Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Emerging from a Long Summer's Nap

I haven't posted here in a long time. The reason is that I've been focusing my efforts on two other sites, Baseball Prospectus and Banished to the Pen. I will probably post a few things here from time to time (read: every few months or so) but to find my current baseball writings, check my author archives:
You can also catch my appearance on Effectively Wild, the fantastic Baseball Prospectus podcast (the fans of whom started Banished to the Pen), here.

And enjoy the rest of the regular season.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Latest from Banished to the Pen

Here are the top and bottom five performers for the 30 days ending Sunday, June 26, featuring the strangely alluring second-worst OPS hitters in each league.

I did a National League Central podcast with Alex Crisafulli (@alexcards79) and Eric Roseberry (@Ericdroseberry) last night. It's here

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Hiatuses and Not-So-Fun Facts

I've been blogging here a lot less this year than last year. You probably think it's because the Pirates aren't nearly as good as they were last year, and therefore I've lost interest. That's not it. The simple answer is: I've been busy! I've been writing a fair amount for Baseball Prospectus, which is an incredibly exciting honor, but it's a lot of work. Here's what I've been doing:
I also wrote my regular weekly Trailing 30 report at Banished to the Pen on Monday. 

I'll try to at least post more contemporaneously.

Now, for a fun fact (which, full disclosure, I heard on MLB.com's Statcast Podcast): Here's a list of the top four outfielders (by plate appearances) for the Miami Marlins and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I've ranked them by OPS:

   Player                 PAs   BA    OBP   SLG   OPS
   Matt Joyce, Pit        117  .292  .419  .594  1.013
   Marcell Ozuna, Mia     287  .321  .373  .565   .938
   Christian Yelich, Mia  270  .316  .404  .491   .895
   Gregory Polanco, Pit   291  .295  .379  .510   .889
   Starling Marte, Pit    268  .331  .373  .498   .871
   Ichiro Suzuki, Mia     151  .353  .427  .398   .825
   Giancarlo Stanton, Mia 252  .211  .311  .427   .737
   Andrew McCutchen, Pit  304  .238  .316  .403   .719

Two of the biggest stars in baseball, at the bottom of the list. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Trailing 30 - June 6

I'm linking to my Banished to the Pen post because it looks better for those of you viewing this on mobile devices. Comments for the week: First, the top tier of National League starters is ridiculous. The top seven starters by ERA in the National League all had lower ERAs than the top starter in the American League over the past 30 days. Second, Justin Verlander seems to have gotten in together again (second in ERA, first in WHIP and strikeouts over the past 30 days), right? His trailing 30 ERA is the lowest it’s been since early 2014, his trailing 30 K/9 the highest it’s been since late 2013, and his trailing 30 batting average allowed the lowest it’s been since late 2012.

What's Broken with the Pirates?

The Pirates started well this year, going 15-9 in April, the fourth-best winning percentage (after the Cubs, Nationals, and Mets) in the National League. They slipped in May, going 14-13, and they're only 1-4 in June. Since winning five straight on May 23-27, they've won only twice in nine games. They're still in second in the Central division, but they trail the Cubs by 9.5 games and are only half a game ahead of the Cardinals.

And it doesn't get any easier in the near term. Tonight the team hosts the Mets for three games. Then they have to fly to Denver for a makeup game against the Rockies on Thursday, then fly back home for a weekend series against the Cardinals, After an off day, they open a six-game road trip with three games in New York and three in Chicago. The last of those games against the Cubs is the ESPN Sunday Night game, so it'll be a last flight back to Pittsburgh to start a four game season against the Giants the next day, followed by four against the Dodgers, then a cross-country flight to close out the month with two games in Seattle.

That's 23 games in 24 games, all but one against teams with winning records (and that one, against the Rockies, features the most idiosyncratic park in the league and is sandwiched between two long flights). And they're banged up; catcher Francisco Cervelli and third baseman David Freese haven't played since being hit by pitches in Thursday's game in Miami.

So what's been the problem? 

Let's look at a few full-year statistics. The Pirates are 30-26. After 56 games last year, they were 31-25, so the overall results have been similar. I'm going to compare the 2016 Pirates to the 2015 Pirates, using full-year 2015 figures vs. year-to-date 2016 numbers. And instead of listing just the raw statistics, I'm also going to include where the team ranks in the 15-team National League. 

(an asterisk indicates that the rank lists how low the team is rather than how high. For example, the 20% strikeout rate on offense is the third lowest in the league, and the relievers' 4.04 ERA is the tenth lowest.)

A few things jump out.
  • While the team's rank in runs scored per game is the same as it was last year, the offense is a lot better. The hitters have gone from striking out more than average to being one of the toughest teams to whiff, and they've gone from being infrequent walkers to walking a lot. That's moved them to first in on base percentage. They're also stealing more bases, and more successfully.
  • All told, the Pirates are the best-hitting team in the league, arguably. (The Cardinals have the best argument.) Some might say, "Yeah, but they haven't been able to drive runners in." It's true that the team's .267 batting average with runners in scoring position is ten points lower than the overall team average, but that .267 figure is still fourth in the league.
  • I didn't include this in the table, but the defense has been better than last year as well. Not a lot better, but better.
  • So the problem's been pitching. The Pirates' strategy has been to not give batters a lot of pitches to hit (low Zone %, which is the percentage of pitches in the strike zone) and get them to swing at pitches outside the zone (high Chase %, the percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone), resulting in a lot of ground balls (high GB%, the percentage of balls in play that are grounders).
  • That strategy's been receding this year. Opposing batters are laying off those outside-the-zone pitches, resulting in more walks and fewer strikeouts. It's also forced the pitchers to pitch more in the zone, resulting in fewer grounders and more homers. 
  • In the team's 2-7 skid over the last nine days, the pitching hasn't been great--4.83 starter ERA, 3.86 reliever ERA, striking out just 15% of opposing batters while walking 8%--but the culprit's been the hitting, with a .227/.310/.371 slash line. Chris Stewart (.118), Jordy Mercer (.130), Sean Rodriguez (.154), John Jaso (.190) and Andrew McCutchen (.200) are all batting .200 or less, and all but Rodriguez have slugging percentages of .250 or lower as well. Stewart, Jaso, and Cervelli have combined for zero extra-base hits in 54 at bats. Rodriguez and Stewart have been appearing more than planned due to injuries, so presumably they'll do better with more rest.
It seems reasonable to expect more from the offense, especially as Cervelli and Freese return to the lineup and others shake off nagging injuries. The pitching, though, worries me. It's as if somebody sent out a memo to the other teams in the league over the winter with two words: STOP SWINGING. If the Pirates pitchers can't induce weak contact on outside-the-zone pitches as they have in recent years, the hitters, as good as they are, may struggle to consistently outscore opponents.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The RISP Mystery

In this Baseball Prospectus article, I continue my analysis of batting with runners in scoring position. Unsurprisingly--given pitcher quality, fielders' positions, and several other factors--batters hit more singles with runners in scoring position. They hit more doubles, too. And more triples. And they walk more. And the strike out less. All good. Except...they also hit fewer homers. That doesn't apply just to good hitters and bad hitters, it's across the board. Batters hit home runs less frequently with runners in scoring position than without. I explore various explanations without a definite answer in the article. 

Trailing 30 - May 30

Here is an analysis of the hottest and coldest teams and players over the past 30 days. Comment of the week: The Phillies and White Sox have suddenly gotten cold, and the Dodgers and Brewers have suddenly gotten hot.

The Under-The Radar Team Adjustments

My latest Baseball Prospectus article is here. I look at three teams that have changed sharply from 2015 to 2016 in ways that aren't well-reported:
  • The Washington Nationals have gone from a team that hits a lot of balls to the opposite field to one that rarely goes the other way.
  • The Milwaukee Brewers have gone from one of the most free-swinging teams to the team that swings the least frequently in the majors.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates' pitchers have gone from being one of the stingiest at allowing home runs to one of the most homer-prone.

Enough Already

On Tuesday, the Pirates destroyed the Diamondbacks, 12-1. But the game featured some serious ugliness towards the end. In the top of the seventh, the Pirates were leading 9-1. Arquimedes Caminero, who's exhibited only passing knowledge of the strike zone so far this year (13 walks, three hit batters, and a wild pitch in 17.1 innings), came on for the Bucs. He got center fielder Chris Owings to ground out but then gave up back-to-back singles to shortstop Nick Ahmed and Jake Lamb. Then, with runners on first and second and the count full, he hit second baseman Jean Segura in the head with a 96 mph fastball. 

In the bottom of the inning, Evan Marshall, who'd faced two batters in the sixth, gave up singles to second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer. Catcher Chris Stewart grounded out, with the runners advancing to second and third. Marshall's first pitch to third baseman David Freese, a 95 mph fastball, hit him, either on the shoulder (Pirates broadcast) or grazing his uniform (Diamondbacks broadcast).

In the top of the eighth, Caminero still on the mound, catcher Wellington Castillo walked, left fielder Yasmany Tomas struck out, pinch hitter Chris Herrmann forced Castillo, and then Owings singled. With runners on first and third and the count 1-2, Caminero hit Ahmed in the head with an 89 mph split-fingered fastball.

A notes about this: First, this occurred the day after Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the head with a 92 mph fastball thrown by Colorado's Jordan Lyles. Vogelsong's now on the disabled list with broken facial bones. So it's not like nobody was aware of the risks here. 

Second, it's pretty clear that Caminero didn't intend to hit Segura or Ahmed, and certainly not in the head. It's not so clear about Marshall, who has a history if ill-advised retaliation

Third, it's fortunate that Segura and Ahmed are both OK..

Fourth, I was glad that neither the Pirates nor the Diamondbacks TV announcers talked about "protection" or any other Book of Exodus eye-for-an-eye nonsense. Nobody was making excuses for this sort of thing.

All that being said...Enough already. Pirates pitchers have hit opposing hitters 19 times this season, the fourth most in the league. Pirates batters have been hit 31 times, the most in the league. Last year, they hit the most batters (75) and were hit the most (89). In 2014, they hit the most batters (88) and were hit the second most (78). In 2013, they hit the most batters (70) and were hit the most (88). From 2013 to 2016, they've hit 252 batters (15% more than any other National League team), and been hit 286 times (20% more than any other NL team).

As I've pointed out (here and here), some of this may be retaliation for prior hit batters, but a lot, maybe most of it, isn't. But that doesn't make it OK.

Look, I get it. Hit batters are part of the game. Sometimes a pitch gets away from the pitcher. Some batters stand really close to the plate. Pitchers need to be able to pitch inside as well outside, and sometimes they miss. That's all understandable and forgivable. 

What isn't understandable and forgivable to me is intentionally hitting a batter with a pitch. If I intentionally throw a hard object at high speed and hit you, it's criminal battery. Hard contact is part of the game if you're playing football or hockey, and the players dress appropriately. It's not supposed to be part of the game of baseball. Throwing at a batter because he flipped his bat or slid hard or because his team's pitcher hit a batter on the other team isn't just dumb moral equivalence, it's dangerous. Baseball can wait until a player gets killed, or suffers a traumatic brain injury, or is otherwise never able to play again because he's hit by a pitch. (I'd say "or suffers permanently decreased performance" but that's already happened.) Or it can do something now.

First thought: Immediately eject any pitcher whose pitch hits a batter in the head. I think Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale had it right when he said after the game against Pittsburgh, "You know what, when guys get hit in the head and they get hit in the face, there's no place for that in the game. And if the guy is not trying to do it, then he shouldn't be here at this level." I know some have called for ejecting any pitcher who hits a batter, but that could lead to batters leaning in, getting grazed by the pitch, in order to get an ace pitcher out of the game. Nobody's going to lean in with his chin. 

Second thought: Give umpires more latitude to eject pitchers who throw at batters. Granted, a lot of hit batters are in a gray area. But some aren't, like the Pirates-Reds HBPfest on May 11, in which a Red hit a Pirate, then a Pirate hit a Red, then a Red hit a Pirate, it happened again, then a Pirate hit a Red and a Red hit a Pirate. 

Some people will say that that's the way the game's governed itself for over a century and it shouldn't change. Sorry, not buying it. The average fastball velocity so far this year is 92.3 mph; that can do a lot more damage than fastballs of Ty Cobb's and Babe Ruth's and Joe DiMaggio's eras, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Besides, the game went for decades with no nonwhite players on the field. That wasn't a good idea. Until 2014, baseball didn't bother enforcing the interference rule, prohibiting fielders from blocking the baserunner's path the base, at home plate. That wasn't a good idea either. If governing itself means that Ryan Vogelsong gets bones broken in his face one day and has Jean Segura getting tested for a concussion the next, I'd say it's a pretty pathetic job of self-governance. Roll back the historically high trend of hit batters now, baseball, before you have to, with regrets.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Art Discovered, Found, Lost

Here is my latest at Baseball Prospectus. It's an examination of "the lost art out of the two-out RBI," a term I heard for the first time over the weekend. The clever title is not mine, because I'm not that clever.

Trailing 30 - May 23

Here is my Trailing 30 post from Monday this week. I'm going to continue linking to the Banished to the Pen version rather than reproduce it here because it's in an easier-to-read format over there--the editor there is better than the one here!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Next Up: The Arizona Diamondbacks

The Pirates wrap up a ten-day homestand--the longest of the season, along with ten straight at home in early September--with three games against the Arizona Diamondbacks. They took two out of three against the Diamondback in April in Arizona despite being outscored 24-21. This is the last time the teams will meet this season.

How Are They Doing Lately? Arizona's 11-16 over the past 30 days, the third worst record in the National League. The Pirates's 15-10 is the league's fifth best record. Arizona's scored 4.7 runs per game (fourth in the league; the Pirates are second at 5.0) and given up 4.9 per game (the second most in the league; the Pirates have given up the third most at 4.7. By their run differentials, the Pirates should've won two fewer games and the Diamondbacks should've won two more. In any case, Arizona enters play at 21-25, fourth in the West, 6.5 games behind the Giants.

What's Going Right? Offense. Over the last 30 days, they're third in the league with a .276 batting average and .444 slugging percentage and fourth with a .336 on base percentage. That's been supported by an unsustainably high .330 batting average on balls in play, and they hit a lot of balls (51%, second most in the league) on the ground--hard to get an extra-base hit on a ground ball--but they're made more hard contact than any team in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Pitching. The starters' ERA is 4.42, fourth highest in the league over the last 30 days, and the relievers' ERA of 4.98 is worse than any team but the execrable Reds. The team's stranded only 71% of baserunners, the fifth worst in the league. They've been good at getting opposing batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone, getting swings at a second-best-in-the-league 33% rate, but they've been challenged to find the zone in the first place, with a league-worst 46% rate.

Who's Hot? Rookie Brandon Drury, who's split his time between left, right, and third, has been the team's best hitter over the past 30 days, with a .318/.348/.561 slash line and leading the team with six home runs. Third baseman Jake Lamb, who plays only against right-handed pitchers, has hit .259/.344/.506, and Wellington Castillo has been one of the top-hitting catchers at .325/.353/.488. Backup catcher Chris Herrmann, acquired in an offseason trade with the Twins, has been a folk here, batting .370/.412/.739 in 52 plate appearances over the past 30 days.

On the mound, the top two starters over the past 30 days have been Rubby de la Rosa (2-1, 2.03 ERA in four starts) and Zack Greinke (4-1, 4.20 ERA over six starts). Setup man Daniel Hudson has a 1.74 ERA in eleven games and 10.1 innings over the past 30 days, and Jake Barrett has a 1.80 ERA in eleven games and 10 innings, along with 12 strikeouts and no unintentional walks. 

Who's Not? Many Diamondbacks fans would say that first baseman Paul Goldschmidt's .244 batting average over the past 30 days is a disappointment, but I'm more inclined to focus on his .421 on base percentage and .444 slugging percentage, both well above average. The only really bad hitter's been shortstop Nick Ahmed (.190/.242/.250), who's in there for his glove, not his bat. The bullpen, other than Hudson and Barrett, have a 5.98 ERA over the last 30 days, and starters Shelby Miller and Robbie Ray have combined for a 2-7 record and 5.56 ERA over eleven starts.

What's the Outlook? The two teams combined for an average of 15 runs per game in April. Expect a lot of runs this time around, too. The Pirates are the better team, and have better pitchers (Liriano-Locke-Cole) starting than Arizona (Miller-de la Rosa-Corbin).

Monday, May 23, 2016


I know, posting's been light here. I've been writing a fair amount on other sites and I've been remiss in not posting it here. Here are some links.

On May 2, I wrote about Quality Starts as Baseball Prospectus. A lot of people deride quality starts, which are defined as a starting pitcher going six or more innings while allowing three or fewer runs. I conclude that quality starts are, in aggregate, very well-pitched games. Scroll down to the end of the article for an enlightening comparison.

On May 12, also at Baseball Prospectus, I explored whether there are some hitters who consistently perform better with runners in scoring position. Short answer: It doesn't seem that way. Longer answer: Try flipping a coin six times.

On May 16, I wrote about the Pirates' and Reds' proclivity for hitting one another's batters with pitches at Baseball Prospectus. They do it a lot, but there's not a lot of evidence that it's a case of eye-for-an-eye retribution (though 2016 may be different).

On May 17, I initiated my Trailing 30 feature for 2016 at Banished to the Pen. Among other things, I found that as of that date, there were three Pirates starters among the bottom five for ERA over the past 30 days.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Next Up: The Chicago Cubs

First one of these of the season! Let's get right into it.

How Are They Doing Lately? They dropped two straight to the Padres. The Cubs suck.

OK, just kidding. Put it this way: The Pirates are tied for the tenth best record in baseball and the fifth best record in the National League. They are second in their division. But the trail the first place team in their division, the Cubs, by seven games. In the National League East, the fourth-place Marlins are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the National League West, the last-place Padres are closer to first than the Pirates are. In the American League East, the last-place Yankees are as close to first as the Pirates are. In the American League Central, the fourth-place Tigers are only half a game further from first than the Pirates are. In the American League West, the last-place Angels are only a game farther from first than the Pirates are.

The Cubs have the best record in baseball. They're scored the most runs per game. They've given up the fewest. They've scored, on average, three more runs per game than their opponents--no other team's outscored by more than 1.7--and, based on their run differential, they should be a game better than their 25-8 record. They've been really, really good. Don't take my word for it - Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs concur. And, of course, the Cubs swept three games at PNC Park a week and a half ago by a combined score of 20-5.
What's Going Right? Over the past 30 days, they're sixth in the league with a .263 batting average and .430 slugging percentage but first in on base percentage at .367. They've walked in 13% of plate appearances, by far the most in the league, and struck out in only 19%, the fourth lowest. They're last in the league at generating ground balls and swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. They're disciplined and good. On the mound, over the last 30 days, their starters' ERA of 2.06 is the best in the league by far, and the starters have the league's fourth highest strikeout rate, third highest ground ball rate, third highest rate of soft contact allowed, and the lowest rate of both hard contact and home runs as a percentage of fly balls. They've been a little lucky, allowing an unsustainably low .256 batting average on balls in play and an unsustainably high 82% of baserunners left stranded, but even with average figures, they'd be good.

What's Going Wrong? When the starters are going as well as the Cubs' have, there's a limited need to go to the bullpen--Cubs relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the league over the past 30 days--but Chicago's bullpen's been mortal, with a 4.20 ERA, sixth highest in the league, hurt by a high walk rate (13%, highest in the league) and too many fly balls leaving the park (18%, third highest). Cubs relievers have only five saves over the past 30 days, tied for the second fewest in the league, but that's more a reflection of the team's margin of victory, which doesn't create save opportunities.
Who's Hot? Oh, everybody, more or less. The team's getting above-average offensive performance from all four infield positions and left and center field. Three of the five starting pitchers have an ERA below 2.00 over the last 30 days (the Pirates will face all three) and the other two, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, are at 2.76 and 3.10, respectively. Closer Hector Rondon has been pretty untouchable over the past 30 days, allowing four hits, one run and no walks while striking out fourteen over ten innings.  

Who's Not? Over the last 30 days, backup catcher David Ross, pressed into service by an injury to Miguel Montero, is hitting .179/.300/.359, but with very strong defense. The biggest bust has been free agent signee Jason Heyward, batting .205/.307/.250 and still looking for his first home run of the year. The relievers other than Rondon has had either a high ERA or peripherals (high walk and/or home run rates) that suggest that their ERAs should be higher.
What's the Outlook? In the Cubs series of May 2-4, the Pirates never led, not even for an inning, as they were mowed down by the Cubs' bats and starters Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester. This time, they travel to Chicago, and they'll face...Hammel, Arrieta, and Lester. Am I expecting another sweep? No, but I'm not optimistic. The Cubs are good.

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


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% 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Locking Up Polanco

There's a pattern here:

  • August 2011: Signed second-year outfielder Jose Tabata, 23, to a six-year contract with three additional team option years. The maximum value, including a $1 million signing bonus, is nine years, $37.3 million. The minimum value, including the signing bonus and buyout, is six years, $15 million. The contract covers his arbitration years and his first one to four years of free agency.
  • March 2012: Signed third-year outfielder Andrew McCutchen, 25, to a six-year contract with one additional team option year. The maximum value, including a $1.2 million signing bonus, is seven years, $65 million. The minimum value, including the signing bonus and buyout, is six years, $51.5 million. The contract covers his arbitration years and the his first two to three years of free agency.
  • March 2014: Signed third-year outfielder Starling Marte, 25, to a six-year contract with two additional team option years. The maximum value, including a $2 million signing bonus is eight years, $55 million. The minimum value, including the signing bonus and buyout, is six years, $31 million. The contract covers his arbitration years and his first two to four years of free agency.
  • April 2016: Signed third-year outfielder Gregory Polanco, 24, to a five-year contract with two additional team option years. According to reports, the maximum value is over $60 million and the minimum value is $35 million. The contract covers his arbitration years and his first one to three years of free agency
The Tabata contract was a bust. He's now in the Dodgers system, though the Pirates are on the hook for his $4.5 million salary in this year, the last of his contract. The McCutchen contract--including $10 million last year, $13 million this year, $14 million next year, and a certain-to-be-exercised $14.5 million option in 2018--is one of the biggest bargains in the game. The Marte deal's looking pretty good for the Pirates as well.

Now they're signing up the third of their current outfielders. Here's the catch, though: Polanco hasn't been all that good. Of the 155 players with at least 900 plate appearances over the past two seasons, he's 130th in batting average (.249), 114th in on base percentage (.316), and 138th in slugging percentage (.369). Keep in mind that those rankings are among all players; Polanco's a corner outfielder who's put up middle infielder-type numbers. 

So why did the Pirates extend him? Two reasons. First, he's young, having turned 24 just last September. He's also large, at 6'5", 230 pounds, and he's arguably still growing into his body. (As someone nowhere near that size, I have no idea whether that last sentence makes any sense at all.) Second, of the 156 batting qualifiers in the second half of 2015, Polanco was 74th in batting average (.276), 89th in on base percentage (.324), and 95th in slugging percentage (.425). Granted, those aren't world-beating numbers, but they're a lot better than his work up to that point. If he continues to improve, he'll be a solid contributor. 

Worst case--call it the Tabata outcome--the Pirates waste $35 million over five years. That's not backbreaking, in the sense that it's not so much money that it'd prevent the team from spending elsewhere. And as was demonstrated with Tabata, the Pirates won't take the self-defeating action of playing a subpar player solely because he's owed a chunk of change. Better case, they've locked in a decent player through at least 2020, or a star through 2022. That's a reasonable risk. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

The 2016 Pirates

Yesterday I ran through predictions for all 30 teams. In addition, I wrote a 4,000-plus word preview of the Pirates for Banished to the Pen three weeks ago. It's here. Rather than reproduce it, you can click on the link to read it. Here's a summary:

  • The Pirates play in an offense-suppressing ballpark. That makes their hitters appear a little worse than they really are. It's a really good offense.
  • However, it's very dependent on the starting eight position players staying healthy. Since I wrote the preview, the team added David Freese via free agency, and Matt Joyce, who was wretched last year with Tampa Bay, had a pretty good spring (.932 OPS). I'll still stand by my contention that the team's thin behind its starters. 
  • Three of the five starting pitchers from last year's stretch drive--J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett, and Charlie Morton--are gone. Since I wrote the preview, Juan Nicasio has forced his way into the rotation, allowing no runs in 15 spring innings while striking out 24 and walking five. However, his two new rotation mates, Jon Niese (9.82 spring ERA) and Jeff Locke (6.63), were pretty bad. The rotation looks to be weaker than last year.
  • The Pirates had only three players--infielders Josh Harrison, Jung Ho Kang, and Jordy Mercer--lose significant time to injury. Part of that is by design, but part of it's luck. As I mentioned in the second bullet, the Pirates don't have a particularly deep bench. 
  • The team was also somewhat lucky last year. Its outstanding record in one-run games and high batting average with runners on base are more reflective of good fortune than skill. That could easily reverse. 
All told, I'm expecting an 83-79 record and no trip to the postseason. I hope I'm wrong. A lot of people have talked about how the Los Angeles Angels, by failing to make it deep into the postseason, are wasting the talents of their once-in-a-generation center fielder. It'd be shame to say the same about the Pirates.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

That quote's attributed to Yogi Berra, though like most quotes attributed to him, who knows whether he actually said it.

Last year predictions in baseball were particularly hard. The American League had record parity, the can't-miss Nationals missed, the can't-win Astros and Cubs won...it was a tough year. I listed five locks for the 2015 season: the Phillies would finish last in the NL East, the Braves would be second to last, the Dodgers would win the NL West (three for three so far!), the Nationals would win the NL East (didn't make the postseason) and the Twins would finish last in the AL Central (finished second, just three games out of the postseason). Three out of five isn't bad, except that these were my locks. As I said, it was a tough season.

Before the season started, I compiled projected won-lost records from Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, ESPN, and this site. Here's how we all did:

American League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Blue Jays    93-69  80-82  82-80  82-80  84-78
Yankees      87-75  79-83  82-80  82-80  82-80
Orioles      81-81  79-83  79-83  79-83  80-82
Rays         80-82  86-78  80-82  80-82  77-85
Red Sox      78-84  88-74  86-76  86-76  88-74

American League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Royals       95-67  73-89  78-84  78-84  79-83
Twins        83-79  70-92  74-88  74-88  70-92
Indians      81-80  80-82  85-77  85-77  84-78
White Sox    76-86  79-83  78-84  78-84  83-79
Tigers       74-87  83-79  84-78  84-78  88-74

American League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Rangers      88-74  79-83  75-87  75-87  75-87
Astros       86-76  78-84  79-83  79-83  79-83
Angels       85-77  91-71  87-75  87-75  86-76
Mariners     76-86  87-75  88-74  88-74  89-73
Athletics    68-94  84-78  83-79  83-79  79-83

National League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Mets         88-74  83-79  81-81  81-81  84-78
Nationals    83-79  92-70  93-69  93-69  91-71
Marlins      71-91  81-81  81-81  81-81  81-81
Braves       67-95  72-90  72-90  72-90  69-93
Phillies     63-99  68-94  68-94  68-94  64-98

National League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Cardinals   100-62  89-73  88-74  88-74  89-73
Pirates      98-64  81-81  85-77  85-77  85-77
Cubs         97-65  85-77  84-78  84-78  81-81
Brewers      68-94  81-81  79-83  79-83  78-84
Reds         64-98  76-86  75-87  75-87  72-90

National League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Dodgers      92-70  98-64  92-70  92-70  94-68
Giants       84-78  84-78  81-81  81-81  84-78
Diamondbacks 79-83  72-90  74-88  74-88  71-91
Padres       74-88  85-77  84-78  84-78  86-76
Rockies      68-94  71-91  75-87  75-87  78-84

Nobody covered themselves in glory. One way to evaluate preseason picks is to calculate the difference between predicted wins and actual wins. On that basis, FanGraphs and ESPN missed by 241 wins, I did by 243, and Baseball Prospectus by 265. I'm not crazy about that method, though, for a number of reasons. I prefer the correlation between predicted winning percentage and actual winning percentage. On that basis, the standings are:

1. On the Field of Play  0.464
2. ESPN                  0.461
   FanGraphs             0.461
4. Baseball Prospectus   0.365

I'm not taking a victory lap. I was basically tied with ESPN and FanGraphs, while Baseball Prospectus lagged largely because of a few teams: It was way high on the Dodgers and Rays and way low on the Royals. 

The outlook for 2016 is more chaos in the American League. Baseball Prospectus has Tampa winning the East, ESPN has the Rays in last. FanGraphs has last year's West champion, Texas, tied for last. ESPN projects the Indians leading the Central with 84 wins with three teams (Royals, Tigers, White Sox) tied for second with just one fewer win. There's more consistency in the National League: All three forecast the AL East as Mets-Nationals-Marlins-Braves-Phillies, the Central with the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates 1-3, and the West led by the Dodgers, Giants, and Diamondbacks, in that order. 

Here are my picks, with brief comments:

National League East
Washington Nationals, 89-73: Everybody's picking the Mets, plus the Nationals have lost some key parts (pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen, outfielder Denard Span), and Jonathan Papelbon's still a jerk. Still, I expect a bounceback season here, becasue just about everything went wrong last year other than MVP Bryce Harper, and pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a a pre-free agency salary drive. 
New York Mets, 85-77: Yes, I know, defending NL champs, fantastic rotation, they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and traded for Neil Walker. But they have several fragile and/or aging guys around the diamond, and they're not particularly deep.
Miami Marlins, 82-80: If they get a full year out of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez (I'm guessing they don't), they'll finish with a better record. This isn't a very good team, but they do get to play 38 games against the next two clubs.
Philadelphia Phillies, 66-96: There's hope. Former GM Ruben Amaro re-stocked the farm system on his way out. They've got some promising youngsters on the team now (Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola) and more on the way.
Atlanta Braves, 64-98: They're being picked ahead of the Phillies by most people and I don't know why. Quick, name some good Braves. Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran (who wasn't that good last year)...told you. Like Philadelphia, they're reloading, but the future isn't now.

National League Central
Chicago Cubs, 89-73: Everybody's top pick. I've got them winning eight fewer games than last year and still winning the division. What's right: All those young players who came up and contributed last season will be with the team all year. What's wrong: Not all of them will be as good. What pushes them over: The offseason acquisitions of pitcher John Lackey, outfielder Jason Heyward, and second baseman Ben Zobrist.
St. Louis Cardinals, 86-76: Was last year the least impressive 100-win season you can remember? Some guys are getting old, and losing Heyward and Lackey to the Cubs hurts, but this is still a good team.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 83-79: I'll explain this one in detail tomorrow, since I know Pirates fans won't like it. In summary, they were somewhat lucky last year, they lost 60% of the starting rotation, and it's unreasonable to assume they'll continue to be uncannily injury-free, exposing a thin bench.
Milwaukee Brewers, 75-87: They're rebuilding in a tough, tough division.
Cincinnati Reds, 72-90: See above.

National League West
San Francisco Giants, 89-73: This is more about having reservations about the Dodgers than love for the Giants, though I like the Johnny Cueto and Denard Span signings. (Jeff Samardzija, not so much). Expect some regression from surprise Rookie of the Year contender Matt Duffy, offset by more time on the field from second baseman Joe Panik, and Bruce Bochy's still the manager.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 86-76: This is a good club, and they've got some great prospects who'll chip in this season, but ye gods, have they ever been injury-prone in the spring. And to the degree that injuries put players into unfamiliar roles, the trend could compound itself. The Giants had an injury-riddled 2015; this year feels like the Dodgers' turn.
Arizona Diamondbacks, 81-81: I'll confess to a blind spot with Arizona and the Twins: I'm not convinced either front office is up to the caliber of the rest of the league. They've got some great pieces in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielders David Peralta and A.J. Pollock, and they landed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, but there are still a lot of holes.
San Diego Padres, 76-86: Last year they were the talk of the offseason, adding a lot of veteran talent and trading away a lot of young talent. Now they look like they're doing a bit of a rebuild. Oh well, they play in a great ballpark and the weather's always perfect.
Colorado Rockies, 75-87: Last season the tease was how good they'd be if Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez could both stay healthy. Now Tulo's gone, Gonzalez could be soon, and the relief from a very good farm system is still a year or three away. No tease.

American League East
Toronto Blue Jays, 87-75: FanGraphs and ESPN like Boston, BP still likes Tampa Bay, but I'm picking Toronto as the lone divisional champ from 2015 to repeat. The rotation lost David Price, but it gets a full year from Marcus Stroman, and can these guys ever hit.
Boston Red Sox, 85-77: The two big additions to the pitching staff, starter Price (via free agency) and reliever Craig Kimbrel (via trade), will get the attention, but a bounceback also assumes a return to form of at least one of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. (I'm buying the former, not the latter.)
New York Yankees, 84-78: Another year of remaining in contention while they wait for the big contracts paid to old players to run out.
Tampa Bay Rays, 81-81: Gotta love the pitching. Gotta wonder how they'll score runs.
Baltimore Orioles, 78-84: They've got a great manager, a top-notch bullpen, and they'll hit a lot of homers. But they don't get on base enough and the outfield, outside of center fielder Adam Jones, is, to put it charitably, unproven. But really, in this division, anybody could win, anybody could finish last. It's that close.

American League Central
Cleveland Indians, 86-76: Arguably the best starting rotation this side of Citi Field, an underappreciated bullpen, and a much improved defense from this point in 2015. Like Tampa Bay, the question is scoring runs, and I'm assuming they get most of a year from outfielder Michael Brantley.
Kansas City Royals, 84-78: Hey, don't get annoyed at me. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have the Royals finishing last in the division, ESPN in a three-way tie for second (and third and fourth). Get on them for not giving the defending World Champions the love.
Detroit Tigers, 82-80: Everybody talks about how Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is desperately spending on this team in order to win the World Series before he dies. Fine, but he turns 87 this July. Orioles owner Peter Angelos turns 87 three weeks earlier. How come nobody's talking about Angelos wanting to buy a Series before he dies? I mean, yeah, Angelos isn't spending the way Ilitch is, but the old-owner-pushing-in-all-the-chips-to-the-center-of-the-table narrative is a little ageist, isn't it?
Chicago White Sox, 80-82: Lefty starter Chris Sale is one of the game's under-the-radar superstars. But the big story out of this team so far this year is a 14-year-old who can't hang out in the clubhouse.
Minnesota Twins, 75-87: They have some promising youngsters, but their success last year had a big dollop of luck. 

American League West
Seattle Mariners, 87-75: I picked them last year and was really, really wrong. But this year they actually addressed their primary offensive weakness, an inability to get on base, and Felix Hernandez, who had an off-year (for him) in 2015, looked good in spring (12:2 K:W, no homers in 12.1 innings).
Houston Astros, 84-78: Three things about the Astros. First, they were 51-111 just three seasons ago. Second, from the day they called up Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa through the end of the season, they were 52-52. Third, they finished only a game ahead of the Angels for the second wild card. It's like people think they're the defending division champs. They're not.
Texas Rangers, 83-79: In contrast to the Astros, the Rangers actually were the division champs last year. But they were kind of lucky--their record based on run differential was five games worse than their actual--and their rotation, even assuming a healthy return from Tommy John surgery by Yu Darvish, has a lot of question marks.
Los Angeles Angels, 80-82. In center fielder Mike Trout, they have the game's best player, and he's starting to look like this generation's Ernie Banks: Great player whose team doesn't get him to the Series.
Oakland Athletics, 76-86: Another year in the cellar looks likely, but as in the AL East, if you squint, you can see them playing into October. The American League is a big tossup.