The Pirates collapsed their way to yet another losing season. But this wasn’t just any losing season. This team went from 16 games over the .500 mark and plummeted straight down through August and September. While no one person or aspect of the Pirates is entirely responsible for the collapse, there is one glaring weakness that should bear the majority of the blame: running and defending the bases.
First, let’s look at some common “blamees” for the losing season:
Andrew McCutchen: There’s no doubt that his play dropped off in the second half. But to expect him to keep his .374 batting average that he had in mid-July all year is ridiculous. And besides, he finished the season with an average of .327, 31 home runs, and 96 runs batting in, so he more than did his part in carrying this team.
James McDonald: After the All-Star break, J-Mac won three games, including one in which he gave up 6 earned runs in 5 innings. But through mid-July, he was one of the top pitchers in the game. From April 30th to July 18th he won 10 of 12 decisions, had an ERA as low as 2.14, and even had the lowest ERA in the league at one point. Any time he or A.J. took the hill, it was almost a guaranteed win, granted the offense could score at least one run. Through is first-half dominance, no one predicted that his pitching would decline at all, or at least at the free-fall rate that it did. But at the same time, you can’t rely on one pitcher like that. J-Mac can’t solely be responsible for such a huge collapse.
So if neither Cutch nor J-Mac were responsible for the Bucs falling apart, who, or what, was? Baserunning.
Baserunning, at its simplest, should help a team take an extra base now and again that will translate into scoring a few more runs. But for the Pirates, that’s not how it happened. Baserunning actually cost them runs, which translates into losses. Take a look at some stats:
– The Pirates stole just 73 bases – the third least in the majors. Baltimore and Detroit were the only teams with less, but both of them mashed the ball all year. They didn’t need to steal bases, and didn’t throw away outs by attempting to. The Bucs got caught stealing 52 times – the MOST in the entire MLB. That’s 52 outs. FIFTY-TWO outs that the Pirates lost over the course of the season. You only get 27 a game, don’t throw them away. Just to give you a reference as to just how much 52 CS is, the league average this year was 38. The Pirates were the only team in the league with less than a 60% success rate stealing bases at 58%.
– On defense, the Bucs gave up 154 stolen bases. League average from 2012: 108. WOW. That’s 154 times that a single immediately became a double, or in some cases, a double became a triple. Conversely, Pirates catchers threw out just 19 runners, or 11% of steal attempts. Just think about how many times a run scored after a runner stole one of the 154 bases. Now to be fair, not all of the blame should be given to the catchers. Pitchers are equally guilty for hold holding runners on well, but still, an 89% success rate is just horrible.
– One final stat is how many outs the Pirates made on the bases, or OOB. This includes outs made while going for an extra base, attempting to advance on a wild pitch, doubled up on a line drive, etc. Essentially, this is the “TOOTBLAN” stat. What this stat doesn’t include is outs made when caught stealing. The Pirates made 42 OOB, and when combined with the 52 CS, the Bucs made 94 outs on the basepaths.
Okay, fine, the Pirates made a ton of outs on the bases and gave up a ton of free bases. How did this lose them games? Take a look a few games from the 2012 season:
April 25th vs. Colorado Rockies
Situation: It’s the first inning in a scoreless game. Alex Presley leads off the bottom of the first with a single, and with one out, he gets caught stealing for the second out with Cutch up. Cutch doubles to CF, which would have made it 1-0.
Situation: It’s now 1-0 Rockies in the bottom of the seventh. Pedro Alvarez leads off the inning with a game-tying home run. Clint Barmes follows with a single and the Bucs are in business to possibly take the lead. Clint then gets caught stealing on an 0-1 count, and the Pirates go on to lose 2-1.
There’s no doubt that April was an atrocious month for the Pirates offensively. One way to make up for this is to swipe bases and create runs with small-ball. But there’s a time and a place for attempting to steal bases, and Barmes running on an 0-1 count in a tie game isn’t the right time.
July 16th @ Colorado Rockies
Situation: In a scoreless game, Neil Walker singles to lead off the second inning. After a lineout, Walker gets thrown out for the second out on an 0-0 count.
Situation: Andrew McCutchen ropes a single to CF with one out in the fourth. There’s still no score, so Cutch tries to get himself into scoring position. He’s thrown out on an 0-2 count. The Bucs went on to lose by a score of 5-4.
Besides the fact that attempting to steal on 0-0 and 0-2 counts with one out is stupid, the Bucs also didn’t need to try to steal bases. In July, the Pirates hit 39 home runs and scored 130 runs, third and fifth in the league respectively. They absolutely MASHED the ball in July, they didn’t need to be playing small-ball. When you also consider that they were playing in Colorado, where the ball flies out of the park, they shouldn’t have been wasting outs on the basepaths.
September 12th @ Cincinnati Reds
Situation: The Bucs, still very much in the playoff hunt, are tied with the Reds in the sixth inning. With one out, Alex Presley triples. Go-ahead run on third with one out. Clint Barmes takes a strike to fall behind 0-1, and then Clint Hurdle puts the squeeze play on. On a pitchout that ended up on the outside part of the plate, Barmes whiffs on the bunt attempt and Presley is dead to rights. Clint then flies out to CF, which would have tied the game with a sac-fly.
This one speaks for itself. No explanation needed.
So there it is – had the Pirates not thrown away these three games and countless others throughout the season, they could have gone 82-80 or even better.
“I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second.” – Moneyball