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In this year’s edition of the annual, our #32 prospect was Nick Markakis, a former two-way player who had just 33 games of Double-A experience coming into the season. One of the (several) promising characteristics of his prospect status has been his plate discipline, and he’s the proud owner of a career .380 minor league OBP:

Year     Level  AB   AVG   OBP   SLG
2003       A   205  .283  .372  .395
2004       A   355  .299  .371  .470
2005       A   350  .300  .379  .480
2005      AA   124  .339  .420  .573

This spring, he skipped Triple-A entirely and began the year with Baltimore; he wasted no time in displaying his batting eye, as he drew three walks in his first major league start. His year-to-date rate stats are downright frightening at first blush (just .189/.295/.302 in 61 PAs, only two extra-base hits), but there are some positives to be taken away from his underlying performance.

First, his 4.28 pitches seen per plate appearance would rank 16th in the majors
if he were included in the “qualifying” list. This isn’t proving anything, of course, and you may even want to argue that it’s just looking for the silver lining. That may be true. But it’s April. What else can we do?

Markakis mustered an 0-3 line against Toronto last night, but even then,
he didn’t fail as spectacularly as his rate stats would lead you to
believe. Observe:

First Plate Appearance. Result: HBP
Pitch 1: Ball
Pitch 2: Foul
Pitch 3: Strike (Called)
Pitch 4: Hit By Pitch

Second Plate Appearance. Result: Fly out to left.
Pitch 1: Ball
Pitch 2: Foul
Pitch 3: Strike (Called)
Pitch 4: Foul
Pitch 5: Foul
Pitch 6: Foul
Pitch 7: Ball
Pitch 8: Foul
Pitch 9: Foul
Pitch 10: Fly out to Left

Third Plate Appearance. Result: Struck out looking.
Pitch 1: Strike (Called)
Pitch 2: Strike (Called)
Pitch 3: Ball
Pitch 4: Ball
Pitch 5: Strike (Called)

Fourth Plate Appearance. Result: Fly out to left.
Pitch 1: Ball
Pitch 2: Ball
Pitch 3: Ball
Pitch 4: Strike (Called)
Pitch 5: Foul
Pitch 6: Foul
Pitch 7: Foul
Pitch 8: Foul
Pitch 9: Fly out to Left

His pitch recognition was largely spot-on, and it’s worth noting that he
didn’t swing and miss once the entire night. It’s also worth noting that
the pitches he did hit were to the opposite field–the first one was off
a pitch which was on the inner-third of the plate. This is encouraging;
when he was in the lower minors, he tried to pull everything.

So is all this indicative of anything for Mr. Markakis? Who knows. It’s
April. But at least we have some things to keep an eye on for the rest
of the year, and at least you’ve got a little reasonable doubt should
someone bad-mouth Markakis’ slow start.

John Erhardt

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Well, this hardly feels like progress, does it? Last year, through 23 games, the Bucs were 8-15. This year, carrying a payroll that is some $8 million higher, the Pirates have started 5-18. They have already had two long losing streaks–six games to start the season, seven games and counting as we go to press.

Perhaps some of this can be chalked up to a punishing schedule. In contrast to most teams in April, the Pirates didn’t have an off-day until April 20, after their 17th game. No other National League team went through the second week without a scheduled off-day. All but two of their opponents have been in the top half of NL teams per the PECOTA-powered preseason Hit List rankings.

Some of it has been bad luck. Sean Casey was posting a solid .296 EqA prior to fracturing two vertebrae in a collision with the Cubs’ John Mabry. Depending upon how you look at things, the Pirates’ 2-6 record in one-run games and .334 BABIP–second worst in the league, after the Phillies–could also be considered symptoms of misfortune.

However, a much larger portion of it has been plain old bad baseball. While Casey was doing well prior to his injuries, new arrivals Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa have each contributed to the teams’ .313 OBP (13th in the league) with on-base percentages below .260. The Pirates’ offense has no middle class, with four players sporting EqAs over .290, and eight players under .240; among the position players, only catchers Ryan Doumit (.286) and Ronny Paulino (.276) fall in between.

On defense, Pittsburgh has allowed the most runs in the league–even more than the Rockies. The burden falls mainly on Pittsburgh’s young rotation, which is barely above replacement level based on our support-neutral statistics. Here, some of the blame may fall with new pitching coach Jim Colborn, who has tried to change the mechanics of many of his young charges. So far, the changes don’t seem to have helped Oliver Perez, who’s walked 18 against 21 strikeouts in the 25 innings he’s pitched so far.

Early-season statistics can be deceptive, particularly in the bullpen. A quick look at newly-arrived oldster Roberto Hernandez‘s stats look somewhat decent–he’s 0-1, with a 3.38 ERA in 10.2 innings. That cursory look probably wouldn’t reveal the fact that Hernandez is allowing almost two baserunners per inning, or that he has allowed almost as many unearned runs (three) as earned runs.

So the question is, is there any good news for Pirates fans? We can think of a few things. After a season partially lost to his recovery from an emergency appendectomy, Jack Wilson has started off hot, with a .329/.379/.542 performance that bears a shape similar to his breakout 2004 campaign (.308/.335/.459). Pirates fans have to have been hoping for a return of that 2004 form when GM Dave Littlefield–himself the recent recipient of a two-year contract extension–handed Wilson a three-year extension in February.

Another happy development is with the other Wilson, who hasn’t been hearing much about contract extensions, but is instead being featured in ongoing trade rumors. Craig Wilson came into 2006 the forgotten man in the Pirates lineup, displaced by the new acquisitions, nonetheless, he has raised his stock through the roof sincd replacing Casey in the lineup. His .324 EqA and seven homers lead the team, giving manager Jim Tracy something of a pleasant dilemma once Casey is ready to return to the lineup.

Derek Jacques