Thursday, July 16, 2015

At The 54% Point

The All-Star break is often called the season's halfway point. Games before the break are in the first half, and games after are in the second half. But that's a misnomer. This year, as in pretty much every year, every team's played over 81 (half of 162) games, ranging from 86 to 91 games. The Pirates have played 88, so they're at the 88/162 = 54% point, not the halfway point.

I'm going to assess them in a manner somewhat similar to my repeating "Next Up" feature, in which I describe the Pirates' upcoming opponent.

How Are They Doing? Following two thrilling, extra-inning, come-from-behind victories over the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, giving the Pirates three wins in a four-game series, the Pirates are 53-35. They're 2.5 games behind the Cardinals, and they have the second-best record in the entire National League. They're percentage points behind the Kansas City Royals for the second-best record in the majors. Following a 12-10 April, the fifth best record in the league, and a sixth-best 14-14 May, the Pirates have been the hottest team in baseball, going 17-9 in June (a game behind the Cardinals and half a game behind the Blue Jays) and a major league-best 10-2 so far in July. They've scored 4.05 runs per game, the sixth most in the league, and allowed 3.32, the second fewest (trailing only the Cardinals' 2.97). Let's break down their 53-35 record:
  • They're below .500, at 17-21, against teams in their own division, but 15-7 against the National League East, 11-2 against the National League West, and 10-5 in interleague play. The latter record represents the most wins and (tied with the Giants) the best record in interleague play in the National League.
  • They have the second-best home record, 32-16, and the second-best road record, 21-19. They trail the Cardinals in each.
  • Following the heroics of the last two games, they have a 6-7 record in extra innings. Despite what some writers and other pundits may say, there's a big dollop of luck in extra-innings records, so the Pirates' record indicates they've been neither particularly lucky nor unlucky in games that go past nine innings.
  • They're 20-13 in one-run games, the best record in the league. A team's record in one-run games is also affected by luck. The most famous recent example is the Baltimore Orioles, whose record in one-run games was a crazy good 29-9 in 2012, easily the best in the majors, but slipped to 20-31 in 2013, rebounding to a league-best 32-23 last season. Sportswriters attributed the team's outstanding record in close games in 2012 and 2014 to the team's spirit and Buck Showalter's managerial acumen but never explained what happened in 2013. (And the Orioles are 12-14 in one-run games this year, the fourth-worst record in the American League.) The point is: The Pirates are unlikely to keep up their torrid pace in close games. I'll get more into this later.
  • They have the second-best record in the league, 43-29, against right-handed starting pitchers, and the second-best against lefty starters as well, 10-6.
  • The Pirates have beaten up on bad teams, going 34-17 against teams with a record below .500, the third-best record in the league. They've been less effective against teams playing .500 or better, but that's to be expected,. Their 19-18 record against teams at .500 or better is the fifth best in the league after the Cardinals, Nationals, Cubs, and Giants.
  • The two largest analytically-oriented baseball websites, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, calculate playoff odds for each team. Baseball Prospectus estimates the Pirates have an 87.6% chance of making the postseason, 53.1% chance of getting to the Divisional Series (i.e., past the wild card game), and 4.7% chance of making the World Series. Each of those figures trail only the division-leading Cardinals, Nationals, and Dodgers in the National League. FanGraphs is a bit more optimistic, pegging the Pirates as 95.4% likely to make the postseason (trailing the Cardinals and Dodgers), 67.6% likely to make the Divisional Series (behind the Cards, Nats, and Dodgers), with an 8.6% chance of winning the World Series (behind the Nationals and Dodgers). So they look like a postseason team, as evidenced by their 5.5 game lead over the Cubs for the first wild card and 6.5 game lead over the Mets for the second.
  • This is only the 24th Pirates team to win 53 or more games over its first 88. Of the other 23, there were three World Series champions (1909, 1925, and 1971), four National League champions (1901, 1902, 1903, and 1927), five additional teams that made the postseason (1972, 1975, 1990, 1991, and 2013), and eleven that didn't play in the postseason (1893, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1921, 1923, 1929, 1938, 1962 and 1966). Excluding 1893, when there wasn't a postseason, 55% of Pirates teams that won at least 53 of their first 88 games have made the postseason, including a perfect six-for-six since divisional play began in 1969. Of course, last year's Brewers were only a game worse than the Pirates at this point, and their participation in the postseason was dependent on whether they watched it on TV.
What's Going Right and Wrong? Let's break this down a little differently. I'm going to look at records both year to date and for the 30 days ending Sunday (the last day before the All-Star Break). I'll list the raw numbers and where the Pirates rank in the National League. The default for rankings is most (e.g., the Pirates have stolen 63 bases, the third most in the league) except where noted otherwise.

Let's start with hitting. Feel free to skip the bullet points, which list a bunch of numbers, and jump to the next paragraph.

  • Batting average: .256 year to date (sixth in the league), .261 past 30 days (fifth)
  • On base percentage: .317 YTD (eighth), .330 past 30 (second)
  • Slugging percentage: .381 YTD (ninth), .377 past 30 (tenth)
  • Home runs: 67 YTD (thirteenth), 17 past 30 (fifteenth)
  • Stolen bases: 63 YTD (third), 19 past 30 (tied for sixth)
  • Strikeout percentage: 20.5% of plate appearances YTD (ninth fewest), 20.3% past 39 (eighth fewest)
  • Walk percentage: 6.9% of plate appearances YTD (eleventh), 7.5% past 30 (seventh)
  • Batting average on balls in play: .309 YTD (fifth), .321 past 30 (fourth)
  • Ground ball percentage: 48.6% YTD (third), 48.5% past 30 (second)
  • Soft (weak) contact: 18.4% of batted balls YTD (tenth), 18.5% past 30 (tenth)
  • Percentage of pitches in the strike zone: 47.5% YTD (eleventh), 47.5% past 30 (tenth)
  • Swings at pitches outside the strike zone: 31.1% YTD (ninth fewest), 30.1% past 30 (sixth fewest)
So the Pirates have been so-so offensively year to date but improved lately, in large part due to increased patience: fewer swings on pitches outside the strike zone, resulting in more bases on balls. The biggest problem's been a propensity to hit balls on the ground, coupled with an inability to hit home runs. They're related, of course, but even looking just at the team's fly balls, only 9.5% have cleared the fence, the sixth fewest in the league. Their batting average on balls in play compares to a league average of .301 and may indicate a little bit of luck in terms of where their batted balls fall in. Overall, the Pirates have been OK with the bat, though with a disappointing lack of power.

Moving on to starting pitching:
  • ERA: 3.05 YTD (second lowest), 3.07 past 30 (sixth lowest)
  • Strikeout percentage: 21.1% YTD (sixth), 19.2% past 30 (seventh)
  • Walk percentage: 7.4% YTD (tenth lowest), 7.0% past 30 (tenth lowest)
  • Batting average on balls in play: .300 YTD (ninth lowest), .297 past 30 (ninth lowest)
  • Ground ball percentage: 53.4% YTD (second), 53.1% past 30 (second)
  • Soft contact: 22.0% of batted balls YTD (first), 25.7% past 30 (first)
  • Percentage of pitches in the strike zone: 45.0% YTD (fifteenth), 45.1% past 30 (twelfth)
  • Swings at pitches outside the strike zone: 31.1% YTD (sixth), 32.1% past 30 (seventh)
You can't argue with the team's ERA, and the starters have followed the Pirates gameplan of the past few years: Induce a lot of weak contact on the ground. Nearly 30% of the pitches thrown by Pirates starters have been sinking (two-seam) fastballs, the most in the league by far; the Mets are second at 24%. They don't pound the zone (last in the league in pitches in the strike zone), so if batters stop chasing pitches outside the strike zone, the walk rate could climb. So far, though, so good. 

Now, the relievers:
  • ERA: 2.48 YTD (second lowest), 2.17 past 30 (lowest)
  • Strikeout percentage: 21.5% YTD (tenth), 21.9% past 30 (eighth)
  • Walk percentage: 6.6% YTD (lowest), 5.3% past 30 (lowest)
  • Batting average on balls in play: .284 YTD (fourth lowest), .258 past 30 (third lowest)
  • Ground ball percentage: 49.9% YTD (second), 47.0% past 30 (fifth)
  • Soft contact: 23.2% of batted balls YTD (first), 21.9% past 30 (third)
  • Percentage of pitches in the strike zone: 46.6% YTD (eleventh), 46.7% past 30 (tenth)
  • Swings at pitches outside the strike zone: 34.3% YTD (first), 35.2% past 30 (first)
The relief corps has been successful at just about everything. Like the starters, they induce a lot of weak contact and ground balls. They throw the second-fewest "straight" (four-seam) fastballs and (by a good margin) the most sinking fastballs in order to get these results. They are also the embodiment of the On The Field Of Play mantra, it's good to throw strikes, it's better to get strikes. They are middling at the number of pitches thrown to the strike zone, but no team's relievers are more adept at getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. It's worth noting that Pirates relievers have pitched the seventh most innings in the league, 272.1, but, as I've pointed out, due to their efficiency, they've thrown the fourth fewest pitches, easing concerns about overwork.

So, in summary, the offense has been OK, the starting pitching very good, and the relief pitching great. What's left...oh yeah, fielding. The Pirates have committed 62 errors, the third most overall. They're tied for first with 39 fielding errors and eighth with 23 throwing errors. Because of their grounder-inducing pitching staff and aggressive use of infield shifts, they're second in the league in double plays, with 252, but this is not a good fielding team. By one advanced metric, Defensive Runs Saved, they're ninth in the league; by another, Ultimate Zone Rating, they're thirteenth. They've turned 68.8% of batted balls into outs, exactly the league average. 

Who's Hot and Who's Not? Instead of going through players, I'm going to go position by position. I'm going to rely heavily on OPS+, which is on base percentage plus slugging, adjusted for ballpark effects.

Catcher: Pirates catchers--roughly 70% Francisco Cervelli and 30% Chris Stewart--are third in the league in OPS+. This has been the most significantly positive offensive surprise for the club this year. Cervelli also ranks fifth in the league in pitch framing, the ability of catchers to get strike calls on borderline pitches. Keeping the two catchers healthy (especially Cervelli, who is 52 plate appearance shy of matching his career high) will be a key objective. 

First Base: From positive surprise to negative: the Pirates (75% Pedro Alvarez, 20% Sean Jlast in slugging (.395). On top of that, Alvarez leads the league in errors with 14--no other first baseman has more than five--and he's last in advanced fielding metrics.

Second Base: Neil Walker's played about 85% of the team's innings at second, with Josh Harrison getting almost all of the rest. Walker's been fine. The Pirates are fifth in the league in OPS+ at second base, and Walker's having his basic Neil Walker season. His OPS+ since 2010 (100 is league average): 119, 108, 112, 114, 127, 111. He hasn't matched last year's blip, but he remains one of the top second basemen in the league. He's also turning 30 in September, and he's a free agent after this season, so this could be the last season with the Pirates for the Pittsburgh native.

Shortstop: Another disappointment so far, as Jordy Mercer and Jung Ho Kang have combined (at about an 80/20 split) to deliver the third lowest OPS+ in the league. Mercer, who hit 12 homers last year, has only two so far this season, while Kang has been a considerably worse hitter at shortstop (.250/.290/.344 slash line) than at third (.289/.380/.416), probably more a matter of bad luck than anything.

Third Base: The Pirates have been OK--ninth in the league in OPS+, split between Harrison and Kang about 55/45--but Harrison has declined from last year's breakout. In 2014, he batted .315/.347/.490, with an OPS+ of 134. In 2013, he batted .250/.290/.409 with an OPS+ of 96. When he went on the disabled list earlier this month with a thumb injury, he was hitting .279/.313/.384 with an OPS+ of 94, looking a lot more like the 2013 Harrison than the 2014 version.

Left Field: I was surprised to see that the Pirates rate only ninth in OPS+, considering that Starling Marte is having a good season. He's already tied his career high for home runs (13) and has a 117 OPS+, 17% better than the average player. He's also been the best fielder on the team. But then I realized that he's been the Pirates' left fielder only about 80% of the time, as he's also played some center and missed six games. Here's the problem with the Pirates left fielders:
Starling Marte 74 313 288 40 77 14 0 13 47 13 5 16 78 .267 .317 .451 .769
Everybody else 14 72 87 4 11 0 0 1 2 1 1 4 10 .164 .222 .209 .431
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/16/2015.

Here's how you read that table: The Pirates had better hope Starling Marte stays healthy.

Center Field: OK, I was worried, but come on, on the morning of April 28, Andrew McCutchen was batting .175 with a .299 on base percentage and .302 slugging percentage. His OPS was .600. Since then, he's batted .325/.417/.550, a .967 OPS. Pirates center fielders (it's been McCutchen over 92% of the time) have the highest OPS+ in the league, second in the majors behind the Mike Trout-led Angels.

Right Field: Another problem area, as Gregory Polanco, despite his recent heroics, is primarily responsible (he's been the team's right fielder about three quarters of the time) for the Pirates ranking 13th in the league in OPS+ in right field: tenth in batting, 12th in on base percentage, and 14th in slugging percentage. They've hit only four home runs. Last year, there were concerns that Polanco, who was 22 when he was called up in June, was rushed to the majors. He posted an 84 OPS+, indicating that we was 16% below average as a hitter, in 2014. This year, he's the same guy, with an 83 OPS+.

So on offense, the Pirates have four good positions (catcher, second base, center field, and left field), one okay position (third base) and three problem areas (first base, shortstop, and right field). Jordy Mercer has played better of late (.282/.318/.369 slash line over the last 30 days). Polanco (.216/.333/.307) and Alvarez (.230/.266/.365) have not. Polanco and Alvarez both bat left, and both are overmatched by left-handed pitchers. You think the Pirates might be looking to add a right-handed bat?

Pitching: There's really not a lot to complain about here. Charlie Morton has the highest ERA of the starters, at 4.15, and a worryingly low strikeout rate (13.6% of batters faced; the league average is 19.2%). A.J. Burnett is probably not going to sustain a 2.11 ERA, and I've expressed my concern that the relievers have been ridden hard (though not as hard as the raw numbers indicate, due to their efficiency in keeping pitch counts low). The sparkling team ERA of 2.86 is likely to rise, though I'm basing that more on logic--no team's had an ERA that low over a full season since 1972, when it prompted the American League to adopt the designated hitter--than anything that seems unusually lucky about the performance to date.

What's the Outlook? Matt Trueblood (who's become one of my favorite baseball analysts; his stuff is consistently spot-on) wrote a pretty compelling piece on Baseball Prospectus arguing that the Pirates are due for a second-half decline, largely due to two factors: First, that record in one-run games is pretty unsustainable and more likely due to luck rather than a sustainable skill. Second, while the Pirates have had a fairly soft schedule to date, they'll face almost exclusively teams with a winning record (other than divisional foes Cincinnati and Milwaukee) after the break: Nine against the Cubs and Cardinals, six against the Dodgers, four against the Nationals, and three each against the Mets and Royals.

I have to agree with Matt. But playing worse in the second half doesn't mean finishing out of the money for the playoffs. The Cardinals are a very good team that just got its best hitter back. This could be the third straight wild card year for the Bucs. 

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