base prospect Brett Lawrie. But prospects are prospects and established stars are established stars. Machiavelli wrote, "Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others." With the Jays conceding 2011 despite an 85-win 2010, it is clear who took which route in this deal.

And then, of course, Greinke. For the Royals' ace, Milwaukee shipped four young players yesterday to Kansas City. He needs no introduction, but Greinke has put up a 3.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.3 K/9 since 2007. Marcum in the same time period put up a 3.72 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 7.3 K/9. Gallardo had a 3.67 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 9.7 K/9. All are in their prime. They're as good as the Cardinals top three, only backed by, you know, more than two position players who can hit.

The Greinke deal is closely intertwined with the Marcum deal. The Brewers' emphasis on immediate contention - basically, making the Marcum deal - is what persuaded Greinke to waive his no-trade clause for the Brewers when he didn't for the Nationals.

Faced with a choice of conceding 2011 before the season or letting the year play out with a losing record, Doug Melvin chose the third option - contending. Maybe Prince Fielder will leave after the season, maybe not. Greinke and Fielder may both be gone after 2012. But C.C. Sabathia is gone now, and the memories of 2008 are not. Sabathia created excitement, an emotion that doesn't die when a season ends. Babes still own their Brewers T-shirts, size Extra Small. In a market much smaller than Pittsburgh, with a losing team and a nondescript park along a highway outside of town, Milwaukee drew 2.8 million fans in 2010. They'll draw more in 2011.

Maybe the Jays and Royals would have gotten nothing for their aces after 2012, but that's a nonexistent problem in December 2010. This is what I don't get about the Pirates. If the grand plan is to win 88 games in 2012, what does that have to do with winning 57 games in 2010, winning 62 games in 2009, winning 71 in 2011? Maybe we could win 82 in 2011. Maybe there are 162 games on the schedule in 2011 and there's no point in doing anything but putting a team on the field that might win a lot of them.

To be sure, the Pirates have secured themselves against attack. The Process is logically unassailable - but life happens in the present tense. It's time for the Pirates to act accordingly.

December 18, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Arky Vaughan

Arky Vaughn was a consistent .300 hitting, .400 OBP shortstop with doubles and triples power, steady in the field and smart on the basepaths. In his worst years he was the best shortstop in the league; his best years rank among the best by any shortstop ever. Bill James ranked Vaughan as the second greatest shortstop of all time.

Early Stardom
Vaughan was born in Clifty, Arkansas, the source of his unusual nickname. The town, today consisting of a "General Store" and an "Antique Mall," apparently didn't offer much athletic opportunity... so Vaughan didn't start playing baseball until his mid-teens. The Pirates somehow discovered him and sent him to single A Wichita for his first professional season in 1931. Vaughan proceeded to hit .338 with 21 doubles, 16 triples, and 21 home runs.

Meanwhile back in Pittsburgh, an offense laden with three Hall of Famers could not muster four runs a game in 1931 thanks in part to shortstop Tommy Thevenow, whose offensive numbers would make Ronny Cedeno blush. Thevenow hit .213 and hadn't hit a home run in five years.

Invited to spring training on a minor league contract, Vaughan took advantage of an injury to Thevenow and impressed enough people to make the jump to the big leagues. At 20 he was the youngest player in the league. He sat on the bench for 13 games, batting twice, but made the most of his first start:

"Vaughan appears to have a punch, as two resounding triples to the empty zone betwixt Babe Herman in right and the fleet Taylor Douthit will attest," reported the Pittsburgh Press. "He has a fine throwing arm, as the three double plays in which he participated, can prove. He has the willingness to go from here to Hoboken after a drive...Too fulsome praise of this latest Bucco may be unseemly, for a thimbleful of Bourbon doesn't make a highball and one game doesn't make a season, but coming on top of laudatory reports from the training camp and on the exhibition jaunt, it looks like Floyd, after the initial hubbub subsides, may develop into a mighty fine shortfielder."

Intrepid reporting, considering Prohibition wouldn't end for another eleven months. It's like writing today, "A pinch of Marijuana doesn't make a blunt." Anyway, Vaughan was batting third two weeks later and never stopped hitting for the next ten seasons. He finished his rookie year at .318 with 10 triples and 71 runs scored, good enough to rank as the most valuable shortstop in the league in MVP voting. The Pirates improved from 75-79 to 86-68.

In his sophomore season, Vaughan hit in the bottom half of the order but amassed a team leading 97 RBI while hitting .314. He improved in every offensive statistic, led the league with 19 triples, and began to show his famed plate discipline with 64 walks and only 23 strikeouts. His .388 on base percentage was third in the league. He led the league in errors, but it was said that he made errors on balls no other shortstop would get to. The Pirates finished in second place at 87-67.

In 1934, the Pittsburgh newspapers started calling Floyd Vaughan "Arky." The Pirates installed Arky as their cleanup hitter. The name change apparently worked. Vaughan had his finest year yet as he hit .333, scored 115 runs, and drove in another 94. His game was tailor made for cavernous Forbes Field, which at the time measured a cool 457 feet between home plate and the center field fence. He stroked 41 doubles, 11 triples, and 12 home runs. Stolen bases were not a big part of 1930s baseball but he led the team with 10. He led the NL with 94 walks and a .431 on base percentage. Vaughan made the first of nine consecutive All-Star teams. Yet the team slipped to a losing record, 74-76.

In 1935 Vaughan put together what is arguably the greatest offensive season ever by a shortstop. He hit .385, slugged .607 and got on base at an incredible .491 clip. All were league leading numbers. Vaughan was hitting .400 as late as September 10. Despite missing 17 games with injuries, he scored 108 runs, drove in 99, and led the league with 97 walks. He had more home runs (19) than strikeouts (18). Vaughan was easily the best player in the league but the Pirates, rebounding to 86 wins, only finished fourth and Vaughan lost the MVP to Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett. Since 1900, only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Rogers Hornsby had a better on base percentage in a season.

No one releases Exile on Main St. twice, but Arky Vaughan came pretty damn close in 1936 as he hit .335 and led the league in on base percentage (.453) for a third straight year. He led the league with 118 walks and 122 runs scored. The Pirates now featured the league's best offense but again finished fourth.

Overall from 1934-36, Vaughan hit .350, slugged .527 and got on base at a .457 rate. In 442 games he scored 345 runs, drove in 271 and had 568 hits. He walked 309 times and struck out 77, and had 177 extra base hits. Throughout the 1930s, scoring was much lower in the National League than in the American, and Forbes Field was the NL's largest park. These numbers are every bit as impressive as Lou Gehrig's or anyone else's of that era.

­Mere Greatness
In the offseason of 1936-37, the Pirates attempted to trade for St. Louis ace Dizzy Dean. The Cardinals demanded $175,000 and seven players including Vaughan. The Pirates wisely refused to include their star shortstop in any deal. Dean would win only 29 more games in his career.

Back in Pittsburgh, no one can put up otherworldly numbers every year, so Vaughan settled for being one of the best and most consistent players in the league for the next five seasons. His on base percentages from 1937-1942 were .394, .433, .385, .393, and .399. His slugging percentages were .463, .444, .424, .453 and .455. He led the league in triples in 1937 (17) and 1940 (15), in runs in 1940 (113), and had another 100 walk season in 1938 (104).

United Press ran a wire story one July entitled, "Arky Vaughan Unable to Explain Batting Slump." He was hitting .298 at the time with a .424 on base percentage.

Yet while Vaughn was consistently great, his Pirate teams had the curse of respectability. Six times from 1932 to 1938 they had winning percentages between .545 and .573. Those would be borderline playoff performances now, but back then everyone but the league's top team went home.

Fielding one of the weakest teams Arky had played for, the 1938 Pirates staged the last pennant race of the Vaughan years. After over two months in first place, Pittsburgh traveled to Wrigley Field with a week left in the season, leading the second place Cubs by 1.5 games. Dizzy Dean beat the Bucs 2-1 in the first game. The next day, the Pirates blew a 5-3 lead in the final two innings to fall a half game behind. Thurday was a 10-1 blowout, and the pennant race was all but over. Vaughan got on base eight times in the series.

The Pirates finished in their familiar fourth place in 1941, but Vaughan missed 48 games that year. Manager Frankie Frisch inexplicably began shopping his still 29-year-old shortstop around the league. In one of the worst trades in Pirate history, Pittsburgh shipped Vaughan to the Dodgers for four unimpressive players. He had a few more good years in Brooklyn and was done.

Overall, Arky Vaughan hit an unbelievable .324/.414/.472 for the Pirates while capably manning one of the most important defensive positions on the diamond. He never won an MVP but easily deserved three. Arky Vaughan was the best all-around Pirate other than Honus Wagner, and one of the best of all time at his position. Though he is the most underrated player in the Hall of Fame, Arky Vaughan clearly is a great Pirate in history.

December 14, 2010

2011 Pirates: An Above Average Lineup

Although I am sure the Pirates aren't done with their offseason yet, it's starting to look like the 2011 lineup is set. Chris Snyder, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata were pretty much guaranteed starting jobs. At right field and first base the Pirates signed two of the players with the most pronounced left/right splits in baseball, Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay. Those guys are looking suspiciously like platoon partners for Garrett Jones and Steven Pearce respectively. And at shortstop, the other position I hoped to improve, Ronny Cedeno resigned for $2 million and the Pirates' attempts to trade for J.J. Hardy or Jason Bartlett have failed.

Clearly the defense has improved over 2010. Diaz/Jones is better than Lastings Milledge/Jones in right, Overbay/Pearce is light years ahead of Jones/Jeff Clement at first, and Snyder as the primary catcher is much better than Ryan Doumit. But how many runs will this lineup score?

I don't think projections are that accurate for individual players, but for an entire team they're not bad since some players are bound to underperform while others overperform their projections. The only major projections that are fully released for 2011 are the Bill James estimates so we'll use that. As he usually does, I expect Diaz to end up starting more than half the games despite being the righthanded half of a platoon. So here's what James predicts the Pirates' most common starters to do (predicted AVG/OBP/SLG in parentheses):

2011 Pirates
CF McCutchen (.287/.364/.445)
LF Tabata (.287/.339/.387)
2B Walker (.270/.324/.438)
3B Alvarez (.277/.352/.501)
1B Overbay (.253/.345/.431)
RF Diaz (.292/.341/.454)
C Snyder (.219/.326/.401)
SS Cedeno (.250/.294/.371)

The Baseball Musings lineup analyzer says this lineup will generate 4.466 runs per game. That's 723 runs over a full season which would have ranked seventh in the National League in 2010. The average team scored 701.

That's right, this is an above average lineup. And I might have underestimated it. For the #9 spot I used the Pirates' numbers in that spot in 2010 which were .150/.183/.219. Almost no team has had poorer hitting pitchers and pinch hitters than the 2010 Pirates. Credit the Pirates with the National League's 2010 average #9 batting line, .180/.223/.250, and the run expectancy goes up to 4.566, 739 runs over a full season, which would have been fifth in the league in 2010.

What if the Pirates addressed the Cedeno issue by trading for Marco Scutaro as I previously advocated? After the Carl Crawford signing, Boston has an even greater need to shed payroll. James predicts a line of .266/.339/.374 for Scutaro. This hardly would be an earthshattering move, but now we're up to 4.635 runs a game - 751 over a full season, fourth in the 2010 NL, and the defense is improved now too. That would be exciting.

I don't think the assumptions here are wrong either. James actually expects the first three hitters in the lineup - McCutchen, Tabata and Walker - to regress slightly in 2011. Snyder hitting .213 is hardly optimistic. Alvarez's projection is good, but nothing in his background suggests that he can't attain those numbers in 2011.

I know an average lineup seems like a pipe dream to most, but the Pirates actually beat the league average in runs as recently as 2008. Don't let 2010's 587 run disaster blind you to the fact that this is a pretty solid lineup. It's another reason to be excited about the 2011 Pirates.

Pirates Sign Overbay

The Pirates signed lefthanded first baseman Lyle Overbay to a one-year contract today. Overbay is strictly a platoon player so it looks like he'll split time at first with either Garrett Jones or Steven Pearce.

Against lefthanders in his career, Overbay has shown poor on base skills and marginal power, hitting .259/.308/.402. The story is entirely different against righthanders, who Overbay has hit quite well - .279/.375/.463.

Like the Pirates' other signings, Overbay is a player with a history of success who is hoping to rebound from an off year. Last year he hit only .249/.329/.433 for Toronto, including 20 home runs, 67 RBI and 75 runs scored. Incidentally, that's still better than what Garrett Jones did here. Also a major culprit in his off year was manager Cito Gaston, who inexplicably started him 31 times against lefthanded starting pitchers.

Of particular interest to Pirates fanas, Overbay is an above average defensive first baseman. Baseball Reference credits him with adding 7.1 additional wins to his team over his career with is fielding.

Like some of the Pirates' other moves, this isn't an unbelievable find by any means - but it is one that improves the team. Overbay is a veteran who will be 34 next year, which will certainly prompt comparisons to a Dave Littlefield signing. Yet those same critics ignore than virtually all free agents available who have had any level of success are going to be in their 30s. With no available prospects who could play first base and right field, Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay are the type of players who can help in 2011.

With Lee, can Phillies challenge Pirates?

Late Monday night, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Cliff Lee. This established Pittsburgh's cross-state rival as the primary challenger to the favored Pirates for the 2011 National League pennant - and, with the Yankees now in decline, presumably the World Series.

Get your toll money ready, boys, because with the Pirates adding Scott Olsen and Kevin Correia this same week, the two Pennsylvania teams now will certainly meet in the National League Championship Series in October. Pittsburgh's rotation has more depth with the Phillies' fifth starter situation up in the air, but especially in a short series, Philadelphia is at least in the discussion for best rotation in the league.

Expected NLCS matchups are as follows (2010 stats in parentheses):

Game 1 in Pittsburgh
Ross Ohlendorf (1-11, 4.07) vs. Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44)

Game 2 in Pittsburgh
Paul Maholm (9-15, 5.10) vs. Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18)

Game 3 in Philadelphia
James McDonald (4-6, 4.02) vs. Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.06)

Game 4 in Philadelphia
Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40) vs. Roy Oswalt (13-13, 2.76)

Game 5 in Philadelphia
Ohlendorf vs. Halladay

Games 6 & 7 in Pittsburgh
Not Necessary, Pirates win in five

Obviously the Pirates have the advantage with their youthful fire, unstoppable force, alternate caps, and celebrity bartenders. But it will be true old time baseball, hearkening back to the 1909 WFC season. Bunts, stealing bases, 2-1 and 1-0 games, leaving your glove in the field between innings, all that. The Lee signing really gives the Pirates a worthy adversary. Only ten months away.

December 10, 2010

Clear Idiocy

Yesterday, Clear Channel fired Rocco DeMaro - host of the "Pirates Extra Innings" postgame show on WPGB - effective immediately. I would normally use the phrase "announced the firing" but in the corporate radio version of a text message breakup, they simply said nothing and removed all references to DeMaro's show from the WPGB web site. This is an apparent cost-cutting move so it's uncertain if the show will continue at all in the 2011 season.

I listened to Rocco's show on the first night I moved to Pittsburgh in August 2008. The Pirates had lost 11-2 in St. Louis on a Wednesday. Jason Davis got rocked and the offense couldn't score. Boom, postgame show, three seconds of airtime. Imagine if your job was to talk about that game for two hours.

Yet Rocco always found ways to generate interesting content. He scored interviews with nationally known analysts on a regular basis. He analyzed the major league team, the minor league teams, draft prospects, a never-ending string of unimportant transactions, strategy, statistics, and had people calling in on all these points. We know that most of this city's media members either criticize every Pirates move without thinking or implicitly endorse every move to curry favor with their sources. DeMaro was one of two media members who covered the Pirates with a consistently objective tone, one of two whose opinion I wouldn't immediately be able to guess, and the only one who had a platform to give those opinions. That is gone.

I'm not sure where to start on this decision, but let's first mention the fact that DeMaro's postgame show got higher ratings than the game. That's right, higher ratings than the games that Clear Channel pays money to air.

Also, on the cost-cutting. WPGB ranks fourth in ratings in the Pittsburgh market, which is the 25th biggest radio market in the country. WPGB inexplicably fired another popular sports host, Ellis Cannon, in March, and fired DeMaro yesterday. The Pirates provide their own announcers, so WPGB now has no sports hosts. What does their on-air "talent" consist of? Apparently the #4 rated station now can only afford to pay two local hosts, Jim Quinn and Rose Tennent. Quinn intelligently states on his web site, "Racial profiling is common sense" and "Islam is a global mental illness." So basically, promoting hatred of anyone who isn't white, appropriate; talking about Pirates baseball on the station that airs the Pirates in this market, inappropriate. Luckily Clear Channel's Pirates contract is up after 2011.

Speaking of that contract, Clear Channel signed a five year deal in 2006 to air Pirates baseball for the 2007-11 seasons. Undoubtedly Clear Channel offered the most money, but also key to the Pirates decision to end their affiliation with 50,000 watt KDKA-AM was the emphasis on sports at WPGB. "The partnership gives the Pirates enhanced opportunities to reach more fans outside of the game broadcasts through Clear Channel's massive dedication to sports and the Pirates on WPGB 104.7 FM," stated the Pirates' release at the time. The Pirates thought that broadcasting on a station with a sports host (Ellis Cannon) as the lead in and an extended postgame show afterwards would create more exposure for the Pirates in this market. Now, the lead in is Sean Hannity and the start of Michael Savage's show; if no one is hired to replace DeMaro, the postgame is the rest of Michael Savage's show. WPGB has taken their Pirates page down in their haste to pretend Rocco never worked there. Searching for "Pirates" or selecting "Sports" from the station's main page yields an error message.

Now I haven't seen the broadcast contract and I don't know anything about commercial contracts, even though I have a final exam on them Monday. But basically, if the Pirates relied on Clear Channel's promise of a sports emphasis to enter this contract, the Pirates probably have a legal right to get out of it and sign with another station if they are so inclined. Based on yesterday's move, that might be a good idea.

December 9, 2010

Pirates Add Infielder in Rule V Draft

The Major League Basbeall Rule V draft was held this morning. By way of a quick review, teams are able to draft any player who is not on a 40-man roster after either four or five years with their organization. The drafting team must keep the player on the major league 25-man roster for the entire season, either active or on the disabled list, or he must be offered back to his original team.

Your Pittsburgh Pirates had the first pick and chose infielder Josh Rodriguez from the Cleveland Indians. While the majority of Rule V picks don't stick with their organization, I think Rodriguez is a player who stay on the major league roster all season as a positive contributor.

The Tribe's second round pick in 2006, Rodriguez looked like a pretty solid prospect in his first full season. He hit .262/.351/.460 with the Carolina League's Kinston Indians including 84 runs, 20 home runs, and 82 RBI. He lost his prospect status with a terrible 2008 in which he didn't hit at all at AA Akron, followed by a 2009 in which injuries limited him to 33 games (albeit with a .426 OBP).

As a side note, I highly recommend seeing a game in Kinston's historic Grainger Stadium. In Faulkneresque fashion, the park hasn't been renovated or really changed at all since it opened in 1949. Think of the classic minor league "family atmosphere" only without families, or fans really, and with shotgun shacks across the street. Beer is priced such that anyone holding an Economics degree, such as myself, is basically required to buy one's own 64 ounce pitcher in the first and sixth innings. Unfortunately I didn't make it to that many games during my time in North Carolina because there was at that time a decided lack of people who wanted to be designated drivers for a 190 mile round trip.

In 2010, Rodriguez re-established prospect status. He showcased improved plate discipline and the power he had shown three years before returned. He hit .317/.405/.476 at Akron and was quickly promoted to Buffalo where he hit .293/.372/.486. That's a solid 12.9% walk rate over the past two seasons. Not only that, but Rodriguez played a super sub role in which he played shortstop, third base, second base, left, center, and right field.

I put Rodriguez's AAA numbers into the Minor League Equivalency Calculator and came out with a resulting batting line of .247/.315/.395. Ronny Cedeno's career batting line is .245/.284/.356. So here is a vastly superior shortstop that we added for the $50,000 Rule V price. Remind me why Cedeno was signed for $2 million...

Adcock Drafted by Royals
With the fifth pick in the Rule V draft, the Kansas City Royals drafted Bradenton starter Nathan Adcock from the Pirates organization. He put together a nice season in 2010 going 11-7, 3.38, with a 3:1 K/BB ratio and a 1.20 WHIP in 141 innings. That also was incidentally Adcock's only good year ever and there's no indication he has prospect-level stuff. Although the Royals rival only the Pirates in ability to keep non-MLB baseball players on their major league roster, I would be pretty surprised if Adcock doesn't end up being returned to the Pirates - maybe as early as spring training.

Matt Diaz Signs To Play Right Field

The Pirates added half of a power hitter to their lineup Wednesday, signing corner outfielder Matt Diaz to a two-year contract for $4.5 million. This move was particularly inspiring in that it proves Neil Huntington's bullshit claim of using Ryan Doumit as the everyday right fielder was actually bullshit he was making up, and not a bullshit move that the Pirates actually will make.

Diaz has a solid career batting line of .301/.350/.456. The reason I say half of a power hitter is his left/right splits which are some of the most pronounced in baseball. Diaz has absolutely murdered lefthanded pitching with a .335/.373/.533 career batting line off southpaws. Against righthanders he is, well, Lastings Milledge, with a career line of .269/.327/.382. Defensively Diaz is above average in left field and slightly below average in right, though he definitely holds his own. On the bases, Diaz has decent speed and chooses his spots well. He has been successful on 23 of 31 stolen base attempts and rarely gets thrown out on the bases. For the record, that is unlike a certain Pirates right fielder from this past season.

Certainly more work needs to be done on this lineup, but this Diaz signing is more good news for the Pirates. Unlike, say, every right fielder the Pirates used in 2010, Diaz is the type of player who you will always see on a successful team. Notwithstanding left/right splits, he is an above average major league hitter. Really the only problem with this signing is that Diaz looks suspiciously like a platoon partner for Garrett Jones.

Hidden in the Pirates 16th-ranked offense in the NL was the fact that the Pirates' most common starters at each position collectively hit at an above average level. The problem was that the Pirates got less than zero from all their secondary players. Every player with between 50 and 300 plate appearances had an on base percentage between .227 and .312 and slugged between .207 and .414. Except for Chris Snyder, all of this dead weight has been jettisoned for 2010. Replacing Lastings Milledge with Matt Diaz is another positive improvement, giving the Pirates a legitimate shot at - dare I say it - an average offense.

December 7, 2010

Pirates Sign Kevin Correia

Good news early Tuesday morning as the Pirates signed righthanded pitcher Kevin Correia to a two-year deal worth $8 million.

Entering his age 30 season, Correia has been hit or miss - his last five ERAs are 3.49, 3.45, 6.05, 3.91 and 5.40. Obviously there's some talent there, but the inconsistency causes him to drop to the Pirates on a pretty cheap contract.

I mentioned Correia as one of the two pitchers wanted the Pirates to sign this offseason, although I expected Correia to sign for closer to $2 million after his poor year in 2010. He has a 91 mph fastball with decent movement and in 2010, added a cutter to an arsenal that also includes a good slider and a mediocre curveball and changeup - all of which he threw at least 10% of the time. The enhanced arsenal helped him to raise his strikeout rate to 7.1 per nine innings, and he also induced a career high 49% ground ball rate. Unfortunately his other rates went up too, and his 1.49 WHIP and 1.2 HR/9 doomed him to a 5.40 ERA and ultimately a spot on the bench for September.

The 2009 season better illustrates Correia's upside as he allowed only a 1.30 WHIP and went 12-11, 3.91. He finished that season with six consecutive quality starts in September (3-1, 1.71) which was even more impressive since his 198 innings exceeded his previous career high by 74.

This isn't a Cliff Lee signing, but I like this move. Let's face it, ace-level pitchers are not coming to Pittsburgh for the amount the Pirates are offering. Correia at least is a guy who can strike batters out, who has had success elsewhere, and who is still in the prime of his career. A #4 starter on most teams, he'll be the Pirates' #2 - putting him in line to start the home opener exactly four months from today.

In a year when Brad Penny, who hasn't pitched since May, is ranked by ESPN as the #21 free agent overall, Correia is not a bad guy to bring in compared to the alternatives. The free agent list has a lot more Suppans than Cliff Lees. Which brings me to...

Scott Olsen Signs One Year Deal
Former Marlins and Nationals starting pitcher Scott Olsen has agreed to a one year deal with the Pirates. Like the Correia signing this will become official when Olsen passes a physical.

Olsen is another former hyped-up prospect who comes to the Pirates after several years of failing. His best season was actually his rookie year way back in 2006 when he went 12-10, 4.04, for Florida, including 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He and Dontrelle Willis were going to be Marlins aces for years to come. But since then, Olsen has compiled only a mediocre 5.9 K/9 over the past four seasons while also giving up 1.4 HR/9 as batters hit .288/.352/.478 against him. Yes, the average batter, an average including opposing pitchers, is as good as Andrew McCutchen when they face this guy.

I am not sure why the Pirates constantly sign pitchers who range from bad to terrible. Just in the 2010, Neil Huntington brought in Brian Burres, Sean Gallagher, Wil Ledezma, Jack Taschner, Dana Eveland, Chris Leroux, and Hayden Pennetierre. All of these guys were bad to terrible with all their other teams and bad to terrible here. What about our coaching staff makes Neil think that these guys will all of a sudden be good when they show up in Pittsburgh? I hope Olsen isn't a serious candidate for the five-man rotation, and I fear that he is.

December 4, 2010

Milledge Era Ends

I'm late on this news so you've probably already read that the Pirates cut loose Lastings Milledge. They decided at the midnight Thursday deadline not to offer their right fielder a contract, making him a free agent. What a great reaction to one of by better Milledge jokes of all time.

It is a fairly unusual move to cut loose a player entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, since teams still usually get those guys at a significant discount. However, Milledge was not a candidate to start - and a player who can't field, throw, run the bases, or hit right-handed pitching is not terribly valuable on a team's bench.

Coming to Pittsburgh in 2009 in the Joel Hanrahan deal, Milledge hit .291/.333/.395 with four home runs in 58 games that year. He was considered a breakout candidate entering his age 25 season in 2010 and opened the season as the Pirates' #3 hitter. Instead, every aspect of his game declined. He hit .277/.332/.380 with four home runs in 113 games and lost the starting job. Milledge will be 26 in 2011 and his prospect sheen hasn't totally worn off - which means he'll be running from second to third on a grounder to the shortstop for some major league team.

Also non-tendered were infielder Argenis Diaz and pitchers Brian Burres and Donnie Veal. The Pirates traded Adam LaRoche for Diaz in 2009, thinking Diaz could learn to hit. He never did. Non-tendering Diaz is more surprising to me since despite his deficiencies, he could have been a good-fielding utility infielder at the major league minimum. Burres wasn't terrible in 2010 (4-5, 4.99) but there's no reason he should be part of the Pirates' future plans. The Pirates hope to sign Veal who is still recovering form injury.

Cedeno, Karstens Return
On the negative side, the Pirates signed Ronny Cedeno for $2 million for 2011 with a club option for 2012. Shocking, I know. I'm not sure what he did to merit an $875,000 raise. Cedeno is one of those players who really looks like a baseball player, has enough skills to make you think he's a good player if you don't pay attention, but then at the end of the year has had another terrible season. I really wanted a new shortstop and I think we're not getting one.

Jeff Karstens signed a one-year deal for $1.1 million. He's fine as a long reliever/emergency starter but he should not pitch 123 innings as he did in 2010.

December 1, 2010

4 Former Pirates on HOF Ballot

The Baseball Writers' Association of America announced their Hall of Fame ballot yesterday. Four Pirates are on it this year - two legitimate candidates and two 16 seeds who will be one and done.

Bert Blyleven enters his 14th year of eligibility. His support in the voting has steadily risen from less than 20% in his first three years of eligibility to 74.2% last year - just short of the required 75%. In January I revisited the trade that brought Blyleven to Pittsburgh and helped win the '79 World Series and defended his Hall of Fame credentials.

Blyleven averaged 229 innings a year for 22 seasons. He was an above average pitcher for 17 of these seasons and was the most valuable pitcher in his league twice according to Baseball Reference. He had the greatest curveball of all time and was the greatest complete game pitcher of his era. His 24 complete games in 1985 have not even been approached since then; no one has completed more than 15 in a season since. He was a big game pitcher, with a 5-1 record and a 2.47 ERA in the postseason and two World Series rings. Only Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Steve Carlton struck out more batters than Blyleven's 3701 - which is over 800 more strikeouts than the most of any eligible pitcher not enshrined, Mickey Lolich's 2832.

The main knock on Blyleven's career is the claim that he was a .500 pitcher. Not only is this untrue since he was 37 games over .500, but this well understates his contribution. Baseball Reference estimates he was worth 90 additional wins to his teams over his career - 60 is usually a no-brainer Hall of Fame level. Let's hope 75% of the voters have brains this year.

Dave Parker enters his 15th and final season of eligibility. Parker's case is much different than Blyleven's. Basically there are two ways to rate players - peak value and career value. Parker presents a Hall of Fame case based on his peak value - for five years he was legitimately the best player in baseball. From 1975-79 Parker averaged hitting .321/.377/.532 with 37 doubles, 9 triples, 23 home runs, 98 RBI, 17 steals, and 13 assists in the outfield, while winning three Gold Gloves and finishing in the top three in the MVP race three times. He was the best all-around hitter in the league, the best right fielder, had the best throwing arm, and had outstanding speed on the bases. If you try to come up with how you would arrange those Pirates lineups, Parker is the best option to bat leadoff and the best option to bat fifth. The offensive numbers may not seem legendary in today's context, but they were absolutely gargantuan in the light hitting 1970s.

Parker had a pretty good career afterwards too. He made five more All-Star teams and got votes in the MVP race four more times including Top 5 finishes in 1985-86. He drove in 92 runs in a poor Brewers lineup when he was 39 years old. He was still a feared enough hitter to finish in the top 10 in intentional walks five times after his 34th birthday. He retired with 2712 hits and 1493 RBI.

I think Parker would be in the Hall of Fame already but, of course, he admitted to doing cocaine in the 1980s. Why is it inspirational that Josh Hamilton was a good baseball player, then did cocaine. and then was a good baseball player, but it is shameful that Dave Parker did the same thing? If you evaluate Parker on what he did on the field, he's a Hall of Famer.

Entering the "no chance" realm, Benito Santiago makes his first appearance on the ballot. I posted in February on Santiago, the poster child for the Dave Littlefield regime in Pittsburgh. The former GM brilliantly opted to trade a hard-throwing young reliever in Leo Nunez for the veteran catcher, only to play him for six games in 2005 and then release him despite a $2.25 million salary.

His Pirates tenure notwithstanding, Santiago was a good player who had a good throwing arm, won three Gold Gloves and made five All-Star teams. Unfortunately he was unable to get on base (.307 career OBP) and got injured too much to collect even 2000 hits. He'll get one or two votes and that's it.

And of course, Raul Mondesi also is on the ballot - another bizarre Littlefield-era Pirate. The Pirates signed the 33-year-old outfielder, who was coming off nine consecutive seasons of at least 24 home runs, to a modest $1.15 million contract for 2004. Mondesi was playing every day and hitting a decent .283/.355/.424 on May 7 when he suddenly left the team and went to the Dominican Republic for no apparent reason. He claimed that his wife and family needed him in connection with a $600,000 civil judgment that he had lost. Never mind that he had already earned $65 million in his MLB career. The Pirates were forced to release him, whereupon his agents immediately began negotiating with other clubs. But he never hit again and was out of baseball by the next year. Raul was a good player for ten years from 1994-2003, a power/speed threat, but not even close to a Hall of Famer. He'll get zero votes.