Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Month – February 2015

Pirates Looking to Rest Their Way to a Competitive Advantage

The analytics team of the Pittsburgh Pirates led by Dan Fox leaves no stone unturned in searching for ways to maximize the performance of Pirate players. The most recent stone they turned over belongs to the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. As reported by Jayson Stark, the Pirates have been looking closely at the success of the Warriors. The Warriors have the best record in the NBA this season despite decreasing the minutes played by their core players. The Warriors have seemingly found a sweet spot where the number of minutes of rest in a game for their core players optimizes the collective performance of the team. Interesting stuff for sure, but how can minutes played per an NBA game translate to baseball? There is no player reentry in an MLB game. A player can not sub out for a few innings and then reenter to hit in the 9th inning. Rest for baseball players has always been thought to have value as a cumulative effect. Taking a day or two off in April keeps a player fresher for the September stretch run, or at least that is the theory. It is hard to measure if that is truly the case. But perhaps resting a player has a more immediate effect in baseball just like it does in the NBA.
If there is a more immediate benefit to resting a player in baseball it seems like the most logical place to look for it would be in games that followed an off day. So that is what I did. I looked at the the game logs over the last two seasons for the Pirates’ position players that started more than half of the games in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. There were five players that fit the criteria: Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Jordy Mercer. From the game logs of these players I extracted the games that followed a rest day and calculated their OPS for those games. There were two types of rest days I considered:

  • Scheduled team off days and rain outs
  • Games in which the player did not start and played 4 innings or less

Here are the results spanning the 2013 and 2014 seasons:

Games Following Rest (GFR) OPS in GFR
Alvarez 64 .833
Marte 69 .881
Mercer 83 .795
McCutchen 44 .994
Walker 48 .754


So now the question is how do these numbers differ from when the players were playing with no rest the day prior – or in other words games on consecutive days in the starting lineup? I gleaned those numbers as well and then compared the two.

Games Not Rested (GNR) OPS in GNR OPS in GFR
Alvarez 210 .723 .833
Marte 201 .772 .881
Mercer 169 .684 .795
McCutchen 259 .920 .994
Walker 222 .788 .754


As the data shows 4 of 5 core everyday Pirates position players had a significant bump in OPS when playing on a day after rest. Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, and Jordy Mercer each posted an OPS of more than 100 points higher on such days. Only Neil Walker performed worse, albeit only slightly. Andrew McCutchen was an interesting case. In 2013 Cutch mashed on days following rest (1.193 OPS), but in 2014 he posted just a .763 OPS on such days, which was well below he usual performance. As with all splits these stats have sample size limitations and would be expected to vary from year to year, perhaps significantly. This is by no means a complete study that proves anything conclusively. But it does show that perhaps the Pirates are on to something by looking at how the Golden State Warriors rest their core players to optimize performance. There is potentially a competitive advantage that can be gained if the Pirates can find the sweet spot in the correlation between rest and maximum performance on the diamond.


The Necessity of Rookie Pitcher Contributions

It is no secret that the Pittsburgh Pirates are a low revenue MLB team. Even with significant gains in attendance at PNC Park coupled with three straight years of increases in the price of tickets, the Pirates still rank in the bottom third of the league in revenues. Lower revenue clubs like the Pirates try to save on payroll by using younger inexperienced players that make league minimum salaries. Often that means relying on rookies to plug holes in the back of the rotation and in the bullpen. The Pirates evolution as a contender has coincided with positive contributions from their rookie pitchers. The Pirates have gotten positive WAR production from rookie hurlers in each of the last 3 seasons. That followed 5 straight seasons from 2007-2011 in which the team got negative WAR value from rookie pitchers.


Year fWAR from Rookie Pirates Pitchers
2014 0.9
2013 2.6
2012 0.6
2011 -0.6
2010 -1.6
2009 -0.4
2008 -1.4
2007 -2.7


In recent seasons The Pirates have gotten valuable rookie contributions in the rotation from Gerrit Cole (2.3 fWAR in 2013) and Brandon Cumpton (1.6 fWAR 2013 and 2014 combined). Justin Wilson (0.4 fWAR in 2013), Tony Watson (0.4 fWAR in 2012), and John Holdzkom (0.2 fWAR in 2014) were solid contributors to the bullpen during their rookie seasons. If the Pirates are going to make the playoffs again this season they will likely need some of their rookie arms to contribute this year too. In recent history teams that have made the playoffs have needed help from rookie pitchers to get there. Of the 46 teams that have qualified for the playoffs in the last 5 seasons only the 2014 Dodgers, 2014 Athletics, and the 2012 Nationals have done so with 0 or negative WAR production. The average playoff team since 2010 has needed 2.24 fWAR from their rookie pitchers. The playoff team with the most productive rookie hurlers was the 2012 Oakland A’s with a whopping 11.6 fWAR. The 2015 Pirates should not need anywhere close to that much help from their rookies. But more than likely at some point this season Jameson Taillon or Nick Kingham will be called to Pittsburgh to make their MLB debuts. How they fare could go a long way to deciding the NL Central Division race.

Pirates Spring Training Preview: Five Things to Watch For

One of the phrases I most look forward to hearing every new year is “Pitchers and Catchers”. It means the boys of summer are ready to come out and play again. It means the long cold winter will soon be ending. It means another baseball season is just around the corner. For Gerrit Cole and company it means time to get back to work. Pirates pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Spring Training in Bradenton, FL on February 18th. Position players are scheduled to report five days later, though most will arrive a few days early. The Grapefruit League schedule begins on March 3rd against the Blue Jays. That will be the first of 32 Spring Training Exhibition games before the team travels to Cincinnati on April 6th for the first game of the 2015 season that counts. There are fewer unanswered questions for the Pirates this spring as compared to most. But that doesn’t mean this Spring Training is completely void of story lines and battles for roster spots. Here are the five things I will be paying the most attention to this preseason:

1) How will Jung-ho Kang fare against quality major league arms? Kang earned an opportunity to play Major League Baseball because of how he mashed against pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization, but the talent gap between KBO and MLB pitchers is huge. It will be interesting to see how well he fares against quality major league arms this spring. Everyone expects Kang will have some struggles this season, but it would be a good sign if he hits well in Grapefruit League play. It could mean his acclimation to MLB pitching is happening quicker than we originally hoped.
2) Where on the diamond will Jung-ho Kang play? GM Neal Huntington has said he sees Kang initially as a complementary player that could see some time at SS, 3B, and 2B. Is there a longer term plan to make him a regular at one of those infield positions? Where he plays the most this spring could provide some hints as to what the plans for Kang may be both for the short term and the long run.
3) How is Pedro Alvarez handling the position switch to 1B? Last season Pedro was given a crash course in how to play 1B after he developed the yips throwing from 3B. He played 37 innings at 1B before injuring his foot and missing the last month of the season. This spring the Pirates want to transition him to 1B for good. Pedro is not really thrilled about that decision. He still wants to play 3B. Will the Pirates accommodate Pedro and allow him to play at both positions? Will he sulk if it appears he is stuck playing 1B?
4) How far along is Charlie Morton in his rehab from hip surgery? Morton had surgery to repair the labrum of his right hip on 9/26/2014. The recovery was estimated at 6 to 8 months. A 6 month recovery puts him ready for opening day. Morton is already on a throwing program. If Morton sees any action within the first two weeks of the Grapefruit League schedule that is a good indication the Pirates intend to have him ready for the first week of the season. If not, Morton will start the season on the disabled list which would open up a spot for another starting pitcher, perhaps Jeff Locke. I believe the Pirates will take it slowly with Morton. His track record with injuries is too great to not be overly cautious.
5) Who will win the last roster spot(s) in the bullpen? There really are very few open roster spots on this team, but a middle reliever and/or a long man/swing starter role may be up for grabs. John Holdzkom appears to have a job in the pen now, but he might be the most vulnerable of being sent to the minors because he still has options left. Stolmy Pimentel is out of options, but the Pirates can’t just allow him to be a wasted dead roster spot like he was last year. It is still Pimentel’s job to lose, but lose it he could. Radhames Liz also appears to have a secure job after the Pirates signed him to a $1 million guaranteed contract, but Vin Mazzaro taught us last year that the Pirates are willing to send a reliever with a guaranteed major league contract down to Indianapolis. Perhaps the newly acquired Arquimedes Caminero can pitch himself onto the roster if one of the aforementioned pitchers struggle this spring.

Neil Walker’s Defensive Decline Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Neil Walker‘s defense has been a much discussed topic for some time now. Walker’s defensive metrics slipped considerably in 2014 providing his critics plenty of ammunition to declare him a defensive liability at second base. There is no question that Walker’s value comes from his offensive skills. He is one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball. He even won a Silver Slugger Award last season. But the best that could be said about Walker’s defense is that he plays the second base position adequately. The first three seasons of his career he graded out as slightly below average. In 2013 Walker showed marked improvement defensively, posting a +9 defensive runs saved (DRS). It was the first time in his career he posted a positive DRS. But the improved defense seemingly disappeared in 2014, and that caused the grumbling over his poor defense to grow louder.
There is no denying that the final defensive numbers for Walker were very poor in 2014. But what never seems to be mentioned is the poor performance was almost entirely crammed into the first quarter of the season. Walker was carrying a -7 DRS as late as May 17th. He finished the season at a -2. Saberbucs.net documented Walker’s UZR at -6.1 on May 13th. Walker finished the season with a -6.8 UZR. That means that over the last 120 games of the season Walker was a very respectable +5 DRS with a -0.7 UZR. If these were offensive stats no one would be saying his skills were declining. They would simply say he got off to a bad start. Neil Walker will never be a great defender at second base, but he can still play the position as adequately as he did the first four years of his career. All the talk of Walker’s declining defense is either an exaggeration or just plain false.

Cutch on the Road That Leads to Cooperstown

How much do fans really appreciate greatness as they see it? Can you spot a legendary performer in the moment? Or does it take some time and a little retrospection to truly comprehend how great an athlete was? I think there are a few instances where fans can grasp the magnitude of a legendary athlete during the prime of his playing years. Everyone knew Michael Jordan was one of the top two or three greatest basketball players that ever lived long before his playing days ended. But in most cases it is absence that makes the heart grow fonder. Even beloved athletes are seldom recognized for how great they truly are until their careers come to an end. I believe that will be the case for Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen.
There is little question that Andrew McCutchen is loved by the Pirates’ fan base. He is an easy guy to like. He has a great smile, an infectious optimism, and he is one of the best baseball players in the game today. But there is a difference between identifying contemporary greatness and historical greatness. What McCutchen is doing right now in the prime of his career rivals many of the greatest Hall of Fame outfielders. I’m not sure many fans realize that, but some sabermetric analysts do. ZiPS projections for 2015 listed McCutchen’s No. 1 comp as Duke Snider. Snider is one of the all time great players in baseball history. Baseball-reference.com lists Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield among the 10 most similar hitters to McCutchen thru his age 27 season. That makes three Hall of Fame players that McCutchen is being compared to. And Cutch is arguably a greater player for his era than those three great players were in their playing days. Snider, Winfield, and Dawson never finished in the top 3 of the MVP vote in back to back seasons. McCutchen has an active streak of 3 straight seasons in which he has finished in the top 3 of the NL MVP vote. That is a quite an achievement for a player that just turned 28 years old. Andrew McCutchen’s career still has a long road ahead. There is no doubt in my mind that road leads to Cooperstown, NY.

The Pirates Have Progression Over Regression

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates. The team features one of the brightest stars in the game in CF Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is flanked by rising star Starling Marte in LF and 23 year old top prospect Gregory Polanco in RF, giving the Bucs one of the most gifted and athletic outfields that baseball has seen in the last 20 years. Gerrit Cole is one of the few starting pitchers in the sport that can throw a triple digit fastball. This is also a team building off of success. They have qualified for the playoffs as the NL Wildcard the past two seasons. There is much to like about this club. Pirate fans have good reason to be optimistic that the club can make a deep playoff run this year. But there is one factor in particular that makes me even more bullish on the Pirates. That factor is progression over regression. Simply put, I think this team has more upside than downside. The Bucs have more areas that can improve than will likely decline.
Looking at the roster as it stands in early February there are only two positions where I suspect the Pirates to have significant regression. Behind the dish it is a practically a guarantee that the team will lose production. Russell Martin was one of the best catchers in baseball last season. Martin took the money offered by Toronto and left the Pirates with a hole at catcher that Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart will be tasked with filling. The other position the Pirates will likely lose some production is 3B. Josh Harrison was sensational last season. He earned the 3B job on merit, but he is unlikely to repeat his 2014 performance. That isn’t a knock on Harrison. I believe he will still be a quality hitter this year. But repeating an .837 OPS seems highly unlikely. A .750 OPS for JHay seems much more reasonable and would still be considered a strong season for Harrison
The the rest of the Pirates’ lineup is filled with stable performers and players showing improvement. Cutch is almost a sure thing to put up MVP numbers. Neil Walker has been a solid and consistent hitter since 2010. As long as he can stay healthy he will put up good offensive numbers again this season. Starling Marte and SS Jordy Mercer are coming off of good seasons in which they showed gradual improvement, and they both still have some upside. After a disappointing season in 2014 Pedro Alvarez will be moving to 1B. If Pedro bounces back to something close to his 2012-2013 form (Steamer is projecting a 2 WAR improvement for Pedro) he will be an upgrade over the production Ike Davis provided the team at 1B last season. RF Gregory Polanco struggled last year in his first go around against major league pitching. But no Pirate player has as much untapped potential as Polanco does. It seems likely that the Pirates have enough progression in their starting 8 position players to counter regression at the 3B and C positions. The bottom line is the everyday lineup should be nearly as potent as it was last season.
Where the Pirates really have potential to improve is with the pitching staff. Last year Pirate hurlers were a disappointment. Gerrit Cole was the only pitcher to post above a 2.0 fWAR. Pirate starting pitchers were dead last at just 7.4 total fWAR. There are a couple of reasons to expect an improvement in the rotation. Cole and Francisco Liriano both finished the 2014 season strong after recovering from injuries in the middle part of the year. Last year’s staff was also dragged down early on by Wandy Rodriguez. Wandy posted a dismal -0.8 fWAR in just 6 starts before being released. The Pirates have too much pitching depth to allow a clear weak link to sink them again, and while the team did lose Edinson Volquez they brought back A.J. Burnett to replace him. Cole, Liriano, and Burnett make a nice trio of quality arms. As long as Cole can remain healthy and take a step forward the rotation should be better.
But it is the bullpen that is likely to make the most gains. Last year the Pirates’ pen saw some heavy regression from the previous season. That was not a surprise. The 2013 Pirates bullpen was both good and lucky. In 2014 that luck ran out. The pen blew 24 saves and gave up an astounding 43 home runs in 2014. That was 9 more blown saves and 7 more home runs than the previous season. That was partly due to bad luck, and partly due to a bad closer the first month of the season. The bad closer part was solved mid way thru the 2014 campaign. Jason Grilli was sent packing and Mark Melancon took over the closing duties. That shored up the back end of the bullpen, but the 7th inning remained a problem all season long. I am optimistic that the bullpen’s fortunes will change because while the bullpen was unlunky in 2014, it wasn’t particularly bad. The Pirates bullpen ranked 9th in baseball with a 3.28 ERA. No, this wasn’t a bad bullpen of limited talent pitchers. It was just bad at the wrong times. They struggled to strand runners (77.0% left on base percentage was 5th worse in baseball) and at times they struggled to lock games down. But there is plenty of talent in this pen and the baseball gods have a way of evening out the bad breaks. Melancon should still be an effective closer and Tony Watson is a strong 8th inning setup man. The acquisition of Antonio Bastardo gives them an effective southpaw to neutralize left-handed hitters. There are several other quality arms to fill out the pen in the middle innings. Bullpens are volatile and thus tough to predict, but the safe bet is the pen will be better this year. If the pen improves the team should improve because there is not much regression to be found on this roster.

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