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Fixing the Offense?

On his blog at PG+, Dejan Kovacevic runs through some issues with the Pirates' current, deadball-era offensive production, with the idea that it's not too late to shake things up. The team quickly quashed the limited enthusiasm generating by their ascent to the heady territory of an entire game above .500 by losing three straight while scoring just five runs (plus a couple scoreless innings in a rainout). Dejan's comments are worth looking at one at a time.

No, I'm not going to pile on Lyle Overbay just yet, not when he's still hitting better than three other regulars.

Well, first of all he's hitting better than two regulars, not three.  He has a higher batting average than four, but two of them, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, have higher on-base and slugging percentages and so have been much more productive than Overbay.  The two Overbay is outhitting are Pedro Alvarez, who's not going anywhere, and Ronny Cedeno, who obviously is a continuing problem.  But even Cedeno isn't the problem on offense that Overbay is, because he's a shortstop.  He's not supposed to hit as much as the firstbaseman, who's currently hitting more like a backup catcher.

So I'm just going to pile on.  Overbay has no business being a starting firstbaseman, and he's an especially poor choice for a rebuilding team.  He's been declining for years; this season just continues his inexorable slide to his true destiny of finishing his career as a pinch-hitter, which is what he should be now.  Overbay is 34, which contrary to many fans' notion is not too old to be washed up.  Just the opposite.  Big, slow, unathletic hitters like Overbay typically decline early.  Call it Sean Casey syndrome.  Overbay's list of comparables at Baseball Reference provides another comparison:  nearly all were washed up before, sometimes well before, they were his age.

Overbay's numbers are alarming, and should have been alarming before the Pirates signed him.  Beginning in 2006 and including this season, here are some key figures (keep in mind he played hurt in 2007):

Batting average -- .312  .240  .270  .265  .243  .232
Strikeout percentage -- 16.5  18.4  21.3  22.5  24.5  20.0
Line drive percentage -- 22.4  20.9  22.6  20.2  16.0  15.2

For over five years, Overbay has been trading hits for strikeouts.  He strikes out a lot now for a guy who isn't a big HR hitter, and it's not because he chases a lot of bad pitches.  From watching him this year, it looks to me as though he's still got reasonably good strike zone judgment.  The problem is that he simply can't get the bat around.  This is reflected in the fact that he seldom drives the ball any more; his line drive % since the beginning of last year has been well below average, and this is a guy who's supposed to be primarily a line drive hitter.  Mostly what he does now, when he makes contact, is roll grounders around the infield and slice weak flies to left.

Given his contract, Overbay obviously isn't headed to the bench just yet.  Clint Hurdle is already doing the one thing he realistically can do, which is increasingly to platoon Overbay, who has an OPS against lefties of just .701 for his career and .438 this year.  At some point before season's end, though, the Pirates are going to have to confront the fact that this was an awful signing.

And no, I'm not going to come close to suggesting any of the younger players have reduced roles. That would be insanity in the context of the Pirates' plan.


It's inexplicable to me that Ryan Doumit is sitting on the bench despite swinging a hot bat from both sides.

I don't know about "inexplicable," but it's certainly not helping.  The team's hottest hitter has sat out the last two games, plus the two scoreless innings in between, and sure enough the Pirates have scored only three runs.  The problem is, Chris Snyder is also playing well, and you can't discount the possibility that both players are doing well in part because they're not trying to catch every day.  The problem is compounded if you're not going to pile on Lyle Overbay and you want to play Garrett Jones every day, which leads to . . .

It's hard for me to grasp Garrett Jones being cooled off not by opponents but by the Pirates pushing an unnecessary platoon with an unproductive Matt Diaz.

Actually, Jones is being cooled off by opponents.  He has just three hits in his last twenty at-bats.  And it's hard to claim that it's because he's not playing every day, because he was being platooned during his hot stretch that lasted from mid-April to the beginning of May.  In fact, that hot stretch started on April 15, which was the first time he'd played since April 10.

I'd have a difficult time grasping a decision to move Jones from a role that's working extremely well back to a role that was a miserable failure.  Even worse, the Pirates would be making that decision based on a whopping thirty plate appearances by a guy (Diaz) who's spent many years proving he can hit left-handed pitchers.  And there isn't so much as a pitiful little sample size to show that Jones has reversed his career-long (majors and minors) inability to hit left-handed pitching, including a scintillating 1-for-11 against them this year.  The only thing worse than trying to fix what ain't broke is breaking what you just successfully fixed.

It's not making much sense to me that Alex Presley is hitting like Tony Gwynn in the minors right now and not getting a chance.

I don't have strong feelings about this, so maybe Clint Hurdle should explain it.  He wanted a speed and defense guy on the bench.  If you compare their careers, Presley and Xavier Paul are the exact same player offensively.  The difference between the two is that Paul is a little faster and he's a good outfielder with a strong arm.  I've seen Presley a lot; he doesn't track flyballs well and he has a weak arm.  Of course, if Presley was a right-handed hitter he could replace Diaz, but he's not, although he did handle left-handers well last year.

And, going back a bit, it's still not easy to figure out how a team that went into the offseason publicly declaring its need to upgrade the shortstop position did nothing of the kind.  Neal Huntington's excuse for not getting one -- that the industry isn't overloaded with above-average shortstops -- does not mix with the reality of the shortstops who were available, nor with the reality that shortstops remain available every day through trades.

I'd sure be curious to know what shortstops are available every day through trades.  Certainly not above-average, or even above-crappy, ones.  This is a problem that needed to be addressed last winter and wasn't.  I'm not sure what can be done now, unless you want to see Brandon Wood play every day.  It's interesting, though, that some of the defensive metrics show Cedeno as having an outstanding year defensively.

The real problem with this offense is that McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata are all mired in miserable slumps.  Well, that and Overbay.  Outside of staying the course and easing Overbay into a pinch-hitting role, and maybe searching for playing time for Doumit without having him catch every day, I'm not sure what they can do.

Maybe bunting less would help . . . .