Tuesday, January 30, 2007

2007 Preview Part 1

Chris Duffy must be a consistent offensive contributor for the Pirates to win.

This is the first part of a running season preview in which I look at things that I think have to happen in order for the Pirates to be a decent baseball team in 2007 and decide how likely I think they are to happen.

Before I get into whether or not Chris Duffy can be a consistent offensive contributor, I think it's important to talk about why the Pirates need him to be one. Simply put, they need to put people on base in front of Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay. Freddy Sanchez will likely do his share, though Jack Wilson likely will not. Duffy is the wild card. He's also the only real speed threat on the team, which isn't a huge deal but it's at least something to think about.

People like to compare Duffy to Tike Redman a lot because they seem to be players of a similar make and they both had scintillating quarter seasons that excited the hell out of Pirate fans at similar ages (25 for Duff and 26 for Redman). Tike, however, is really a pretty unfair comparison to make for Duffy. In his minor league career his numbers were .272/.327/.375 while Duffy's minor league numbers are .301/.372/.420. Simply put, Duff is a better player than Tike and it's unfair to lump them together like lots of people (myself included) do.

Still, most people agree that relying on an OBP based mostly on a high batting average is foolish, especially when we're talking about minor league numbers. I think Duffy's biggest problem is that he strikes out a whole lot for a guy that plays the type of game that he does. In his minor league career, he struck out in about 15% of his plate appearances. Jason Kendall, a player one might reasonably hope that Duffy can be similar to at the plate (the post-2000 thumb injury Kendall, that is), only strikes out about half that often (around 7.5%). Of course, Kendall is a crazy bastard that has been hit by 209 pitches in his career and so his generally good OBP isn't really all that applicable to Duffy. Juan Pierre might be a better model for Duffy. I know Pierre gets ragged on a lot in sabermetric circles (and with the contract given to him, he probably should be), but for at least a couple of years in Florida he was able to be a decent lead-off hitter because of a high batting average which was helped by a low strikeout rate(careerwise he's struck out in about 5% of his plate appearances) and lots of stolen bases. That has to be the model of success if Duffy is going to be valuable to the team next year

So let's look at Duffy. Everyone remembers the end of '05 where he went .341/.385/.429 in 39 games, but that's a very small sample size and an unrealistic goal for Duffy. He then kicked off last year by going .194/.255/.276 and being demoted on May 14th, blamed Jim Tracy and his staff for his struggles, went on a spiritual journey, determined he still loved baseball, destroyed AAA to the tune of .349/.415/.509, and reappeared in Pittsburgh and went .282/.345/.366 from August first through the end of the year. His slugging percentage was pathetically low, but he stole 23 bases in 24 tries in that span which goes a way to alleviate that. The problem is that his strikeout problem was there in both Pittsburgh stints in '06. He struck out almost a quarter of the time in April and May and in August and September he only shaved that number to a strikeout in 19% of his PAs. Because of that, I'd lean towards saying that his late season numbers had at least a little bit of luck involved.

So we eventually have to come to a verdict. I don't think Duffy can put up a full season line any better than the one he did in August and September last year and in fact, I'm probably going to be surprised if he can even manage that. The .345 OBP he had in those months isn't bad for a lead-off hitter, but it's not great either. The problem, I think, is the strikeouts. I don't want to sound like Littlefield and Tracy last year when they were looking for reasons to bench Craig Wilson because I could honestly care less about how many times a player like that strikes out. A guy like Duffy that has to hit for a high average to be useful is different, though. Admittedly, it is entirely possible that I'm way off base in fingering Duffy's strikeouts as the problem for his lack of success in the bigs because he struck out a lot in the minors and was very successful and he struck out a lot at the end of the year last year and was still able to be a decent lead-off hitter. Still, I suspect the Ks have more than a little to do with it. It's at least something to keep an eye on.

UPDATE: I don't think this post is done yet. I want to give myself some more time to think about certain things and work on some other parts of the preview, then hopefully come back to Duffy with a little bit of a different perspective. We shall see.