Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Pirates Wild Card Roster: Hurdle Buys the Whole Life Insurance Policy

On Monday I opined on the Pirates Wild Card Game roster. Having taken a look at what Clint Hurdle did in 2013 and 2014 I assumed he would again go with 16 position players and 9 pitchers. He did. But there were two differences in what I projected Clint would do and what he actually did.

The two guys I projected to be on the 25-man roster who aren't are left-handed hitting outfielder Jaff Decker and left-handed reliever Bobby LaFromboise. In their stead Hurdle chose to carry pitcher Francisco Liriano and catcher Elias Diaz. I understand the choice of Liriano, he's rostered in case Gerrit Cole strains a lat or turns an ankle in the first three innings or the game goes more than 12. Ok, I can buy that. A little bit of insurance, that almost assuredly won't be used.

I don't understand carrying Diaz. The guy has played three major league innings. In his career. While Liriano is around in case one specific player, Cole, gets injured early or the game goes deep, Diaz is around in case two guys are injured. The Pirates haven't had to use an emergency catcher all year. I don't see Clint pulling Francisco Cervelli for a pinch-runner early in this game and I don't see him using Chris Stewart as a pinch-hitter in the first nine innings with so many other options. Clint is going to save Stewart because he absolutely won't want to use Diaz. So they are basically playing with a 24-man roster with Diaz as the ultimate insurance policy.

Does it matter? Probably not. The Pirates have a deep bullpen, added bench guys and Clint did roster the guy who I think could make a big difference as a pinch-runner, Keon Broxton.

But, in dropping Decker, the Pirates will only have one left-handed bat on the bench, Travis Snider, (although Pedro Florimon is a switch-hitter.) And in not rostering LaFromboise, they will only have two lefties against a Cubs lineup that features some great lefty bats. Broxton is a pinch-runner and Florimon basically is as well, (while also providing insurance for Mercer at short.) Those two guys could make a difference as I've pointed out, as the last 19 or 20 base stealers have been successful against Jake Arrieta. But Clint did go conservative with the roster. As is the goal with most insurance policies, Pirates fans should hope this one is never discussed again.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Pirates 2015 Wild Card Roster and Why Keon Broxton Could be the Difference

Three years in a row. The Pirates reward for the second-best record in baseball is hosting a one-game playoff at PNC Park for the third year in a row. They now get the privilege of going up against the guy who just posted the best second half anyone has ever seen. So how should Clint Hurdle align his roster to give the Bucs the best chance to beat Jake Arrieta and the Cubs? Let's look back and see what Hurdle did in 2013 and 2014 when faced with similar scenarios.

Both games Hurdle carried 16 position players and 9 pitchers. And in each case, versus Dusty Baker and the Reds in '13 and Bruce Bochy and the Giants in '14, the opposing manager opted to go with 15 position players and 10 pitchers. I think 16 position players is still the way to go. Here's how it should look.

Position Players:

Catchers: (2) Francisco Cervell, Chris Stewart

Each of the past two years Hurdle elected to carry three catchers and you can probably win a few cold ones at the local knowing that Tony Sanchez was that guy both games. Sanchez did start 2015 on the Opening Day roster due Chris Stewart's injury, but he only played 3 games, got just 9 at bats and his time in the Pirates organization is probably weeks away from being over. The Pirates did carry a third catcher in September when rosters expanded, promoting Elias Diaz, but he played a grand total of three innings which now accounts for his entire major league resume. I think it is safe to say that Hurdle won't be carrying three catchers this year.

Infielders: (8) Pedro Alvarez, Pedro Florimon, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Michael Morse, Aramis Ramirez, Sean Rodriguez, Neil Walker

The big question for Hurdle is what his starting infield will look like. Neil Walker will get the start at second and Jordy Mercer will be at short. The question is who of Alvarez, Harrison and Ramirez sits. Two weeks ago it probably would have been Harrison, but he finished the season on a tear posting a .375/.419/.575 line in his last 40 at bats. Hurdle has been known to play the hot-hand and he had Harrison in the lineup for the last two games of the regular season, which were both meaningful. Alvarez sat against a lefty on Saturday while Ramirez sat against a righty on Sunday. Ramirez finished cold going 2-for-his-last-20. The other bench guys are easy choices. Rodriguez brings defensive value, Morse is a big right-handed bat and Florimon is the only other shortstop on the roster with Jung Ho Kang injured.

Outfielders: (6) Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Travis Snider

After the starters, and no, I don't think there is any chance Polanco sits in favor of Harrison in right, Snider and Decker are left-handed bats with Decker being the better defensive outfielder. And the 16th guy is Keon Broxton. He could be the difference in this game. Believe it or not Jake Arrieta does have a weakness. 19 of the last 20 would-be base stealers against Arrieta have been successful. With so many position players available off the bench, Clint Hurdle should look for an opportunity, maybe as early as the 4th inning, to have Broxton pinch-run against Arrieta. He has to be on the roster.


Starter: (1) Gerrit Cole

Bullpen: (8) Joe Blanton, Antonio Bastardo, Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes, Bobby LaFromboise, Mark Melancon, Joakim Soria, Tony Watson

This is pretty straightforward. The only choice is Bobby LaFromboise as a third lefty or Vance Worley as a long-man. LaFromboise only pitched 8 innings this year but he was generally effective giving up just 5 hits, 1 walk and striking out 8. With Blanton, Caminero and Hughes all able to go multiple innings I'd rather have LaFromboise as a situational lefty, if needed.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Starling Marte and Reversals of Fortune & My Conversation with Jumpin' Joe Sheehan

On Sunday I started an article on Starling Marte called Starling Marte and Reversals of Fortune. I know. You don't believe me. I did. I promise. Here is how it started:
On May 20, the Pirates lost 4-3 in 13 innings to the Minnesota Twins, dropping their record to 18-22. Starling Marte went 2-for-6 in the game and drove in two of the Pirates three runs. He finished the night with a triple slash line of .297/.346/.531 and a .877 OPS. 
In an odd coincidence, that game, which left the Pirates four games under .500, marked the Pirates low-point on the season. It also marked the high-point in Starling Marte's offensive numbers. After an off-day the Pirates beat the Mets 4-1 to start a 7-game win streak. Since May 22 the Bucs are 70-38, the best record in all of baseball. 
At the same time Marte has struggled. For the first six weeks Marte was the team's best offensive player as Andrew McCutchen had a horrific first month. But Marte went 0-for-4 in that win over the Mets and has put up a triple slash line of .272/.322/.399 and a .721 OPS since then. In 412 PAs he's only hit 9 home runs and walked 15 times. Contrast those numbers with the first six weeks. In 160 PAs he hit 8 homers and walked 9 times. (Marte has still been outstanding defensively, leading NL in outfield assists by a large margin and I'll be shocked if he doesn't win his first Gold Glove.)
The end. Duty called, I didn't finish. The Pirates have since rolled off five more wins to extend their streak to six and Marte just tied a franchise record held by Pie Traynor by collecting 13 hits in a four-game series against the Rockies. I was going to go into much more detail on Marte's sturggles, but nay, that time has passed. Nonetheless, I think you can figure out where I was originally headed. Marte's bat can make the difference in a Kang-less lineup.

Last year, after returning from the disabled list on Aug 5, Marte hit .354/.406/.569 for a .975 OPS in 197 PA with 8 homers and an improved 36:10 K:BB ratio. He had a hit in his last 13 games and 25 of his last 27 and it looked like he had it all figured out. It even led me to suggest that he was a darkhorse MVP-candidate this season.

It hasn't played out as well as that, but Marte again appears to have found his stroke. He has posted five straight multi-hit games and his September line of .366/.398/.549, .947 OPS mirrors what we saw from Marte the last two months of '14.

In my original Reversals of Fortune piece I was going to suggest that Marte might be the key to the Pirates stretch-run and playoff fortunes and that he needed to replicate his late-season 2014 surge. Well, it appears he is doing just that. Let's see if he can keep it up for another month.


Thursday on my show I had a chance to talk to Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan. Saying Joe writes for SI is doing him a disservice because his newsletter is where it's at. Of course I love SI, but SI doesn't have the space for Joe to expound as he does in the newsletter, so it's a different audience. But if you are baseball fan I cannot recommend it enough. You can check it out here.

Thursday we talked about baseball technology, Matt Harvey and pitcher controls, the playoff races and the end-of-season awards. We also agreed to have a playoff-team draft which will be featured in a newsletter coming soon.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Melancon-Watson, Watson-Melancon. Can You Tell Them Apart?

About a month ago I wrote about the similar seasons of Pirates' relievers Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Noting that there was nothing similar about them physically or in their pitching styles, it was amazing how the set-up man and the closer had nearly identical stats. I challenged readers to tell one from the other by comparing the numbers. With just over a week to go in the season, last revisit the two as their seasons have actually become even more similar.

Let's start with appearances and records:

                        Games    Innings   W-L Record

Pitcher A           73           71.2          3-1

Pitcher B           73           71.1          4-1

Ok, nothing to be gleaned from that. Some more data:

                         Hits     Runs   ER    HR  UIBB  HBP   SO      WP     WHIP    BABip

Pitcher A           52        18      15      3      12        2      53        3       0.921     .245

Pitcher B           50        17      16      3      15        4      59        1       0.925     .242

Still nothing here to differentiate the two. How about opponents' triple slash line?

Pitcher A          .204/.250/.271  .521 OPS    Batters Faced 273

Pitcher B          .198/.255/.262  .516 OPS    Batters Faced 276

I'm not sure Ray Searage can tell them apart at this point. ERA, FIP & xFIP ought to clear it up, right?

                        ERA     FIP     xFIP  

Pitcher A          1.88    2.88     3.22  

Pitcher B          2.02    2.88     3.59

Blown Saves?

Pitcher A            2

Pitcher B            2

Here is your big clue. Time to guess:


Pitcher A         59.7    

Pitcher B         47.4    

Yep, I figured that might do it. If it didn't, pitcher A has 49 saves, pitcher B has 1. But you tell me who is better.

My Conversation with Rollicking Rob Neyer and some Baseball Links

On Wednesday the always-insightful Rob Neyer joined me on my show. He shared an amusing "encounter" with Yogi Berra, we discussed the "fairness" of the MLB playoff system, injuries in MLB, MVPs and Cys and even got a guest appearance from his dog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Also, here is a link to an interesting piece by Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis discussing the differences catching Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

And a couple tributes to Yogi. This one by the Great Poz, Joe Posnanski and this one by SI's Tom Verducci.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ranking the Starting Pitching 1-2 Punch for NL Playoffs

Baseball is ridiculous. If you were creating a sport today and you proposed a format that mimicked that currently used by MLB--an incredibly long season, a completely different set of rules for the last 15% of that season and then a one month end-of-the-season tournament to crown the World Champion--people would laugh you out of the room. But like it or not, with baseball as popular as it's ever been, this current structure is here to stay. (Although the September roster expansion is likely to change when the current CBA expires.)

The playoffs are now less than three weeks away. The American League is a stew of uncertainty with the Astros collapsing down the stretch, but the NL meal was fully cooked about a week ago, all five participants comfortably locked into the postseason. Playoff baseball is different. Five-man rotations go out the window and one pitcher, Madison Bumgarner last year, can almost single-armedly carry a team to a title.

So let's look at the NL starting pitchers and rank them by the 1-2 punch they bring at the front of the rotation:

1.) Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke

The top spot isn't open for discussion.

Kershaw's the best pitcher on the planet and he's put together a five-year stretch that surpasses the best of Pedro, The Big Unit or The Professor. His 2011-15 run is right there with Koufax from 1962-66. He was the NL Cy Young and MVP winner last year and his numbers this year are in-line if not better. The only dent on Kershaw's resume, and it's now a fairly big one, is his lack of playoff success. In eight career post-season starts he's only gone seven innings one time and he's lost his last four. In two starts in the 2014 tourney he pitched 12.2 innings and gave up 11 runs. I'd still take him over anyone else to start Game 1.

Zack Greinke is having a record-setting season of his own and is probably the front-runner for the NL Cy Young. He's numbers are on par with this Cy Young-winning 2009 and his 1.61 ERA would be the third-lowest since they lowered the mound in '68 (Gooden 1.53 in '85 and Maddux 1.56 in '94). Greinke's been very good in his four post-season starts with LA after getting roughed-up in the 2011 playoffs with the Brewers.

2.) Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester

You just read how good Kershaw and Greinke have been, but since mid-June Arrieta's been the best pitcher in the game. In his last 17 starts, the Cubs are 15-2, he has a 1.01 ERA and batters are hitting .162/.214/.229. In 125 innings he's walked 25, struck out 120 and given up 2 home runs. Good luck. 

Arrieta has never pitched in the post-season. Jon Lester has. And he's been very good. In three World Series starts, he's 3-0 giving up 12 hits and 1 run in 21 innings. But his most-recent playoff memory isn't as good. With it all on-the-line in the one-game, dice-roll wild card playoff last year, he couldn't get the A's over the hump with a 7-3 lead going into the eighth. Lester's been a bit uneven this season, but has been his best of late. In his last two starts, against the Cards and Pirates, he went 16 innings giving up 2 runs on 7 hits, 2 walks with 16 strikeouts. The Cubs signed him for just this reason. We'll see if Arrieta gives him a chance to show his post-season mettle.

3.) New York Mets: Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey

Now the debate begins.

deGrom burst onto the scene last year winning the NL Rookie of the Year and he's been better this year. If you were ranking the 10 pitchers on this list it would probably be a toss-up as to whether you would put deGrom or Gerrit Cole fourth. deGrom definitely has the better wingman, so the Mets slide into third.

Matt Harvey. It's all been said.

4.) Pittsburgh Pirates: Gerrit Cole and ...

The two teams with the best records in baseball are fourth and fifth. As mentioned, Gerrit Cole is the fourth or fifth best starter on this list which is why the Pirates get the nod here. The question is who do the Pirates start in Game 2, if there is one. At the All-Star break that was a hard question because both Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett were lights-out. Since then Liriano, one of the most difficult pitchers in the game to hit when he's right, has been erratic issuing 4.5 BB/9 and A.J.'s been on the DL.

Could the answer be behind door number 3? Most scoffed at Neal Huntington's last-second acquisition of J.A. Happ at the deadline. After one start I questioned whether it should be his last. Since that first outing, Happ's made seven starts. In 41.2 innings he's given up 32 hits, 7 walks and struck out 44. His 1.30 ERA and .540 OPS-against aren't exactly Arrietan, but they're pretty damn good. Pirates fans didn't warm to Edinson Volquez getting the ball last year in a one-game playoff and Happ isn't going to get it in that situation this year. But could he be next in line? I still think it's Liriano, but it's a conversation few foresaw six weeks ago.

5.) St. Louis Cardinals: Staff

Which two of these four pitchers would you choose today just looking that the numbers? Heck, he's pitched fewer innings, but you could probably throw Jamie Garcia into the mix too. Carlos Martinez is the guy most-likely to go to the bullpen having made 16 playoff relief appearances over the past two Octobers. That leaves Michael Wacha, John Lackey and Lance Lynn. Lynn was the presumptive staff ace with the loss of Adam Wainwright in April, but he's only thrown 28.2 innings in his last six starts and given up 20 runs, 16 earned. In the two starts against the Pirates and Cubs, one of whom will be the Cards first round opponent, he didn't get out of the first against Pittsburgh and only went 2.1 against Chicago. Both games were at Busch.

That leaves Wacha and Lackey. Wacha was a stud in the 2013 postseason until getting torched in Game 6 of the World Series. He's been excellent this season. The Cards have been watching his innings and he's likely a 6-inning pitcher in the post-season. But that's what most guys should be. The 36-year old Lackey is having a typical-Lackey season. He's a veteran of the post-season battles and won a World Series Game 7 in 2002. If you think experience matters, Lackey's your guy.

Conclusion: Having the best-record in baseball only guarantees a team one thing. They won't play in a wild card game. So it looks like the Cardinals will avoid that. That sets up Gerrit Cole against Jake Arrieta in Pittsburgh on October 7 for the right to play the Cardinals. But, hey, maybe that's a better option than having to play the Dodgers or Mets in a five-game series.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jake Arrieta and a Preview of the NL Wild Card Game

On Tuesday the Pirates and Cubs split a doubleheader at PNC Park. Gerrit Cole, the Pirates presumed wild card game-starter, started game one and left with a 4-2 lead in the seventh. Some shoddy defense, (what's new), and a couple wild pitches from Joakim Soria allowed the Cubs to tie it up, but the Pirates rallied in the eighth and Mark Melancon locked up the 5-4 victory with his major league-leading 46th save. Jon Lester was masterful in the nightcap besting J.A. Happ, the Bucs best starter the past six weeks, and the Cubs earned the split with a 2-1 win.

The Pirates and the Cubs both have 18 games remaining in the 2015 season. Going into Wednesday's contest the Bucs are three games back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals and the Cubs are four back of the Pirates. Tonight's probable starters are Jake Arrieta for the Cubs and A.J. Burnett for the Pirates, their third meeting of the season. If the standings stay as they are, Arrieta will be taking the same mound in exactly three weeks as the Cubs starter in the winner-take-all, one-game playoff against Cole and the Pirates. We can debate forever the fairness of two of the four or five best teams in baseball having to matchup in this format, but it could prove to be one of the most dramatic games in playoff history if it actually plays out this way.

With a nod to this being a playoff preview when the work of 162 games is going to come down to a couple hours, let's take a closer look at Jake Arrieta. As good as Gerrit Cole has been this season, Arrieta has been the better pitcher. Rob Arthur took a great look at how Arrieta has developed into an ace by continually refining his mechanics. This has resulted in something unusual. Arrieta started to show a reverse-split in 2013 and it has become even more dramatic this season. If you look at Arrieta's pitch selection, he throws pretty much the same stuff to lefties and righties. The only notable difference is in his limited use of his change which has arm-side run, he generally only throws it to lefties, while throwing his slider slightly more often to righties.

Here's what hitters have done against Arrieta on the season. The numbers from Fangraphs:


2015vs L
2015vs R

*Total Batters Faced

Arrieta has faced the Pirates three times this year after not facing them at all in 2014. The results have been almost identical. From baseball-reference:


In the first game in April at PNC, the Pirates started well against Arrieta. Before he was able to get the second out of the game the Bucs were up 1-0. They registered three of their four hits in the first inning. And that was it. Arrieta faced 26 batter, 24 non-pitchers. 15 of those ABs took place from the right side with Andrew McCutchen getting the only hits, a single and a double. 9 took place from the left side as Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker (switch) and Pedro Alvarez all started. Polanco singled and scored the run in the first. Walker doubled, also in the first. The Pirates finished 2-for-15 from the right side and 2-for-9 from the left side. Arrieta didn't issue a walk. (Note: Jung Ho Kang, made his third career start, his second at short, and batted eighth.)

In the second game in May at Wrigley, the Pirates started the exact same starting nine with A.J. Burnett again on the hill. This time Josh Harrison was dropped from first in the order to seventh, Polanco batted leadoff and Kang hit fifth. Arrieta faced 23 non-pitchers, 14 from the right side, 9 from the left. Kang and Alvarez singled in the second, Cutch singled in the fourth and the Pirates scored in the fifth on a bloop double by Harrison and a Francisco Cervelli single. The Bucs finished 4-for-14 from the right side, 1-for-8 from the left as Alvarez walked in the seventh.

Arrieta was at this very best in his last appearance against the Pirates which took place in August at PNC. He only allowed two hits and no runs, though he did walk three in seven innings. (This was J.A. Happ's first start as a Pirate. The Cubs are the only team to beat Happ since the trade as he took the loss again last night.) Clint Hurdle again went with the same lineup, the exception being Aramis Ramirez in place of Josh Harrison at third. Just as in the second matchup Arrieta faced 23 non-pitcher ABs, 14 from the right, 9 from the left. Andrew McCutchen walked twice and singled, while Neil Walker also walked and Starling Marte added a single. On the night the Pirates were 2-for-12 from the right side and 0-for-8 from the left.

In all three games against Arrieta Hurdle has started Pedro Alvarez at first, Neil Walker at second and Gregory Polanco in left. Along with a pinch-hit appearance by Travis Ishikawa Pirate lefties have gone 3-for-25 (.120) with two walks. The problem is the I'm-not-Andrew-McCutchen righthanded hitters have gone 4-for-37 (.108) with no walks. For his part, McCutchen is 4-for-7, a double, two walks and two strikeouts. 

All of this comes with the obvious small sample size caveats. But it will be interesting to see if Clint Hurdle and the Pirates, one of the most analytically-based teams in the game, put any significance to Arrieta's not insignificant reverse-split and start a righthanded bat at first, second and/or right today. Alvarez or Ramirez/Morse at first? Walker or Harrison at second? Polanco or Harrison/Rodriguez (say it ain't so) in right?

The Pirates know what they are going to see in Jake Arrieta. Now the question is what will Jake Arrieta see from the Pirates. Tonight we might get a hint of what we will see October 7, in a winner-take-all matchup. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Stat of the Day: The two halves of Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole has started 27 games for the Pirates. The Bucs are 18-9 in those starts. He's posted solid numbers on the season as a whole, but there is a marked difference between his first 14 starts and his last 13.

14 starts through June 18. Pirates 11-3

 IP       H      R     ER   UIBB       K    HR    ERA      BA/OBP/SLG     OPS    LD%    XBH%   WHIP
91.0    75     24    18      21        97     5      1.78     .227/.283/.300     .583     26        3.6       1.066

13 starts since June 24. Pirates 7-6

 IP       H      R     ER   UIBB       K    HR    ERA      BA/OBP/SLG     OPS    LD%    XBH%   WHIP
82.2    83     37    33      19        71     4      3.59     .266/.310/.385     .695     30        7.8        1.234

Cole's BB/9 has remained rock-solid at 2.0, but his K/9 rate has dropped from 9.6 to 7.7. And while his HR/9 is virtually the same, his XBH% has more than doubled. Pat Lackey at WHYGAVS has written about Cole a few times, speculating on why Cole has been less effective of late. His velocity has remained consistent, but there is some evidence his slider has lost some of its bite. Whatever the answer, Cole and the Pirates need to figure it out. Five back in the loss column with 32 games left, the Cards are almost out of reach. That leaves the likely prospect of Gerrit Cole vs. Jake Arrieta in a wild card game at PNC Park. The Bucs and their fans need to hope that first-half Gerrit Cole shows up for that one.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The identical seasons of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson

There is nothing similar about Pirates' relievers Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Melancon is the righty who throws a cutter and a curve. The cutter sits 90-92 mph and the curve 80-82.  The lefty Watson brings a fastball-change mix, getting about 10-mph separation between his 94-95 mph fastball and 85-86 mph change.

There was real concern about Melancon early in the season as his velocity was down, but that seemed to return mid-late May and he's been dominant since. Watson gave up a 3-run homer on Opening Day and then gave up one run in his next 25 appearances. Together they have formed a formidable duo at the back end of an excellent Pirates bullpen.

There is no confusing Melancon and Watson on the mound, but let's see if you can separate them by the numbers.

Let's start with appearances:

                        Games    Innings

Pitcher A           64           63.0

Pitcher B           63           61.0

Ok, nothing to be gleaned from that. Some more data:

                         Hits     Runs   ER    HR  UIBB  HBP  WP     WHIP    BABip

Pitcher A           50        15      12      3      10        2       3       0.984     .258

Pitcher B           45        15      14      3      11        4       1       0.918     .256

Still nothing here to differentiate the two. How about opponents' triple slash line?

Pitcher A          .220/.264/.295  .560 OPS

Pitcher B          .206/.255/.271  .526 OPS

I'm not sure Ray Searage can tell them apart at this point. ERA, FIP & xFIP ought to clear it up, right?

                        ERA     FIP     xFIP  

Pitcher A          1.71    3.01     3.29      

Pitcher B          2.07    2.73     3.21     

Blown Saves?

Pitcher A            2

Pitcher B            2

Here is your big clue. Time to guess:

                        GB%     SO

Pitcher A         59.3       44

Pitcher B         47.6       54

Yep, I figured that would do it. If it didn't, pitcher A has 43 saves, pitcher B has 1. But you tell me who is better.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

My conversation with Pirates GM Neal Huntington a.k.a. Rumpelstiltskin

Friday afternoon I had an extended conversation with Pirates GM Neal Huntington. Among other things we discussed the trade deadline and the acquisition of J.A. Happ, team chemistry, lineup protection, the future of Michael Morse, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, Cutch's bat speed, Kang's all-field power, Polanco's development and September call-ups.

Neal had an extended answer to my question about lineup protection when we spoke Friday. When I spoke to manager Clint Hurdle on Saturday and asked him the same question, he was more succinct, "No."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A quick look at Andrew McCutchen and his 100-game run

On May 5th Andrew McCutchen went 0-for-4 in a 7-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. The next day Cutch lined an eighth inning single to center field off Reds starter Mike Leake to break an 0-for-13 string. He was quickly erased when Starling Marte grounded into a 6-4-3 double play as the Reds shutout the Bucs 3-0, dropping their record to 12-15. But looking back, that line drive was the demarcating point in Andrew McCutchen's, and the Pirates', season. Cutch finished the day with a triple slash line of .188/.279/.292 and an OPS of .571 in 111 plate appearances.

In 427 PAs since then McCutchen has been as good as anyone in the game. He's posted a line of .335/.438/.585, 1.023 OPS 18 homers and 72 RBI. The Pirates have gone 66-34.

McCutchen rate stats are now almost exactly in line with his numbers over the past three seasons, a model of consistency:

                   AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS     OPS+

2012          .327      .400      .553      .953      162

2013          .317      .404      .508      .911      157

2014          .314      .410      .542      .952      166    

2015          .304      .405      .522      .928      154

And if he keeps up his torrid August and carries that thru September, Cutch has a chance to put up some of the best counting numbers of his career. Cutch by month:

                   AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS

Apr             .194      .302      .333      .636

May            .330      .419      .566      .985

Jun             .337      .422      .511      .933

Jul              .287      .382      .532      .914

Aug            .345      .477      .631     1.108

The last three seasons McCutchen has had 673, 674 and 678 plate appearances. With 35 games to go he's got 538 and should fall right in line with the three previous years. The last three years he's finished in the top three in the MVP voting. A solid month should put him right there for a fourth. And a big one just might get him his second trophy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My conversations with Jumpin' Joe Sheehan, Charlie Wilmoth and J.A. Happ

If you are a hardcore baseball fan, and I imagine if you found your way to this blog you at least register somewhere on the scale, you should subscribe to the Joe Sheehan Newsletter. Straight up, it's not for everyone. If you are a one-team fan, it's probably not for you. But if you like thinking about the game at a deeper level and enjoy insightful and entertaining reading about the game, I highly recommend subscribing. Joe and I look at the game through the same lens, but we don't always see eye-to-eye, which is one of the many reasons I love having him as a guest. We had another enjoyable, at least for me, chat yesterday.

Charlie Wilmoth has been the long-time editor of There isn't a better Pirates-community blog around and Charlie does an awesome job of writing and managing the site. We had a chance to talk Pirates on Monday.

J.A. Happ had another scoreless outing on Monday. Tuesday I talked to him about the trade, the Pirates clubhouse, working with Ray and Clint, pitch selection and his new catchers.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A look back at the Pirates fantastic 18-game run

Last night the Pirates completed an 18-game stretch that I had called the most interesting stretch of games over the past 20 years. In reality it may have been the most interesting stretch in my 45 years following the team. They went 13-5 playing the the three division leaders and the three teams with the next best records in the NL. It all started with a pitching matchup between Francisco Liriano and Jon Lester that got rained out. The Pirates entered the Aug 4th matchup 5.5 games back of the Cardinals and 4 ahead of the Cubs. Here is what followed:

Game 1: Tuesday Aug 4, Pirates lose 5-0 to Cubs at PNC Park (0-1)

Things didn't start auspiciously. J.A. Happ made his Pirates debut and didn't make it through five. Jake Arrieta dominated the Pirates for seven innings. This is the guy the Pirates don't want to face in the wild card game. In three starts against the Bucs: 21 IP, 11 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 19 K 0.86 ERA 0.714 WHIP.

Game 2: Wednesday Aug 5, Pirates defeat Cubs 7-5 at PNC Park (1-1)

The Bucs jumped ahead early on a Polanco HR. Jeff Locke cruised through five, but imploded in the sixth giving up two homers that left things tied at 4. The Pirates countered with two in the bottom of the sixth and the bullpen made it stand up. It was notable that Mark Melancon gave up an earned run for the first time 34 appearances, dating back to May 11.

Game 3: Friday Aug 7, Pirates defeat Dodgers 5-4 in 10 at PNC Park (2-1)

The Clayton Kershaw-Gerrit Cole matchup that didn't live up to the hype. Polanco opened the game with a first-pitch home run that broke a 37-inning Kershaw scoreless streak. Both pitchers only went six innings with Kershaw giving up four runs and Cole giving up three. The Bucs won in the 10th on an Alvarez single to right that scored Kang.

Game 4: Saturday Aug 8, Pirates defeat Dodgers 6-5 at PNC Park (3-1)

This one, 6-4 after three, was highlighted by Francisco Liriano's first-ever extra base hit. It just happened to be a 3-run homer down the left field line off Mat Latos. The bullpen saved the day as Liriano only went three. This marked the start of an incredibly impressive run by Joe Blanton as he went three scoreless and got the win.

Game 5: Sunday Aug 9, Pirates defeat Dodgers 13-6 at PNC Park (4-1)

In a nationally-televised game on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Charlie Morton continued the run of poor outings by Pirates starters giving up 10 hits and 5 runs in five innings and left down 5-1. Andrew McCutchen hit one of three Pirates homers to make it 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth and then the Bucs scored 9 runs in the seventh, their most in any inning this year, and rolled to victory. Arquimedes Caminero began his own impressive run in this one going two scoreless for the win.

Game 6: Tuesday Aug 11, Pirates lose to Cards 4-3 at Busch Stadium III (4-2)

The start of a huge three game series with the division leaders saw some bad baseball by the Bucs. Leading 3-1 in the fifth Jeff Locke walked the first two batters. When the dust settled the Pirates were down 4-3 and that's how it would end as the Bucs went 2-for-9 with RISP. The Pirates fourth straight one-run loss in St. Louis left them six back of the Cards.

Game 7: Wednesday Aug 12, Pirates lose to Cards 4-2 at Busch Stadium III (4-3)

The Pirates horrible infield defense caught up with them in this one as Walker and Kang both made errors and Ramirez and Alvarez both should have been in the books as well. Cutch hit a 2-run homer briefly tying the game at 2, but Gerrit Cole got knocked out in the sixth after giving up 4 runs, 3 earned. The Pirates continued their untimely hitting going 0-for-10 with RISP.

Game 8: Thursday Aug 13, Pirates defeat Cards 10-5 at Busch Stadium III (5-3)

The Pirates finally broke through in St. Louis and they did it early and in a big way. They put up 7 in the first inning against Lance Lynn, highlighted by a 2-run bomb by Pedro Alvarez who always seems to hit best against the Redbirds. Liriano struggled early but got through six and got the first win by a Pirates starter in this stretch. The Pirates left St. Louis six back of the Cards.

Game 9: Friday Aug 14, Pirates defeat Mets 3-2 in 10 at Citifield (6-3)

J.A. Happ made the start after nine days off and being skipped the last time through the rotation. He struck out seven in 5.1 innings and a Polanco RBI single and Ramirez sac fly in the 10th gave Mark Melancon the cushion he needed as the bullpen got another win.

Game 10: Saturday Aug 15, Pirates defeat Mets 5-3 in 14 at Citifield (7-3)

The Pirates jumped out to a 3-0 lead and Charlie Morton cruised through 6. But just like Locke a week earlier, things imploded in just four batters in the 7th. A homer, strikeout, error by Ramirez, another homer and it was 3-3. Despite nine Ks, only four hits and a walk Morton left with a no-decision. The bullpen did the job going 7.2 scoreless highlighted by Blanton going 3 and striking out 6. Cervelli, Stewart and Rodriguez got hits in the 14th and the Bucs got another extra-inning win.

Game 11: Sunday Aug 16, Pirates defeat Mets 8-1 at Citifield (8-3)

The Jeff Locke-Matt Harvey matchup didn't favor the Pirates. The Pirates got one off the big righty on a second inning Alvarez homer and Jeff Locke managed to get through 5.1 before a rain delay stopped play. When things started back up Harvey was done and so were the Mets. Some terrible defense contributed to the Bucs scoring 7 runs in the seventh and eighth. Caminero got another win as the bullpen continued its great run going 3.2 scoreless.

Game 12: Monday Aug 17, Pirates lose 4-1 to Diamondbacks at PNC Park (8-4)

The Pirates were never in this one as Gerrit Cole was hit hard, giving up 3 runs in the first two innings. The Pirates went 1-for-9 with RISP and squandering chances in the sixth, seventh and eighth. The lone bright spot was a fifth inning Alvarez homer.

Game 13: Tuesday Aug 18, Pirates defeat Diamondbacks 9-8 in 15 at PNC Park (9-4)

This one looked to be a laugher as the Pirates took an 8-3 lead into the 8th. Liriano had been cruising, but the first two batters got on and the inning ended 8-6. The defense let Mark Melancon down in the 9th as errors by Kang and Rodriguez led to two unearned runs tying it at 8. Blanton and Caminero continued their shutdown ways, each going three scoreless and the Bucs plated one in the 15th on a Pedro Florimon walk-off triple.

Game 14: Wednesday Aug 19, Pirates defeat Diamondbacks 4-1 at PNC Park (10-4)

A Pirates starter gets just the second win during this stretch as J.A. Happ is superb through six giving up 2 hits and 0 runs. A 3-run second is more than enough and Melancon throws a filthy 9th, striking out the side.

Game 15: Thursday Aug 20, Pirates defeat Giants 4-0 at PNC Park (11-4)

Another great starting pitching effort, this time by Charlie Morton, 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 8K. Jared Hughes came in and got the final out of the 7th with the bases loaded. A 2-run HR by Neil Walker gave the bullpen some insurance.

Game 16: Friday Aug 21, Pirates lose 6-4 to Giants at PNC Park (11-5)

Madison Bumgarner made his return to the scene of the crime, having beaten the Pirates 8-0 in the 2014 wild card game at PNC. Another tough matchup for Jeff Locke and he wasn't up to the task giving up 11 hits and 6 runs in 5 innings. Bumgarner wasn't sharp but that was enough. Josh Harrison made his return from the DL.

Game 17: Saturday Aug 22, Pirates defeat Giants 3-2 at PNC Park (12-5)

Kang! Kang! Marte!. Three solo homers including a Marte walkoff in the 9th led the Pirates to victory. Gerrit Cole had his best outing in a month giving up just one unearned run and Melancon set the stage for victory with a six-pitch 9th. Kang was the star, but Marte also saved a homer in the second, robbing Cole's future brother-in-law Brandon Crawford.

Game 18: Sunday Aug 23, Pirates defeat Giants 5-2 at PNC Park (13-5)

A 3-run first set the stage and homers by Cutch and Pedro completed the scoring. Liriano went 5.1 innings without giving up a run and the bullpen continued its magic. Alvarez committed two more errors and Walker added another as the Pirates infield defense continues to be a concern. Jordy Mercer returned from the DL and was a late-inning defensive replacement.


The Pirates finish this stretch 13-5, .722%, scoring 92 runs and giving up 67. They gained two games on the Cards despite going 1-2 head-to-head. They actually lost a game to the Cubs who went 14-4, .778%. The starters went just 3-5 in this stretch, the bullpen 10-0.

Offensive Highlights:

Cutch .333/.468/.633 1.102 OPS, with 4 HR 13 RBI 16 BB 16 K (started 17/18)

Alvarez .360/.365/.700 1.065, with 5 HR 13 RBI 1 BB 17 K (started 13/18)

Kang .273/.351/.500 .851 OPS, with 4 HR 11 RBI 5 BB 15 K (started 17/18)

Cervelli .923 OPS
Polanco .903
Marte .896
Walker .798
Ramirez .744

Pitching Highlights:

Blanton 6 G 13.1 IP 9 H 0 R 5 BB 18 K 0.00 ERA 3-0 W-L

Caminero 9 G 12.2 IP 8 H 0 R 4 BB 14 K 0.00 ERA 3-0 W-L

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Great Pirates Infield Debate

Clint Hurdle is about to be confronted with a problem he's never encountered during his tenure as Pirates manager, too many starters, not enough spots. The Pirates left spring training with a clear starting eight and a bench that seemed stronger than in years past. After a slow start, the Bucs started to stack wins around the middle of May. And, after a slow start, offseason acquisition Jung Ho Kang started being a fixture in the Pirates lineup. Kang recorded his first career three-hit game in his last April start, then started 21 out of 28 games in May. With Kang's emergence the Bucs really had nine "everyday" position players for eight spots.

This was easily managed. Between the Pirates strategy of regularly resting players and playing platoon splits, Hurdle could get all nine regular playing time. Then, in early July third baseman Josh Harrison was lost to a hand injury and two weeks later Jordy Mercer followed him to DL with a sprained knee. That left the Pirates short an infielder. July 23 Neal Huntington acquired 37-year old Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs to fill the void at 3rd and Kang settled in as the everyday shortstop.

So, here we are a month later. Josh Harrison was activated from the DL Friday and Jordy Mercer was activated today. Now rather than nine everyday players, the Pirates have 10. How should Clint Hurdle manage playing time over the last six weeks of the season? Let's look at the pros and cons for each player and my expectations for playing time.

Jung Ho Kang:

Pro: Kang, one of the biggest surprises in MLB this season and a legitimate contender for NL Rookie of the Year, is going to get the most consistent playing time of the group. Clint is going to write his name on the lineup card every day. He's hitting .290/.363/.464 with an OPS+ of 127, second on the team to only Andrew McCutchen. He had the first 2-homer game of his Pirates career Saturday and has homered five times in August. Kang has also shown a great baseball IQ in his rookie season. He's probably the team's second best baserunner, behind Pedro, and is an excellent defensive third baseman with solid reactions and a very strong arm.

Con: There isn't much con for Kang. He is passable defensively at shortstop, but not much more. He lacks lateral agility and range. He certainly filled-in admirably, but long-term he is going to be the team's everyday third baseman.

Prediction: With 42 games left in the season, Kang will get a day off here and there, but he'll be a fixture in the lineup. My guess is that he will be at third more often than short.

Neil Walker:

Pro: Walker is having a very typical Neal Walker-season. It falls right in-line with every other year of his career, with last year being a slight outlier to the upside. If he plays more than 25 of the last 42 games it will be the second most in his career. Walker has been at his best in July and August with an OPS over .800 each month.

(Some other interesting statistical notes to Walker's season, batting 2nd he has an OPS over .800. Batting 4th or 6th, his other most frequent spots, he has an OPS below .700. Surprisingly, Walker has been much better on the road, .805 OPS, than at PNC, .707 OPS (in his career it's virtually identical, .766 vs. .773). And the Bucs go as Neil goes. In wins, 294 PAs, he has an .894 OPS. In losses, 178 PAs, it's .525.)

Con: Neil can't hit lefties. He has a .577 OPS this year which is below his .658 career number. For a point of reference Sean Rodriguez has a .586 OPS this year. Walker is also now a below-average defensive second baseman. He is still great making the turn, but his range is limited.

Prediction: Walker is still the Pirates best option at second against RHP, which is what they will face most-often the rest of the way. But he should be used in a straight platoon with Harrison starting against lefties. Neil will probably start 3 out of every 4 remaining games.

Josh Harrison:

Pro: Harrison is an easy-to-root-for, high-energy guy who can play a variety of positions.

Con: JHay is probably the Pirates most-polarizing player and it largely depends whether you believe he is the player who finished 9th in the MVP voting last year or the one he has been the rest of his career. He has not had a good season to-date. He has an OPS+ of 89 and his numbers, particularly slugging, are well below last year's. Harrison also has been surprisingly bad defensively at third. I think he's a pretty good fielder so I'm not overly concerned, but it is worth noting.

Prediction: Harrison is going to go back to the super-utility role he had most of last season. I actually don't see him getting more than a handful of starts at third because that is Kang's best position and it is the only one Ramirez can play. I assume Harrison will get 3-4 starts a week, but not more than that.

Jordy Mercer:

Pro: Jordy is the Pirates best defensive infielder. With Mercer at short and Kang at third the Pirates would immediately upgrade an infield defense that has gone from bad to atrocious the past two months.

Con: Mercer was an offensive black hole the first two months of the season but did post an OPS of .800 in 101 PAs in June before cooling off a bit and getting injured in July.

Prediction: I know it isn't going to be wildly popular, particularly if he doesn't hit right away, but I think Mercer is going to return to being the Pirates regular shortstop, getting 4-5 starts a week. Run prevention counts just as much as runs scored and with a staff that leads MLB in ground ball rate I think Clint is going to want Jordy's glove out there on a regular basis, which also upgrades third base by having Kang play there.

Aramis Ramirez:

Pro: Ramirez couldn't be a better teammate thus far. He has said all the right things. He's been willing to do some pregame work at first. He's said if he's is demoted to a bench role, he will accept it. He has said he just wants to contribute in any way to help the Pirates succeed in their goal of winning a World Series. A+

Con: Ramirez has not been good this year or in his short stint with the Pirates. In 97 PAs he has a .630 OPS. He's hit one HR after hitting 11 in 302 PAs with the Brewers. He's only walked three times and he has an OBP of .278. Oh, and his defense has been terrible. He has zero range.

Prediction: Right-handed bench bat. That's what he should be and that's what he's going to be. I'll be shocked if Ramirez makes 15 more starts this season and won't be at all surprised if it's less than 10. But he will be a nice upgrade to the bench.

Conclusion: With everyone now healthy, I think you will see the Pirates return to the nine guys for eight spots roster management that we saw the first half of the season. It will be a little different in that Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco will be in the lineup almost every night and that will cost Walker, Harrison and Mercer some playing time. Aramis Ramirez is going to be the odd man out.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Hghlights of my conversation with Pirates Assistant to the GM & pitching guru Jim Benedict (Part 1)

I had Jim Benedict on my show on Wednesday afternoon. I learn something about pitching every time I speak to Jim and this was no different. In encourage you to listen to the whole conversation, but here are some highlights:

On J.A. Happ: 

"He's a veteran....and a lot of times with veterans you can do a quick fix....Ray's really good at that for sure."

On acquiring Joe Blanton:

"He's always giving you everything he's got. So you know the pitching makeup is good. He's a strike-thrower. That never left him."

On Blanton coming back after taking a year off:

"When guys decide that it's over, that's a big decision to hang up your spikes and move on. And when a guy makes that decision he doesn't usually look back because it's a hard one.....It's not uncommon for guys who do come back, they go into the bullpen, they're ultra-aggressive, they've already ended it, they're just starting a new chapter. And what I see from him is an extremely confident, aggressive guy. He's nothing like the guy that retired. You have to evaluate him completely on what you see right now in another organization."

"That's a huge get. I just see aggression and just clarity, mental clarity, where he's just getting after it."

On scouting Arquimedes Caminero and guys like him:

"He's a great story. This is what you're capable of doing when you are building a bullpen, is look for guys like this who have flaws, who have command flaws, maybe they have velocity, maybe you see a breaking ball, then you don't, that means it's in there."

On acquiring Caminero:

"I said, man, if we do get him, I think I know what we can do, at least early to get rid of some of this extra energy....He (Ray Searage) got him in the strike zone. Then the deception was all velocity-related, so you didn't have deception. So during the big league year, and this is really a tribute to Ray (Searage) and Eucky (bullpen coach Euclides Rojas), during the major league season they have given him deception by toning him down, making him pitch, and making him throw behind in the count, making him use his split. The two-seam on the fastball vs. the four. So instead of always trying to light up the gun, always being a prospect, all of a sudden you've got a guy who can pitch at any time in the game because he's toning it down, he's arrived. That's the way I look at it. Knock on wood. This is what you look for all year long, guys like this, who are flawed, that you bring in and you have talented people to work with them and bring them up to their potential.

In Part 2 we talked about Gerrit Cole in Jameson Taillon. Fascinating stuff. I'll have it up over the weekend.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Pirates bench, September call-ups and 40-man roster issues.

The Pirates Opening Day roster had a bench that consisted of backup catcher Chris Stewart, utilityman Sean Rodriguez, infielder Jung Ho Kang and first basemen/outfielders Corey Hart and Andrew Lambo. (Lambo's spot opened up because GM Neal Huntington traded Travis Snider to the Orioles for two minor-league lefthanders in late January, a move that was questioned by many, including me. It looks like a great deal now as Snider just signed a minor-league deal with the team after being DFA'd by Baltimore.) On paper the bench looked to be an offensive upgrade even with Kang being a complete unknown and Hart being a lottery ticket.

Stewart and Rodriguez have been with the team the entire season. Stewart has again proved very capable in his role, even though it has proven very difficult for him to hit a baseball really, really hard.  SRod has been....I'm not sure a singular adjective describes Rodriguez's performance this season. With the bat he's been horrific, posting a .577 OPS in 198 PAs. And of course last night he had his first three hit game of the season. With the glove he's been tremendous, playing five different positions and being a reliable defense replacement, particularly at first. And of course two nights ago he made his first error and almost cost the Pirates the game. As the 25th man, Rodriguez has a role.

Kang has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations and is in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. Injuries have ensured his everyday spot in the lineup and I don't expect that to change as players return. Lambo and Hart disappointed early, got injured and haven't been seen since. In their stead a parade of players, Jose Tabata, Steve Lombardozzi, Gorkys Hernandez, Brent Morel, Jaff Decker, Pedro Florimon, Travis Ishikawa and Michael Morse have filled the three vacant roles.

With the addition of an additional bullpen arm for last night's game and the DFA'ing of the previous night's hero Pedro Florimon, the Pirates bench currently consists of Stewart, Rodriguez, Ishikawa and Morse. The rehab assignments of both Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer will end shortly and both will be activated. Barring any unforeseen injuries, the extra pitcher, Josh Wall, will be sent down when Harrison returns and Ishikawa will be DFA'd when Mercer returns. At that point, no matter how Clint Hurdle chooses to mix and match his lineup, he will have, by far, the strongest bench he's had during his Pirates tenure.

That brings us to September 1 and roster expansion. Baseball is an odd game. The season is played under one set of rules for five months and 130 games and then a different set of rules for the last month of games.

The Pirates will look to add depth across the board, but every player added to the September roster must be on the 40-man roster. Currently some of the obvious choices aren't, so space needs to be created and that is going to leave Neal Huntington with some interesting decisions. (Note: the Pirates 40-man currently has one open spot.)

Here is a list of all the players I view as candidates to be called-up and their current 40-man status. Those in red I think will get the call:

Position Players on the 40-man:

C Elias Diaz
C Tony Sanchez
INF Alen Hanson
OF Jaff Decker

Position Players not on the 40-man:

INF/OF Corey Hart (60-day DL)
INF/OF Andrew Lambo (60-day DL)
INF/OF Travis Ishikawa (assuming DFA'd & re-signed)
INF Pedro Florimon (if clears waivers & outrighted)
OF Travis Snider

Pitchers on the 40-man:

A.J. Burnett (currently 15-day DL)
Bobby LaFromboise
John Holdzkom
Rob Scahill (currently 15-day DL)
Josh Wall (will be sent down this week)

Pirates not on the 40-man:

Radhames Liz
Vance Worley

So who gets the nod and what are the corresponding moves? Let's start with the pitchers this time. Guys on the 15-day DL don't require any corresponding moves, so Burnett and Scahill are locks if they are healthy. I also expect LaFromboise, lefty, and Wall to be recalled as insurance arms. Injuries have made this a lost season for Holdzkom.

Radhames Liz has been fantastic since moving into a starting role in AAA, he will be added. So that uses up the one open 40-man spot. I also think Worley will be added. To make room I'm assuming the Pirates will DFA Deolis Guerra or move him to the 60-day DL.

The position players are much more difficult to predict, with catcher is the most interesting position. The Pirates will definitely add a third catcher in September. Elias Diaz is likely to be recalled because he is a much better defensive catcher than Sanchez and the Pirates don't need to be concerned with service time as he is likely to start 2016 in AAA. Sanchez could be called up as a bench bat, there is no chance he will catch, but I also think there is a chance he could by DFA'd if a roster spot is needed because he won't be in the organization next year. For now I'm leaving him off, but, if no spot is needed, he could be recalled as a parting gift from the organization.

I think Alen Hanson will make his ML debut in September even if he only serves as a pinch-runner. The Bucs don't needed to be worried about his service-time clock starting. Jaff Decker is in exactly the same spot as Sanchez. He could be added, but he is the loser in the Travis Snider signing and he is just as likely to be DFA'd if a spot is needed.

Snider is certain to be added. That creates the need for a another spot. If both Ishikawa and Florimon are in the organization, I could see them possibly being added as well, but things are too unclear at this point so I will leave them off. I don't think Hart or Lambo will make it back from injury.

Who is DFA'd to create the roster spot for Snider? Here is the list. Decker, Sanchez or someone else?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My interview with Dave Schoenfield discussing pennant races, MVP voting and the playoff format

I had Dave Schoenfield, editor of the Sweet Spot blog on (Pedro Florimon and the Bucs lead today's Top 5) on with me yesterday. We took a tour around the major leagues and looked and the playoff races. We also discussed what is behind the Pirates success and are they the team we thought they would be before the season. Different people have different takes on what MVP means. Does the MVP have to be from a playoff team, and if so where does that put Andrew McCutchen in the race? We finished up talking about the playoff format and whether it needs to be changed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My interview with Travis Sawchik, discussing Gerrit Cole, managing Morton & Locke and infield defense

Yesterday Travis Sawchik was a guest on my show. If you missed his article on Gerrit Cole over the weekend, it is a must-read. We discussed Cole at length, how Clint Hurdle should manage Pirates starters Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke who both recently had very effective starts blow up on them in a matter of batters and talked about the Pirates infield defense and what they should do when Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer return. I really enjoyed it, hope you do as well.

As a programming note I will have Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict on my show on Wednesday at 5 pm on 970 ESPN.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Don't overlook the Pirates offense during the bullpen's stunning run

In their just-completed nine-game run against the three National League division leaders, the Pirates went 7-2. They swept the Dodgers at PNC Park, lost two-of-three to the Cards in St. Louis and then swept the Mets at Citifield.

While the Bucs bullpen has gotten a ton of credit for the team's recent run, and rightly so, (more on that later), let's not overlook an offense that put up 5 or more runs in six of those nine games. The Pirates are a stunning 63-13 when scoring three or more runs, largely because of the fantastic starting pitching they got in the first half of the season. But that hasn't been the case since the All-Star break. They have relied on an offense that has been much improved in the second half. In 88 games before the ASB, the Bucs as a team posted a slash line of .256/.317/.381 generating a .698 OPS. In 27 games since the break they've gone .271/.333/.443, an OPS of .776. The power surge has been particularly notable, as reflected in the slugging numbers above. Before the break the Bucs hit 67 homers or .76/gm. Since then they've hit 31, 1.15/gm and have homered in each of their last 10 matchups. Before the break they were averaging 4.0 runs/gm. After the break, a full run better at 5.0.

The pitching has been a different story. In the first half opposing hitters posted a slash line of .242/.304/.341, .645 OPS. The staff had a 2.86 ERA, second best in the game. Since the ASB hitters have slashed .281/.352/.433, .785 OPS, even better than the numbers Pirates hitters have put up, and the team ERA is 4.33.

But the second half numbers mask what is really going on with the Pirates staff. Since the break the Pirates starters have been getting bombed. After posting a 3.05 ERA pre-ASB, second to only the Cards, they been lit to the tune of 5.10, third worst in the NL. While the underlying metrics suggest the starters have been a bit unlucky, with BABip going from .300 to .362 and HR/9 going from 0.60 to 0.89, the reality is the results are significantly worse.

Cue the bullpen, which Clint Hurdle has had to do a lot lately. The Bucs pen has gone from very good to fantastic over the last few weeks. Let's take a look at what they did in this most recent nine-game stretch.

Vs. LA at PNC Park:

Relievers by appearance in the series, IP (Soria-2, Watson-2, Melancon-2, Bastardo-2, Blanton-3, Caminero-2, Hughes-1)

14 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 12 K, 1.29 ERA, 1.214 WHIP

Vs. StL at Busch

Relievers (Caminero-1, Bastardo-2, Hughes-1, Soria-1, Blanton-1, Watson-1.2, Melancon-1)

8.2 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 2.08 ERA, 1.154 WHIP

Vs. NYM at Citifield

Relievers (Hughes-2.2, Bastardo-3, Caminero-2.2, Melancon-2, Soria-1.2, Watson-1, Blanton-3)

16 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 17 K, 0.56 ERA, 0.500 WHIP

In the 9 games combined

38.2 IP, 26 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 9 BB, 35 K, 0 HR, 1.16 ERA, 0.905 WHIP

The win Sunday for Caminero was the bullpen's 16th consecutive win, the longest streak in MLB since the record-setting Pirates pen of 1909 won 22 in a row.

Ten days ago I called this stretch of 19 games (now 18 due to the rainout vs. the Cubs) the most-interesting stretch of games in the last 20 years. The Bucs have gone 8-3 in the first 11 and now come home for three with the Diamondbacks and four with the Giants. I thought winning 11 of 18 would be a success. 12 of 18 would be fantastic. And if the Pirates go 6-1 or 7-0? I imagine the Cards are going to find that objects in the rear-view mirror are getting awfully close.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Pirates Defensive (In)Efficiency

The past three years the Pirates have been a pretty good defensive team. The numbers and the eye-test generally matched up. There were plus defenders at short, catcher, center and left. Capable defenders at second and third and passable guys at first and in right. In addition the Pirates have been aggressive in adopting shifts and that has undoubtedly helped their ability to turn batted balls into outs.

Defensive efficiency isn't the perfect team metric. Loosely, it's the inverse of BABip. It measures how often a team's defense converts a ball in play into an out. It doesn't track double plays, assists or errors, but it's a simple way to see if a team is doing it's job in the field.

From Baseball Prospectus' glossary page explaining defensive efficiency:

The Defensive Efficiency spectrum based on the 2011 season:

Excellent - Tampa Bay .735 (1st)
Great - Texas .722
Average - Toronto .710
Poor - Pittsburgh .700
Horrendous - Minnesota .693 (30th)

Here is how the Pirates graded out the last three seasons:

2012: 10th .714  (range: .723 - .675)

2013: 5th .715 (range: .727 - .686)

2014: 11th .710 (range: .728 - .685)

The 2015 Pirates have been a different story. They are a terrible defensive team weighed down by their horrific infield defense. At first Pedro Alvarez has been a disaster. As I've mentioned before, Alvarez's inability to transition to first is the single most surprising thing about this Pirates season. Neil Walker is now a below-average defensive second baseman. He's solid at turning the double play but his range is poor. Jordy Mercer is a plus defender at short, but he's been out a month and Jung Ho Kang has been average in his stead. Kang is an excellent defensive third baseman, but most of the starts there have gone to Josh Harrison, surprisingly bad this season, and Aramis Ramirez, a disaster since coming over from the Cubs. It shows in the numbers:

2015: 25th .693 (range .722 - .678)

Last night in their 3-2 win over the Mets, the Pirates fielded a lineup of Alvarez at first, Walker at second, Kang at short and Ramirez at third. One thing I'm virtually certain of, none of those guys will be the starter at that position next year.