The notion that another collapse is underway, as hard as that is to believe, must be taken seriously in light of the Pirates recent play. I did not embrace what I considered ridiculously premature talk as long as a week ago. I’m still not fully on board with the belief there's going to be a repeat of a repeat. But the evidence at hand certainly makes what just a few weeks ago seemed impossible very much worth investigating.
The fact the budding Collapse III began on the same day as Collapse II lends a touch of eeriness and authenticity to what is taking place before our very eyes.
* On Aug. 8, 2012, the Pirates won to go 63-47. They they proceeded to lose 36 of their remaining 52 games to miss a winning season and become a punchline.
* On Aug, 8, 2013, the Pirates won to go 70-44. They have proceeded to lose seven of their next nine. Doing the math, last year’s slide produced a .308 winning percentage This year’s is weighing in at .222.
What’s gone wrong? Not as much as you might think, but, obviously, too much.
Andrew McCutchen continues to play at an MVP level. Neil Walker Starling Marte, Jose Tabata and Russell Martin are performing from well to very good. Pedro Alvarez continues to lead the NL in home runs. Francisco Liriano remains a horse, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have been good. The bullpen has faltered a bit, but remains a strength.
So where are the problems?
The largest and the one that does not look to have a happy ending is at first base. It’s mid-August and Garrett Jones is still not hitting. His slugging percentage is down 92 points, his OPS down 108. More than any player, Jones has most shortchanged the offense.
There have been repeated defenses of Gaby Sanchez on the blog but no more. He was hitless in three at bats against a lefty yesterday with two strikeouts. His absence of power is troubling. He’s having a better season than Jones -- higher OPS, more RBIs/AB -- but despite that and his positive stats against left-handers, he’s having a keenly disappointing season.
The power outage at first base means that the recent revival of Jose Tabata doesn’t mean much. The Pirates are not getting power from two key power positions: right field and first base. It’s tough to win with that combination, especially when there’s little power coming from left field.
What’s particularly alarming is there is no obvious solution to the weakness at first base, short of a trade and none of the players available are anything close to a guarantee.
On the starting pitching front, the recent performances of A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke have not been good. Although GM Neal Huntington laughed off Locke’s travails on his radio show today, there has to be genuine concern. This is not to suggest he’s in the midst of a James McDonald meltdown -- although there are similarities -- but he’s not the same pitcher he was in the first half of the season. His BAA is up from .202 to .325 and his WHIP from 1.13 to 2.02. Some of that -- but not all -- is due to his horrific performance Saturday. But there is reason to believe that not only will Locke not be as good as he was in the first half, he’ll go from an asset to a liabllity.
There’s a lot of panic about Burnett and that is buttressed by what has become an annual and substantial August decline. Two games -- that’s all it is this year -- does not make a trend, not even with Burnett’s history. It is way, way too early to be condeming a guy who’s been a pillar of strength for the better part of two seasons. But his next start deserves close scrutiny.
With Wandy Rodriguez looking like a real possibility for September, the team is in far greater need of a hitter than a pitcher.
Hopefully, when Huntington was laughing off the Pirates problems yesterday on the radio, he knew in his head that this team needs help. Because it does.