Published on September 11th, 2012 | by James Conley2
Pirates Fading as Late Season Struggles Wear on Lineup Again
Since spring training, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has rallied the team around an idea sprung from last season’s second-half collapse—finish.
As in, finish off a team when carrying a lead into the last three innings of a game. Finish the season strong when entering August with the first NL Wild Card berth and contending for a division title. Finish off a division rival before pulling both your best pitcher and best hitter over the last month out of the lineup.
After Monday’s loss in Cincinnati, Hurdle helped to see that the Pirates’ playoff chances may be just that—as in, finished.
Hurdle’s game mismanagement has been captured in exquisite detail since Ryan Ludwick’s inevitable walk-off single secured the team’s fourth-consecutive loss late last night. The decisions to pull Rodriguez after 89 pitches and only three hits, to replace power-hitting lefty Garrett Jones with pinch-runner and career-.214 hitter Chase D’Arnaud (despite having a man already in front of him on the basepaths!) and to start catcher Rod Barajas under any circumstance have all been scrutinized, and rightly so.
Still, Clint Hurdle’s managerial WAR can sink as far below The Russel Line as anyone likes—it won’t matter if the team’s best players continue to regress in the latter stages of the season.
Andrew McCutchen, who single-handedly carried an otherwise incompetent lineup through two months of staggering offensive production in June and July, fell off the map in August. Though he hit his second home run in as many games last night, McCutchen is still batting just .273 since August 1 with four home runs.
That’s not to say his play is the reason for the Pirates’ fade in the standings. McCutchen is rebounding, to be sure. He’s hitting .294 in 34 at-bats this month and has already matched his home run total in all of August, and his OPS in September is back up to .929, much closer to the 1.0435 OPS he posted from April-July than his season-low .693 mark in August. But those numbers are merely very good. It sounds strange, but unless his numbers are of the MVP-caliber he flashed in June and July (.408/.465/.708/1.1725, 14 home runs, 41 RBI), the Pirates simply aren’t a competitive team.
Granting McCutchen a few months of merely-mortal play, the real problem is exposed—this lineup isn’t as good as the midsummer explosion had advertised.
As Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects pointed out this morning, the Pirates are a .500 team that is prone to sharp swings between good and bad baseball, and what we’re seeing now is a regression to the mean. But even if the swing back to .500 baseball was predictable, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing—or, as last night’s game showed, unavoidable.
Unavoidable, as in the bad decisionmaking and overmanagement. The decisions by Hurdle to play start Rod Barajas (who has batted over .200 in exactly one month this season) and replace Rodriguez and Jones with two rookies backfired. Keeping them in the game could have meant a different outcome. Even Barajas’ eventual replacement, Michael McKenry, helped to seal the loss with an ill-advised fielder’s choice throw to second base in the bottom of the 14th.
And no matter whom the manager places in the lineup, he can never account for the underperformance of the team’s most important players.
Many have said that this is a team we expected to finish right around the .500 mark. How they get there is a question all its own, but after seeing what the team proved itself capable of throughout June and July, that they’ve been delivering less than half that potential in the heart of the city’s first playoff race in two decade is downright disappointing, even if not entirely surprising.
Image David Watson – flickr