Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – January 2014

Chris Dickerson Is a Good Depth Signing

The Pirates have signed 31 year old OF Chris Dickerson to a minor league contract with an invite to the major league camp at spring training. The left handed hitting Dickerson will have a shot to compete for a roster spot as the 4th outfielder with Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo, and Jaff Decker. For his career Dickerson sports a triple slash line of .262/.339/.406 in 708 plate appearance in the major leagues.

I think Dickerson has a really good shot to nudge his way on to the roster, and could potentially end Snider’s tenure with the Pirates. Dickerson does more things better than the other 4th OF candidates. Dickerson is an above average defender at all three OF positions. Snider, Lambo, and Decker are really only suited for RF. That kind of versatility could give Chris Dickerson the edge. It would be good for the Pirates to have a competent player to fill in at LF or CF if Starling Marte or Andrew McCutchen were to miss time with injuries in the early part of season before Gregory Polanco is ready. In addition, Dickerson also is an asset on the base paths. In his major league career Dickerson is 31 for 38 on stolen base attempts. In his minor league career he has swiped 179 bags. Dickerson has also maintained a consistently high BABIP throughout his time in the majors and minors. His major league career BABIP stands at .353. I previously detailed why players with a high BABIP are a great fit at PNC Park due to the known park factors that suppress the three true outcomes.

Hidden Vigorish Prophecies for 2014: Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez is a lightening rod for Pirate fans. From the very beginning of his career the expectations for Pedro were enormous. Not since Barry Bonds had the Pirates drafted a hitter with the pedigree of Pedro Alavrez when they selected him as the second overall pick of the 2008 draft. As a Scott Boras client Pedro was expected to command a large draft signing bonus. In previous years the Pirates had avoided drafting such players. Pedro was billed as the next great power hitter. Many believe Pedro is still destined to become that.

In some respects Pedro Alavarez has become an elite power hitter. At the very least he has shown elite power. Last year he tied Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead with 36 home runs. This after clubbing 33 home runs in 2012. Unfortunately, Pedro has proven to do little else well at the plate. He doesn’t draw many walks and he strikes out a lot. But that only fuels the believe that he is on the verge of breaking out. He is just now entering his prime. Next season he will only be 27 years old.

The problem with this line of thinking is that Pedro is the type of hitter that typically peaks earlier than most hitters. Bill James dubbed this as “Old Player Skills”. James stated, “young players with old player’s skills…tend to peak early and fade away earlier than other players”. SaberBucs.com pointed this out by showing that Pedro’s ten most statistically comparable players did not have great age 27 seasons and typically began to decline soon afterwards.
I put less stock in comparables than Saber Bucs does, but there is still plenty of evidence to suggest Pedro doesn’t have much upside remaining. Fangraphs.com has done some great work in recent years on aging curves of various skills. Isolated Power (ISO) has been proven to peak much earlier than expected. If Pedro were to follow this aging curve we should expect his power will begin to diminish now.
What is Pedro without his power? His improvement in offensive productivity has been solely fueled by his power increase. His plate discipline has shown no improvements. He continues to strike out 30% of the time. Last year he posted just a 7.8% walk rate. That was the lowest rate of his career. He has increased the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he swings at every season in his career. This defies how most hitters age. Generally as hitters age plate discipline improves.
There are two reasons to be somewhat bullish on the potential for Pedro’s offensive productivity in 2014. His HR/FB rates have been exceptional the past two seasons. Last season 26.3% of the fly balls Pedro hit cleared the fences. Only Chris Davis had a higher HR/FB rate. Meanwhile the percentage of fly balls that Pedro has been hitting is steadily increasing. Last season his FB% was a career high 36.4%. Given Pedro’s high HR/FB rate, lifting more balls could mean quite a few more home runs. Chris Davis had a very similar HR/FB and K% to Pedro, yet Davis clubbed 17 more homers simply because he is an extreme fly ball hitter. Pedro won’t get his FB% up to the 45.7% that Chris Davis posted in 2013. But if Pedro can raise his FB% to 40% he very likely would break the 40 homer barrier. The second reason to be hopeful of a better Pedro is his playoff performance and September splits indicated there was a more patient hitter somewhere in that big body. During September he struck out just 21.4% of the time. That was the lowest K% for any month in his career. A small sample size for sure, but a positive sign nonetheless. For these reasons I think Pedro will out perform most of his offensive sabermetric projections, albeit only slightly. I do think this will be the best season of Pedro’s career. I just don’t think it will be that much better than his previous two seasons.

The rest of Pedro’s game should be relatively stable. He made great strides defensively in 2013. For the first time in his career he was on the plus side for Defensive Runs Saved. He still makes a ton of errors, but he makes up for that with some surprisingly good range. I rate him average defensively and I think that will continue to be true in 2014. The same could be said for his base running skills. He doesn’t have the wheels to swipe bags but the advanced metrics show he has actually evolved into a savvy base runner.

Without further ado, here are the final estimations I’m using as inputs for Wahoo’s on First WAR Calculator to estimate the 2014 WAR for Pedro Alvarez:

AVG – .247
OBP – .323
SLG – .484
Plate Appearances – 600
Games – 150
Position – 3B
Defense – 4 (average)
Base Running – 3 (average)

And the verdict for Pedro Alvarez 2014 WAR is… 3.9

Finding the Perfect Hitter for PNC Park

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com posted an interesting piece earlier this week about the unique ballpark factors of PNC Park. To summarize Jeff’s findings, PNC Park suppresses the three true outcomes (strike outs, walks, and home runs) like no other stadium in baseball. PNC Park is both the hardest stadium for a hitter to draw a walk and the hardest stadium for a pitcher to strike out a hitter. It also is the third hardest stadium to hit a home run. It is especially tough for right handed power hitters. It is the hardest park in the league for right handed hitters to hit a home run. Every Pirate fan knows why. The 410 foot deep North Side Notch is a black hole for right-center field home runs. Left handed hitters have it just a little bit easier. It is the seventh hardest park for lefties to go yard.

Given what we know about PNC Park, what kind of hitter would be best suited for this environment? We can start by eliminating most right handed hitters. Only right handed hitters with plus power will reach the fences with any regularity at PNC Park. Right handed hitters with above average but not elite power are the most robbed. Gaby Sanchez has hit just one home run at PNC Park in his year and a half tenure with the Pirates. Right handed fly ball hitters are a terrible fit. Here is a stat that will make Pirate fans cringe. Over the last 5 seasons Rod Barajas has the highest fly ball rate of any player in baseball by a wide margin. 59.9% of Barajas’ batted balls were fly balls. The next highest total was Kyle Phillips at 54.3%. No wonder Rod Barajas was so bad. This free agent signing makes you wonder if the front office takes ball park factors into consideration at all.

This is not to say that all right handed hitters are handicapped at PNC Park. Players with good speed and high line drive rates can make the outfield gaps play to their advantage. For his career Andrew McCutchen has a .901 OPS at home and an .839 OPS on the road despite having higher HR/FB rates away from PNC. Despite McCutchen’s success at PNC Park I believe left handed batters are at less of a disadvantage. A left handed version of McCutchen could be even better.
I’m going to take a crack at finding the perfect hitter for PNC Park. We need the following ingredients:

  • A left handed hitter that can hit left handed pitching. If the hitter can be neutralized by platoon splits that sort of defeats the purpose.
  • Well above average batting average on balls in play. Since PNC suppresses walks, strikouts, and home runs it conversely boosts the amount of balls in play. We need a hitter with a high BABIP to take advantage.
  • Low strike out rates. Since our ideal hitter has a high BABIP we should also look for one that puts the bat on the ball at high rates.
  • Above average HR/FB rates. PNC Park doesn’t take homers away from left handers quite as much as it does from right handers, but it still suppresses left handed homers above league average. Solid HR/FB rates would indicate the hitter has enough power to still overcome this slight disadvantage.
  • High line drive rates. The outfield at PNC has a lot of green, especially to the opposite field for left handed hitters. Line drives the opposite way would be preferable to fly balls. Let’s just say lots of line drives create more opportunities for doubles and triples.
  • Above average speed. More balls in play means a lot more running. The quicker the better.

Does such a hitter exist? Well yeah, actually it does. I used the following filters to find a list of players that might meet the criteria:
Time Period = Last 3 seasons
PA > 1000
BABIP > .310 (league avg is .297)
K% < 19.0% (league avg is 19.9%)
HR/FB > 11.0% (league avg is 10.5%)
LD% > 22.0% (league avg is 21.2%)

No surprise that it would turn up a list of super stars. Five LH hitters were a match. They are Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez. However, only Cano has above average speed. So there you have it, Robinson Cano is the most perfect hitter in the game today for PNC Park. He matches each of the attributes I was looking for. The Pirates are never going to have Robinson Cano, but they might have the next perfect fit for PNC Park and he might be playing in Pittsburgh very soon. Gregory Polanco has shown many of the same attributes in his minor league career. Will Polanco become the perfect hitter for PNC Park? Pirate fans can only hope.

Hidden Vigorish Prophecies for 2014: Starling Marte

Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle penciled Starling Marte into the lineup as the everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter from Day 1 of the 2013 season despite some rather vocal criticisms concerning his plate discipline. Marte has the type of speed and ability to make things happen on the base paths that teams covet in a leadoff hitter, but he also had K% and BB% rates throughout his minor league career that are downright terrible for the leadoff role. Marte turned out to be a tremendous asset to the Pirates in 2013. His 4.6 WAR was second highest on the team, and that was despite missing a month of the season with a sprained wrist. Only Andrew McCutchen was a more valuable player for the Pirates last season. Advanced defensive metrics showed Starling Marte to be the best LF in baseball. His 20.1 UZR/150 was tops among all qualified left fielders. On the base paths he did not disappoint. He posted the 7th highest total in the league for all players in Base Running Runs Above Avg (BsR).

You would think that the terrific season Starling Marte had in 2013 would have silenced his critics, but in some ways his play only caused the criticism to grow louder. Digging further into his stats you will see why. Marte had a solid .343 OBP. Two factors helped lift Marte’s OBP to an acceptable level for a leadoff hitter. First, when he did put the ball in play he was reaching base at a healthy clip. His .363 BABIP was 8th best in baseball among all qualified hitters. Secondly, he was getting hit with a lot of pitches. Marte had 24 HBPs in 2013 which was the second highest total in baseball. If not for all the HBPs his OBP would have been 30 points lower. Marte drew just one more BB than HBP last year.
Starling Marte’s critics will argue that his high BABIP and HBP totals makes him a regression candidate for 2014. They have a point concerning his hit by pitch totals. In a previous post I detailed how 83% of Marte’s HBPs came in two strike counts. That won’t continue. Pitchers are going to adjust. They will stop coming inside on Marte when they have him in a two strike hole. I believe his HBP totals will be cut in half in 2014. I disagree that his BABIP will fall significantly. Marte’s greatest asset is his legs. He gets down the line in a hurry. When Marte does put the ball in play he does so in a manner that complements his skills. 50.8% of the time he put the ball in play last season it was a ground ball, and a very healthy 9.9% of those ground balls went for infield hits. Other hitters have proven that BABIP can sometimes be stable. Shin-Soo Choo has a career .350 BABIP. Choo’s lowest career BABIP was still a robust .317. Austin Jackson has a .361 career BABIP and has posted four straight seasons of .333 or higher. Marte has higher ground ball rates than either of those hitters. Marte’s BABIP may fall a little, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t at least .340. I do feel that unless Marte learns to take more walks his OBP is going to drop at least 15 points in 2014.
I expect the rest of Starling Marte’s game to be relatively stable. He potentially could add some power. If so it would likely come at the cost of an increase in fly balls hit. For a right handed hitter that plays half of his games in PNC Park that would not be a good thing, especially for a player with the wheels that Marte possesses. His defense will remain elite. As good as Marte was on the bases last year he could be even better if he was just a little more successful stealing bases. Last year his success rate was just 73%. That is basically league average. If Marte can stay healthy and get his success rate up to around 80% he could easily steal 60+ bases next season.

Without further ado, here are the final estimations I’m using as inputs for Wahoo’s on First WAR Calculator to estimate the 2014 WAR for Starling Marte:

OBP – .327
SLG – .448
Plate Appearances – 630
Games – 152
Position – LF
Defense – 1 (elite)
Base Running – 1 (elite)

And the verdict for Starling Marte 2014 WAR is… 4.7

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