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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The 7-0 Baltimore Orioles

Why talk about the Baltimore Orioles in a blog about the Pittsburgh Pirates? Well, if the Pirates can play four straight games against the "traditional opponent" Detroit Tigers--a team they last faced in the 1909 Ty Cobb vs. Honus Wagner World Series--then surely the team Pittsburgh beat in its last World Series is relevant.

How good is a 7-0 start? Pretty good. In the modern era (1901-present), the Orioles are only the 27th team to start the season 7-0. (I'm not counting the 1927 Yankees, who started the season with six wins and a tie in their first seven games. They lost the next game, so they were 6-1 in their first seven decisions.)

What does a 7-0 start imply? Every team that started the season 7-0 finished with at least a .500 record. Five teams won the World Series, two lost the World Series, and four won their division but didn't win the League Championship Series. That's good, but it's certainly not overwhelming; to date, 42% of teams starting the season 7-0 made the postseason.

So what does it mean for the Orioles? Well, the folks who predicted they'd finish last in their division are looking a little silly right now. But let's not start printing World Series tickets. Since the Brooklyn Dodgers went 7-0 in 1955 en route to the franchise's only World Series victory, only three of the fifteen teams to start 7-0 have gone on to play in the Series.

Here's the full list. The Pirates and the Indians are the only teams to have started 7-0 more than once but not made the postseason when they have. Of the original 16 American and National League franchises, the Red Sox and Senators/Twins have never started 7-0. 





Monday, April 11, 2016

Schedules

Baseball has a pretty balanced schedule. It's not like the NFL, where some teams meet and some don't, creating easier or tougher schedules for teams. In MLB, each team plays its divisional opponents 19 times (a total of 76 games), 33 games against each of the other two divisions in its league (66 games), and 20 interleague games. But there are subtle differences. Let's analyze them for the Pirates and their two key National League Central rivals, the Cubs and the Cardinals.

Intradivisional games. Each team plays the other teams in the division 19 times, either ten home games and nine away or nine home and ten away. Since, in baseball, the home team wins about 54% of the time, more home games are an advantage. Here's the rundown:

  • Brewers: The Cubs and Cardinals are home for ten, the Pirates for nine. Advantage Cubs and Cardinals.
  • Reds: The Cardinals and Pirates are home for ten, the Cubs for nine. Advantage Cardinals and Pirates.
  • Cubs-Cardinals: The Cubs are home for ten. Advantage Cubs.
  • Cubs-Pirates: The Pirates are home for ten. Advantage Pirates.
  • Cardinals-Pirates: The Cardinals are home for ten. Advantage Cardinals.
Intraleague games. These are unbalanced two ways. A team may play an opponent six or seven times, and if seven, either three or four will be home games. There are five teams in each the National League East and the National League West. In general, you'd rather play weak teams than good teams and, beyond that, rather be at home than away. Here are the ten opponents, starting in the East:
  • Braves: Six games for the Cubs and Cardinals, seven for the Pirates. The Braves are a weak team. Advantage Pirates.
  • Marlins: Each team plays seven games against Miami, three of them at home. No advantage.
  • Mets: Six games for the Cardinals and Pirates, seven for the Cubs. The Mets are a good team. Advantage Cardinals and Pirates.
  • Nationals: Six games for the Pirates, seven for the Cubs (four at home) and Cardinals (three at home). Advantage Pirates, then Cubs.
  • Phillies: Six games for the Cubs, seven the Cardinals (four at home) and Pirates (three at home). The Phillies are a weak team. Advantage Cardinals, then Pirates.
  • Diamondbacks: Six games for the Pirates, seven for the Cubs and Cardinals (three at home). The Diamondbacks are a decent team. Advantage Pirates.
  • Dodgers: Six games for the Cardinals, seven for the Cubs and Pirates (four at home). The Dodgers are a good team. Advantage Cardinals.
  • Giants: Seven games for all three teams, but only the Cardinals have only three games at home. Advantage Cubs and Pirates.
  • Padres: Six games for the Cubs and Pirates, seven for the Cardinals. The Padres are a weak team. Advantage Cardinals.
  • Rockies: Six games for the Cubs and Cardinals, seven for the Pirates. The Rockies are a weak team. Advantage Pirates.
Interleague: Every year a division plays one division in the other league. This year, the National League Central plays the American League West. There are both four-game series (two at home, two on the road) and three-game series (all either home or away) against interleague opponents. There are also four games (two home, two away) against a "traditional" opponent.
  • Angels: Four for the Cubs, three at home for the Pirates, three away for St. Louis. The Angels are a mediocre team, so being at home is advantageous. Advantage Pirates, then Cubs.
  • Astros: Four for the Cardinals, three at home for the Pirates, three away for St. Louis. The Astros are a good team, so the fewer games against them, the better. Advantage Pirates, then Cardinals.
  • Athletics: Three at home for the Cardinals, three on the road for the Cubs and Pirates. Advantage Cardinals.
  • Mariners: Four for the Pirates, three at home for the Cubs, three away for the Cardinals. I expect the Mariners to be a good team, so the fewer games, the better. Advantage Cubs, then Cardinals.
  • Rangers: Three at home for the Cubs and Cardinals, three away for the Pirates. Advantage Cubs and Cardinals.
  • Traditional: The Cardinals play the defending World Series champion Royals. The Cubs play their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, while the Pirates play the Tigers, apparently because some people still haven't gotten over the 1909 World Series. The Royals are the better team. Advantage Cubs and Pirates. 
Assigning each team one point for an advantage and half a point for a secondary ('then") advantage, I get 11.5 points for Pittsburgh, 10 for St. Louis, and 7 for Chicago. These advantages are pretty small and, in several cases, speculative. so I wouldn't put much weight into them. However, I'd say at this point that the 2016 confers a slight advantage for the Pirates over its two key foes.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

One Game of Juan Nicasio

I'm writing this while watching Gerrit Cole struggle against the Cincinnati Reds. Gerrit Cole struggling against the Reds isn't worrisome, for two reasons. First, he's always struggled against the Reds. The Pirates are 0-6 entering today in Cole starts against Cincinnati, and he's pitched well in only one game against them: September 28, 2014, seven innings, one run on four hits and no walks and twelve strikeouts. In the other five starts, he's allowed at least three runs in each, and his ERA is 6.31. Second, it's just one game. 

In the same vein, I don't think it makes sense to read much into Juan Nicasio's start on Wednesday against St. Louis. On one hand, it was brilliant: six innings, two hits, no walks, seven strikeouts in a 5-1 Pirates victory. On the other hand, it's just one game.

That caveat in mind, it was a promising start to Nicasio's Pirates career. He was a starter for Rockies in 2011-2013 but was shifted to the bullpen in 2014. In his four years in Denver, he compiled a 5.03 ERA in 69 starts and 19 relief appearances. He was a below-average strikeout pitcher (17.6% strikeout rate; the league average was nearly 20%) with an average walk rate (8.0%). He was traded to the Dodgers after the 2014 season, where he worked almost exclusively as a reliever. In one start and 52 relief appearances last year, he amped up his strikeout rate (25.0%) and, unfortunately, his walk rate (12.3%) as well, finishing with a 3.86 ERA and 1.560 WHIP and being left off the team's postseason roster.

He was a Pirates bargain-bin signing over the winter, as the team gave the 29-year-old a one-year, $3 million contract. The hope was, as with every struggling hurler who comes to Pittsburgh, that pitching coach Ray Searage would transform him into something better. 

The jury's out on his performance in his first regular season game. At Baseball Prospectus, Matt Trueblood wrote that his fastball, while effective, ran out of gas in the fourth inning, and his other pitchers weren't overpowering. At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards noted that he's dependent on just two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a slider, and it's very hard for a starting pitcher to succeed with just two pitches.

As I discussed in my Baseball Prospectus article on the Pirates, the team has excelled at getting pitchers to target the lower portions of the strike zone, generating ground balls that are hit to shifted infielders in order to generate outs. Where does Nicasio stand on that score?

Well, in terms of what he's throwing, things haven't changed a lot. His last year in Colorado, Nicasio threw 67% four-seam (rising*) fastballs, 26% sliders, 4% changeups, and 3% two-seam (sinking) fastballs. In Los Angeles, his mix was 74% four-seamers, 24% sliders, and 1%** changeups. In his start Wednesday, it was 59% four-seamers, 35% sliders, and 6% changeups. Edwards is right: He's still a fastball/slider pitcher. Maybe he'll throw the changeup more, but that 6% figure represents just five pitches, which clearly isn't a lot. And, unlike his staffmate, Francisco Liriano, there's no evidence that Nicasio is giving up his four-seamer for a fastball that sinks.

As for results, well, that's a somewhat better story. Here's zone map (shows the location of his pitches) of Nicasio's 2015 pitches:


His favorite location--the red square--was low and away to right-handed batters. In total, the ten lowest boxes, representing the lowest 40% of the plate area, accounted for 43% of Nicasio's pitches last year. 

Here's his 2016 zone map--again, based on just 84 pitches in one start:


Again, his favorite location is low and away to righties. But now the lower 40% comprised 52% of his pitches. One start is way too early to make a call, but it appears that Nicasio may be targeting lower.

So has that resulted in more grounders? Well, not so far. Last year, he got grounders on 43% of batted balls against him. That compares to 46% in 2014 and 45% in 2013. In his start last week, he allowed four grounders, seven fly balls, and two line drives, a 31% ground ball rate. So while he's pitched down more, hitters hit balls in the air more as well.

One of those trends will probably change. Either his pitches will move up or he'll get more grounders. I'm guessing it'll be that his grounders go up. I agree that Nicasio needs to develop a third pitch, and I think the next-most important feature to track is pitch location. If he can keep locating his pitches down in the strike zone, he could be a decent, if not as good as he was against the Cardinals, No. 3 behind in the Pirates' rotation.

51.8% vs. 43.2%