31 May 2012

Preparation for Domination

Let me preface this post by saying that I know how surreal and possibly difficult to put into perspective how dependable and constant our pitching staff has been this season.  But folks they are good; they are damn good. If this Pirates as a team could hit even just a modicum better there would be a serious buzz around the league.  Unfortunately, because our pitchers haven't been able to put up big numbers in the win column, a truly remarkable season is going for the most part unnoticed.

Let's go inside the numbers to possibly get a better picture of how we stack up with other teams.  The obvious stat that gets the most attention is the Pirates major league 3rd best ERA mark.  Pirate pitchers also come in 4th in hits allowed, something we haven't seen for a long time in Pittsburgh.  More specifically, we boast 5 pitchers that have held hitters to under a .200 avg.  (Grilli, Lincoln, Hanrahan, Watson, and McDonald)  Speaking of JMac, just how good is he? As of late, we know he has been near lights out. In fact in the month of May he went 3-1 with a 1.54 ERA and 39K's.  If you're keeping track at home, that's nearly 8 K's a start.  In case you are still hesitant to consider McDonald an ace, let me introduce you to the company he has with his .96 WHIP: G. Gonzalez, J. Weaver, J. Verlander, and B. Beachy.  Those aren't just aces, they are the best pitchers in all of baseball.  It isn't just McDonald who is bolstering the front end of the rotation, this years "Killer B's," Bedard and Burnett, have been doing their fair share as well.  Including last night's performance, Burnett has now allowed only 2 runs or less in all but one of his starts. Take away the disaster against the Cardinals on May 2 and Burnett has allowed only 10 ERs all season.  (The May 2 game in St. Louis he allowed 12 ERs in 2.2 IP)  If you credit that start as a statistical anomaly, Burnett's ERA in all his other starts sits at 2.10.  Bedard, like Burnett, has allowed 2 runs or less in 8 of his 10 starts.  Potentially the only thing currently lacking from Bedard is an ability to go deeper into games. 

Most impressive of all, I think, are some of the numbers the bullpen has put up.  It has become a forgone conclusion that if the Pirates have a lead heading into the 7th inning that they will come out on the winning side.  In fact, the Bucs are 17-1 when entering the 7th inning ahead (the only loss belongs to SP Kevin Correia on May 20 against the Tigers) and are 4th in Major League Baseball in holds with 32 so far this season.
Leading the way, and pitching himself into the role of the everyday set up man has been Jason Grilli. A year removed from pitching for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, Grilli has transformed into one of the best set up guys in baseball.  Not only is he getting batters out but he has one of the best swing and miss percentages among relievers and boasts a 15.75 K/9 which is an insane number in and of itself.  That number is more than double that of J-Mac's 7 K/9.  With 35 K's in 20 IP he is striking out nearly two thirds of the batters he has faced.
Brad Lincoln is also having an amazing season allowing only 3 runs in 13 appearances and carrying a 1.07 ERA.  As I scrolled through relievers statistics, I was astonished to see Lincoln's name at the top of almost every statistical category.  Throw in the effectiveness that Cruz and Watson have been able to have against left handers and you can see why our bullpen stacks up against even the best.  

As noticed last year, sustaining this level of success can be a tricky thing but with an abundance of reliable arms and a seemingly healthy and more experienced staff, I have no reason to believe we will see the production drop off that we saw the second half of last year.  Now if only we could hit...

25 May 2012

“Get Back to Me on Memorial Day”

  The three most important factors in real-estate are location, location, location.  The baseball statistician’s equivalent could be sample size, sample size, sample size.  Obviously, the bigger the better. A good rule of thumb for the starting point of a good sample size to start making a reasonable assessment of a player’s performance is about 150 AB or 50 IP. In a MLB season that tends to fall around Memorial Day.  It’s tempting to make gut calls after the first two weeks.  On April 20th Yoenis Céspedes was on pace to be the MVP and fanatics were going bonkers. A good expression in April is “Hey, get back to me on Memorial Day.”   Céspedes has since cooled down and looks more like a prospect encountering struggles in his first year in the bigs.  Now of course, they don’t give out the MVP trophies on Memorial Day either but at least we a have a bigger sample size. Well, fire up the grill(i) and break out the hotdogs because it’s Memorial Day and time to remember those who have served and reflect on some the fanatic thoughts about the Bucs we had two weeks in to season and what we think now that we have a little bigger sample size.

April 20th: The fanatic in us was thinking: Alex Presley is legit!
Memorial Day Thoughts: Alex Presley is not legit, yet.
There are certainly reasons to like Alex.  But the plate discipline isn’t there. As a corner outfielder with limited power he needs to hit and get on base, a lot, and won’t get there by free swinging. He looked overmatched at the plate.  He needs some more time in AAA. However, he still represents one of our best bets at improving our run production in the short term.

April 20th Barajas another free agent bust!
Memorial Day: Barajas is going to be what we are paying for: A veteran catcher to help work with our young pitchers with a little pop.

April 20th: Grilli Looks like a replacement level reliever.
Memorial Day:  Of all the possible criticisms of Huntington, his ability to put together a bullpen is not one of them.  At age 36 with 2.12 ERA Grilli looks like one of the best set up men in the league.  His 18% increase over his career strand percentage would be concerning but can be easily explained by his ridiculous 15.9 K/9.  He might even carry some moderate trade value. 

April 20th: Nate McLouth was a terrible signing!
Memorial Day: Ok, we right about that one.  Huntington must agree with the “get back to me on Memorial Day” philosophy, waiting until Memorial Day weekend to decide that McLouth wasn’t going to resurrect his career with Pittsburgh.

April 20th: Barmas is a bust!
Memorial Day: Unfortunately the fanatic in us on April 20th might be right.  I hate it when I hear the phrase “We have too much invested in him to cut him”, or at least when it is used the wrong way.  We will have to pay him 10 million dollars over the next two years whether he is on the team or not. It’s not worth cutting him unless we have a better option in the next two years. Yes, It’s illogical to hold on to a bad hand when there are other options. In economics it’s known as sunk cost; It is a form of loss aversion, sticking with something because you are too invested in it and hope by holding on you might be able to get your investment back even when it is no longer rational to do so. That being said, we shouldn’t cut the losses yet. It isn’t the 10 million dollars that we shouldn’t give up on; it’s what we think we have in him now. The only investment from this point on is the roster spot, It’s better to think of Clint Barmas as being free for the next two years and should only be cut when he isn’t worth the value of keeping him on the roster. If players had stock value Barmas wouldn’t have $10 Million of value for two years, but he would be way above 0. Memorial Day is way too soon to cut someone who you have under contract for two years and has had an average but solid career thus far. It’s simple. It’s sample size. 

19 May 2012

The Best

I don't have any ill feelings about Hurdle's statements. I wanted a hit tonight, but also think Verlander deserved a no-hitter. This doesn't jeopardize my status as a fan of the Pirates, but rather supports my status as a fan of the game overall. Hurdle was never rooting against his team, but rather embodying the spirit of the game and pulling for the best game. He was speaking and acting on dreams that began as a child. A kid like Kerry Wood's son, Justin, or Squints from The Sandlot, or you and me. You can't fault that.

I view Verlander as a highly talented, if not the highest talented, pitcher in the game right now. The kind of player you look back on in awe. Certainly it all stings a bit because of the offensive woes of this years team, but are you pissed that Bob Gibson no-hit the Bucs in '71(that included Cash, Stargell, and Maz [and went on to win the World Series])? Or do you look at that boxscore and pictures and wish you were at that game? The sentiments shouldn't change just because it's in the past. Appreciate baseball for what it is, a game that allows us to marvel at the incredible talent and work of some amazing players. A chance to hope for something greater than just ourselves individually and an opportunity to see the best be exactly that.

14 May 2012

Pirates of the Allegheny: Keeping the Ship Afloat in Rough Waters

Surviving the gauntlet? I would say so! The Pirates have yet to play a last place team and yet we are only 4 games in back of the red birds. No we do not have a winning record, but have come away posting a 16-18 record, competing against all of the first place teams in the National League; the Braves, Dodgers, and the Cardinals (for two series) who cumulative have a combined record of 65-37.  Sure, the saying “in order to be the best you must beat the best” is applicable, but for the Buccos, surviving the first month and half or so of the season and still being within striking distance is certainly a victory.

Even with our anemic offense we have been able to compete and win ball games and if you are a Pirates fan you know our pitching staff has carried us thus far. If you can look past the low scoring games and struggling with runners in scoring position (not to mention runners on third with no outs) some of our key players such as Walker, Tabata, and of course Cutch have started swinging the bats like we have hoped which will lead, and has led, to more production.

The end of May will be the first time we play a last place team; the Cubs. Continuing to compete and take a series here and there from the elite teams will allow us to be in it until the end. The question becomes, are we going to be able to beat teams we should beat. We will not find this out until June because our remaining schedule this month, other than the Cubs, includes decent teams like the Marlins, Tigers, Mets and Reds.  The next few weeks will be the real test of whether we are truly ready to compete for a pennant race. If we survive playing these teams we will be sitting pretty by the All-Star break as long as we take care of business against the teams that all “playoff” teams beat. 

10 May 2012

Walk-up Songs

We've added a new feature to the sidebar on the homepage. An embedded Spotify playist of the Pirates' walk-up/entrance songs.

Thanks to www.raisethejollyroger.com (http://raisethejollyroger.com/pirates-plate-music/) and Spotify, you can now "CHECK ENGINE" anytime you want. (The playlist contains the songs on Spotify; some songs were not available)

Please contribute to the list either via the RTJR webpage or our comments.

06 May 2012

Barmes Vs. Alvarez: They Used to Be Two Peas in a Pod

Possibly going unnoticed in Pedro Alvarez's recent hitting surge is one of the things that has contributed most to his success, his pitch selection.  We automatically notice the spike in HR's that Alvarez has hit over the last couple of weeks but don't necessarily realize how it is that those home runs came about.  Lets look at a handful of Pedro's stats prior to and since April 25th.  Prior to the 25th Pedro had five multi-strikeout games, since that date he has none.  In those prior games Pedro was offering at pitches outside of the strike zone and was quickly getting behind in counts.  When a hitter gets behind in the count they see less fastballs as well as less pitches in the zone.  To a fastball power hitter like Alvarez this becomes a huge disadvantage, to not only getting a pitch to drive out of the ballpark but to just making contact in general thus obviously leading to more strikeouts.  In recent games Pedro has become much more disciplined in his pitch selection which has forced pitchers to throw better pitches in order to get him out. The recent improvements in Pedro's swing have also allowed him to make contact quicker with less of a loop in his swing.  The result being more foul balls (as he is getting around on pitches he was late on before) and less swing and misses.  These two improvements combined have allowed him to see more pitches per at bat and as a result a compounding effect can be seen.  By being ahead in the count more often he has seen more fastballs in hitters counts meaning simply more fastballs when he expecting fastballs.  The obvious result of this can be seen in his home run numbers as well as overall hits.  What I see as an equally impressive result is his increase in walks.  Get this, since April 25th Alvarez has ten walks, prior to that he had one.  As Pedro continues to swing at good pitches, good referring to: in the right counts and in the strike zone, he not only gets hits as a result but it has led to an increase in walks seeing his OBP go from .174 to .318 in less than two weeks.

Lets contrast this to Barmes' recent struggles in which he continually not only swings at bad pitches but fails to pull the trigger on pitches in the strike zone.  Last night Barmes came to the plate with runners on base and failed to not only get a hit but to even advance the runners.  His first pitch was ball off the outside of the plate.  Already he has himself in a hitters count 1-0, at this point a logical train of thought should be looking for a fastball somewhere he can drive.  If the next pitch is offspeed even if it is a strike he should be taking the pitch.  So what is the next pitch, a fastball: middle away right at the belt.  A hitters dream essentially and he watches it go by for stike one.  The count is now even and the next pitch is a breaking ball at the knees in which Barmes swings through for strike two. Now why he thought that that was a better pitch to hit than when he was ahead in the count and got a fastball is beyond me.  At this point with the count at 1-2 Barmes swings at a slider down and in and goes down swinging yet again.    This was a sequence that we saw from Pedro earlier in the season and was a major reason why he was struggling so mightily.  Certainly the view of these two players as far as their capable power is different, but their discipline needs to be the same if this team is going to use all capable players to score runs and stack wins.