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The 30: Bucco Bargains

With the Yankees paying about half his salary, A.J. Burnett has become an ace for the Pirates. Excuse us, the first-place Pirates.

A.J. Burnett

Four weeks into the season and we’re still searching for answers. Will the Jays’ offseason shopping spree end in disaster? Can surprise contenders in Colorado and Kansas City keep it up? Is Yu Darvish a supernatural being? We might know a little more than we did on Opening Day. But now, as then, you should still sing the Small Sample Size Song, loud and proud.

It’s Week 4 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

5. BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Dan Duquette sounded confident. He knew all about the Orioles’ historic 29-9 record in one-run games in 2012, that the team won 11 more games than raw runs scored and runs allowed totals suggested. He knew that second base, DH, and left field were, by conventional wisdom, major question marks heading into this season. That the starting rotation lacked star power, the bullpen was due for regression, and even an elite manager couldn’t make up for a merely decent roster.

But Duquette didn’t see last year’s O’s as a flash in the pan. He looked at a young core of players in their mid-to-late 20s and saw a full season for Manny Machado, more talent progressing on the farm, even good things for the team’s (supposedly) most-flawed players, and predicted more good times ahead.

The 2013 Orioles are 4-5 in one-run games, including a painful loss Sunday in which they lost the game on an error after kicking away a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. They’re 1-2 in extra-inning games. If Buck Showalter is truly capable of some sort of transcendent juju, we’ve yet to see it this year. And yet here the O’s are, tied for the fifth-best record in the majors after taking three out of four against a tough A’s team on the road. When you’ve got Adam Jones hitting .352/.370/.562 and Chris Davis doing a swell imitation of peak Manny Ramirez, you’re going to win a bunch of games.

But the story of this year’s Orioles team is, in a sense, the story of Duquette’s career. He knows how to identify undervalued talent, he hires others who know how to identify undervalued talent, and his teams reap the benefits. Nate McLouth is a prime example of that strategy. When Baltimore picked up McLouth last June, he was coming off a 34-game stint in Pittsburgh in which he hit .140/.210/.175. The year before, he hit .228/.344/.333. The year before that, .190/.298/.322. A terrible fielder by advanced metrics the year he won a Gold Glove,1 he’d shown no improvement afield.


1.

There’s no way in hell McLouth would’ve won that 2008 Gold Glove if he hadn’t coincidentally put up the best offensive numbers of his career that year. If you ever want to win a Gold Glove, start by hitting the crap out of the ball. If you can field your position better than a comatose, one-pawed opossum, you’ve got a good shot at claiming some hardware.

He’s been playing better and better since. In 55 games with the O’s last year, McLouth hit .268/.342/.435, stole 12 bases in 13 tries, was one of the top base runners in the league, and, acknowledging the small and potentially misleading sample size, played roughly league-average defense per advanced metrics. This year, he’s gone absolutely bonkers, hitting .351/.455/.486. He’s already swiped eight bases in nine attempts, walked 14 times against just eight strikeouts, and grounded into just one double play. The .385 batting average on balls in play will start to ebb. But the doubles power, ability to change the game with his legs, and especially the big uptick in plate discipline are all intriguing, particularly for a player making just $2 million this year.

Therein lies the rub. Peter Angelos has decided he’d rather pocket his gigantic annual MASN profits than funnel them into his baseball team, with payroll ticking up just 10 percent from last year almost entirely due to organic raises, contract escalation, and arbitration awards for existing players. That’s the owner’s right, of course. But it also forces Duquette, Showalter, & Co. to do the best they can with a roster full of baseball leftovers. The scraps they acquired from Texas alone — Davis and Darren O’Day, along with Pedro Strop (productive last year if not necessarily this year) and Tommy Hunter (nice guy, hopefully?) — form a good-sized chunk of the roster. There’s also McLouth, Wei-Yin Chen (not a castoff per se, but dirt cheap on a three-year, $11.4 million contract), and Jason Hammel (acquired for Jeremy Guthrie, who immediately turned into a pumpkin in Colorado before finding a home in Kansas City). These are the next-generation Brian Daubachs, Troy O’Learys, Darrin Fletchers, and Sean Berrys, the shrewd acquisitions Duquette has pulled off at every stop in his career, only with McLouth potentially turning into a cornerstone of this Orioles team and Davis threatening to become his best pickup since … Pedro Martinez?

Matt Wieters will start to hit, as will J.J. Hardy. Machado’s turning into a star at age 20, and top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman2 sports a 29-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate at Double-A Bowie as he closes in on a first crack at the Show. But if the Orioles are contending again this year come July, one of the players who could really scare the rest of the AL East could be the one hitting a buck-forty that no one wants. Someone just like Nate McLouth.

6. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS


2.

Given that Dylan Bundy’s seeing Dr. James Andrews today, we can safely call Gausman the team’s best pitching prospect who’s closing in on a call-up.

Well, now everyone is going to be angry. Pirates fans will wonder what their team has to do to crack the top 10, or even just to leapfrog a Cardinals club their team just beat twice in three tries on the road.3 And Cardinals fans will wonder when their sub–replacement level bullpen will stop pouring gasoline on the tire fire the relievers have set this year.


3.

Short answer: We’re still only four weeks into the season. As I wrote after Week 1: “More broadly, we’ll need more time until key stats, and thus run totals and records, start to mean something. As the season goes on, we’ll start to take actual records (and run differentials, which mean just as little as records after one week) more seriously and give underachieving clubs less credit for on-paper talent and reputation.” By any projection system or even a simple eye test, the Cardinals and many other teams owned better collections of talent than did the Pirates coming into the season. Four weeks aren’t enough to wipe out all those assessments. If the Bucs keeping winning, their results will start to trump whatever tempered expectations we had for them in March.

As one Cardinals fan asked me after the pen surrendered six more runs Sunday afternoon: “Is it better to have a great rotation and bad bullpen, or vice versa?” The answer is, you’d rather have a great rotation. Sure, a leaky pen can smudge even the sharpest non–complete game outings for a strong starting five, turning leads into losses. But the first five, six, seven, and eight innings matter, too, and your rotation is always going to throw more innings during the course of a season than your pen. Moreover, fixing a weak bullpen is far easier than fixing a bad rotation. Look at what Tim Lincecum did in last year’s playoffs. Or the resurrections that previously weak relievers like Fernando Rodney and Jason Grilli can have under the right circumstances. Or the careers that Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Eric Gagne, and so many other mediocre-to-lousy starters carved for themselves once freed to let loose for 15 pitches per appearance instead of 110. You can graft together an effective pen with little more than guile and, if necessary, a starter-to-reliever conversion or two. With rare exceptions, going the patchwork route won’t work when you’re looking for 1,000 effective innings from your rotation.

What the Cardinals have right now is an elite rotation, one that did most of the work in fashioning a 39-inning scoreless streak earlier this month. It starts with Adam Wainwright, the staff ace who traveled the long road back from Tommy John surgery and emerged better than ever, throwing his killer curveball anywhere he wants and compiling the single craziest stat line of the early season: 37⅓ innings, 37 strikeouts, one walk,4 zero home runs. Twenty-two-year-old rookie right-hander Shelby Miller has shown signs of becoming the front-line starter the prospect hounds expected, flashing a 2.05 ERA and ranking among the league leaders in strikeout percentage. Jaime Garcia saw four different specialists before electing not to have offseason shoulder surgery; he now leads the league in ground ball percentage and has been as stingy as ever in giving up runs. Lance Lynn has been the 11th-most prolific strikeout artist among qualified starters. Jake Westbrook has been the worst of the bunch by peripheral stats, walking as many batters as he’s struck out … yet still leads the majors with a 0.98 ERA.


4.

It took Wainwright 34⅔ innings before he walked his first batter of the year. Another cool stat: Only two Cardinals pitchers since 1920 have thrown a four-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts and no walks — Wainwright and Bob Gibson.

Yes, the bullpen has been really bad. But much of the carnage comes from unsustainably bad numbers sure to regress as the season wears on. Joe Kelly is not going to give up more than three homers per nine innings all year. Marc Rzepczynski owns a 7.88 ERA, thanks to a preposterous .429 batting average on balls in play. Flame-thrower Trevor Rosenthal carries a sparkling 2.82 xFIP, but with a 4.05 ERA thanks to a ludicrous home run per fly ball rate of 20 percent. Mitch Boggs has been both terrible and unlucky, but 10⅔ innings aren’t enough to nullify two straight seasons of solid production, and he could easily bounce back, assuming he’s healthy. Even if Jason Motte goes under the knife, the combination of Rosenthal and Edward Mujica should prove perfectly capable of handling eighth- and ninth-inning duties on most nights.

If the rest of the crew can’t hold up its end of the bargain, that’s not necessarily a problem. Two years ago, St. Louis started the season with Ryan Franklin handling closer duties and Miguel Batista in a setup role. The results were very Boggsian, only it was the highest-leverage members of the pen getting torched again and again. What did the Cards do? They graduated Motte to the big-league closer role, promoted Boggs to the eighth-inning job, then made a seven-player trade that got widely panned by analysts5 when Colby Rasmus ended up in Toronto, only for the deal to fortify the bullpen further and help propel the Cardinals to their second World Series title in six years.


5.

Myself included.

Armed with one of the best lineups in the game one through seven,6 a loaded rotation, and several high-caliber prospects just a call-up away, the Cardinals are better positioned than most other teams to make a deep playoff run. If their biggest problem is sorting out a couple of bridge-relief roles … 29 other teams should be so lucky.

13. PITTSBURGH PIRATES


6.

If you want to sweat anything about this Cardinals team, the inevitable regression that occurs after they stop hitting .340 with runners in scoring position is probably a bigger concern than fixing the middle-relief corps. Even then, this is still a strong lineup after regression hits.

Their best player is hitting .216. Their no. 1 starter is a reject being paid millions by another team not to pitch for them. Their new good-luck charm is a career .234/.303/.387 hitter whom Mike Francesa once liked a lot. Their new franchise icon is a 36-year-old journeyman with a 4.25 ERA whose entrance into games is preceded by clips of him making grilled cheese sandwiches. Welcome to the weird, wacky, wonderful world of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

By taking two out of three from a very good Cardinals team in St. Louis, the Buccos picked up their 15th win. That’s the team’s highest April win total since 1992, which, as any exasperated Pirates fan can tell you in 0.000001 seconds, is both the last time Pittsburgh made the playoffs and the last time the team even finished above .500. Their path to success has been … let’s say complicated.

The one MVP-caliber player on the roster, Andrew McCutchen, isn’t hitting, clocking a .216/.286/.375 line through 24 games and earning a day off Sunday against the Cards. Most of his numbers, like everyone else in the league, don’t bring a sample large enough to judge what’s going on. The .230 batting average on balls in play is flukishly low, especially when compared to last year’s flukishly high .375. He’s swinging at and making contact with pitches out of the zone more frequently than ever before, but he’s also swinging and missing less often than he did during his monster 2012 campaign. Honestly, let’s just stop before we go too far down the small sample size rabbit hole: McCutchen’s career stats are a lot more instructive than whatever he’s done in 24 games this season.

For the purposes of the team’s strong record, though, it’s odd to see McCutchen struggling this badly — especially when Pedro Alvarez is hitting below the Mendoza line,7 Jose Tabata’s at .182/.265/.295, Russell Martin was hitting .191 with one homer eight days ago, and Clint Barmes is continuing his bid to be the least-productive everyday hitter in the National League. Meanwhile, fifth starter Jonathan Sanchez has a 12.71 ERA8 and fourth starter Jeff Locke has a 5.26 FIP.


7.

OK, Alvarez and his 31 percent career strikeout rate hovering around .200 isn’t actually that odd.

8.

Not a typo.

When the Orioles did all those Orioles things that perplexed analysts last year, Baltimore defenders cited Showalter’s influence as a big reason for the team’s success. They were right. The O’s might’ve overachieved a bit, but Showalter proved once again that he’s an excellent manager, doing a particularly masterful job of handling a bullpen comprised largely of cast-offs from other teams and generally acing most in-game tactics tests. We’re starting to hear similar whispers about Clint Hurdle, as if he’s a big reason for the Pirates’ success. It’s certainly possible that Hurdle does a good job of running a cohesive clubhouse.9 His in-game tactics, however, have been stupefying. On Saturday, not-Showalter had recent call-up Brandon Inge hitting fifth against righty starter Jake Westbrook; Inge has been a replacement-level hitter for years, but he’s been truly miserable vs. righties, hitting just .224/.290/.361 against them for his career. Under normal circumstances, sending Inge to the slaughter that way would’ve qualified as the worst move of a manager’s day, maybe even his month. But Hurdle topped that one by sending James McDonald out to pinch-hit for starter A.J. Burnett in the seventh inning of a tie game, with Cardinals reliever Joe Kelly on the ropes and no bench player used to that point in the game. McDonald tried to bunt, got to two strikes, then bunted foul for strike three.


9.

Though his 534-625 career record as a manager doesn’t exactly scream “inspirational leader.”

James McDonald, by the way, is a pitcher.

Those are all the things that have gone wrong. The Pirates’ 12th-ranked defense heads the list of things that have gone right. Barmes is the NL’s version of Brendan Ryan, putting up terrible offensive numbers but still producing value for his team with his excellent glove. We don’t yet have multiple years of data to offer complete confidence about Starling Marte’s defensive ability, but the numbers and scouting reports do point to a big plus in left field as well. Plus, if their defensive results start to slip, the Pirates have backups with big gloves standing by.

There’ve been other good signs, too, of course. Martin smashed three homers in two days over the weekend and is suddenly slugging .547. Garrett Jones is hitting at career-best levels, and the #MartePartay reads .323/.391/.444. The back of the bullpen has been untouchable, with Mark Melancon looking nothing like the early-season horror show he put on last year in Boston and Grilli emerging into a strikeout machine, dominant closer, and master chef after a decade bouncing among six teams and often lackluster performances. And if the Pirates are feeling aggressive, top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole10 and Jameson Taillon could make a big impact as in-season call-ups.


10.

Though Cole could stand to do better than the 15 walks he’s issued in 23⅓ innings at Triple-A this year.

Save a big chunk of the credit for two pitchers nobody wanted. The Astros shopped their de facto ace Wandy Rodriguez around, but found no takers given the money he had left on his three-year, $34 million contract. The Pirates finally offered three mid-level prospects for him, on the condition that Houston throws in $10.5 million in paid salary during the next two years. Through four starts, Rodriguez has posted a 1.66 ERA, one built somewhat on hit luck and a low strand rate, but also on one of the stingiest walk rates in the league.

Burnett has been even better, posting a 2.83 ERA, 2.54 FIP, and leading the NL in strikeouts. Baseball analyst Sky Kalkman tweeted an interesting stat following Burnett’s tidy six-inning performance in St. Louis on Saturday: Burnett owns a 3.75 ERA and 3.69 FIP in his years with the Marlins, Jays, and Pirates, with an ugly 4.79 ERA and 4.63 FIP with the Yankees. When the Yankees offered to give Burnett away after a subpar 2011 season, the Pirates stepped forward, figuring a rich team’s trash could be a not-actually-poor-but-let’s-act-that-way team’s treasure. The Bombers are paying $8.5 million of Burnett’s $16.5 million fare this year, watching from afar as their former albatross becomes an ace for the National League’s biggest surprise team. If it’s any consolation, the Yankees can always sit back and enjoy the most GIF-worthy pitcher in baseball.

16. TAMPA BAY RAYS

Between their talented, young pitching staff (even sans James Shields), their perennially elite defense, and one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the game, we knew the Rays’ run prevention was going to be good. And it has been. Despite the team’s sub-.500 record, only the Rangers, Royals (!!!), and Red Sox have allowed fewer runs per game than Tampa Bay.

Matt Moore and Alex Cobb are leading a starting rotation that’s tossed five innings or more in all 25 games. Moore ran up a high pitch count Saturday against the White Sox, knocking him out after six innings — but he still struck out nine, including six in a row at one point, while allowing just one run on three hits. He ranks second in the majors with a 1.13 ERA, with a 30.9 percent strikeout rate that also ranks among the game’s elite. Though we rarely mention pitcher wins ’round these parts, here’s one stat worth passing on if only for its sheer randomness: Only three pitchers younger than 24 have gone 5-0 or better in April: Matt Moore, Babe Ruth (1917), and Greg Swindell (1988). He’s not quite this good, of course, given that his .149 batting average on balls in play is the lowest among all qualified major league starters.11 But Rays fans looking for someone to step forward with James Shields shipped off to Kansas City have an able replacement in Moore.


11.

If you’re looking for a sell-high list of overachieving starting pitchers, tracking the ones with BABIPs below .200 isn’t a bad place to start. Through Saturday, that list included Moore, Matt Harvey (.160), Carlos Villanueva (.165), Hisashi Iwakuma (.178), and Travis Wood (.198). Moore and Harvey are the two pitchers most likely to keep pitching well, just not quite at peak Koufaxian levels.

They’ve got another one in Cobb. In his past 19 starts, Cobb has allowed three runs or fewer 18 times. Though his 19.1 strikeout rate merely sits around league average, he’s been stingy in other areas, allowing just seven walks and four extra-base hits (one home run) out of 115 batters faced. As Jason Collette of The Process Report and Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus noted in this informative piece, Cobb has pitched better from the stretch so far this season than he has in the past. Some of that may well be a product of small sample size, of course. But if the mechanical changes Thorburn has observed can stick, the Rays might have themselves an innings-eater with excellent command who’ll give them a chance to win virtually every time out; another version of Shields, basically. Tampa Bay holding the A’s and Yankees to just nine runs over a recent six-game homestand (Oakland came in averaging a league-leading six runs per game, with New York second at 5.2 runs per game) showed what the starting five can do when they’re on.

The bigger concern coming into this season was the team’s offense. We wrote about the Rays’ punchless attack on April 16:

But this is the Tampa Bay Rays’ offense, the Hindenburg of the American League so far this season. … There was a silver lining in all this. In losing their third straight game to Boston, the Rays actually scored two runs. Considering their recent play, that qualifies as a full-on offensive outburst.

The thing about doing any kind of analysis this early in the season is, say it with me … small sample size. Since the very day that article was published, the Rays have swatted 23 home runs, tops in the major leagues; they’ve homered in 14 straight games, one shy of a club record. Some of the biggest early laggards have become the biggest recent heroes too. James Loney, the much-maligned, bargain-basement first baseman picked up by the Rays this winter, who was expected to field well and hit not at all, was hitting .167/.265/.233 through his first 13 games. Over the following 11 games, he hit .607/.645/.893. Yunel Escobar, derided for off-field controversies, then for hitting .119/.200/.153 through his first 17 games, cracked homers in each of his next two games and rang up several loud outs before a hamstring injury knocked him out of the lineup. The Rays are still missing out by keeping Wil Myers (up to .316/.413/.474 at Triple-A) in the minors, especially when the team has to go without multiple starters, as it’s done lately with both Escobar and Luke Scott out.12 But at the very least, this isn’t going to be a Deadball Era–level offense all year long.


12.

Scott might be back on Tuesday. Considering he’s hit just .220/.301/.402 and .229/.285/.439 while playing in just 160 games combined over the past two years, you should remain skeptical of his ability to improve the offense. This team pulled off pretty major Dumpster-diving over the winter, even by Rays standards.

What’s really holding the Rays back right now is their tendency to blow early leads, coupled with their 2-6 record in one-run games. Tampa Bay put up lousy results in close games last year, too, going 21-27 in one-run contests, 5-7 in extra innings. The results last year screamed fluke, given the otherworldly performance of the team’s top four relievers in 2012. But the relief corps hasn’t been nearly as good this year, with early struggles for closer Fernando Rodney and other key arms adding up to replacement-level results. You should probably expect something in between a pen full of Eckersleys and the current collection of Tanyon Sturtzes — yet another reason to be optimistic that the Rays will jump back into the AL East race before long.