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Where’d the Pirates’ advantages go?

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MLB: San Francisco Giants at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Sawchik has an article up at FanGraphs (h/t pedropower) that’s well worth reading, even if it’s just to get a degree of validation for arguments that a lot of people have been making here. The article is entitle, “How the Pirates Got Here,” and it examines how, “[s]ince 2015, . . . both the trajectory of the big-league club and the perception of the organization have turned south.”

Sawchik starts with an overview of the Pirates’ spending, including the fact that they remained near the bottom in payroll in MLB while Kansas City chose to spend more. But he concludes there were other issues as well, including the evaporation of the analytical advantages he identified in his book, Big Data Baseball:

While the Pirates were on the vanguard of some analytical movements, those competitive advantages soon closed. Soon every team was shifting on the majority of plays. Catcher framing is no longer a market inefficiency and neither are ground-ball pitchers. In fact, the Pirates appeared to miss the next big trend in baseball: the home-run surge.

Sawchik recounts a conversation he had with Neal Huntington last September:

“We actually had this misdirected belief that when college baseball went to the less impactful bats that we would get back to good baseball,” Huntington said. “That guys would learn how to hit and how to use the whole field with authority, learn how to hit and run… and we would get back to where we were pre-steroid era. Unfortunately, guys doubled down and tried to launch even more.

This certainly would explain a lot of the Pirates’ drafting from 2014-16, when they focused heavily on contact-oriented, all-fields hitters both in the early (Cole Tucker, Connor Joe, Kevin Newman, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig) and late rounds. Tucker, Newman and Hayes remain good prospects, but with the possible except of Tucker, it’s unclear yet whether any projects as more than an average starter, mainly due to a lack of power.

In 2017, the Pirates seemed to depart abruptly from the contact-oriented approach. Apart from some late-round utility infield types, nearly all of the hitters they selected showed some power potential, sometimes quite a bit of it (Conner Uselton, Dylan Busby, Mason Martin). The Pirates never openly discuss their draft strategies, so it’s hard to tell for sure whether they’re really pursuing a different type of hitter or whether they drafted the players they did in 2017 for other reasons. Huntington’s comments do suggest, though, that they may have been trying to make up lost ground.

Sawchik addresses other issues as well, including disappointing drafts and failures of varying sorts by many of their core players. (He doesn’t mention Latin America.) He concludes:

Between the decline of their analytical advantages, a lack of support from the farm system, the absence of key players, and an underwhelming commitment from ownership, the Pirates have entered a recession.

I guess I find it a relief to read something like this because the discussion of what happened is so thoroughly dominated by, “Nutting is cheap!” and “Huntington makes stupid trades!” I think the issues that led them to where they are broader (although the failure to invest in success after the 2015 season certainly was one) and more baseball-oriented. The good thing is that a misguided reliance on pitching to contact and hitting to all fields can be corrected, although it takes time. Nutting isn’t going to start shelling out gazillions for free agents, but I’d like to think they’re addressing the baseball issues.