Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

The Best Ground Ball Pitcher in the Pirates Farm System

In recent seasons The Pirates have built a defensive strategy around positional infield shifting. This strategy requires pitchers that can pound the lower half of the strike zone to induce ground balls – something the Pirates have been exceptionally good at as Travis Sawchik of the Trib pointed out in is this excellent piece, “Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone”. As a staff the Pirates 51.5% ground ball percentage was tops in baseball by a wide margin. Individually Charlie Morton ranked 8th best (55.7%) and Francisco Liriano ranked 9th best (54.4%) in GB% among starting pitchers with a minimum of 100 IPs last season season. In the bullpen Jared Hughes posted a 64.6% ground ball rate, good enough for 6th best among relievers with at least 30 IPs. The Pirates clearly have been able to create ground ball pitchers at the big league level. But what about the next wave of pitchers coming up from the minors? Are there any high percentage ground ball specialists emerging in the farm system? The answer is yes, and his name is John Kuchno.
 

John Kuchno is a tall 6’5″ RHP drafted by the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2012 draft after his sophomore season at Ohio State. His control is fair, he doesn’t miss many bats, and as a late round pick he doesn’t come with a pedigree. But of all the pitchers in the Pirates farm system none do a better job of keeping the ball on the ground than Kuchno. Last season Kuchno produced a 58.1% GB% with Bradenton of the Advanced A Florida State League. The previous season with the West Virginia Power he posted a 55.2% rate. In fact, Kuchno has gotten better at rolling ground balls at every stop in the minors. That is notable because ground ball rates decline league wide the further up the ranks of the minors. Last season the GB% in the AAA International League was 42.0% compared to 43.6% in AA Eastern League and 44.6% in The Florida State League and the South Atlantic League (the two full season A ball leagues in which the Pirates have affiliates). Here are Kuchno’s ground ball rates compared to league averages during his first three minor league seasons:
 

Year League Level GB% League AVG GB% Diff
2012 NYP A- 53.3% 45.0% +8.3%
2013 SAL A 55.2% 44.6% +10.9%
2014 FSL A+ 58.1% 44.6% +13.5%

 

John Kuchno does not miss enough bats to be the kind of prospect anyone should get too excited about. Last year he struck out just 3.88 batters per 9 innings. His career minor league rate is just 5.19 K/9. And he did not rack up tons of Ks in college either. However, with the Pirates emphasis on ground balls it would be foolish to dismiss Kuchno. There is simply no one better than Kuchno in the Pirates’ farm system at inducing ground balls.
 

Pirate Blogs Roundup: Kang Struggles, Forbes Valuations

The major news items this week were the continued struggles of Jung-ho Kang during Grapefruit League play, Andrew McCutchen cutting off his signature dread locks, and the annual publication of MLB team valuations by Forbes. Forbes estimated the Pirates as the 17th most valuable franchise in the MLB and the 4th most profitable in 2014. Here is a roundup of the best blog posts about the Pittsburgh Pirates for the week ending March 28, 2015:
 

 

Pirate Blogs Roundup is a new feature highlighting some of the the best posts this week from bloggers/media covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. I plan to run this feature every weekend during the offseason. If you have a blog post that you would like highlighted in the next edition email me at bucshiddenvigorish@gmail.com for consideration.
 

Should Jung-ho Kang Start the Season in the Majors?

Hitting a baseball is not easy. In Major League Baseball, the highest level of the game, the reactionary time needed to hit a baseball is at the edge of human ability. At this level even minor adjustments can be extremely difficult. So it is no wonder that Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang is finding the game difficult in his first go around against major league quality pitching in Spring Training with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kang has just 3 hits in 27 ABs in the Grapefruit League. Even more concerning is his 11 strikeouts. Yes, this is just Spring Training. Yes, the same size is too small to be meaningful. But that doesn’t change the fact that Kang is struggling against the best pitching he has ever faced. The Pirates gave Kang a short respite last week to work on some adjustments at the Pirates minor league camp. He returned to game action yesterday against the Orioles by going 0 for 4 with 2 Ks.
 
If this Spring Training has proven anything it is that Jung-ho Kang is going to need time to get acclimated to major league pitching. Unfortunately, camp is probably not going to be long enough for that to happen. The season is less than two weeks away. So the Pirates are going to have a dilemma. Do they take him north with the club or ask him to go to AAA Indianapolis for a few weeks for further evaluation? It is a tough decision because the team has essentially boxed themselves into placing Kang on the 25 man roster. The Pirates have spoken all along that they intend for Kang to start the year in Pittsburgh. It seems as if they even promised him as much. But I have to believe they did not imagine his struggles this Spring would be so severe. Can they go back on their word? And would that even be what is best for his development? Kang needs playing time, but he also needs to get acclimated against major league quality pitching. The best way to do that is to play in the major leagues, though if Kang continues to struggle playing time will be scarce even if the Pirates do roster him. It would be hard to justify cutting into Jordy Mercer‘s playing time at SS if Kang continues to whiff in 40% of his ABs.
 
We are still very early in the Jung-ho Kang experiment. Nothing Kang has or hasn’t done this Spring Training should alter the long term plans or projections the Pirates have for him. But the short term plans are a different story. It may be necessary to hold off on the Jung-ho Kang major league debut for a little while.
 

Pirate Blogs Roundup: Liriano to Start Opener, Buster Olney Prediction

The major news items this week were a respected analyst at ESPN predicting the Pirates will win the World Series and the announcement that Francisco Liriano will be the starting pitcher on Opening Day against the Reds. Liriano will be the first Pirate to start on Opening Day in consecutive seasons since Oliver Perez in 2005 and 2006. Here is a roundup of the best blog posts about the Pittsburgh Pirates for the week ending March 21, 2015:
 

 

Pirate Blogs Roundup is a new feature highlighting some of the the best posts this week from bloggers/media covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. I plan to run this feature every weekend. If you have a blog post that you would like highlighted in the next edition email me at bucshiddenvigorish@gmail.com for consideration.
 

Radhames Liz Is Not a Lock to Make the Pirates Bullpen

Which relievers the Pirates choose to round out their bullpen is perhaps the only roster question left to be answered during this Spring Training. As Charlie Wilmoth of BucsDugout.com has pointed out, John Holdzkom‘s hold on a roster spot might be tenuous at best because he is one of the few relievers with options remaining. Arquimedes Caminero, Radhames Liz, Jeff Locke, and Stolmy Pimentel are all out of options. The only relievers with options remaining besides Holdzkom are Jared Hughes, Bobby LaFromboise, and Tony Watson. LaFromboise is certain to be optioned to AAA while Watson is guaranteed to be the primary setup man on the big league staff. Caminero has a fastball that approaches 100 mph and has been fantastic this Spring. It seems he has pitched himself onto the roster. Hughes has a career 61% ground ball rate and significant big league experience. Being the closest thing the Pirates’ bullpen has to a ground ball specialist helps Hughes’ case tremendously. Jeff Locke will probably be kept around because he makes the most sense as a swing man/spot starter. Radhames Liz is thought to be safe because the Pirates are paying him a $1 million guaranteed MLB contract. All of these factors put Holdzkom on shaky ground. He might have to start the season in Indianapolis simply because he is one of the few relievers that can be stashed in the minors.
 
But then again maybe it is a faulty assumption that Radhames Liz’s guaranteed MLB contract means he has already earned a roster spot. The Pirates did not hesitate to designate Vin Mazzaro for assignment last Spring when he was making similar money. The concern that Liz would not clear waivers also seems to be misguided. Teams do not make a practice of taking on a million bucks for an unproven relief pitcher. It is hard to imagine a team putting in a claim for Liz when they weren’t willing to make him such a contract offer in the offseason. Is the market for Radhames Liz really greater now than it was in December? I think not. Radhames Liz looks like a very stashable player in my opinion. If the Pirates must decide who to roster between Holdkom or Liz the decision should be based solely on merit.
 

Pirate Blogs Roundup: Cumpton’s Surgery, Taillon’s Delivery

The first major injury of season hit the Pirates this week as Brandon Cumpton was lost for the season to Tommy John Surgery. Here is a roundup of the best blog posts about the Pittsburgh Pirates for the week ending March 14, 2015:
 

 

Pirate Blogs Roundup is a new feature highlighting some of the the best posts this week from bloggers/media covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. I plan to run this feature every weekend. If you have a blog post that you would like highlighted in the next edition email me at bucshiddenvigorish@gmail.com for consideration.
 

Gerrit Cole at His Best and Worst

The Pirates are a team on the cusp of great things. But if there is one thing holding them back it is that their National League rivals hold the ace cards. The Pirates have been aced out of the playoffs two straight seasons. In 2013 it was Adam Wainwright that foiled the Bucs in the NLDS. In 2014 it was Madison Bumgarner shut them out out in the NL Wild Card Game. Look around the National League and you see aces everywhere. Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. Jon Lester in Chicago. The Pirates just don’t have an ace as accomplished as their rivals. What the Pirates do have is Gerrit Cole.
 
Cole’s stuff is among the best in the league. At times he looks dominate. But Cole still has a ways to go before he can be considered on par with the elite ace pitchers in baseball. What does Gerrit Cole need to take the next step? A lot of analysts seem to think he needs to diversify his pitch selection. Cole has relied heavily on his fastball over the first two seasons of his career. Over 65% of his pitches have been fastballs. It is easy to understand why. Triple digit heat is easy to fall in love with. But as RumBunter.com pointed out last week it is actually the slider that is Gerrit Cole’s most effective pitch. So if the slider is Cole’s filthiest pitch it makes sense that he should throw it more often, right? Maybe, or maybe not.
 
I did some research into Cole’s pitch selection on his best and worst days, and surprisingly his fastball and breaking ball usage did not look drastically different. I went through the game logs from all of Cole’s starts and found which games he posted a Game Score (GmSc) of 65 or greater. Game Score is a metric devised by Bill James to judge the quality of a pitcher’s performance. Any GmSc over 65 is considered a gem. Cole has posted a 65+ GmSc nine times in his young career. I looked at his pitch selection for those nine games. I then did the same thing for games in which he posted a GmSc of less than 45. Cole has eight such games thus far in his career. These games make up his worst performances. Here are the percentages:
 

GmSc Fastball % Breaking ball % Changeup %
> 65 (Best) 64.9% 30.5% 4.6%
< 45 (Worst) 66.7% 26.8% 6.5%

 

The difference in pitch selection between Gerrit Cole at his absolute best and his absolute worst is only about 3 to 4 more breaking balls per game. He is still throwing 65% fastballs regardless of whether he is “on” or not. This is not to say that Cole would not benefit by mixing in more of his secondary pitches. But just altering pitch selection is not what will make Gerrit Cole an ace.
 

A Lesson the Pirates Should Learn From Spring Training Lineups

There are a lot oddities in Grapefruit League lineups. There is no continuity in the lineups or in the positional assignments because the real purpose of preseason games is to get players reps at all the positions they might be tasked with playing in the regular season. In the first few weeks of Grapefruit League action you are more likely to see Keon Broxton or Jaff Decker patrolling centerfield at McKenchie Field than Andrew McCutchen. In fact, through the first 5 preseason games Cutch has yet to play a single inning in the outfield. That is neither important nor alarming. Cutch will be in CF on opening day. And despite his glove not seeing any game action as of yet, his bat has.
 

That brings us to another peculiarity of Spring Training – the daily use of the designated hitter in which McCutchen has twice been penciled into the lineup. As a National League team the Pirates only get to use the DH during the regular season in the 10 interleague games they have scheduled in American League Ball Parks. Those 10 interleague games provide an opportunity to give a star player like McCutchen a little rest while still keeping his bat in the lineup. However, manager Clint Hurdle has shown little creativity with his use of the DH during interleague play. In his career Andrew McCutchen has been a DH during the regular season just twice (and not once last season). Neil Walker has served as a DH only once in his career. That is almost negligence on the part of the skipper given Walker’s chronic bad back.
 

American League teams regularly use the DH to keep their stars rested. Mike Trout was a DH 8 times last season and has served as a DH 18 times in his 3+ year career. If 23 year old Mike Trout can benefit from a day of not having to patrol the outfield then so can Andrew McCutchen. Of course Trout’s Angels have a daily opportunity to use the DH whereas the Pirates do not. But that just means that the Pirates should make better use of the DH with the precious few opportunities they have to use it. Hurdle has already spoken this Spring of his desire to keep McCutchen more rested this season. If he is truly serious about giving Cutch some additional rest he can look back at his lineups over the first week of the Grapefruit League as a way to accomplish that. The Pirates have 10 opportunities to use the DH this season. It would be best not to waste them. Give Cutch and Walker a break.
 

Pirate Blogs Roundup: Korean Media, Jeff Locke Trade Bait, Offseason Recap

The Pirates began their Grapefruit League schedule this week against a familiar friend. Russell Martin had nothing but kind words for his old buddies as he reflected on his time in Pittsburgh. The 75th birthday of legendary Pirate Willie Stargell was also marked this week. Here is a roundup of the best posts from Pirates bloggers for the week ending March 7, 2015:
 

  • Charlie Wilmoth recapped the Pirates offseason for mlbtraderumors.com
  • Charlie also opined at Bucs Dugout that Jeff Locke could be trade bait
  • Raise The Jolly Roger highlighted the Korean media circus surrounding Jung-ho Kang
  • Rum Bunter looked at the best pitch of each of the Pirates’ starting pitchers
  • Old Bucs looked at the historical significance of March 6th in Pirates’ history. A great Pirate was born that day and two were elected to the hall of fame.
  • Whygavs struggles with being an optimist.
  • SaberBucs posted his projections for every Pirates position player

 

Pirate Blogs Roundup is a new feature highlighting some of the the best posts this week from bloggers/media covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. I plan to run this feature every weekend. If you have a blog post that you would like highlighted in the next edition email me at bucshiddenvigorish@gmail.com for consideration.
 

Five Pirates Prospects Under the Radar Worth Watching

The Pirates have a deep farm system, but only the top of the system and the elite prospects get much attention. There are plenty of hidden gems outside the top 20 prospects. Here are five players of interest to me that bear watching in 2015.
 

      1) Catcher Jin-De Jhang – Jhang hasn’t always been off the radar. He was rated the #20 prospect in 2013 by PiratesProspect.com after receiving a $250,000 signing bonus. Since then he has lost some of his luster. Last season he struggled offensively. He posted just a .219 batting average in 77 games with the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League. His struggles last season shouldn’t be unexpected considering Jhang skipped a level bypassing West Virgina in the SALLY League and going straight to Advanced A ball. Jhang probably wasn’t ready for such a jump, but the Pirates felt it necessary to sacrifice his development to allow Reese McGuire the opportunity to play every day with the West Virginia Power. Despite having a tough year in Advanced A ball Jin-De Jhang still flashed his potential. He wasn’t overpowered by pitching in the Florida State League. Jhang can make contact. His K% of 12.3% was quite good. Defensively he threw out 32% of base stealers. That is a strong rate. At just 21 years old he was nearly two years younger than the FSL League average. Jhang still has plenty of time on his side.
      2) Left-handed SP Hector Garcia – Garcia isn’t currently the Pirates best left handed pitching prospect, but he is the best LHP prospect that you probably haven’t yet heard of. Garcia is a Dominican that the Pirates signed as an International Free Agent two years ago. The Pirates felt he was advanced enough to send him to the states last summer at age 18. That was after just one season playing in the Dominican Summer League. In 2014 Garcia was the youngest player assigned to the Bristol Pirates of the Appalachian league. He was also Bristol’s most effective starting pitcher. In 48 innings he posted a 3.38 ERA with a 9.38 K/9 and 3.56 BB/9. Watch out for Hector Garcia, he could be the Pirates next breakout pitching prospect.

      3) Left-handed RP John Sever – While Hector Garcia was Bristol’s best starting pitcher, his teammate John Sever was the best reliever on the team. In fact, Sever was arguably the most dominate reliever in the entire farm system last season. Sever fanned 63 batters in just 40.2 innings. Perhaps the Pirates didn’t challenge Sever enough. He was drafted as a college junior in the 20th round of the 2014 draft. The Pirates usually send college draftees to their NY-Penn League affiliate. The NY-Penn League is stronger competition than the Appalachian League. However, Sever’s performance at Bristol was too good to be chalked up entirely to just inferior hitters. Sever stands 6’5″. Left handed pitchers with that kind of height and a low 90′s fastball can go a long way. Sever shouldn’t be ignored.

      4) Right-handed RP Sam Street – Sam Street is one of the more unusual prospects in the Pirates’ farm system. That’s even if you can call him a prospect. The 22 year old native of Australia has a fastball that only tops out in the mid 80′s. He was drafted as a college senior in the 16th round. Not the most impressive of pedigrees for sure. But Street has an unusual sidearm delivery that hitters have trouble seeing. His first taste of pro ball was with the Jamestown Jammers of the NY-Penn League where he posted a sensational 0.614 WHIP. Street is a control freak. He walked just 4 batters in 27.2 innings. Even more impressive was that he allowed just 13 hits. It is unlikely that Street can be anywhere near that effective as he progresses up the ladder. But you never know for sure when it comes to players with unusual sidearm deliveries.

      5) Infielder Sam Kennelly – Kennelly is an Aussie that the Pirates signed three years ago for $225,000 as an International Free Agent. He finally made his rookie ball debut in the states with the Gulf Coast Pirates last summer. He slashed 284/388/343 in 30 games. He showed excellent plate discipline with a BB/K rate of nearly 1 to 1 (16 walks and 17 Ks). His offensive numbers in the GCL were very similar to Cole Tucker‘s (Tucker was the Pirates 1st Rd draft pick in 2014). Kennelly is only 6 months older than Tucker. Kennelly mostly worked defensively at 2B. The GCL may be a long way from the major leagues, but Kennelly has gotten his pro career off on the right foot and at a relatively young age for the GCL.

     

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