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August 27, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Musical chairs and the Pirates rotation. Does a six-man rotation make sense? (Plus a podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – There is a Bill Parcells saying that goes something like this: if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have one. Meaning, of course, that if you don’t have one clear-cut quarterback you likely do not possess one good enough to win.

A.J. Burnett threw a simulated game Tuesday and the problem,  perhaps a good problem, is if he is able to pitch the Pirates will have six starters for five sports, more specifically four pitchers for three back-of-the-rotation spots. The real problem is the Pirates might not have one No. 3-caliber starter if Burnett is unable to return to first-half form, which seems unlikely.

Who is your No. 3 starter in a Pirates’ postseason rotation?

Who is your odd man out of the rotation if Burnett is healthy? Or should the Pirate give Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole extra rest down the stretch and go to a six-man rotation? (This might make some sense since neither co-ace has pitched 200 MLB innings in a season).

For what it’s worth … Continue Reading →

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August 24, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: Weathering the schedule

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PNC PARK –On national television, completing their most daunting stretch of the schedule of the season, the Pirates emerged with flying colors Sunday night.

In an 18-game stretch beginning August 4th , the Pirates faced each NL division leader (two of them – the Cardinals and Mets – on the road), the Cubs, and wrapped up against the defending world champion Giants. The Pirates won 13 games and lost only 5 and emerged a season-best 26 game over .500.

No sweat, right?

It was a stretch that could have sunk the Pirates’ division hopes, or perhaps even knocked them out of the No. 1 wild card spot and put them on the fringe of the playoff picture. Instead, they remain within realistic striking distance of the division and have created separation from the Giants, the first team on the outside looking in at the playoffs. The Giants trail the Pirates by nine games.

Who deserves credit during this stretch? Continue Reading →

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August 19, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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End divisions? (and our podcast)

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PNC PARK – There’s been some talk this season about ending divisions in baseball. The rationale is tied to the success of the NL Central, where the top three teams have the top three records in the NL. Seems absurd that two of those teams likely will have to face each other in the wild card game (and not the 4th- and 5th-best records), right?

Wrote Jeff Passan of Yahoo! (column linked above): “If this seems screwed up, it’s because it is. The wild card opened up a world of possibilities, including the one playing out in the NL Central today: The three best records happen to come from the same division, and baseball’s playoff system is in danger of penalizing teams for having the temerity to exist in relative geographic proximity to other good teams.”

It became a topic of our podcast yesterday, which you can listen to via this link.

Continue Reading →

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August 17, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: bouncing back, again and again

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SOUTH HILLS – As Clint Hurdle noted Sunday after a sweep of the Mets, when the Pirates seem to be at their lowest point they have often been most resilient, able to respond with some of their most inspired play.

In each of the last two seasons, there have been significant low points. The Pirates  dug out from being eight games under .500 last May to advance to the postseason. They were three games under .500 on May 9 this season.

There have been shallower low moments. After losing the first two games in St. Louis last week – when it looked like not only the division was out of reach, but perhaps the playoffs were slipping away, too – the Pirates responded by winning the last four on the road trip.

The Pirates return home today after posting a 7-2 record over a daunting nine-game stretch against all three NL Division leaders, and wake up today five games back of the St. Louis Cardinals and 2.5 games ahead of the Chicago Cubs for the first wild card. Continue Reading →

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August 10, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Are Pirates – and NL Central clubs – benefiting from their tougher neighborhood?

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SOUTH HILLS – As we witnessed over the weekend, the NL Central has become the toughest neighborhood in the sport. The Cardinals are the first MLB team to 70 wins. The Cubs swept the San Francisco Giants, and the Pirates swept the Los Angeles Dodgers on national television last night.

The top three NL teams all reside in the Central.

And the NL Central isn’t going to get any easier in coming years as the Cardinals look to be in position to remain relevant, the young Cubs are already a year ahead of schedule, and the Pirates are well positioned.

As I wrote in the Trib’s season preview, the pivot in power from the coasts to the heartland is due to a confluence of issues (the AL’s top team, the Kansas City Royals, is also a Central division club), with the salient reason being younger talent is now more important as careers shorten and there is lesser value found in free agency in the post-PED era.

It’s more difficult to buy wins today. But because of their relatively smaller payrolls, Central clubs have had to be more resourceful over the last decade, which is benefiting them today. They’ve had focus on finding value at the margins (integrative analytics, etc), and they’ve had to rely on the drafting and development of players.

But in an era of unbalanced scheduling, how much of a disadvantage is this for the Pirates? Continue Reading →

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August 4, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Strike zone still in Pirates’ favor … and another Indy player to keep an eye on

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PNC PARK – One of the Pirates’ secret advantages is safe — at least for this season.

Jon Roegele does tremendous data- based reseach and his work on the expanding strike zone caught the attention of the commissioner’s office during the offseason. Roegele, through research of PITCHf/x data, has found that the strike zone had grown in size every year since 2009. This is a concern to a commissioner’s office that is in search of more offense in the game. A larger strike zone results in fewer balls and fewer walks, more strikes and strikeouts, and, ultimately, fewer runs.

There was one particular area where the strike zone has grown: the lower portion of the strike zone. In 2009, according to Roegele the strike zone did not extend below 21 inches off the ground. The strike zone has grown below that demarcation line every year since, with the zone growing to include 19 square inches below the 21-inch mark in 2012, 47 square inches last season, and now 50 square inches this season.

Consider the following chart Roegele recently shared at Fangraphs.com: Continue Reading →

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August 3, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Break glass on Glasnow?

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SOUTH HILLS – A.J. Burnett might have thrown his last major league pitch.

Burnett was placed on disabled list Friday after a poor beginning to his second half, and the belief he is he might have damage to his ulnar collateral or flexor tendon. He will undergo an MRI today when we will learn more about his status. (FOXSports.com is reporting it is a flexor strain).

Burnett vows to pitch through the pain, though if he did attempt to pitch through such injury the results are not likely to be ideal. The injury to Burnett means one of the great fears for the Pirates might have become a reality: they might have lost a top-of-their-rotation arm. Continue Reading →

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July 29, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The Pirate Way is spreading, a podcast, and Glasnow the new Holdzkom?

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SOUTH HILLS – Like many industries, baseball is a copy-cat business. Find a best practice? Duplicate and/or improve upon it.

While all teams have access to the same raw data and data suppliers (Statcast, PITCHf/x, Baseball Info Solutions, etc), while all teams employ at least one quantitative analyst, one important area where the Pirates are pioneering is in integrating their data analysts with the clubhouse and creating important two-way input, an important culture of collaboration.

The Pirates were the first team to include a quantitative analyst on the road, giving Mike Fitzgerald his own locker in the clubhouse where he was to be a resource. Now the approach is being copied.

Continue Reading →

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July 27, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Pirates won the offseason (and had to). … Polanco breakout? … Buying at the deadline

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SOUTH HILLS –  Jung Ho Kang is starting to look like quite the find and quite the steal given the paltry $17 million committed to him over four years.

The Pirates deserve much credit from scouts on the ground in South Korea — the Pirates sent in multiple scouts for multiple looks – to the analytics staff that tried to translate his gaudy KBO production to MLB numbers (while there had never been a KBO position player to transition to the majors there had been many KBO hitters to go to Japan and many Japanese hitters to come to MLB. It’s believed that two degrees of separation is how the translation was accomplished), to Neal Huntington and ownership for pulling the trigger.

Kang leads the Pirates in pitches seen per plate appearances (4.1) and is second in on-base percentage (.363) and has been great and at a critical time since filling in for Josh Harrison, batting over .410 since July 6. Oh, he can handle third base and short, defensively.

Over his first 80 games, Kang produced two Wins Above Replacement. If you pro-rate that production over 160 games, Kang is a 4-win player, which is worth $20-some million per year on the open market. Not bad.

But was he even the best acquisition of the offseason? Continue Reading →

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July 23, 2015
by Joe Rutter


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The day Ramirez left

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CAH-Ramirez-2-30

Twelve years ago, the Pirates lost another game (no surprise back then), yet there was a celebration in one corner of the home clubhouse.

I can still vividly remember Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton hugging and laughing after learning they had been traded to the Chicago Cubs. The announcement came moments after the Pirates were beaten 2-0 by the Houston Astros at PNC Park. And while the rest of their teammates looked on in stunned silence, Ramirez and Lofton acted like they had just won the lottery.

Which, in a way, they had. Continue Reading →

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