Bob Smizik: Why is Snider starting for the Pirates?


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The Pirates' infatuation with perpetually disappointing outfielder Travis Snider continues. It’s somewhat understandable team management wants to give Snider, once a highly regarded prospect in the Toronto organization, a chance to succeed. They love his upside. But they are jeopardizing the team’s chances of success by giving Snider playing time he has not earned.

Inexplicably, Snider received the majority of the playing time in right field last year although he was hampered by a toe injury almost all season. Snider, a left-handed hitter, has acknowledged he was in considerable pain and the injury was affecting his balance and weight transfer. Had he ever shown he was a standout on the MLB level, allowing him to play hurt might have been understandable. He had not.

Coming out of spring training, it looked like Snider and Jose Tabata, a right-handed hitter, would share the position, although not in a strict platoon. Snider had the much better spring, batting .340 to Tabata’s .190. But, surely, manager Clint Hurdle wouldn’t allow spring training performance to influence his decision when he had far better data to evaluate the players.

Except that he did. With the Chicago Cubs using right-handed starters in all three games, Snider got the starts. He had two hits in 11 at-bats. Playing in a reserve role, Tabata was 1-for-5.

Here is the more pertinent data Hurdle should have used: This was Snider’s batting line against RHP last year: .226/.288/.355 -- .644. This was Tabata’s: .292/.361/.417 -- .778.

Tabata wasn’t just the better choice over Snider, he was one of the Pirates' most dangerous hitters against right-handers last year. Among returning players, only Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker had a higher OPS against right-handers in 2013. Only McCutchen had a higher on-base percentage.

The Pirates are so infatuated with Snider that in spring training, when comparing the two players, Hurdle said this: ''It's not set up where we feel we have to platoon. (Tabata) has played well against right-handers. Snider has shown the ability to hit left-handers.’’

Really! Snider was 2-for-22, both singles, against left-handers last year. In Hurdle’s three seasons with the Pirates, Snider batted .194 (19-for-98) against lefties.

The Pirates will face right-handed starters the next five games.

• • •

It’s not just early, it’s very early, but already Tony Sanchez is presenting the Pirates with a dilemma.

The team traded for catcher Chris Stewart in the offseason and planned to use him as the backup to Russell Martin. The plan was for Sanchez to play almost every day at Indianapolis and be the likely replacement for Martin, who’s in the final year of his contract, in 2015.

That plan went awry when Stewart injured his knee early in spring training. He had surgery and is due back in about four weeks. That elevated Sanchez to the 25-man roster and he’s made his presence known. As a pinch-hitter Wednesday, he drove in the game-winning run in the 16th inning. As the starter Thursday, he drove home both Pirates run with a single in the seventh inning.

If Stewart were not such an abysmal hitter, there would be no dilemma. But this is his lifetime batting line in 645 at-bats: .214/.287/.288 -- .575. How bad is that? Clint Barmes’ career OPS is 102 points higher.

Stewart is regarded as a superior defensive catcher. But on a team that’s looking a bit light offensively, can the Pirates afford such a weak hitter in the lineup once or twice a week when a potentially better one is available?

Nor is there any guarantee Sanchez will be better off with one more season in the minors. Plenty of highly successful players have apprenticed as backups before becoming full-time starters. Whatever Sanchez might benefit from playing every day could be counterbalanced by working beside and studying Martin, a premier role model for a young catcher.

• • •

What was Chicago manager Rick Renteria thinking when he brought in left-hander James Russell to relieve Jason Hammel in the seventh inning with two out and left-handed hitter Travis Ishikawa due to bat? Renteria had to know that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle would counter by having Gaby Sanchez bat for Ishikawa

Here’s what Renteria apparently did not consider: Ishikawa was hitless in two at-bats against Hammel and is 2-for-14 lifetime against him. Sanchez has faced Russell three times in his career and Russell walked him every time. More to the point, Ishikawa had a .738 lifetime OPS vs. right-handed pitching. Sanchez had an .898 lifetime OPS against left-handers.

Renteria played to the Pirates' strength. Sanchez doubled to continue a rally that almost cost the Cubs the game.


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