Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – March 2014

Signs of Better Plate Discipline From Pedro

I do not put a whole lot of stock in spring training stats, but one stat I am paying close attention to is the number of times Pedro Alvarez has struck out. So far in Grapefruit League action “El Toro” has struck out just 4 times in 28 plate appearances. Yes, the games are meaningless and the sample size is small, but this is still a positive sign. What he is doing in spring training looks a whole lot more meaningful if you allow the possibility to enter your mind that Pedro is building off of the end of his 2013 season. Pedro has struck out at an alarming 30.6% rate throughout his career. But the final month of 2013 he K’d just 22 times in 103 plate appearances. That is a very palatable 21.4% K percentage. In fact, that was the lowest K% he has posted in any month during his career. Beyond the numbers, Pedro is passing the eye test. He just looks more comfortable and in control at the plate this spring. I’m not some Pollyanna Pirates fan. I give you the straight scoop. I think Andrew Lambo is going fail and Edinson Volquez is going to bomb, but I also believe Pedro is going to be quite good this season. I think he is going to have a career year and will likely outperform the early projections I made for him last month. If Neal Huntington has any desire at all to lock up Pedro with an extension, now would be the time.
 

It Takes Two to Tango: Summary of Neal Huntington’s Trade Partners

Opening day of the 2014 season is only three weeks away, but Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington still might need to make some roster moves before the team breaks from spring training. The Bucs have a roster crunch in the bullpen. Only seven relievers will make the club and Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Justin Wilson are locks. Of the candidates vying for the three remaining spots, Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris, and Stolmy Pimentel are out of options. One of these pitchers are not going to be in the organization on March 30th. They are big league quality pitchers and another team will surely claim them if they were to be DFA’d. Huntington will certainly be entertaining trade offers for a reliever to avoid outright losing one without getting someting in return. The Pirates are also still kicking the tires on a left-handed hitting first basemen. They have been rumored to have interest in Justin Smoak of the Mariners, Mike Carp of the Red Sox, Ike Davis of the Mets, and Mitch Moreland of the Rangers. When it comes to trades, it takes two to tango. Can Neal Huntington find a dance partner? He has done a lot of dancing in the past. Here is the list of the ten teams Huntington has most frequently dealt with and numbers of players he has swapped with those teams since taking over as GM of the Pirates on September 25, 2007:
 

Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Red Sox 11 16 8
Indians 10 7 5
Yankees 6 10 8
Braves 6 7 4
Diamondbacks 5 4 6
Nationals 5 4 5
Blue Jays 5 3 5
Padres 5 4 3
Mariners 4 7 4
Rays 4 2 3

 
By far Neal Huntington’s most active trading partner in both number of transactions and players involved has been the Red Sox. These deals entail a number of blockbusters such as the Jason Bay and Joel Hanrahan trades. If the Pirates do covet Mike Carp there is a strong likelihood that Huntington and Red Sox’s GM Ben Cherington can find some common ground to make a deal. Although Huntington has made numerous deals with the Indians the vast majority have been cash or considerations for player swaps. I’m counting these types of transactions as trades, however I’m not including waiver claims in the tally. Now let’s move to the next ten teams:
 

Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Royals 3 4 4
Orioles 3 3 3
Twins 3 2 4
Marlins 3 3 2
Tigers 3 2 3
Phillies 3 2 2
Rangers 3 1 3
Dodgers 2 3 3
Cubs 2 3 3
Giants 2 3 2

 
Some interesting things to note here. The Cubs are the first NL Central Division opponent to appear on the list, however those deals predate Theo Epstein’s tenure with the Cubs. The biggest trade in this middle group was the deal that sent Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers in exchange for Andrew Lambo and James McDonald. Now the remaining teams:

 

Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Brewers 2 3 2
Houston 2 2 3
White Sox 2 1 2
Rockies 2 1 1
Mets 1 2 2
A’s 1 1 1
Reds 1 1 0
Cardinals 0 0 0
Angels 0 0 0

 
Although Neal Huntington has not dealt with this group of teams frequently, this list does represent two of the most recent major trade deadline deals. The acquisition of Marlon Byrd and John Buck for Dilson Herrera and Vic Black is the only time Huntington has hooked up with Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson to make a trade, but it was a huge deal. The Wandy Rodriguez acquisition was no small potatoes either. It should be noted how infrequently Huntington deals within the division. He has yet to make a single transaction with the Cardinals.
 

Will a New Pitch Make a Difference for Charlie Morton?

Inability to neutralize left-handed batters has been a problem that has plagued Charlie Morton his entire career. This Spring Training Charlie has been toying with a new pitch, the split-change, that he hopes will solve the problem. I’m skeptical this pitch will have the desired effect.
 
I do not believe Ground Chuck’s issues with left-handed hitters stems from lacking a quality offspeed pitch. What Charlie really needs is something he can use to back them off of his sinker. He lacks command of a quality pitch to work inside on lefties. A split-change is not that pitch. He has tried to mark his territory on the inner half the plate. Last year he led the league with 16 hit batsmen, 13 of which were against left-handed batters.
 
Morton has often been compared to Roy Halladay due to the similarities of their deliveries. Halladay also developed a split-change later in his career, so Morton adopting the pitch provides another point of comparison to the future Hall Of Famer. However, it wasn’t the split-change that made the difference for Halladay against lefties. The addition of the split-change in Halladay’s repertoire coincided with a high volume of cutters. In some years it was as high as 40%. Halladay would bust the cutter in on the hands of left-handed hitters, and then get them to flail at the split-change tailing away. I just don’t see a pitch in Morton’s repertoire that will force left-handed hitters to worry about the inner portion of the plate. Morton experimented with a cutter in 2012, but appears to have scrapped it. I do not think it is a coincidence that he held lefties to a .740 OPS that season, the best number of his career. This is not to say that the split-change won’t be a good edition to Morton’s arsenal. A quality pitch is a quality pitch. But if Ground Chuck is going to truly solve southpaw bats he’ll have to do it by continuing to work on the inner half of the plate.
 

How Many Platoons Can The Pirates Realistically Carry?

The Pirates are to set enter the 2014 season with three positions that could benefit from the use of a platoon. They have carried a platoon at 1B for several seasons. The past few years it was Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez that shared duties. This year it appears that Andrew Lambo will be Gaby Sanchez’s platoon mate. The other positions that could potentially be upgraded by a platoon are 2B and 3B. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are both building dubious resumes against southpaws. Last season Walker had a paltry .518 OPS vs. left-handed pitching while Pedro Alvarez posted just a .537 OPS against southpaws. To the dismay of many Pirate fans, and quite a few bloggers, Walker and Alvarez will not be platooned. And for good reason. It just isn’t necessary and would lead to a really poor and inefficiently constructed roster.
 
As Bob Smizik pointed out, it is true that Walker has been getting progressively worse against left-handed pitching. Last year he was exceptionally bad, but the Pirates only faced 31 left-handed starters in 2013. That number is not about to rise as their division foes did not add any lefty starters in the offseason. Travis Wood and Tony Cingrani are the only NL Central southpaws of note the Pirates will face. Furthermore, Walker is hardly an iron-man player and manager Clint Hurdle is pretty smart about picking days the Pirates face a lefty to give Walker a rest. Walker made just 16 starts all last season against left-handed starters.
 
NL teams carry at most a five man bench. That bench will consist of the following:

  • Backup Catcher – Likely RH Chris Stewart
  • Platooned First basemen – Whichever of RH Sanchez or LH Lambo that isn’t starting
  • Backup SS – RH Clint Barmes
  • Reserve OF – Take your pick of LH Travis Snider, LH Chris Dickerson, or LH Jaff Decker
  • Utility Man – Probably RH John Harrison
  •  
    The Pirates have one capable right-handed hitter that can fill in at 2B or 3B to give the lineup a platoon advantage against lefties. That would be Josh Harrison. Pick your poison, should Harrison start in favor of Pedro or Walker against left-handers? There is no viable option to get both Walker and Alvarez out of the lineup that would be an upgrade. The Bucs could rest them both with a lineup that includes Clint Barmes at SS, Jordy Mercer at 2B, and Josh Harrison at 3B. Does that lineup look an upgrade? Barmes has hit left-handers well in the past, but last year he was just as bad as Walker. My gut tells me that both Walker and Alvarez will hit lefties better than Barmes will this season.
     
    If the Pirates had another utility infielder that could play SS and hit better than Barmes then theoretically they could platoon at three positions. But Barmes is an excellent defender and is a necessity due to defensive concerns of Jordy Mercer at SS. The other bench spots are must haves. With the current roster construction there is simply no way the Bucs can maintain more than two platoons. Which means either Neil Walker or Pedro Alvarez is going to be in the lineup to face southpaws. The way I would handle it is to split their starts fairly evenly. Harrison would start 12-15 games for each of them. That won’t be enough to satisfy the “platoon Neil Walker” contingent of the fan base, but it will have to do. I personally have much greater concerns with this Pirates team than Neil Walker looking bad three times a month against a left-handed starting pitcher.
     

    Attackability of Pirate Hitters

    Last week Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus introduced a new metric known as the attackability score. The attackability score essentially looks at a hitter’s whiff rates against fastballs, offspeed pitches, and breaking balls and determines what the standard deviation, or z-score, is for those whiff rates. The standard deviation of the three scores are then determined. This represents a hitter’s attackability score. The higher the number the more attackable a hitter is….sort of. What it really identifies is whether a hitter has a greater susceptibility to a single pitch type. Most Pirate fans will tell you that Pedro Alvarez is one of the easier hitters to attack. Why bother throwing him a fastball when he often looks so helpless against breaking pitches? But in reality Pedro whiffs often on every pitch type. The variance in his z-scores is quite small. Against breaking balls his whiff rate is 1.97 standard deviations above average, or in other words a +1.97 z-score. He doesn’t fair a whole lot better against fastballs (+1.51) or change ups (+1.33). The standard deviation of these three z-scores is -0.65, which represents Pedro’s attackability score. The Pirates had 10 hitters that were included in Sam Miller’s study on attackability. Numbers are for 2013 only. Here is the list:

    Attack Z-Score
    Jordy Mercer 0.90
    Gaby Sanchez 0.42
    Travis Snider 0.11
    Neil Walker 0.08
    Andrew McCutchen -0.04
    Clint Barmes -0.07
    Starling Marte -0.27
    Russell Martin -0.35
    Jose Tabata -0.50
    Pedro Alvarez -0.65

    Raise your hand if you thought Pedro would be the least attackable hitter in the Pirates’ lineup. Obviously, that is not really the case. But it does raise an interesting question as to what is the best pitch to attack Pedro with. The decision is not clear cut. If I were pitching to Pedro I would attack him with the pitch I felt I had the most command of. As long as a pitcher isn’t missing over the heart of the plate he has a good chance to get Alvarez to swing and miss.
     
    Is there anything we can ascertain from looking at the most attackable hitter on the Bucs? Maybe. Jordy Mercer is sort of the opposite of Pedro Alvarez. Mercer has negative z-scores for all pitch types. However, there is some large variance in those numbers. Here are Mercers’ z-scores for fastballs/offspeed/breaking pitches: -0.6, -1.8, -0.2. The one that stands out the most is his whiff rate on offspeed pitches that is almost two standard deviations below the mean. This probably explains why Mercer hit so well against southpaws last year. The change up to right handed hitters is the bread and butter for most left-handed pitchers, but that appears to be the least effective pitch to attack Jordy Mercer with.
     

    Pirates Spring Training 2014 Week in Review – Edition 1

    Wandy passes his first testWandy Rodriguez took to the hill to pitch in a game for the first time since straining his elbow 9 months ago. That he pitched an inning inning against the Rays without feeling any ill effects is the best thing that has happened for the Bucs in the first week of Grapefruit League action. A healthy Wandy would go a long way towards the Pirates having a successful 2014 season.
     
    The 4th OF spot is one of the few positions on the roster up for grabs, and the battle is heating upChris Dickerson is off to a great start and has an excellent chance to win the 4th OF job over Travis Snider and Jaff Decker. I was a big fan of the Dickerson signing, and the more I see of him the better like his chances of making this team. He just offers more as an extra OF than Snider does. Dickerson is a plus defender at all three OF positions, but his biggest asset might actually be his base running skills. The Pirates have given him a chance to showcase those skills in the first few games of the spring. He has already swiped a pair of bags. This is really an area that Dickerson excels at. Going back to 2010 he is 16 of 17 on stolen base attempts in the major leagues. In the minor leagues during that same time period he has 42 steals in 51 chances. This guy knows how to take a base.
     
    Hurdle really wants to use Martin in the two-holeClint Hurdle indicated back at PirateFest that Russell Martin was an option to hit second in the batting order. Martin made three starts this week and batted second in the order in all three games.
     
    The future is so bright, I gotta to wear shades – The Pirates did a little showing off by scheduling Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to work back to back in an outing against the Blue Jays. According to Jayson Stark the scouts on hand were raving over the future aces.

    Taillon wasn’t the only prospect invited to camp that has flashed against major league players this week. Gregory Polanco homered earlier this week in a game vs. the Yankees. On Sunday he greeted ex-Pirate A.J. Burnett by ripping an opposite field double.
     

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