All posts by Travis Sawchik

Monday Mop-Up Duty: Holland a worthy target? Does he fit the model? The QO, and more on ‘Cutch

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SOUTH HILLS - Derek Holland wants to remain in Texas but he is very interested in becoming a Pirate, his agent tells told the Trib over the weekend.

“I’d say the Pirates are on our short list,” says Holland’s agent, Michael Martini. “We’d prefer a guaranteed spot, but Derek is not afraid to compete for a job … We’ll see how the market develops, but we would be open to a one-year deal.”

The Pirates have not yet touched base or expressed interest, but it’s early in the offseason.  We know all about the Pirates’ reputation as Pitcher Whisperers.  Players talk. Agents are aware of the Pirates’ ability to help reform pitchers. But should the Pirates be interested in Holland?

Holland’s strikeout rate was a career low 5.6 per nine innings last season.

The Dutch Oven saw his velocity fall to a career low (91.7 mph average fastball vs. 93.1 for his career). Once one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the game, Holland dealt with injuries in 2014 and 2015.

While he has never been a ground-ball pitcher (42.3 percent ground-ball rate), Holland’s ground-ball rate fell to a career-low 38 percent last season.

Holland
Does the rehab shoe fit? (YouTube pic)

 

Moreover, Holland has never had a swing-and-miss breaking ball – a middling 8.4 percent whiff rate for his career – and that fell to 7.9 last season.

So in summary, despite his past success and his left-handedness, this is a player who has not only lost stuff and dealt with injury, but he also doesn’t fit the Pirates’ ideal reclamation model. Even when healthy, this is not the Pirates’ ideal arm.

When you think about Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Edinson Volquez these are pitchers who had plus velocity and who had a swing-and-miss pitch (Liriano’s slider and changuep, Burnett’s curveball and Volquez’s changeup). Each had also shown the history of above average ground-ball rates.

The common thread was their wayward command. As we know, the Jim Benedict-Ray Searage team did an excellent job of ameliorating those command issues.

The Pirates got away from their preferred model last year in signing some fly-ball pitchers. Jon Niese didn’t produce ground-balls like he had in the past and Niese, their greatest  financial commitment made to a pitcher acquired last offseason, didn’t have the velocity or swing-and-miss stuff of previous targets.

The Pirates would do well to try to get back to their preferred model. And Holland probably isn’t the preferred model. Neither is another popular pick, Andrew Cashner, who lacks swing-and-miss stuff.

Brett Anderson better fits the mold, but he has trouble staying on the mound. Ivan Nova better fits the mold but he’s probably going to get three or four years guaranteed.

We know the market is tough for free agent startng pitchers this winter, perhaps that buy-low target can be better found in a trade. We know the Pirates are going to mostly be a younger, homegrown staff next year but the club would still benefit from a veteran presence. And the Pirates would do well to acquire one, and get back to their model.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ON THE QO AND ‘CUTCH …

>>Today marks the deadline for players to accept qualifying offers. FOXSports reporter extraordinaire Ken Rosenthal opines the qualifying offer – which is set at $17.2 million this year – should go. Rosenthal has some ideas how to fix the system.

Rosenthal argues the QO is unfair to teams, namely small-market ones as the QO takes up a much larger percentage of payroll. (The Pirates did not extend a QO to Burnett after the 2013 season out of fear he would accept it… the last player they extended it to was Russell Martin. The club probably wouldn’t have extended it to Mark Melancon, I suspect) It also hurts the market for players who are attached to draft-pick compensation in the form of the signing team losing a first- or second-round pick.  It will be interesting to see what happens with the on-going CBA talks.

FWIW, Melancon is not eligible to be tagged with the QO since he was traded mid-season and did not spend a full year with the Nationals.

>>Of course, as Rosenthal also notes, there are bigger fish to fry in the CBA talks: the luxury tax, revenue sharing and international draft. I’ve been arguing what the players should really fight for is a salary-spending floor for owners but that doesn’t appear to be on the radar.

>>Pirates GM Neal Huntington told the Associated Press at the GM meetings last week teams are calling on Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates are apparently listening:

“They recognize that we haven’t been averse to moving guys as their contract nears expiration. It’s a part of how we believe we need to do things to continue to be competitive and continue to give ourselves a shot to win.”

On the surface this seems to be a change in public position when Huntington suggested McCutchen was to be part of the club’s future back in the summer.

>>If there is a McCutchen trade, it could be nearer the summer’s trade deadline than this offseason. By waiting, the Pirates could perhaps better  maximize value. After all, McCutchen could get off to a better offensive start, and a change in  defensive positioning (i.e. playing deeper) could perhaps lessen his defensive liabilities.

Moreover, noted Huntington: “In other deals that we’ve done, we’ve ended up getting as much, if not more, around the trade deadline that we would have in the prior offseason because at the trade deadline there (are) few players available. There’s more angst about competing.”

 >>Now, the Pirates did trade Neil Walker at the winter meetings last December in Nashville. And if the Pirates want to trade McCutchen for, say, a mid-rotation piece then they might prefer to make a deal this winter. But  the Pirates can wait to trade McCutchen. Another benefit to waiting is the Pirates can gain a clearer picture in regard to making a decision on whether to ask for prospects or MLB-ready pieces in return.
>>The risk in trading McCutchen? He could be the club’s best hitter next season. This is a prideful athlete that is going to want to bounce back.
>>If McCutchen is traded this offseason it seems Josh Bell would likely shift to right, Starling Marte to center and Gregory Polanco to left. If McCutchen was traded in say June or July, scouts believe Austin Meadows will be ready and he can fit in left.

 

THEY SAID IT

Players react to the presidential election …

Don’t worry, this is a politics-free zone. But I would say many, if not the majority, of US-born players trend conservative as many are from warm-weather states, particularly across the Southeast. There would have been some interesting discussions in clubhouses had the election happened in midseason. Best for clubhouse unity that it did not.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 12.5 million

Dollars the 43-year-old Bartolo Colon will earn this year to pitch for the Atlanta Braves.

Yeah, it’s a good time to throw baseballs to make a living. But what are the Braves doing? Apparently trying to soak up some innings, but why pay eight figures for an innings eater? Colon is not the addition that’s going to sell tickets for the club’s new stadium.

-TS

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Report: Pirates explored trading McCutchen … And the risk of long-term commitment (to FA pitchers)

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SOUTH HILLS – According to Ken Rosenthal, the Pirates explored trading Andrew McCutchen to the Nationals at the non-waiver trade deadline.

The Pirates were willing to sell low on Francisco Liriano at the Aug. 1 deadline, and the club was also apparently willing to do the same with McCutchen.

(And if the Pirates were willing to trade McCutchen in July, why not this offseason when his value should be up after a solid offensive finish to the year? – Of course, McCutchen could very well again be the club’s best offensive performer.)

Reported Rosenthal: “The talks, while unlikely to revive because of differences in McCutchen’s perceived value, amount to the strongest indication yet that the Pirates are willing to move their five-time All-Star and franchise player…. The Nationals’ top outfield prospect, Victor Robles, 19, was one Pirates target, sources said. But the Pirates wanted more than just the Class A outfielder for McCutchen, and a number of other players would have been involved.

The Pirates figure to make relatively modest moves in free agency this offseason, but the trade market figures to be more active across the game due to the thinness of the market. And McCutchen is the one big piece the Pirates could consider moving. There are undoubtedly teams that will be curious in adding McCutchen.

The question is how the Pirates and other clubs value McCutchen … and whether the Pirates would focus on prospects or major league talent for The Face of the Franchise.

McCutchenStil
We could all be on McCutchen Watch this offseason (Horner photo)

In speaking with the Tribune-Review last month, GM Neal Huntington said the Pirates could trade from position player depth to address the rotation. And the Pirates have outfield depth.

 

Stay tuned….

 

 

PAUSE ON THAT DESIRE FOR A STARTING PITCHER

So you want to the Pirates to sign a proven, quality starting pitcher?

I get it.

There is plenty of unknown after Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon in the rotation. Maybe Chad Kuhl can build upon his 2016. Maybe Tyler Glasnow can better harness his stuff and control the run game. Maybe Steven Brault or Trevor Williams can stick in the back of the rotation. There’s a lot of maybes, ifs, and we’ll sees, but the good news is there internal, young options.

Still, I understand the desire to see a solid veteran option in the rotation.

After all, among the 2013-15 playoff teams’ rotations there were at least two quality veterans in each group: Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett in 2013, Edinson Volquez and Liriano in 2014, and Burnett, Liriano and J.A. Happ in 2015.

On one hand, Neal Huntington is correct when he says teams challenged with lesser payrolls have to develop their own arms. It’s true to sustain success the Pirates have to find cheap, quality options for the rotation.

But on the other hand, it’s difficult to fill all voids internally. This is where it helps to be in a large market and/or to have ownership willing to spend at a more competitive level.

But despite the success of J.A. Happ, despite the desire of some to want Ivan Nova to remain in Pittsburgh …

…  we should pause and consider the history of pitchers signed to multi-year contacts.

Consider this research from our free agency preview story Monday:

The Tribune-Review analyzed ESPN.com‘s database of all free agent pitchers who signed contracts of three-plus years from 2006-13. Of the 130 player seasons studied, pitchers totaled 239.4 wins above replacement, or 1.84 WAR per season (a star-level pitcher will produce 4-plus WAR).

Of the 130 seasons covered, only 33 times did a pitcher produce a season of 3-plus WAR.

Then consider how quickly a pitcher signed to a multiyear contract can decline. In the first year of those multiyear agreements, the 32 pitchers studied combined for 85.1 WAR, but that fell to 62.2 WAR in the second year and 53.1 WAR in the third.

And for such middling production, those 32 pitchers were guaranteed $1.86 billion.

For as good as Happ was in the first year of his contract, he could suffer significant regression going forward.

See: Liriano, Francisco.

As good as the first five years of the seven-year C.C. Sabathia contract were for the Yankees, more multi-year deals than not fail to produce surplus value (actual wages subtracted from performance value).

Consider the four-year, $47 million contract Jason Schmidt signed with the Dodgers in 2007. He went on to produce 0.4 WAR over the life of the contract. Jason Vargas signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Royals and produced 0.7 WAR. I guess this isn’t the right time to ask Theo Esptein about the four-year, $52 million deal he gave to Edwin Jackson back in 2013.

There are far more misses than hits in regard to lucrative, long-term contracts for pitchers.

The Pirate Way has of course been in part about avoiding multi-year contracts to pitchers. Only Liriano has received one of significance, and he was a pitcher the Pirates knew well. But in the second year of that deal, the Pirates so wanted to be rid of Liriano that they sold low on him and dumped his salary  at the trade deadline in the midst of the second year of his three-year, $39 million deal.

The Pirates will likely continue to seek bounce-back, reclamation projects on one-year deals. MLB Trade Rumors predicts of their top 50 free available free agents the Pirates will sign, one, Andrew Cashner to a one-year, $8 million deal.The problem is more and more teams are identifying the same reclamation pitchers to target. Still, there is the old adage that goes like this: there is no  such thing as a bad one-year contract.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Bargain shopping…. And some fun with 2017 projections

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SOUTH HILLS – Free agency opens at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday when free agents can begin signing with other teams, but you shouldn’t expect the Pirates to make a free agent splash.

Ivan Nova is considered one of the top starting pitchers available. Given the need for starting pitching across the game, and the historic thinness of this class, expect the Pirates to spend elsewhere and again spread their modest budget over multiple players, searching for value.

nOvaRain
Is Ivan Nova going to walk away? (Yeah, probably) Horner photo

 

So who should the Pirates target? Let’s focus on two need areas: right-handed relief arms and starting pitching.

Among the Pirates’ own free agents, Neftali Feliz is the only player I suspect that could be undervalued and also  fills a need. As I wrote last week, Feliz could be undervalued because his HR/FB rate was at a career high last season (19.6% compared to a 8.8% career rate)  and his infield pop-up rate was at a career low. This despite his fastball velocity picking back up to 96.1 mph.

It all means Feliz was probably better than his final line suggests, a bit unlucky, and his final line of 10.2 Ks per nine and a 3.52 ERA was solid.

Add in his injury at the end of the season, and Feliz’s value could be somewhat suppressed.

The Pirates could use a right-handed impact arm in the bullpen to go along with Juan Nicasio. But Kenley Jansen could earn $100 million in free agency and is out of the club’s price range. Mark Melancon is going to get paid but probably not by the Pirates. Feliz could be a relative bargain compared to the top of the relief market.

Other right-handed bullpen options? Even at 41 years old, Koji Uehara still struck out 12 per nine while walking just two last season. He will not receive a long-term contract. He is coming off a two-year, $18 million deal. The NL has little experience with him – but he could also perhaps retire. If the Pirates are looking for a multi-inning, right-handed reliever, a reunion with Joe Blanton makes some sense. Blanton has revitalized his career in a relief role and won’t break the bank. Greg Holland was an elite reliever as recently as 2015, but he’s coming off an injury and poor season. He is holding a showcase today

But the Pirates’ most glaring weakness in 2016 was, of course, their starting pitching.

We’ve discussed the thinness of the market. It’s ugly as you can see from the list here. It makes little sense for the Pirates – or any team – to overpay for these top-of-the market options, though if you’re going to overpay for one, Rich Hill gives you the best chance at top-of-the rotation numbers. He’s going to get Scott Kazmir money, and he’s an unlikely bet to pitch 180-plus inning.

Still, even if not competing for one of the best options in a weak market, the Pirates could use a veteran presence. The problem is the market for reclamation project types is becoming more competitive as teams have more analysts and more data to mine. More teams are thinking more and more the same way.

So where could the Pirates find value? The Pirates were interested in Trevor Cahill last offseason and he posted a sub-3.00 ERA and a 55 percent ground ball rate with the Chicago Cubs in a relief role. The Pirates lost some of their ground-ball edge last season. He could be an interesting rotation fit. Derek Holland has struggled the last two years in Texas, but he’s left-handed with plus fastball velocity from the left side. He’s had his option declined and some think he should be begging to pitch in Pittsburgh. Brett Anderson was hurt and awful in 11 innings in 2016. But he is a left-handed ground ball specialist (perfect fit for PNC Park and the Pirates). And he was extended a qualifying offer as recently as last fall. If he could stay healthy he could provide cheap production. He produced 60-plus percent ground ball rates in 2014 and 2015.

Who do you like as a potential rebound candidate?

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>This could be the first offseason in which the Pirates consider going forward without Andrew McCutchen. This has been a frequent talking point since the summer. The biggest issue with McCutchen, of course, is his defensive decline. He was rated as the worst defender in baseball according to Defensive Runs Saved (-28) . But McCutchen might not be as poor as the defensive metrics suggested because of the outfield positioning wrote MLB.com Mike Petriello at the end of the season.

“Is it possible that McCutchen’s poor defensive ratings are only partially about his own performance? It was well-reported early in the year that the Pirates intended to play their outfielders shallower, in part because the grounder-heavy Bucs staff allowed flies and liners to go only an average of 285 feet last year, tied for the second shortest in baseball, and allowed the second-highest average against (.482) on those balls. (A side benefit would also allow McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco shorter throws to prevent baserunners from advancing.) Indeed, McCutchen’s average of 306 feet from home plate is tied with Denard Span and Michael Taylor for the shallowest of the 88 center fielders who have been on the field for 1,000 pitches — after he played relatively deeply last year.

“…. That’s great for preventing bloop singles, but it does leave a fielder more vulnerable to balls that go over McCutchen’s head, and those are more likely to be damaging extra-base hits — it’s the exact reason that the Cubs pushed Dexter Fowler deeper. Fowler, in his eighth full Major League season, has his first positive DRS score.”

>>If McCutchen is in the Opening Day lineup, I suspect he’ll be playing deeper in the outfield. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said outfield alignment will be examined again this offseason. (Starling Marte’s performance stayed stable despite playing shallower in 2016. Gregory Polanco declined from 12 DRS in 2015 to 2 last season)

>>Still, McCutchen is in a four-year defensive decline, according to the numbers, and is a player in a four-year speed decline, according to just about every measure of speed.

>>It should be a quiet awards season for the Pirates but Marte is deserving of a second straight Gold Glove in left as he led NL outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved.

SOME FUN WITH PROJECTIONS FROM THE 2017 BILL JAMES HANDBOOK …

I’m a big fan of projections. They’re fun and can be useful tools. And some of the first projections for 2017 – those from the Bill James Handbook – are out. Let’s take a look at some Pirates-related forecasts …

>>The reason to keep McCutchen? His bat. It rebounded in the second half, and according to the James projections, McCutchen will hit 24 homers with an .857 OPS next season, a .285/.379/.478 slash line. According to the projections, he’ll be the club’s best hitter.

>>Kang is projected to hit 26 home runs with an .850 OPS. Marte? 14 homers, 40 steals, and an .801 OPS. Gregory Polanco? 16 homers and a .772 OPS.

>>Austin Meadows projects to post .801 OPS and seven homers in 174 plate appearances. That’s an impressive projection.

>>Josh Bell? An .818 OPS. .297 average and 14 homers. Bell is going to hit. Now about the glove …

>>Some good news in regarding to pitching: James projects Gerrit Cole to bounce back with a 3.36 ERA over 201 innings. Jameson Taillon? A 3.16 ERA over 174 innings. That would be a quality 1-2 punch.

>>According to the Bill James handbook, Tyler Glasnow projects to lead the NL in walks next season (105 in 169 innings … yikes). But James also projects Glasnow to strike out 202 and post a 3.51 ERA. The Pirates would sign up for that line despite its inherent frustrations and high pitch counts it would entail.

>>Ivan Nova? A 4.17 ERA over 179 innings.

>>Rich Hill? A 3.02 ERA over 120 innings.

>>Cahill? A 4.50 ERA over 60 innings as a reliever.

HE SAID IT

“What’s interesting is as we entered each season, from 2013 to 2015, the knock was we didn’t have enough starting pitching, we were lacking starting pitching. I’m anticipating that will be the knock of the 2017 club. … Rarely will a small-market, small-revenue team go out and sign a top-of-the market starting pitcher. The ones that are successful develop their own or trade for (younger pitching).”

-Pirates GM Neal Huntington

STAT OF THE WEEK: $10.2 million

The average annual value of contracts signed by free agent pitchers last season … and the market isn’t going to become any more favorable for teams, Huntington believes.

-TS

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Can the Pirates thwart a Cubs dynasty? … And the best bargain among Pirates free agents

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SOUTH HILLS – The Chicago Cubs ended their curse on Wednesday night, and unfortunately for the Pirates and the rest of the NL, the Cubs are going to open 2017 as favorites again to win the World Series. (And maybe in 2018 and 2019 …)

As Dave Cameron writes at Fangraphs, this is how dynasties begin.

And as Cameron reports, part of the reason the Cubs look like a dynasty is they rank first in MLB in plate appearances by 25-and-under players (gulp). That young position player core is as good as advertised. The Cubs led baseball in Wins Above Replacement produced by position players (38.7).

The Pirates’ position players were worth 18.6, not poor, but a 20-win gap.

The Pirates are living in the wrong neighborhood.

cubschamp
Can anyone stop these guys? (AP photo)

The Cubs were also the best fielding and pitching team in the NL this season. Their lineup and staff will remain largely intact, though some key players like Aroldis Chapman and Dexter Fowler are free agents.

(Free agents can begin signing with other teams on Tuesday).

There are  not a lot of weaknesses to dissect, here, though we discussed one in this space back in September:

The one area where the Pirates have to hope to have a home-grown talent advantage (over the Cubs) is in their rotation. (Jake) Arrieta is a free agent after 2017. (Jon) Lester is 32. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher prospect ranked in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list.

To close the gap with the Cubs, to have any shot at winning a division in future years, the Pirates are going to have to draft and develop pitching better than the Cubs.

And with Jameson Taillon‘s arrival, the potential of Tyler Glasnow, and Mitch Keller’s breakout, there is hope for the franchise that the Pirates can build a quality, homegrown staff. We saw the beginnings of the possibility this summer.

About the only area where the Cubs have struggled is finding and developing homegrown arms. Lester isn’t getting any younger, and Arrieta will be a free agent after next season. While the Cubs fielded the youngest position player team this season, but they ranked last in baseball in batters faced by pitchers 25 and younger. (And middle of the pack  – 14th – in batters faced by pitchers 26-30, according to Fangraphs.com).

The Cubs are going to have to fill many upcoming pitching voids externally it seems. That could be expensive, though they have the resources to accomplish it.

To contend with the Cubs, the Pirates are going to have to look a lot like the Cleveland Indians, which have a young and talented starting pitching staff. (If Cleveland starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were at full health, the Indians would likely World Series champs).

Of course it’s difficult to fill every pitching void through draft and development. And we all have heard about the weakness of the starting free agent class. So to fill voids, the Pirates might be best served by exploring the trade market. After all, that’s how Game 7 starters Corey Kluber and Kyle Hendricks were acquired, in addition to other Cubs and Indian stalwart arms  like Arrieta and Carrasco.

The Cubs are probably going to come back to the pack a bit in 2017. Regression is a natural thing. It’s difficult to win 100-plus games. But with mild regression, they could still be the best team in baseball.

To close the gap, the Pirates are going have to rise up to meet Chicago, of course, and that improvement must begin off the mound, largely with homegrown talent.

After all, the Cubs made their big bets in the draft on position players. The Pirates on arms. The Cubs’ philosophy could be the bedrock of a dynasty. That Pitch-22 philosophy has to pay off for the Pirates to remain competitive throughout the remainder of the decade, a decade that threatens to be that of the Cubs.

WHAT FREE AGENT DO YOU WANT TO SEE BACK?

Free agents can begin signing with other clubs next week and until then clubs have an exclusive negotiating period with their own free agents, though most free agents opt to test the open market.

We know the Pirates want Ivan Nova back, and have extended multi-year offers, but since he’s going to be one of the top options available in free agency he will be difficult to retain.

But he’s not the only free agent of note …

Sean Rodriguez

Rodriguez put up an .859 OPS and has really hit since the middle of 2015. Oh, he can also play seven defensive positions, and most of them well. I’m not sure if he would have been open to a David Freese-like extension, but he’s the more valuable, versatile player and finished fourth on the team in WAR (1.9). He’s going to be tough to retain and the Pirates might opt for cheaper, internal bench options. (Though you could argue Rodriguez has played well enough to be considered a starter somewhere … shortstop, second base … somewhere).

Matt Joyce

Joyce’s revamped swing, that includes more loft and power, is for real. He has a blend of patience and power that will probably make him a platoon partner for a team other than the Pirates. He’s probably going to be in search of more playing time and dollars than the Pirates are unwilling to pay. He produced 1.3 WAR in a part time role.

Neftali Feliz

Feliz was a quality buy-low sign by the Pirates. He struck out 10.3 batters per nine, and produced a 3.52 ERA. Not elite numbers, but he added value. While Nova, Rodriguez and Joyce may have over-performed, Feliz might have underperformed as his in-field pop-up rate (15.4 percent) was below the rates of his last four years when he was 19.6 percent or better.

He produced a career-worst 19.6 percent HR/FB rate. His career average is 8.8

The Pirates know Feliz’s injury better than anyone and given that uncertainty and his career-worst IFFB and HR/FB – and the return of his fastball velocity (96.1 mph) – he could be the best bargain among the Pirates’ eligible free agents.

Given that fact and the Pirates need a right-handed power arm to go along with Juan Nicasio, perhaps he is the best bet to return.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: To tender or not to tender

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SOUTH HILLS – MLB Trade Rumors published its popular, and typically reasonably accurate, arbitration projections today.

The decisions of whom to tender contracts, and whom to not, are often the first major decisions made by clubs entering the offseason. (The non-tender deadline is Dec. 2 and the winter meetings begin Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.).

Last offseason, the Pirates elected to tender contacts to Mark Melancon and Neil Walker – who was subsequently traded – but declined to tender Pedro Alvarez, who was projected to earn $8 million in arbitration. (Alvarez signed a one-year, $5.8 million deal with Baltimore). Those were the major tender decisions.

This offseason, the Pirates have eight players eligible for arbitration. The following are the MLBTR projections:

  • Tony Watson (5.101) – $5.9M
  • Juan Nicasio (5.084) – $4.6M
  • Jared Hughes (4.162) – $2.5M
  • Jordy Mercer (4.095) – $4.0M
  • Jeff Locke (4.020) – $4.2M
  • Drew Hutchison (3.165) – $2.2M
  • Wade LeBlanc (3.131) – $1.6M
  • Gerrit Cole (3.111) – $4.2M

Cole is a lock to be tendered. And I suspect Watson, Nicasio and Mercer are as well, though Merer is beginning to become expensive for a shortstop the advanced metrics don’t love.

Nicasio2
Given his production as a reliever, and the Pirates’ need for right-handed arms in the bullpen, Nicasio seems like a slam-dunk to be tendered (AP photo)

 

Hutchison didn’t pitch like he’s a sure-fire tender, but he was the only piece the Pirates received in Francisco Liriano trade, and he at least offers rotation depth.

So that’s five players that seem likely to be tendered who will account for $20.9 million in salary in 2017, according to MLBTR projections.

As for the others?

LeBlanc seems like an unlikely tender candidate. Locke has always seemed like a likely non-tender, though the thinness of the free agent pitching market could perhaps change that assessment.

Perhaps the toughest decision is with Hughes, one of nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and until 2016, one of the better ground-ball pitchers you’ll find out of a bullpen. Will the Pirates be willing to pay Hughes $2.5 million or so based upon his struggles in 2015?

Who should be tendered? Who should go?

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Baseball and the players union believe they can keep labor peace and avoid a work stoppage. Joel Sherman of the NY Post it is possible the previous CBA rules could be rolled over for at least this offseason.”

This will be interesting to follow. That means the qualifying offer would remain in place. The qualifying offer is expected to jump from $15.8 million to $16.7 million this winter. Sherman reports both sides have discussed changes to the QO system, including shedding draft pick compensation.

The QO has suppressed the markets for a number of players that have had it attached to them.

>>Players (and large-market owners) would be wise to focus on the creation of a spending floor.

>>The Pirates coaching staff changes seem to be made with progress in mind. Joey Cora was regarded well for his work in Double-A, and is a former right-hand man of former White Sox manager Ozzie GuillenKimera Bartee, 44, is on the younger side for a major league coach and that injection of relative youth is a good thing, I suspect.

>>Connor Joe is hitting .192 in Arizona League play, but Edgar Santana has not allowed a run. Check out what some of the Pirates prospects are doing out in Arizona here.

>>Interesting discussion from Charlie Wilmoth on potential trade targets over at BucsDugout.com:

“I was talking to Tim Dierkes about this earlier this week, and he mentioned Tyson Ross, Drew Smyly and a few others as pitchers who could become available at reasonable prospect prices because of their increasing salaries. Ross, of course, spent most of the year on the DL and recently had surgery to relieve thoracic outlet syndrome, so his health is obviously an enormous question mark. He made $9.6 million in 2016 and appears set to make a similar amount in 2017; perhaps that’s too much for a team that just dumped Francisco Liriano’s contract. I’ve been pointing to Ross for years, though, as the sort of pitcher the Pirates would probably love to have around. Someone like Smyly, who only made $3.8 million last season, might be a more realistic target.”

One other name that came up? That of Shelby Miller.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 25-1

You are probably aware that power spiked across the game in 2016.

In 2015, MLB-wide isolated slugging was .150, slugging percentage sat at .405 and HR/FB percentage to 11.2. percent.

In 2016, isolated slugging rose to .162, slugging percentage to .417 and HR/FB percentage to 12.8 percent.

And in the postseason, where there are typically fewer mistakes made due to superior pitching, maximizing mistakes is important.

The Pirates would do well to find a way to add more power in 2017. (Power is a case in favor of keeping Andrew McCutchen). Consider:

 STAT OF THE WEEK II: 15.3

The Indians-Cubs Game 5 pulled in a 15.3 rating, which was 32 percent better than the 11.6 rating for the Monday Nigh Football game, according to Sports Business Journal.

HE SAID IT

“All three of these moves will enhance the consistency and cohesiveness, top to bottom and bottom to top, and that was something that was very important to Clint as we went through this offseason …. All three of these guys, in a different way, bring an edge and a sense of urgency to the club.”

-Neal Huntington to hMLB.com on the Pirates coaching changes

HE SAID IT II

“I’m optimistic as well. he good thing is everyone understands and appreciates the issues.”

-Tony Clark, the MLBPA president to the NY Post on CBA talks.

– TS

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Where to play Josh Bell? And can Rivero be Miller Lite?

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SOUTH HILLS – As impressive as Josh Bell was at the plate as a rookie, we all know about the defensive issues.

As I made note of Monday, John Jaso – according to WAR – was more valuable than Bell in 2016 due to Bell’s defensive issues.

After initially being used exclusively at first base after his call-up, Bell began to play more in right field later in the season, his natural position.

But according to Defensive Runs Saved, Bell was actually worse in the outfield than as a first baseman.

     Innings        Defensive Runs Saved

1B      150 1/3         -3

RF     108 1/3         -5

After the Pirates initially seemed intent on making Bell exclusively a first baseman, the team later pivoted to keeping all their options open with Bell.

Said Bell to MLB.com’s Adam Berry: “That’s going to be my main focus, making sure I’m more versatile next year. You have a few guys in every lineup that can play all over the field. Those guys are your most valuable players. I hope to be one of those guys next year.”

Said manager Clint Hurdle at the close of the season about Bell in the outfield:

“We have some ideas for his throwing mechanics. They’ve started to get in place. Some new things we are talking about at the major league level to give him to work on in the offseason going into next year … One of the nice things to revisit is the flexibility to play in the infield and the outfield and see how that plays out. At first base he’s showed the ability to lay out and get some balls. Then there’s been some plays show up you expect more. It’s all about work. It’s all about effort. He’s going to give you the work and the effort. You have to like the battle in the box. Sometimes you have to give to get and our thoughts and beliefs are we can help him improve defensively. … Our challenge is being a groundball team we get a lot more opportunities than some teams do.  We have to be creative and think outside the box.”

With Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco under contract and Austin Meadows close to arriving, regardless of what the Pirates do with Andrew McCutchen the Pirates don’t need Bell as an outfielder in the long term.

JoshBell
Bell showed early he can hit. Now where should he play in the field? (Horner photo)

Bell ideally would fit at first base as an everyday player. As a switch-hitter, Bell would eliminate the need for a first base platoon, which the Pirates have been employing since 2013. That would essentially free up a 25-man roster spot. And by focusing on one position, ideally, a player develops more skill at that position.

But the ground-ball nature of the Pirates’ staff complicates defensive issues at first base. And the Pirates are a team, I believe, that has tried to better understand the value of first base defense (such as the ability to scoop and pick throws, etc). Perhaps it would be easier to hide Bell in right field at PNC Park. And if, say, McCutchen was traded this offseason the Pirates would need an outfielder until Meadows is ready.

What will be curious to follow is if Bell’s outfield defense – everything from routes to throwing arm – improves next season if he indeed spends more time in the outfield. Bell was playing about once a week in the outfield during the minor league season.

Bell is kind of like the Pirates’ Kyle Schwarber. A big bat without a defensive home.  The bat will play but where will the glove do the least damage? Where does the glove fit on a team that has experienced a four-year decline in defensive ability? How do the Pirates mix and match with Jaso, David Freese and Bell? It will be an interesting story to follow.

CAN RIVERO BE MILLER LITE?

It’s been fun to watch Cleveland manager Terry Francona creatively employ Andrew Miller, one of the top relief arms in the game, this postseason. It will be interesting to see if this has ripple effect throughout baseball next season, if more managers are more creative in employing their top relief arms.

It should perhaps have the Pirates considering how to use their best reliever, which projects to be Felipe Rivero.

For a team in search of wins and value at the margins, bringing Rivero in in critical situations at any point in the game could and should improve the Pirates’ win probability. Miller has shown that relievers will not melt if they are moved out of traditional roles.

It will be interesting to see if Hurdle eventually departs from traditional thought regarding the bullpen the same way he has with defensive alignment. (Though with three power lefties, Hurdle could use Rivero as a lefty relief ace and simply keep Tony Watson in the closer role).

Now, there are other factors at play when considering bullpen roles – like players’ salaries in arbitration enhanced by saves recorded – but it is something to watch. It has always made sense to move away from traditional, defined roles. And now there is a model to follow.

-TS

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Monday Mop-up Duty: the coaching staff void (and opportunity)

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SOUTH HILLS – That Rick Sofield was fired last week shouldn’t be all that surprising. Charged with overseeing base-running, and as the key traffic cop on the field as the third base coach, the Pirates have taken a step back on the bases the last two seasons (see: charts below).

Some mishaps were glaring, including this inexplicable decision (with video) from September.

But the overall decline in performance, and some areas of decline, were surprising given the Pirates felt team speed was a strength.

The Pirates’ percentage of extra bases taken (35 %), ranked 27th in the sport last season. While Sofield was criticized for running players into outs, the Pirates were actually more conservative at times on the base paths under Sofield than former third base coach Nick Leyva, who was demoted from the major league staff. I asked Sofield about the decline back in July.

With athletes like Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison, it’s surprising the Pirates were not more efficient on the base paths.

Sofield
Rick Sofield’s aggressiveness ultimately cost him his job it appears. (Horner photo)

 

Clint Hurdle shifted Sofield from coaching first base to third base  after the 2014 season.

The idea, Hurdle said at the time, was to be more aggressive in using what he thought was an advantage in team speed. The switch didn’t work as the Pirates declined in base-running efficiency, falling from being about five runs above average in 2014 to -7 this last season.

That 12-run decline is equivalent to 1.2 wins. (10 runs = 1 win).

While not insignificant, it’s hardly the key culprit for the Pirates’ 2016 season. So in that way Sofield seems something like a scapegoat.

But on the other hand, just as the Chicago Cubs have become creative in regard to expanding their coaching staff and inventing new roles, jettisoning Sofield and Leyva from the major league staff could also signal Pirates are looking at an idea larger than base-running inefficiency.

 

PIRATES BASE-RUNNING B(U)Y THE NUMBERS

2016

  • Fangraphs.com Baserunning above average: (-7) 23rd
  • Outs at home plate (21) t-4th most
  • Outs at third (14) t-8th most
  • Outs at second (20) t-6th most
  • Extra bases taken (35 pct.) 27th
  • Stolen base pct. (71 pct). League average: 72 percent

2015

  • Fangraphs.com Baserunning above average: (2.8) 12th
  • Outs at home plate (22) t-6th most
  • Outs at third (15) t-5th most
  • Outs at second (16) t-14th most
  • Extra bases taken (41 pct.) t-9th
  • Stolen base pct. (69 pct). League average: 70 percent

2014

  • Fangraphs.com Baserunning above average: (4.7) 6th
  • Outs at home plate (19) t-9th most
  • Outs at third (17) 4th most
  • Outs at second (10) t-29th most
  • Extra bases taken (40 pct.) t-15th
  • Stolen base pct. (69 pct). League average: 70 percent

 

In a sport where clubs are always looking to exploit inefficiencies, major league coaching staffs have largely avoided significant study and change. They’ve largely been filled by traditional candidates and familiar faces.

Major league coaches, by and large, are gray-haired former players and long-time professional coaches. Perhaps it’s an area where clubs, like the Pirates, should be creative in choosing out-of-the box, inspired choices that can add value to some area of performance and strategy.

Consider the background of the Cubs’ “run prevention coordinator” in this SI story, which we discussed in this space a couple weeks ago.

“For the (defensive) coordinator position—unofficially, the Run Prevention Coordinator—Theo Epstein hired Tommy Hottovy, then 33, in December 2014. Hottovy pitched in 17 major league games in 10 professional seasons before blowing out his shoulder in Cubs spring training camp in ’14. While rehabbing his shoulder that summer, Hottovy, who graduated from Wichita State in ’04 with a degree in business administration and a minor in economics, took a Sabermetrics 101 online course from Boston University….. Hottovy is the bridge between the back-office analytical wonks and the on-field staff. He analyzes the vast amounts of numerical and video data as well as charting his own observations.”

The Pirates perhaps shouldn’t look to just improve base running in replacing Sofield and Leyva, but for new voices and perspectives that can influence the club in other ways.

Everything needs to be under the microscope and rethought in today’s game. The wins at the margins are so valuable. Maximizing a major league coaching staff and assistant coaches is perhaps a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>For those that believe the Pirates have to make a splash on a significant free agent starting pitcher his offseason, keep in mind Corey Kluber ($4.7 million) is the highest paid Indians’ starting arm. The Indians’ model is similar to the Pirates’ belief that starting pitching either has to be drafted and developed, or traded for before it breaks out at the major league level. (The Indians traded for Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco).

Even if the Pirates sign a mid-rotation starter, their best bet to find an impact arm is from within.

>>There’s some belief the Toronto Blue Jays should begin to rebuild. If so, might it behoove the Pirates to make a call on J.A. Happ?

>>Just think the Cubs have done all this without Kyle Schwarber and with Jason Heyward having a dreadful offensive season. The only weakness the Cubs have, I believe, is a lack of elite home-grown pitching in the pipeline. The Pirates and the rest of the division have to hope the Cubs’ staff is not as efficient next season.

The Cubs’ healthy rotation gives them a significant edge in the World Series.

>>If Theo Epstein really wants to show us something his next job should be in Denver.

>>A player with the range and arm of Javy Baez can make second base an impact defensive position. Josh Harrison is owned $17 million over the next two seasons, and after 1.3 and 1.5 WAR seasons it’s not a great contract from the club’s perspective. But he was worth +8 Defensive Runs Saved in 2016. He has good range and athleticism. But is Harrison best utilized as a second baseman or a super utility player? It will be interesting to see how the Pirates utilize Harrison and Adam Frazier in the spring.

>>Interesting thoughts from Triple-A manager Dean Treanor to our Andrew Erickson on Josh Bell’s performance after being sent down to Triple-A following is remarkable debut this season:

“It’s a dynamic I think we need to address more, not only as Pirates but as an industry that there is a dynamic of somebody coming back and how they feel mentally when they get back, what they go through mentally being sent out. I don’t think you can have a better debut than Josh. I really don’t think you can. So what more can you do, and yet they still try to do more. But it’s a dynamic that I think everybody goes through, and I think it’s different for everybody, but mentally I don’t think we really talk about it enough or explore it enough of what we can really do to help these guys more.”

>>I’m still curious to see what would have happened if the Pirates simply stuck with Bell and the hot hand back in July. The decision to demote him seemed of rigid thinking.

STAT OF THE WEEK: -0.4

Bell’s WAR in 2016. That defense is a problem.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 0.6

John Jaso’s WAR. Just sayin’

HE SAID IT

“We don’t pull any money out of the franchise. So we will continue to reinvest all topline revenues back into the product, and we define the product as player development, scouting and the major-league payroll, everything that goes into what (general manager) Dick (Williams) does to put the team on the field as well as the game-day experience at Great American Ball Park.”

Reds COO Phil Castellini, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. after the club signed a new 15-year TV deal with FOX Sports Ohio. Not many details were released, but the Reds will have an equity stake in the deal.

HE SAID IT II

“It was a difficult decision, but we felt it was the right time to make this change on our major league staff.”

-Neal Huntington on the Sofield firing

HE SAID IT III

Said Sofield, a good man, to the Trib of his firing. “I was blindsided. I’m so heartbroken … but you’ve got to respect people doing what they think is best for the organization. I had a great time in Pittsburgh. If I let anybody down, I’m sorry.”

-TS

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Payroll size is one thing, allocating it is another

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SOUTH HILLS – You might not like the budget the Pirates’ front office has to work with, but the front office has to work with it. Until/if MLB puts mechanisms in place to create a payroll floor, the budget likely is what it is.

The Pirates’ front office will again likely work with a relatively modest budget this offseason, complicating efforts to improve the club coming off a 78-win season.

HIll
The Pirates and A’s liked Hill as a starter last offseason. The Pirates were out bid by $500,000. Should the Pirates make another run at a pitcher that will be much more expensive this offseason? (AP photo)

But it will be interesting to see how the Pirates distribute and allocate their payroll.

In the past, the Pirates have preferred to spread risk over multiple, smaller contracts. And the approach has a sound basis. Reported following the 2014 season:

“In studying major league playoff teams over the past five years, the Trib found the average team spent 14.6 percent of its Opening Day payroll on its highest-paid player, according to contract numbers analyzed from BaseballProspectus.com. (In 2014) the Pirates only were slightly below that mark, paying Russell Martin 13.2 percent of their payroll. There is compelling evidence clubs should not overpay for one player. … Of the past 46 major league playoff teams, only nine spent more than 17 percent of their payroll on a single player, and only one — the 2010 Texas Rangers — spent more than 20 percent of payroll on one player (Michael Young).

“The majority of teams studied — 72 percent — spent between 12 percent and 16 percent of payroll on their more expensive player. …. Over the past five seasons, 22 playoff teams have had payrolls below $100 million, and those teams distributed payroll similarly to large-market teams.”

Don’t put too many eggs in one basket regardless of budget. That seems to be the lesson. The Pirates have largely followed it.

And there is also the belief that it is not a quantity vs. quality  debate but, rather, that quality comes from quantity. Sign enough players and some are likely to exceed expectations.

The largest free agent contract the Pirates have awarded under Neal Huntington was the three-year, $39 million pact given to Francisco Liriano prior to the 2015 season which was 14.4 percent of the 25-man payroll. That was right at the average for the highest paid player on playoff teams studied.

But Liriano was a player that the club re-signed, a player the club knew well.

The other large contracts the Pirates have awarded have been extensions to players already on the roster and under contract. Players they know well, players in their 20s. That includes Andrew McCutchen, who at $14.2 million stands to be the highest paid player on next season’s team.

Would the Pirates give a Liriano-type contract to an outside arm to bolster the starting rotation?

If the Pirates are going to improve their pitching staff and run prevention in 2017 they might have to change their risk tolerance.

Said Huntington to the Trib last week.

“Is that (risk tolerance) line moving? It has,” Huntington said. “Because every significant contract we sign is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it’s the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It’s not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”

If the Pirates open 2017 with a similar budget to 2016, they will have roughly a $100 million payroll. Would they be willing to invest 15 percent of their payroll in, say, Ivan Nova or Rich Hill? They will be two of the top pitching options available. Or will the club prefer to look for  reclamation-type arms? (Though the market for reclamation-type arms is becoming more competitive as demonstrated last offseason).

Hill is perhaps the top upside option available, though he also comes with considerable risk given his age, injury history and lack of track record. MLB Trade Rumors projects Hill will receive a three-year, $45-million contract. You would understand why any team would pause at such a contract. The Pirates were not willing to out bit Oakland for Hill last winter.

But when Hill has been on the mound this season he’s been dominant. Just see Tuesday night. (And he can beat the Cubs, who have struggled more than any other other team against his bending curveball).

There is risk with Hill but also reward.

The Pirates are trying to re-sign Nova, but he seems destined to hit the market and sign for more years and dollars than the club will be comfortable with. I suspect he’ll top J.A. Happ‘s contract.

So will the Pirates change their risk tolerance?

Does it make sense to change their risk tolerance or is it a better place to build around a homegrown core with smaller outside investments?

But if the Pirates are to sign a legit No. 3 or better starter this offseason, the club will have to leave their comfort zone when it comes to payroll allocation.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The ground game

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SOUTH HILLS – We know the Pirates were dramatically less effective at preventing runs in 2016.

After allowing 596 runs in MLB in 2015 – third best in the sport – the Pirates allowed 162 more runs (758) this season, ranking 22nd.

Allowing one more run per game combined with relatively static run scoring is a formula for a big dip. In the case of the 2016 Pirates, a 20-game dip.

We are all well aware of the starting pitching issues.

We know about Andrew McCutchen’s defense in center field.

Huntington
Neal Huntington and Co. are going to have to be creative this offseason in what figures to be a challenging period to improve the club (Horner photo)

But the Pirates quietly moved slightly away from had what made them so successful from 2013-15: the ground ball.

The philosophy was part of Sunday’s story looking at the Pirates’ run prevention decline. The Pirates led baseball in ground-ball rate every year during their three-year playoff stretch but fell from 50.4 percent in 2015 to 46.9 percent  this season.

While the Pirates still ranked third in the sport, the decline was  a 4-5 percent drop in balls hit on the ground compared to their 2013-15 performance.

(That dozens of more balls were hit into the air was problematic given how power and HR/FB rates spiked this year in the sport. The Pirates allowed 180 home runs after averaging 113 allowed from 2013-15, best in baseball).

Part of the decline was by design.

Extreme ground-ball pitchers like Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett exited.

Fly-ball pitchers like Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong entered.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington talked at the winter meetings last year about how the the club could not be married to one model of pitcher (i.e. a ground-ball pitcher).

This is what Huntington said last December in Nashville:

“I’d love to sit here and tell you we have one model and we got to it and acquire players to fit model, but we don’t. There are traits that we like. …. As we joked before, we like pitchers that can get hitters out. There are different ways to do that. ….You always want to have a plan and a foundation but if you only stick to it, especially at the MLB level, especially given how the market has evolved, you are really going to limit your options.”

In speaking to Huntington last week, he said the club will continue to look at all models of pitchers as to not further restrict their market, which is already compromised by the club’s modest budget.

“We are a copy-cat industry,” Huntington said. “Ground-ball pitchers have become more valued. We could be stubborn and stay the course and pay more than we ideally like. Or we can look in a different direction and find value in a different way. … It comes back to what may be successful for five years will probably not be for 10. There is a constant ebb and flow.”

Now, Huntington values the ground ball.

But so do other teams. And it seems, at least externally, the club is going to continue to be open to fly-ball pitchers. They figure to be more undervalued. And fly-ball pitchers would be more attractive  if the Pirates tighten up their outfield defense.

But should the Pirates really look to move away from the ground ball?

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is a big proponent of the ground-ball philosophy. He does not want to stray from it. Teaching it could become more important if there’s less external focus.

“It’s one (question) we have already taken the task of answering internally when looking at the guys we have internally when looking at the guys that do sink the ball,” Hurdle said of the ground ball. “Jameson (Taillon) didn’t have a two-seamer when we were having this conversation about him last year. He’s turned into a guy who has an ability to get the ball on the ground. (Chad) Kuhl has shown the ability to put the ball on the ground.  (Gerrit) Cole there are different sequences where he’s shown the ability to put the ball on the ground. I do think it’s something that we’re going to keep as one of our cornerstones.

“We tried some outliers this year to attack it a different way based on giving Juan Nicasio a shot, we knew he wasn’t a ground ball guy but we knew he could be a swing-and-miss fly ball guy. Jon Niese has been a ground ball guy. Those kind of went away and the fly balls showed up. I do think we know we’ve had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”

It will be interesting to see where the ground ball plays in the Pirates philosophy going forward.

Does it make sense to zig when the market zags? Or does it make more sense to stay true to the recipe of 2013-15.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Even if the Pirates decide to focus internally and externally on the ground ball there is another problem: their infield defense.

In 2016, according to StatCorner.com, the Pirates were 20th in baseball in converting ground balls into outs this season, 18.4 runs below league average.  In 2015, the Pirates were 12th with 9.5 runs above average saved on ground balls.

Now, full healthy seasons from Jung Ho Kang and Josh Harrison would help. But Josh Bell is a liability at first and Jordy Mercer’s passes the eye test more than he does the metric test.

>>The Pirates had interest in Rich Hill last offseason but were out bid by the Oakland A’s by $500,000, according to Peter Gammons. Hill is 12-4 this season and has been sensational when on the mound. He was a darling of  some in the sabermetric crowd last offseason. While there has been so much focus and hand-wringing regarding JA Happ this summer, Hill was actually more of a true reclamation project favored by the Pirates.

>>One problem? With more data and analysts in the game, more teams are identifying the same types of pitchers as potentially undervalued as the Pirates.

“It’s absolutely become more competitive, more challenging,” Huntington said. “When more teams evaluate the way you do the prices get driven up and resources become the advantage again.

It could be a tough offseason in search of pitching.

>>I absolutely love the courage and conviction showed by Terry Francona and Dave Roberts this offseason in using their bullpens.  Since the starting pitching market is so thin this offseason it makes sense for the Pirates to consider pitching more often from the bullpen and going away from tradition when considering when to employ their best relief pitchers.

>>Of course, the offseason begins with figuring out what to do with McCutchen. If the Pirates are to consider more fly-ball pitchers it would help if they had improved CF defense.

>>Doubt the power of framing? See Yasmani Grandal‘s steal of strike one against Kris Bryant in the ninth inning Sunday. With his receiving skills, batting eye and power, Grandal is a top 10 player in the NL.

>>I though the amount of reps Bell received in RF late in the season were interesting. The Pirate have a plan in place to work on his throwing accuracy this offseason. It will be interesting to see what becomes of his primary defensive position.

HE SAID IT

“Is that (risk tolerance) line moving? It has. Because every significant contract we sign is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it’s the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It’s not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”

-Huntington on allocation of payroll.

The Pirates have preferred to spread risk in the past. If they want Ivan Nova back, that will have to change.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 52.5

The Pirates’ ground ball in 2013 was a major league record.

– TS

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The glove gap

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SOUTH HILLS – We know all about the Chicago Cubs’ wealth of young hitting stars.

We know the Cubs led baseball in ERA, having arguably the best staff in the game.

But the Cubs have another advantage that receives less attention: they also have the best defense in baseball.

cubs+javier+baez+GettyImages-614066770
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has called Javier Baez the best “tagger” in baseball. Baez is legit shortstop who is roving around the field and contributing to an elite defense (Getty Images)

 

The Cubs lead baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (82). Defensive runs saved basically compares defenders at each position to league average performance. To illustrate their edge, the third place NL team, the Dodgers, posted a + 29 DRS.

The Cubs’ defensive efficiency – the percentage of batted balls converted into outs – was an astounding 74.5 percent this season, the best mark since the 1982 Padres, according to CBSSports.com.

Baseball Prospectus’s park-adjusted defensive efficiency suggests the Cubs are best defensive team in baseball history.

The edge is in large part by having  Jason Heyward and Javier Baez, players capable of playing center and shortstop, playing elsewhere. Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant give the club incredible versatility. Addison Russell is one of the game’s young stars at shortstop.

But the Cubs have also thought creatively about defense from a coaching staff perspective as noted in this Tom Verducci feature

“Under a think tank of no fewer than nine coaches, including a “Run Prevention Coordinator,” and implemented by some of the most athletic defenders in baseball, the Cubs essentially have opened a traveling exhibit of the Art Institute of Chicago. …

“For the (defensive) coordinator position—unofficially, the Run Prevention Coordinator—Theo Epstein hired Tommy Hottovy, then 33, in December 2014. Hottovy pitched in 17 major league games in 10 professional seasons before blowing out his shoulder in Cubs spring training camp in ’14. While rehabbing his shoulder that summer, Hottovy, who graduated from Wichita State in ’04 with a degree in business administration and a minor in economics, took a Sabermetrics 101 online course from Boston University….. Hottovy is the bridge between the back-office analytical wonks and the on-field staff. He analyzes the vast amounts of numerical and video data as well as charting his own observations.”

The Pirates were cutting edge in this area in 2013, with how they employed and communicated data but other clubs have caught up in this copy-cat industry. Dave Jauss does much of the same work for the Pirates as Hottovy. But the Cubs’ essentially have two Jausses, it seams.

Just as assistant coaches have become something of an arms race in college football, perhaps it will become so in baseball.

But getting back to the main point, the Cubs have extra coaching power getting the game’s most able and athletic collection of defenders in the game into excellent position. (They also have a pitching staff that has consistently executed off the mound.)

But defensive efficiency used to be the Pirates’ advantage.

It was the Pirates that led the NL in defensive runs saved in 2013 (+60). It was the Pirates that finished with a 71.5 percent defensive efficiency that season, fifth in baseball.

But the Pirates are in a four-year defensive decline.

The Pirates finished 20th in DRS this season (-17) in baseball. Since 10 runs are equivalent to a win, that’s nearly a 10-win differential between the Pirates and Cubs tied to only defense.

The Pirates converted 69.4 percent of balls hit in  play into outs, or nearly five percent fewer than the Cubs , which is significant.

Defense has been a huge edge for the Cubs this season. It’s helped their staff, too. But it’s also a a gap the Pirates could conceivably close significantly – and more cheaply than other areas – this offseason.

Consider that Andrew McCutchen was worth -27 DRS this season, the worst defender in baseball. Moving McCutchen out of center for Marte, in a vacuum, could be worth 3-4 wins from defense alone.

The Pirates must also evaluate their defensive alignment plan in the outfield.  The shallower alignment was based upon a staff that would better keep the ball on the ground.

The Pirates have to accomplish many things this offseason. One of them is cutting into the Cubs’ defensive edge. The good news? It should be relatively cheaper, an easier fix, than say, finding pitching on the open market.

The Pirates’ 2013 turnaround started with the glove.

It might need to begin there again.

-TS

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