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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Monday Mop-Up Duty: the Cole question

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SOUTH HILLS – Gerrit Cole’s days as a minimum-wage baseball player are over. Cole is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career this winter, and again in 2018 and 2019 before becoming eligible for  free agency after the 2019 season.

As you may know, a player’s first year arbitration salary is usually relatively modest, before growing substantially in the second and third years (and fourth if enjoying Super 2 status).

If Cole pitches more like his 2015-self going forward, he could earn $20 million-plus in his final year of arbitration. He could become too expensive for Pirates’ ownership (see: David Price and Tampa).

Colelagte2016
Is Cole a building block or is he going to be a shorter-term presence in Pittsburgh? (Horner photo)

 

So that brings us to one of a number key questions facing the Pirates this offseason: does the club take its chances going through the arbitration process with Cole or does it it try to create cost certainty through the arbitration years? (Which would perhaps extend the stay of Cole in Pittsburgh even if such a deal did not buy out any free agency seasons, which is unlikely).

Rob Biertempfel reported this yesterday:

“Sources close to the situation told the Tribune-Review there is little chance the Pirates will sign Cole to a multiyear deal that would buy out some of his free agent years. … Such an deal wouldn’t make financial sense for Cole unless the team grossly overpaid on the back end…. Cole’s injury history — he also was on the DL twice in 2014 because of shoulder fatigue and lat tightness — makes any big-money deal more of a gamble for the club. The Pirates are more inclined than most teams to favor lower-risk, shorter-term deals.

It’s rare that a Scott Boras client signs an extension before or early in arbitration status. It’s rare that a Boras client does not enter the free agent market as soon as possible, though there are examples.

So it seems unlikely Cole will be with the Pirates beyond 2019.

I do suspect Cole might be open to a three-year, $35-40 million deal that locks him up through arbitration. While there was animosity between the two camps this spring due to Cole’s displeasure with his near league-minimum contract, Cole Hamels had similar issues with the Phillies and eventually signed a three-year deal that bought out his arbitration years a few years back. I do think Cole is reasonable.

And while the injuries makes such a deal riskier, perhaps there’s some doubt in Cole’s mind about his ability to maximize arbitration earnings by logging 200 innings every season. Perhaps he would be willing to trade some earning upside for security.

Now is the club interested after Cole’s uneven performance in 2016? After he’s had two injury-plagued seasons since 2014?

The Pirates have preferred to sign their own players, players they know well, to lucrative contracts from Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Cervelli to Gregory Polanco and Francisco Liriano.

I would have to think there is some interest level in reaching a multi-year contract with Cole. After all this is a No. 1 overall pick, this is a pitcher who has pitched like a top-of-the-rotation arm for extended periods. The Pirates are not easily going to find a replacement outside the organization.

It’s about finding common ground.

If the Pirates are not able to work out a multi-year contract with Cole that creates cost certainty during his arbitration years, then the odds he is eventually traded rise significantly.

I would be surprised if Cole was traded in 2017. After all, the Pirates have enough rotation question marks entering the season and Cole is just a year removed from pitching like an ace.

But if the Pirates and Cole can’t work out a deal it’s possible he does makes not it through the 2019 season in Pittsburgh. And that’s not an ideal scenario for a former No. 1 overall pick.

Perhaps the two sides can find common ground this winter. But the more time that passes, the less likely it is that a deal comes together.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>I absolutely loved how Cleveland manager Terry Francona employed his bullpen in Game 1 of the ALDS, going to Andrew Miller in the fifth, and getting 80 combined pitches out of his top two relievers.  That’s creative, urgent managing running in contrast to Buck Showalter‘s approach last week. Did Miller come in too early? Maybe. Maybe there would have been a higher-leverage situation later to handle, but it’s better to use your top arm than to never use him at all.

I’d love to see the Pirates be more creative with not only their top bullpen arms next season but with multi-inning relievers. Joe Blanton would be interesting alongside Juan Nicasio in the bullpen.

>>“I don’t see myself needing to move. I don’t feel like I’m slowing down and hurting my team because of where I play. Playing center field is one thing, but being a leader out there is another. That’s something we need.” - Andrew McCutchen to MLB. com on the idea of moving to left field.

The metrics say otherwise and players do not fill out lineup cards.

It will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle this situation, which includes a consideration of McCutchen’s pride and ego. Does McCutchen have to be happy to perform well? Will he buy in? He bought into hitting second this spring, but this is a different situation,  a different animal. More pride is at stake. Again, even if the Pirates moved McCutchen to left, it won’t be easy to hide him in the game’s deepest left field. To improve outfield defense, McCutchen would likely have to be traded.

>>Looking for some silver linings? A number of prospects took a step forward in the system in 2016 as Andrew Erickson noted in looking at the Pirates’ next wave of prospects. If Kevin Newman can stick at short, he has the potential to be a very valuable asset moving forward, though he cooled off in the second half.

>>The Blue Jays are Pittsburgh North with Russell Martin, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Jose Bautista and Jason Grilli all on the playoff roster.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 8 of 9

Russell Martin‘s postseason appearances in the last nine seasons. Martin is a special player. While a healthy Cervelli replaces much of Martin’s value (he was actually more valuable in 2015) Martin still has the better arm, more power, and has special baseball makeup.

HE SAID IT

“Ray (Searage, pitching coach) and Gerrit had conversations about where Gerrit is mechanically and what was different this year from last year. (They talked about) what could work to allow him to get that 200-inning threshold to become that workhorse. There are always some minor adjustments that we can make with guys to help them get a little bit better.”

Neal Huntington on Gerrit Cole.

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Can the Pirates find a new edge?

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SOUTH HILLS – One of the reasons the Pirates turned things around in 2013? They committed to a bold and aggressive plan: they combined a 400 percent increase in their usage of defensive shifts with a record ground ball rate. (You might have even read about it ;).

But, now, everyone shifts.

Teams generally value ground-ball pitchers.

Even pitch framing is mainstream.

But as the world watched in horror last night as Buck Showalter inexplicably refused to use Zach Britton, his best pitcher, it was a reminder that major league managers do not use their bullpens efficiently enough.

It was a reminder that there is a competitive advantage screaming to be claimed.

You could make the argument that Britton should have started the game. Heck, I asked Clint Hurdle if he thought about starting Mark Melancon in game No. 162 in 2014, and pitching by the bullpen, to avoid burning Gerrit Cole in what turned out to be a meaningless game. Hurdle didn’t care for the idea. Managers have a hard time with departing from tradition. Managers seem to prefer holding their closers tied to a specific situation in part because it reduces second guessing.

Showalter
Buck Showalter might be second guessing that one for awhile. (AP photo)

 

Grant Brisbee was fantastic  writing on the subject of Britton and Showalter and suggested that last night is perhaps a tipping point for bullpen strategy.

Perhaps it should be a tipping point for the Pirates.

And it’s not just when to employ a club’s best relief pitcher that’s ready for change - Terry Francona has done some interesting things with Andrew Miller recently –  it’s using the bullpen as a whole.

I thought the Pirates were going to move closer to employing an inventive plan this spring in regard to the bullpen …

Said Huntington to the Tribune-Review back in March: “From an analytical side, there is absolutely a movement to not let a pitcher face a lineup three times and to have 12 pitchers, four starters, four relievers, and four guys that fluctuate in and out. We have not sold out to the approach, but at the same time, we have recognized we might be better served with multiple, multi-inning relievers. If Ryan (Vogelsong) gives us six good innings, maybe it’s time to go get that starter.

“That’s why we are consciously putting together a bullpen with multiple guys that can go multiple innings to allow Clint (Hurdle) to go get that starting pitcher.”

Of course that plan never really came together.

Juan Nicasio was signed with the thought he could be an impact multiple-inning reliever. He ended up in the rotation (You could argue the team would have been better off with Vogelsong in the rotation).

Jared Hughes struggled and was never an effective option this year, let along a multi-inning option.

(Joe Blanton, anyone?)

But rethinking the bullpen is something that could help the Pirates close the gap in the central at a low cost. Consider:

*Opponents generally improve against a starting pitcher each additional cycle through the lineup.

*Relief pitchers are cheaper per inning than starters (and more effective)

*A team’s best relief pitcher rarely pitches in the most critical moment of the game.

*More arms are entering the pro game with greater velocity but with less feel for pitching and fewer pitches (i.e. future bullpen arms).

These are all things that are not maximized in today’s game despite all the information that is out there. A strength of the Pirates has been communicating and implementing  new data-based ideas. This one is ready to be maximized. Some team will get to it first.

The Pirates are going to have to be creative in closing the divide between themselves and the Cubs. Leaning on, and maximizing, bullpen impact would be a start.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: React but don’t overreact

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SOUTH HILLS – The end was ugly.

On Sunday in St. Louis, only three starters from the opening day lineup started in Game No. 162.

The Pirates were just half a game back of a playoff spot back on Aug. 28, and six games over .500 (67-61). They proceeded to go 11-22-1 down the stretch.

In the end, the Pirates finished 25 games behind the Chicago Cubs, and suffered a 20-game drop off from 2015 … a 15-game drop from their 2013-15 average.

After so much went right in 2015, so much went wrong in 2016.

It starts with the core, which contrary to popular belief (including belief in the clubhouse) remained intact over the winter.

The Pirates’ top six WAR 2015 producers returned  (Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jung Ho Kang, Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang), i.e. The Core, were worth about 13 wins less this season than a year earlier. That, in itself, explains much of the drop.

But management is not without blame.

The Jon Niese experiment failed.  The club did not sign a competent No. 3 starter, in part because the front office was hamstrung by one of the smallest budgets in the game. The club was out-bid by the A’s $500,000 for Rich Hill, according to Peter Gammons. The bridge strategy to 2017 failed.

nOvaRain
Pirates mgmt misread the offseason pitching market last winter. A key question is how they address the rotation this winter. With Nova headed to FA, a trade might be the most practical avenue to pursue (Horner photo)

By his own admission, Pirates GM Neal Huntington took blame in speaking with reporters in St. Louis on Sunday.

“It’s easy to point fingers and say, ‘This area isn’t good enough,’ ” Huntington said. “The first finger should be pointed in my direction. Our coaches did a nice job this year.”

(All the coaches are apparently coming back, all are under contract for next season).

So look back in anger, if you choose.

(I looked forward with some modest proposals for an offseason agenda in Sunday’s Trib.)

Be upset with the modest budget after record attendance in 2015.  There is likely more commitment needed from ownership to contend for the division going forward. (Players should be interested in a salary cap and floor system in the sport, forcing owners to meet a min. payroll floor, imo).

Be dissatisfied with some decisions made.

But as bad as it seems, now, it’s not as bad as you might think moving forward.

Before considering any external help, Francisco Cervelli, Gerrit Cole and Jung Ho Kang should produce more value next season because they should be on the field more often. Adam Frazier, Chad Kuhl and Josh Bell should be more comfortable and productive as all-around players after their first taste of the majors. Jameson Taillon emerged as a No. 2-type starter. That’s a significant development. Tyler Glasnow finished on a high note. We haven’t seen the best of Glasnow, of course, whether that’s in a major league rotation or bullpen remains to be seen. He will get every chance to succeed as a starter.

Also, one other big thing: the Cubs are unlikely to win 100 games again.

The Cubs are unlikely to have their aging rotation stay as healthy as it did again in 2017, and if the Cubs have one weakness it’s that they haven’t developed much homegrown pitching or  pitching depth.

In short, the 25-gap is likely to shrink next season simply due to regression toward the mean. Of course, it’s not likely going to shrink to zero. And the Pirates probably need to be more concerned with jumping the St. Louis Cardinals, and other wild card contenders, whom the Pirates are closer to in overall talent. While the division is going to be difficult in 2017, competing for a playoff berth should be the expectation.

So react to the season, but don’t overreact. An emotional overreaction is often the worst mistake to make with a disappointing investment.

After so much wrong in 2016, so much is not likely to go wrong in 2017. While imperfect in decision making this year, this is still a front office and coaching staff that remains largely intact and has won 89 games per season since 2012. The Pirates have a talented farm system, and as we saw in the second half this summer, the club is about to become a much younger, homegrown team.

That said, there is still plenty of work to do.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>The first question to answer this offseason might be a decision on Andrew McCutchen‘s future.  I examined whether McCutchen can expect to bounce back in 2017.

It doesn’t look, great:

In August, ESPN analyst Dave Schoenfield’s research found McCutchen was in the midst of a unprecedented drop-off. Schoenfield found that since 1950, no player to sustain a superstar level from ages 25 to 28 — like McCutchen — had declined at 29 like McCutchen. ….

A FiveThirtyEight.com analysis in July examined dramatic declines of stars between ages 28 and 30. Neil Paine found such players bounced back but “as shadows of their former selves.” The average player studied had 5.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances before his drop-off season and averaged 3.0 WAR over his next three seasons.

While McCutchen’s bat and batting eye have been more in line with his career numbers since his August benching, his defense and base-running is in dramatic decline. If he’s not injured, it appears he’s losing his athleticism.

Is there a fix?

>>Said McCutchen of his offseason training regimen to Rob Biertempfel:

“The way I think about certain things has got to change, for sure. Instead of crushing these heavy weights, maybe I need to focus a little more on flexibility. That’s what’s going to carry me through the year, as opposed to squatting 400 pounds and then running down the baseline and hurting yourself.”

Maybe a new offseason program would help. Maybe a motivated McCutchen will respond with a great 2017 season. This is a prideful athlete  whose pride has been hurt. He’s heard the boos and the questions. He should be motivated. But history, and his age, will be working against a full return to his former MVP self. It’s why it makes sense to consider trading him, even with his value diminished. I do suspect McCutchen’s bat will perform at a higher overall level next season, but the Pirates need him to be a complete player. And you wonder if the legs are coming back.

McCutchenStil
McCutchen’s bat has already bounced back … but what about his glove and legs? (AP photo)

>>Trading McCutchen to an AL club makes sense given the DH safety net. A landing spot? Cleveland might not be able to retain Mike Napoli and Toronto could lose Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnarcion in free agency. Fenway Park’s left field is a perfect place to play McCutchen.

>>What could the Pirates get for McCutchen? There’s almost no chance he returns an elite prospect (unless the Diamondbacks are interested). In a 1-for-1, major league trade McCutchen could perhaps net a pitcher that fits in the middle of the rotation.

>>There was never any chance McCutchen was going to be offered a contract extension to stay in Pittsburgh. Consider:

• Age 28 center fielders: 426.1 WAR and 23,983 games played.

• Age 30 center fielders: 302.8 WAR and 18,076 games played.

• Age 32 center fielders: 174.8 WAR and 11,000 games played.

(Baseball Reference data)

 While the Pirates aren’t married to age curves, they respect them.

>>Francisco Liriano has been much better in Toronto. Could he have turned things around in Pittsburgh? We’ll never know. The Pirates’ decision makers were split on whether he would improve in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Huntington felt NL hitters had figured out Liriano.

Said Huntington on August 6:

“This was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Francisco Liriano. This was risk tolerance: What was the upside? What was the downside? What did we feel the probabilities were? And what were our a alternatives with the money we’ve created by moving him?

“There is a very good chance Francisco Liriano gets back to the American League where hitters are unfamiliar with him, in a new environment, with new scouting reports and does very well with Toronto.”

The Pirates did sell low on Liriano, there’s no doubting that.

>>I suspect David Freese is/was more motivated to have remained in Pittsburgh and not tested the market, but Sean Rodriguez was the more valuable reserve who will be missed if he signs elsewhere.

>>The obvious key to 2017? Cole returning to 2015 form.  Cole was never in a good place in 2016, beginning with his displeasure regarding his contract and ending with his health. He needs total focus and health in 2017. He was an ace in 2015 and he’s the club’s best bet to be one an ace going forward.

>>Juan Nicasio should be back in a bullpen role but he needs right-handed help. Who fits internally or externally?

>>Tyler Glasnow‘s final start was a much-needed positive spring board into 2017. Glasnow has a lot of work to do to become a productive starting pitcher. But the potential, the ceiling, remains high. Glasnow said we never saw his best stuff in 2016. His velocity was often down at the major league level. The Pirates will need his best stuff to return next season.

>>The Pirates prefer to spread money around rather than bet on one or two bigger investments. But the Pirates paid nearly $11 million between Ryan Vogelsong, Niese and Antonio Bastardo this season. They have to get more value for the dollar next season. And instead of spreading risk, one wonders if it’s time to take a risk (See: No. 3 starter).

STAT OF THE YEAR: 162

Additional runs allowed this season compared to 2015. The Pirates allowed 758 runs in 2016, 596 last season.

In other words, Pirates allowed one more run per game than a year ago. That explains a lot.

STAT OF THE YEAR II: -8

Defensive runs saved in 2016. It’s part of a three-year decline in defensive performance. Consider, the Pirates were +60 in 2013. Pitching and defense are so closely connected. It’s quietly an area of much-needed improvement for the Pirates. The most obvious fix is Starling Marte in center flanked by Gregory Polanco and Austin Meadows.

HE SAID IT

“We didn’t play well enough to go on, so if I want more baseball, I’ll watch it (on TV). The season ended. Now it’s time to do something different.”

Clint Hurdle

HE SAID IT II

“I’ve got to prove — not to (fans), but to the team and to ownership — that I’m able to play out my career at a high level. I didn’t do that this year. I didn’t play at my best level. There are a lot of places I can improve, and I didn’t do that this year.”

– McCutchen

HE SAID IT III

“He’s missed a large majority of (September), unlike some of the other guys like (Francisco) Cervelli, who are banged up. We felt it was useful for a variety of reasons to note that he went on the DL.”

– Huntington on the strange decision to place  Marte on the 15-day DL on the last day of the season.

Hmmmmmm.

HE SAID IT IV

“It’s definitely one of the conversations we’ve already initiated whether it be (Ivan) Nova or somebody else of that ilk. … To have somebody who can give you a credible amount of length is beneficial. It’s hard to get to where you want to go if you don’t have that guy.”

– Hurdle on the rotation void.

***

THANK YOU for reading and contributing to this space this season. The blog is meant to be a two-way conversation, it’s meant to be a place to have a lively, thoughtful discussion on baseball.

While the game takes a break, we’ll be here all winter, and we hope you continue to check in.

-TS

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