Over the last week or so we have been hearing about the idea of meritocracy existing within the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse. Both General Manager Ben Cherington and Manager Derek Shelton have talked about the need for a playing time to be earned and that healthy competition is necessary for growth. Many people have taken these statements and ran with them to pick the low hanging fruit in the forms of JT Riddle and Gregory Polanco in order to disprove the existence of a meritocracy, which is completely justified. Currently Riddle is slashing .167/.200/.271 with a single home run. In the field Riddle has played multiple positions, but has recorded the most time at third base; 79 innings to exact. During this time he has committed 3 errors; earning -3 DRS and -3 OAA. Gregory Polanco has a few more homers, 5 to be exact, but is obviously underperforming. In 120 at bats, going into Tuesday night’s contest with the Reds he was batting .142 with a .501 OPS. His outfield performance is probably a little better than expected in that he has compiled 1 OAA and 0 DRS. However, the issues when trying to justify the presence of a meritocracy in the Pirates organization go well beyond these two players. It’s just easier for fans to point out a couple of unpopular guys and move on, with the ultimate goal of not having to mention some of their favorites. This just doesn’t make sense to me. How is any player beyond criticism? Because if we are doing an honest evaluation of talent, they clearly shouldn’t be.
On the season their are at least three Pirates players, and maybe more, that have somehow escaped the same scrutiny often piled onto Riddle and Polanco. The first player that comes to mind and undoubtedly fits the criteria is Cole Tucker. Tucker is slashing .225/.259/.284 with one home run; last hitting an extra base hit on August 31st. In the field he has spent the year becoming accustomed to patrolling the grass instead of the customary dirt at shortstop; experiencing some bumps in the road along the way. Between center and right field he has a total of -7 DRS and -1 0AA. Right now he isn’t even performing at replacement level, with a -.4 fWAR and a -1.1 bWAR, yet he keeps getting written into the lineup on an almost daily basis.
The second player on this list is infielder Kevin Newman, who despite some questionable numbers has become the most regular second baseman for Pittsburgh over the past few weeks. After competing for a battle title toward the end of last season with a .308 average to go along with 12 home runs, the shortened season has not been kind to Newman as he is slashing .227/.276/.284. Unfortunately he has also continued to struggle on defense, a fact that was often overshadowed last year due to the offensive output. At shortstop he has accumulated -3 DRS and -2 OAA. He does execute better at second base, earning 0 DRS and 1 OAA. However, when you have a guy that posts 4 DRS and 4 OAA at second base, it’s hard to claim meritocracy.
The last player I want to talk about is starting pitcher Trevor Williams. Williams is over a full season removed from one of the best second half performances many of us have ever seen from a Pirates pitcher. Back in 2018 Williams boasted a 1.38 ERA and a 1.074 WHIP across 12 games to end the year. This season Williams has an ERA of 6.35 and a WHIP of 1.632 and has only gotten worse with each passing game. Over his last 3 starts he has pitched a total of 15 innings; allowing 14 earned runs on 22 hits, while walking 8 and striking out 16. How long does a member of the starting rotation just get the ball handed to him every five days, without a second thought? And no this isn’t a rhetorical question. Especially since we have seen a player, with no big league experience before this year, come up from the alternate site and perform fairly well in spot starts, only to be sent back down a day later.
Since talking over the helm for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cherington and Shelton have taken to using catchphrases and buzzwords that hold less and less weight when they are inconsistently implemented. The vision of identifying, acquiring, developing and deploying players, the desire to “get better” and the method of utilizing meritocracy in roster construction and lineup choices become simply words, rather than an overarching organizational shift in philosophy. Actions will always speak louder than words, and right now in the Pirates clubhouse and front office the silence is deafening.