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.