The Pirates Could Still Make The Playoffs

The Pirates Could Still Make The Playoffs

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Photo: Keith Allison

This is part two of a two part series. I will be discussing why I believe the Pirates have a shot at the playoffs in this article. In the previous article, I discussed why I believe they won’t make the playoffs. That can be found here.


 

Since writing my last article on why the Pirates won’t make the playoffs, they’ve lost two straight games to the Atlanta Braves. Their odds of reaching the playoffs have dropped 3.9%, and now rests at just 5.9%. And now, with McCutchen being close to hitting below the Mendoza line, the Pirates currently have a black hole batting 3rd and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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First, something that I have briefly discussed on my Twitter account (@CannonballCrner) is the Pirates schedule. I noticed that they had played an insanely tough schedule in April and during the first half of May. However, I didn’t do any analysis on just how tough the schedule has been. In what could only be described as very fortunate timing for this article, Eno Sarris over at Fangraphs did just that for me. He found that the Pirates have had the toughest schedule so far this season. The way he found this was by using Baseball Prospectus’ wonderful statistic called oppRPA+. If you wish to read more about oppRPA+, you can do so here. Or, if you wish to read more about how Eno Sarris calculated strength of schedule, you can do so here (highly recommended).

All you need to know about oppRPA+ is anything over 100 is more difficult, and anything under 100 is less difficult, and 100 is league average. The Pirates combined schedule had an oppRPA+ of 105.6, which means they have had the toughest schedule of any team, by more than a whole point.

If you instead wish to evaluate the schedule another way, we can look at Baseball Reference’s strength of schedule metric. Their strength of schedule metric is calculated by using the number of runs per game teams opponents are better (or worse) than the average team. According to this, it also shows the Pirates have played a rather difficult schedule so far.

There are a few things to takeaway from this. The Pirates have gone without some of their best players so far this season, have played the toughest schedule, and are still just 5 games under .500. Being 5 games behind is no accomplishment. However, with the way things have gone, it’s easy to think that they could have just as easily be 10 games back instead.

So yes, it’s obvious that their schedule has been quite tough thus far. But the Pirates are now 46 games into the season, almost a third of the way finished. So far, the Pirates are on pace to win 70 games. But what does that mean moving forward?

This is another great piece that I highly recommend reading. In it, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs shows just how much 50 games into the season means going forward. To sum it up, it means basically nothing. A teams win percentage 50 games into the season had very little correlation to a teams rest of season win percentage. However, the preseason projected win percentage showed a stronger correlation to a teams rest of season win percentage.

Coming into the year, the Pirates were projected to win 80 games and were given a 15.9% chance to make the playoffs. Is it still a small chance? Yes. But their chance of making the playoffs in the preseason was nearly three times higher than what they are currently projected at. That 15.9% should be more accurate than the 5.9% they are at now

However, it’s important to keep in mind that projections aren’t perfect (at all). The playoff probabilities are calculated using player projections. McCutchen is still projected to be the Pirates best player. Cole, Nova, and Taillon are projected to all have ERA’s in the high 3s. Projections are slow to adapt because players talent levels usually don’t drastically change all of a sudden. I think it’s clear to anybody that McCutchen is no longer the Pirates best hitter and Nova, Cole, and Taillon won’t have ERA’s in the high 3s.

The Pirates lineup is now completely healthy, and they are getting closer to a Marte and Taillon return. Chad Kuhl looks like he might put up a nice season, and Glasnow has been steadily improving. The problem hasn’t been their pitching, it has been their hitting. The Pirates are just 9-5 when allowing 2 runs or less. The bad news is that’s a win percentage of just .643, well below the league average of .847. The Pirates also lead the league in Tough Losses. Tough losses are simply losses in quality starts. They have 7 of those, 3 of which belong to Gerrit Cole. The good news, though, is they have only allowed 2 runs or less in 14 games, which is the 7th most in the league.

The Pirates offense is averaging 4.15 runs per game when Adam Frazier starts, and 3.50 runs when he’s not starting. The Pirates will certainly start scoring more runs and winning more close games now that Adam Frazier is back in the lineup. A healthy Adam Frazier and David Freese is critical to this teams success going forward.

What’s even more critical to this teams success, and has been for years, is Andrew McCutchen. He is hitting just .200 thus far. cutchwoba

The reference line indicates McCutchen’s career average, and you can see he’s been well below that in 2016 and 2017. However, the league average wOBA is .320 and he’s even fallen well below that this year. Sure, baseball is a team sport. No one player will make or break a season. But, with McCutchen in the three spot and once again playing poor defense, he’s hurt the Pirates chances quite a bit. With Hurdles loyalty towards players, it is unlikely that he will be benched or even moved down in the lineup anytime soon. If McCutchen can get his swing back, the Pirates will obviously have a much better chance at making the playoffs.

Right now in the NL Central, the Brewers are in first place. There is no way they will be able to sustain their success with the rotation that they have. The Cardinals and Cubs are both legitimate contenders. However, both have their issues. For example, the Cubs left fielder is batting a lot like McCutchen (under .200). Nearly all of the Cubs pitchers have regressed in one way or another. Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta have both lost multiple mph on their fastballs. They too came into the season with a wild card 5th starter, and have gotten poor results because of it.

The Cardinals are a fine team. But they are no powerhouse. Adam Wainwright has an ERA in the high 4s, and believe it or not, they have far less depth at pitching than the Pirates. If they suffer any injuries, it could be catastrophic for them.

The division and wild card is both within reach. A lot of things will need to go right for the Pirates, but it’s possible. If the Pirates are in it around the trade deadline, I expect them to make moves much like the Happ and Nova trades of the previous years. I’m not saying the Pirates will make the playoffs. A lot will have to go right in order for them to even finish above .500. But, there are some signs that say this team is far better than they’ve been.

The Pirates Won’t Make The Playoffs

The Pirates Won’t Make The Playoffs

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Photo: RJ Schmidt

This is part one of a two part series. I will be discussing why I do not believe the Pirates have a shot at the playoffs in this article, and in the next, I will discuss why I believe they do.


 

The Pirates weren’t expected to be legitimate contenders before the season began. Based solely on their odds to win the world series, they started the offseason at 30/1 odds, or 3.2%. Of course the world series is almost always a long shot, but when you have two teams in your own division ranked ahead of you, it’s not a good sign for the future.

But, before the season even started, the Pirates lost Jung Ho-Kang due to visa issues. The odds of them winning the world series dropped to 60/1, or 1.6%. A long shot before, an even longer shot after. And now, they are without Starling Marte until July 18th, and 4 games under .500.

There aren’t any updated Vegas odds for me to look at currently, but Fangraphs runs their own odds. The graph below shows the odds of the Pirates simply making the playoffs.

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This is bad. There are now 8 teams in the NL with higher odds of making the playoffs than the Pirates.

If you wish to read about how Fangraphs calculates these odds, you can read about it here.

The odds clearly are not in the Pirates favor. But why?

The first reason is obvious. The selfishness of Starling Marte and Jung-Ho Kang have set this team back further than they can handle. There aren’t many teams, if any, that can lose their two best position players for at least half of a season and come out unscathed. Frazier and Freese have performed admirably filling their shoes. But, when they got hurt, the backups to the backups predictably couldn’t perform up to par.

Neal Huntington has gotten a lot of heat for not having proper depth coming into the season. Personally, I’d disagree. Coming into the season, Adam Frazier, David Freese, and John Jaso headed this teams perfectly capable bench. However, Adam Frazier and David Freese quickly became starters due to Kang and Marte’s absence. And then John Jaso, Alen Hanson, Gift Ngoepe, and Jose Osuna became your top bench players. Once Frazier and Freese became injured, it was clear this team was going to struggle. As fun as it is to blame Huntington in this scenario, doing so is wrong.

What I believe Huntington can be blamed for is the Pirates #5 rotation spot. I like Tyler Glasnow long term, and I think he will be a good major league starter. Some believed that Glasnow needed to be challenged, and the only way to do that is by giving him time in the majors. However, he clearly isn’t ready for the major leagues. Glasnow had an astronomical walk rate in AAA. If he was told to focus on his walk rate in AAA, that would surely be enough to challenge him. Now, the Pirates are stuck with a developing pitcher instead of what could have been someone solid, like Charlie Morton.

The Pirates can only control their team, though. They have faced some adversity, but what about the rest of the division?

The Cubs are undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the league. Coming off a 100+ win season plus a world series, they are now just 2 games above .500. That could mean one of two things. They are now simply an average team. Or, they are a team that has vastly underperformed thus far, but is also still 3 games ahead of the Pirates. The Cubs certainly have their warts this season, but they also have the talent, the money, and the owner willing to spend the money to get more talent to work things out.

The Cardinals are also, yet again, one of the more talented teams in the league. I don’t believe they are as talented as the Cubs, but they are certainly at least as talented as the Pirates.

But in my opinion, the Cubs and Cardinals are not the Pirates main problems. The Reds and Brewers are.

The Reds are very likely a below average team, and the worst team in the NL Central. However, the Brewers are now projected to win just as many games as the Pirates (78). They have far exceeded expectations. Coming into the season the Brewers were expected to win just 70 games.

If you instead wish to use Fangraphs Season to Date Stats mode, which uses this season stats instead of projections, then the Brewers are expected to win 90 games and the Reds are expected to win 77 games. The Pirates, just 72.

The Season to Date Stats mode could mean that either the projections have been too slow to adjust to the teams talent, or the Brewers and Reds have overperformed thus far into the season, and the Pirates have underachieved.

With that said, it doesn’t much matter if anyone in the NL Central has over or underachived. The reality of the situation is this: the Pirates are in last place. They have managed to win 6 of their last 8 games and have only gotten one game closer to the division lead.

It is very unlikely at this point that the Pirates will in the NL Central. It is much more likely that they get a wild card spot, albeit that too is slim to none. The NL East has one legitimate contender, the Washington Nationals. Although the Mets could still make a run, the Nationals are the only team expected to finish above .500 in that division. However, the NL West has three teams expected to finish above .500, the Rockies, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks. But even though the Giants are expected to finish below .500, you can never count them out. Only one of those will win the division, the other two will be in a season long fight for one of two wild card spots.

The NL Central is a tough division. There is no ‘automatic win’ team like the Padres or Marlins. All five teams will battle it out all season, which will make it more difficult to beat out teams with easier divisions, like the Rockies and Diamondbacks.

So, it boils down to this: The Pirates need to compete against the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies, Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks for one of the two wild card spots. Can they do it? Absolutely. But like many have said, this team has little room for any more error. Jameson Taillon missing time has left us with Trevor Williams. The David Freese and Adam Frazier injuries had left us with a less than ideal starting lineup. Thankfully, they are now back and healthy and the team is winning again. However, if this team suffers any more injuries they will struggle mightily once again, and ultimately have a top 10 draft pick in the 2018 MLB rookie draft.

 

Chad Kuhl Is About To Breakout

Chad Kuhl Is About To Breakout

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This season is shaping up to be a bit of a disaster. The Pirates are now 14-22, and dead last in the NL Central. They are without Marte until at least July 19th, which would mean he will miss another 60 games. They are also without Jung-ho Kang and Jameson Taillon. Both of which do not have a timetable to return. Below is a graph of how many games Fangraphs projects the Pirates to win.

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Well, that’s not good. The Pirates are projected to win just as many as the Brewers, just two more than the Reds, 17 less than the Cubs, and 5 games under .500. But keep faith, Pirate fans, as they still have an estimated 5.8% chance of making the playoffs, so there is still a chance!

The Pirates pitching hasn’t been much of an issue this year. Cole is back to being an ace, Taillon has been great, and Nova looks like a terrific signing. The bullpen has had it’s issues, but overall they are an average bullpen by just about any metric. Hudson has been a disappointing signing, but I’m hopeful that he can turn it around. The rotation actually has the 7th best FIP in the league, which is pretty shocking considering just how bad Glasnow has been. Regardless, it’s tough to put much blame on the pitching when the hitters are putting up 3.56 R/G which puts them at 28th in the league.

On the offensive side, Harrison is starting to look like 2014 Josh Harrison. Josh Bell is looking much better than he did in the first week of the season. And now, the Pirates are healthy again and can put Frazier and Freese in the lineup instead of Jaso and Ngoepe. I am optimistic, obviously way more optimistic than most, that this team will be at least average offensively.

With all that said, there hasn’t been much to be excited about. Even if things click for the Pirates, are they good enough to win 90 games? If they plan on winning 90 games this year, they will need to go 76-50 (.603) the rest of the season. That seems like a long shot.

But, one thing to be excited about is… the man with the 5.81 ERA.

Yes, Chad Kuhl has also been miserable. He has a 5.81 ERA. Out of 116 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, Chad Kuhl has the 15th worst ERA. He is 1-3 on the season. Lefties are batting .414 against him to go along with a .493 on base percentage.

In one game this year, he even managed to give up 9 runs in less than 2 innings.

Chad Kuhl is no Taillon, Nova, or Cole. But, he is not a 5.81 ERA type of pitcher either.

In fact, I think Chad Kuhl is poised to have a breakout season.

Over the years, the Pirates have generated a ton of hype around their top prospects, with good reason. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow were all at one point top 30 prospects in all of baseball. Cole made his major league debut at 22 years old, Taillon had his at 24, and Glasnow had his at 22. Chad Kuhl had his at 23. He is only 24. There are only 20 pitchers under 25 this year who have thrown 20 innings. Being a major league pitcher at that age is very difficult. His career 4.69 ERA is probably the reason he doesn’t get as much hype as the other guys, but I think it’s time he gets some hype. He can throw upper 90s and has a good slider. Not many pitchers can say that.

Chad Kuhls season thus far has been weird. In 3 out of his 7 starts he has failed to pitch more than 4 innings.

Four starts ago was one example of Kuhl not making it 4 innings. In fact, he didn’t even make it 2. The Cubs destroyed him. He gave up 9 earned runs in under two innings of work against the Cubs. Some of this can be blamed on poor defense. There were some plays in that game that could have been made that weren’t counted as errors and effected his ERA. However, it’s damn hard to do that poorly, and most of the blame should fall back on Kuhls shoulders.

 

Fun Fact: Kuhl has a career 15.75 ERA against the Cubs. Against everyone else he has a 3.21 ERA in 89.2 IP.

 

But then in another start, he took a comebacker off the knee and was forced to leave the game. He likely only had an inning or two left in him, but he was pitching very well against the Marlins.

And THEN, he pitched 3 innings against Milwaukee. He gave up 2 hits, struckout 2 guys, and looked like he was about to have the best start of his season. However following his 3rd inning, a 2 hour rain delay occurred which resulted in him being removed from the game. Bummer.

This past start was his first ‘normal’ start in 3 weeks. He looked so good. He started the game striking out the first two batters. But not just any two batters. Two righty mashing, left handed sluggers. Everything looked great. And then he proceeded to walk Justin Turner, and then give up a home run to Cody Bellinger. The inning ended with Kuhl giving up 3 earned runs. However, he kept it together and only gave up one run after that. His final line was ultimately a disappointing 5 IP, 2 BB, 4 K, 4 ER.

So why am I excited about a guy with the 15th worst ERA out of starting pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched?

Because Chad Kuhl is a 24 year old that has the 4th fastest sinker and the 14th fastest four seam fastball out of 117 starting pitchers that have thrown at least 30 innings this year. His velocity is also up this year about one mph compared to last year.

The increase in velocity has helped him get swinging strikes 11.4% of the time on his fastball (both 4 seam and sinker). That ranks him 12th in the league, out of 111 starting pitchers who have thrown fastballs at least 300 times this year. That has him ranked ahead of guys like Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, and even Gerrit Cole.

Note that different sources categorize pitches differently. For example, the chart below only shows sinker, changeup, and slider. It clumps in his four seam with his sinker. While it does change the numbers a bit, it does not diminish what I am trying to show.

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Compared to last year, Kuhl has seen an increase in his whiff rate (whiff rate is the same as swinging strikes %) with every pitch he has. This is not an insignificant bump. Kuhl has the fourth largest whiff rate increase from last year. He is behind Danny Salazar, Chris Sale, and Jacob deGrom. He is just ahead of Zach Grienke, Kenta Maeda, and Gerrit Cole. Obviously, very good company to be in.

I’m sure everyone knows at this point lefties are what really hurt Kuhl. However, his whiff rate against lefties is now almost the same as his whiff rate against righties.

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Why are whiffs so important? A pitcher throws the ball, a batter tries to hit it, and fails. It’s easy to comprehend that a good whiff rate should mean that a pitcher has good stuff. Good stuff usually means that a pitcher will get more strikeouts. Strikeouts are always outs, so more strikeouts are better. Thus, whiffs equals good.

So with Kuhls increased whiff rate, he should be getting more strikeouts. However, Kuhl hasn’t gotten more strikeouts this season. His strikeout percentage has risen .3% over last year. Not nearly the improvement you’d expect after such a large increase in his whiff rate.

Why has it risen just .3%? There could be a couple reasons, all of which I am purely speculating on.

The first reason could be the least fun reason. Simply a small sample size. The whiffs are there, and the strikeouts should come over a larger sample.

Reason two could be poor sequencing. I will use Kuhls past start against the Dodgers as an example. In the Bellinger at bat in which he hit a homerun, Kuhl started the at bat with a changeup for a ball. He then threw 4 straight fastballs, the fourth resulting in a homerun. In Utley’s first at bat, he received a fastball, followed by 3 sinkers, then followed by a slider, and then finally a sinker that Utley hit hard to left field. And then in the last at bat in which Kuhl gave up an RBI, it was again against Utley. He threw him 7 straight fastballs.

Personally, I side with the small sample theory. I expect more strikeouts to come sooner rather than later. If you disagree, I’d be more than happy to hear why in the comments.

What’s interesting, though, is despite the increase in swinging strikes, lefties are still hitting the ball hard against Kuhl. To me it seems like a pitch selection issue. Lefties are crushing Kuhl’s four seam fastball this year. Left handed hitters have a .865 wOBA and a .587 xwOBA against his four seam fastball (I touched on xwOBA briefly here). His sinker has an xwOBA of .304, his change has an xwOBA of .507, and his slider has an xwOBA of .116.

Obviously, Kuhls slider has been great., but he doesn’t have another offering to get out lefties. Gerrit Cole (pre 2017 Gerrit Cole, that is) barely threw his changeup. Last year he did poorly against lefties, mainly because his slider deteriorated. In 2015, however, his slider was his out pitch against lefties. There is no reason why Kuhl can’t use his slider as an out pitch as well. Kuhls changeup is getting swinging strikes against lefties, but it is getting hit hard. Again I am not sure why this is. Maybe he’s being too predictable, maybe he has poor command, maybe it’s just a small sample.

I’m not saying Kuhl is going to be an ace. But I am willing to say that he will be a very good pitcher this year.  He is not a Jeff Locke, blah, bottom of the rotation guy. He is a 24 year old who can reach upper 90s, has a good slider, and is possibly one tweak away from being another Ray Searage success story.

Josh Harrison Might Be Great Again

Josh Harrison Might Be Great Again

Pirates at Orioles June 14, 2012

Photo: Keith Allison

 

April was a rough month for the Pirates. Marte was suspended, Kang is still stuck in Korea, and Freese, Cervelli, and Frazier all missed time with injuries. When you lose nearly 40% of your opening day lineup, it’s hard to stay competitive.

This disappointing start is following a 2016 season in which the Pirates ended 5 games under .500. If you were upset with the Pirates performance last year, Josh Harrison is just one of the many to blame. He turned in his worst season as a starter last season and some started to call for him to be benched for Adam Frazier.

However, later in 2016 he really turned it on. From August until the end of the season, Harrison batted .326/.349/.418. So from the beginning of August until the end of the season, Harrison had 155 plate appearances that very closely resembled Harrison of 2014.

Of course, using August as a start date is rather arbitrary. If you set the time frame from June of last year to the end of the season, Josh hit just .259/.283/.363. Rather below average across the board.

So maybe you could say that Josh changed his approach starting in August. But, his strikeout rate stayed the same, his walk rate stayed the same, his overall plate discipline stayed the same, and his hit profile stayed the same. The only thing that went up way his BABIP, which inflated all of his other numbers. To me, it doesn’t look like Harrison did anything different at the end of last season other than get a little bit lucky.

But that’s last season. So far this season, Harrison has been phenomenal. Out of all the healthy Pirates, Josh has been the best hitter. In fact, not only has he been the Pirates best hitter, he’s also been one of the leagues best. He has the 29th best OBP, the 35th best wOBA, and the 26th best WAR. He has also improved his walk rate and his strikeout rate compared to previous seasons.

The number that sticks out most is his 5 home runs. This year he is on pace to hit 28 home runs. That would more than double his previous career high of 13. Plus, coming off of two season with just 4 home runs each, it’s unlikely he can sustain this power.

Below is a spray chart that shows where Harrisons home runs have landed using PNC park as an overlay.

Josh Harrison

As you can see, 2 of his 5 homers would not have left the park at PNC. Of course, PNC does have a deep left field. But that’s where hes going to play the majority of his games, so it seems fair to use PNC park to compare how far his home runs have traveled.

Exit velocity is a big indicator of home runs. If you hit the ball hard, you will hit it far. Out of 318 major league players who have hit home runs this year, Josh Harrison ranks 305th in average exit velocity on home runs. He also ranks 288th in average distance on home runs with an average distance of 376ft which is below the league average of 400ft.

Despite that, he is elevating the ball a whole lot more this year. Over his career he has hit fly balls 37.7% of the time. This year his fly ball rate is all the way up to 50.6%. That is 10th most in the bigs. He is ranked just behind power hitters Nolan Arenado, Jose Bautista, and Jay Bruce.

Harrison has been getting the job done. Maybe he’s not hitting the ball farther than most, but he still has hit 5 home runs this year, period. He is elevating the ball more which will result in more home runs. Compared to last year, Josh has increased his launch angle by 7.8°. That is the third biggest jump up across the league. Just above him is Jose Ramirez, who has already hit 6 home runs this year despite hitting just 11 all of last season. Ramirez has hit the ball harder than Josh has. But still, it’s a good indicator that elevating the ball could mean sustained power for Josh.

Of course, this new approach for Josh could possibly mean a 20 home run season. But hitting the ball in the air also means more fly outs which would lower his batting average and on base percentage. If elevating the ball is indeed a new approach for Josh, it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this success.

Weighted on base average is one of the best stats out there for tracking a hitters performance. Now, with the new statcast data, we are able to estimate a players expected wOBA. If you take a players exit velocity and launch angle, statcast can then estimate the likelihood of a hit falling for a single, double, triple, home run, or an out.

For an in depth look at xwOBA go here.

Based on xwOBA, Harrison has been the 8th luckiest hitter. His xwOBA is .just .300, while his actual wOBA is .387. Of course, xwOBA has its issues. It typically undersells speed guys that can turn singles into doubles, and turn outs into infield hits. But, this gap is rather large. In 2015 and 2016, Harrison had outperformed his xwOBA by .026 and .027 respectively. This year, he’s outperforming his xwOBA by .087. Obviously, him outperforming his xwOBA in 2015 and 2016 is a solid indicator that he could do it again this year. But he certainly won’t outperform by as much as he is now.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about his season thus far has been his improved plate discipline. He’s swinging at pitches out of the zone less and swinging at pitches in the zone more. Sounds like a good combination, right?

On the first pitch of his at bats, he swung at pitches outside of the zone 15.52% of the time from 2015-2016. In 2017, that’s improved to just 9.52% of the time. I’m sure at one point we’ve all seen Josh be too aggressive at the plate. If Josh can continue hitting home runs, that would be great. But if he has improved his plate discipline, that would take him back to being as good as he was in 2014.

For whatever reason, though, pitchers are throwing in the zone just 42% of the time on the first pitch of his at bats this year. In the previous two seasons, Josh had received pitches in the zone 60% of the time on first pitch which seems much more likely to be what he will get moving forward. Regardless of where pitchers are throwing it, Josh needs to continue to not chase bad pitches. Going down 0-1 is a huge difference from being up 1-0. Throughout his career, Harrison has a .290 OBP and 85 wRC+ when falling behind 0-1. When ahead in the count, he has a .347 OBP and a 114 wRC+.

Josh Harrison being a leadoff hitter is something the Pirates have toyed with over the years. Out of your leadoff hitter, you want a guy that will get on base. In limited time last season, he was actually quite good as a leadoff hitter. But in total, he only had a .311 OBP last season which is not ideal. This season, though, hes been great. He has the 30th best OBP in the league. Maybe you are skeptical that his on base percentage is inflated because of he’s been hit by pitches a league leading 7 times this year. Well, if you take out his HBP he still has a .362 OBP which would be a career high for him. When Marte and Frazier come back, it will be interesting to see if they continue using Josh in a leadoff role. I hope they do.

Coming into the season, Josh claimed he was fully healthy for the first time since 2014. He said that he rushed back from rehab and it effected his swing. A healthy thumb and a healthy groin could lead to the power we saw in 2014. I think there is reason for excitement here. The increased launch angle and plate discipline are all good things. His projections have him finishing the season with a .291/.338/.441 line to go along with 13 home runs. I think that is an achievable line, but I think he could finish with more home runs.

He is definitely an interesting player. His breakout in 2014 was followed by two disappointing seasons. Hopefully in 2017, he will reestablish himself as an all star. The Pirates could definitely use another all star right now.

 

 

How Bad Is The Pirates Offense?

How Bad Is The Pirates Offense?

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Photo: Jon Dawson

I don’t need to tell you the Pirates offense has been disappointing this season. You already knew that.

But just how bad have they been?

Believe it or not, the Pirates offense isn’t the worst in the MLB. That honor belongs to the Kansas City Royals. The Pirates are just ahead of them at 29th in runs score per game. Kansas City is averaging almost a full run less per game (2.57) than the Pirates (3.38). There is no doubt about it, Pirates fans have had to watch some rough baseball so far. But man, could you imagine the Pirates scoring a run less per game than they are now? That’s where the Royals are at, and they even have the benefit of a DH!

That really stinks for Kansas City. But I’m sure if you are reading this you only really care about Pittsburgh.

Before I go on, it’s important to remember that the Pirates have played just 21 games this season. That is just 13% of the season. In Steelers terms, that means they are just getting ready to begin week 3 of their schedule! There is still plenty of time left for the Pirates offense to get better.

It’s also important to keep in mind that last year the Pirates two best hitters were Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte. And, as time goes on, it’s looking increasingly likely that Kang will not be back this season. Things are moving slowly in his appeal process, and even when he does make it back he may face a suspension from the team. But even if he doesn’t get suspended, he hasn’t faced live pitching since last season. It’s going to take him some time to get back into game shape.

And we all know Marte won’t be back for awhile either.

 

Last year, the Pirates were a league average offense. During the month of April, they had the best offense in baseball. Obviously, that was unsustainable. This years month of April has gone the exact opposite of last year. Now, the Pirates have one of the worst offenses in the league. However, just like last year, it’s very likely just a flukey month. They should be closer to league average throughout the rest of the season. But, losing your two best hitters one month into the season is a good way to continue being terrible.

 

The Pirates offense has been bad, as stated before they are second to last in runs per game. But what has made them so frustrating to watch is that their terrible offense has been paired with phenomenal pitching. Right now, the Pirates have a better than league average ERA at 3.99. However, the Pirates have the 4th worst RA/9 in the National League at 4.71. RA/9 is similar to ERA, however unearned runs are counted in RA/9 unlike ERA which just counts earned runs (full explanation of RA/9). So not only have the Pirates not hit, they’ve also made their pitchers give up around 18% more runs due to their poor defense.

Of course committing an ‘error’ doesn’t mean you made a bad play. A bad defensive play doesn’t always equal an error. The Pirates have certainly had some blunders this season that were no considered errors, so there RA/9-ERA differential really could be even higher.

Even after Glasnow’s rough month and Kuhl’s recent 9 run implosion, the Pirates starters still rank inside 8th in FIP. Hopefully the pitchers success continues and the offense can give them more run support. The Pirates will need their starting pitching to carry them again this season. But right now their offense has given them just the 28th most run support in the league. Last year, they gave their pitches the 13th most run support and they couldn’t even mange to finish .500.

 

The Pirates haven’t hit well really in any situation. Bases empty, loaded, in scoring position, whatever, they have been bad. But when runners get into scoring position the Pirates have been really bad. They have manged to hit just .209 with RISP, but to be fair, they still have a respectable .323 OBP. But when the Pirates manage to load the bases is when it gets really ugly. The good news is they’ve managed to load the bases the 4th most in the league. That is certainly a positive because getting players on base is typically a good way to score runs. But despite that, they have gotten only ONE hit with the bases loaded. That is 1-22. There are actually 3 teams right now who are hitless with the bases loaded, but those teams half has as many at bats. 

Going 1-22 with the bases loaded is descriptive not predictive. Meaning, the Pirates going 1-22 absolutely does not mean that the Pirates are a bad hitting team with the bases loaded. It just means they have, so far, been a bad hitting team with the bases loaded. Fortunately, hitting that poorly in any situation is completely unsustainable. The Pirates in bases loaded situations are suffering from a very low batting average on balls in play of just .053, so they have definitely been a bit unlucky. Last year the Pirates had a BABIP of .311 with the bases loaded.

 

When you think of the Pirates lineup, you don’t really think of big power. They beat you by getting on base at a high rate and putting together long, stressful innings for pitchers. According to their Depth Charts projections, they are projected to hit a total of 118 home runs this year. The Pirates have only hit less than 118 home runs once since the steroids era, and that was in 2011. That season they had the 4th worst offense in the league. Out of all the teams since the steroid era, their 118 home runs would have them ranked 333 out of 360, easily in the bottom 10%.

Despite that, I do not think the lack of home runs will be an issue, as long as they start hitting with runners in scoring position, and especially with bases loaded. Home runs are a nice, quick way of scoring runs. Plus they are cool. But you don’t need to rely on the long ball to win games. Proof of that is the last 3 world series winners ranked either average or below average in terms of home runs hit.

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Projected Home Run Totals Relative to League Average (2017)

 

At this point in the season last year the Pirates led the league in AVG (.293) and had a 124 wRC+. So far this season they have just a .233 AVG to go along with a 86 wRC+. The Pirates ended last year with a .257 AVG and a 99 wRC+. This year, the Pirates will most likely not end the season with just a .233 AVG, or a 86 wRC+. Just like last years flukey start, the Pirates will likely show that this month was also a fluke.

Losing Marte and Kang for extended periods of time definitely hurts. It’s unlikely that the Pirates make any significant trades since Marte and Kang will still be here long term. Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna, and David Freese will all need to step up to fill the massive holes those two left. The Pirates depth is already being tested, and so far Frazier and Freese have done admirably. But now that Frazier and Freese are both banged up, it could be trouble. There aren’t too many teams that can replace their good bench players with more good bench players. Gift Ngoepe and Jose Osuna aren’t exactly going to turn this Pirates offense around.

The most important thing to take from all of this is that one month is a small sample size. The Pirates have had a really tough schedule to start the season. Baseball Prospectus tracks the pitchers that hitters face over the course of the season. This allows us to see the quality of the pitchers that batters face. They do this individually, so unfortunately there is not a team stat for the Pirates, but we can look at McCutchen and get a pretty darn close copy of what it would be since he’s started every game this season. The slash line for opposing pitches is .222/.299/.372. The pitchers the Pirates have faced are basically turning the hitters they face into Clint Barmes. It’s safe to say the Pirates have had a rough schedule during April, but fortunately May’s schedule looks like it will be much easier.

I previously wrote about how Glasnow was not getting many favorable calls. As it turns out, neither are the Pirates hitters. On pitches taken around the strike zone, they have received the most called strikes out of any team. Part of this could be due to just a small sample size which should even out, and another reason could be since the Pirates have faced such high quality pitching, that pitchers are legitimately painting corners and getting favorable calls since umpires might give higher quality pitchers a wider strike zone.

Of course, the Pirates also have the 28th ranked exit velocity in the league at 85.7 mph, which is 1.4 mph below league average.

So, who knows. The Pirates offense hasn’t been good. They will probably be better. But they will have to do it with very little power, no remaining depth, and their two best hitters on vacation. They could certainly improve. But the small margin for error they had to start the season has shrunk to no margin for error. It’s looking like the Pirates will need to rely heavily on their pitching once again. I don’t think the Pirates offense will struggle this bad all season. April was likely a flukey month and Pirates fans should expect greener Meadows pastures ahead.

Tyler Glasnow Can’t Control Everything

Tyler Glasnow Can’t Control Everything

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Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Glasnow has been bad. He has a 12.15 ERA in 6.2 innings so far this season, to go along with 7 walks and 8 strikeouts. This is not good.

Just using raw walk and strikeout numbers, you can pretty clearly see that Glasnow is a pitcher that has excellent stuff with no clue where it’s going. But, using raw numbers isn’t ideal in baseball. If you want to get a more accurate look at how a player is doing, you need to look at their rate statistics instead. So, lets talk a look at Glasnow’s walk percentage (BB%) and strikeout percentage (K%) instead.

After two starts, Glasnow is walking 17.5% of the hitters he faces, and striking out 20.0%. Only three pitchers have walked batters as often as Glasnow has. Two of those pitchers the Pirates haev recently played, and lost to. Those pitchers are Brandon Finnegan and Rookie Davis. The third pitcher is, probably unsurprising to you, Francisco Liriano who has walked 17.7% of batters he’s faced this season.

People haev been saying that Glasnow has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Well, that is a load of shit. Last year in AAA, Glasnow walked 14.2% of the batter hes faced. Last year, the starters with the worst walk rates (min 80 innings) were Lance McCullers, Blake Snell, and… Francisco Liriano. Their walk rates were 12.8%, 12.7%, and 11.8% respectively.

Glasnow had a worse walks rate against worse competition. He had a lot still left to prove in the minors. His stuff is clearly phenomenal. Minor leaguers can’t hit it. That is documented at this point, after posting a 1.87 ERA last year in AAA. He proved he could dominate the league, while still walking a ridiculous amount of batters. But, he never proved he could avoid walking batters. The last player to come out of AAA walking over 14.0% of hitters, and still have success in the major leagues, is Edinson Volquez. That was all the way back in 2006, and he only posted one sub 4 ERA in his first 6 years in the league.

In the spring, Ray Searage tried to fix him. And then he had a dreadful season debut. So then, Ray Searage tried to fix him again, and he only walked 2 batters. Of course, he gave up 6 runs, 4 of which were earned.

 

In Glasnow’s first game, he had only thrown 64 pitches. However, 3 of those 64 pitches that were thrown in the strike zone were called balls.

Umpires make mistake, and in the first game of the season for Glasnow, those mistakes proved to be detrimental.

Tyler Glasnow (4)

 

There are some close calls in here that could go either way, but lets just focus on the three clear missed calls in the upper right hand area of of the strike zone.

The dot closest to the middle was on a 2-1 count to Eugenio Suarez that eventually resulted in a walk. Instead of a 2-2 count, Glasnow had walked in a run.

The two dots clustered together, are both on 3-2 counts. One was again against Eugenio Suarez, and the other against Scott Schebler.

All of these missed calls were in the same inning. These missed calls should have resulted in at least two outs. The pitch to Eugenio Suarez on a 2-1 count that resulted in a ball turned what should have been a pitchers count into a hitters count. Last year, when the count was 3-1, hitters had a .582 OBP to go along with a .475 wOBA. When the count was 2-2, hitters had just a .293 OBP and a .273 wOBA. Maybe Glasnow would not have gotten Suarez out. But the missed call certainly handicapped his chances to do so.

Then, in his second game, he only walked 7.7% of the batters he faced. That is a drastic improvement over his 35.7% performance just a few days earlier.

But once again, his night was made much more difficult thanks to the umpire.

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These are the pitches that were called balls in his second game of the season. I count 10 balls that could have been called strikes. At the very least, 7 of those were clearly within the zone and should have been called strikes.

Umpires make mistakes all the time. It’s something that over the course of the season should even out, especially since Cervelli is such a good pitch framer. Last year, Francisco Cervelli’s pitch framing was ranked 7th out of 104 catchers by Baseball Prospectus. This season, he has been ranked 61st out of 66 catchers. It’s pretty unlikely that Cervelli has gotten worse as a pitch framer, so this is likely just noise.

Nonetheless, out of 118 pitchers this season (min 150 total pitches), Glasnow has been the 4th most affected by wrong calls by umpires.

It is concerning to think that Glasnow might walk 15% of the batters he faces this season. But, we should also remain optimistic that he is a unique pitcher who could succeed while doing so. He strikes out a ton of hitters. In AAA last year, if you take his K% minus his BB%, it would be 16.2%. His 16.2% ranked 5th in the International League last year, and 3 out of the 4 above him were at least 3 years older than him.

Another reason to be optimistic, is that he gives up very weak contact. This season he has given up the 8th weakest contact out of 139 pitchers. This should result in a lot of easy double plays which will certainly come in handy when he starts walking guys.

So far, Glasnow has not done well limiting his walks. His first start was horrendous. In the last two years, only 4 pitchers were able to do what he had done. That is, walk 5 batters in less than 14 batters faced.

Steamer has Glasnow projected to walk 12.5% of batters he faces this season. That’s still an issue. If he had a 12.5 BB% last year, he would have been the worst in the league. At the same time, projections are rarely correct. And even a deviation of just 2% either way could have a huge impact on Glasnow’s final numbers.

But so far Glasnow hasn’t gotten much help either. If calls start going his way, games should go smoother. Glasnow needs to focus on what he can control… his control. The umpires will start giving him the calls that he hasn’t yet been getting. And if we are lucky, there might even be robot umpires by the time he’s developed into a superstar.

Gerrit Cole’s 2017 Outlook

Gerrit Cole’s 2017 Outlook

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Photo: Jon Dawson

Gerrit Cole entered 2016 as the Pirates ace and left 2016 as an injury risk and a guy who struggled to hold a sub 4.00 ERA.

Now that Taillon has looks great on the mound, the conversation has shifted away from how good Cole is to who is the true ace in Pittsburgh.

It is unfortunate that fans need to make a competition out of everything. This year the Pirates have a real chance to have a great young rotation, and all that can be discussed is if Taillon is the player that the fans want Cole to be.

Is Gerrit Cole still an ace? Well, you can decide for yourself. I think he is, but it all comes down to how you want to define what an ‘ace’ is. Either way, Gerrit Cole was not an ace in 2016.  And him being an ace is pivotal towards the Pirates success. Neal Huntington even said this past offseason that “There’s no coincidence that we were good when Gerrit was good.” But, will he be an ace in 2017?

No matter how you break it down, Gerrit Cole’s 2016 was definitely not that of an ace. A 3.88 ERA is absolutely not what you want from your ‘ace’ pitcher. However, he is still just 26 years old. A bad season at 25 in which he was injured throughout, should not be enough to have your status as an ace thrown out.

So why was 2016 so much different than 2015? In 2016 Cole had made 3 trips to the disabled list, and his first injury occurred in spring. It is likely he was never fully healthy at any point in the season. In the spring, he was suffering from inflammation in his ribs, and then over the course of the regular season he was placed on the disabled list twice for inflammation in his right elbow and once for a strained triceps.

Elbow inflammation is a scary thing. Jameson Taillon started with elbow inflammation before it progressed to Tommy John surgery. Elbow inflammation doesn’t always end in Tommy John surgery, but it is a scary sign that the worst is yet to come. Hopefully, for Gerrit Cole’s and the Pirates sake, his elbow is completely healed and he won’t have to go under the needle in 2017.

Gerrit Cole can touch high 90s with his fastball. Last year he had the 8th fastest fastball in the league for a starter at 95.2 mph. But, what turns him from a flamethrower into an ace, is his slider. In 2015, Cole’s slider was responsible for 41% of his strikeouts, and opponents hit just .200 against it. In 2016, that dipped to 31.6% and .275 respectively.

Last season, Cole’s biggest problem was getting out lefties. He allowed a .371 wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) to lefties last season, where as in 2015 he limited them to a .266 wOBA. To help put that into perspective, last year the league average wOBA was .318. So Cole went from about 50 points above average to 50 points below average in one year. This has never been an issue in the past. Cole has always been great against both lefties and righties, but now he has seemed to have developed quite an issue with lefties.

Cole’s slider was his biggest issue against lefties last year. As you can see in the image below, his slider remained elite against righties but took a big hit against lefties.

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The image above shows his issues with the pitch last year. In 2015 Cole’s slider was responsible for a .151 AVG against lefties and almost doubled to a .294 average in 2016. That’s like going from facing Gerrit Cole as a batter to Starling Marte.

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The GIF above shows swings against Gerrit Cole’s slider. In 2015, the heatmap shows he had more swings in the bottom of the strike zone. In 2016, hitters started to swing at his slider when it was more in the middle of the plate, probably due to the fact that he threw it more in the middle of the plate. Not a good combination.

His slider has also lost movement. His slider would more often break inside on hitters, but in 2016 it stayed out of the middle of the plate. That is concerning, but I think at least some of that can be disregarded as just side effects of not being healthy. Still, it is important that he gets his movement back on his slider or hitters will be able to crush it like in 2016.

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Here is another GIF that shows how often lefties swung at his slider. As you can see, they had a much easier time laying off of it down out of the strike zone in 2016 than they did in 2015.

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This GIF shows the percentage of times that left handed hitters swung and missed at a pitch in the zone. As you can clearly see, in 2015 down and in was a huge issue for hitters. In 2016, they were able to lay off everything.

Sliders are not typically meant to be used as an out pitch against lefties. But it has worked for him in the past, so there was no need to change it. A good third pitch to neutralize lefties, like a changeup, would certainly help propel Cole back to being an elite pitcher.

One of the stats that took a huge hit in 2016 was his K-BB%. In 2016 his K% decreased 5% and his BB% increased 1.8% compared to 2015. In total his K-BB was 12.3%. A large drop from his 19% in 2015. He went from being in the top 15% to the bottom 40% in just one year.

There might be some room for optimism. Gerrit was likely not fully healthy at any point last year, and that could be the reason his slider had a drop in movement. He also had the 4th highest BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) in the league, just behind Mike Pelfrey. His slider of course had a .393 BABIP, an increase from his .319 the previous year. Its pretty unlikely that his BABIP will stay that high in 2017 as his career BABIP is .316.

In 2015, in 2 strike counts Cole limited hitters to a .199 OBP and struck out hitters 46.6% and a .286 BABIP. In 2016, that moved all the way to a .302 OBP and a 38.4% strikeout percentage and a .412 BABIP. His average exit velocity went from 86.5% in 2015 to 87.7%. That is such a small increase that I think its highly likely that his .412 BABIP was just a case of bad luck.

For Gerrit to improve in 2017, he needs to get his 2015 slider back. The 2016 version just isn’t going to cut it. If he could improve his changeup and throw that effectively, he could be even better than he was in 2015.

Depth Charts, a combination of ZiPS and Steamer projections, has him projected at 31 games, a 3.57 ERA, 8.26 K/9, and a 2.38 BB/9. I think Gerrit is capable of at least this. As long as he gets his slider back he should be around a 3.00 ERA pitcher and even if he doesn’t, I think he is at worst a 3.50 ERA pitcher.

Gerrit will never be the ace that Pirates fans want without his slider. The high 90s heat with a meh slider just makes him a rich mans Nathan Eovaldi. I am optimistic that good health and Ray Searage can help Gerrit and get his slider back and become a dominant pitcher again in 2017.