Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Of Opponents and Kryptonite

Last night, the Pirates played the Minnesota Twins. The teams do not have a long history with one another, as their rivalry is a function of the recent phenomenon of interleague play. In 1997, the Pirates were 1-2 against the Twins. In 1998, they were 2-1. They were 1-2 again in 1999, 2-1 in 2000, and 1-2 in 2001. That was the end of annual series between the clubs. Since then, the Twins swept three games in 2006 and took two of three in 2009. The Pirates were 2-1 in 2012, the last time the two teams played.

So in 24 games spread over 18 seasons, the Pirates were 10-14 against the Twins entering play last night. They've scored 109 runs (4.5 per game) with a .762 OPS and given up 112 runs (4.7 per game) with a 4.22 ERA. 

But last night wasn't just the Pirates playing the Twins, it was Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano facing the first major league team for which he played. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants in 2000 but traded to the Twins after the 2003 season. After six games in Minnesota in 2005, Liriano, then 22, was a sensation as a rookie in 2006. He was named to the All-Star team and at the end of July was 12-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 115 innings. That year Twins pitcher Johan Santana won his second Cy Young Award, but at the end of July, he was just the second-best lefty starter on the club (12-5, 3.11 ERA, 160 strikeouts in 156.1 innings).

Then Liriano missed a start with elbow soreness. He lasted four innings, allowing ten hits and four runs, in a start against Detroit on August 7, then went on the disabled list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing elbow. Even if you don't know the Francisco Liriano story, you can probably guess where this is going. He returned for one start, against Oakland in September. left after two innings, his UCL torn, and had Tommy John surgery. 

Liriano was never the same as a Twin. From 2008 to 2012, he started 110 games, compiling a 37-47 record with a 4.69 ERA. His ERA was 42nd among 48 American League pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched during that stretch. He was traded to the White Sox at the trade deadline in 2012, became a free agent, and became, in 2013, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage's latest reclamation project.

Liriano entered play last night with a 2.96 ERA, the 15th best in the league. He had a 1-3 record, but that was a product of lousy run support, as the Bucs had scored just 2.3 runs per 27 outs with Liriano on the mound, the seventh-lowest support in the league.

And he got lit up yesterday. Two innings, five hits (including two homers), two walks, one hit batter, a wild pitch, seven runs, all earned. His ERA went from 2.96 to 4.05 over the course of two innings.

So, is Liriano's first team, the Twins, his Kryptonite*? Does he prove Tom Wolfe's point, that you can't go home anymore**?

Hardly. Small sample size caveats and all that, Liriano faced his former teammates twice after getting traded to Chicago in 2012, and he performed well: 2.77 ERA over 13 innings, during which he allowed just 11 baserunners (five hits, six walks), striking out 17. Among the nine opponents that year against whom he had at least seven innings pitched, he had easily his best ERA and best WHIP against Minnesota. 

So the problem last night was clearly not that he was pressing, seeking some sort of revenge or something against the club that traded him away. The time for that was in 2012, and he dominated his former club.

But this got me thinking: How have the Pirates pitchers fared against their first team? Given the club's propensity for home-grown talent,t he list if short:

  • Starter A.J. Burnett: Started with the Marlins, against whom he's 2-2 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.459 WHIP (career averages: 3.99, 1.319) in six starts 
  • Starter Vance Worley: Started with the Phillies, against whom he's 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 2.250 WHIP (career averages: 3.78, 1.400) in one start
  • Reliever Mark Melancon: Started with the Yankees, against whom he has one save, a 4.32 ERA and 0.720 WHIP (career averages: 2.95, 1.112) in six games
And that's it. Every other Pirates pitcher is either home-grown (Cole, Hughes, LaFramboise, Locke, Sadler, Watson), or has never faced his original team (Bastardo [Phillies], Carminero [Marlins], Liz [Orioles], Scahill [Rockies]). 

So tonight, Pirates starter Jeff Locke has no reason to be particularly good or bad against the Twins, as he's spent his entire career with Pittsburgh and has never faced Minnesota. On the other hand, Twins starter Mike Pelfrey, in six appearances against Pittsburgh, has a 3-2 record but a 4.78 ERA and 1.407 WHIP, about in line with his career averages of 4.51 and 1.480, respectively. No Kryptonite-based advantage here.


*The term Kryptonite is commonly misused. It's come to mean a person's weakness, e.g. New York Post, last Nov. 1: "Cold weather is [Peyton] Manning's Kryptonite...exemplified by his 8-11 career record and thoroughly mediocre 82.1 rating in games played in temperatures below 40." True, the otherwise indestructible Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite, but what makes it different from Peyton Manning's aversion to cold weather is that Kryptonite was formed from exploded pieces of Superman's home planet, Krypton. So the analogy here, to Liriano's original team, is more apt that most that you'll see.

**OK, technically, Liriano's home is the Dominican Republic, not Minnesota, and I imagine he's welcome there.

Monday, May 18, 2015

38, Not Special

The Pirates are now 38 games into their 2015 season. Their record is 18-20. They're tied with the Cincinnati Reds for third in the division, 7.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and 3.5 behind the Chicago Cubs. They were above .500, 17-16, the morning of May 13, half a game behind the Cubs, but then they lost two in a row to a pretty bad Phillies team and two straight to the Cubs. The problems about which I've written persist:
  • They are 13th in the 15-team National League in both on base percentage (.300) and slugging percentage (.366). They're third to last in scoring at 3.8 runs per game because they don't get batters on (.282 on base percentage with the bases empty, 13th in the league). They're nothing special with runners in scoring position (.263 batting average, eighth in the league), but it's the inability to get runners on base in the first place that stands out.
  • Measured by park-adjusted OPS, the Pirates are below average at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base, and right field. 
  • I'm not ready to say that Andrew McCutchen is fixed. Yes, Pirates center fielders are above average this year, but that's partly because in three games filling in for McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are a combined 7-for-10 with a 1.727 OPS. Yes, McCutchen has a .279/.366/.443 slash line in May after a wretched .194/.302/.333 April, but this is Andrew McCutchen we're talking about here; he hit .318/.406/.505 in his career in May going into the season. As I pointed out a week and a half agoJeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote a great breakdown of McCutchen's season, and he noted that McCutchen isn't shifting his weight from his right to left leg during his swing as much as in the past (presumably because of left knee problems), and as a result, he's not hitting with power to left field. That's still pretty much the case. Below, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, is McCutchen's spray chart from May 2014 and May 2015. As you can see, he's still not getting base hits to left field. (The circles are mine.)

  • They've been saved by their pitching. Their 3.16 starters' ERA is tied with the Mets for best in the league, and the 3.14 relievers' ERA is sixth. The rotation after A.J. Burnett (prediction: at age 38, he's not going to maintain a 1.38 ERA), Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano has been shaky, and closer Mark Melancon has allowed at least one baserunner in eleven of his 16 one-inning relief appearances, or 69%, compared to a league average of 58%. Overall, though, the pitching's carried the team.
  • But the defense has been a disappointment. By one advanced fielding metric (derived from scouts watching every fielding play by every team), Defensive Runs Saved, the Pirates are tenth in the league this year after finishing second in 2013 and fourth last year.
So, all told, it's been a story of weak offense, a lack of performance from the team's superstar, and a strong pitching staff stymied somewhat by a lackluster defense. The result has been the club's 18-20 record after 38 games. In Pittsburgh's long history, this has happened 16 times before. Some of the teams that started 18-20 were bad: the 2008 Pirates were 18-20 after 38 games en route to a 67-95 season, and the 1998 and 2000 clubs, also 18-20 at the start of the season, were only two games better. But the 1979 Pirates started 18-20 as well, and they were world champions. If I were clever, I'd insert a Sister Sledge joke here.

Next Up: The Minnesota Twins

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Twins are 17-11, the third best record in the American League. Picked by many (including me) to be the worst team in their division, and very possibly the league, they're second to the 21-7 Astros as the most surprising team in the league over the past month.

What's Going Right? Their starting pitchers, wretched last year (a cover-your-eyes 5.06 ERA), are seventh in the league in ERA, 3.88, over the past month. After a slow start offensively, the Twins have scored the second-most runs in the league over the past 30 days. They're first in batting average (.275), fifth in on base percentage (.329), and ninth in slugging percentage (.410).

What's Going Wrong? When you see a team with the Twins' batting numbers, you can conclude that they get a lot of singles but not much else. Over the past 30 days, they offense is twelfth in the league with a 7% walk rate and they've hit the fourth-fewest homers. They've scored a lot of runs because of a league-leading .336 batting average on balls in play that's almost certainly unsustainable.

When I wrote my rant about the Twins in February, I complained that their strategy of seeking pitchers who induce contact rather than pitchers who get strikeouts is out of sync with contemporary baseball. They're last in the league, by far, in strikeout percentage (14% of batters faced; the league average is nearly 20%).

The bullpen ERA over the past 30 days is 4.14, fourth worst in the American League. 

Who's Hot? Second baseman Brian Dozier (.276/.376/.524 slash line), third baseman Trevor Plouffe (.295/.374/.453) and right fielder Torii Hunter (.294/.342/.529, six home runs) have been the offensive stars over the past 30 days. Starters Kyle Gibson and Mike Pelfrey have combined for a 2.42 ERA over eleven starts, though with a strikeout rate so low (7.6% of batters faced) that it seems unsustainable. Closer Glenn Perkins is 11-for-11 in save attempts with a 1.42 ERA over the past month.

Who's Not? Nobody on offense really stinks of late, though the Twins have gotten a lack of sock from the traditional power positions of DH (primarily Kennys Vargas, two home runs) and first base (primarily Joe Mauer, none). Over the past 30 days, Perkins, Ryan Pressly, and Blaine Boyer have combined for a 1.22 ERA over 37 innings. The rest of the bullpen has a 6.30 ERA over 50 innings. 

What's the Outlook? You could probably tell from the tone of this that I don't expect the Twins to remain this good. The two-game series with the Twins at PNC Park starting tomorrow could be an opportunity for the Pirates to recover from their recent 1-4 run as they prepare to host another surprisingly good team, the Mets, over the weekend.


How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Phillies' 8-20 record is a .286 winning percentage, the worst in baseball. The Pirates have gone from a series against the hottest team in baseball, the Cardinals, to one against the coldest team in the sport.

What's Going Right? In the 15-team National League, the Phillies' relievers have a 2.92 ERA, fourth best in the league over the past 30 days. Considering that their starting pitchers (keep reading) have forced the bullpen to throw 83.1 innings, fourth most in the league, that's pretty good.

What's Going Wrong? The starting pitchers have a 5.34 ERA over the past 30 days, second-worst in the league. The offense is terrible. Over the past 30 days, they're second-to last in batting average (.233, barely ahead of the Brewers' .232), last in on base percentage (.285), and last in slugging percentage (.342). They've also hit only 17 homers, trailing only the Giants with 16, despite the fact that the Giants play in a pitchers' park and the Phils are in homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park. As a result, the team with the fourth-highest payroll in the league ($131.4 million) is only 11th in attendance (26,052 per game).

Who's Hot? This should tell you all you need to know about the Phillies' offense: Over the last 30 days, their best batter has been light-hitting shortstop Freddy Galvis, who's batting .330 with a .378 on base percentage but almost no power: 27 singles and three extra-base hits. Or how about this: Pitcher Chad Billingsley, who was last a major league regular in 2012, is tied for fifth on the club in homers (with one) over the past 30 days. On the mound, 37-year-old righty Aaron Harang has been a pleasant surprise (2.77 ERA over six starts in the past 30 days). Closer Jonathan Papelbon has a 2.00 ERA over the past 30 days and setup man Ken Giles is at 0.77.

Who's Not? One of the bet players in franchise history, second baseman Chase Utley, looks done: He's batting .125 over the past 30 days and .122 on the season. The Phils are getting almost no offensive contribution from four positions: Utley at second, Cody Asche at third, Carlos Ruiz at catcher, and the duo of Jeff Francoeur and Grady Sizemore in right. After Harang and fellow veteran/trade bait Cole Hamels, the rest of the rotation has been awful (7.14 combined ERA).

What's the Outlook? In my season preview, I identified the Phillies' chances of finishing last in the National League East as one of the five locks in baseball this season. While I'm not doing so well with my others (Nationals in first, currently second; Braves in fourth, currently third; Dodgers in first, right so far; Twins in last, currently third), the Phils have been pretty bad. And it's not like they're young and rebuilding: Their batters are fifth oldest in the league and their pitchers second oldest. Maybe they can help the Bucs' bats emerge from their long slumber.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Trailing 30 - May 17

(Computer's back from the shop. I'm back to blogging.)

For those of you new to this site, this is something I've been doing for a while. As you probably know, Major League Baseball names a Player, Pitcher and Rookie of the month each month of the season. But the month ending, for example, May 31, is pretty arbitrary. Additionally, once the first month of the year's over, it's not easy for fans to know how a team's doing recently. For example, at last year's All-Star Break, the Angels were 57-37, a game and a half behind the Athletics in the American League West. But they were 21-7 over the prior thirty days, the best record in the majors. That turned out to be foreshadowing, as the Angels went 41-27 the rest of the way and finished with the best record in the majors. So rather than wait for the end of May, June, July, August, and September, I'm going to let you know, every Sunday, who's hot and who's not in the majors over the past month. Here are the top (and bottom) performers over the past 30 days, made possible through FanGraphs and its fabulous Leaders application. Comment for the week: The figures for Bryce Harper are actually correct.


   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Houston          20-9     1. St. Louis        19-9       
2. New York        19-10     2. Los Angeles     17-10        
3. Minnesota       18-10     3. Washington      17-11         
4. Kansas City     16-12     4. San Francisco   16-10   
5. Los Angeles     15-12     5. Chicago         16-12        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Oakland          8-20     1. Colorado         6-18      
2. Baltimore       10-15     2. Arizona         10-15       
3. Texas           11-16     3. Milwaukee       11-17      
   Cleveland       11-16     4. Atlanta         11-16
5. Boston, Toronto 12-16     5. Philadelphia    12-16

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Kipnis, Cle      .368     1. Gordon, Mia      .448        
2. Brantley, Cle    .365     2. Rizzo, Chi       .375      
3. Cruz, Sea        .364     3. Belt, SF         .365           
4. Vogt, Oak        .351     4. Harper, Was      .363          
5. Hosmer, KC       .349     5. Hechavarria, Mia .356       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Napoli, Bos      .183     1. Utley, Phi       .134          
2. Carter, Hou      .189     2. Bruce, Cin       .157       
3. Drew, NY         .195     3. Mercer, Pit      .159
4. Valbuena, Hou    .198     4. Coghlan, Chi     .160           
5. Santana, Cle     .200     5. McGehee, SF      .182      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Vogt, Oak        .451     1. Harper, Was      .512           
2. Brantley, Cle    .446     2. Rizzo, Chi       .480          
3. Kipnis, Cle      .438     3. Gordon, Mia      .473         
4. Hosmer, KC       .434     4. Holliday, SL     .445          
5. Reddick, Oak     .430     5. Goldschmidt, Ari .444      
      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Vogt, Oak        .730     1. Harper, Was      .802         
2. Martin, Tor      .693     2. Rizzo, Chi       .673     
3. Cruz, Sea        .673     3. Goldschmidt, Ari .652       
4. Hosmer, KC       .632     4. Carpenter, SL    .639       
5. Paredes, Bal     .621     5. Marte, Pit       .608        
          
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Cruz, Sea           9     1. Harper, Was        11
   Trout, LA           9     2. Stanton, Mia       10        
3. 5 with              8     3. Frazier, Cin        9
                                Pederson, LA        9
                             5. 2 with              8
                                
   Runs                         Runs    
1. Donaldson, Tor     22     1. Harper, Was        26        
   Dozier, Min        22     2. Simmons, Atl       24     
   Kipnis, Cle        22     3. 4 with             21
4. Ellsbury, NY       21     
   Trout, LA          21        

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Reddick, Oak       26     1. Harper, Was        30        
2. Vogt, Oak          24     2. Stanton, Mia       27      
   Morales, KC        24     3. Bryant, Chi        24       
4. Teixeira, NY       23     4. Gonzalez, LA       23
5. Moss, Cle          22        Marte, Pit         23
                             
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Ellsbury, NY       12     1. Hamilton, Cin       9            
2. Altuve, Hou        10        Polanco, NY         9     
   Gardner, NY        10     3. Rizzo, Chi          8   
4. Springer, Hou       8     4. Fowler, Chi         7
5. Marisnick, Hou      7        J Upton, SD         7
                                
   Saves                        Saves
1. Miller, NY         11     1. Familia, NY         9
   Perkins, Min       11        Rosenthal, SL       9
3. Street, LA          9     3. Melancon, Pit       8
4. 3 with              8        Storen, Was         8
                             5. 3 with              7

   ERA                          ERA
1. Gibson, Min      1.64     1. Burnett, Pit     1.36
2. Chen, Bal        1.95     2. Phelps, Mia      1.75
3. Gray, Oak        1.99     3. Greinke, LA      1.79
4. Keuchel, Hou     2.06     4. Miller, Atl      1.80
5. Wilson, LA       2.10     5. Scherzer, Was    2.09

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Dickey, Tor      6.93     1. Kendrick, Col    8.36
2. Ventura, KC      6.59     2. Garza, Mil       6.17
3. Kelly, Bos       6.48     3. Locke, Pit       5.82
4. Greene, Det      6.39     4. Hellickson, Ari  5.67
5. Hutchison, Tor   5.91     5. Hudson, SF       5.63

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hernandez, Sea   0.91     1. Scherzer, Was    0.88
2. Keuchel, Hou     0.92     2. Miller, Atl      0.89
3. Gibson, Min      0.97     3. Hammel, Chi      0.94
4. Weaver, LA       1.02     4. Greinke, LA      0.94
5. Wilson, LA       1.02     5. Anderson, Ari    0.95

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Salazar, Cle       52     1. Kershaw, LA        52      
2. Kluber, Cle        47     2. Scherzer, Was      50
3. Gray, Oak          46     3. Shields, SD        49
4. Hernandez, Sea     44     4. Cueto, Cin         42
5. Buchholz, Bos      42        Ross, SD           42

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Odds and Ends - May 12


  • Blogging will be light this week, as I'm on the road much of the week and my computer will be in the shop part of the time as well.
  • The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang, with 21 major league games under his belt, now ranks No. 13 among native South Koreans in major league games played. The all-time leader is the Rangers' Shin-Soo Choo, with 1,003 and counting. Next up are Jae Kuk Ryu, a pitcher for three teams in 2006-8, who appeared in 28 games, and then Dae-Sung Koo, who pitched in 33 games for the Mets in 2005. I don't remember Dae-Sung Koo. Fortunately, the talented Jon Bois from Sports on Earth does. The video runs about ten minutes and is worth the time. 
  • Over at Just A Bit Outside, David Golebiewski has a fun set of graphs on the Pirates' offensive struggles.
  • A day late, but here's a Next Up on the Philadelphia Phillies.
How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, the Phillies' 8-20 record is a .286 winning percentage, the worst in baseball. The Pirates have gone from a series against the hottest team in baseball, the Cardinals, to one against the coldest team in the sport.

What's Going Right? In the 15-team National League, the Phillies' relievers have a 2.92 ERA, fourth best in the league over the past 30 days. Considering that their starting pitchers (keep reading) have forced the bullpen to throw 83.1 innings, fourth most in the league, that's pretty good.

What's Going Wrong? The starting pitchers have a 5.34 ERA over the past 30 days, second-worst in the league. The offense is terrible. Over the past 30 days, they're second-to last in batting average (.233, barely ahead of the Brewers' .232), last in on base percentage (.285), and last in slugging percentage (.342). They've also hit only 17 homers, trailing only the Giants with 16, despite the fact that the Giants play in a pitchers' park and the Phils are in homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park. As a result, the team with the fourth-highest payroll in the league ($131.4 million) is only 11th in attendance (26,052 per game).

Who's Hot? This should tell you all you need to know about the Phillies' offense: Over the last 30 days, their best batter has been light-hitting shortstop Freddy Galvis, who's batting .330 with a .378 on base percentage but almost no power: 27 singles and three extra-base hits. Or how about this: Pitcher Chad Billingsley, who was last a major league regular in 2012, is tied for fifth on the club in homers (with one) over the past 30 days. On the mound, 37-year-old righty Aaron Harang has been a pleasant surprise (2.77 ERA over six starts in the past 30 days). Closer Jonathan Papelbon has a 2.00 ERA over the past 30 days and setup man Ken Giles is at 0.77.

Who's Not? One of the bet players in franchise history, second baseman Chase Utley, looks done: He's batting .125 over the past 30 days and .122 on the season. The Phils are getting almost no offensive contribution from four positions: Utley at second, Cody Asche at third, Carlos Ruiz at catcher, and the duo of Jeff Francoeur and Grady Sizemore in right. After Harang and fellow veteran/trade bait Cole Hamels, the rest of the rotation has been awful (7.14 combined ERA).

What's the Outlook? In my season preview, I identified the Phillies' chances of finishing last in the National League East as one of the five locks in baseball this season. While I'm not doing so well with my others (Nationals in first, currently second; Braves in fourth, currently third; Dodgers in first, right so far; Twins in last, currently third), the Phils have been pretty bad. And it's not like they're young and rebuilding: Their batters are fifth oldest in the league and their pitchers second oldest. Maybe they can help the Bucs' bats emerge from their long slumber.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Thorough Analysis of McCutchen's Knee

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs is one of the best baseball analysts. He wrote a very thorough analysis of the Pirates' star center fielder Andrew McCutchen yesterday. FanGraphs can be a little stat-heavy and therefore daunting to some fans. However, Sullivan's contribution was to Just A Bit Outside (JABO), the Fox Sports site curated by longtime analyst Rob Neyer and featuring Emmy-winning journalist Ken Rosenthal. JABO articles scale back the graphs and numbers in favor of great writing. 

The link to Sullivan's excellent article is here. It's worth reading in its entirety. The key points, though, are:

  1. McCutchen has never had a streak in his career anywhere as bad as this one.
  2. He is not pulling the ball with authority, i.e., he's not making hard contact to left field.
  3. He's acknowledged discomfort in his left knee.
  4. His swing (Sullivan provides videos) has featured a marked weight transference from his back leg to his front leg. For the right-handed hitting McCutchen, that's from his right leg to his left leg.
  5. His swing this year has much less of a shift from his right leg to his left leg. That's consistent with a problem with his left leg, and explains McCutchen's hitting issues. 
Sullivan concludes:
The matter with Andrew McCutchen is his swing. Maybe he's still in pain, and maybe he's not still in enough pain for it to matter. But regardless, he has a swing that's seemingly compensating for an uncomfortable left leg. And that's not the swing of a successful Andrew McCutchen.
I know, McCutchen's 6-for-13 with two doubles in his last three games. Maybe he's figured things out and has repaired his swing. Sullivan's well-researched article gives us all something to watch when McCutchen steps to the plate.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Precedent of 1984. No, Not That 1984

No book changed my life more than the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract. As a kid, I was a baseball fan and a numbers geek. The 1982 Abstract (1982 was the year of the first mass-published Abstract) was the first time I saw how closely the game and the numbers could work together. It deepened my love for the game, and that's stayed with me all these years.


One of the controversies that James addressed was the old saw that "baseball is 70% (or 80%, or whatever) pitching." In the Abstract (it might not have been 1982; cut me some slack, this was over 30 years ago), James analytically demonstrated that the actual number is a lot lower, like 50% or 45% or something. (I don't recall exactly. See the last parenthetical caveat.)

I don't remember the exact year nor the exact figure, but I do remember that it was really controversial. The traditionalists--and there were a lot more anti-stats types back then than there are now--jumped all over it, using it as evidence that James didn't know what he was talking about.

Then 1984 happened. It was like an episode of Laverne and Shirley, when they'd be talking about morons or losers or something and then Lenny and Squiqqy appeared. (This may be the first Laverne and Shirley analogy in a baseball blog.) If baseball's mostly pitching, then the better-pitching teams should be the most successful, right?

In 1984, a National League team led the league in ERA with 3.11. Overall, the team allowed 3.50 runs per game, also the lowest in the league. So the team clearly had pitching, which was viewed as the key to success. On the other hand, its offense was weak. The prior year, the team had been third in batting average, fifth in on base percentage, and fifth in slugging percentage. In 1984, those ranks fell to seventh, eleventh, and seventh.

OK, before continuing with 1984, let me point out a similar team: The 2015 Bucs. The 2014 Pirates were third in batting, second in on base percentage, and third in slugging. This year, even after yesterday's outburst, they're 13th in batting and on base and 14th in slugging. But the pitching's been stellar: third in ERA (just .02 behind the Mets), third in runs allowed per game. 

Now, if you buy that baseball is 80% or 70%, or something like that, pitching, then shouldn't a team that is a league leader in pitching also lead the league in wins? Well, the 2015 Pirates are 13-15. There are ten teams that have won more than 13 games, including just two (the Mets and Cardinals) with a superior ERA. The 2015 Pirates would seem to show that baseball isn't 70% pitching.

Anyway, back to 1984. Into the argument over whether the game's mostly pitching, a team, Lenny and Squiggy-like, walked into the argument leading the league in ERA with a below average offense. Did the pitching carry them? Certainly not. The team finished last in its division, 75-87, after finishing second the year before. The pitching staff was good, but the offense prevented victories. Good pitching, bad team. 

That team, in that season, vindicated James. The timing couldn't have been more opportune. Good pitching fell prey to bad hitting. The game couldn't be mostly pitching. Maybe, people thought, this analytical stuff can work.

That team, the 1984 club that finished last despite a league-leading pitching staff? The Pittsburgh Pirates.

I'm not going to torture the metaphor. The underperformers in 1984 included Dale Berra, Bill Madlock, Marvell Wynne, Doug Frobel, and Lee Mazzilli. The only one of that quintet who'd been a perennial All-Star was Madlock, who was coming off a batting championship. This year's batting slump is more surprising, given the caliber of the players slumping. And, of course, there's hope that last night's 7-2 win will prove to be a turning point (though any game in which Kevin Gregg, who's now allowed five runs to the Pirates in 1.1 innings, throws 34 pitches has to be viewed as a unique opportunity for batters). But there is a parallel, and it's that as good as the Pirates pitching staff's been this year, they need more at the plate in order to win. But you probably already knew that.

Next Up: St. Louis Cardinals

How Are They Doing Lately? You're kidding, right? The Cardinals are 21-7. That's the best record in baseball.

What's Going Right? Well, they're fourth in scoring, 4.50 runs per game, and they're allowed only 2.82 per game, which is a quarter of a run fewer than any other team in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, is out for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon. They've hit only 19 homers, tied for the third fewest in the league. Not a lot more to complain about here.

Who's Hot? Other than a handful of guys listed in the next paragraph, sort of the whole team. Left fielder Matt Holiday leads the league with a .477 on base percentage, third baseman Matt Carpenter is fifth in slugging, and Michael Wacha and his 4-0 won-loss record is fourth in ERA. 

Who's Not? Right fielder Jayson Heyward has been the weakest offensive performer over the past 30 days: .230/.270/.320 slash line, but he's heated up as late. Yadier Molina's .264/.309/.322 isn't bad by the standards of contemporary catchers but a far cry from his .313/.361/.481 2011-13 peak. The two pitchers who've auditioned for the rotation spot vacated by Wanwright's injury, Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney, have an 8.10 ERA in their two starts, allowing 16 hits and walks in 6.2 innnings. 

What's The Outlook? The Cardinals are hot. They've won nine of their last ten, and they're 18-4 after a 3-3 start. They've got to cool down at some point, right? Too bad for the Pirates that they won't trade for Kevin Gregg.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bucs Clutch?

As I pointed out yesterday, the Pirates are last in the league in batting with the bases empty but fifth in batting with runners in scoring position. I wrote, "It seems as if they're always leaving runners on base--Saturday night's 18 runners left on base was pull-your-hair-out frustrating." But, as I noted further, "The problem isn't hitting with runners on base; it's getting runners on base in the first place." 

We've come to associate batting with runners in scoring position with being clutch. The most recent exemplar is the 2013 Cardinals, who set a record with their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position. (Predictably, that figure fell to .254 in 2014 and it was .264 in 2012, so that .330 was sandwiched between normal figures. Batting with runners in scoring position is generally not replicable, which means that it bounces around from year to year. That indicates there's a good measure of luck involved in this "clutch." measure.)

Now, it's not odd that the Pirates are batting better with runners in scoring position than with the bases empty. That's normal. There are several reasons for this:
  • With runners on base, the pitcher's distracted.
  • The pitcher has to pitch out of the stretch rather than with a full windup, with runners on base which for many pitchers decreases their effectiveness.
  • Infielders can't position themselves optimally, since they may have to hold baserunners on base, creating more holes in the infield for batted balls to find.
  • There is what statisticians call "selection bias." The best pitchers don't allow runners on base, so they comprise a disproportionate share of the plate appearances with the bases empty. Bad pitchers allow lots of baserunners, so they comprise a disproportionate share of the plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Last season, Clayton Kershaw had the best ERA in the National League, and Roberto Hernandez had the worst. They faced roughly the same number of batters. For Hernandez, 55% of opponents' plate appearances were with the bases empty and 28% with runners in scoring position. For Kershaw, those figures are 65% and 17%, respectively.  Batters have poorer numbers with the bases empty because, in aggregate, those plate appearances are against better pitchers than plate appearances with runners in scoring position.
So how unusual are the Pirates' figures? Here's a table that illustrates how they're doing. I've listed, for each of the past five seasons, the team with the greatest difference (measured by OPS) between batting with runners in scoring position (RISP) and with the bases empty:





I think there are two interesting things here.
  1. The Pirates' divergence between batting with runners in scoring position and with the bases empty is the greatest since those record-setting 2013 Cardinals that I mentioned above. What we're seeing so far this year is really unusual.
  2. The 2014 Dodgers won their division and had the second-best record in the league. The 2013 Cardinals won their division and had the best record in the league. The 2011 Phillies won their division and had the best record in the league. The only two teams on the list that aren't division leaders are the 2012 Phillies (81-81, third in the National League East) and this year's Pirates.
This isn't to say that the Pirates' batting with runners in scoring position vs. bases empty indicates that they'll win their division. Teams with a .250 on base percentage with the bases empty will struggle to score runs. Rather, it seems reasonable to assume that the wide divergence--nearly 100 points in on base percentage--isn't likely to persist. The Bucs will probably do better with the bases empty and may do worse with runners in scoring position going forward. The net effect would be positive. The lack of clutch hitting this year isn't with runners on, it's with nobody on.

Next Up: Cincinnati Reds

The Pirates started their season on April 6 with a three-game series in Cincinnati. Now, a month later, they host the Reds for another three-game series. Here's a look at the Reds over the past month.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Reds are 12-13, tied for third in the National League Central with the Pirates. They trail the Cubs by 1.5 games and the red-hot Cardinals by 7.

What's Gong Right? The Reds starters have been good: 3.48 ERA, fifth in the league. They've hit a lot of home runs (34, second in the league) but are tied for only ninth in scoring because of a league-worst .226 team batting average. Their base stealing numbers are ridiculous: 29 stolen bases, most in the league, and just one caught stealing.

What's Going Wrong? The Reds relievers have been awful: 5.34 ERA, last in the league by nearly half a run. And, as noted above, they're batting just .226.

Who's Hot? Joey Votto is batting .323 (13th in the league) with a .427 on base percentage (seventh) and .613 slugging percentage (sixth). He is clearly the team leader with the bat. That's not a big surprise; he's the team's biggest star and is bouncing back from an injury-riddled 2014. Shortstop Zack Cozart (who's questionable due to a bruised finger) is hitting .304/.343/.533 with five homers. Now that's a big surprise; Cozart batted .221/.268/.300 last year with four homers all season. Todd Frazier, with eight homers, and Jay Bruce, with five, have also supplied power, though with batting averages of only .215 and .181, respectively. Frazier's tied for first in the league in homers, Votto's tied for third, Cozart and Bruce are tied for tenth.

The Pirates won't have to face their nemesis Johnny Cueto during the series but they will go up against the Reds' other two top starters, Mike Leake (1-1, 3.03 ERA) and the surprising Anthony DeSclafani (2-2, 2.03 ERA). Closer Aroldis Chapman has been his normal ridiculous self (five saves, one win in 11 games; 10.2 innings pitched, 19 strikeouts, five hits and no runs allowed) and setup man Tony Cingrani (2.08 ERA in seven games) has been good. The rest of the bullpen's been awful (7.25 ERA). 

Who's Not? I already mentioned Frazier's and Bruce's batting averages. At least they're walking a bit and hitting some homers. That's not true of left fielder Marlon Byrd (.181) and center fielder Billy Hamilton (.204). Hamilton, as usual, contributes strong defense and a lot of speed (13 stolen bases, tops in the league), though his .260 on base percentage (12th lowest in the league) means he's not getting on base enough to steal more bases or score more runs. Catcher Devin Mescoraco will probably see limited or no action against the Pirates due to a sore hip. He's off to a terrible start: two singles in 24 at bats (.083 batting average).

What's the Outlook? The recipe for beating the Reds is pretty simple: Keep Hamilton off the basepaths so he can't go crazy stealing, limit the baserunners in general to lessen the damage from all those home runs, and try to get to the bullpen before Cingrani and, especially, Chapman have a chance to preserve a lead.