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Analysis: Pirates lacking in fundamentals

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Sunday, March 18, 2012
 

BRADENTON, Fla. -- This was Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager, in July 2010: "We need to play good, sound, fundamental baseball. Wins and losses are an outcome. How we play the game is the process. If we take care of the process, the results will take care of themselves."

This was Clint Hurdle, shortly after becoming manager, early last year: "Many good men have gone before me. We aren't going to be teaching a whole lot of revolutionary ideas. We just have to get better at the basic fundamentals."

Those points, indeed, aren't revolutionary.

But they are indisputable.

Teams such as the Pirates, perpetually unable to spend at the level of the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox within Major League Baseball's imbalanced economic system, have no choice but to excel at fundamentals. Finding a pitcher to throw 100 mph or a batter to crush a ball to the third deck usually costs big money. Not so for the instruction involved in playing the game properly.

That means running the bases intelligently, hitting the cutoff man, timing a pickoff move, shortening a swing on a two-strike count, getting a bunt down or any number of learnable lessons that don't require Rickey Henderson's speed or Dave Winfield's arm to master. But it also can involve basics as broad as defense, such as, you know, catching a ball hit in a fielder's general direction.

Usually, the best gauge of any team's fundamentals is a sustained eye test.

Watch Ron Gardenhire's Minnesota Twins over the years, for example, and a pattern of sound play becomes evident. That organization has earned its reputation for instructional excellence to the point that others in the industry casually refer to doing things right as "The Twins Way."

"All you have to do is watch a team like that take batting practice, and you know," Hurdle said. "It's a baseball factory."

The Pirates?

The eye test is up to the beholder, but the applicable numbers will tell you they aren't close.

Hurdle openly acknowledges it.

"I would say last year, when I walked in the door, we were a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10," he said. "Now, we're probably closer to a 6. We've got work to do. But we're making strides."

The defense

Let's start with the fielding, the fundamental facet that causes the most groans and grumblings from a crowd when not executed properly.

The Pirates were better in Hurdle's first season but only a modest upgrade over John Russell's 105-loss team in 2010. That Russell team committed 127 errors, most in the majors, and Hurdle's committed 112, eighth-most in the league.

An intricate statistic known as runs saved, compiled for the annual Bill James Handbook that issues the Fielding Bible awards, tracks a wide array of defensive data to show how many runs a player will save -- or cost -- his team on defense. The Pirates, as a team, had a minus-18 rating in runs saved, eighth-worst in the majors. Their only positive positions were center field (Andrew McCutchen), left field (shared by Jose Tabata and Alex Presley) and -- believe it or not -- third base.

No, that wasn't because of Pedro Alvarez, whose minus-6 rating was among baseball's worst, but because of 83 combined starts there by Josh Harrison and Brandon Wood. If Alvarez is back at third this season, barring a dramatic improvement, that position will go back into the minus column.

There are a couple of strong possibilities for positional improvement: Clint Barmes' plus-12 rating with Houston was fourth-best among all shortstops, and Presley's plus-5 in a starting role will give the Pirates an all-plus outfield.

"I think we'll be really solid out there," McCutchen said.

But catcher will stay about even, based on newcomer Rod Barajas' minus-2 that was fueled mostly by throwing out only 18.9 percent of runners. And first base will take a step back from Derrek Lee, with Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee platooning and McGehee moving across the diamond from third.

Shaky as the infield corners look, it should be solid up the middle with Barmes and an improving Neil Walker. That includes double plays, where Barmes was third-best at starting them, and Walker was fourth-best on the pivot.

"I've loved having Clint Barmes around," Walker said. "It's been a great fit."

How will it all work?

"I really feel like we're going to catch the ball," Jones said. "All the work we're putting in down here, all the emphasis on the basics, that comes with a payoff."

The offense

It's become evident that the Pirates' offensive goal will be all scrappy all the time, and that's very much in tune with their lack of power.

It just might work.

The Bill James Handbook tracks manufactured runs -- those produced by situational hitting and baserunning -- and the Pirates led the National League with 187 last year. That's no small feat for a team that had the third-fewest total runs at 610.

With two weeks remaining last season, Hurdle posed a question to his assembled players.

"I asked them which team was the best in baseball at moving runners from second to third," Hurdle recalled. "And I heard 'Cardinals. Brewers. Reds.' And I said, 'No, you know what• It's us.' I asked about scoring runners from third with less than two outs. Same thing. It was us. But the point that I was making was this: We don't get on enough. On-base is huge."

Indeed, the Pirates' .309 on-base percentage -- the foundation of all offense -- was the league's fifth-worst. Their 1,308 strikeouts were the league's worst. They fared well in what Hurdle calls "productive outs" with their 44 sacrifice flies ranking third and their 75 bunts ranking sixth, but that doesn't make up for all the misfires.

The primary offseason additions -- Barmes, Barajas and McGehee -- aren't great on-base guys, either.

"We know that, but we felt like they'd add defense and some pop," Hurdle said. "We've still got to shake the tree. We've got to get better in this area going forward, especially internally."

The baserunning

Stolen bases, where most fans focus, were around league average: The 108 steals ranked seventh, and the 68 percent success rate was just above the two-thirds threshold statisticians say is needed for a positive effect on scoring runs.

But steals are a relatively small part of the game. In weighing all baserunning, the Pirates' minus-55 rating from Bill James was the worst in baseball. They were thrown out on the basepaths -- independent of steals -- 43 times, far too many for a team with a low on-base percentage. And they also weren't nearly as aggressive as Hurdle has voiced as his goal: Runners went from first to third on a single only 70 times, second-fewest in the majors. They went from first to home only 29 times, fifth-fewest.

Think McCutchen is a blast to watch bending reality when he goes from first to third?

He is, but he pulled it off on a single on just six of 35 opportunities.

The offseason additions pretty much wash out in this area: One of the best in baseball at going first-to-third in recent years, now back in the fold, is Nate McLouth, 8 of 14 last year for Atlanta. By contrast, McGehee achieved it just 3 of 32 times in Milwaukee. Only barely mobile veterans David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero were worse.

Again this spring, Hurdle is sending runners at nearly every opportunity, even if it means running into ugly outs. His point is to reinforce an aggressive mindset.

"That's who we are," Hurdle said. "We're going to run. I think our players understand now that that's what I want."

The 'factory'

To develop the "baseball factory" Hurdle covets, the Pirates will need to upgrade top to bottom. Although Kyle Stark implemented strict, consistent policies since becoming director of player development in 2007, there have been instances of players arriving in the majors looking ill-prepared. Presley, for example, wasn't taking proper leads off base and had to be taught anew in Pittsburgh last summer.

Overall, though, most inside the organization praise the development aspect.

"Our people in the minors have been here a while, and they've done a fantastic job," Hurdle said. "There seemed to be a disconnect of getting that out on the field at the major-league level. I can't put my finger on why. I wasn't here. But we've tightened that up."

The first step, he added, was making fundamentals the clear priority, no matter how obvious that should be.

"One of the things we took away from last season is the number of close games we played and the importance of championship execution. It flat-out wins you games. Or it loses them for you."

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Additional Information:

Glove story

The Pirates' projected eight everyday players and their 2011 defensive statistics, including fielding percentage:

Player, Position-Games-Errors-Pct.

Rod Barajas, C 88 2 .997

Garrett Jones, 1B 34 3 .989

Neil Walker, 2B 159 6 .992

Pedro Alvarez, 3B 66 14 .935

Clint Barmes, SS 122 12 .978

Jose Tabata, OF 76 1 .993

Andrew McCutchen, OF 155 7 .984

Alex Presley, OF 48 1 .986

 

 
 


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