It couldn’t have been made more apparent than it was in a 2-0, one hit loss at the hands of Minnesota Twins and aging lefty J.A. Happ, that pitching isn’t going to solve all of the Pirates problems; and neither is solid defense for that matter. JT Brubaker and Sam Howard took the mound for Pittsburgh, and in the process did almost every they could to put the Pirates in a position to win. In his seven innings of work Brubaker allowed only 2 runs on 5 hits, while struck out the side in the 8th. It was the kind of pitching performances you wish and hope for from the arms on your roster.
At the same time I watched Happ strike out three, which was actually just Colin Moran twice and Fraizer (Todd) once, walk two and give up one hit, I never felt like he was dominating. Sure a crafty lefty can always be deceiving, but even when I looked into the numbers, it still didn’t seem like the hitters should have been completely overmatched.
On the game Happ had just 7 whiffs and 11 called strikes over his 95 pitches on Friday night, for a CWS% of 18%; where the league average is 28.7% and a good to excellent outing is rated at 30 to 40%. Pitchers in this range are judged to be truly dealing. Clearly you can’t take away the ball one hit performance by Happ, but how much of this was on the Pirates batters?
Now of course many of you will probably be quick to point out that the bats came alive, at least to some degree, in the Pirates 6-2 win on Saturday; but I would caution you to examine how most of those hits came and who they came from. Sure the two homers were impressive, however, outside of that I saw a lot of struggles at the plate and a few pop ups that fell in for hits. And when these troubles or slumps happen, mostly on an individual basis, it is more difficult to also overlook poor defensive performances as well. This is not to say that one aspect of the game is more important than the other, but more often, a strong plate presence can mask difficulties in the field easier than a glove that plays with a bat that doesn’t.
In 2019 Kevin Newman had -7 DRS, 10 errors and a -7 OAA at shortstop, but was immediately heralded as the future at the position due to his .308/.353/.446 slash line with 12 homers and a 109 wRC+. His defensive struggles were all but ignored, and this isn’t even taking into account what the peripherals said about his bat. There wasn’t even really a question that his last plate presence would make him an everyday starter, with a 2.3 fWAR and 3.0 WAR respectively.
Flash forward to present day where Newman is hitting .172 with his one homer from Saturday, but has a 2 OAA, 2 DRS and 0 errors. Obviously, this doesn’t scream everyday short stop, or even second baseman to anyone. Just like Phillip Evans is probably not a full time left fielder based on his -3 OAA and the muff and boot against the Twins on a routine fly ball. However, if he was still hitting closer to where he was a week ago and not the .115 batting average he has posted over the last seven games, it would be a lot easier to overlook this level of play and continue to justify his place in the lineup at really any position; because no matter how much people want to focus on the positives of defense and pitching, the bat is still king in that it will help a player find his way on to the roster and into the lineup over the glove.
This assertion is true time and time again, which is evident by the Pirates leaving Cole Tucker and Jared Oliva in Florida when they headed north to receive individual instruction because they needed to work on being able to hit Major League pitching. No one is questioning their ability to be able to play the outfield, or hopefully shortstop in Tucker’s case, but they have to hit to stick, to contribute and to work towards being in a string of hitters in the lineup that don’t waste starts like Brubaker’s or a shutdown bullpen.
Every time I make this argument, Pirates Fans are also quick to mention a player like Jack Wilson, whose defense was far and away his strong suit. Many will point toward his astronomical numbers of 98 DRS from 2004 through the time he was traded to Seattle in July of 2009, but how many mention his .279 AVG over this same time period. Of course his defensive attributes would still be touted, but it’s less likely that he remains an every day player if he bats .215 or less with the Pirates; and is probably relegated to a utility man role or a late inning defensive substitution. Hell, even the Wizard of Oz, Ozzie Smith, doesn’t reach his level of notoriety if his average hovers at or the .233 AVG he held during his time in San Diego.
Sooner or later the bat has to play.