Friday, September 14, 2012

Why are the Baltimore Orioles good and the Pittsburgh Pirates bad?

The Pittsburgh Pirates organization has no idea how to win. Dejan Kovacevic does have that much right in some of his recent columns. But the issues have nothing to do with skeet shooting and military training. Is that stuff stupid? Yes, of course it is. But if they were still winning, no one would care. Also contrary to Kovacevic's belief, it has nothing to do with the trade deadline. The problems with this team are much easier to see. You don't have to dig that deep.

The Baltimore Orioles are tied for the lead in arguably the best division in baseball. Look at their roster. Do you think it has more talent than the Pirates' roster? They have Adam Jones in center field. He is a great player but the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen. Nick Markakis is hurt and they're still winning. Nate McLouth is starting for them. Nate McLouth. Their best starting pitcher is Jason Hammel and he's hurt. If you look at the Pirates, you would think that most teams would at least take A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez as being better than him. The statistics are pretty comparable too. The Orioles are batting .247 as a team while the Pirates are batting .245. The Orioles have a team ERA of 4.03 while the Pirates have one of 3.76. So why are the Orioles so good while the Pirates are collapsing for the second season in a row?

The answer is simple. Does a lot of it have to do with luck? Yes. The Orioles have won 13 consecutive one run ball games and a lot of them are of the walk off variety. But they are putting themselves in positions to win those games while the Pirates are just going out and getting dominated night in and night out. One big reason why is fundamentals. I haven't watched enough Orioles games to know what exactly makes them so successful but I have to assume that they don't make a mockery of basic baseball like the Pirates do. I'm sure that if they have a player who can't steal bases, they won't let him run. I'm sure they know how to execute a bunt when the situation calls for it. I'm sure they know how to hit a cut off man on a throw from the outfield. I'm sure they actually take being able to throw runners out on the bases somewhat seriously. Meanwhile, the Pirates keep letting McCutchen attempt steals, let Alex Presley and Josh Harrison fail miserably at bunting, allow Starling Marte to continue to try to throw every runner out at home plate, and let every single automatically become a double because "stolen bases don't matter."

The players are awful at fundamentals but that all comes back to who is teaching them. Clint Hurdle deserves credit for coming in and making baseball mean something in this town again. But he also deserves blame for two straight late season collapses. There is way too much overmanaging on his part. Just look at today's game. He took Tony Watson out, who had recorded two quick outs, in favor of Jared Hughes just so he could face the right handed Starlin Castro. Immediately, Hughes gives up a crippling three run home run. Then, in the ninth inning, he pinch hits Jeff Clement who has two hits since being called up for Starling Marte just because a right hander was on the mound. He has no clue right now.

The bad management trickles down too. Ray Searage is getting absolutely no blame at all. He should be. At least when it comes to the young pitchers that he is in charge of developing. Look at James McDonald's second half of the year. Look at what happened to Charlie Morton late last year. Searage deserves credit for taking these guys and turning them into good pitchers but there is something that is going wrong that is causing these guys to fall apart in the second half of the season. Are they working too much in between starts? Is there an issue with their long toss program that is preventing them from building some endurance in their arms? I don't know. Those are questions for people closer to the team to answer but they need to start being asked.

It funnels through the organization as well. Kovacevic was right about one thing in his most recent column. Fundamentals must not be stressed very heavily at the minor league levels. None of the minor league guys who have come up this season can execute a bunt. Most of them have absolutely no clue how to run bases. Most of the pitcher either can't or have no interest in holding runners. When the amount of talent at your disposal is limited, fundamentals become paramount. When all of the hot streaks end, you need something to hold your head above water and the Pirates just don't have that.

Buck Showalter does have the benefit of managing in the American League where much less strategy is involved. But it would be interesting to see where the Pirates would be if he were the manager. Of course, we'll never know the answer to that question. But there is a reason why the Orioles are so much better than the Pirates and the answer is not talent. It's fundamentals and proper management with a little bit of luck sprinkled in.

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