Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – October 2013

Trade Speculation: Mark Trumbo

Buster Olney is reporting that The Angels are listening to offers for first baseman Mark Trumbo in return for young pitching. The Pirates have a need at first base. Justin Morneau is a free agent while the platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are arbitration eligible non-tender candidates. Morneau and Jones are both players on the decline. The Pirates could stick with the status quo and tender arbitration offers to Sanchez and Jones, or they could tender just the right handed Gaby Sanchez and sign a free agent for the left handed side of the first base platoon, but that would come at a significant increase to the payroll spent on the position. The free agent market offers limited options and Gaby Sanchez will make in excess of $3 million. That is a pretty steep price for a player with such limited playing time. The Pirates only faced a left handed starter 31 times in 2013. There just aren’t that many southpaw starting pitchers in the NL Central. Between Sanchez and whatever veteran left handed hitter he platoons with the cost will approach $10 million dollars. The Bucs could go the cheap route and pair rookie Andrew Lambo in a platoon with Gaby Sanchez, but it would be a risk to count on an unproven hitter with little first base experience. The trade market makes the most sense for the Pirates to upgrade the position while controlling costs.


Mark Trumbo is an intriguing option. He is young and has lots of power. He has 95 home runs over the last 3 seasons. But Trumbo has plenty of warts too. He strikes out a ton, doesn’t walk a whole lot, and sports just a .299 career OBP. He is coming off a down year that saw his OPS decline more than 60 points from 2012. In fact Trumbo’s .747 OPS this season was only slightly better than the .726 OPS that Pirate first basemen combined to post in 2013, and that number was drug down by manager Clint Hurdle exposing Gaby Sanchez to too much right handed pitching. So unless Trumbo rebounds closer to his 2012 form he may not represent all that much of an upgrade over the status quo. However he would be cheaper. As a first year arbitration eligible player Trumbo is estimated to make a little less than $5 million in 2014. That is roughly half of what the Pirates could be expected to pay two veterans to platoon at first base. Trumbo also would be a longer term answer at the position. He won’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season.


Of course there is an additional cost for Trumbo. The Angels aren’t going to just give him away. They want young, controllable, major league ready pitchers in return. The Pirates do have plenty of those types of assets. I don’t believe the Bucs should give up any of their top 3 pitching prospects in a deal for Trumbo. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham in my mind should be off limits. I would however part with Jeff Locke or Brandon Cumpton. The Pirates also have bullpen pieces that would be of interest to the Halos. I think a fair starting point for trade discussions could be Jeff Locke and Mark Melancon. That is a deal I could endorse.


The Bar is High for the Next Crop of Pirate Hurlers

You’re better to fall in love with a stripper than a rookie, because they’ll break your heart.


- Greg Blache, Former NFL Defensive Coordinator, postgame 2008

If Mr. Blache has been watching the 2013 MLB Postseason he might not feel the same way about rookies. The Cardinals and Red Sox are tied at 1 game each in the World Series thanks in large part to 21 year old St. Louis rookie pitcher Michael Wacha. Wacha has been dominate in 4 starts this postseason, posting a perfect 4-0 record and a miniscule 1.00 ERA. The Cardinals have also gotten big contributions from rookie relievers Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. The Cardinals aren’t the only team that has seen rookie pitchers shine this postseason. Gerrit Cole of the Pirates and Sonny Gray of the A’s both pitched gems in the Divisional Series and both saw their teams turn to them for a deciding Game 5. Although their respective teams lost those deciding games both Cole and Gray acquitted themselves quite well. It should not be surprise that the story of the 2013 MLB playoffs has been the impact of rookie pitchers because this was really the story during the entire regular season too. Cole, Shelby Miller also of the Cardinals, and Julio Teheran of the Braves all posted fine rookie seasons that in most years would have been good enough for Rookie of the Year Honors. However they were all overshadowed by the Marlins Jose Fernandez. Fernandez was so good he earned an All Star bid. His 12-6 record on a very poor team, 2.19 ERA, and 187 strikeouts in just 172.2 innings is arguably one of the greatest rookie seasons a pitcher has ever had. You would have to go back to Dwight Gooden in 1984 to find a comparable rookie campaign. None of these pitchers are old rookies either. At just 23 Sonny Gray is the oldest.


With the success of the 2013 rookie class of pitchers the bar has been set extremely high for the next wave of talented rookie hurlers. The expectation is that highly rated prospect Jameson Taillon will make his major league debut in Pittsburgh sometime during the summer of 2014. Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow are top rated pitchers in the Pirates minor league system that are soon to follow Taillon. This next wave of phenoms will be hard pressed to match the early success that Gerrit Cole experienced with the Pirates during 2013. What these rookie pitchers did in 2013 was abnormal. The expectations for Jameson Taillon should be tempered. Taillon has the stuff to be an ace but if anyone is expecting him to pitch like one in 2014 they will likely be disappointed. Rookies don’t usually pitch like aces, they usually just pitch like rookies.


Impact of Pirates’ Defensive Shifts Has Been Overstated

Much has already been documented concerning the Pittsburgh Pirates increased use of defensive shifts during the 2013 season. The implementation of an aggressive new defensive plan was cited numerous times throughout the summer for turning the Pirates into one of the stingiest teams in the league at preventing runs. Only the Atlanta Braves surrendered fewer runs than the 577 allowed by Pittsburgh. To give up so few runs you have to have good pitching and defense and by all measures the Pirates had both. According to Baseball Info Solutions the Pirates had 68 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2013. In 2012 the Pirates were a -25 in DRS. That is a net improvement of 93 runs saved. The philosophical change in player positioning by the Pirates that produced a 400% increase in defensive shifts was credited for the turnaround by numerous journalists and bloggers. But it would be a major reach to credit the use of defensive shifts as anything more than a minor factor in the Pirates’ improvement in run prevention.
One of the most stark observations that can be made of the use of radical defensive shifts are on plays made out of normal zones (OOZ). This was never more apparent than when Neil Walker robbed Matt Adams of a game tying hit in the 8th inning of a game on August 13th by snaring a sure line drive hit in short right field. With teams that shift as heavily as the Pirates you should expect a high number of OOZ plays. The Pirates made 559 OOZ plays which was good for the 4th best in baseball. That was 67 more OOZ plays than the team made in 2012. However this comes at a tradeoff. Fielders that are shifted out of their normal zones will fail to make plays they otherwise might have made. The percentage of plays on balls in zone (BIZ) dropped from from 83.8% in 2012 to 82.4% in 2013. Had the Pirates made plays on BIZ at the rate in which they did in 2012 they would have made 32 additional plays. So if we ignore all the other variables and just credit the shifts entirely for both the increase in plays made OOZ and the decrease in plays on BIZ the net is 35 additional plays.
When you look at all balls put in play The Pirates saw very little improvement in defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is the rate at which batted balls in play are turned into outs by the defense. This would include balls in zone, play made on balls out of zones, as well as hits that fell outside of zones. In 2012 the Pirates converted 71.4% of balls in play to outs. In 2013 the rate improved to 71.5%. Over the course of an entire season that equates to only 5 additional outs. Don’t get me wrong, I think defensive shifts were worth more than 5 additional outs. It is quite possible the Pirates defensive efficiency may have regressed had they not implemented the shift so frequently. But it certainly wasn’t the major factor in the 93 defensive runs saved improvement from 2012. Baseball Info Solutions estimated the defensive shifts saved the Pirates 9 runs on the season. So less than 10% of the Bucs’ improvement in DRS can be directly linked to an increased use of defensive shifts. There were so many other factors that led to the Pirates better defensive metrics that dwarfed the shifting by comparison. For example controlling the running game. Pirate catchers cut down an 24 additional base stealers and Pirate pitchers picked off 7 additional runners. The switch from Rod Barajas to Russell Martin alone was worth an improvement of 28 defensive runs saved. Martin was +16 DRS in 2013. Barajas was -12 DRS in 2012. The Bucs also saw a big improvement in left field due to a full season of Starling Marte starting in LF. Marte registered a 20 DRS, the highest total among all left fielders. In my opinion adding two elite defensive players as well as some improved defensive play by Pedro Alvarez was a way more significant factor in the Pirates having such a stingy defense in 2013.
All of the talk about how much defensive shifts aided the Pirates at preventing runs kind of stole the limelight away from the biggest reason the Pirates were so hard to score upon in 2013. It was largely because of the pitching. The Pirate pitching staff allowed just 101 home runs. Not only did that lead the league in fewest homers allowed in 2013, but it was also the second lowest total by any team since the strike shortened 1994 season. This was an elite staff at keeping the ball in the yard, and they provided a huge improvement of 52 less homers than 2012. While the story of the Pirates defensive shifts that saved the team 9 runs garnered a ton of ink this summer, the story of one of the hardest pitching staffs in this era to hit a home run against was largely ignored.


Should Managers Wait for Hidden Vigorish in the Postseason?

For those unfamiliar with the term hidden vigorish, it was coined by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ late great broadcaster Bob “The Gunner” Prince. Prince surmised that with each out a batter makes he is closer to his next hit. Essentially it is the belief that over time things will even out. If a .300 hitter goes into an 0 for 20 slump a tremendous amount of hidden vigorish has built up. To the Gunner it was an almost mystical force that he’d call upon in the biggest moments. Hidden vigorish was just a quirky way for Bob Prince to point out that a player was due. To statisticians the concept is a fallacy. The probability for each individual occurrence is not altered by the outcomes of the previous occurrences. A coin toss is always a 50/50 outcome regardless of how many times it landed heads on the previous 20 coin flips. But don’t tell that to baseball fans or baseball managers. The belief that a player is due is a very real thing.
Often managers make very difficult decisions simply on the belief that a player is due. We saw that from Clint Hurdle in the National League Divisional Series. Hurdle continued to pen the names of Starling Marte and Neil Walker at the top of the Pirates’ lineup despite both players struggling badly. Hurdle defended the decision to keep them at the top of the lineup in the decisive game 5 by saying he felt they were simply due to come through. Hurdle was banking that he could collect on some postseason hidden vigorish. It never came. The Pirates lost and Marte and Walker combined to go 1 for 38 in the series. In the American League Championship Series Jim Leyland has faced a similar dilemma. Austin Jackson took a 3 for 33 slump into Game 4 of the ALCS matchup between the Tigers and the Red Sox. Leyland decided he could no longer wait for leadoff hitter Austin Jackson’s buildup of hidden vigorish to pay off. He shuffled the Tigers’ batting order by dropping Jackson to the 8th spot in the order and moving the rest of the lineup up one spot. Coincidentally this put the Tigers’ best hitter Miguel Cabrera in the 2 hole. Sabermetricians have long argued that if managers were to optimize their lineups they would bat their best hitter second. Optimizing the lineup really wasn’t what Leyland was trying to do. He just thought Austin Jackson was pressing and felt that dropping him lower in the lineup would take the pressure off. Jackson broke out of his slump with 2 hits and 2 walks. Of course it would be a stretch to argue that the breakout was due to the lower pressure at the bottom of the order. When Jackson stepped to the plate for his first AB of the game he did so with the bases loaded and 1 out. That is a much higher pressure situation than leading off an inning. Regardless, the lineup change worked. Austin Jackson drew a 4 pitch walk to drive in the first run of the game for the Tigers. Then again, maybe it was just time for Leyland and Jackson to collect on some hidden vigorish.


The Gerrit Cole Model of Managing Young Pitcher Workloads

In many ways the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates can be compared to the 2012 Washington Nationals. They both enjoyed breakout seasons and a long awaited post season berth after years of heavy investment in player development that finally paid dividends. Their seasons also both ultimately died at the hands of St. Louis Cardinals after taking the Redbirds to 5 games in the NLDS. There was one stark difference between these two teams though. The 2012 Nationals chose to manage the workload of their young ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg by shutting him down before the playoffs had even begun. On the other hand the 2013 Pirates rode Gerrit Cole all the way to game 5 of the NLDS .
Talented young pitchers are an asset that teams go to great lengths to protect from injury. ¬†Managing the workload early in their careers is now the standard. Every team has their guidelines for managing workload. These guidelines are generally concerned with limiting the increase in innings from the previous year. In some cases like Strasburg, recovering from injury is also a factor in setting an innings limit. These guidelines lead to a hard limit on innings. Once the pitcher reaches those innings he gets shut down for the remainder of the season. That isn’t a problem for a last place club like the Miami Marlins. The Marlins set a firm 170 innings limit for their young phenom Jose Fernandez. Fernandez reached that limit on September 11th. He spent the last 3 weeks of the season as a dugout spectator of the worst team in the National League. But for a team in a playoff race a hard innings limit can be major problem. The 2012 Nationals set a hard limit of 160 innings for Stephen Strasburg. Despite being the ace of their staff and a near lock to qualify for the post season the Nationals shutdown their star pitcher in early September. They effectively made their star pitcher a non-factor for the games that mattered most.
Now contrast that to how the Pittsburgh Pirates managed the workload of Gerrit Cole this season. The Pirates never officially stated what the innings limit for Gerrit Cole was. They never even acknowledged that a hard innings limit for Cole existed. The media speculated on what the limit for Gerrit Cole was, but the Pirates would only acknowledge that they had a plan to manage his innings. Whether or not a hard limit for Cole existed is not known. What we do know is the Pirates emphasize limiting high stress innings. The Pirates impose a cap of 30 pitches in an inning in their minor league system. If a pitcher throws 30 pitches in an inning he gets sent to the showers regardless of what inning it is. Twice in April while pitching for AAA Indianapolis Cole was lifted early due to the 30 pitch rule. The Pirates also managed high stress innings on Cole by keeping his pitch counts down. Only twice in his 17 starts after being called up to Pittsburgh did Cole throw more than 100 pitches in a start. Strasburg threw more than 100 pitches in 10 of his 28 starts in 2012. One final control the Pirates used to manage Cole’s innings was the creative use of off days to build additional days of rest between his starts. Twice in August the Bucs reshuffled the rotation after an off day to give Cole 7 days of rest between starts. They effectively shaved 1 turn in the rotation for Cole during August by doing so. Was conserving innings in August what led to Cole’s domination in September? Who knows, but it sure didn’t hurt. And if the Pirates did have some innings limit in mind for their young ace in training wouldn’t it make sense to conserve those innings for September? ¬†In 2012 the only time Strasburg had more than 6 days rest was over the all-star break. The Nats made no real effort to conserve Strasburg’s innings and because of that he wasn’t available at the end.
The Pirates showed much foresight to keep Cole available until the bitter end. They also refused to be bound to some arbitrarily set innings limit. The Pirates saw a pitcher that was looking stronger down the stretch. They saw a pitcher with no warning signs that indicated he should be shutdown. So they allowed their young ace to take the ball in the biggest games that their franchise has played in more that 20 years. The reason they could do so wasn’t because they pushed him. It wasn’t because they were negligent. It was because they followed a refreshingly different plan of managing a young pitcher’s workload. Here’s hoping the Gerrit Cole Model becomes the new standard.


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