Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – December 2013

Winter League Baseball In Perspective

The Pirates may have won 94 games last season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1992, but they are still a team looking at the future. Their farm system is regarded as one of the most talented in baseball. The Bucs have a number of young players in their pipeline that look to be future stars, but none that shine as bright as Gregory Polanco.
 

Pirate fans simply can’t wait for Polanco to arrive in Pittsburgh. Looking ahead to an outfield consisting of Polanco, Andrew McCutchen, and Starling Marte has the fan base giddy. It could be the most athletic outfield ever. Polanco has been ripping the cover off the ball this off season in the Dominican Winter League which has added fuel to the notion that the young super prospect is ready to join McCutchen and Marte now. That would be premature.
 

Winter League Baseball needs to be put in the proper context. It is a great place for players to get a quantity of ABs that need it. Players that missed time during the year use it for some added conditioning or to prove their health to prospective MLB teams. Marlon Byrd was a good example of that last year. His 2012 season was almost a complete wash out due to a PED suspension and injuries. So Byrd went to the Mexican Pacific League last Winter and put up a .318/.394/.595 slash line in 57 games which earned him a Spring Training invite with the Mets. But winter ball stats tend be pretty meaningless. It is nice that Polanco is second in the Dominican League with a .924 OPS until you realize the player he trails is Yamaico Navarro. Yes Bucco fans, that is the same Yamaico Navarro that hit .160 for Pittsburgh in 2012. And if Navarro ends up still leading the league in OPS at the end of the season he will join this illustrious group of players that have led the Dominican Winter League in OPS in the last 5 seasons: Juan Francisco (2012 & 2008), Brian Bogusevic (2011), Hector Luna (2010), and Wilson Betemit (2009). Not exactly a star studded group.
 

That isn’t to say young future stars like Gregory Polanco haven’t been helped by winter ball. A number of players recently had breakout seasons in the majors following strong campaigns in winter ball. Starling Marte had a slash line of .304/.381/.464 just last season in the Dominican League. Jean Segura of the Brewers and Junior Lake of the Cubs also put up strong numbers in the Dominican League last winter. And in the 2012 season of the Venezuelan Winter League Evan Gattis had a monster year in which he tied for the league lead in home runs and posted a .960 OPS. Gattis followed that up with a strong rookie campaign for the Atlanta Braves in 2013. But don’t get the idea that it was the strong competition in the Venezuelan League that helped Gattis become a breakout player in the majors. This was the same league that Gorkys Hernandez had a slash line of .367/.436/.469.
 

So how meaningful is it really that Gregory Polanco is tearing it up in winter ball? In my opinion not much. Andrew Lambo has been terrible thus far in the Venezuelan Winter League. He has just a .175 batting average and has struck out 14 times through 12 games. But Lambo has more to gain because he is getting some work in at first base. Lambo adding some versatility is really the most meaningful thing to come out of these winter ball seasons for the Pirates. It is time to put winter league baseball in perspective. Gaudy stats are nice, but no player is earning a place on the roster of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates by the stats they put up in winter ball.
 

Goodbye Fort McKenry

Yesterday the Pirates acquired catcher Chris Stewart from the Yankees and designated Michael McKenry for assignment. Unless McKenry signs a minor league deal to stay with the organization it appears his tenure with the Pirates has come to an end. Michael “The Fort” McKenry is one of those players that is just impossible not to like. He wasn’t an ideal backup catcher. His defense was subpar. His offense was just so-so. But you knew he was giving 100% at all times. He did have some pop in his bat. 17 home runs in 2+ seasons is pretty good for a backup catcher. Let us pay tribute to Michael McKenry’s career with the Bucs by relieving his greatest moment. This was his first career homer, a game winning blast against the Cubs on 7/8/2011.
 

 

As for the acquisition of Chris Stewart, I’m not a fan of the move. This means that rookie Tony Sanchez will likely start the season in AAA. Stewart is a superb defender, but his bat offers little. He career OPS is just .575. I believe starting catcher Russell Martin played too much last season. He wore down late in the season. I would like to see Martin limited to around 110 games started. That leaves 50+ games for the backup catcher to start. That is too many games with another hole in the lineup if they use Chris Stewart. My preference would be to allow Sanchez to cut his teeth in the majors by serving as the backup. I just don’t think he has much more left to prove in the minors.
 

The Anatomy of FIP Underperformers

Last week the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco to a 4 year, $49 million contract. The Nolasco signing is the biggest contract that a pitcher has received thus far this offseason. If you believe in FIP based WAR this looks like good value. Nolasco projects as a 2.5-3.0 win WAR pitcher based off his FIP. The Twins are paying him in the vicinity of $4million/WAR. Sabermetricians tout FIP as a better predictor of future outcome than ERA. However, there are many pitchers that routinely underperform their FIP. Ricky Nolasco is one of those pitchers. He has posted an ERA higher than his FIP in 5 straight seasons. From 2009-2013 Nolasco posted a FIP of 3.58 and a nearly idententical xFIP of 3.59. His 4.48 ERA during that time is nearly a point higher. Clearly Nolasco has been an underperforming FIPster, and there is no reason to believe that trend won’t continue.
 

Any pitcher can have a rough season in which poor strand rates cause their ERA to hover over FIP. In these instances they are negatively effected by the randomness of sequencing. Essentially it is bad luck. But bad luck isn’t always the cause of poor strand rates. Pitchers like Nolasco that routinely underperform their FIP appear to be pitching less effectively out of the stretch. We can see that when we look at his career splits for K/9 and BB/9 rates with the bases empty as opposed to men on base.

R. Nolasco bases empty men on base
K/9 8.13 6.36
BB/9 1.56 2.83

As you can see Nolasco doesn’t have the same strikeout stuff out of the stretch. He also issues free passes at a greater frequency. This has been a trend his whole career. But does this really cause a pitcher to underperform FIP? I believe the answer is yes and an even better example to prove this is Tim Lincecum.
 

Here is a tale of two Tims. Lincecum prior to 2012 was basically a pitcher that pitched to his FIP. From to 2007-2011 Lincecum posted the following: 2.98 ERA/ 2.93 FIP / 3.20 xFIP. After the 2011 season Lincecum became an extreme underperforming FIPster. Here are his numbers in 2012-2013: 4.76 ERA/ 3.95 FIP/ 3.68 xFIP. So what happened to Timmy? Well, with the bases empty not much. Lincecum continued to strike out batters with a K/9 rate over 10. The free passes only rose slightly. But with men on base, oh my did his numbers plummet! His K/9 dropped 20% and his BB/9 rose 50%. Here are Lincecum’s splits for those time periods in greater detail:

T. Lincecum bases empty men on base
K/9: 07-11 10.34 9.30
K/9: 12-13 10.01 7.65
BB/9: 07-11 3.57 3.02
BB/9: 12-13 3.41 4.53

 

Obviously a drop off in performance with men on base can have a negative impact on FIP. Armed with this knowledge we can now make a better determination if the crop of still available free agent pitchers that underperformed their FIP last season were a victim of sequencing or lesser stuff out of the stretch. So lets take a look at a few of them. These are 2013 numbers:
 

A.J. Burnett – 3.30 ERA/ 2.80 FIP / 2.92 xFIP

A.J. Burnett bases empty men on base
K/9 9.77 9.94
BB/9 3.43 2.83

Conclusion:Burnett’s numbers were stronger out of the stretch. It appears sequencing was to blame for underperforming his FIP in 2013.
 

Chris Capuano – 4.26 ERA/ 3.55 FIP / 3.67 xFIP

C. Capuano bases empty men on base
K/9 8.85 4.23
BB/9 1.03 3.43

Conclusion:Buyer beware with Chris Capuano. His FIP may not be a strong indicator of the pitcher he will be next season. With the bases empty he was Cole Hamels. With men on base he was Zach Duke. Capuano wasn’t victimized by bad luck. He just didn’t pitch very well out of the stretch.
 

Joe Saunders – 5.26 ERA/ 4.72 FIP / 4.23 xFIP

J. Saunders bases empty men on base
K/9 4.61 5.94
BB/9 2.88 3.12

Conclusion: Saunders didn’t pitch noticeably worse with men on base. Bad luck was the culprit for underperforming his FIP in 2013. He is a good bet for a bounce back year in 2014.
 

Paul Maholm – 4.41 ERA/ 4.24 FIP / 3.89 xFIP

P. Maholm bases empty men on base
K/9 5.09 6.52
BB/9 2.53 3.06

Conclusion: Maholm is very similar to Saunders. If anything he appears to pitch better out of the stretch. Random sequencing impacted him negatively more than anything he was or was not doing with men on base.
 

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