Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Next Up: The Arizona Diamondbacks

The Pirates wrap up a ten-day homestand--the longest of the season, along with ten straight at home in early September--with three games against the Arizona Diamondbacks. They took two out of three against the Diamondback in April in Arizona despite being outscored 24-21. This is the last time the teams will meet this season.

How Are They Doing Lately? Arizona's 11-16 over the past 30 days, the third worst record in the National League. The Pirates's 15-10 is the league's fifth best record. Arizona's scored 4.7 runs per game (fourth in the league; the Pirates are second at 5.0) and given up 4.9 per game (the second most in the league; the Pirates have given up the third most at 4.7. By their run differentials, the Pirates should've won two fewer games and the Diamondbacks should've won two more. In any case, Arizona enters play at 21-25, fourth in the West, 6.5 games behind the Giants.

What's Going Right? Offense. Over the last 30 days, they're third in the league with a .276 batting average and .444 slugging percentage and fourth with a .336 on base percentage. That's been supported by an unsustainably high .330 batting average on balls in play, and they hit a lot of balls (51%, second most in the league) on the ground--hard to get an extra-base hit on a ground ball--but they're made more hard contact than any team in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Pitching. The starters' ERA is 4.42, fourth highest in the league over the last 30 days, and the relievers' ERA of 4.98 is worse than any team but the execrable Reds. The team's stranded only 71% of baserunners, the fifth worst in the league. They've been good at getting opposing batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, getting swings at a second-best-in-the-league 33% rate, but they've been challenged to find the zone in the first place, with a league-worst 46% rate.


Who's Hot? Rookie Brandon Drury, who's split his time between left, right, and third, has been the team's best hitter over the past 30 days, with a .318/.348/.561 slash line and leading the team with six home runs. Third baseman Jake Lamb, who plays only against right-handed pitchers, has hit .259/.344/.506, and Wellington Castillo has been one of the top-hitting catchers at .325/.353/.488. Backup catcher Chris Herrmann, acquired in an offseason trade with the Twins, has been a folk here, batting .370/.412/.739 in 52 plate appearances over the past 30 days.

On the mound, the top two starters over the past 30 days have been Rubby de la Rosa (2-1, 2.03 ERA in four starts) and Zack Greinke (4-1, 4.20 ERA over six starts). Setup man Daniel Hudson has a 1.74 ERA in eleven games and 10.1 innings over the past 30 days, and Jake Barrett has a 1.80 ERA in eleven games and 10 innings, along with 12 strikeouts and no unintentional walks. 

Who's Not? Many Diamondbacks fans would say that first baseman Paul Goldschmidt's .244 batting average over the past 30 days is a disappointment, but I'm more inclined to focus on his .421 on base percentage and .444 slugging percentage, both well above average. The only really bad hitter's been shortstop Nick Ahmed (.190/.242/.250), who's in there for his glove, not his bat. The bullpen, other than Hudson and Barrett, have a 5.98 ERA over the last 30 days, and starters Shelby Miller and Robbie Ray have combined for a 2-7 record and 5.56 ERA over eleven starts.

What's the Outlook? The two teams combined for an average of 15 runs per game in April. Expect a lot of runs this time around, too. The Pirates are the better team, and have better pitchers (Liriano-Locke-Cole) starting than Arizona (Miller-de la Rosa-Corbin).

Monday, May 23, 2016

Catchup

I know, posting's been light here. I've been writing a fair amount on other sites and I've been remiss in not posting it here. Here are some links.

On May 2, I wrote about Quality Starts as Baseball Prospectus. A lot of people deride quality starts, which are defined as a starting pitcher going six or more innings while allowing three or fewer runs. I conclude that quality starts are, in aggregate, very well-pitched games. Scroll down to the end of the article for an enlightening comparison.

On May 12, also at Baseball Prospectus, I explored whether there are some hitters who consistently perform better with runners in scoring position. Short answer: It doesn't seem that way. Longer answer: Try flipping a coin six times.

On May 16, I wrote about the Pirates' and Reds' proclivity for hitting one another's batters with pitches at Baseball Prospectus. They do it a lot, but there's not a lot of evidence that it's a case of eye-for-an-eye retribution (though 2016 may be different).

On May 17, I initiated my Trailing 30 feature for 2016 at Banished to the Pen. Among other things, I found that as of that date, there were three Pirates starters among the bottom five for ERA over the past 30 days.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Next Up: The Chicago Cubs

First one of these of the season! Let's get right into it.

How Are They Doing Lately? They dropped two straight to the Padres. The Cubs suck.

OK, just kidding. Put it this way: The Pirates are tied for the tenth best record in baseball and the fifth best record in the National League. They are second in their division. But the trail the first place team in their division, the Cubs, by seven games. In the National League East, the fourth-place Marlins are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the National League West, the last-place Padres are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the American League East, the last-place Yankees are as close to first as the Pirates are. In the American League Central, the fourth-place Tigers are only half a game further from first than the Pirates are. In the American League West, the last-place Angels are only a game farther from first than the Pirates are.

The Cubs have the best record in baseball. They're scored the most runs per game. They've given up the fewest. They've scored, on average, three more runs per game than their opponents--no other team's outscored by more than 1.7--and, based on their run differential, they should be a game better than their 25-8 record. They've been really, really good. Don't take my word for it - Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs concur. And, of course, the Cubs swept three games at PNC Park a week and a half ago by a combined score of 20-5.
What's Going Right? Over the past 30 days, they're sixth in the league with a .263 batting average and .430 slugging percentage but first in on base percentage at .367. They've walked in 13% of plate appearances, by far the most in the league, and struck out in only 19%, the fourth lowest. They're last in the league at generating ground balls and swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. They're disciplined and good. On the mound, over the last 30 days, their starters' ERA of 2.06 is the best in the league by far, and the starters have the league's fourth highest strikeout rate, third highest ground ball rate, third highest rate of soft contact allowed, and the lowest rate of both hard contact and home runs as a percentage of fly balls. They've been a little lucky, allowing an unsustainably low .256 batting average on balls in play and an unsustainably high 82% of baserunners left stranded, but even with average figures, they'd be good.

What's Going Wrong? When the starters are going as well as the Cubs' have, there's a limited need to go to the bullpen--Cubs relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the league over the past 30 days--but Chicago's bullpen's been mortal, with a 4.20 ERA, sixth highest in the league, hurt by a high walk rate (13%, highest in the league) and too many fly balls leaving the park (18%, third highest). Cubs relievers have only five saves over the past 30 days, tied for the second fewest in the league, but that's more a reflection of the team's margin of victory, which doesn't create save opportunities.
Who's Hot? Oh, everybody, more or less. The team's getting above-average offensive performance from all four infield positions and left and center field. Three of the five starting pitchers have an ERA below 2.00 over the last 30 days (the Pirates will face all three) and the other two, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, are at 2.76 and 3.10, respectively. Closer Hector Rondon has been pretty untouchable over the past 30 days, allowing four hits, one run and no walks while striking out fourteen over ten innings.  

Who's Not? Over the last 30 days, backup catcher David Ross, pressed into service by an injury to Miguel Montero, is hitting .179/.300/.359, but with very strong defense. The biggest bust has been free agent signee Jason Heyward, batting .205/.307/.250 and still looking for his first home run of the year. The relievers other than Rondon has had either a high ERA or peripherals (high walk and/or home run rates) that suggest that their ERAs should be higher.
What's the Outlook? In the Cubs series of May 2-4, the Pirates never led, not even for an inning, as they were mowed down by the Cubs' bats and starters Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester. This time, they travel to Chicago, and they'll face...Hammel, Arrieta, and Lester. Am I expecting another sweep? No, but I'm not optimistic. The Cubs are good.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Bucs Update: April

The Pirates finished April with a record of 15-9. While that trailed the best-in-the-majors Cubs by three games in the National League Central, it's still a good record: Fourth best in the National League, fifth best in the majors overall. The only teams that were better are the Cubs at 17-5, the Nationals at 16-7, the Mets at 15-7, and the White Sox at 17-8.

That's better than last year, when the Pirates finished the month at 12-10, third in their division, fifth in the league, eleventh in the majors. It's worth noting that after April 30 last year, the Pirates were 86-54, the best record in the majors.

Now, April's not the most important month. In fact, per this article of mine in Baseball Prospectus, it's the least predictive month of the season. By the same token, the trends that've emerged in April need to at least be monitored.

How did they get to 15-9? Well, there are a couple overall comments. First, they team's been a little lucky, but just a little. Based on its April run differential of 128 runs scored and 109 allowed, we'd expect a record a game or so worse. Second, they haven't played a particularly tough schedule so far. Through the end of April, they'd played only four games against teams playing better than .500, going 1-3 against Detroit, while running up an 14-6 record against Arizona, Cincinnati, Colorado, Milwaukee, San Diego, and St. Louis (the Cardinals were exactly a .500 team in April). That'll change tonight when they fact the Cubs, who did not play a single .500-plus team in April, facing Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, the LA Angels, and Milwaukee.

Yet it doesn't feel like the team's been one of the best in the league, does it? Let's compare how they Pirates arrived at this year's 15-9 vs. last year's 12-10. I'm going to show you three tables, indicating how the Pirates did this year vs. last year in April. For each statistic, I'll show the raw number as well as where the team ranked in the 15-team National League. For ranks with an asterisk, it means that the lower the statistic, the better (e.g., ERA).

First, offense:

The offense has been a lot better than last year. The Pirates are fourth in the league in scoring and lead in both batting average and on base percentage. Note that they've cut way down on strikeouts and are getting way more walks, in each case moving from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best. Like last year, opposing pitchers aren't throwing them a lot of pitches in the strike zone (Zone %) but the batters are much less likely to swing at pitches outside the strike zone (Chase %). Also, while the team's power ranking (isolated slugging, which is equal to slugging percentage minus batting average) hasn't moved up much, the raw number has. As Travis Sawchik pointed out over the weekend, the team's benefited from seeing more pitches. They won't stay this hot, but the offense looks strong.

One exception: Andrew McCutchen was the worst batter in the Pirates' starting eight during April, posting a .226/.339/441 slash line. But considering that he hit .194/.302/.333 in April last year, one of the worst performances in the league, then went on to be one of the top hitters in the game for the remainder of the season, it seems premature to worry.

In my preview for the team's 2016 season, I identified starting pitching as a key area of concern. Has that been borne out?



The starters have undoubtedly been worse. Their ERA is higher, and their FIP (fielding-independent pitching, a measure that's scaled like ERA but takes into account only strikeouts, walks, and home runs) has gone from best in the league to among the worse. They're striking out fewer hitters, walking more, and not lasting as deep into the game. Most worrisome to me is the chase percentage. When pitchers get opposing batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, it means that they're fooling hitters and, more often than not, inducing weak contact. The Pirates starters got a lot of batters to chase last year. They're not this year. If hitters lay off pitches outside the zone, they can tee off on the resulting pitches in the zone. This is a concerning trend that I'll monitor. I'm still worried about the rotation.

How about the bullpen, long a Pirates strength, but off to a slow start this year?



Well, the bullpen isn't the dumpster fire it was when I wrote the post referenced above, but it hasn't been good, and it started May with its fourth loss of the year. This is my biggest worry for the Pirates. The offense won't stay this good, but it's a good unit. The starters aren't a great bunch, but they're OK, and there are probably reinforcements on the way. But a bad bullpen? This is new, and it's disconcerting. Last season, the Pirates had nine relievers who threw at least 25 innings, and of them, all but one had an ERA below 3.00. (And the one who was above, Arquimedes Caminero, was at a not-bad 3.62). This year, of the eight Pittsburgh relievers with at least five innings pitched so far, only one's below 3.00 (and that one, Mark Melancon, isn't below by much, 2.61). They're still getting batters to chase pitches outside the zone, but they've backslid in all the components of FIP--they're allowing more home runs and walks and getting fewer strikeouts. Absent pretty marked improvement, the team is going to be challenged to hold onto late leads and overcome late deficits.  

Is this whining about a good team? Perhaps. But remember, that 15-9 record came against teams that, by and large, have struggled this year. In May, the team has six games against the Cubs and three each against the Cardinals and Rangers. That's a tougher slate than the team faced in April. Some things, especially the bullpen, need to get better in order to maintain this hot start.




Monday, April 18, 2016

The Futility/Non-Futility of Late Innings

Have modern bullpens robbed baseball of the thrill of late-inning comebacks? I investigate in this article at Banished to the Pen. Short answers:
  • Over the last 30 years, there has been very little change in the percentage of games won by teams trailing after six, seven, and eight innings...
  • ...but the percentage has moved notably lower over the past four seasons, particularly in 2015.
  • The primary reason it's harder to come back: It's tough to score on bullpens full of one-inning flamethrowers, and teams with 12- and 13-man pitching staffs have limited bench players available to bat in the late innings.
  • The primary reason why it isn't harder to come back: With scoring down, late-inning leads are smaller, so teams trailing have less of a deficit to surmount.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Improbably Putrid Pirates Pen

I know, I know, only eleven games into the season. The Pirates have scored 3.91 runs per game, tied with Arizona for the sixth fewest in the National League. The league average is 4.53. The pitchers have given up 4.82 per game, putting them right in the middle of the 15-team league, a little over the league average of 4.51. So the problem's been more one of run production than run prevention. But the way the pitchers have gotten there is unusual. Pirates starters have an ERA--again, I know, through just eleven games--of 3.77, the sixth lowest in the league. Their relievers have an ERA of 5.49, the fourth highest. That's unusual for two reasons. First, relievers generally put up better numbers than starters. Starting pitchers are trying to pace themselves over, on average so far this year, 90 pitches and 5.7 innings per start. Relievers come in and throw gas for, on average so far this year, 17 pitches during one inning. Last year, National League relievers had an ERA of 3.66, striking out 22.2% of the batters they faced. National League starters had an ERA of 4.05, striking out 19.9% of the batters they faced. So, as you might expect, most teams had lower reliever ERAs than starter ERAs. Here's the spread for the National League last season:


The only two teams whose relievers had significantly worse ERAs than their starters were Atlanta and Los Angeles, both of which had notably bad bullpens last year. And even for those two the difference in ERA was well under a run. The Pirates relievers have an ERA 1.72 higher than the starters, a gap more than 2.5 times as wide as that of the widest-in-the-league Dodgers last year. 

That 1.72 run difference is not likely to persist; it's too large. But that brings me to my second point: Nobody expected this. The bullpen has been a Pirates strength throughout the team's three-year Wild Card run. The team had the lowest bullpen ERA in the league in 2015, the fifth lowest in 2014, and the second lowest in 2013. This year, the only relievers with more than two innings pitched and an ERA below 5.00 are closer Mark Melancon (2.08 ERA and who, tellingly, is fourth in the club in games pitched--there just haven't been save opportunities) and Neftali Feliz (2.84). And the Pirates can't really blame luck, as they have the sixth lowest strikeout rate, the sixth highest walk rate, and the fourth highest home run rate among National League relievers. Inducing batters to hit ground balls is a Pirate strategy, but so far this year Pittsburgh relievers have a 36% ground ball rate, third lowest in the league. And they're not tricking anybody, with a 26% rate of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, the fourth lowest in the league. Last year they led the league in both of those latter categories.

Panic time? Not yet. After all, it was about this time last year that I wrote about how Mark Melancon's struggles were troubling, and he wound up leading the majors with 51 saves. But there is nothing--not strikeouts, not walks, not grounders, not home runs, not getting batters to chase--that suggests things could head in the right direction. Looks as if pitching coach Ray Searage may need to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

More on the Orioles

Yesterday I had another piece on the 7-0 Orioles--before they fell to 7-1 against the Red Sox--published at Baseball Prospectus. I noted that while no team starting a season 7-0 has ever finished below .500, some of the 26 teams that accomplished the feat before the Orioles aren't very good. You can click on the link to read more.