First Pitch: How Good Has the Pirates Bench Been This Year?

MIAMI – Baseball can have some funny cycles. It wasn’t too long ago that the Pirates were seen as a team who could find pitching easily, with questions about their ability to find offense. This year has been the exact opposite. They’ve got one of the top offenses in the National League (and in all of baseball), but the entire pitching staff has under-performed.

The offense has been in large part due to a successful focus on players who do well getting on base, while sacrificing some power. A big reason for the success has been due to a lot of the off-season signings, with John Jaso being the big one. But the Pirates also did a tremendous job building their bench, adding three veteran hitters who have been fantastic this year.

Sean Rodriguez, David Freese, and Matt Joyce have done as much as you could as for from a bench group, and more. The trio has combined for a .298/.394/.515 line in 348 plate appearances this year. That’s a .909 OPS in a little over half a season’s plate appearances.

Putting those numbers in perspective, last year there were only 11 full-time hitters in baseball who had an OPS over .900. The guys closest to .900? Chris Davis, David Ortiz, Jose Bautista, and Anthony Rizzo and Nolan Arenado who fell just short.

That’s the production the bench is bringing so far. Over half a season of production on par with some of the best hitters in the game.

“It is one of the strongest groups I’ve had,” Clint Hurdle said on how good this group has been. “I’ve always had a couple of strong parts in some areas, but the completion of the fact we’ve got a professional right-handed hitter, a professional left-handed hitter, a professional catcher, a professional defender who is also a batsman this year, and then you’ve got Figueroa, who you’re going to see play more as we move into the volume of games into the season. They’re professional in their approach, their routine. They came in hungry with an edge. They’re getting things done together.”

The professional right-handed hitter is David Freese. He’s hitting for a .296/.374/.428 line in 179 plate appearances this year, serving as a great fill-in for Jung-ho Kang at the start of the year, along with an option off the bench at first and third. The amazing thing here is that Freese is actually putting up numbers close to his career best marks in 2012.

Then there’s the professional left-handed hitter, Matt Joyce. He’s got a .317/.456/.635 line in 79 plate appearances. That’s a small sample size, and the overall results are largely fueled by five home runs. But that total already matches last year’s total for Joyce, which came in 284 plate appearances. He’s looking more like the hitter with the Rays a few years ago, and less like the guy who appeared to be on the decline the last few years.

Sean Rodriguez was seen as a defensive utility option, but has been the most surprising offensive option of all. Rodriguez has a .286/.389/.597 line in 91 plate appearances. Again, a small sample size, but what he has done has been impressive. He’s got six homers, which already passed his totals last year. He also has his best OBP of his career, and his best slugging percentage.

Rodriguez and Joyce will come back to Earth soon. The same could happen with Freese, although he’s not putting up video game numbers like the other two, and actually has produced his current numbers in the past. But even if this doesn’t continue, the Pirates have received tremendous value out of these guys.

When you factor in the entire bench, including Chris Stewart and Cole Figueroa, the Pirates have received 2.8 WAR so far this year. They paid this group $8.4 M. The price per WAR on the free agent market is around $7 M, which means the Pirates are getting $19.6 M in value, paying less than half of that.

But the value the Pirates are receiving expands beyond the financials. This group provides them with a lot of depth, and the ability to rest their starters without seeing a big decline in production. That’s going to be huge for the Pirates with no off-days for the next two weeks, and only one off-day between now and June 30th.

“I think I heard [Steve] Blass say it, it’s not so much that you have a bench. You have 13 position players,” Hurdle said. “The manager is just moving them in and out. That’s pretty right-on. Makes you a stronger team.”

This bench has definitely made them a stronger offensive team. It won’t continue at this pace, but should continue with good enough results that they will give the Pirates strong depth throughout the year, along with bonus production beyond the starting eight.

**Pirates Can’t Keep Pace With Jose Fernandez in 3-1 Loss. Tonight’s live report from Miami, looking at Jose Fernandez and his dominating start, and what led to Gerrit Cole losing pace in the seventh inning.

**Tito Polo is Having a Breakout Season in West Virginia. West Virginia gets all the breakout guys. I was saving this Polo story, after getting quotes last month. I wanted to make sure Polo wasn’t just having short-term success, and that he would stay consistent. He’s actually gotten better in May, and passed the eye test when I saw him.

**Yeudy Garcia’s Lack of Fastball Command Has Been a Mystery. There have been some good surface numbers from Garcia this year, but watching him live, he lacks command of the fastball, and has had some high pitch counts. I looked at the mystery surrounding this.

**Prospect Watch: Career Night From Jacob Stallings Overshadows Starts by Kuhl and Keller. A great performance from Stallings tonight, leading a good night throughout the farm system. Brian Peloza has the live report from Indianapolis on the big night from Stallings.

**Morning Report: Updated Leaders Around the Farm System. John Dreker takes a look at the leaders in the system after two months.

  • Scott Kliesen
    June 1, 2016 6:53 am

    Serpico making many commenters eat their words. I surely am one.

    • I have no idea how he turned that corner but I am glad!

    • I was one of the few in his corner. Every once in awhile, I get one right. πŸ™‚

      But, to be honest, I wanted him back because of his defensive versatility.

      I knew he had ‘pop’, but to be hitting like this IS a surprise.

      • Scott Kliesen
        June 1, 2016 8:29 am

        So you’re the one! πŸ™‚

        • Well, I thought Joyce was on a down trend, so there’s that. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

          • I have been one of the very very very few in Jeff Locke’s corner. Hope he keeps it up and can move Nicasio into the Pen when they bring up Taillion and have Kuhl and possibly Masterson slot into the pen as well. Locke is what he is. A decent 5th guy in the rotation. Nicasio in the pen makes the Bucs better if Taillion is ready.

            • But wait – EVERY Pirate fan thinks Locke is a AAA pitcher and should be dumped – I read that here yesterday so it has to be true!!!!!

              • Locke won’t do this all the time, but he shut down the best hitting team against left handers.

                • No, he won’t do this all the time but for a #5 guy, he is pretty good. #5 guys do not routinely shut down anyone. If he can routinely keep the pirates in the game and give them a chance to win, then he is doing his job. He does not have to shut down teams, just keep it to where the Pirates score more than the opposition. If you expect him to be a top 2 rotation guy, he is over matched and needs replacing. As a #5 guy, he is decent.

            • This might be the most revealing – and worst – stat about the 2016 Bucs starting rotation: Cole, Niese and Locke all have the same number of starts with game scores >50, at six apiece.

              That means only 60% of the time are they really pitching well enough to keep the team in the game on their own – and when you get down near a 50 score, even saying that is a bit dicey.

              The other two, Frankie and Juanny, with only five each, basically give the Bucs Harvey Two-Face odds.

    • The irony is that many of those same commenters will want to re-up with Serpico this winter when the Pirates choose a cheaper option like Adam Frazier, or maybe Madoff, while Serpico pursues a full time playing time opportunity somewhere else based on what he has shown with the bat this year (if he can keep it up).

      • You would be correct. When the Bucs do not pay what someone else is willing to for Serpico, they will be labeled cheap again. Many other defensive utility guys are in our system already as you mention and if they have a decent bat to go with it, you go with the cheaper younger guy. No brainer but that will not stop the talking heads from heading the lemmings into the Cheap talk again.

        • Speaking of the Pirates are cheap, anyone still wish the Bucs spent all the money on Russell Martin and kept him instead of getting Mr. Cervelli????

          • No, but I’d rather have Happ than anyone but Cole. And no amount of showing how he’s outperforming his peripherals are iffy is going to change my mind. So is Cole, btw.

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