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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: a stimulus package for the Pirates

CHICAGO – On August 8th, the Pirates were 70-44.  They had completed a sweep of the Marlins and a week earlier they had won four out of five games against the Cardinals, a series some labeled the club’s most important since 1992. The Pirates hope that period does not represent their high-water mark in 2013.

 

Since those happy days (remember what it was like to smile?), the Pirates are 19-23.

 

They’ve lost the best record in baseball. They’ve lost first-place in the NL Central. They’ve lost their cushion in the No. 1 Wild Card spot as they enter their final week of regular season play tied with the Reds in the Wild Card standings.

 

There will be a hollow  feeling  in Western Pa. if Sunday’s game was the last at PNC Park. The following is a stimulus package to pull the Pirates’ from their second-half slide and deliver a home postseason game:

 

*Skip Jeff Locke’s next start.  With Thursday’s off-day, I think Clint Hurdle must skip his final start, which would allow Gerrit Cole to start the season final in Cincinnati on regular rest. Pretty simple: do you want two more Cole starts or one more Locke start? Don’t diminish Locke’s contribution this season. He’s a No. 5 starter that has produced a winning record and 10 wins. But he’s been a liability in the second half.

 

*Make Jason Grilli’s return to the closer role a permanent one. The bullpen has worked at its best when Grilli is in the  closer role. Moreover, the ninth inning is often a LOW-LEVERAGE situation. Grilli in the ninth allows Tony Waston, Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon to work higher-leverage situations. It strengthens the bullpen even if Grilli is not 100 percent. And Grilli’s command is still not where he wants it to be, his velocity is a tuck down, but MLB Network’s Joe Magrane, an excellent analyst, believes Grilli’s ”snap” is back on his slider. This is what Grilli told me earlier this week:

“I know people probably want to ask, ‘Do you want to be the closer?’ I want to do my job. Whatever that description is I want to do that. It’s easier to do your job and be successful when you know what that job is.”

Grilli2

Closing time for Pirates and Grilli

*Make Clint Barmes the every-day shortstop against RHP and always a late-inning defensive replacement. Barmes is the superior defender according to eye and statistical tests. This is a team loaded with groundball pitchers – the Pirates have the highest staff groundball rate since Fangraphs.com began publishing defensive data in 2002. Run prevention has to come first for the Pirates.

 

Look, Jordy Mercer has a future with this team as at least a super sub. He should start against left-handed pitching. But this week is not about development it’s about putting the best team on the field.

 

*Start Starling Marte, but bat him later in the lineup. Marte’s speed on the bases and in left-field is an advantage for the Pirates and the club has to hope there’s not too much rust on his bat. He should play, I think, but bat further down the lineup. I’d move Andrew McCutchen into the No. 2 spot against RHP and LHP and let Walker bat lead-off, at least against right-handed pitching (.370 OBP)

 

Those are my modest proposals for the final week, what are yours?

 

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS

9. Speaking of new-age thinking …

Meet the Fox in the clubhouse, Dan Fox, who is perhaps the most important baseball operations person you’ve never heard of.

*The Pirates’ radical defensive plan?

*The decision to acquire Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano?

*The Pirates computer database MITT, which has unified scouting reports, medical data and contract info on 200,000 players?

They are all creations or contributions of Fox, who has played a key role in the Pirates’ 2013 success.

 

8. I think there are two different Clint Hurdles, the Hurdle who makes macroscopic decisions and the Hurdle that makes smaller, day-to-day, microscopic decisions.

 

One thing I hoped you took from reading my last two Sunday stories on the Pirates’ defensive plan and Dan Fox is that Hurdle has been very open and receptive to adopting 21st century data and ideas at a macro level. He meets with Fox and his assistant Mike Fitzgerald before every series.  Such meetings have influenced lineup construction and defensive alignment. Hurdle demanded his position players buy into defensive shift and his pitchers focus on throwing more two-seamers to produce more groundballs.

 

Hurdle has added value to the Pirates at a macro, comprehensive level.

 

But some of the micro-level decisions have been questioned: leaving in starting pitchers too long or not long enough, allowing Justin Morneau to bat cleanup vs. left-handed pitching, not making late inning-defensive replacements consistently.

 

To be a manager is to be second guessed. But I’ll say this in Hurdle’s defense: you’d rather be questioned over the micro-level decisions rather than the macro ones. Still, in the most important week or Pirates’ baseball the Pirates are hoping both levels of decision making go flawlessly.

 

7. I suspect Sunday’s start will be the last we see of Locke in 2013.

 

Locke went just one inning and allowed five runs vs. Reds on Sunday. He was again hurt by walks and struggled against lefties. Jay Bruce lined a three-run double to the opposite field gap. Locke is not a fit as a postseason starter and I doubt whether the staff would want a high-walk pitcher to be a situational lefty. I’m not sure how you explain either Locke’s first half or second half but the Pirates hope he can reach a more consistent level between in 2014.

 

Jeff Locke

 A member of the 2014 rotation?

 

6. If Locke struggles again in 20141, the Pirates could be looking at not one, not two but three openings in its starting rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is also a question mark and Pirates GM Neal Huntington is not sure if A.J. Burnett wants to continue to pitch. What Huntington did indicate Sunday is that Burnett IS NOT seeking a multi-year deal. He is either going to take a one year deal or retire. I think it makes sense to consider extending a qualifying offer to Burnett. If Burnett accepts it, it adds pitching depth. If he declines and signs elsewhere the Pirates are awarded draft-pick compensation. If he retires, he retires.

 

5. Non Pirates-related but Billy Hamilton, wow.

 

If you don’t like September call-ups, and  Hurdle doesn’t, then you can’t like what Hamilton has done to the NL Central race. He was called up on Sept. 3 and he’s score three game-tying or winning runs and has an 11-MLB best steals in that time span.

 

He’s the fastest runner I’ve ever seen.

 

4. Have to think the Pirates where hoping for more of an impact from Justin Morneau. He failed to take advantage of the short Clemente Wall in PNC Park. Still, I think you have to keep Morneau in that role and hope his bat gets back to where it was in August.

 

3. The interesting thing about Mark Melancon is that he hasn’t been hit all that hard in his two blown saves this season and most of the damage has come against right-handed batters. Because of the quality of his cutter, which he throws more than 60 percent of the time, he’s actually better against lefties. Bud Black was smart to pinch-hit righties against Melancon.

 

2. Who is your preferred left-handed bat off the bench in the playoffs?

 

Travis Snider hit his third pinch-hit home run of the season Sunday. I think Snider or Jones should make the postseason roster as a left-handed bat off the bench.

 

1. While he has to make that play, I think Mercer probably took too much of the blame for Friday’s loss. But such is the nature of the beast. That’s the last thing folks remember. We don’t remember Martin or Marte getting picked off. We don’t remember  a  Melancon missed location. But credit Mercer for taking responsibility. I’m not sure if he’s a future everyday shortstop but he has a future as a Pirate as a super sub who can play three infield positions.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK I

Burnett became the first Pirates right-hander to reach 200 strikeouts in a season on Saturday. That blew my mind. After all, the Pirates have been playing Major League baseball since, oh, the 19TH CENTURY.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK  II

The Pirates lost after leading by 3 or more runs entering nine Friday for the first time since 2009, having won 163 straight in such situations.

 

HE SAID IT 

“A lot of it is that I’ve been blessed with a lot speed and good instincts but I’ve worked at it, too. I watch video. I study the pitchers. I have a plan when I’m out there on the bases. I’m not just running wild with no clue.”

- Billy Hamilton to Sports on Earth

 

HE SAID IT II

“Can Sean Casey be on my ticket?”

Neil Walker, when told he might make for a good mayoral candidate after being named the winner of the Chuck Tanner Award on Sunday, which is presented to the Pirate who is most agreeable to working with the media

 

HE SAID IT III

 “ ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’-Niels Bohr, Danish physicist (1885 – 1962). That sentiment, while especially problematic in Bohr’s world of quantum physics, is also more than a bit perplexing in the Newtonian world of Major League baseball. …. Projecting performance accurately is a kind of Holy Grail.”

- The first words Fox ever wrote for Baseball Prospectus

TWEET OF THE WEEK 

Former Baseball Propsectus writer Will Carroll urged Pirates’ director of analytics, Dan Fox, to write for Baseball Prospectus, which led to his position with the Pirates. Fox has made a considerable impact on the Pirates’ 2013 season.

 

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

You’re probably more familiar with the local cuisine scene than I am, but Mad Mex in Shadyside is pretty excellent.

-TS

 

19 Comments

  1. Travis as always I enjoyed you monday morning mop up. I wouldn’t call your proposals modest. Some are pretty drastic. Agree on the Locke thing but maybe it won’t matter one way or the other by the last game. I also agree about Grilli. I’m not sure the Marte thing isn’t more about his injury. I’m don’t know if he can swing a bat aggresively right now. I’m also not a big fan of switching Cutch in the order this late in the season.

  2. Travis just curious do have more information on Fox. Where he comes from, what his background was, who’s decision it was to hire him? Is this a unique postion?

    Most importantly what sound does a fox make? If the last question doesn’t make sense to you it will in a few week.

    • Check out the link at the beginning of “9.”, Nate. Travis did an entire article on Fox.

      • Wow, really good read. Thanks for pointing out the link. As I have said before even if NH gets fired tomorrow if nothing else he brought a differant way of thinking to this organization. He hasn’t always executed it perfectly but the plan is in place.

        • Great work, really.
          .
          And I agree with you. Hard for people to appreciate until the W’s started coming, but the fundamental changes over the last six years have truly brought the franchis out of the dark ages.

  3. Love your work as always Travis, but re #6, am failing to see how the 2014 rotation could have 3 openings if Locke struggles…

    Liriano
    Cole
    Morton

    All seem like locks, with the question marks being AJ, Wandy, and Locke for the last 2 spots. Plus, the option of stretching out Justin Wilson and Jameson Taillon coming up near the end of June / beginning of July.

    I’m not at all worried about the rotation…another legit hitter is the more pressing issue.

    • Warren,if it were my job,I would be considering Wilson,or Watson for that matter, for the closer’s spot next season,not for a starting job. Just my observation after the past couple of weeks and watching the cracks grow.

  4. Love what you’ve brought to the Trib staff this year, Travis. Count this reader as one who doubts the former beat staff would’ve ever bothered to uncover the analytic side of operations.

    • Dittos, happy to see Travis bringing this perspective to the locals …

      Especially since Dejan Kovacevic has apparently turned in his Bill James decoder ring, burned all his Abstracts and turned to the dark side in order to become a front office cheerleader.

      At least there’s one voice of reason and logic round here.

  5. A couple of quibbles in no particular order … Clint Barmes is the superior defender, really? As I look around the readily available stats Barmes and Mercer seem to be virtually identical in every measure with one exception, DWAR, which at this point only serves as another example of the what I see as the unreliability of that stat … it seems to suggest defensive prowess that no other measure does … what do we know about outliers? As for the eye, really? I get everybody got bent out of shape because Mercer’s error led directly to the loss Friday, but Barmes’s defense the following two days was terrible for the most part even if those errors and miscues that should have been scored as such didn’t result in runs. There seems to bias here, not just by you, because of when the errors came and their impact, not the play itself. Frankly, between these two even if we cede the point that Barmes is a better defender, I don’t see how this atrocious hitting can be overlooked by a team who’s biggest weakness has been and continues to be lack of offense.

    Jeff Locke, the term “second half” is pretty vague, I think if try we can narrow it down a bit … July 26th, 108 pitches finishes game with 2.15 ERA. Next start 10 hits, 4 runs in four innings before getting yanked … his ERA is nearly 1.5 runs higher since that 7/26 start. Very much like what we witnessed with James McDonald last season; June 21st 2012 120 pitches in his first complete game, finishes with 2.19 ERA. Next outing 4 runs in 5.2 innings … ERA rises by 2 runs from that point finishes at 4.21and he’s not been close to the same pitcher since that game. Coincidences?

    Which brings me to my question for you. You’ve written several times now about the influence Dan Fox’s work and sabremetrics has had on the team and in particular Clint Hurdle. While I’m thrilled at the idea this stuff is starting to used by the Pirates, does Clint Hurdle really buy into it or is he just paying lip service to it because he thinks it’s what his bosses want to hear?

    You write the information provided has “influenced lineup construction and defensive alignment” yet (as you note) Starling Marte continues to hit leadoff, even against RHP, Neil Walker continuing to hit from the right side of the plate when it’s become painfully obvious he couldn’t do any worse against LHP if just hit exclusively from the left side, his claim that he was going to “experiment” with hitting Garrett Jones hitting second which he did for all of 2 starts, his insistence at the beginning of the season with trying to make Gabby Sanchez the full time starter at first which had the effect of keeping Travis Snider on the bench quite a bit despite his claims that the RF job was his (with Jones platooning at first, bunting, bases stealing etc.

    Sure looks to me that while Clint Hurdle may have adopted some of the analytical approach on the defensive side of the game, perhaps because one of the tenants of the old school is “defense and pitching wins games,” there’s actually very little to suggest he’s embraced these ideas on the offensive side of his approach.

    Frankly, all the evidence I see to this point says Clint Hurdle still loves his small ball and hasn’t changed his approach one bit when it comes to hitting and he’s blowing smoke up our who-has.

    • I don’t often agree with your skeptical analysis,but after reading through this comment NPF,I am inclined to agree with you on all the charges stated.And,it seems to me that the evidence on this statement ” Clint Hurdle still loves his small ball and hasn’t changed his approach one bit when it comes to hitting and he’s blowing smoke up our who-has.” is overwhelming !

  6. Love your work as always Travis, but re #6, am failing to see how the 2014 rotation could have 3 openings if Locke struggles…
    Liriano
    Cole
    Morton
    All seem like locks, with the question marks being AJ, Wandy, and Locke for the last 2 spots. Plus, the option of stretching out Justin Wilson and Jameson Taillon coming up near the end of June / beginning of July.
    I’m not at all worried about the rotation…another legit hitter is the more pressing issue.

    • Hey, he’s a writer, not a mathmatician. :)
      .
      Good catch, Warren.

      • Thanks – didn’t meant to post twice either. It said “awaiting moderation” for a couple hours, so wasn’t quite sure what was going on

        • I’ve done that before.
          .
          I agree, by the way, that another hitter is needed more than a starter. Unless, that is, they want to go high end. I think the days of the Pirates spending millions on #5 starters should be over. Way better ways to spend the money.

  7. I really like your analysis of Hurdle, it helps understand the seeming disconnect between a manager who has embraced defensive shifts and the manager characterized by NorthPirateFan. I have maligned Hurdle along similar lines as NorthPirateFan. However in making these criticism are not we comparing Hurdle to the an idealized fictional sabermetric manager. Who out there is using an optimized lineup or a non-regimented bullpen?

    I saw a quote from Matheny that the Cardinals do not shift because the pitchers do not like it. Dusty Baker has put a .300 OBP batter leadoff and whose two hitters have ranged from a .280 to .310 OBP. I really do not think Hurdle is doing anything different then the industry trends, it is frustrating, there are margins to exploit, but is it not a least promising that Hurdle has embraced some form of analytic data?

    Travis, how do you explain the Buck trade, if the Pirates value Martin’s skills, why get Buck who is a below average to bad pitch framer?

    • Okay then, let’s assume we/I are comparing it against an idealized model and that even amongst the sabermetrically inclined manager there’s no perfect lineup/roster usage.

      Let’s try it this way then … can Clint Hurdle, his defenders or even Travis point to an single example where the numbers dictated player usage on the offensive side?

      I mean I know of tons of examples of Hurdle CLAIMING that’s how players would be used in but numerous examples in the box scores from day one where he’s doing the opposite. I gave two specific examples earlier, Garrett Jones being used in the number two spot due to his history but only actually getting two starts in that spot and Neil Walker continuing to switch hit even though he clearly can’t hit from the right side at all , and numerous more generic examples like repeated use of right handed hitters against RHP while lefties sat, habitual use of bunts and base stealing, lineups with high on base percentages and good plate discipline slotted from the middle of the order down while speed prevailed at the top etc.

      Is there any example that someone could point to wrt the offense that was clearly dictated by the analytics and Dan Fox’s work?

      I asked a question earlier in a discussion about Pedro Alvarez that was never answered that if it were I believe would go a long way to answering the question of whether Clint Hurdle is actually adopting some sabermetrics principles or just saying he is in order to silence his critics. How does a player who is a veritable walk machine, a paragon of plate discipline from college through out the minors suddenly become a guy with a 1-3+ bb to k ratio who walks at the bare minimum rate (or less) who only hits home runs?

      Is Pedro Alvarez being TOLD to swing for the fences by his coaches because “that’s what 4/5 hitters are supposed to do?” I mean we’ve already heard in the past Clint Hurdle publicly declare his desire to see Pedro swing at more first pitches … which is a very old school/anti-sabermetrics approach.

      Pedro Alvarez

      College 679 ABs 125 BB 157 K
      A+ 259 ABs 40 BB 75 K
      AA 222 ABs 34 BB 59 K
      AAA 367 ABs 54 BB 110 K
      Majors 1647 ABs 165 BB 562 K

      Lloyd McClendon & Jim Tracy and Jose Bautista anyone?

  8. I greatly appreciate the value Clint Barmes brings defensively, but this team just can’t hit. Jordy Mercer isn’t Barmes with the glove, but he isn’t Ronny Cedeno either. I just can’t see any additions to the offense being sacrificed on a team that struggles to score runs like the Pirates. To that point, Starling Marte absolutely needs to enjoy watching Jose Tabata perform for the remainder of the season. Now isn’t the time for scholarships, and Starling has looked awful since returning.
    .
    If Justin Morneau were named Joe Smith, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the heart of a batting order, let alone cleanup. How many fly balls to the warning track does it take to prove he’s done as anything resembling a power hitter?

  9. I agree that Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes are about equal defensively, but Jordy is a much better hitter, so Mercer should be the main shortstop, period.
    Clint Hurdle has one major fault-he doesn’t recognize when a starting pitcher has lost his stuff and needs to come out, even if it’s in the first inning, re Locke. He has been very bad
    with this all season long. Also, he should be more aggressive with changing pitchers to
    equalize batting situations with lefty and righty hitters. Other than changing the 3rd base
    coach, which,obviously ,he should, he has done a pretty good job as manager.

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