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The Pirates' lineups, player workloads, and the things we don't know

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night's lineup -- in which Michael Morse, Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Florimon were present, while Jung-Ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez were absent -- sparked a ton of debate here and elsewhere, with many fans attacking the Bucs for using what seemed to be a weak lineup while in a pennant race and against a tough opponent.

Although the Bucs didn't end up hitting much against Cubs lefty Jon Lester, this was mostly just a lineup that looked bad. Starting Walker and Alvarez, for example, wouldn't have made much sense against a lefty. Morse, for example, is very good against them. Rodriguez, while obviously not a very good hitter against anyone, hits passably against lefties and has been very productive lately. And, of course, the Pirates were playing the second game of a doubleheader. So as David Todd pointed out this afternoon, most of the issues people had with the lineup really should have been with one player.

I can't think of a great reason Florimon was in the game, honestly. He's been a worse hitter against lefties than righties in his career, and it isn't as if he's Babe Ruth against righties. In fact, he's never hit a big-league homer against a lefty. And Tuesday night's starter, J.A. Happ, isn't even a ground ball pitcher, so I'm not sure there was a great justification for using Florimon because of his defense. With all the good infield options the Pirates have, Florimon shouldn't have been in the game.

Or at least that's how it looks. I had avoided commenting on Tuesday night's lineup, though, for a couple reasons. First, the issue was mostly about one player in one game. Everything counts, but in a 162-game season, I'm not sure yesterday's lineup was worth the amount of attention it ended up getting.

Second, the entire debate hinges on the Pirates' studies of rest, which none of us know all that much about.

After the game, Clint Hurdle said that he had aimed to get Kang and Mercer a bit of extra rest, and earlier this week, Neal Huntington also extolled the benefits of getting players rest.

"We're at the point in the year where a rested club is as important as a good club," Huntington said. "Sometimes a rested club is better than a non-rested good club. We're trying to fight that battle of keeping our guys strong and fresh while at the same time putting this club in a position to win every game going forward."

Even before the season, the Pirates were reportedly studying the Golden State Warriors to examine the effects of workloads and rest on professional athletes. Since then, the Bucs have been trying to optimize rest based on a sort of scientific, or semi-scientific, method of evaluation. Here's Hurdle again:

"I rely upon a lot of people here who have more knowledge of rest and workloads and reps. We have some metrics we use, as well. So I just accumulate the information and talk [to the trainers] personally. ...

"We're still working through trying to come up with a better metric program along the lines of purposeful rest. It's still a work in progress. We don't want to just sell out to the name of the back of the jersey where he has to play every inning and get every at-bat."

There's a catch-22 here, in that we don't know what the Pirates' metrics say, and if Hurdle wants, he can use the metrics every time someone questions his lineups. As Andy Prough put it in the comments yesterday:

The fact that he's laid out his plan for rest all season long would cut off a lot of reporter questions.

Reporter: "Why did you start Florimon instead of Kang or Mercer?"
Hurdle: "Rest program I’ve been telling you about all year long."
Reporter: "But Kang has only played xx innings out of the past xx innings."
Hurdle: "Rest metrics and rest science I’ve been telling you about all year long."
Reporter: "But Mercer has only played xx innings out of the past xx innings."
Hurdle: "Rest metrics and rest science I’ve been telling you about all year long."

I get that, and it bothers me. As someone who's supposed to write about the team, I don't like having to just trust people, and I don't like assuming that other people know more than I do and just leaving it there.

In this case, though, I'm not sure I have much choice. Although the Florimon decision seemed odd to me, and although Florimon's 0-for-2 performance didn't do much to change my mind, I think the Pirates deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The Bucs are now 87-57, far better than I thought they'd be this season. They've been so good in part due to a formerly injury-prone catcher (Francisco Cervelli) who's stayed healthy this year, and who's been even better in the second half than the first. They also have Kang, who didn't have to play a 162-game season in Korea. Not everyone has stayed healthy, of course, and the Bucs are only 8-7 in September. But they annihilated their opponents in June, July and August. Maybe the Pirates' experiments with rest have something to do with that. Maybe they don't, and the Bucs are great entirely for other reasons. Maybe there's a way for the Pirates to give their players the rest they need without starting Pedro Florimon in an important game. But I don't know, and I don't think anyone outside the organization really does.

Of course, as fans, we see a bunch of young, athletic guys standing out in the grass or in the dirt for three hours a night. We think, "There's no way that can be strenuous," and we imagine players must not need days off. (I think someone was discussing this in a comment thread recently; apologies for forgetting who.) If you come early to the games and go to batting practice, or if you're a reporter hanging out in the clubhouse, that impression can be even stronger. The percentage of their workdays ballplayers spend standing around shooting the breeze is actually staggering. Every ballplayer, though, will tell you that the long season is a grind, and that at this point in the season, pretty much everyone is hurting.

More to the point, though, we don't know how the players feel or what they need. We just don't. To me, as a writer, that's troubling, and I was thinking about how little I knew even before the lineups came out yesterday, because of this terrific article, which will make you feel very insecure about how little knowledge you actually have.

Here's a secret: The number of things I don't know about the Pirates vastly exceeds the number of things I do. And I watch the team almost every day, and have at least some access to players, front office personnel and reporters. What I know about the Pirates is a tiny, tiny percentage of what could, at least theoretically, be known. I've watched more than my fair share of games, and I'm good at understanding and explaining roster moves from a front-office perspective. That's about it.

So if you ask me whether Pedro Florimon should have played last night, I can tell you what I think, but I don't really know anything. I don't know how much rest Jung-Ho Kang needs. I don't know how Jordy Mercer's knee might feel. I don't know if Kang or Mercer woke up on the wrong side of the bed yesterday. And even if I asked them, I probably still wouldn't have the information the Pirates have. Maybe Kang and Mercer just needed the rest, and maybe one reason Kang has been so productive this year is that he hasn't played every day.

When I started writing about the Pirates, Dave Littlefield was in charge. I could criticize the Pirates pretty much any way I wanted, and there was a good chance I would turn out to be right. I could write a story titled "Dave Littlefield uses the I Ching to make trades" and know there was probably a 10 percent chance the Post-Gazette would report exactly that the next day.

Now, though, the Pirates are run very well (as are many other teams), and when they do something a little weird, it's usually best to proceed from the assumption that they had a fairly compelling reason for it, and try to figure out what that reason was. That doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize them, particularly about things like signings and trades, in which we have much of the same information they do. (In fact, we almost have to do that, or else we're going to end up understanding even less than we already do.)  And, of course, like all managers, Hurdle often makes in-game decisions that are spontaneous and sub-optimal. That's fair game. But when it comes to small things, and especially small things that are premeditated, they deserve more of the benefit of the doubt than they sometimes get. Pedro Florimon starting one game over Jung-Ho Kang just isn't that big a deal, and it might not have even been wrong. For all we know, at least.