Wednesday, April 29, 2015


This is a Pirates blog, but I'd like to talk about a Cardinals player. Adam Wainwright is St. Louis's best pitcher. Going into last weekend, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. Last year, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. In 2013, he led Cardinals starters in innings and ERA. He missed 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he was used somewhat cautiously in 2012. But in 2010, he was second on the team in innings (by 4.2) and led in ERA. In 2009, he led the team in innings and was second in ERA. From 2009 to 2014--including his missed Tommy John season and his recovery year--his 2.83 ERA was the third best in baseball (behind Clayton Kershaw's 2.33 and Felix Hernandez's 2.73) among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched. He'd been credited with 92 wins, the fourth most (after Justin Verlander's 106, Jered Weaver's 96, and Kershaw's 93).  He finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award in 2010 and 2013 and third in 2009 and 2014. That's four top-three finished in six seasons, one of which he missed and one of which he was coming back from major surgery. All told, Wainwright is not only clearly the Cardinals' best pitcher, he's also one of the best in baseball, probably the second best in the National League after Kershaw.

And he's done for the year. This is what happened to him on Saturday:

Diagnosis: Torn Achilles tendon. Out for the year. Injury expert Will Carroll (that's his Twitter handle, too: @injuryexpert) notes
Surgery and rehab has developed over the past few seasons and players in the NFL and NBA have come back well. That bodes well for Wainwright.
That's good for Wainwright and the Cardinals, but only for 2016. For 2015, they'll have to make do without one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. In a National League Central race that's expected to be tight, with the Pirates and Cubs seen vying for second place behind the Redbirds, it's looking a lot more like a three-team race. (As of this morning, the 13-6 Cardinals are a game ahead of the 12-7 Cubs and three ahead of the 11-10 Pirates).

Somewhat surprisingly, Wainwright's injury has re-ignited the designated hitter debate. As you almost certainly know, given that you're reading this blog, the American League has a designated hitter for the pitcher and the National League does not. This has been the case since 1973, so with the DH now in its 43rd season, it would be, as lawyers would say, settled case law, one might think. One would be really, really wrong. The discussion of a universal DH has set off a free-for-all on the internet. I'm not surprised. I attend a lot of baseball lectures and conferences, and saying something along the lines of "abolish the DH" or "we shouldn't have two leagues playing two different rules" is a guaranteed applause line. And I don't mean polite applause, I mean the kind of applause that political candidates get when they're talking to their supporters: Loud, enthusiastic applause, punctuated by whoops and whatnot.

The relationship to Wainwright is that if he hadn't been batting, he wouldn't have ruptured his Achilles tendon. (Probably not. He could've ruptured it pitching or fielding or jogging in the outfield between starts. We'll never know. But since he didn't have a history of Achilles problems, this looks much more like a fluke accident than one waiting to happen.) So if we have a DH, we don't have Adam Wainwright rupturing his Achilles tendon getting out of the batter's box, and we don't have Chien-Ming Wang, a 19-game winner for the Yankees in 2006 and 2007 and off to a 6-0 start in 2008, injuring his foot in an interleague game and pretty much never being the same pitcher again. 

Now, let me give you two disclaimers:

  1. I think the prevention of pitching injuries is not a great justification for the DH. Yes, what happened to Wainwright and Wang and others is terrible. Had they not been batting, I'd wager, they wouldn't have gotten hurt. But what happened to them is pretty rare. We don't get a lot of pitcher injuries from swinging the bat or running the bases.
  2. I'm pretty agnostic on the DH issue. I'm mildly in favor of expanding it to the National League, for reasons I'll explain below. But I'm OK with leaving things as is, and I'd be OK if major league baseball were to abolish it. I just can't see getting worked up over the issue. It doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game, one way or the other. 
That being said, I'm going to show you a graph. I do a lot of charts and graphs here, and I know that it's a bit much for some of you. So this'll be the only one for today. And I'm not going to tell you (yet) what it is. I'm just going to present it and let it sink in, OK? Here goes:

Here's how you should perceive a graph like that: It's measuring something that's in steady decline. Ignore the scale on the left, and this could be something like infant mortality rates, or percentage of Americans engaged in agriculture, or proportion of homes heated by wood, or something. It's a pronounced, consistent, downward trend.

OK, enough mystery. I used a statistic called wRC+. It's an overall measure of offensive contribution computed by FanGraphs. It stands for weighted runs created. The + means that it's normalized: It adjusts for each player's home park and the year in which he played. The average wRC+ every year is 100. Good hitters are above 100, weaker hitters are below it. All-star Andrew McCutchen had a wRC+ 168 last year, the best in all of baseball. Since the average is 100, McCutchen's 168 means that he was 68% better than the average batter last year. Light-hitting middle infielder Clint Barmes had a 79 wRC+, meaning he was 21% below the league average. I'm not saying that wRC+ is the perfect measure of offensive performance, but it's a consistent calculation that evens out the variations between high-offense and low-offense eras.

Anyway, the graph is the combined wRC+ for pitchers beginning in 1901. That's a pronounced, consistent, downward trend. PItchers are getting worse and worse at batting. And, when you think about it, that's not surprising: Pitchers don't bat. There's a DH in high school. There's a DH in college. (Note that the DH in high school can be used for any hitter, not just the pitcher, and in both high school and college, a manager may elect not to use the DH if the pitcher's a good hitter.) There's a DH in the rookie and Class A levels of the minors. There's a DH in Class AA and AAA unless both teams playing a game are National League affiliates and agree not to use it. The list of leagues in which the DH is not used is shorter than the list of leagues that use it. The holdouts are the National League, Japan's Central League, Japanese high schools, American Legion, and Little League. That's it. I'm probably missing some obscure leagues, but it's not uncommon for a National League pitcher to not swing a bat in a game from the time he leaves Little League until he reaches the high minors.

So even if the American League were to eliminate the DH, pitchers would still be lousy hitters, because they don't learn to hit as they're developing. Yes, that might change with time if other leagues drop the DH as well, but there's no guarantee that they will.

We're left with pitchers being almost automatic outs. When you hear about good hitting pitchers, you hear about Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke, among others. Bumgarner, somewhat famously, hit more grand slams last year (two) than Derek Jeter did in his entire career (one). Greinke provided these memorable moments during the Dodgers' Divisional Series against the Cardinals:

So yeah, a DH would deprive fans of seeing Bumgarner and Greinke hit. But hold on: Bumgarner's career slash line (batting average/on base percentage/slugging average; the average in the majors last year was .251/.314/.386) is .160/.201/.247. Greinke's is .214/.263/.325. You may have heard of Mario Mendoza, the 1970s-era weak-hitting shortstop. Sometime in the late 1970s, some player--the identity's unclear--coined the term "Mendoza Line." Back then, Sunday newspapers listed overall batting and pitching statistics for the players in each league. They'd list batters in descending order of batting average. Due to space limitations, they wouldn't display every batter, just those above a minimum level. It seemed that the last name listed among hitters would always be Mendoza's. He habitually hit around .200. The player in question talked about starting the season so slowly, he was "hitting below the Mendoza line"--his batting average was so low the papers didn't even bother printing it. It's come to mean, in common usage, a batting average of .200. 

Well, Mario Mendoza's career slash line is .215/.245/.262. That means that Greinke's hitting a little better, and Bumgarner a good deal worse, than the man whose name signifies futility with the bat. And they're the best of the bunch. Last year, pitchers as a whole batted .122/.153/.152. So far this year, they're even worse: .095/.119/.109. 

So if you like the DH because it adds offense, fine. If you don't like it because it takes away strategy, OK. If you like it because you don't want to see a pitcher who's cruising get pulled by a pinch hitter, I see your point. If you don't like it because it removes things like pinch hitters and double switches, I get it. If you like it because it'd prevent injuries like Wainwright's, sure. But you really can't say that the DH takes the bat out of the pitcher's hands, because pitchers haven't had a bat for a long time. There have been, in baseball history, 66 pitchers who batted at least 500 times and maintained an OPS+ of 50 or more, which means that their on base plus slugging was at least half of the average. Of them, only one--Carlos Zambrano--started his career in this century. All but eight retired before the American League adopted the DH in 1973. Exactly two-thirds were done playing before the end of World War II. Pitchers capable of much more than laying down the occasional bunt have been out of baseball for a long, long time. Getting rid of the DH, whatever its merits, isn't going to bring them back.

That's why I'm in favor--just mildly--of expanding the DH to the National League. I don't get any enjoyment from watching pitchers at the plate. Yes, there's the comic relief of Bartolo Colon's at bats, but they just can't hit, and that's not going to change. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

What's Going On With Andrew McCutchen?

Andrew McCutchen is...well, choose your cliche. The best player on the Pirates, the face of the franchise, the team's name it. He was the National League MVP in 2013 and finished third in 2014, when he arguably had a better season, leading the league in on base percentage and OPS. This year, so far, not so much:

2013  583 97 185 38 5 21 84 27 10 78 101 .317 .404 .508 .911 157
2014  548 89 172 38 6 25 83 18 3 84 115 .314 .410 .542 .952 166
2015 59 10 11 2 0 2 11 0 1 9 12 .186 .315 .322 .637 81
Generated 4/27/2015.

I've fretted in the past about his health. Yesterday, I noted that this is the worst hitting streak of his career. (I was wrong, it wasn't; keep reading.) What's wrong?

Is This Unusual?

No. McCutchen is a slow starter. April is, by far, his worst month of the season. Here are his career totals:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/27/2015.

At this point in his career, McCutchen has played about a full season's worth of games in each month. His April numbers are roughly 25% worse than his overall figures. He's a slow starter.

This year, as you can see, after 18 games, he's got a .186/.315/.322 slash line, giving him a .637 OPS, which is 19% worse than the National League average (OPS+ of 100 is 100% of the league average, so his 81 is 19% below league average). He's never started this slowly before. But during his MVP year of 2013, on the morning of April 30, he'd hit .203/.225/.319 over his prior 18 games, a .544 OPS--worse than his performance so far this season. So a wretched 18-game streak in Apirl isn't unprecedented. 

Looking at all the 18-game periods over his career, his .186 batting average this year is his worst since April 2011, his .315 on base percentage is his worst since September 2014, and his .322 slugging percentage and .637 OPS are his worst since August 2014. It's been a bad start to the season, but certainly not his worst 18-game streak, nor unusually bad for him. 

Still, when something like this falls at the beginning of the year, it's natural to wonder whether anything's different this year. I'll explore that next.

Is He Being Pitched Differently?

There are two rough ways of figuring out how much pitchers fear a hitter: How willing they are to throw their fastball, and how willing they are to pitch in the strike zone. Against weak hitters, pitchers will throw their fastball in the strike zone, daring the hitter to swing at it. Against strong hitters pitchers resort more to trickery: off-speed pitches that they try to get the batter chase outside the strike zone. Per FanGraphs, the five National League players who saw the greatest percentage of fastballs (four-seam and two-seam) last year had a combined .714 OPS. The five who saw the fewest had a combined .851 OPS. The five hitters who saw the largest percentage of pitches in the strike zone had a .662 OPS, the five who saw the fewest had a .779 OPS. So are pitchers going after McCutchen differently?
            % fastballs  % in zone
     2013      50.2%       48.2%
     2014      49.2%       47.4%
     2015      44.8%       46.3%
No evidence of any change. By limiting the fastballs and the number of pitches in the strike zone to McCutchen, pitchers are still treating him as a dangerous hitter.

Is He Swinging Differently?

When hitters lose plate discipline, they start swinging at pitches that they can't hit. That shows up in increased swing percentages and less contact on swings. Here are the percentage of pitches McCutchen's swung at, inside and outside the strike zone, and how often he's made contact:
             % of pitches swung at  % of contact on swings
              in zone    out zone     in zone    out zone
     2013      70.5%       23.7%       87.6%       60.3%
     2014      68.3%       23.7%       85.1%       60.4%
     2015      65.4%       20.9%       87.6%       45.5%
McCutchen's been more selective, not less, this season. He's swinging at fewer pitches. But when he does swing, he's making way less contact on pitches outside the strike zone. This year, out of 87 batting title qualifiers, he's 80th at contact outside the strike zone, near the bottom. Last year, it was middle of the pack: 46th out of 65. So that's an issue, at least so far. 

What Happens When He Makes Contact?

I've already thrown enough numbers your way, so take my word on this: McCutchen's percentage of ground balls, fly balls, and infield flies when he makes contact are in line with his prior performances. 

Three measures involving batted balls stand out, though: his batting average on balls in play (that is, all at bats that don't result in a home run or strikeout), the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs, and the percentage of batted balls that are line drives:
             BA on balls  % of FB     
               in play  that are HR   LD %
     2013       .353       12.4%     24.5%
     2014       .355       13.7%     18.7%
     2015       .191        8.7%      8.2%
Those are all pretty big changes. McCutchen's dropped from tenth in the league in batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) in 2013 and fourth in 2014 to fourth worst so far in 2015. His home run/fly ball percentage was 27th in 2013 and 17th in 2014; it's 48th this year. His line drive percentage has gone from ninth in 2013 to 54th in 2014 to last in 2015.

You know what those measures have in common? Luck. I'm not saying they're entirely luck-driven. McCutchen had a .350+ BABIP in 2013 and 2014 because he's a great hitter, not because he was lucky. Pedro Alvarez has hit over 20% of his fly balls over the fence during his career because he's got a lot of power, not because he's lucky. The Braves' Freddie Freeman leads the NL in line drive percentage over the last three years because he makes solid contact, not because he's lucky. But big variations in these measures, absent anything else, can be a matter of luck. Your swing gets a couple millimeters above the ball, and your line drive becomes a grounder. You hit a fly ball just a few feet short, and it's a fly out instead of a homer. You nail the ball but it's straight at a fielder, and it's an out instead of a hit. That appears to be what's going on with McCutchen so far.

So I'm inclined to attribute McCutchen's slow start to bad luck rather than something wrong with him as a hitter, particularly given his history of slow starts.

Next Up: The Cubs

The Pirates split four games with the Cubs last week and travel to Wrigley for three games starting tonight. Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs, which means the Pirates will once again be denied an opportunity to observe the Jon Lester Pickoff Move Experience. The Cubs, after dropping their last two to the Pirates, swept two games against Cincinnati (one game was postponed) over the weekend. 

The Cubs' best offensive performers have been veterans. Shortstop Starlin Castro (.329) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.328) are 1-2 in batting average. Rizzo also leads the club in runs (14), walks (12), on base percentage (.481) and OPS (.963), while Castro leads in hits (23) and RBI (11). But the focus is on the youngsters:
  • Right fielder Jorge Soler (23) is hitting .257/.321/.414. He's third on the club in runs scored with nine and second in homers with two. 
  • Third baseman Kris Bryant (23) is hitting .333/.476/.455 since being called up. He's batted cleanup for the Cubs since his April 17 callup.
  • Second baseman Addison Russell (21) hasn't really gotten untracked yet, as he's 3-for-22 with no walks and 12 strikeouts since his callup on April 21.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Odds and Ends - April 26

  • On April 14, I noted that left fielder Starling Marte had struck out in 47% of his plate appearances, the highest percentage in the National League. In the ten games since, his strikeout rate is just 18%. (The NL average for position players so far this year is 19.4%.) He's also batting .323 with a .742 slugging percentage since April 14. His problem was that he was swinging on a lot of pitches outside the strike zone (45% of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone) and missing a lot of them (61%). He's cut down on his swings outside the strike zone (his total for the year's below 41%) and, as a result, making contact more frequently (whiffing on 52% of out-of-zone pitches year to date). Looks like he started the year over-aggressive but has things together now.
  • The Pirates' offense remains a sore spot. They're batting .223 (11th in the league) with a .275 on base percentage (13th) and .364 slugging percentage (10th). Their OPS of .639 is 13th in the National League, 12th when adjusted for PNC Park. The only positions at which they're getting above-average offensive performance (measured by park-adjusted OPS) are catcher and second base. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen's got a .175/.294/.316 slash line--this is the worst 17-game streak of his career, I'm pretty sure [UPDATE 4/27: Nope, not at all. Watch you search terms! But pretty bad]; are we sure he's not hurt?--and last year's other top performer, third baseman Josh Harrison, is slashing .221/.264/.382. The team's been kept afloat by its starting pitchers, who have a 2.87 ERA (second best in the league), 1.16 walks and hits per inning pitched (third), and a 23.5% strikeout rate (second), 
  • No, Mark Melancon's velocity hasn't returned yet. But he's pitched in each of the last three games, collecting saves in each. His average cut fastball velocity: 89.8 mph Thursday, 88.7 mph Friday, 88.2 mph Saturday. (All figures from Brooks Baseball.) Recall that he's never averaged below 90 mph, even for a month, over his career. His recent success suggests that he's substituting guile for speed, but I don't know whether that'll last. If he struggles, the Pirates have plenty of depth, with lefty Tony Watson (3.00 ERA and zero walks in 11 appearances), righty Jared Hughes (2.89 ERA, 11/2 strikeout/walk ratio), or flamethowing Arquiimedes Caminero (98.8 mph average fastball velocity, second in the league to Reds closer Aroldis Chapman) probably 1-2-3 in the closer depth chart behind Melancon.
  • The Pirates' next series is against the Cubs. I'll hit that up tomorrow. The Cubs are the only National League team the Bucs have played this year with a winning record; they went 1-2 against the 12-6 Detroit Tigers in interleague play.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Next Up: The Arizona Diamondbacks

This could get interesting.

The last time the Pirates played the Diamondbacks it was last August 3. Pittsburgh lost, 3-2, in ten innings. But the game was notable because Andrew McCutchen left the game after tying the game with a sacrifice fly, 2-2, in the eighth inning. That was the last time he played until over two weeks later, on August 19.

The reason for his exit on August 3 was this play on August 2:

The day before, Ernesto Frieri hit Diamondbacks star Paul Goldschmidt in the hand with a pitch, breaking a bone and ending Goldschmidt's season. I don't think Frieri hit Goldschmidt intentionally--at the time, he had only a vague sense of where the ball was going once it left his hand--but there's no doubt that Goldschmidt was (and remains) the big star on a weak Diamondbacks team. So by baseball's childish you-hit-my-star-I'll-hit-yours ethos, McCutchen was due to be hit, I suppose.

Hit, maybe, but not drilled in the back by a 95 mph fastball. A pitch like that can, and did, cause injury. As I pointed out, the Pirates lost the next game as McCutchen left early. Including that game, they were 5-10 until McCutchen returned to the lineup on August 19. Five of those losses were by just a run. Remember, the Pirates finished two games behind the Cardinals. Three more wins and they'd have started a best-of-five Divisional Series with a well-rested Gerrit Cole in Los Angeles instead of starting Edinson Volquez, who got shelled, against the San Francisco Giants and their bionic lefty, Madison Bumgarner, in the wild card game. So, yeah, it's not likely, but it's possible that Randall Delgado's fastball to McCutchen's ribs wrecked the Bucs' postseason.

(Incidentally, this is why I really disliked Arquimedes Caminero hitting Ryan Braun with a pitch last Saturday after McCutchen was hit earlier in the game. Tell me how that was any different from what Delgado did to McCutchen last year, other than the resulting injury.)

Anyway, this could give the series more weight than your typical late April series between an 8-8 team (Pittsburgh) and an 8-7 team (Arizona).

The Diamondbacks had the worst record in the National League last year. So far this year, their hitting's been middle of the pack: In the 15-team National League, they're sixth in batting average, seventh in slugging percentage, and eighth in on-base percentage. Goldschmidt has led the way, batting .296 and pacing the club in homers (5), runs (13), RBI (16), and slugging (.611). Center fielder A.J. Pollock leads the club with a .358 batting average and .417 on base percentage, and outfielder Ender Inciarte has hit .310, though without much else in the way of walks or power. At the other end of the spectrum, four regulars are batting .220 or worse: second baseman Chris Owings (.220), catcher Tuffy Gosewich (.191), 2B/3B Aaron Hill (.158), and shortstop Nick Ahmed (.136). One of the more intriguing position players is Yasmany Tomas, signed to a six-year, $68.5 million contract over the winter and apparently before anybody determined whether he could catch baseballs. He was sent to the minors during spring training but called up on April 15. He's had three singles in seven plate appearances, appearing in one game as a third baseman and four as a pinch hitter. 

On the mound, they're seventh in starting pitcher ERA but 13th (4.20) in reliever ERA, with more blown saves (2) than saves (1). The best starter has been 22-year-old rookie Archie Bradley, who has a 2-0 record and a 1.45 ERA. The Bucs will miss him. They'll go against Josh Collmenter (1-2, 3.38 ERA) tonight, Rubby De La Rosa (2-1, 6.00 ERA, acquired via trade from Boston over the winter) tomorrow, and Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 4.58 ERA, acquired via trade from Tampa Bay over the winter) on Sunday.

How to Beat the Shift

Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco bats and throws left-handed. Like many left-handed batters, he tends to pull ground balls over the the right side of the field, between first and second bases. Here's a spray chart from FanGraphs of his batted balls since he was called up last season. The green dots are grounders. See all the ground balls on the right side of the field?
As a result of these tendencies, teams often employ a shift when Polanco's batting, with the shortstop standing on one side or the other of second base and the second baseman between first and second, leaving the third baseman alone on the left side of the infield. As I wrote back in January, the 2015 Bill James Handbook notes that shifts reduce the shifted batter's batting average by 30 points. 

There are two solutions for shifts. One is to bunt against them. Here's a pretty good example: 

You don't see a lot of bunt doubles.

The other way to beat the shift is to hit to the opposite field, i.e., a left-handed hitter hitting to the left side of the infield or a right-handed hitter hitting to the right side of the infield. Here, for example, is the spray chart for Giants outfielder Nori Aoki:
You won't see teams shifting against Aoki; he hits the ball all over the place. But he's the exception. Most players pull their grounders. For example, here's Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who's a switch hitter. When he faces a right-handed pitcher, he bats left, and pulls grounders to the right: 

And when he faces a lefty, he bats right, pulling grounders to the left:

The point is, it's not easy for a batter to change his ways and stop pulling. There's a natural tendency for grounders to go the pull field. Going the other way is hard.

This brings us back to Polanco. As you could see from the chart at the top of this post, he tends to pull grounders. He came up in the seventh inning yesterday against the Cubs, one out, game tied at 4, runners on first and second. He ran the count to 3-2. Then Cubs lefty Phil Coke (note that Polanco has a career .180 batting average against lefties) threw a 96 mph fastball up in the zone (pitch number 8 in the chart below):

The Cubs were shifting against Polanco. Here's how the defense looked as the pitch came to the plate. That's first baseman Anthony Rizzo off the bag at first, second baseman Addison Russell between second and first, and shortstop Starlin Castro just to the left of second base. The runner at second, Josh Harrison, is behind the umpire, but you can see that he's farther from second than Castro, the shortstop. The three infielders are bunched to the right side of the infield, expecting Polanco to pull the ball over there. Third baseman Jonathan Herrera isn't even in the picture, as he's close to the bag to prevent a double and also to deny Harrison an easy stolen base.

And here'w what Polanco did: Grounder to just about the exact place the shortstop Castro would be playing if he weren't shifting. Opposite field single to left, Harrison scores, 5-4 lead for the Bucs that held up. THAT'S beating the shift. (Here's the video of the play; unfortunately, it can't be embedded into this post.) 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Today's a Getaway Day. This Could Be a Problem.

There's a subtle change in major league schedules this year. On getaway days--i.e., the day that one or both teams must play a game and then fly to a new city for a game the following day--the starting times are earlier. For example, today the Pirates (game tomorrow in Phoenix) host the Cubs (game tomorrow in Cincinnati) at 12:35 PM, the Giants (game tomorrow in Denver) host the Dodgers (game tomorrow in San Diego) at 12:45 PM, the Phillies host the Marlins (game tomorrow in Miami) at 1:05 PM, the Tigers host the Yankees (game tomorrow in New York) at 1:08 PM, and the Mets host the Braves (game tomorrow in Philadelphia) at 1:10 PM. I can't find a copy of last year's schedule, but some of those starting times are earlier than last year. Thursdays are big for getaways, so it's a good afternoon to clear your schedule of meetings and have your computer set to or whatever you prefer for watching games on your employer's dime.

There's a problem, though, with today's Pirates game, per Cubs beat writer Carrie Muskat:

(Accuweather calls for a high of 48 with sun at PNC Park today, so presumably the snow will have melted by gametime.)

This sort of thing inevitably leads to fans asking why early-season games are played in northern cities with dome-less stadia. Why not move games out of Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, New York, Boston, Denver et al to the warm climates of Texas, Arizona, Florida, and California, and the ballparks in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Toronto that have retractable roofs?

The answer is, as is so often the case in baseball and in life, money. Opening Day is a big deal, but other than that, April and May games are duds in terms of attendance. The weather is often lousy, kids are still in school, families aren't on summer vacations. The Pirates' average attendance was about 23,000 in April and 25,500 in May. It was north of 30,000 every other month. No team wants a lot of April/May games on its schedule, for good reason. So fans and players will have to endure weather like this morning's.

This is also why articles saying that baseball's in trouble because average attendance in April is below the prior year's seasonlong average by x%. That's always going to be the case, because April attendance is the lowest of the year. The right way to look at it to compare attendance per game per stadium, given an equal number of games in 2014 and 2015. That's what does here, and the conclusion is that attendance this year is up slightly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble in the Shark Tank: Another Year, Another Struggling Closer

Mark Melancon, whose experience swimming with sharks off the New Zealand coast prior to the 2013 season led to the "Shark Tank" nickname to the Pirates bullpen, graduated from eighth-inning setup man to closer last season. That occurred because the Pirates' 2014 closer, Jason Grilli, had problems out of the gate. He blew three saves in April, wound up on the disabled list, came back in May to save three games but blew another save and got a loss in June, resulting in a trade to the Los Angeles Angels. 

Grilli's a fastball-slider pitcher. Here's a chart of his pitch velocities, by pitch type by month, through the day he was traded last year:

Look at those red dots along the bottom. That's the average velocity of his slider by month. It was 82.6 mph in one game in March 2014, 82.8 mph in April, 83.0 mph in May, 83.1 mph in June. The year before, it was 84.4 in April, 83.8 in May, 83.3 in June. In 2012, it was 83.3, 83.3, and 83.8 in April-June. So he lost about a mile per hour. Batters hit .286 with a .571 slugging percentage when they made contact with his slider to start 2014. He got swings and misses on 15% of his sliders, and strikes on 59% of them.

By contrast, in the first three months of 2013, batters whiffed on 23% of his sliders, of which 72% were strikes. Batters went 7-for-46 (.152 batting average), all singles (so they slugged .152 as well), when they made contact against the pitch. In the first three months of 2012, he got whiffs on 20% of his sliders, strikes on 67%, and batters compiled an .088 batting average and .294 slugging percentage against the pitch. 

Long story short, Grilli lost effectiveness in 2014 because his slider, an extremely effective pitch in 2012 and 2013, became much more hittable, in part due to a decline in velocity. His fastball lost effectiveness too, without a significant drop in velocity, so I'm not suggesting the slider tells the whole story. But it's worth noting that a drop in velocity can presage problems for a pitcher.

Now, Melancon. I touched on his loss of velocity last week. Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune looked into it in more detail. First, the velocity picture. 

Melancon has two primary pitches: a cut fastball (the red triangle) and a curve (yellow squares). His curve velocity so far this year is 79.8 mph. It's been an 81-82 mph pitch for him historically. Worse (because curveballs aren't fast pitches), his cutter is averaging below 90 mph this year. It's never been below 92 mph for him, in any month, at any point in his career. 

Less velocity has resulted in less success. Here are the numbers for Melancon's cutter from April 2013, April 2014, and April 2015:

  • April 2013: 76% strikes, 11% swing-and-miss, .180 batting average on contact, .282 slugging percentage on contact 
  • April 2014: 70% strikes, 14% swing-and-miss, .231 batting average on contact, .231 slugging percentage on contact
  • April 2015: 73% strikes, 6% swing-and-miss, .333 batting average on contact, .667 slugging percentage on contact

The curve hasn't been as effective, either:
  • April 2013: 67% strikes, 26% swing-and-miss
  • April 2014: 71% strikes, 29% swing-and-miss
  • April 2015: 56% strikes, 12% swing-and-miss
Look at the decline in whiffs. Batters were getting fooled by the cutter a fair amount and the curve a lot in 2013-14. He's getting fewer than half as many swinging strikes on them this year. He's not fooling batters.

Why is this? Well, in Sawchik's thorough analysis, he notes that Melancon's release point--the point in his delivery where he releases the baseball toward the plate--has moved. He's letting go of his pitches about two inches higher than last year. That's a lot. Here are the release points for his cutter from 2012 to 2015: 6.43 feet, 6.44 feet, 6.35 feet, 6.52 feet. As Sawchik points out, that's odd. So maybe his problem's something mechanical, and therefore fixable. Call me a pessimist, but I'm inclined to believe the dark side of this 2013 FanGraphs article by Bill Petti, that a loss of velocity in April is an (admittedly weak) indicator of injury, though, again, as Sawchik points out, an injury usually results in a lower release point. In any case, Melancon's doing something different, and that something's made him much less effective.

Last night's loss was tough. The Pirates gave up a run in the first, came back to take a 2-1 lead, immediately surrendered two more runs, and were behind 4-2 in the sixth when they scored three to take a 5-4 lead. The Cubs pulled even in the top of the seventh, but the Pirates scored three in their half of the inning with a dramatic two-out bases-loaded double by Jung Ho Kang. They were leading 8-6 when they handed the ball to Melancon. But while there may be something wrong with Melancon, it's worth noting that the 2015 Pirates are 6-8 after 14 games, just one game worse than the 2013 and 2014 wild card teams. And last night was Melancon's first blown save of the season. By April 21 last year, Grilli had already blown three. It's still only April.