Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pirates Searching for .500

If you were to survey Pittsburgh fans on the likelihood of the current Pirates team bettering the .500 mark for the first time in 16 years, many today would probably tell you that they have a decent chance.

If you said at the end of last season that the same group would finish above .500 this year most would say no way. Sadly though, as much as fans would like to think, their favorite teams cannot be willed to win—encouraged, but not willed.


I think baseball is a game driven somewhat by attitude, preparation and confidence, and less by raw talent as some would suggest. Over a full season you can probably chalk up 20+ games, that are ultimately won or lost due to the overall approach the team takes on the field.

What is this mumbo-jumbo spewing from your keyboard?

I believe that a combination of preparation, attitude, and confidence synergize to give individual players and whole teams an edge to win (or lose) that cannot be measured as raw talent. Equally, sometimes teams lose a game, when on paper they should have won.

Beyond these 20 or so games, the rest are determined by raw talent. For all the large market teams out there who buy your teams year-in and year-out, don’t worry.

Talent still rules the day in the end, or does it?

  • Why does a good Red Sox team come back against a better Yankees team in the ALCS (2004)?
  • Why do the Detroit Pistons sweep the Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers (1990)?
  • How does the U.S. Olympic Hockey team defeat the Soviet Union (1980)?
  • How do the upstart New York Jets defeat the powerhouse Baltimore Colts (1969)?

They give themselves a chance to win by finding something extra, that wasn’t there before.

Yes we can!

On any given day, any given team can beat any other given team.

Sports have more than a few of these little clichés that talk about an extra something, and that lend encouragement to the underdog.

He is in the zone

This one always has me conjuring in my mind an alter dimension that the player has somehow jumped to, making him impervious or even invisible to the opponents defense.

He is seeing the ball well

Does this mean he is not drunk or experiencing blurred vision?

He’s a contact hitter

Isn’t everyone a contact hitter? Otherwise they would not really be hitters at all? This one is a bit of a stretch, but a batter after first getting his bat on the ball gets a boost of adrenaline or confidence that helps carry him to a hit.

Tony Gwynn was a self-described contact hitter. It stands to reason that if you always are getting your bat on the ball, you are going to get more hits than if you are always waiting for the perfect pitch.

People use these clichés because they are true.

Baseball players are superstitious because they know that no matter how talented they might be, sometimes they can get into a funk that they just can’t shake. There are good days and bad days, all affected by the environment around them.

So what does this mean for the '09 Bucs?

For years the Pirates have been the unfortunate recipient of more than their fair share of bad ju-ju.

This year, in the case of the Pirates starting rotation, Joe Kerrigan has pitchers forgetting about the previous year, developing a plan, getting their mind and their mechanics right, and believing they can get the job done with the tools they have; finding in themselves that extra something.

This will not just increase the number of good days, but it is also going to greatly diminish the effect of the bad days which will still come.

The difference is that pitchers will be better able to keep a cool head and get the job done. Good sports is more than the sum total of each individual players abilities.

The really quality teams are that way because they believe. They literally will themselves to do what needs to be done, whether it is a subconscious act or not.

When a relief pitcher does well, then everyone else feeds-off on that. If enough of them can raise their performance it becomes contagious for all of them.

When the other guys on the team are hitting, everyone in the dugout begins to feel they can hit, and sometimes just believing that winning is possible is what you need to get started...

Getting to .500

Over the past 5 season the Pittsburgh Pirates have averaged 68 wins a season, a full 13 games below just breaking even.

Should this be the goal? Getting to .500 will most likely get them a third place finish at best. This is not much of a goal.

You’ve heard batters say that the pitchers are "giving them a chance to win." SS Jack Wilson said it the other day after the second win over the Marlins.

In his ninth year, Wilson knows what it feels like when the pitchers don't give you a chance to win, and he knows this year is different.

Batters know that they cannot put up five-plus runs every game on average on a team where the pitchers are not pitching well.

Besides being mathematically faulted, the negative performance is responded to by lackluster effort from the team on offense and on defense, and unreasonable amount of pressure on batters to feel they must produce a run with every at bat.

It has been said that good baseball starts with pitching.

Everyone has seen games where a pitcher served up a very respectable two run game, only to get the loss, but it is usually the other way around.

The typical scenario in a lost is the Pitcher gives up four or so runs too early and it is left to the long relievers to try to put the breaks on, and the offense that might have four or five runs just can’t keep up.

For now at least the Pirates have their starting rotation doing a very respectable job and their bullpen reliable if used right, in short appearances tailored to their individual abilities.

There are some starting pitchers on the staff who have been a little hot and cold since the beginning and the result is that in many games for the Bucs it has been feast or famine.

Either the Bucs score a lot and hold their opponent to a very low score, or they lose big. But this is all obvious.

What is going on that is different?

The Pirates starting rotation is going into games thinking they are prepared, thinking they have the tools, having a plan in place.

Does it mean they are all going to be 15-game winners?

Of course not, but it does mean that they can go into a game with that extra something that makes the difference.

At this time last year they were 9-13 and had given up 42 more runs than they had scored.

In '07 they were 8-10 with a 15-run deficit.

In '06 they were 5-16 with a 32-run deficit.

Today they are 9-6 with a 20-run advantage over their opponents, according to ESPN.

The Pirates are playing .600 ball right now; played out over the season this is 97 wins.

Admittedly, the pitching staff is clicking on all cylinders right now, but it would appear as if they are well on their way to .500 and could possibly win 85-90 games this year.

Winning 90 games gives them a great likelihood of making the post-season.

The season is only a tenth of the way through but I feel comfortable in suggesting that the Bucs will easily surpass the .500 mark, assuming they can stay healthy and can mold Jason Jaramillo into an able replacement for Doumit while he heals.

The Psychology of It All

Fill a team with a bunch of second tier talents and who are always behind and it is a recipe for regular and profound failure; the Pirates over the last 16 years. Even the very best players would have problems performing in this environment.

Now take those same hitters and give them a reason to feel they are in the game after the third or fourth or even the seventh inning on a regular basis and you get performance like that of Adam LaRoche whose numbers have really picked up this April.

Doumit et al

It remains to be seen how this will impact the team. Doumit’s injuries have been problematic in the past, and the rest of the team can’t feel encouraged by this, however is reporting the Doumit and asked to remain with the team during his time on the DL.

This will positively benefit the morale of the team and provide the kind of encouragement the other players need to be able to step up on a regular basis as they did against the Marlins. Doumit will also be around to help Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz develop.


Adam has his average up above .300 and has been clutch hitting lately. It also can not hurt having his little brother around every day. Andy LaRoche likely would not be starting in the majors if he were not on the same team as his brother.

However, perhaps the best "farm" team for him to develop on is the big one, where he and his brother can feed off of one another. It remains to be seen if there isn’t a better option for the Pirates at third in the future, but for now it is working.

Freddy Sanchez is a solid regular hitter. He does not have slugging power but a consistent .300 plus hitter is always welcome in the lineup.

If Nyjer Morgan continues to produce and, Brandon Moss and Nate McLouth produce some respectable hitting with some home runs from McLouth, the Pirates offense can prove to be very threatening this year, backed up by a solid starting rotation.

In the End

I am tired of the Pirates being a farm club for so many other teams.

When the trade deadline comes the Pirates trade away their best players for a couple prospects that will be ready two or three years down the line.

Then they develop these prospects and trade them away too.

How stupid is it to make a prediction before the first month is even concluded?

I predict the Pirates could win 85 plus games but for this to happen they have a certain magic number to reach…50. That is the number of wins they are going to need by the All-Star Break. Another magic number is 37. That is the number of wins they need from their starting pitchers by the Break.

Anything less than this and there is the risk that the Pirates will feel pressure to auction off high priced talent.

However, regardless of whether this plays out, I hope that no young talent is traded hurting the team’s chance to start the next decade with a winner.

Team Wins: Right now they are at nine wins. 42 more to go.

SP Wins: Right now their starting pitchers have seven wins. That’s 30 more to go. That’s six wins a piece, which does not sound like that many when you consider that is 14 appearances each. But that is a lot when you consider the starters combined for 30 wins during all of 2008.

Right now they believe and are doing the things right that they need to do. Whether they continue doing them, only time will tell.

No comments:

Korean Flash Cards