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.