The Pittsburgh Pirates were 41-49 headed into the All-Star Break, and in a vacuum, that would seem to be improvement. They’re on pace for an 11-game improvement over last year’s record.
However, context is key.
The improvement starts to give way to stagnation when you pull back the curtain of just exactly how they got there.
After a 20-8 start made them owners of the best record in the National League, they have gone 21-41. They’ve had many significant injuries. Losing J.T Brubaker, Oneil Cruz, Vince Velasquez, Mike Burrows, Jarlin Garcia, Wil Crowe and the recently returning Ji-Man Choi all to long-term injuries.
Various others have gone down for shorter stints like Bryan Reynolds, Colin Holderman and currently Andrew McCutchen, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Jose Hernandez.
Yet I find it hard to give this team the benefit of the doubt. No team should be expected to go on unimpeded with the losses they’ve had, but their outright failures are so glaring.
With whatever playoff aspirations fans may have had now all but dashed, what on earth does a successful second half for this team look like?
Let's start with a simple one, avoid any additional substantial injuries.
Obviously, a lot of this is out of their control, players get hurt regardless of any innings limits or other restrictions you put on them.
Just don’t overwork anybody, they did last year with one of their elite arms in closer David Bednar and he got hurt. Already three pitchers have gone down with season-ending elbow surgery. No three-inning, 40-pitch saves the rest of the way, alright?
Part of this is just ensuring you at least have the quality and quantity of pitchers to get you through the innings, so you don’t have to overwork other more reliable options. That’s an absurdly low bar, but Ryan Borucki isn’t going to cut it there.
Make sure when players need an IL stint that they’re really right when they come back. This team doesn’t need McCutchen or Hayes at 70 percent rushing back just to get hurt again. They need them 100 percent or close to it.
Injuries can be finnicky and I don’t think that they have rushed anybody back to this point. Don’t start now just because you’ve dug yourself a hole.
On the pitching side of things, Luis Ortiz and Roansy Contreras have to find stable ground.
Both are former top 100 prospects. This isn’t Bryce Wilson and Zach Thompson, these guys have the potential to be very good. Yet both have totally regressed to pumpkin status.
Contreras was topping out at 93 mph in his last outing before being optioned all the way to the FCL and the 100mph fastball from Ortiz that looked like it could be very special last season is now nowhere to be found, Ortiz was optioned back to AAA.
The #Pirates announce that Roansy Contreras has been optioned from Triple-A Indianapolis to the FCL Pirates.— Justice delos Santos (@justdelossantos) July 13, 2023
Roansy has made mention of dialing it back just in an effort to get it over the plate.
These guys have been told a lot of things, they need more control, they need a third pitch, they need to stop tipping pitches, they need to tunnel their pitches more, they need to speed up their delivery etc. etc.
I get the feeling it’s been overwhelming. They’ve seemingly lost confidence in the stuff that made them enticing in the first place. They certainly won’t learn how to harness their best by throwing anything else other than their best. Which they desperately need to get back to doing.
They’re both still young, let them be the best versions of themselves before you start to tell them that’s not who they need to be at the MLB level.
With the current pitching depth at the MLB level being as questionable as, moving into 2024 with any sign that they’re gaining traction in finding their form again would be huge. That doesn’t mean that anything short of them returning to MLB in 2023 will be a failure. Especially with Contreras who is working up to simply pitching in a competitive environment in the FCL.
For the offense, part ways with hitting coach Andy Haines. Sooner rather than later.
Just going over his Pirates tenure, they’ve churned through a ridiculous number of players in the past two years. Yes, most of those were cast offs and other team’s spare parts. But there isn’t a big Andy Haines success story. What there is, however, is a lot of just plain bad hitting.
Rodolfo Castro’s 11 bombs and a .725 OPS led him to a WRC+ of 103 in 71 games last season. His OPS was .852 at the end of April this year.
He’s four for his last 41. His OPS is .675. He looks hopeless, vainly attempting to pull every ball he swings at without any semblance of a cohesive plate approach. Not dissimilar to other player’s struggles we have seen under Haines.
The team’s best player Bryan Reynolds, like everything else, has been subpar since the start of May. Hitting just .234 with four homers.
Haines has brought to the table a philosophy of seeing as many pitches as possible and being selective with the strikes you swing at. Pitchers across the league are noticing and getting ahead easily in counts and Pirates batters aren’t protecting and expanding the zone with two strikes.
Since the start of May they are second to last in runs scored with just 223 and dead last in team WRC+ with a grizzly 79.
There’s one example of improvement under Haines and it’s Jack Suwinski. If your hitting coach can only help one specific kind of player get any better, they’re not much of a hitting coach.
While Haines at this rate will be on the way out the door this offseason, it's not a move you have to wait until then to make.
Heading into the break a woeful Yankees offense fired hitting coach Dillon Lawson. The world did not end. There’s no reason Andy Haines’ interim replacement has to be the long-term solution. Nor do you have to begin the search for one immediately.
Haines is part of the problem and while removing him will not totally solve it, ending his tenure is the first step on the road to it.
There are several areas of the roster and player deployment that are in desperate need of improvement.
The constantly shifting roles lineup wise absolutely reek of over management. Henry Davis should not be asked to move from the three spot to leadoff to fifth back to third in a matter of days. Find consistent deployments for the regulars and stick with them.
Austin Hedges is unplayable, they have to get him out of the lineup. Of the 2,838 major league players to obtain 2,000 career plate appearances his WRC+ of 52 ranks 14th worst ever from any position. There are two pitchers ahead of him.
Through 59 games his 2023 OPS+ of 27 would be fourth worst since 1871 from a catcher to appear in 100 games. He’s on pace to appear in 106.
He’s a very good receiver, but his nine catcher-framing runs haven’t helped the pitching staff these past two months, the 4.81 team ERA since May 1 is sixth worst in baseball. It’s not even leading him to the best catcher ERA on the team, his 4.51 is .07 higher than Jason Delay’s 4.44.
This team doesn’t need his framing as much as it needs to not have multiple black holes of production in the bottom half of the lineup.
The Pirates are carrying three catchers on the MLB squad and a total of four catchers on their 40-man roster. Two of which are MLB top 100 prospects. Let them catch.
Endy Rodriguez looks to be turning the corner at AAA Indianapolis, hitting .317/.411/.450 since June 21, with walk rates over 15 percent while striking out under 10 percent of the time. Not preforming to his usual standards in 2023, making adjustments that lead to stretches like this are what earn players their promotions. Not the full season line. Right now, Rodriguez looks close to ready.
Yes, Henry Davis is a bad receiver, his frames are awful, he sometimes drops pitches. He also isn’t going to get better if he never catches. If the team still believes in him as a catcher, they need to work him into games more like they did in June 7’s contest against the Diamondbacks in the 8th inning.
The team has also suffered from poor play from SS for most of the season. Since Oneil Cruz went down Pirates shortstops have combined for a WRC+ of 82 and are among the league’s worst defensively. Tucapita Marcano and Rodolfo Castro are -7 and -6 OAA at the position respectively. Even as stopgap solutions they are truly terrible.
SS Alika Williams and SS/2B Liover Peguero, both at AAA, are the teams 30th and 6th ranked prospects. Peguero has a 120 WRC+ since the start of May and the glove first Williams has a WRC+ of 100 since being acquired for reliever Robert Stephenson from Tampa.
Either one only has to be 17 percent below average offensively and a near capable defender to be better on both sides than the offerings they’ve had. Incredibly low bar to clear here.
With Cruz’s return more than a month away, it's an opportunity to see what they have. An opportunity that should not be wasted on those who have already proven incapable.
What about record? Wins and losses in 2023 still matter looking forward to 2024. Stacking success matters.
If there’s a number to avoid in the second half it would be 90.
Should they play at even just a .450 clip the rest of the way, that would leave them with a final record of 73-89.
The first half is proof how you get there matters just as much as where you end up. If they avoid 90 losses but Ortiz and Ro struggle to get right in the Minors and the call ups like Rodriguez or Priester have weak showings the rest of the way, it would be harder to talk about that silver lining of supposed improvement.
They absolutely have to avoid playing at the 108-loss pace they did post April. Which would leave them 65-97. Approaching the 100-loss plateau for a third straight year would cast serious doubt on any legitimate contention plans for 2024 and the rebuild as a whole.