The Baseball Notebook

May 26, 2010 3:00 PM

Pittsburgh's Lonely Star

When I decided to begin my position-by-positon analysis with National League catchers, I didn't think I would manage to change my mind in the course of two days (see Sunday's Early All-Star Ballot). But I think I was guilty of an oversight. While Atlanta's Brian McCann is having a nice year, upon further review I don't think it stands up to the underrated Ryan Doumit in Pittsburgh.

Doumit is a complete offensive package, getting on base and putting up a nice .460 slugging percentage. His numbers become more impressive when you consider that he's surrounded by next to no one in the lineup--a fact we'll see in stark detail further down in this post when the Pirates are examined more closely. The combination of good numbers with no help is enough to merit him the early edge for the All-Star team.

One thing I should note in making these selections is that I'm focused strictly on offense. It's not that I don't value defense in a catcher--quite the contrary. But as far as measuring it, I don't trust caught stealing percentages as reliable, because I think that depends as much on the pitcher. And I'm not going to base it on reputation as far as game-calling, something that's media-driven. So though it's less complete than I would prefer, my selections at catcher are offensive-based. With that, some remaining notes on the rest of the field...

*Geovany Soto and Carlos Ruiz are on-base machines, each with OBPs over .400. Just a little bit more muscle from either one and they could be the pick.

*McCann leads up a group of four with balanced offensive profiles. In particular Washington's Ivan Rodriguez and Colorado's Miguel Olivo are having good years, with Chris Snyder in Arizona also in the mix. How you rank this foursome in relation to Soto and Ruiz depends on what you value most offensively. I won't engage that debate here, but I would rank this quartet as McCann, Rodriguez, Olivo and Snyder.

*As though we were on a golf course, let's move on to another foursome. This group has respectable on-base percentages and considering that most teams don't rely on their catcher for big offensive output, aren't liabilities. But nor are they close to All-Star level. Introducing Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, brother Bengie, and Greg Zaun. Of the four, Martin has to be considered more disappointing, because not too long ago he was the best in the National League. Zaun has to be the most heartening, because there was no reason to expect anything from his bat. Yet his OBP is .350.

*Finally you have the Mets' Rod Barajas, in a category all his own. Great slugging percentage at .551, the best among NL catchers. And a horrific .289 OBP, the worst at the position.


Since we honored Doumit for his individual efforts, let's take a look at the rest of his team. Pittsburgh isn't exactly setting the world on fire, at 19-26 and seven games back. But for this struggling franchise, being only two games out of third place and ahead of both Milwaukee and Houston is a sign of hope. ESPN's Buster Olney was also noting earlier this week that they will likely not be sellers at the trade deadline, since there are no veterans approaching free agency. So let's see if this can be the year baseball returns to the Steel City. We'll break it down into four areas--the ability to get men on base, the ability to hit for power, the starting rotation and the bullpen.

The overall profile isn't promising. Pittsburgh ranks 15th in the NL in both runs scored and ERA. They rank 15th in terms of getting men on base and keeping the opposition off base. They rank 15th in terms of slugging percentage as well as slugging allowed. If all that suggests to you that they are really the 15th best team in the league, I would agree. But before writing them off, is there any reason to think they can pick up the pace? You know about Doumit, so let's go into his supporting cast.

Akinori Iwamura simply has to get in gear. A .270 OBP for someone who was once a productive player in Tampa and part of a World Series team is completely unacceptable. Any hopes for improvement start here. Ryan Church is also non-existent and should be doing more. The Pirates have two more dead spots in the attack with Ronny Cedeno and Jeff Clement. The former is the shortstop and presumably not relied on for offense, but Clement is a big liabilty. The positive is centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, sitting on a .381 OBP and vastly outperforming Nate McLouth, his predecessor here who was traded to Atlanta. Garrett Jones isn't lighting up the board, but remains a positive sign of light. Finally we come to Lastings Milledge, who appears destined to never fulfill the great things that were predicted for him when he was with the Mets. Whether that's his fault or that of talent evaluators is unknown to me. What is known is that Pittsburgh can't count him for anything more than they are getting, which is not all that much.

McCutchen also provides a little pop in terms of power, but beyond he and Doumit there isn't much. Here too, Jones has promise, Milledge isn't doing much and Iwamura is nothing short of awful. On balance, the offense can hope for modest improvement in the runners they get on base, but I see little reason to think their ability to hit the gaps and hit home runs will get any better.

And if they don't score, life is going to get real rough, because the starting pitching is not good. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm have ERAs in the mid-4s--keeping in mind that this is without facing a DH and pitching against generally weaker NL lineups--and they're the aces. Charlie Morton managed to put up an 8.71 ERA and still get nine starts. Russ Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens were picked up from the Yankees in 2008 in exchange for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. As raids on the Pinstripes go, this isn't exactly Detroit sneaking out with Austin Jackson.

If Pittsburgh does get to the end of the game with a lead it's still adventure time. Octavio Dotel has already blown a couple saves and has a bloated ERA of 5.89. Evan Meek is a big bright spot in middle work with 0.96 ERA. And with 28 innings in 21 appearances, he's more than a situational pitcher. Javier Lopez is such a situational guy, who goes less than one inning an outing, but at least he's good in doing it at 1.96. No one else can get hitters out consistently.

So can this be the team that gives Pittsburgh some hope? No. Only being in the same division with Houston gives them a shot at avoiding last place and their record will find their way to the #15 spot that their key team stats are already at.

Tomorrow the Notebook will jump over to American League catchers and we'll take a closer look at AL West-contending Oakland.

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