Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How Bad is the Pirates' Defense?

On April 21, the Pirates were leading the Cubs 8-6 when closer Mark Melancon entered the game to start the ninth inning. A single, double, walk, single, strikeout, and ground out later, the Cubs had a 9-8 lead that they'd hold in the last of the ninth. Melancon had a blown save. 

Melancon ran off a streak of 35 straight successful save opportunities until August 18 against Arizona. As in the Cubs game in April, the Pirates had an 8-6 lead starting the eighth. As in the Cubs game, Melancon blew the save. Unlike in April, though, it's hard to pin the blame on Melancon. Pinch hitter Ender Inciarte led off the inning with a grounder that went under the glove of third baseman Jung Ho Kang for an error. Pinch hitter Jake Lamb struck out and A.J. Pollock popped out. The game should have been over. But because of Kang's error, there were only two outs. Second baseman Aaron Hill singled, putting runners on first and second. Paul Goldschmidt hit a grounder to first, which should have been, again, the third out of the inning, but it bounced off first baseman Sean Rodriguez into right field, where Gregory Polanco had a hard time picking it up. Inciarte and Hill scored, game tied, save blown. The Pirates went on the win in 14 innings, but Melancon blew his first save after 35 straight on two unearned runs caused by two errors.

This has been an issue for the Pirates this year. They've scored runs: 4.2 per game, fifth most in the league. The pitchers' 3.15 ERA is the second-lowest. But they've given up 0.4 unearned runs per game, the second most in the league. The Pirates play smart baseball, shifting their infielders to put them in position to make outs. But you can't make outs if you can't catch the ball. 

How bad has the Pirates defense been? Let's look at it in three ways.

Traditional stats. The Pirates have made 96 errors so far this season, the most in the National League. Of them, 57 have been fielding errors, also most in the league, and they've made 39 throwing errors, tied for the sixth most. The team fielding percentage of .982 is the third worst in the league, ahead of only the Brewers and Phillies.

A lot of the focus on defense has been on first baseman Pedro Alvarez, whose 18 errors leads major league first baseman by eleven and puts him on a pace to challenge former Pirates Donn Clendenon (24 errors in 1966) and Kevin Young (23 errors in 1999) for the most errors by a National League first baseman in the past 50 years. But there have been problems all over the diamond. Pirates first basemen and right fielders lead the league in errors. Pirates third basemen are third in errors, and Pirates catchers are tied for third. Pirates center fielders are tied for sixth, and the team's second basemen are tied for eighth. The only positions at which the Pirates' error totals have been below average are shortstop (tied for tenth), left field (tied for second to last), and pitcher (second to last). So yeah, they've made a lot of errors. That's not good.

Less Traditional Stats. Defensive Efficiency Rating, or DER, measures the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs. It's not completely precise, because it includes an estimate of total plays made, but it's pretty close. The best-fielding teams in the National League, as measured by DER, are the Giants, Mets, and Reds. Each has turned 70% or more of all balls in play into outs. The Pirates, at 68.1%, are tenth. The league average is 68.7%. So they're below-average, but not at the bottom of the list. Atlanta, Washington, Milwaukee, Colorado, and Philadelphia all rate lower. 

The company Inside Edge provides another way of looking at fielding. It looks at all balls in play and calculates the likelihood that an out will be made. Inside Edge divides batted balls into six categories: 0% likelihood of becoming an out, 1%-10%, 10%-40%, 40%-60%, 60%-90%, and 90%-100%. The Pirates have been OK in the middle of the range. They've converted 29% of batted balls in the 10%-40% range into outs, the eighth highest rate in the league. They've turned 49% of balls in the 40%-60% into outs, seventh highest. And they've converted 80% in the 60%-90% range, the fifth most. All of those figures say average to me. But on the extremes...the Pirates have been successful at the second lowest rate in the league on balls that Inside Edge calculates as 1%-10% likely and 90%-100% likely. In other words, they don't make the hardest plays, and they mess up the easy plays. 

Advanced Stats. There are three measures that estimate runs saved by defense: Total Zone Fielding Runs (from, Defensive Runs Saved (from Baseball Information Systems), and Ultimate Zone Rating runs (from, calculated by Mitchel Lichtman). Each methodology looks at every batted ball and attempts to determine the likelihood with which the ball would be fielded. Critics decry advanced fielding stats as numerical hocus-pocus, but they're based on careful observations of all plays. The Pirates are seventh in Defensive Runs Saved, eleventh in Ultimate Zone Rating, and tied for twelfth in Total Zone. The average of those three ratings in tenth.

Conclusion. The Pirates are below average, arguably bad, but not the worst. (That title would seem to be fought between the Phillies and Padres, with the Brewers weighing in.) They won't win any Gold Gloves around the infield, though their aggressive use of shifts minimizes the damage (except at first, where Alvarez really does play like a DH). The outfield has a good left fielder, a solid if overrated* center fielder, and a talented but erratic right fielder. The value the catchers bring is more measured by strikes gained and balls avoided than anything else. This isn't a team built to have an airtight defense. But an upgrade at first, and more focus on making the easier plays, would help a lot.

*Pirates fans: Don't jump on me. I'm not saying Cutch is a bad fielder. I'm saying--and the stats will back me up on this--that he's a below average center fielder. A below average center fielder in the majors is still a great fielder. It's just that when your peer group includes the likes of Cain, Hamilton, Kiermaier, Martin, Pillar, et al, it's tough to be above average. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Next Up: The Milwaukee Brewers

The Cardinals really are ridiculous. Last Monday, I noted that the Pirates, 3.5 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central, were starting a series of ten games against three of the worst teams in the National League, while the Cardinals had ten against teams with winning records. The Pirates have delivered, going 5-2 in the first seven games...and they've lost a game and a half in the standings. St. Louis has 31 more games. If they go 15-16 for the rest of the season, the Pirates will have to go 22-11 to pass them. That's not impossible--the team's a game better than that, 23-10, over its last 33 games--but the last time the Cardinals were below .500 over a 31-game stretch was July 5 to August 12 last year.

On a brighter note, the Pirates enter play tonight against the Brewers 5.5 games ahead of the Cubs for the first wild card and home field advantage for the National League wild card play-in game on October 7. 

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Brewers are 11-14, putting them exactly in the middle of the fifteen-team National League over the span. They've scored 4.5 runs per game, seventh in the league (one spot below the Pirates at 4.6) and allowed 5.2, the fourth most. An 11-14 record is about what you'd expect from a run differential like that.

What's Going Right? The Brewers' batters have hit .259, the sixth highest batting average in the league, over the past 30 days, with a seventh-best .421 slugging percentage, but their .313 on base percentage is twelfth. They've struck out an an above-average rate and walked at a below-average rate but they've generated the third-highest rate of hard contact in the league, resulting in 13% of their fly balls going over the fence, the fifth-highest rate in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The Brewers bullpen has been in the middle of the pack over the past 30 days--4.08 ERA, seventh in the league--but the starters have been bad. Their 5.51 ERA over the past 30 days is tenth in the league. That ranking doesn't sound too bad. But the National League over the past 30 days has had nine teams with a starters' ERA below 4.50 and the other six with a starters' ERA above 5.50. The Brewers are on the wrong side of that divide, as evidenced by the league ERA of 4.44--Milwaukee's been 24% worse. The starters have the highest walk rate and fifth lowest strikeout rate in the league. They've probably been a little unlucky--no team's stranded fewer baserunners--but they've induced opponents to swing at only 27% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second-lowest rate in the league. As a result, they've allowed the highest rate of hard contact on balls in play and the second-lowest rate of soft contact.  

Who's Hot? With center fielder Carlos Gomez traded with starter Mike Fiers to the Astros at the trade deadline, the Brewers' biggest remaining stars are right fielder/boo magnet Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Over the past 30 days, Braun's caught fire, with a .337/.400/.596 slash line, and Lucroy's slugged .512 with a .343 on base percentage. Left fielder Khris Davis has hit ten homers, slugging .584, but he's been all-or-none at the plate, with just a .225 batting average and a .283 on base percentage. On the mound, the exception to the Brewers-starters-haven't-been-good rule is rookie Taylor Jungmann, who's had a 3.12 ERA and 30 strikeouts over 26 innings over the past 30 days. Pirates fans will remember that Jungmann's first major league start came against the Bucs in June; he allowed one run over seven innings in a 4-1 Brewers victory. He'll pitch Wednesday. In the bullpen, the two primary setup men, Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress, have been good, with 28 strikeouts and a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings in the past 30 days.

Who's Not? Tonight's starter, Jimmy Nelson, hasn't been bad over the past 30 days, with a 4.03 ERA (but too many walks, 13 in 29 innings). Thursday's starter, Matt Garza, by contrast, has been bad (7.24 ERA). Closer Francisco Rodriguez has struggled, with a 6.10 ERA over the past 30 days. His peripheral numbers are good--13 strikeouts and just one walk over 10.1 innings, going eight-for-nine in saves--but he's given up three home runs, as many as any Brewers starter other than Garza. 

You gotta get on base to score runs, and much of the Brewers' lineup over the past 30 days has been an on base percentage sinkhole: third baseman Hernan Perez (who took over the position when the Pirates acquired Aramis Ramirez) .265, shortstop Jean Segura .272, Gomez replacement Shane Peterson .282, and the aforementioned Davis. Special credit goes to Perez, who has the fewest unintentional walks, three, of any player in the majors with at least 190 plate appearances this year.

What's the Outlook? At 55-75, the Brewers have the fifth worst record in the National League. The Pirates, though, have struggled against their National League Central rivals, going 21-29 in games within the division. That ties them with Milwaukee for the worst record in intra-division games in the Central. So far, the teams have split twelve meetings, and the Brewers hold a 4-2 advantage in games at Miller Park. The Pirates will try to narrow that advantage in advance of a weekend series in St. Louis. As has been the case all year, the key to beating the Brewers is building up a lead against their unreliable starting pitchers.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Trailing 30 - August 31

Here is an explanation of this weekly feature, listing the best and worst of past 30 days, made possible by FanGraphs' Leaders application. Comment for the week: I'm a day late posting this, but the timing makes it easier to predict the August players of the month. American League: Edwin Encarnacion probably deserves it, but I expect his teammate Josh Donaldson to be Player of the Month, with another teammate, David Price, winning Pitcher of the Month. National League: Nobody really stands out offensively. Andrew McCutchen could be Player of the Month. The Cubs' Jake Arrieta seems an easy choice for Pitcher of the Month.

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Toronto         21- 5     1. Chicago         19- 8
2. Kansas City     19- 9        New York        19- 8    
3. Texas           18- 9        Pittsburgh      19- 8         
4. Cleveland       15-12     4. St. Louis       18- 9   
5. Boston          14-12     5. Los Angeles     14-12        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Los Angeles     10-18     1. Cincinnati       7-21      
2. Detroit         10-17     2. Atlanta          8-19       
3. Baltimore       11-17     3. Colorado         9-18      
4. Chicago         12-16     4. Miami           10-18
5. Oakland         12-15     5. Milwaukee       11-15

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Brantley, Cle    .424     1. Pollock, Ari     .373  
2. Encarnacion, Tor .402     2. Peralta, Ari     .370      
3. Lindor, Cle      .385     3. McCutchen, Pit   .348           
4. Altuve, Hou      .365     4. Herrera, Phi     .346          
5. Kinsler, Det     .362     5. Piscotti, SL     .340       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Rodriguez, NY    .148     1. Bruce, Cin       .157         
2. Lowrie, Hou      .165     2. Wong, SL         .189       
3. Urshela, Cle     .179     3. Uribe, NY        .192
4. McCann, Det      .195     4. Werth, Was       .208           
5. Plouffe, Min     .196     5. Byrd, Cin-SF     .216      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Brantley, Cle    .481     1. Votto, Cin       .513           
2. Encarnacion, Tor .458     2. McCutchen, Pit   .470         
3. Goins, Tor       .439     3. Harper, Was      .454         
4. Zobrist, KC      .433     4. Bryant, Chi      .411          
5. Beltran, NY      .433     5. Pollock, Ari     .409      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Encarnacion, Tor .927     1. Votto, Cin       .619        
2. Donaldson, Tor   .723     2. Bryant, Chi      .619     
3. Cruz, Sea        .714     3. McCutchen, Pit   .609       
4. Bradley, Bos     .711     4. Piscotti, SL     .600       
5. Ortiz, Bos       .693     5. Gonzalez, Col    .596        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Cruz, Sea          12     1. Gonzalez, Col      10
2. Donaldson, Tor     11        Davis, Mil         10        
   Encarnacion, Tor   11     3. Schwarber, Chi      9
4. Bautista, Tor      10     4. Cespedes, NY        8
   Davis, Bal         10     5. 5 with              7

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Donaldson, Tor     29     1. Schwarber, Chi     25        
2. Bautista, Tor      26     2. Pollock, Ari       23     
3. Cruz, Sea          24     3. Granderson, NY     22
4. Encarnacion, Tor   23        Harper, Was        22
   Hosmer, KC         23        Marte, Pit         22

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Encarnacion, Tor   35     1. Davis, Mil         24        
2. Donaldson, Tor     33        Kemp, SD           24      
3. Sano, Min          26        Zimmerman, Was     24       
4. Bradley, Bos       23     4. Cespedes, NY       23
5. 3 with             22        Schwarber, Chi     23
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Altuve, Hou         7     1. Gordon, Mia        11
   Cain, KC            7     2. Pollock, Ari       10     
3. 4 with              6     3. Blackmon, Col       8   
                             4. Desmond, Was        6
                                LeMahhieu, Col      6
   Saves                        Saves
1. Osuna, Tor         10     1. Rosenthal, SL      10
   Tolleson, Tex      10        Melancon, Pit      10
3. Boxberger, TB       7     3. Giles, Phi          9
   Holland, KC         7        Jansen, LA          9
5. 2 with              6        Rondon, Chi         9

   ERA                          ERA
1. Feldman, Hou     1.33     1. Harvey, NY       0.33
2. Carrasco, Cle    1.47     2. Arrieta, Chi     0.43
3. Verlander, Det   1.50     3. Wacha, SL        1.13
4. McHugh, Hou      1.89     4. Kershaw, LA      1.40
5. Gallardo, Tex    1.98     5. Bumgarner, SF    1.43

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Samardzija, Chi  8.82     1. Harang, Phi      8.04
2. Simon, Det       7.20     2. Wisler, Atl      7.85
3. Santana, Min     6.11     3. Garza, Mil       6.75
4. Gonzalez, Bal    6.82     4. Koehler, Mia     6.68
5. Hernandez, Sea   6.60     5. Scherzer, Was    6.43

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Carrasco, Cle    0.68     1. Harvey, NY       0.63
2. Kluber, Cle      0.81     2. Arrieta, Chi     0.69
3. Verlander, Det   0.83     3. Bumgarner, SF    0.72
4. Sale, Chi        0.89     4. Iglesias, Cin    0.76
5. Iwakuma, Sea     0.90     5. Kershaw, LA      0.78

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Sale, Chi          52     1. Bumgarner, SF      53     
2. Kluber, Cle        47     2. Kershaw, LA        51
3. Archer, TB         44     3. Iglesias, Cin      45
4. Price, Tor         41     4. Arrieta, Chi       43
5. Richards, LA       39        deGrom, NY         33

Friday, August 28, 2015

Next Up: The Colorado Rockies

On Monday, I wrote, previewing the Pirates' next ten games:
With the Pirates playing ten games against three of the worst teams in the league at the same time the Cardinals play ten against teams with winning records (the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Nationals), there's an opportunity for the Pirates to pick up ground heading into a Labor Day weekend matchup in St. Louis.
Well, that plan's been only half successful. The Pirates did indeed take three of four from the Miami Marlins, but the seemingly unstoppable Cardinals went to Phoenix and took four straight from a Diamondbacks team that had been on an 18-9 run. The Pirates now host the Rockies, with the third worst record in baseball, for three games while the Cardinals face the Giants, who trail the Dodgers by 2.5 in the West and the Cubs by 5.5 for the second wild card.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Rockies are 8-19, tying them with the Braves for the worst record in the National League. Despite playing in the best hitters' park in the majors, they've scored only 4.1 runs per game over the last 30 days, the sixth lowest total in the league, while giving up 6.0 per game, easily the most. They're 9-19 since trading shortstop/franchise icon Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays on July 28.

What's Going Right? Rockies pitchers are never as bad as their raw numbers, as they have the handicap of playing half their games in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the majors. Adjusted for their home park, their starters' ERA is fifth worst in the league over the past 30 days, and the relievers' ERA is second worse. That's not good, of course, but it's better than their unadjusted ERA.

What's Going Wrong? One Rockies batters are in the middle of the National League pack in slugging percentage over the past 30 days, at .417, but they've been hurt by an inability to get on base. The team's .295 on base percentage is the worst in the league over the past 30 days, the only team below .300. They've walked the least frequently and struck out the second most frequently in the league, swinging at 34% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second most in the league. The starting pitchers' ERA over the past 30 days is 5.89. Only the Phillies have been worse. Sort of the mirror image of the hitters, Rockies starters have struck out batters at the third-lowest rate and walked them at the sixth-highest rate. The relievers have been worse, with a league-worst 6.24 ERA, the lowest strikeout rate in the league, and by far and away the highest walk rate. Rockies relievers have issued free passes to 15% of the batters they've faced over the last 30 days. The next worst  team, the Marlins, are below 10%. The Rockies bullpen has four saves and six blown saves in the past 30 days. 

Who's Hot? Right fielder Carlos Gonzalez has put on a slugging show of late, leading the Rockies with ten homers, 20 RBI, 18 runs scored, a .337 on base percentage, and a .630 slugging percentage over the past 30 days. The Pirates will face the Rockies' most dependable starter of late, Jorge de la Rosa, on Sunday. Over his past five starts, he has a 3.41 ERA. Highly-touted rookie Jonathan Gray has his fifth start tonight. In his first three starts--all no-decisions--he compiled a 2.40 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 15 innings, but he was lit up for seven runs in an inning and two thirds against the Mets last Friday.

Who's Not? The Rockies got shortstop Jose Reyes in the trade for Tulo, and he's struggled with a .258 batting average and .284 on base percentage since coming over. He's also been caught stealing in half of his eight attempts. The team's most successful base stealer is center fielder Charlie Blackmon, with eight steals over the past 30 days, though he's been successful in 62% of his attempts, negating his swipes. Slick-fielding third baseman Nolan Arenado, first baseman Ben Paulsen, and catcher Nick Hundley join Reyes among regulars with on base percentages below .300 over the past 30 days. Over the past 30 days, the team's six most frequently used relievers have combined for a 7.30 ERA and have walked 16% of the batters they've faced; the league average is a 3.91 ERA and an 8% walk rate.

What's the Outlook? Playing the Rockies at altitude in Coors Field is said to mess up visiting hitters' and pitchers' timing. Hosting Colorado at PNC Park entails no such risk. (The Pirates visit Denver in September.) Picking up ground on the division-leading Cardinals, whom the Pirates trail by 4.5 games, is a tall order, though, as long as the Redbirds keeping winning every damn game they play.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Overworked Pen, Revisited

At the beginning of July, I wrote that the Pirates have gone to their bullpen a lot, and that this raised concerns about the relievers' durability over a 162-game season. The team's top four relievers at the time--Arquimedes CamineroJared HughesMark Melancon, and Tony Watson--had appeared in more games, and pitched more innings, than any top four in the National League. However, I noted that the Pirates relievers were unusually efficient, with all throwing a below-average number of pitches per inning. As a result, they hadn't thrown as many pitches as many of their peers, reducing the concern about wear and tear.

I decided to revisit this analysis as we enter the last month-plus of the season. I expanded my net, looking at each team in the majors. For each club, I identified their top three relievers, not in terms of games pitched, but in how they're used. FanGraphs' RotoGraphs column each week has a "Bullpen Report" that lists the top three relievers for each team. For the Pirates, for example, the closer is Melancon and the top two setup men are Joaquim Soria and Watson. For each team, I calculated, for the top three relievers:
  • The number of games in which they've appeared
  • The number of batters they've faced (a superior measure to innings pitched, which measures only outs)
  • The number of pitches they've thrown
I included only relief appearances for pitchers who've moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen. For pitchers who've been traded, like Soria, I used their full-year statistics. This analysis makes bullpens that've had upheaval through injury (e.g., the Braves, who lost closer Jason Grilli for the season in mid-July to a ruptured Achilles) or roster changes (e.g., the Mariners, who released closer Fernando Rodney over the weekend) seem well-rested, since more lightly-used relievers may have moved into more prominent roles. I don't worry about that; somebody's who's thrown only 30 innings is, in fact, likely pretty well-rested.

Here are the 12 bullpens whose top three relievers have appeared in the most games:
  1. Pirates (Melancon, Soria, Watson) 176
  2. Cubs (Rondon, Strop, Hunter) 170
  3. Rangers (Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson) 168
  4. Phillies (Giles, Garcia, Gomez) 164
  5. Cardinals (Rosenthal, Siegrist, Cishek) 162
  6. Angels (Street, Smith, Salas) 161
  7. Marlins (Ramos, Dunn, Morris) 161
  8. Mets (Familia, Clippard, Torres) 161
  9. Yankees (Miller, Betances, Wilson) 160
  10. Brewers (Rodriguez, Smith, Jeffress) 159
  11. Indians (Allen, Shaw, McAllister) 156
  12. Royals (Holland, Davis, Herrera) 153
Other contenders: Astros (Gregerson, Neshek, Qualls) T13th, Orioles (Britton, O'Day, Brach) 17th, Giants (Casilla, Romo, Strickland) 18th, Dodgers (Jansen, Johnson, Baez) 21st, Nationals (Papelbon, Storen, Janssen) T22nd, Twins T24th, Blue Jays (Osuna, Sanchez, Cecil) 27th.

Granted, it's a strain on a pitcher to appear in a game, as it entails both warmup pitches and live pitches. But there's more strain in coming into a game with one out and a runner on first and allowing two more batters to reach before retiring the next two compared to getting the first batter faced to ground into an inning-ending double play. So the number of batters a reliever faces is probably a better indicator of usage than the number of games in which he appears. The top three relievers for these teams have faced the most batters:
  1. Phillies 740
  2. Rangers 698
  3. Pirates 671
  4. Cubs 670
  5. Mets 667
  6. Cardinals 655
  7. Red Sox (Tazawa, Machi, Ognado) 642
  8. Orioles 640
  9. Angels 635
  10. Indians 632
  11. Reds (Chapman, Hoover, Mattheus) 625
  12. Yankees 621
Other contenders: Astros 21st, Dodgers 22nd, Nationals 24th, Giants 25th, Twins 26th, Blue Jays 28th.

Finally, as I pointed out in July, efficiency can reduce strain on relievers' arms. So far this year, relief pitchers have averaged 3.9 pitches per batter faced. That figure ranges between 3.7 for the Giants, Twins and Pirates to over 4.0 for the Rangers, Rays, and Yankees. Spread over a few hundred batters faced, those extra pitches can wear a pitcher down. These teams' top three relievers have thrown the most pitches this year:
  1. Phillies 2,848
  2. Rangers 2,694
  3. Cardinals 2,669
  4. Pirates 2,623
  5. Mets 2,618
  6. Yankees 2,556
  7. Indians 2,545
  8. Cubs 2,535
  9. Reds 2,529
  10. Orioles 2,523
  11. Red Sox 2,413
  12. Angels 2,412
Other contenders: Royals 16th, Dodgers 22nd, Astros 23rd, Giants 24th, Twins 25th, Nationals 26th, Blue Jays 28th.

So what are the takeaways here?
  • The Pirates have used their relievers a lot. However, the figures shown above are skewed by the addition of Joakim Soria. If I substitute Jared Hughes (the Pirates' No. 3 reliever before they traded for Soria on July 30) for Soria, the Pirates are still No. 1 in games pitched and rise to No. 2 in batters faced, but they fall all the way down to tenth in pitches thrown, behind both the Cardinals and the Cubs. They remain one of the most efficient bullpens, in terms of pitches per batter, in baseball. 
  • To expand on that, the only Pirates relievers who have averaged more than the major league average of 3.9 pitches per batter are Antonio Bastardo (4.4) and Soria (4.6 with the Pirates, 4.2 with the Tigers). That being said, of the 100 relievers who have thrown the most pitches this year, only three teams have six on their current roster: the Pirates, Cardinals, and Rangers.
  • The teams toward the bottom of the lists, notably the Blue Jays, Giants, Nationals, and Astros, in my opinion, seem to have particularly well-rested bullpens heading into September.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Next Up: The Miami Marlins

Since the beginning of July, the Pirates have played 30 games against teams that, at the time of the game, had a winning record, and only 16 games against teams below .500. It hasn't hurt them, as they've played better against the winning teams (22-8) than the losing teams (9-7). Tonight start a streak of ten straight games against teams with records below .500--three of the five worst teams in the National League, in fact--with four games in Miami against the Marlins.

How Are They Doing Lately? This is probably the most salient fact about the Marlins: Their two most recognizable stars are right fielder Giancarlo Stanton and starting pitcher Jose Fernandez. Due to injuries (a broken bone in Stanton's hand, recovery from Tommy John surgery and a strained muscle for Fernandez), the two have not been active at the same time all season. As a result, the Marlins, picked by some (not I) to possibly contend this year, are tied with the Phillies for the worst record in the National League East, just percentage points ahead of the Rockies (whom the Pirates play next) for the worst record in baseball. Over the last 30 days, their 9-18 record is the fourth worst in the National League. They've scored 4.0 runs per game, the fifth fewest, while allowing 5.1, the third most. The Pirates, by contrast, arrive in Miami with the second-best record in the National League: 18-8, tied with the Mets.

What's Going Right? Marlins starting pitchers have a pretty terrible record over the past 30 days, with a 4-13 won-lost record and a 5.26 ERA, but one could argue that they've been unlucky: a .326 batting average on balls in play (the National League average is .308) and only 65% of baserunners left stranded (average 72%), both likely markers of luck as much as skill. With more normal performance, though, the starters would be average, not good. On offense, they've been the toughest team in the National League to strike out over the past 30 days, largely because they've swung at pitches outside the strike zone less frequently than any other team.

What's Going Wrong? One of the reasons the starting pitchers have allowed 35% of baserunners to score compared to the league average of 28% is the bullpen. The relievers' 4.48 ERA is the fourth worst in the league over the past 30 days. They've allowed the second highest walk rate in the league and allowed an above-average number of homers. At the plate, the Marlins' .249 batting average over the last 30 days is the fifth lowest in the league, their .311 on base percentage sixth lowest, and their .360 slugging percentage the worst. Their team speed has enabled them to leg out 13 triples over the last 30 days, the most in the league, but they are last in doubles with 29 (the only team with fewer than 35) and homers with 15 (four fewer than the next-worst team). 

Who's Hot? Left fielder Derek Dietrich leads the team in home runs (five), runs (17), RBI (14), walks (12), on base percentage (.376), and slugging percentage (.506) over the past 30 days. Second baseman Dee Gordon's hit .323 with a .368 on base percentage and eight stolen bases. Cole Gillespie has filled in at all three outfield positions, batting .328 with a .388 on base percentage. Over the last 30 days, rookie left-handed starter Justin Nicolino (he'll start Thursday night's game, opposing Gerrit Cole) has a 3.60 ERA but only seven strikeouts over 20 innings. Tomorrow night's starter, lefty Brad Hand, has a 3.13 ERA. The only Marlins starters with lower ERAs over the last 30 days are Fernandez, who's hurt, and Dan Haren, who's been traded. Setup man Bryan Morris has six holds and a 2.53 ERA over the past 30 days, though he's walked as many batters as he's struck out (five each in 10.2 innnings).

Who's Not? Between injuries and trades, the Marlins have had to mix-and-match with the starting rotation, and ten different starters have gotten the ball over the past 30 days. Excluding Nicolino, Hand, Fernandez, Haren, and another traded veteran, Mat Latos, the remaining Marlins starters have a combined 7.66 ERA over 15 starts. Closer A.J. Ramos had given up four homers, seven walks, and 11 hits over his last 11 innings, good for an 8.18 ERA. Rookie first baseman Justin Bour has cooled off, with a .215/.295/.316 slash line over the past 30 days, and third baseman Casey McGehee has been worse at .156/.240/.200. Catcher J.T. Realmuto's hit .205 with a .266 on base percentage during the span. 

What's the Outlook? The Marlins are not a good ball club, but the Pirates haven't always done well against weaker competition (4-9 against Cincinnati, 6-6 against Milwaukee). However, they did sweep three from Miami in May, when they had Stanton in the lineup. With the Pirates playing ten games against three of the worst teams in the league at the same time the Cardinals play ten against teams with winning records (the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Nationals), there's an opportunity for the Pirates to pick up ground heading into a Labor Day weekend matchup in St. Louis.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Trailing 30 - August 23

Here is an explanation of this weekly feature, listing the best and worst of past 30 days, made possible by FanGraphs' Leaders application. Comment for the week: Tampa Bay shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is a career .267 hitter. He was batting .223 at the All-Star break. Since returning from a hamstring strain on July 28, he's been one of the hottest hitters in the American League. Go figure.

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Toronto         19- 7     1. Chicago         19- 8
2. Texas           18-10     2. Pittsburgh      18- 8    
3. Kansas City     17-11     3. New York        17- 9         
4. Baltimore       16-12     4. San Diego       17-10   
5. Chicago, NY     15-13     5. Arizona         17-11        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Los Angeles      9-19     1. Atlanta          8-20      
2. Oakland          9-18     2. Cincinnati       9-19       
3. Minnesota       11-17        Colorado         9-19      
4. Cleveland       12-16     4. Miami            9-18
5. Det, Sea        12-15     5. Washington      10-18

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Cabrera, TB      .412     1. Pollock, Ari     .382  
2. Cruz, Sea        .387     2. Peralta, Ari     .365      
3. Ortiz, Bos       .379     3. Votto, Cin       .356           
4. Brantley, Cle    .375     4. Cervelli, Pit    .350          
5. Kinsler, Det     .372     5. Pierzynski, Atl  .341       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Hunter, Min      .163     1. Pederson, LA     .143         
2. Moustakas, KC    .172     2. Uribe, NY        .187       
3. Gose, Det        .176     3. Bruce, Cin       .189
4. Hardy, Bal       .190     4. Werth, Was       .190           
5. Pillar, Tor      .191     5. Segura, Mil      .204      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Ortiz, Bos       .466     1. Votto, Cin       .537           
2. Encarnacion, Tor .455     2. Fowler, Chi      .444         
3. Cruz, Sea        .454     3. Pollock, Ari     .439         
4. Cabrera, TB      .446     4. Harper, Was      .432          
5. Zobrist, Oak-KC  .442     5. McCutchen, Pit   .416      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Cruz, Sea        .821     1. Gonzalez, Col    .796        
2. Donaldson, Tor   .765     2. Duda, NY         .746     
3. Davis, Bal       .758     3. Votto, Cin       .690       
4. Ortiz, Bos       .747     4. Rizzo, Chi       .642       
5. Cabrera, TB      .659     5. Carpenter, SL    .606        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Cruz, Sea          13     1. Gonzalez, Col      15
   Davis, Bal         13     2. Duda, NY            9        
3. Donaldson, Tor     11        Rizzo, Chi          9
4. Ortiz, Bos          9     4. 4 with              8
5. 4 with              8     

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Davis, Bal         25     1. Gonzalez, Col      27        
   Donaldson, Tor     25     2. Pollock, Ari       26     
3. Hosmer, KC         24     3. Fowler, Chi        24
4. Cruz, Sea          22        Schwarber, Chi     24
   Kinsler, Det       22     5. 2 with             23

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Donaldson, Tor     35     1. Gonzalez, Col      31        
2. Davis, Bal         34     2. Rizzo, Chi         25      
3. Ortiz, Bos         28     3. Granderson, NY     24       
4. Abreu, Chi         26     4. 3 with             22
5. 2 with             23        
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Dyson, KC           7     1. Pollock, Ari       13
   Eaton, KC           7     2. Blackmon, Col       9     
3. Bourn, Cle          6        Hamilton, Cin       9   
   Cain, KC            6     4. Blanco, SF          8
5. 7 with              5        Gordon, Mia         8
   Saves                        Saves
1. Osuna, Tor         10     1. Rondon, Chi        11
2. Tolleson, Tex       9     2. Giles, Phi          9
3. Holland, KC         7        Kimbrel, SD         9
4. Boxberger, TB       6        Rodriguez, Mil      9
5. 5 with              5     5. 3 with              8

   ERA                          ERA
1. Gray, Oak        1.40     1. Harvey, NY       1.01
2. Verlander, Det   1.67     2. deGrom, NY       1.30
3. Salazar, Cle     2.04     3. Kershaw, LA      1.55
4. Bassitt, Oak     2.18     4. Arrieta, Chi     1.60
5. Feldman, Hou     2.25     5. Wacha, SL        1.64

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Samardzija, Chi  8.01     1. Perez, Atl       7.98
2. Hernandez, Sea   7.07     2. Koehler, Mia     7.48
3. Gibson, Min      6.95     3. Rusin, Col       7.03
4. Guthrie, KC      6.67     4. Harang, Phi      7.00
5. Gonzalez, Bal    6.27     5. Locke, Pit       6.39

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Carrasco, Cle    0.76     1. Harvey, NY       0.73
2. Iwakuma, Sea     0.80     2. Iglesias, Cin    0.76
3. Gray, Oak        0.85     3. Kershaw, LA      0.83
4. Kluber, Cle      0.85     4. deGrom, NY       0.84
5. Verlander, Det   0.88     5. Bumgarner, SF    0.85

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Sale, Chi          59     1. Bumgarner, SF      56     
2. Archer, TB         52     2. Scherzer, Was      43
3. Carrasco, Cle      45     3. Kennedy, SD        41
4. Kluber, Cle        43     4. Cole, Pit          40
5. 2 with             40     5. Jungmann, Mil      39