Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Dozen Pirates Thoughts 13 Games In

Last Thursday afternoon the Pirates blew a 3-1, 8th inning lead in Fenway Park, lost 4-3 and dropped to 3-6. They were in the midst of a four-game losing streak which started with being swept by the lowly Reds at PNC Park where they were outscored 22-5. In nine games they had scored 28 runs and given up 47. And they looked as bad as the numbers suggested.  As the headed out on a six-game road trip to Wrigley and Busch it was fair to ask if they were going to be relevant in May, let alone September.

On Sunday the Bucs finished a three-game sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley, coming back to win games in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings, evening their record at 6-6. So much for drawing conclusions two weeks into the season. After Monday night's 2-1 loss to St. Louis the Pirates are 6-7. Some thoughts:

Starting Pitching

1.) The starters have been better than expected. The Braves are second in the NL with a 3.41 ERA, the Pirates are fifth at 3.48. In the 11 games not started by Tyler Glasnow the starters have compiled a 3.16 ERA and Glasnow certainly looked much better after a rough first inning last time out.

2.) A lot has been written about Pirates pitchers working up in the zone more often this season. While the eye test and Francisco Cervelli's bobbing up-and-down behind the plate suggests it's true, the Bucs starters have registered a slightly higher GB% so far this year, 48.3% (5th in MLB) vs. last year, 47.6%.

3.) Two numbers to pay attention to:

HR/9: The starters have the 5th lowest HR/9 rate in MLB at 0.72. Last year's ML-leading Mets staff averaged 0.94 HR/9. The regression will occur at some point.

K/9: The starters K/9 rate of 6.48 is 27th in MLB. While Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are often viewed as strikeout pitchers because of their mid-90s heat, that hasn't ever really been the case. Cole has never averaged a strikeout/inning and his strikeout numbers are red-flag low to start this season (more on that later this week). Much of this may be the Pirates emphasis on efficiency and trying to finish ABs in three pitches, but it's worth keeping an eye on. Glasnow is the only member of the rotation likely to register gaudy K numbers.

Relievers:

Pirates starters have only worked 75 innings. It's hard to draw many intelligent conclusions or trends from that. The relievers have worked 42.1 innings with no individual going more than 8, so there is even less substance to any analysis.

4.) As mentioned here before the start of the season, I'm higher on the Pirates bullpen than most. In Felipe Rivero the Pirates have the opportunity to use a guy much like Terry Francona used Andrew Miller last year. With Tony Watson slotted into the closer role, similar to Cody Allen, Clint Hurdle is free to use his best reliever in the most-optimal way. Nate Silver's article on Monday introducing the Goose Egg, lays out the best ways to leverage a team's best relievers, eschewing the save stat. #FreeRivero

5.) Trevor Williams has looked surprisingly good transitioning to the bullpen. An 8:0 K:BB ratio in his first five innings is impressive. When the Pirates inevitably need a sixth starter it will be interesting to see if Williams gets an opportunity or if one of the guys stretched out in Indy gets the first crack at it.

Hitting:

It's been a bad two weeks, Wrigley not withstanding. The Bucs are 13th in the NL in runs, 14th in home runs, 14th in total bases and last in RBI. Their slash line is an anemic .228/307/.347, ahead of only the struggling Cardinals in team OPS.

6.) Josh Bell and Jordy Mercer have gotten off to horrific starts with both hitting below .200 and OPSing around .500 and none of Marte, McCutchen or Polanco has picked up the slack.

7.) The Bucs would most certainly be a better team with Jung Ho Kang, but it's unlikely he would have been any better than the two guys replacing him, David Freese and Adam Frazier. Freese has a 1.010 OPS, is 4th in the NL in OBP at .467* and has 10 walks in just 45 plate appearances. I pounded the table for Frazier to be an every day player before the season and he appears to be hitting his way into just that. His OPS+ of 133 is second on the team.

*Former Pirates farmhand Robbie Grossman, now with the Twins, leads MLB in OBP.

8.) Last year Francisco Cervelli was last in all of MLB among players with 300 PAs in ISO.* I don't know if it was the hand injury or something else, but he was unable to drive the ball. This year he leads the team in ISO at .233, up from .058 last year and his exit velocity is up for 86.6 last year to 89.9 this year. He looks like a completely different hitter.

*ISO = SLG - Batting Average

9.) The Bucs are tied for the ML lead in HBP with 9 and Josh Harrison must have set some kind of record by getting hit in four straight plate appearances Sunday and Monday. This is nothing new to the Bucs. In 2013 they led the majors in HBP (Reds were 2nd), in '14 they were second to the Cards, in '15 they lead again and in '16 they were second to the Cubs. NL Central: the beanball division.

Defense/Base Running:

It's hard to imagine anyone has been worse than the Pirates defensively and on the bases so far this season. Starling Marte is seen as an elite defender, but as the Statcast data has shown us, most of his value is tied to his arm. Harrison, Mercer and Cervelli probably pass for average at their positions, but the rest are below average. The Bucs are 24th in DRS at -3 and tied for last here.

10.) Their is a strong perception across baseball that the Pirates have a good defensive outfield because they have "three centerfielders" out there. This has existed for a couple years now. It's not accurate. Statcast data shows the Pirates OFs don't make many of the tough plays and in 2016 they were next-to-last in percentage of flyballs turned into outs at 88%. This year they are worse, 82% going into Monday's game. Route efficiency doesn't appear to be ideal for any of the three outfielders. I'll dig deeper into the data as the season goes on.

11.) On Saturday the Pirates gave SS Jordy Mercer his first day off starting Frazier in his place. Frazier booted the first ball hit to him in the first inning leading to two Cubs runs. The team doesn't have a backup SS on the roster. Frazier, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson and even Harrison can stand there for a few innings or a game when needed, but if Mercer were to miss any extended time the Pirates would have to make a roster move.

12.) The Pirates are 9/17 in stolen base attempts. Their 56% success rate is 14th in the NL. That doesn't include numerous runners who have been picked off. On Saturday the Pirates had three runners thrown out on the bases and an attempted sacrifice bunt turned into a double play. It's been open season to run on the Pirates as well. Opponents are 15/16 on the year.

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