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Friday, December 9, 2022

Gajtka: Team Keeping Up In NL, But Young Pedigreed Pirates Still Lagging

I was not (completely) correct in my analysis.

You might recall my opening day column, referring to the Pirates’ “vanilla veterans” and how it was they, not the youngsters, who would limit this team’s potential.

To my slight surprise, that assessment hasn’t been completely accurate to date.

While Jordy Mercer and Iván Nova have been predictably blah and George Kontos has been a wreck, other seasoned vets have put in some serious work. Francisco Cervelli has delivered in a big way, harnessing his power potential and — knock on wood — staying on the field much more often than not. David Freese has been perfectly serviceable in a part-time role. Josh Harrison has been more than solid when he’s been healthy.

(Please note that I categorized Starling Marte as a step above this group, based upon his track record as an All-Star caliber player.)

I hesitate to nitpick with the team at 27-22 and in postseason contention at this early juncture, but if I had to identify key players who are underperforming, most of them would be gentlemen 26 years old and younger.

If you had told me during spring training that Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco would all be performing below expectations on the verge of Memorial Day weekend, I would’ve guessed that the Pirates had a losing record and might already be looking forward to 2019.

Taillon, especially, has been frustrating to watch. On a pitching staff in need of a leader, Taillon has given the Pirates right around average (4.56 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 1.29 WHIP) performance in 10 starts, if not slightly below average.

He’s fiddled with a slider in recent starts, seemingly in search of another option when he doesn’t have the feel for his signature curveball. His stuff remains there, but big-league hitters have found him rather predictable lately, as Scooter Gennett’s grand slam off a first-pitch changeup Tuesday night would indicate.

Taillon has never thrown harder as a Pirate than he has his month, with his four- and two-seam fastballs both averaging over 96 mph. He’s healthy, which raises the bar for his expected performance … and makes his mediocrity all the more confusing.

Then there’s Josh Bell, who’s been a replacement-level first baseman in what was supposed to be his breakout season. While his batting average (.254) and on-base percentage (.333) are nearly identical to 2017’s numbers, his slugging percentage of .395 is more than 70 points down.

As Alan Saunders pointed out recently, perhaps Bell got a little fortunate last year with his batted-ball luck, since his Statcast profile seems rather similar to last year’s, when Bell posted a career high in isolated slugging (.211).

A man of Bell’s strength, smarts and hand-eye coordination should be expected to figure this thing out sooner than later, but the history of Major League Baseball is riddled with players who never got the hang of it.

Finally, some might dispute my inclusion of Gregory Polanco on the list of Pirates millstones, but I’d contend that .220 batting average and career-high 23 percent strikeout rate raise just as much concern as his career bests in walk rate (13 percent) and isolated slugging (.226) provide encouragement.

To break it down further, Polanco is swinging at pitches outside the zone less than ever, boasting a 26 percent chase rate, but he’s making contact on just 76 percent of the pitches he tries to hit, the lowest rate of his big-league career. Four-seam fastballs have been particularly troublesome for Polanco; he’s produced about 3 1/2 runs below MLB average against the heater this season per FanGraphs’ pitch weights.

In short, Polanco is still getting on base and hitting for good power, but there are troubling facts percolating. Sounds a little like the team he plays for.

The Pirates have done well to keep the first-place Brewers in their sights, although we still get the sense they’re not truly in high gear.

Depending on your point of view, that could be a positive or a negative.

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