In a way, it might be a blessing in disguise that the Diamondbacks dropped two of three in Denver. It validated the notion that the team couldn't win every game by one run, and supported the general sentiment around here that the D-Backs haven't actually been playing that well. Despite their record, there's still plenty of room for improvement, both in the "hitting with runners in scoring position" department and the "what the hell is wrong with Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter" category.
However, it's important to keep in mind that the Diamondbacks are 6-3. Six and three. At this point last year, the team was 4-5 and their long-term plan at third base was a platoon between Melvin Mora and Willie Bloomquist. Those were hard times, and the less said about them, the better. Luckily, we can contextualize just how far removed we are from that situation by looking at the present-day Pirates.
It hasn't been a great nine games for the Pirates. Okay, that's a bit unfair: it hasn't been a great 19 seasons and nine games, for the Pirates. That's more accurate. The team is 3-6, and they've lost five of their last six in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Obviously, that's a small segment of the season, but more impressively is how they've managed to get there. So far, the Pirates have collectively managed a line of .180/.216/.259. For perspective, Ian Kennedy's career batting line is .158/.233/.192, which is worse, but it's not a ton worse. The Pirates are obviously not going to hit like Ian Kennedy with more power and less plate discipline all year, because it's still absurdly early in the season, but there's no one currently struggling in the lineup who makes you say, "yeah, once that guy gets going, the offense is really gonna click."
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
Fangraphs published its first UZR rankings of the 2012 season, but they tell us essentially nothing at this point, so I'm not even going to bother to use them. Pittsburgh has gotten good pitching so far, which is good, because wRC+ has their offense as 66 percent below average. Their offense is going to improve, but you have to wonder how much regression we're going to see from their pitching staff, considering that Erik Bedard has an ERA of 2.25 and Kevin Correia has an ERA of 1.50. These are things that strike me as unsustainable.
Any discussion of the Pirates' lineup begins with Andrew McCutchen. He's 25, and in his fourth season in the majors. In each of his first three seasons, he posted an OPS comfortably over .800 while playing quality defense in center. He may still improve, but even if he doesn't he's a very good player who's staying in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future. In a baseball city that's used to seeing their baseball team purged of major league players at the trade deadline annually, that's a big deal. He's one of the few Pirates who are actually hitting in 2012 too, with an OPS of .820 that leads the team.
And McCutchen's success just looks that much better in comparison to his teammates. Casey McGehee has had some early success after coming over from the Brewers. He's had good seasons in the past, but that .223/.280/.346 line he put up last year in Milwaukee is difficult to forget. Other than that though, it's not pretty so far for the Pirates' offense. The third best OPS among the starters comes from Alex Presley, at .541. Neil Walker was a pleasant surprise for the Pirates after taking a circuitous route to the majors, and he should be fine. Jose Tabata has an OPS+ of 1. Somehow, this looks worse than the numbers from Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas, who all have a negative OPS+.
In short, as you would expect for a rebuilding team like the Pirates, it's a lineup based around hope. I don't mean that derisively, there are reasons to be optimistic about the team. Presley was above-average last year in 200 PAs, Neil Walker has been quietly good for two years now, Tabata and Alvarez are 23 and 25 respectively, and still ooze potential, Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas probably aren't serial killers, which is nice. So there are reasons to expect improvement, but outside of McCutchen, it is very much a lineup based on optimism, as opposed to being based on expectation.
Monday: Joe Saunders (0-0, 0.00) vs. Erik Bedard (0-2, 2.25)
Insightful Commentary: Joe Saunders pitched well last time out in a very "Joe Saunders goes to Petco Park" sort of way. He tossed a shutout, scattering four hits across seven innings. This is obviously great, particularly from a fifth starter, but again, Padres at Petco. He got four strikeouts, despite getting all of four swinging strikes all game. He allowed more than a few fly balls, but got away with it because Petco. None of this is intended to take away from Saunders' performance, just that I'd like to see it happen in Chase Field before I'm convinced.
There was a time, back before the Mariners traded every young player they could find for Erik Bedard, before Bedard's arm fell off, before he came back and accumulated enough value to get traded to the Red Sox just in time for their collapse, that Bedard was actually a pretty good youngish pitcher for the Orioles. For three seasons from age 25 to 27, he had an FIP under 3.6, and he looked to be back to his old tricks last year. If he can stay healthy (which has always been a giant "if" for Bedard), he has a chance to be a front line starter for the Pirates. But even if that happens, his ERA isn't going to stay 2.25.
Tuesday: Ian Kennedy (2-0, 2.84) vs. Jeff Karstens (0-1, 3.27)
Insightful Commentary: There was a point in the first inning of Kennedy's last start, after Kennedy opened the game by allowing a triple followed by two singles, that I was a bit concerned. But somewhere along the line, Ian had a moment of understanding where he realized, "Hey, wait a second, I'm Ian Kennedy." And after the first three batters, he pitched like it, allowing just two hits and no runs for the rest of his six-inning outing. He struck out nine along the way as well, which should put to rest the "Kennedy doesn't have a strikeout pitch" murmurs that began after the Giants game.
Jeff Karstens has been a delightfully mediocre pitcher since coming to the Pirates in 2008, but I'll always be irrationally high on him because of this game, which I attended. For those that don't remember, Karstens was perfect through 7.2 innings, out-pitching Randy Johnson in the process. Of course, he hasn't done anything like that since, with a career FIP of 4.73, but he'll always the guy who ruined the '08 Diamondbacks for me once and for all.
Wednesday: Daniel Hudson (1-0, 8.71) vs. James McDonald (0-1, 3.86)
Insightful Commentary: When Hudson had an ERA over five after April last year, I wasn't worried. But this has a bit of a different vibe to it. His FIP is also over eight, thanks to a strikeout rate that has dropped since last year, and a walk rate that has more than doubled. I still think it's bad luck, and it will pass in time, but there's at least a possibility that his problems are mechanical, that his desire to become more of a finesse pitcher has robbed him of what made him successful in the first place.
McDonald took a step back last year, when his FIP jumped from 3.12 in limited time to 4.68. He's 27 now, and he probably doesn't have the stuff to be a top-line pitcher, but he's serviceable enough. Also, let's all take a moment to remember that the Dodgers traded him at the deadline for a reliever who didn't help them make the playoffs and wasn't with the team after the season. Oh, James McDonald: you're what Tony Abreu would have been to us if Tony Abreu was at all useful.
Final Verdict: Part of me sees how hilariously bad the Pirates' offense has been so far, and assumes that this will be the series where they break out. But the D-Backs are the better team, and they're back at home, so I'll say Diamondbacks two games to one.
Head to Bucs Dugout for the Pirates' perspective.
(Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.)