Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bucs Clutch?

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

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

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

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

Next Up: Cincinnati Reds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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