Stats Geek: Pirates need a few more laughers

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"Good teams win those kinds of games."

You'll hear that after a baseball team wins a close one, either from fans or players. Everyone appreciates grit, grace under pressure and coming through when it counts.

It's too bad it's not true. The fact is almost every team can win close games. Four times in the past 14 losing seasons, the Pirates have had winning records in one-run games, and they're doing it again this year (6-3).

Good teams win blowouts with regularity. It's a mark of how far the Pirates have to go that the 13-2 pasting of the Braves on Mother's Day was only the second time this season the Pirates had won by five runs or more.

So let's have no more talk of "they'd be .500 if only ..." or "they should have saved some of those Sunday runs for today's game." The truth is, whether by luck or design, the Pirates are winning more than their share of the close ones. Through Sunday, they were 12-7 in games decided by one or two runs. The only other National League teams to win more than 60 percent of close ones are the Atlanta Braves (12-6), Arizona Diamondbacks (15-9) and Milwaukee Brewers (10-5).

The Pirates can change the fifth starter (and they should), but they'll never win many laughers until they put more runs on the board. At least two or three times a month, the opposing pitcher should regret leaving so many tickets for friends and family at the "Will-Call" window.

The Pirates haven't had a winning record in games decided by five runs or more since Barry Bonds took off for the West Coast, and this year they began 2-6 in blowouts. So, in the wake of a game where they beat up on inexperienced pitchers, scoring at least six runs for only the sixth time this season, how close are the Pirates to being at least an average offensive club?

The Pirates are once again poster children in the campaign against bad OPS, or on-base average plus slugging average. The team is 14th in OPS, with a .302 OBA and .361 SLG in a league that averages .330/.400. That leaves the Pirates also 14th in runs per game, 3.61.

The only above-average Pirates reaching base are Jason Bay (.367 through Sunday) and Ryan Doumit (.484). They, along with Xavier Nady, are likewise above the league average in slugging: Nady (.419), Bay (.475) and Doumit (.691). That's it.

Baseball-reference.com, the greatest resource in cyberspace, can break that down further. The only Pirates positions with an above-average OPS, adjusted for the ballpark, are the left fielder and catcher. The latter is not because of regular Ronny Paulino, but because Ryan Doumit bumped up the collective output with a ridiculous 9 for 17 with four doubles, a home run and two walks as a catcher.

The combined, adjusted OPS of Pirates right fielders, third basemen and shortstops also has been within 92 to 95 percent of the peer group. (Doumit helps the right fielders with a .441/.633 in 30 AB.) Center field is just 81 percent, but the real culprits are to the right of the diamond.

Second basemen have provided only 52 percent of the production of league peers, and first basemen 40 percent. In a way, that's good news, as those are the positions most likely to get better. Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche are the principal laggards, though Jose Castillo and Brad Eldred have been even worse in limited play.

(Nonetheless, I hope Sanchez shifts back to third base and Castillo plays second until Jose Bautista returns from injury. That provides better defense, and a team that will have even more trouble scoring runs without Bautista will need its gloves in the right places.)

Breaking down the Pirates by batting order, it's not until you get to eighth that you find anyone outhitting the league average in the same spot. Paulino and Jack Wilson have hit better in the No. 8 hole than elsewhere, but then this is a team with no shortage of candidates to bat last.

Remember all that talk about how Wilson was the right "type" to be the No. 2 hitter? Now that he has dropped closer to his career OBA of .306, we can see even more clearly that the so-called chemistry of a batting order is overrated; the most important thing is to let the best hitters bat as often as possible.

Except for three sacrifice flies and two sacrifice hits, Wilson moved only 12 runners up with hits, walks or outs before Sunday and did not drive in his first runner from second base until Sunday, when he was batting eighth.

I'll say it again. Bat Sanchez second and Bay third. Chances are good Sanchez will be climbing back toward his career .346 OBA. The real value of a No. 2 hitter is not to move a man from second to third. (Wilson had only six AB with a runner on second and less than two outs anyway and had one hit with no RBI.) The value is being a hitter in all situations. (Wilson hit .308 in 91 AB with the bases empty but only .184 in 49 AB with runners on.)

This team doesn't have many guys who reach base with regularity. Get the best bats up as often as possible. A twice-a-month laugher might arrive.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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