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Monday Mop-Up Duty: what’s most surprising about 10-16?

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SOUTH HILLS – One of the questions on Final Word last night was the following: What is most surprising about the Pirates’ struggles to date this season?

To review, the Pirates are just a game ahead of the last-place Cubs and 8 1/2 games behind the surprising Brewers. The Pirates were never 8 1/2 games out of first place at any point last season. The Pirates have lost 13 of 17 games.  The Pirates’ poor play has come at a costly time as the first 26 games of the season were all intra-division. The Pirates’ first out-of-division game is tomorrow in Baltimore. 

Some of the early-season struggles are not surprising.

*We knew the bullpen was in for some regression. Jason Grilli didn’t blow a save opp until June 19th last season. He’s already blown three. He’s 37 and he’s somewhere many 37-year-old pitchers spend time: the disabled list.

*Francisco Liriano has never strung together back-to-back quality seasons. Even if you didn’t believe he’d revert back to his 2011-12 self, it was asking a lot for him to repeat 16-8 and 3.02 and Cy Young votes.

*We knew the offense was unlikely to suddenly become a dominant, consistent force with no offseason upgrades. The Pirates have more home runs than they did ago at this point, they’ve scored in  bunches at times, but they’ve also scored two or fewer runs in 14 of 26 games. (The Pirates have been hurt by some really bad BABIP luck, more on that later).

*We knew Starling Marte had swing-and-miss in his game, we knew Pedro Alvarez was capable of patience-testing streaks, and we knew many would eagerly be anticipating the callup of Gregory Polanco to solve the right-field situation.

Now the severity is unexpected in some areas, but I don’t think any of the above issues were unforeseen or unexpected.

I’d say one of the most unexpected area of struggles is at shortstop. The Pirates turned the position over to Jordy Mercer because of his promising bat and work against left-handed pitching last season. While Mercer’s defense has been acceptable, his bat has been empty. It’s been the most unexpected empty spot in a lineup with too many inconsistent at bats.  Mercer’s plate discipline has been stable compared to his 2013 rates and milb production. He hasn’t shown the pop he displayed a year ago and has driven the ball into the ground at a high rate (2.27 GB-to-FB ratio). He’s going to be better,  but his performance to date has been somewhat surprising. (Though you might remember someone here looking for a Stephen Drew platoon partner for Mercer this offseason).

What’s do you think is the most unexpected area of struggle?

The good news? It’s April 28th. There’s plenty of baseball to be played and plenty of time for Pirates to right themselves. Most every team has rough stretch like this at some point during the season… but the Pirates cannot afford another one.

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS …

9. It’s time to call up Gregory Polanco.

With Polanco it’s no longer about gaining an extra year of service time, which is the most important element in delaying a prospect’s arrival.  The Pirates have passed that threshold. Polanco will be under club control through 2012 whether he’s called up tomorrow or on June 16.

This is about Super 2 status, which is about saving several million dollars by avoiding a fourth year of arbitration owed to a player. I get it. Most teams would be following the same course, and if the Pirates were 16-10, it would make complete sense to wait.

But the Pirates have already eroded much of their margin for error. They need more run production. They need more table-setters for Andrew McCutchen.

Polanco is appears to be ready. It’s not just the dominant 90 plate appearances in Triple-A. It’s the dominant showing in winter ball and the precocious approach in Double-A last season. Polanco is ready.

He could provide a Wil Myers-like boost the Rays enjoyed last season. Not the same player, but an impact, in-house player nonetheless.

8. I think the Pirates can weather two weeks without Grilli. As for two weeks without Russell Martin … that’s  a big blow.

7.  Do you give the lion’s share of playing time to Chris Stewart or Tony Sanchez in Martin’s absence? Do you trade defense for offense? Perhaps the platoon should be in part based upon the speed of the other team. I’d also like to get a better understanding of where Sanchez’s pitch-framing and pitch-sequencing abilities are. I’m not sure we have enough sample to really have much of an understanding at present.

6.  How about some silver linings?

I thought Brandon Cumpton looked better than the brief bit of Cumpton we saw last season. Cumpton’s fastball sat 92-93 mph against the Reds last Thursday, up from his 91.4 mph average last season. He had good command of the pitch and wasn’t afraid to pitch inside. Moreover, his slider also generated some swings or misses. He earned another start and perhaps he or Jeff Locke will soon be displacing Wandy Rodriguez regardless

5. Speaking of Locke, I wonder if the lefty is adding a new skill: the strikeout.

Lost in Locke’s second half last season was that his strikeout rate spiked to above league-average at 8.1 k/9. His strikeout percentage jumped two points, too. Of course his command eroded.

In 23 minor league innings this April, Locke has a 26-to-5, strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sure, they’re minor league hitters but the numbers mean something and they’re better than any of his previous milb rates.

4. When is Neil Walker going to catch a break? .217 BABIP?

3. Speaking of BABIP, one reason things are going to get better for the Pirates is they have simply been victims of bad luck .  They’re 29th in baseball with a .259 BABIP. League average is just under .300. More hits will fall — or the Pirates will be the least fortunate team ever.

Remember, the Pirates rank sixth in home runs (28) in all of baseball and 11th in walk rate (8.4) those are important skill improvements. There’s more offensive production ahead. I’m not saying they’ll be the ’27 Yankees. But they’ll be better.

 

Zeus_(Earth-9602)

 

What kind of sacrifice must the Pirates make at the altar of the BABIP gods?

 

2. I still believe Pedro Alvarez is an improved player. The walk rate is way up (12.1 percent), the strikeout rates is way down (23.4 percent). His BABIP is silly, low at .161. I’m still buying.

1. The last question on the Final Word last night was this: were the Pirates a fluke last year?

Were they going to repeat that bullpen performance? Those 94 wins? And their record in 1-run games? Of course not. They needed to do more this offseason to strengthen their roster they were due for the dreaded “R” word. But this is still a competitive team that has been hurt by some bad luck both BABIP and health wise. I’m not sure if they’ll be a playoff team again, perhaps unlikely in a really tough NL Central, but I do know better days are ahead in 2014. And some really good days are ahead beyond 2014 teams if the edges of the roster are well managed.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 37

NL-worst strikeouts by Marte. Time for a move down the lineup?

 

HE SAID IT

“When they told me Liriano was light-headed, I got light-headed, too,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Liriano should be OK.

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

Emerald-brand paint by Sherwin Williams.

I moved into a new South Hills residence this weekend and did about 24 hours of painting prior to the move in. I don’t have master brushstrokes but the matte-style Emerald paint has a really nice finish and makes a hack like myself even look quasi professional. It’s more expensive but it’s worth the extra dollars.

- TS

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Comments

  1. NMR says:

    -Thanks for the paint rec, Travis. My kitchen awaits.

    -Most surprising part of the Pirates struggles, without a doubt, is the one that never gets mentioned: DEFENSE.

    No Neil Walker wasn’t the one who served up Peralta’s second home run yesterday, or the final four runs in Wandy’s last start. But he was responsible for the defensive miscues that lead to extra outs in both cases. And he’s certainly not alone.

    -Jordy Mercer was terrible against RHP last year. Jordy Mercer has been terrible against RHP this year. #notshocked

    - 9) If the Pirates playoff chances are already unlikely, as Travis seems to believe, then that is all the more reason to hold strong and NOT promote Polanco.

    Very reasonable opinions have been made on both sides of this debate, but one fact that does remain is the longer they wait the less it makes any sense to promote him.

    re: Marte, Mercer and lineup

    The team has put together thre middle-of-the-order bats that take walks in the form of ALvarez-Martin-Davis/Sanchez. Snider/Tabby as well. That’s a good thing. What hurts is when there isn’t a guy behind them to drive them home.

    I’ve given up on Marte learning any shred of plate discipline. He’s gonna be who he’s gonna be no matter where he’s at in the lineup. I’m beginning to think the 7/8-hole may be the best place for him.

    Great topics, Travis. Look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts!

  2. Keith says:

    Don’t put Marte 8th – he’d let the pitcher lead off all day long. 7th would work, and 6th, where many have said he should settle in, would be a nice power boost, I’d think.

  3. Andrew says:

    Good stuff as always.

    -The biggest are of regression/under-performance for me has been starting pitching. Pirates led the NL last year in strikeouts, so far this year they are next to last. Burnett’s loss plays a role (he is not exactly mowing down guys this year unless it is the Diamondbacks), but outside Liriano the pitching staff has been dependent upon McCutchen running down balls in the gaps.

    -Line drive BABIP, league average .676, the Pirates .606. The .263 overall BABIP would be the lowest of the last 20 years.

    -I wouldn’t make much of Locke’s strikeout increase, K% – BB% 1st half 5.9%, 2nd half 5.4%.

    Also paint prices have climbed remarkably because of regulations concerning VOCs.

  4. NMR says:

    -2nd worst k rate, 3rd worst walk rate, 4th worst HR rate. Pretty much the trifecta of crappy pitching.

    -Locke struck out almost a batter per inning during his September callup in 2012. Small sample noise.

  5. Jim S. says:

    Thanks for the paint recommenation, Travis. We have a couple of rooms that apparently need to be made a different color, although they look just fine to me. Shows what I know. Those decisiosn are above my pay grade.

    I know there is substance to the BABIP & line drive % stuff, and that teams tend to sort of get fairly clumped together by the end of the year. So, I guess the results almost have to get better for Bucs hitters. But, still I wonder sometimes if the science is not that exact yet. Who decides if something was a line drive? Are they measuring the velocity in which it comes off the bat, plus also calculating the arc? Does some guy and his buddies watch every AB and decide? I know I’m quibbling, but some things just make me curious. As for BABIP, I recall one game last year during the infamous Jeff Locke pre-regression surge where I was reading all these tweets from people proclaiming future doom and gloom for him because of BABIP, while I was watching him carve up the Astros. He gave up very few hits in the game, but it seemed a perfectly normal outcome to me because no one on the Astros was able to square up a ball all day long.

    Was it just luck on Locke’s part that he was throwing mediocre pitches and the Astros hitters couldn’t hit them hard? Was he just throwing especially well, and there was no way he could sustain such excellence? There are so many variables going on at the same time that contribute to things in baseball. I buy into the advanced SABR stuff very often, but sometimes when I try to think too deeply about it my brain really hurts. It kind of makes me feel like we are slowly inching toward a point where we can predict so much that we don’t even need to watch the game because we will know exactly what is going to happen in every situation. I’m kidding, of course, but sometimes it feels as though this stuff takes some of the fun out of the old ball game to me. I watched Gaby recently (maybe Saturday?) hit a laser to drive in a couple of runs. I clapped, and my son instantly looked at me and said, “That’s what Gaby does, dad. He murders LHP.” I’ve either taught him too well, or taken some of the enjoyment out of baseball for him. I can’t figure out which just yet. But, it sure is different than when I knew none of this stuff.

  6. NMR says:

    -”It kind of makes me feel like we are slowly inching toward a point where we can predict so much that we don’t even need to watch the game because we will know exactly what is going to happen in every situation.”

    The Pirates are 10-16. The Brewers are 18-6. You can’t predict baseball

    -Andrew is the guy to answer your other questions. Guy knows his sabr stuff better than anyone on the Blog, IMO.

  7. likeabugonarug says:

    Starting 9 thoughts: #9 – The Pirates only have control of Polanco until 2012? Are we entering an anti-time or reverse time vortex somewhere? :-)

    Kevin

  8. Jim S. says:

    Yeah, being so far behind Milwaukee is not something anyone would have predicted for the Bucs this year.

  9. NMR says:

    I do know what you mean, though. I get that feeling around Feb/March of each year. Not much going on but to pour over all the off season’s moves to the point that every one of them looks like a certain win/loss.

    Then they start playing the games and everybody is wrong about everything…or at least it feels that way!

    I’m probably only three or four years into deep sabr stuff. Took me a few years A.L. (after Littlefield) to really buy in. I’ll say that if you follow the same trajectory as I did, you’ll start to be driven mad by the things that don’t seem to add up as they should and end up feeling just as lost as when you didn’t even know this stuff existed.

    Same feelings, but with a sharper focus. Or something like that.

  10. Jim S. says:

    I do really love the advanced metrics for the most part. It’s my nature to analyze the stuffing out of things. But, every once in awhile, I think I might just like to watch the game the way some people do and keep it simpler. But, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. That ship has sailed.

  11. Andrew says:

    As far as I understand Baseball Info Solutions provides the batted ball data for Fangraphs/B-R. They employ people called stringers, so actual individuals who coded the data while the game is occurring, here is a definition I found.

    “A popup rises higher than it travels. At the other extreme, a line drive travels farther horizontally than its peak altitude. And a fly ball is midway between the two. Nobody expects you to actually measure the things; just use your judgment.”

    I remember reading a couple things about bias in the line drive and flyball rate at different parks, that had to do with were the press box was relative to the field and I am not if BIS ever addressed this. So there could definitely be some bias in the percentages however the Pirates have been below average BABIP in every category, with the line drive number being unsustainably low. (2013 average)

    Grounders: Pirates .227 Average .238(.235)
    Flies: Pirates .109 Average .130(.124)
    Line Drives: Pirates .605 Average .688(.684)

  12. brendan says:

    Regarding Polanco’s readiness, this an excerpt from an article over at Baseball Prospectus this morning on the subject:

    “Over the last few days, I have asked multiple veteran scouts about Polanco. After explicitly asking them to identify the fatal flaw that could hold Polanco back, each struggled and could come up only with handling same-side breaking balls; each of them even cautioned that this amounted to nitpicking.”

  13. Jim S. says:

    Thanks, Andrew. You are the best when it comes to this stuff.

    I assume the people doing the observing are doing the best job they can, and probably get 95% of them correct. As long as Tim Neveritt is not one of the stringers, I’m good. I am ok with his announcing. But, I think he struggles with judging how far batted balls are going. :-)

  14. The funny thing about Starling Marte is that his 9:37 BB:K rate is actually better than the 25:138 BB:K mark he posted in 2013. It’s his slugging rate which is flagging, going from .441 to .305. Let’s hope his thumb and/or new contract aren’t factors.

  15. Andrew says:

    I have heard Greg Brown say the PNC is the hardest place to read flyballs. To your point about Locke, BABIP is very volatile one game fluctuations are par for the course, in a no hitter it is obliviously zero, but over a large enough sample like 900 balls in play for a hitter 2000 for a pitcher outliers regress.

    I also completely understand what you are saying above, for me the numbers didn’t really change much of how I watch the game. But they gave me a great appreciation for the role of chance and randomness, which at times can be depressing when you realize there are only some many things you can actually influence.

  16. NMR says:

    And they do say that pitchers have more control over BABIP than hitters, correct?

  17. Andrew says:

    Its the other way around, hitters have more control.

  18. Jim S. says:

    I just noticed the caption under the “god of BABIP.” Hilarious, Travis.

    I wonder how agents bring BABIP into arbitration hearings. Not a high % of players get to the hearing stage these days, it seems. But, I can see an agent saying, “Sure, my client hit only .214 last year. But, he had an unsustainably low BABIP of .246. I think we have to agree he couldn’t catch a break all season.”

  19. Jim S. says:

    I’m sure my dad would say that when I follow the numbers and appreciate their randomness, I am looking to excuse away poor performance. That’s just how he looks at it.

  20. NOT BLINDED BY LAST YEAR says:

    my preseason prediction of being 10 games under 500 by the end of may is halfway there. marte has slightly regressed in driving in runs, walker/pedro still can’t hit lefties. mercer is avg, the pitching staff is not as good.
    the only thing the pirates have done correct since opening day is trade for ike davis and that should have happened before the season, by the way who is the player to be named later????
    polanco wont be called up before june 12 and the pirates will be well below 500 by then. i can see the pirates trading cutch to a contender this july for prime triple a prospects. (they will have 2 capable of in marte/polanco)

  21. Jim S. says:

    Blinded:

    I missed your preseason prediction of the Bucs being 10 games under at the end of May. Where did you predict they would end the season in wins and losses? If they are 10 games under at the end of May, I’m assuming you didn’t have them winning even 70 games.

    Cutch is going to be traded to a contender in July?

  22. NMR says:

    “the only thing the pirates have done correct since opening day is trade for ike davis…”

    This would be true if Ike Davis were actually good at baseball. He is not. And now the Pirates are stuck with him.

  23. Have you seen the stuff ESPN Stats is doing with hard hit balls? They have a stat cooked up, WHAV, which essentially is the percentage of hard hit balls. I guess they don’t differentiate between flyballs, grounders, or liners for WHAV. If it is hit hard it counts. No idea what their methodology is for determining whether a ball is hard hit or not. I just know I saw a list this morning that had several Pirates among the bottom 20 in BABIP on hard hit balls. According to the ESPN stats guy the league avg on hard hit balls is .700. Marte, Cutch, and Walker all in the bottom 30 of unluckiest hitters on hard hit balls.

    Here is the tweet that references it:
    https://twitter.com/msimonespn/status/460796874006335488/photo/1

    Here is a tweet that shows the WHAV leaders and explains the stat. Cutch is 9th.
    https://twitter.com/msimonespn/status/460870452932382721/photo/1

    fyi, double click the image to zoom in on it to see it better

  24. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, NMR

    I can see the justification in holding back Polanco if you think the Pirates’ playoff odds are greatly diminished … but I still think it’s far too early for that.

    And, yes, the defense has been disappointing to date.

    You won’t regret spending a few more dollars on Emerald, I promise

  25. NMR says:

    I appreciate the response, Travis!

  26. Andrew says:

    Good find Hidden,

    I know Trackman database tracks hard hit balls, might be a combination of exit velocity and angle, if only someone had leaked the Hit/Fx algorithm.

  27. Jim S. says:

    Thanks, Hidden. That’s great stuff.

  28. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Andrew

    Line drive BABIP is a more useful tool … and any way you slice it the Pirates have been unlucky.

    Staff has to miss more bats. Somewhat surprised by Volquez’s missing Ks. That was the one thing he consistently brings to the party

  29. Travis Sawchik says:

    Good stuff, HV

  30. Travis Sawchik says:

    Jim,

    On painting and pay grades, I hear you. Nod and say ‘yes’ and ‘looks great’ …. never ‘fine’….

    I think there is subjectivity in the public linedrive and flyball designations. I wish we all had access to HITf/x…..

    I think you bring up an interesting point: Are we stripping too much emotion from the game? We being SABR/nerds. Could be.

  31. Travis Sawchik says:

    What more could Polanco be doing?

    Baseball needs to tear up this Super 2 stipulation. It benefits no one: fans, players, club officials.

  32. Travis Sawchik says:

    Jim,

    Glad you liked it!

    I think traditional stats still rule the day in arbitration hearings … but I’m sure the next wave arbiters will be a bit more numbers savvy

  33. Donald says:

    I blame club officials inviting Barry Bonds to Opening Day for all of this. By welcoming him into PNC Park to celebrate the beginning of 2014, he brought his playoff choking and the ghost of Sid Bream in with him.

  34. NMR says:

    Amen, Travis.

  35. Jim S. says:

    I’ve learned over the years that not only does my wife have much better taste than I do, but it makes for a much more pleasant living arrangement when she gets to exert those “taste” decisions.

  36. NOT BLINDED BY LAST YEAR says:

    JIM S – IT’S UNDER 2014 PREDICTIONS IN MARCH. I HAVE THEM IN 4TH PLACE IN THE DIVISION AND HAVE GIVEN THE REASONS THERE. WHICH PRETTY MUCH IS PLAYING OUT HOW I PREDICTED. MANAGEMENTS BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT IS IN PR AS THEY CONTINUE TO PUT A POOR PRODUCT (4TH WORST MLB RECORD) ON THE FIELD AND PEOPLE STILL THINK THEY WILL WIN. THEY THINK THIS YR IS THE EXCEPTION AND LAST YR WAS THE RULE. 21 YRS SAYS OTHERWISE.

  37. Jim S. says:

    Well, I’m not going to look up your prediction, so I’ll guess at it. if you had them 10 games under after 2 months, that projects to at least 30 games by the end of the season. That would be something like 66-96, at best. I don’t think they’ll end up anywhere near that bad, unless some really bad things happen in the way of injury to guys like Cutch, Walker, Pedro, Liriano, Cole, etc.

    It isn’t just Pirates fans who think they are putting a pretty good product on the field. Most everyone that writes about MLB for a living projected them at better than .500 this year. They have not played well, and I think there is some evidence that maybe they have hit into some tough luck and that could change a bit. Their starting pitching has not been as good as most of us thought it would, but it has not been a disaster (except for Wandy).

    I think they will right the ship and win 85 games, hopefully a couple more. I thought they were closer to a 90 win team than the 94 they ended up with last year, but this is still a competitive team, I think. Not having Taillon to add this summer will hurt, but I think they still have pitching depth. I also think Polanco will help for the last 90-100 games of the year. It will be interesting to see if Davis can hold his own as a hitter, or if Lambo will eventually get another crack at 1b.

    Calling it a poor product right now seems way off to me, but you are entitled to your opinion.

  38. Nate83 says:

    As much as I was hopeful Taillon would have given us everything that Cole gave us last year it just doesn’t always work out that smoothly for young pitchers coming up. I really like what Cumpton has shown. I’m not so sure at the end of the day he won’t give something close to Taillon stat wise. Taillon has the much higher ceiling so in the long run I think he is a much better pitcher but in terms of this year I’m not sure what Taillon would have given them.

  39. NOT BLINDED BY LAST YEAR says:

    I never predicted a final record, I said they would be 10 games under before they were 10 games over they will end up with 70-80 wins. i said pedro would continue to strike out a lot and that he and walker would still not hit lhp. mercer would show he’s not an everyday ss and tabata/snider/sanchez will be their usual inconsistent.
    martin will probably end up being traded depending on how sanchez plays. mccutcheon wont be in pgh by the time his contract ends.
    on this current roster the only players i can see being full time starters somewhere are mccutcheon, marte, martin – walker and pedro would probably be platoon players elsewhere. barmes/mercer/sanchez/davis/tabata/snider would not be playing everyday anywhere else than here.

 
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