May 31, 2011

First Quarter Grades - Pitchers

This continues the grades which started this morning with the hitters. There is much better news here. The Pirates rank fifth in the National League and eighth in baseball with a 3.55 ERA, and almost every pitcher they've used has been impressive.

Joel Hanrahan: A
24 IP, 0-1, 1.52, 1.14 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 14 Saves
Hanrahan has quietly become one of baseball's elite closers in his first year on the job. He amazingly has added velocity to his fastball which now averages 97 mph. He now uses his slider only 14% of the time (39% in 2010) which has resulted in a decreased strikeout rate. Joel has not required more than 13 pitches to get out of an inning since May 6. He hasn't blown a save this season, his only loss came on an unearned run, and he is fifth in MLB with 14 saves. Unless he gets lit up in June he will earn his first All-Star appearance.

Charlie Morton: A
68 IP, 5-2, 2.51, 1.37 WHIP, 4.9 K/9
Morton has been nothing short of a revelation this season. I was one of many people who thought he didn't deserve a rotation spot, and I am happy to be wrong. He has never thrown less than five innings and completed two games while averaging nearly seven innings a start. Charlie has gotten ground ball outs whenever he needed them, including a team-high 11 ground ball double plays. He permitted only two home runs. In previous years he struggled with men on base, but this year batters have hit only .228/.308/.254 off Morton with men on. This is the breakout year Morton and the Pirates needed.

Daniel McCutchen: A
23 IP, 1-1, 1.19, 1.02 WHIP, 4.4 K/9
With numbers like these there's nothing to do other than give Daniel McCutchen a grade of A. He didn't even make the club out of spring training, but was quickly called up and has been deployed in every situation imaginable. He has had two one-batter appearances and four of two innings or more, and has been used in every inning from the fourth through the ninth. Through it all, he showed impeccable control and often got out of innings in ten or fewer pitches.

Paul Maholm: A-
71 IP, 2-7, 3.18, 1.18 WHIP, 6.1 K/9
Won-loss record aside, Maholm is having the best year of his career. Batters have hit only .225/.293/.322 against the lefthander, all career best marks. He also has upped his strikeout rate despite throwing his fastball at only 88 mph. Maholm is having an All-Star season but unfortunately the Pirates scored only six runs in his seven losses. Be assured that the league has taken notice, and Maholm will bring a considerable return if the Pirates trade him this summer as has been widely speculated.

Kevin Correia: A-
71 IP, 7-4, 3.44, 1.19 WHIP, 3.8 K/9
I've never seen a pitcher be this effective while striking out so few batters, but Correia has done it all year. He leads the league in wins and has already allowed zero runs three different times this year. Correia also has shut down the running game, allowing only four steals. He even pitched a scoreless inning in relief between starts during the first homestand. When Kevin was named to start on Opening Day, many people probably thought he didn't deserve to be the ace of a rotation. Yet thus far he has been one of three aces for the Pirates.

José Veras: A-
21 IP, 1-1, 2.53, 1.13 WHIP, 12.7 K/9
With Evan Meek injured, Veras emerged as a lights out setup man in Pittsburgh. So far he has struck out over a third of batters while holding righthanded hitters to a .149 batting average. Unlike most relievers, Veras has three plus pitches: a 94 mph heater, a split-fingered fastball, and his out pitch, a big curveball which he throws 38% of the time.

Jeff Karstens: B+
50 IP, 3-4, 3.58, 1.29 WHIP, 7.2 K/9
Karstens was great in long relief and like he does every year, earned the fifth starter role. In eight starts he allowed two or fewer earned runs five times. Karstens also is striking out batters at a career high rate while walking them at a career low rate (2.0 BB/9). His only problem has been the home run; he has allowed one every five innings. The word is that Ross Ohlendorf will regain his rotation spot when he comes back from injury, pushing Karstens back into long relief.

Chris Resop: B
24 IP, 1-1, 4.13, 1.33 WHIP, 10.9 K/9
Relying on a 93 mph fastball with movement, Resop is second on the team in strikeout frequency and along with Hanrahan, Veras, and Evan Meek, gives the Pirates a potentially lights out back end of the bullpen. Not many teams can deploy four righthanders who all can strike out over a batter an inning. Resop recovered from a poor stretch in the first half of May but has apparently been demoted from his setup role with Meek's return. He needs to cut back on walks.

Joe Beimel: C
13 IP, 0-1, 5.40, 1.50 WHIP, 6.8 K/9
Between disabled list stints, Beimel featured the most intimidating entrance music I've ever heard (Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down"). His ERA is misleading as he had 14 good appearances and four bad ones. He held lefties to a .200/.231/.280 batting line but struggled when he was left in to face strings of righthanded hitters. Bonus points for being the only pitcher I've ever seen who went all out on his warmup pitches.

James McDonald: C-
53 IP, 3-3, 5.23, 1.50 WHIP, 7.6 K/9
After two months as the Pirates' best pitcher at the end of last season, McDonald got off to a terrible start and had a 10.12 ERA through four starts. Since then he has pitched quite well, with a 2.60 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. McDonald's ERA should continue to decrease throughout the season, but he needs to walk fewer batters and go deeper into games to be a #1, #2 or #3 starter.

Mike Crotta: F
11 IP, 0-1, 9.28, 2.34 WHIP, 5.9 K/9
There's nothing to say here, Crotta simply got lit up. As I speculated before the season, Mike just wasn't ready for a major league role. In his last five appearances here he retired only three of 13 batters. He throws a 93 mph fastball but major league batters knew it was coming and hit it. To succeed in the major leagues he needs to add another breaking pitch and add movement to his fastball.

Evan Meek: Incomplete
10 IP, 0-1, 4.50, 1.80 WHIP, 10.8 K/9
Meek looked hurt to me while he struggled early. He's pitched two scoreless innings since returning from injury while appearing to regain his All-Star form. Because of his injury and the fact that over half his runs were allowed in one game, I won't judge Meek so far.

First Quarter Grades - Hitters

Memorial Day is the traditional quarter post in the baseball season. The Pirates are 24-28, down but not out, trailing the first place Cardinals by 6.5 games and the wild card leading Marlins by five. I thought I would grade the Pirates offensive players for their seasons thus far. Pitchers are coming up.

Overall, these hitters have been a disappointing bunch who have mostly underperformed their career averages. Of course, who among us isn't underperforming compared to our best years? Here goes:

Andrew McCutchen: A-
50 G, .253/.356/.459, 29 Runs, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 9 SB
McCutchen has improved his defense to the point where whenever a ball is hit near center field, I expect it to be caught. He doesn't necessarily have more range than he showed the last two years, but the same balls that would pop out of his glove last year are caught in spectacular fashion this season. His arm has gotten more accurate as well; he's already gunned down five baserunners.

On offense, Cutch's batting average is down but he is putting up the same on base and slugging numbers as he has in his career. His 29 walks lead the team and he is second in runs, RBI and steals. We're stlil awaiting a breakout season on offense, but he's also still only 24.

Chris Snyder: A-
28 G, .289/.381/.434, 11 Runs, 3 HR, 13 RBI
Snyder recovered from an early season DL stint to excel in a semi-regular role behind the plate, starting 25 of 41 games since his return. After hitting .200 and .207 the last two years, at age 30 Snyder is putting up the numbers of a great leadoff hitter including the best batting average and OBP of his career. One wonders why he still bats behind players like Matt Diaz and Brandon Wood in the lineup.

Chris has thrown out only 21% of base stealers but has been steady behind the plate (last night's game notwithstanding) and deserves a lot of credit for the Pirates' resurgent starting pitching.

Ryan Doumit: B+
34 G, .269/.333/.441, 7 Runs, 4 HR, 15 RBI
Doumit has excelled in a reserve role and is the league's best backup catcher. He provided many highlights with his bat and is hitting better than he has in any season except his career year in 2008. He has improved his contact and power hitting from the right side of the plate.

Doumit has also improved his receiving and throwing skills, and has only one passed ball this season while throwing out an acceptable 23% of runners. A switch-hitting catcher with power would be useful on any team - unfortunately, Doumit's trade value took a major hit when he sprained his left ankle on Sunday and was placed on the disabled list.

Neil Walker: B+
51 G, .265/.330/.418, 30 Runs, 6 HR, 31 RBI, 2 SB
Walker has proved his rookie season was not a fluke. He leads the team in runs and RBI and has a shot at 100 of both, which is enough to make him one of the league's best hitting second baseman. Unfortunately, he is getting on base less and getting fewer extra base hits than last season while striking out more. This decline is entirely due to his struggles from the right side of the plate where he's hit .231/.281/.308.

Like McCutchen, Walker is providing enough offense to tantalize fans who see that he's one step away from being a legitimate star. Neil has greatly improved his defense and is now an above average major league defender in only his second year at a very tough position.

Garrett Jones: B
45 G, .229/.340/.412, 14 Runs, 6 HR, 17 RBI, 2 SB
Miscast by John Russell as an everyday first baseman last season, Jones has settled into a platoon role in right field. He has made all 37 of his starts against righthanded pitchers and has hit for power while walking in a career high 14% of his plate appearances. Garrett's defense has also improved, perhaps as a result of only concentrating on one position. Jones's brief turn as a superstar in 2009 won't be repeated but he is an asset to the Pirates especially at a $455,000 salary.

José Tabata: B
47 G, .246/.350/.353, 27 Runs, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 13 SB
Tabata's batting average is well down but he has actually improved his OBP over 2010 thanks to a dramatic increase in his walk rate. If he can continue to walk in 14% of his plate appearances, José is almost guaranteed toget on base at a decent rate with his speed. He's stealing more bases than in 2010 as well, which combined with his on base skills would make him useful in a center field role. However, he needs to hit for more power to be a starting left fielder for many more years. That should come since Tabata is only 22. In the field, José has shown good range but at times has gotten poor jumps on balls.

Steven Pearce: B
28 G, .291/.339/.382, 6 Runs, 1 HR, 10 RBI
After bouncing back and forth between Indianapolis and the majors since 2007, Pearce has established himself as a useful bench player this year. He's started six games each at first and third base and before his recent trip to the disabled list was playing himself into a platoon with Lyle Overbay by hitting .300/.361/.433 against lefthanded pitchers. He will never be an MLB regular but he will be missed while on the DL.

Lyle Overbay: C-
50 G, .237/.306/.379, 22 Runs, 5 HR, 19 RBI, 1 SB
With a 34-year-old power hitter, it's always hard to decide what's a poor start and what's a player with his best days behind him. Overbay hit four of his home runs in May so I'm willing to continue to give him a shot. The main red flag for me is that he is walking at his lowest rate in the last five seasons. He has been an average first baseman defensively, which is a huge improvement over anyone the Pirates used in 2010. He has played all out in every game I've seen and is reportedly a good influence on young players.

Slow start notwithstanding, Overbay can still achieve the 20 home run, 85 RBI, above average defensive season that the Pirates envisioned when they signed him. That's incidentally the same thing Adam LaRoche did here for three years, with the result being inexplicable hatred from Pittsburgh fans.

Ronny Cedeno: C-
50 G, .242/.304/.340, 18 Runs, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 1 SB
Cedeno remains the Pirates' starting shortstop by default. He actually has hit quite well in May (.288/.374/.413) but his overall numbers are still fair to poor. After 623 games in the major leagues, Ronny makes mistakes in the field, at the plate, and on the bases that would embarrass rookies. In particular, it's happened more than a few times that he fields the ball seemingly with plenty of time to get an out, and simply doesn't make a throw. This is a player that needs to be replaced by Opening Day 2012 at the latest.

Matt Diaz: D
37 G, .244/.270/.314, 6 Runs, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 2 SB
Signed as a righthanded platoon partner for Jones, Diaz has hit only .205/.239/.227 against lefthanders and hasn't been much better against righties. It's too early to judge him on 89 plate appearances, but a 33-year-old corner outfielder who suddenly loses his power is a cause for concern particularly when that player is on a two-year contract. The hits Diaz has been getting are solid line drives and I'm not ready to give up after 89 plate appearances. Despite his struggles at the plate, Matt has acted like the 33-year-old veteran that he is; he has still played good defense and runs full speed on every groundout and pop-up.

Pedro Alvarez: D
36 G, .208/.283/.304, 12 Runs, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB
Alvarez was a disaster at the plate before going on the disabled list. A team can tolerate a player who strikes out in 30% of his plate appearances if he also homers once every six games, as Alvarez did in 2010. This year it's a home run every 18 games, and his walk rate is down too. Alvarez avoids an F grade only because he improved his defense noticeably. He still makes too many mistakes but has good instincts and a cannon for an arm. Alvarez is only 24 and once he returns from injuty will still have plenty of time to salvage this season.

Xavier Paul: D
25 G, .225/.279/.275, 6 Runs, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 3 SB
Paul always had good numbers in AAA ball but unfortunately looks overmatched in the majors. He's struck out in 32% of his plate appearances which is a bad recipe for a player who also hasn't shown any power. When he enters as part of a double switch or remains in the game after pinch hitting, the Pirates' late inning offense suffers. Paul's speed and defense are nice, but a pinch runner/defensive replacement only has a place in the major leagues after rosters expand in September--especially when none of the other four outfielders are particularly slow or poor defensively.

Brandon Wood: F
22 G, .169/.246/.220, 3 Runs, 0 HR, 6 RBI
I'm not sure how someone can be a major league player without speed, defensive skills, or the ability to hit for power or average. Wood was decent for his first nine games here (.292/.370/.417) but only has three hits since. I have never seen a third baseman in his ninth professional season have less of a clue at how to field a bunt. He should be released when Alvarez returns if not sooner.