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Rookie Seasons thus far

This has been a great season for rookies thus far, with Stephen Strasburg and Carlos Santana lighting up the big leagues. For the Pirates, it’s been exciting too, even though their rookie seasons haven’t gone quite as well. Further, there have been more promotions in the minor leagues with Alex Presley, Danny Moskos, Bryan Morris all moving up levels. For the time being, we’ll restrict ourselves only to the big-leaguers, namely, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln and Neil Walker, the last of whom has already been bitten by the Pirate bug, and suffered a concussion. The small sample size argument applies to every part of this post, so take the information here merely as a “Here’s where they stand now” rather than anything more.

Alvarez will be quick and easy, having shown nothing so far, apart from promise. He clearly has power to all fields, and a pretty decent eye, getting into deep counts often and averages over 4 pitches per plate appearance. He’s being eaten alive by major league pitching right now, with a strikeout rate beyond terrible, and Pirate fans will simply have to wait for him to come along. His defense has been adequate thus far.

Neil Walker has been the biggest story of the Pirates season, fitting in seamlessly into second base, taking a major league job away from Andy LaRoche, who had been expected to move to 2B when Alvarez came up. If he qualified, his .295 BA would have been fifth in Fangraphs’ list of 2B in the major leagues, and his .464 SLG would have been 10th among major league 2Bs (only 8 thousandths behind #4 on that least. In both these regards, he would have been one of the top 2Bs in the big leagues. What brings him down on the advanced metrics is what had been ailing him in his rise through the minors, an inability to live up to his name and take a walk, with his .325 OBP putting him in a tie at 15th in the major leagues. His wOBA agrees in placing his present performance level at the average 2B in the big leagues, close to Orlando Hudson, and far below the likes of even Rickie Weeks and Martin Prado.

So where can Walker improve? His batted ball numbers are all very good, but the BABIP is a bit high at .337, and will regress some, but the LD rate and the FB rate all augur well. Walker, however, swings at pitches outside the zone at a 32.9% clip (5th most among ML 2Bs)- compare to Chase Utley, a premier 2B with power, who swings at outside-the-zone pitches 25.9%, or McCutchen (not a 2B, just has good discipline), who swings 18.6%. As you’d expect, Walker swings at almost 50% of pitches, which isn’t bad by itself, but the swinging strike rate of 7.7%  and foul-strike rate of 61.7% are adding up to more than you’d want (8th and 4th most among ML 2Bs).  Cutting down on swinging on pitches outside the zone should help his K-rate a lot (would have been 6th in the major leagues among 2B), but whether its possible at this stage is somewhat debatable. We should know more after a larger sample, although statistics governing eye at the plate are supposed to require much less data to reasonably predict trends.

Brad Lincoln has had a grand total of 4 starts, which are too few to say anything about. The eye says that the fastball just doesn’t do anything and doesn’t have much velocity, which means big leaguers square off on it way too easily. As a result, he hasn’t been able to do much with the batters. A K-rate of 3 per 9 IP is not going to cut it, but we can hope for improvements there with time, as he settles in. Left handers seem to have it even easier on him, and he’s going to have to start hitting the spots he wants, because his fastball isn’t going to throw anyone off. The GB rate also needs to get into the 40% odd range, because with the short LF in PNC, fly balls are going to murder him.

Jose Tabata has shown impressive speed in his big league start thus far, and adequate defense. He’s making contact at a decent rate, and I expect the K% of 15.9 to come down further as he adjusts to the big leagues. He’s been a trifle unlucky as a BABIP of .293 seems low for someone with his speed. His BA is at .257, but that needs to rise close to .300 at least. Hopefully, experience and a better BABIP will aid that. The power remains the key question with an ISO of .114 which is just above Lastings Milledge among qualifying ML outfielders. While HR power may or may not come later, Tabata needs to generate more XBH to boost the ISO (and the Pirates). The walk rate and the defense are encouraging, leading to a 0.4 WAR over 17 games, which is about 3.8WAR if extrapolated over 162 games, and one can safely say that he’s capable of much more. His swings outside the zone as well as plate patience can use some more work too, as someone with his power levels should be swinging at a good bit less than 25% of pitches outside the zone.

Tabata and Walker have given Pirate fans much hope this year, and the statistics bear out what most people expected would be their problems. Alvarez has to be given more time, since his start has been disastrous, much more than anyone might have thought, and Lincoln has been average at best so far. We’ll revisit this discussion at the end of the year to see what changed!

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