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Looking through the Stat-Colored Glasses: Pittsburgh Pirates

Much ado has been made about the Freddy Sanchez All-Star selection, and it does bring up an interesting debate about what should make an All-Star. Marc and I alluded to it earlier in the week in our little AL All-Star discussion (don't worry, folks, the NL one is coming soon). There are two differing schools of thought:

  1. The All Star teams should be composed of players with strong performances (but not necessarily the strongest) and strong track records or reasonable chances at maintaining their high levels of performance (see: successful top prospects).
  2. The All Star teams should be the players who have had the strongest performances to date, regardless of past history.
From the standpoint of the first perspective, Freddy Sanchez is not a strong All Star. What of the other perspective? Is Sanchez comparable to the NL's other third basemen?
Miguel Cabrera .438 .572 .336 99 24/24
David Wright .390 .571 .317 90 23/24
Scott Rolen .403 .567 .321 115 7/24
Freddy Sanchez .395 .527 .307 113 12/24

Even with his gaudy batting average (.362), Sanchez has been the worst of the four NL third basemen with the bat. His defense, though, has been far better than that of Wright or Cabrera and he's a worthy All-Star selection, from the second standpoint.

Nothing I said there was particularly interesting or original, so I'd like to take it a step further: is there any chance that Freddy Sanchez has emerged into a productive ballplayer?

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when Freddy Sanchez was considered a very good prospect with the Red Sox. Director of Player Development Kent Qualls noted that they "knew he was going to be a sound defensive player" when they drafted him in the 11th round in 2000, but that his early performance with the bat was surprising. He was routinely mentioned in discussions of the Red Sox' top prospects and was highly praised for his defense in several articles that I read. He was compared favorably to David Eckstein--when Eckstein was considered a legitimate star. He was also considered one of the league's top 20 rookies by Baseball America in 2004.1

Statistically, you could see problems in his game. his average line at most levels throughout most of his minor league career was around .330.390/.450. We've seen batting average reliant players struggle mightily at the major league level. His cups of coffee in Boston probably served to reinforce the idea that he was just a product of hype, as he hit .220/.250/.260 in 50 ABs.

Currently, though, it's quite possible that we're seeing the upper end of that batting average dependency. He's currently posted a very high LD% of 29.2%, which ranks second in the NL (and, interestingly enough, his BABIP of .379 is slightly lower than where the ballpark estimate of BABIP based on LD% would have him). I'm hardly convinced that he can sustain that; after all, the league leader last year posted a 26.7% one and regression to the mean seems probable here. Still, Sanchez' uptick in line drives from 2005 seems to indicate that he is making more solid contact this year, and that could be indicative of general improvement.

It's exceedingly difficult for a player to sustain high levels of productivity when so much of their value stems from their batting average, but Sanchez was actually somewhat valuable last year. He played at second, short, and third, and he posted a FRAA of +3 for the year. He also hit .291/.336/.400, which makes him a tick below average offensively. (Still, Prospectus' metrics and ZR label him as inadequate at second, so he should probably stick to the left side of the infield.)

I sincerely doubt that Freddy Sanchez will ever win a batting title, but I could see him being a productive player over the next few seasons. Perhaps something like Mark Loretta as a hitter with a little bit better defense.

(Consider this a supplement to Marc's excellent piece from a few days back.)

- I half considered writing in Ronny Paulino as my All-Star catcher in the NL, and, the more I think about it, the more I realize that his story should probably be a bit more credited.

He's played 65 games this year for the big club and he's posted a .368 OBP. And he's thrown out 41.7% of runners who have tried to steal on him. I'm not expecting this one to hold up, but, among the NL's starting catchers, he's 4th in OBP and only trails Yadier in throwing out runners.

Such is the crux of the small market. It's not the fact that you can't compete; you most certainly can. It's that your surprises very rarely gain much of a national audience.

- And now for something completely different...

Why have the Pirates been so terrible this season?

It hasn't been discussed too heavily, but the Pirates' disappearance this year was highly unexpected. PECOTA projections pegged them for a run differential of -24, which is nothing to write home about but isn't as terrible as the -50 in one half of baseball. I picked the Pirates as a darkhorse candidate to be a surprise team this year and that one has flopped, miserably.

Why? Well, they've been terrible at preventing runs. They're second to last in the NL at run prevention, and they just don't have the offense to compensate for that. Their top two pitchers, according to VORP, are relievers. Their pitchers have been victimized by a combination of bad luck (see: high BABIPs) and, potentially, bad performance (see: high BABIPs and this David Gassko article). It's probably a combination of both and the fact that they just don't have a particularly good team, defensively (save Mr. Sanchez). One of my favorite young pitchers, Zach Duke, has been a major disappointment this year. The trio of touted youngsters, Maholm, Duke, and Snell, have all posted ERAs higher than 4.75, and I figured that at least one would emerge. And, of course, the less said about Oliver Perez, the better.

I think that the Pirates are a far better team than the train wreck in Kansas City, and I think that it will show up in the standings come September. Their offense is roughly average (maybe a tick below), and their pitching just isn't quite this bad. It can't be this bad all season.

1. Quotes and information from that paragraph came from the 2002 Scouting Notebook and the following newspaper articles, courtesy of LexisNexis: Tony Massarotti, "Sox Not Short on Praise for Sanchez," Boston Herald, 10 August 2001, 100; Mike Shalin, "New Kid, old Feel; Red Sox Prospect Freddy Sanchez may not be a call-up, but he's a throwback," Boston Herald, 4 August 2002, B06; Gordon Edes, "Developing Stories on Farm Bear Watching," Boston Globe, 29 February 2004, E8.