Falling off a cliff


SOUTH HILLS – This game can shift so quickly on us. One week the Pirates are a season-best nine games above .500,  knocking around Justin Verlander. A week later they’ve lost seven straight games and the season is on a tailspin out of postseason contention.

Blame can be assigned to many areas: the bullpen, injuries, poor starting pitching performances, some have criticized managerial decisions … But all these issues come back to something mostly out of Clint Hurdle‘s control: depth.

The game can shift on us quickly because it is a game of attrition. The Pirates are in a precarious position because of their lack of quality depth.

We know about the erosion of bullpen depth that has played a role in an NL-high 21 blown saves. We’ve cited pitchers like Phil Hughes, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy as possible missed opportunities to add depth to the starting rotation. Less attention has been given to the severity of the team’s bench depth, issues, though.

Weight Runs Created (wRC+) is a fancy way of boiling down offensive value to one number. A wRC+ of 100 is league average. Any number below that is below average, any number above that rate is above average.

Consider these second half bench options for Hurdle:

Michael Martinez: -1 wRC+

Brent Morel:           -14 wRC+

Jayson Nix:              4 wRC+

Remember league average is 100.

I know many of you are underwhelmed by Ike Davis but he has a wRC+ of 109.  Pedro Alvarez‘s wRC+ is 97 in this down year. Andrew McCutchen has a wRC+ of 164.

So the trickle down effect of McCutchen’s injury, Alvarez’s throwing issues, and Jordy Mercer’s right forearm strain, was for a week Morel/Nix playing at third base and Martinez is playing somewhere in the field.

The three combined for 25 plate appearances since August 10th. They combined to reach safely once.

There’s always going to be drop-off when you go to your bench but the drop-off cannot be as dramatic as it has been during this losing spell. Hurdle declined to address the severity of his bench challenges on Tuesday.

Losing McCutchen is one thing but where Alvarez’s sudden inability to throw across the diamond really hurts is Josh Harrison goes from an above-average utility player capable of filling in anywhere, to an everyday starter. The drop-off from Harrison to the next bench option  is dramatic. It’s essentially like adding another pitcher to the batting order.

Morel/Nix/Martinez have 94 combined second-half plate appearances … Alvarez has 59. That’s a problem.

Morel/Nix/Martinez are a significant step down from Clint Barmes (75 wRC+) .

The Alvarez trickle-down effect means the Pirates now have a three-headed first base platoon as Hurdle essentially said Alvarez is done playing third base for this year. (Although, does Alvarez’s throwing really warrant him being benched in favor of players like Nix and Morel?) Having three first basemen really erodes roster flexibility and David and Alvarez are redundant pieces.

The Pirates are in danger of falling over a precipice in part because when they’ve gone to bench options recently, performance has, well, fallen off a cliff …