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Pregame: Starling Marte benched for third start in a row; Josh Harrison's 1-WAR month

Denis Poroy

Notes from this afternoon's press meeting with Clint Hurdle:

Tabata starts over Marte

Jose Tabata will start in left field tonight, making it the third game in a row that Starling Marte is not in the starting lineup.

Hurdle said that the lineup decision will serve "both purposes" of giving Marte another day to rediscover his offensive approach, while allowing Tabata the opportunity to face a pitcher against whom he has had success (.424/.457/.636 in 36 plate appearances vs. Kyle Lohse).

"Jose's got some matchups that play," Hurdle said. "Over the years that I've been here the guys he hits it's not like goes 4-for-4 against them one game, and then 0-for-4 the next."

Hurdle added that he was optimistic that Marte is rounding back into form.

"Starling just went out today and put in some really good early work. We think we're on to something."

A thought about pitcher-hitter matchups

It is widely held within the sabermetric community that pitcher-hitter matchup numbers are unreliable, even insignificant. However, Hurdle (perhaps unintentionally) offered up a new angle to consider when thinking about this issue. He suggested that Tabata is unique because his matchup numbers matter. Tabata, Hurdle said, consistently puts good at bats against the pitchers he has good numbers against. In other words, it's more than than a random small sample size issue with him.

Hurdle seems to be suggesting that some hitters do have real matchup advantages against certain pitchers, that their numbers are more than small sample size noise and, instead, reflect a repeatable skill. On its face, it makes sense. However, I'm not sure whether a hard look at the numbers would bear it out. One immediate problem to finding out whether such a thing exists with certain hitters, takes us back to the small sample size issue. A batter could put together a series of good at bats against a pitcher and just hit into bad luck.

Regardless, it is something to watch tonight. Will Tabata have better than his average at bats against Lohse?

Cumpton looks to rebound

Brandon Cumpton will attempt to rebound from his first poor big-league start tonight. Last Saturday, Cumpton allowed 11 runs in 3.2 innings work against the Dodgers.

"Its just repeating all that he was doing before the last start," Hurdle said. "I think he said it best, 'unfortunately every once in a while you have a game like this. I just had mine, and I'm not going to make that my focus.'"

"We'll find out a little more about this young man tonight," Hurdle added.

Vin Mazzaro goes unclaimed, back with the Pirates

Hurdle said that he was somewhat surprised that Mazzaro was back in the organization after being DFA'd for a second time. He said that when teams want pitchers, they look for a starting pitcher first, as evidenced by Phil Irwin being claimed and Mazzaro passing through waivers.

"I think there is a [trend] in the system where teams think they can make their own relievers." Hurdle said. "I'm happy he is back. ... We're very positive and optimistic that he'll have the opportunity with us again."

One win, 30 days

Over the last 30 days, Josh Harrison has contributed 0.9 WAR, the highest total amongst Pirates position players and the 15th highest total in National League. Since May 1, he has added 1.1 WAR, again the highest total on the team.

The number is significant because when the Gregory Polanco callup debate really started to heat up in early May, most people acknowledged that, at best, he would contribute 1.0 WAR between early May and the Super-2 deadline. Josh Harrison's superb month, then, gave the Pirates what Gregory Polanco would have supplied under the best of scenarios.

One thing we learned from Harrison's emergence is exactly what a one-win contribution in 30-plus days looks like. Moreover, Harrison's performance provides us with an interesting context to reflect on the the opinions we held on May 1 regarding the Polanco call-up.

In May, we were all wrestling with the question of whether the one-win was worth the long-term cost (especially given the tenuous position the Pirates' found themselves at the time). Now, let's assume that Harrison had played like the Josh Harrison we all expected in May, or let's assume that Polanco would have played at a one-WAR level (a huge assumption). Would a callup have been worth it?

Just looking at the one-win result, probably not. This is a simplistic way to look at it, but the Pirates have gone 18-15 since May 1st.  A replacement level of performance puts the Bucs at 17-16, all other things remaining constant. Not a tremendous difference, and probably not worth the millions it would have cost the Pirates on the back end.

On the the other hand, three games under .500 does seem to make the season much more recoverable than it might have felt if they were five under. Moreover, Harrison's contribution certainly feels like a lot more than one win. This is largely because of the timing of both his hits and defensive gems, which the WAR stat can't really capture. All WAR scores are not created equal in small samples. Which raises the additional question if Polanco's (imaginary) one-win WAR contribution would have been as impactful as Harrison's.

In the end, it is still a difficult question and, fortunately, will be moot soon. One thing is certain, however, if the Pirates find themselves in the thick of a playoff run with Polanco tearing it up in August and September, Josh Harrison's role in rescuing this season from the brink of insignificance will be an important storyline of the season.