Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – May 2014

Even the Bad Liriano Can Be Good

Francisco Liriano has had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of career. There have been seasons like last year in which Liriano simply dominated on the mound. But Liriano has put up some awfully bad seasons in his career too. In 2009, 2011, and 2012 he posted ERAs above 5.00. The alternating trend of good and bad seasons with Liriano is something the Pirates had hoped to avoid. The Pirates were set to go into the 2014 season minus one front of the rotation veteran starting pitcher after losing A.J. Burnett in free agency. If Francisco Liriano were to revert back to the inconsistent and unreliable starting pitcher he was during his bad seasons with the Twins it would likely derail the Pirates’ season. So far that has been the case. Thru 11 starts Liriano is winless with a 5.06 ERA. The Pirates are a team that is floundering five games under .500 with two months of the season already in the books. But there is a bright spot. Even when Liriano is bad he can be good, and we are entering the part of the season when Frankie historically dominates.
 
Liriano has a track record of being a very strong pitcher in June and July. Even during his poor seasons he has put up some dominate numbers in those months. His career ERA for June is 3.01 and for July is 3.30. In particular June has been a month where Liriano has been very good even in the midst of a bad season. Check out his ERAs for June compared to his season ERA over the last five seasons:

Year June ERA Season ERA
2009 3.77 5.80
2010 3.82 3.62
2011 3.42 5.09
2012 2.87 5.34
2013 2.15 3.02

 

Of course the Pirates are going to need more than just one good month from Liriano if they stand any chance of being in the NL Central race this summer. But there is even some precedence for him sustaining excellence for a long stretch despite having an overall poor season. In 2011 over the course of 12 starts from May 3rd thru July 19th Liriano posted a 3.08 ERA and 8 quality starts. So there is still a chance that the “Bad Liriano” can turn good long enough to still be a factor this season.
 

Reese McGuire Repeats as West Virginia Power Player of the Week

Reese McGuire continues to rake and throw out base runners. The highly touted catching prospect for the Pirates has now thrown out 20 of 40 attempted base stealers this season. McGuire is also riding a 17 game hitting streak. The most impressive part of the streak is that McGuire also had a streak of 7 straight games from May 17th thru May 26th in which he also drew a walk. For his efforts McGuire has been named the hiddenvigorish.com Player of the Week for the period of 5/19/14 thru 5/25/14.
 


 

TWIBB Notes for the Week of 5-19-14 thru 5-25-14

Here are your This Week in Buccos Baseball Notes for 5/19/14 thru 5/25/14, the 8th week of the 2014 baseball season.
 

Weekly result: 4 wins and 2 Losses, 23 Runs Scored and 28 Runs Allowed
 

Hero of the week: Josh Harrison. For the second week in a row J-Hay is the TWIBB Notes Hero of the Week. Harrison might have won the award this week on his defense alone. He made two outstanding catches in RF that saved runs late in games, and he also threw out a runner at the plate. But J-Hay’s bat was also a huge factor in every win the Pirates had. Batting leadoff and playing RF all six games this week, he went 7 for 19, drew 3 walks, and scored 6 runs. In the 7th inning on Saturday night he knocked in the go ahead run by drilling a single up the middle off of Stephen Strasburg.
 

Zero of the week: Francisco Liriano. Liriano’s fall from grace continues. The Pirates lost two games this week and Frankie started both of them. He pitched 10 innings this week, gave up 10 earned runs, allowed 15 hits, and walked 6 batters. For the season Liriano has a 5.06 ERA. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise considering he puts up 5.00+ ERA every other season.
 

How do you spell relief? M-A-R-K M-E-L-A-N-C-O-N. Mark Melancon has been much maligned for his struggles in closing situations, but this week he was a perfect 3 for 3. He recorded saves in all three of his appearances, two which he converted with ease. For the week he pitched 3 scoreless innings, gave up 0 hits, walked 2, and struck out 4.
 

#HURDLED: What kind of idiot pencils Josh Harrison in the lead off spot and starts him in RF for six straight games? In all seriousness I can’t recall anything Clint Hurdle did this week that I would have done much differently. I did question giving the ball to Jeanmar Gomez in the 8th inning while nursing a 3-2 lead on Saturday Night, but the pen was shorthanded and it did work out. Gomez retired the Nationals in order on just 5 pitches.
 

Cannonballs: Ike Davis, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Josh Harrison

 

The little things that matter: Baseball is a sport that is best played while awake. Someone needs to slap Starling Marte across the head to wake him up. In the 6th inning on Saturday night against the Nationals he was thrown out stealing because he slowed to a near stop when he thought a 2-2 pitch was ball 4.

 

It must be Hidden Vigorish: Josh Harrison drew just two walks all of last season. He drew three walks this week in just six games.
 

Stats that blow my mind: Francisco Liriano has a 5.97 ERA at home this season. That seems unimaginable considering how dominate he was at PNC Park last season.
 

Records and Milestones: The Pirates 4-3 win over the Nationals on Friday Night marked Clint Hurdle’s 800th win as a manager.

 

He said what: This is what Charlie Morton had to say after not making it through the 6th inning on Friday but still picking up his first win of the season :

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how long you pitch the game.

 

Tweet of the week:

Not many people saw Josh Harrison as being anything but an AAAA organizational role player. But here he is stealing a job from two former top prospects while keeping the seat warm for the next top prospect.

 

Front Office Notes: Wandy Rodriguez was given the boot. We can close the book on that trade now. It wasn’t pretty for GM Neal Huntington. He gave up 3 prospects, paid Wandy more than $16 million dollars, and got just -0.2 WAR from him.

 

On The Farm: This has not been a good year for the top end pitchers in the system. Jameson Taillon had TS surgery and will miss the entire year. Luis Heredia has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow have struggled.

 
Highlight of the week: Josh Harrison’s game ending catch on 5/23/14
 

 

Edinson Volquez is the Luckiest Unlucky Pitcher in Baseball

As the saying goes, it is often better to be lucky than good. For most of the last five seasons Edinson Volquez has been neither. Plagued by a high walk rate and a high home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) has resulted in Volquez pitching to an inflated 4.73 ERA for his career. But things have changed somewhat for Volquez this season. His walks are down substantially. His 2.43 BB/9 is nearly half his career rate. Despite the improved control Volquez still sports an ERA well above 4.00 this season. So why is Volquez not seeing better results? Well luck has been a factor. Volquez has always had a worse than league average HR/FB rate. For his career his HR/FB stands at 12.4%. This year it has ballooned to 17.5%. That is the the third highest in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. League average is 10.1%. So the long ball has hurt him. Regressing his home run to fly ball ration down to his career average would cut his home runs allowed this season from 10 to 7. That is not an insignificant number. So it would be fair to call Edinson Volquez unlucky this season. Or is it?
 
While it is true Edinson Volquez has been unfortunate in terms of a disproportionately high percentage of fly balls leaving the yard, he has also been extremely lucky with the percentage of balls in play that have fallen for hits. Only six qualified starters have a lower BABIP than Volquez this season. His current BABIP of .225 is 76 points below his career average, and 70 points lower than the league average. If we regress his BABIP to the league average it would result in 13 more hits allowed this season. So has Volquez been lucky or unlucky, and what kind of performance can be expected of Edinson going forward? I don’t believe either the home run rate or the batting average on balls in play that he has allowed are sustainable. Both should normalize. Which means ultimately Volquez should settle in right about where he is now, a pitcher with a 4.50ish ERA.
 

Reconstructing the Vanimal

Back in March I wrote a post about how additional work with special pitching instructor Jim Benedict in extended spring training benefitted several veteran pitchers that had bounce back years with the Pirates. Both A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano had additional time to work out some mechanical issues with their deliveries while rehabbing injuries not related to their throwing arms. I wondered if extended spring training might be the key to get Edinson Volquez back on track. We will never know as the Pirates could not find a way to hold Volquez back in extended spring training. Volquez joined the rotation immediately and the results have been mixed at best. But that doesn’t mean that Jim Benedict didn’t have a special project to work with in extended spring training this season. The Pirates acquired Vance Worley late in spring training and sent kept him in Bradenton the entire month of April to work with Jim Benedict.
 
Vance Worley has fallen on hard times in recent years. After a promising to start to his career in Philadelphia, the “Vanimal” as he called, fell apart after being dealt to the Twins prior to the 2013 season. Worley was hit hard in 2013, yielding 82 hits in just 48.2 innings. The Twins gave up on him and sent him to the Pirates this spring. The Pirates took the slow approach with Worley. Instead of joining the Indianapolis rotation immediately he stayed in extended spring training to get stretched out and work on his mechanics with Jim Benedict. He finally made his debut on May 6th. He has now made three starts at AAA, and from the looks of it Jim Benedict may have worked his magic again. Worley has pitched to a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings this year with Indianapolis, but the stat that stands out the most is 0 walks. It is too early to say whether or not Vance Worley has turned the corner, or if he will ever contribute to the Pirates’ pitching staff, but wouldn’t it be ironic if the guy that went to extended spring training replaces the guy that probably should have gone to extended spring training?
 

TWIBB Notes for the Week of 5-12-14 thru 5-18-14

Here are your This Week in Buccos Baseball Notes for 5/12/14 thru 5/18/14, the 7th week of the 2014 baseball season.
 

Weekly result: 2 wins and 4 Losses, 18 Runs Scored and 24 Runs Allowed
 

Hero of the week: Josh Harrison. J-Hay wins Hero Honors this week for his effort in game two of the double header vs. the Yankees on Sunday. Harrison hit a go ahead home run for the Pirates in the 7th inning. After Starling Marte and Jose Tabata both were injured, Harrison was pressed into OF duty. He responded by making a run saving diving grab in LF to hold the lead. For the week J-Hay was 4 or 9 with 2 doubles and a homer.
 

Zero of the week: Pedro Alvarez. For the week Pedro had just 3 hits (all singles) in 18 ABs. He knocked in 0 runs and left 12 runners stranded on the bases.
 

How do you spell relief? J-U-S-T-I-N W-I-L-S-O-N. Justin Wilson pitched a perfect week. 3.1 innings, 0 Hits, 0 Walks, and 5 Ks. Despite the effort the Pirates managed to lose all three games that Wilson appeared in this week.
 

#HURDLED: Clint Hurdle managed to waste two of the Pirates final nine outs in a 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Thursday. In the 9th inning Hurdle had Tony Sanchez attempt to lay down a sacrifice bunt. How many times do we have to see Pirate hitters fail at putting down the bunt to know that this is a bad idea? Sanchez popped out and the Pirates failed to extend a lead that Mark Melancon would ultimately barf up in the bottom of the 9th. But trying to move a runner with a sac bunt was not Hurdle’s worst decision of the afternoon. A far dumber decision was having relief pitcher Justin Wilson lead off the 7th inning. If you want a reliever to go two innings why would you not double switch? It is simply inexcusable to have a relief pitcher hit in the last third of a 1 run ball game.
 

Cannonballs: Neil Walker (2), Tony Sanchez (2), Gaby Sanchez, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison

 

The little things that matter: Cue the Benny Hill theme song. The base running in the weekend series vs. the Yankees was a comedy of errors. The Pirates managed to have 6 runners thrown out on the bases in the series. On Saturday the base running was so bad that the Pirates managed to collect 5 hits in a 6 At-Bat stretch yet failed to score a run. Here is a little advice for 3rd base coach Nick Leyva. Anyone named “SANCHEZ” gets an automatic stop sign.

 

It must be Hidden Vigorish: Starling Marte took the golden sombrero in game one of Sundays’ double header vs. the Yankees, but he left his mark in game two. Marte lofted a fly ball in the 6th inning that cleared the short porch in RF to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead.
 

Stats that blow my mind: 13-53. That is the Pirates’ record at Miller Park since the start of the 2007 season.
 

Records and Milestones: Nothing noteworthy this week.

 

He said what: Neal Huntington puts on his Captain Obvious cape:

We’re not playing well enough to be a playoff-caliber team right now.

 

Tweet of the week:


LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!!!

 

Front Office Notes: GM Neal Huntingon, always trying to improve this club, optioned Brandon Cumpton and Jaff Decker back to the minors, clearing the way for more outstanding contributions from Travis Snider and Edinson Volquez.

 

On The Farm: Chris Dickerson is riding a 15 game hitting streak with the Indianapolis Indians. On the season he has posted a triple slash line of .342/.402/.513.
 
Highlight of the week: Josh Harrison’s diving grab in the 8th inning on 5/18/14
 

 

West Virginia Power Player of the Week – 5th Edition: Reese McGuire

Reese McGuire is the hiddenvigorish.com Player of the Week for the week of 5/12/14 thru 5/18/14. McGuire is hitting .381 over an 11 game hit streak dating back to May 7th. The 19 year old McGuire was the 14th overall selection of the 1st round of the 2013 MLB draft. He is noted for his stellar defensive prowess, and early in his minor league career he has not disappointed. McGuire has thrown out 19 base stealers in just 21 games this season, cutting down runners at a eye popping 51% clip. At the plate he has shown good plate discipline, striking out just 12 times in 115 plate appearances thus far. McGuire has shown little pop in his bat this season. Only one of his hits during this current 11 game hit streak has gone for extra bases. But the lack of power is not concerning at this point. McGuire is one of the youngest players in the Sally League. He should start hitting the ball with more authority as he matures. Despite the lack of power, McGuire has been productive at the plate and has not been overmatched.
 

Neil Walker is having a Career Year…… or is he?

Over the first quarter of the 2014 season Neil Walker is putting up some impressive offensive numbers. He is tied with Pedro Alvarez for the team lead in HRs with 8. Among National League second basemen only Chase Utley and Daniel Murphy have a higher OPS than the .803 that Walker has posted. Only once in his career has Walker eclipsed an .800 OPS, and that was back in his shortened rookie season of 2010. The advanced metrics seem to support Walker maintaining this offensive pace. His Home Run numbers will likely tail off some, but his .265 batting average should rise. He is striking out less than ever, just a 12.0% rate this season, and he hasn’t benefited from much good fortune. He has just a .262 Avg. on balls in play (BABIP) this season. His career BABIP is .309. Eventually he should start finding more holes in opposing defenses. Walker has already created 25 runs of offense. That puts him on pace for 100 this season, which would shatter his career high of 79 set in 2011. So yes, it does appear Neil Walker is on his way to a career year.
 
But there is a catch, or in Neil Walker’s case it might be a lack of catches. A large chuck of Walker’s offensive value has been negated by some rather bad defensive numbers. Walker is last among all second basemen this season with a -7 in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). That puts him on pace for -28 DRS for the season. Last season he was +9 DRS. Obviously this season has been a drastic swing in the wrong direction when it comes to his defense. I don’t think Walker’s DRS stats for this season are a true representation of his defensive talents. Defensive stats require much larger sample sizes than 40 games to make any real determination on ability. But the stat can’t be ignored either. They do reflect his defensive performance for the season thus far. When you subtract the -7 DRS from his 25 Runs Created on offense you get 18 runs. That is what Walker has been worth to the Pirates this year. That puts him on track to be worth 72 runs this season. That is actually less than what he produced in 2013 when he was worth 78 runs (69 RC + 9 DRS =78 Runs). So is Walker having a career year? I still say yes, but the defense has got to start leveling out.
 

Pirates at the Quarter Pole

The Pirates have reached the quarter pole of the 2014 season in disappointing fashion. After finishing the 2013 season with 94 wins, this team was expected to contend. But here we are with 25% of the season gone and the Pirates sit with a 17-23 record and trail the first place Milwaukee Brewers by 8.5 games. The problems with the Pirates are both simple and complex. We can easily highlight the four 9th inning blown saves, three of which have come against the Brewers, as a big reason why the Pirates are this hole. Those blown leads against the Brewers represent a six game swing in the standings. The outlook of the rest of this season would look a whole lot rosier if the Pirates were a .500 club and only 2.5 back in the standings. We can also point to the increase in Home Runs allowed as in easily identifiable reason for the Pirates’ fall from grace. Last season the Bucs’ pitching staff surrendered a league best 101 Home Runs. This season they have already given up 40. They are on pace to give up 60 more Home Runs than what they surrendered last season. Poor luck has been a factor. Last season only 8.9% of fly balls hit against Pirate pitching left the yard. This season the HR/FB rate has jumped to 12.6%. That equates to 12 additional Home Runs given up this season. If we could subtract 12 Home Runs from the opposition over these first 40 games played, what would the Pirates’ record be? I’ll go out on a limb and say it would be much better than 17-23. But it would be a mistake to chalk up all the Pirates’ issues with the pitching staff to bad luck. The Pirates have the second lowest K/9 in the National League. Their 4.29 FIP is the third highest in the NL. More balls are being put in play this season, and defensively the Pirates have regressed. Among regulars only Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer have a positive Ultimate Zone Rating this season. The infield is a combined -9 in Defensive Runs Saved.
 
So where will the Pirates go from here? I do expect some improvement. Offensively the Pirates do have some upside. Pedro Alvarez will surely slug higher than than the .389 SLG % he has thus far, and Gregory Polanco should provide a boost to the production from RF. The Pirates have gotten little offense from the SS position, although Jordy Mercer has picked it up as of late. But Neil Walker and Gaby Sanchez have hit above expectations. Walker is having a career year, but can he maintain an OPS over .800 for a full season? Whatever gains the Pirates might make offensively will be marginal. If the Pirates are going to right this ship the real key will come from run prevention, and the area of most concern is the starting pitching. The defense has not been good and the bullpen has blown late leads, but I’m confident those aspects of the team will level out. The rotation is a different story. The Pirates simply have too many shaky starters in their five man rotation right now. Francisco Liriano has had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of career. Last year he was terrific. This year he has reverted back to being Mr. Hyde. Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez inspire even less confidence than Liriano. Charlie Morton is just as much of a question mark as he is an exclamation point. That leaves Gerrit Cole to anchor the rotation. And let’s face it, Cole hasn’t actually been an ace this year either. The Pirates aren’t dead yet. 75% of the season is still to be played. But the starting pitching needs to turn things around STAT for the Pirates to have any chance of contending in the second half of the season.
 

Pedro Spraying the Ball to all Fields

The more I see of Pedro Alvarez the more I see a changed hitter this season. His strikeouts are down considerably. Pedro’s strikeout rate of 20.6% this season would shatter his career best. Coming into this season Pedro had struckout more than 30% of the plate appearances in his career. But not only is he striking out less, he is also hitting to all fields. Just look at the location of the balls he has hit this season compared to 2013:
 

2014
pulled – 37
center field – 35
opposite field – 35
 
2013:
pulled – 162
center field – 152
opposite field – 62
 

As you can see Pedro is spraying the ball consistently to all fields. So if Pedro is a changed hitter why is he still struggling to keep his batting average over the Mendoza Line? It can’t be denied that luck is a huge factor. Pedro has a career .351 batting average when he hits the ball to the opposite field. This season he is hitting just .200 on balls to the opposite field. I can’t envision that number holding up. If Pedro continues to hit to all fields as he has been this season, he should see a significant bounce in his batting average.
 

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