Author Archives: jrollison

Pittsburgh Pirates Could See Great Return for David Freese

Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates just went through one of their most brutal stretches in recent memory, it is still too early to determine if they will be buyers or sellers at the 2016 MLB Trade Deadline.

With the two Wild-Card system, more teams remain competitive longer into the summer. This results in more trades, but also can result in teams who are likely out of it to hold onto their chips longer.

In the case of the 2016 Pirates, their best trade chip could be dealt in either scenario could be the steal of the trade season, should they decide to deal him.

A Bargain Like No Other

When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed David Freese to a 1-year/$3 million deal, many regarded it as a bargain. Our own Ethan Obstarczyk had this to say as he advocated the signing:

In the off chance that he remains unsigned once spring training gets underway, the Pirates should definitely consider offering him a relatively cheap one-year contract. His numbers as of late may not be up there with what he did in his heyday, but he would improve the team that Clint Hurdle puts on the field each day this summer.

-Ethan Obstarczyk

If we accept the common valuation of 1 WAR costs about $7 million, the signing has already paid for itself, as the 2011 World Series MVP has already put up a 1.5 WAR as per Baseball Reference. His slashline of .294/.374/.439 leaps off of the page after several down years. He has added a new position after transitioning over to first base with relative ease.

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Do the Pittsburgh Pirates miss Jim Benedict?

Do the Pittsburgh Pirates miss pitching guru Jim Benedict more than expected?

This past off-season the Miami Marlins hired away former Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching guru, Jim Benedict and named him their Vice President of Pitching Development, which is a new position specifically created for the for the former minor league pitcher turned advance scout. Despite being credited hand-in-hand with Ray Searage for their numerous reclamation projects, Benedict’s specific contributions were at times difficult to fully quantify.

With Bendict gone, the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates have seen their pitching devolve from an area of strength to a current weakness. Is this simply due to the loss of Benedict? Or are there other factors at play? Can we draw any conclusions from Benedict’s new team’s performance?

2015 Staff Comparison

Last season the Pirates’ pitching staff was second in both ERA (3.21) and FIP (3.36) while the Marlins were eighth (4.02) and ninth (3.98) in those respective categories. The National League average was 3.90 for ERA and 3.88 for FIP.

FIP and ERA are only part of the story for these pitching staffs. The Pirates under Searage and Benedict became notorious for pitching inside as no team has hit more batters than the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2013. I decided to look at inner third strike totals (for both left- and right-handed hitters) in relation to the team’s FIP. As the Pirates used inside pitching so effectively under Bendeict and Searages’s philosophy, this may give us a good indicator on how much of an effect Bendict’s presence might bring about.

I used each team’s top three pitchers in terms of FIP for both 2015 and 2016. For the Pirates, 2015 looked like this:

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The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates are not a Shifty Bunch

The Pittsburgh Pirates are shifting less in 2016 and their pitching is worse. Are these two related?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have earned a reputation around the league of being a very analytical front office and with good reason. The team’s use of FIP and xFIP to find value starting pitching is well known, but the shift is where the Pirates really earned their stripes as a numbers-centric team.

From 2013-2015, the Pirates shifted a total of 2,446 times, which was good for third in all of baseball behind only the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays, two teams with sabermetric driven front offices of their own.

The 2016 season is about one month old and the Pirates shifting totals are way down from the past three seasons. They have shifted only 214 times, which is the 12th most in the league. The Pirates spent a lot of the offseason discussing their change in outfield defense by playing their outfielders a bit more shallow, but they most certainly did not mention using the shift less. What changed?

Over the winter, the Pirates traded Charlie Morton to the Philadelphia Phillies and A.J. Burnett retired. These two pitchers both have ground ball percentages over 50 percent, which is why the team used the shift very heavily in their starts. In their place, the team added Juan Nicasio and Jon Niese. Both pitchers get ground balls below 50 percent of the time. The rotation hold overs of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano both also have ground ball rates below 50 percent. Only Jeff Locke (51 percent) has a ground ball rate of above 50 percent.

You hear Clint Hurdle talking about not trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, so it begs the question, are the Pirates shifting less because their rotation isn’t as ground ball-centric as in years past? The Pirates are generating less ground balls as a team this season, but despite that, their entire starting pitching rotation remains above the league average of 44 percent. Even though they are down with the loss of Morton and Burnett, they still are an above average team.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates roster that could have been

After a second consecutive exit from the playoffs by way of the wild card game, the Pittsburgh Pirates promised a bigger payroll this season, but could they have done better?

 

In December, Neal Huntington and Frank Connelly both hinted the Pirates target payroll would be approximately $105 million for opening day.  As it stands, the Pirates opening day payroll was about $100 million.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the team’s pitching staff wasn’t off to a rough start, the first base platoon partner wasn’t gone after two weeks, and the Cubs weren’t the center of the baseball universe at the moment.  The saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20,” but we consider what could have been if the Pirates had spent their money a little differently.

Let’s start with the breakdown of the opening day payroll broken down by position: (Note: Only players included on opening day 25-man roster/DL are included below.)

payroll-breakdown-1024x576

 

The rules for this little experiment are simple.  We cannot exceed $105 million, and our payroll has to include 28 players due to Jared Hughes, Elias Diaz, and Jung-Ho Kang starting the season on the major league disabled list.  If we choose any players the Pirates did not sign, we will assume the Pirates could have signed said player(s) to the same terms.  Knowing what we know now, here’s a look at what the Pirates roster could have been.

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The Numbers Behind John Jaso’s Early Success

John-Jaso

To say nothing of his more-than-capable defense at first base, John Jaso has been a revelation at the top spot in the batting order for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

John Jaso has put up some solid slash lines over his career, so it should not come as much of a surprise that he currently carries a .414 on-base percentage as part of an .897 OPS.

How has Jaso been able to acclimate himself so quickly and effectively to the top of the Pirates’ lineup?

A Solid Foundation

For Jaso, his propensity for quality plate appearances starts with the first pitch.

His F-Strike percentage (percentage of plate appearances that start with a strike) clocks in at 53.3 percent. That figure represents the third-best on the club, behind Starling Marte (52.5) and Gregory Polanco (51.6). While the importance of first-pitch strikes has been debated in recent years, good things happen for Jaso on a 1-0 count. More on that later.

In looking a bit deeper at what Jaso is actually seeing on the first pitch, the four-seam fastball is seen the most at 46 percent. It likely may not even matter what type of pitch Jaso sees first, as chances are it won’t be anywhere near the strike zone. His Zone % (percentage of pitches seen in the strike zone) is 47.8 percent, which is not significant on its own until coupled with his O-Swing % (percentage of pitches outside of the zone that a batter swings at).

Jaso’s O-Swing percentage clocks at 16.5 percent, nearly two-thirds better than the league average of 30 percent. Incredibly, he isn’t even the best on this Pirates team in this regard. That honor belongs to David Freese and his 15.7 percent clip. Regardless, Jaso’s rate is fourth-best in the National League for anyone with 50 or more plate appearances.

The foundation that Jaso lays in his plate appearances almost feels as if he dictates to pitchers how the PA will go. He absolutely refuses to chase anything out of the zone, and such an approach can force an opposing pitcher to offer something he may not necessarily want to offer on the next pitch, which usually comes at a 1-0 count.

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Will Justin Masterson be another Pirates Masterpiece?

With the latest addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to do some maneuvering to accommodate all of their starting pitching depth.

 

Consistency, it’s not the first term that would be used to describe Justin Masterson, who was signed a few hours ago to a minor league deal by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  You can find his full career stats as part of Jason Rollison’s initial thoughts here.  Drafted in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft, Masterson has yet to fulfill the top of the rotation potential that made him so highly regarded early in his career.

It started out bright when he made his major league debut on April 24, 2008 with the Red Sox against the Los Angeles Angels.  He allowed one run over six innings in that start.  That year, Masterson would go on to post a 3.67 ERA over nine starts and a 2.36 ERA as a reliever.  For his career, he holds a 4.42 ERA as a starter and a 3.17 ERA as a reliever.  Both sound equally bad, but in baseball, statistics are only half of the story.

For his entire career, Masterson has been treated as a swing man capable of starting or coming out of the bullpen.  He has only had two season in which he was exclusively used as a starter.  That approach can be mentally and emotionally taxing on a pitcher, especially one expected to be an up and coming superstar in the sport when he made his debut.

 

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Pittsburgh Pirates: The tale of the outfield extension

In signing Gregory Polanco to an extension, the Pittsburgh Pirates hope lightning can strike not once, not twice, but three times.

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates have gained a reputation in identifying and exploiting market inefficiencies.

This is shown by the many strategies that have been taken by the ball club to compete as a small market club in the increasingly hard to comprehend MLB. Whether this is done by buying low on pitchers or taking low impact high velocity relievers to create a hammer of a back end of the bullpen. The team has simply done more with less in the last five years than any team in MLB.

The major action that Pittsburgh Pirates have taken to is locking up players before they hit arbitration. In doing so, the club has done a great job in creating certainty and ensuring that the value proposition is tipped towards their favor.

Starting with Andrew McCutchen in 2012, the Pirates have locked up four young and up and coming outfielders to contracts that cover some of the last arbitration and first free agency years. The club has gone about locking in a rate that benefits the Pirates in the market and provides the player with some guaranteed money in an ever-changing financial landscape.

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For the Pittsburgh Pirates, there is no next year

Following a quiet offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2016 hoping a large group of top prospects are prepared to make significant contributions to the big league club down the stretch.

In 2006, the Pittsburgh Pirates started their “We Will” campaign.  Of course, that year is well remembered as the year the Pirates decided to commit to the rebuilding effort.  The next year, Neal Huntington would be brought in as the new general manager, and the completion of the rebuild process was brought to fruition in just six years after a rotating door of front office staff and players failed to reverse the losing streak that nearly forced the team to move.

The “We Will” campaign was meant to embody the work ethic and integrity expected of every member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  Instead, it became the target of ridicule from many fans.  The banners hanging from the façade of PNC Park did not help matter as disgruntled fans poured out following loss after loss.

Even in success, Pirates fans couldn’t dodge the pangs of defeat.  Following the success of the team in 2013 making a laughingstock of Johnny Cueto in the wild card game and taking the Cardinals to the brink of elimination before melting down in game five of the NLDS, the fans and players expected more, but who could have possibly anticipated the wonders that were Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta?

 

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Pittsburgh Pirates to see better production from bottom

As the Pittsburgh Pirates lurch forward towards Opening Day, the debate over the everyday batting order continues.

 

With John Jaso now seemingly entrenched at the top of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup, coupled with Andrew McCutchen pointed towards remaining in the number two slot, many observers now wonder what the rest of the batting order may look like against the Cardinals on April 3rd.

Despite the focus on the top of the order, it may be the bottom of the order that can take a step forward for the club.

In 2015, the seventh and eighth hitters for the Pirates performed reasonably well.

There are a couple of interesting notes when considering the Pirates’ performance form the bottom two spots in the order.

First, the 114 rating for wRC+ (weighted runs created +) led the NL from the seventh spot (100 is considered an “average” score). This will likely continue for 2016, as we will see shortly.

From the eighth spot, the wRC+ rating of 93 might seem underwhelming, yet only two teams in the NL had a rating of 100 or more. The St. Louis Cardinals were far and away the most productive in this regard, with a 110 rating.

2016 will likely be another story completely, as the changes at the top have ramifications that will be felt all the way through the order. While Pedro Alvarez‘s free swinging ways often led to his insertion in the lower third, his departure and a re-focusing on quality at bats results in a case of addition by subtraction.

If spring batting orders over the past week are any indication, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco or Josh Harrison could be reliable bats at the 7th spot.

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Pittsburgh Pirates have options to leadoff vs LHP

With John Jaso firmly in place as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ preferred lead-off option against RHP, who should take that spot versus LHP?

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates have likely found a great lead-off candidate in John Jaso. With a career on-base percentage of .361, Jaso now seems like a fine, and perhaps obvious candidate for the honors. Yet it was not too long ago that many – including this very site – were debating between Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison to lead off a potentially potent Pirates offense.

Is that still the case? Are those still viable options for the lead-off role?

As capable as Jaso has looked in the spot, history would indicate he should not be used there against left-handed pitching. The six-year veteran’s career splits against southpaws leaves a lot to be desired.

If the Pirates accept that hitting Jaso first against lefties is not an ideal situation, here are the candidates to fill that role.

 

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