Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Category – Analysis

MLB Jung Ho Kang vs. KBO Jung Ho Kang

Perhaps it is foolish to have expectations on anyone that attempts to do anything that has never been done before. But this is baseball we are talking about and prognostication has become a cottage industry within the sport. So when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Korean sensation Jung Ho Kang who posted video game offensive numbers in the KBO last season everybody jumped at the chance to place their expectations on Kang. Some felt Kang would struggle against superior pitching. No other position player in the KBO has ever made the jump to America to play Major League Baseball. But there were others that were much more bullish on the 28 year old Korean infielder. In a post on Fangraphs.com last February Dan Farnsworth predicted Kang would hit .280 with 25 HRs. It is safe to say that Kang will not reach those lofty numbers. At the All-Star Break he sits with a .268 batting average and just 4 home runs. But despite not showing anywhere near the power he displayed in the KBO, Kang is meeting most of the lofty expectations that were heaped on him by morphing into a completely different hitter.
 

One of the concerns people had with Jung Ho Kang’s hitting skills were some considerable swing and miss tendencies. Kang’s high leg kick generated a ton of power in the KBO, but it also led to some high strikeout numbers. In 2014 Kang struck out 21.2% of the time. That was significantly more than the KBO league average of 17%. In the smallish stadiums in of the KBO Kang was willing to take the big swing with the high leg kick to generate home runs to his pull side at the expense of strikeouts. Most people seemed to think that was just a part of who Kang was as a hitter. But in the four months that Kang has been playing with Pirates he has shown a tremendous ability to adapt. The vast left field area at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is not kind to right handed pull hitters. Kang seemingly recognized the difference very early on. The big leg was replaced with much more of this:
 

 

That there is a great piece of right field hitting with absolutely no leg kick. Kang doesn’t always forego the leg kick, but it is rare to see it on a two strike count. Even in a good hitters count it appears he has cut down on the kick from what it was in Spring Training. The result is a hitter that has actually cut down on his strikeout rate this year despite being matched against much more talented pitching.
 

Jung Ho Kang 2014 KBO Strikeout rate – 21.2%
Jung Ho Kang 2015 MLB Strikeout rate – 20.2%

 

Jung Ho Kang might not be the same home run hitting monster he was in KBO, but he has still been a damn good hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unless you were actually expecting Babe Ruth then you have to be happy with what Kang has done. He has been a far better hitter than I imagined he would be, and I have pretty wild imagination.
 

The Marte Partay Coming to an Infield Near You

The Marte “Partay” is taking the city of Pittsburgh by storm this year, and often the party is taking place on the infield. Starling Marte is beating out infield singles at an historic rate. Marte already has 22 infield singles (bunts not included). That puts him on a pace to beat out 54 infield hits this year. Only one other player has topped 50 infield hits in a season – Ichiro Suzuki has accomplished the feat three times. Ichiro’s highest total was 57 in 2004. Other than Ichiro only Nori Aoki, Hunter Pence, and Luis Castillo have managed to top 40 infield hits since the statistic was first tracked in 2003.

 
Ichiro is the gold standard for collecting infield hits, but he has never beaten out a higher percentage of ground balls as Starling Marte has this season. Marte’s infield hit percentage (IFH%) is at whopping 20.6%. The best percentage Ichiro ever produced was 16.0% in 2009. Marte is beating out 1 out of every 5 ground balls hit to infielders. Amazingly, that isn’t even the best in Major League Baseball this season. Cubs phenom Kris Bryant has a 27.1% IFH%. It is starting to look like 2015 might be the year of the infield hit. Bryant, Marte, and Brett Lawrie all have a higher IFH% this season than any qualified hitter has produced since 2003. Here is a look at the top 10:
 

Year IFH%
Kris Bryant 2015 27.1%
Starling Marte 2015 20.6%
Bret Lawrie 2015 17.3%
Jason Bay 2008 16.7%
Hunter Pence 2008 16.3%
Mike Trout 2013 16.2%
Ichiro Suzuki 2009 16.0%
Mike Trout 2014 15.9%
Ichiro Suzuki 2010 15.8%
Willy Taveras 2005 15.6%

 

Even if Starling Marte’s infield hit percentage regresses to his career rate of 13.5%, that is still a very healthy percentage. League average is less than 7%. The bottom line is we can expect to continue to see a lot of “Marte Partays” in the infield as the Pirates make another playoff push.
 

Pedro Alvarez Finds New Consistency

Pedro Alvarez is on a hot streak. In his last 10 games Pedro is hitting .382 with 4 Home Runs. The recent surge has lifted his OPS from .694 on May 14th to .822. But hot streaks are not unusual for Pedro Alvarez. We have seen him put together hot stretches like this in each of the last three seasons. What has convinced me that Pedro is a much improved hitter is what he accomplished during his most recent slump. From April 27th through May 14th Pedro batted .156 with just 4 extra base hits. But this was different than the past slumps for Pedro. Despite the low average and low slugging numbers during this recent rough period at the dish, he still managed to post a .321 OBP and struck out just 25% of the time. Those rates are significantly better than even his career rates. This was not the Pedro Alvarez of years past that would go into a deep dark funk that would lead to whiff after whiff. This was a hitter that found a way to smooth out his valleys. This is a great sign going forward. If Pedro’s lows aren’t as low, but his highs are just as high he will be an extremely productive hitter. There is no question he has become a more consistent one.

 

Pirates Recent History of Bad First Base Defense

A widely held belief in major league baseball is that anyone can play first base. The Pittsburgh Pirates have been doing an excellent job of disproving that theory for more than a decade. Pedro Alvarez is the latest butcher to don a 1B mitt for the Bucs. Alvarez switched positions to 1B this offseason. He is off to a very rocky start defensively. Pedro has already been credited with -5 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). If Alvarez continues to play the position this poorly it will extend a long stretch of seasons in which bad 1B defense has cost the Pirates runs. Here are the number of Defensive Runs Saved by the First Basemen employed by the Pirates over the last 10 seasons:

 

Year DRS
2015 -5
2014 -9
2013 -3
2012 -1
2011 -7
2010 -12
2009 0
2008 -1
2007 3
2006 -10

 

Adam Laroche was a fairly competent 1B gloveman in his tenure with the team from 2007-2009, but otherwise the franchise has been plagued by brutal defense at the position. Maybe it is true that anyone can play first base, but that doesn’t mean they can play it very well.

 

The Hidden Value of Gregory Polanco

On the surface Gregory Polanco appears to be having a fairly average sophomore season. Through 30 games Polanco is slashing a pedestrian .271/.320/.381. That is just a .702 OPS. Former Pirates RF Travis Snider, who Polanco replaced, has a .749 OPS this season with the Orioles. But Polanco packs some serious extra value to his game. That value can be found on the base paths.

 

Fangraphs rates Polanco as the second best baserunner in the National League this season with a BsR of 2.7. Only Billy Hamilton has contributed more value on the base paths in 2015. Polanco has been an efficient base stealer this season swiping 10 bags in 12 attempts, but base running is more than just base stealing ability. The ability to take extra bases by going from 1st to 3rd on a single or score from 1st on a double also adds to a player’s value as a base runner. Polanco is taking extra bases in these situations a whopping 80% of the time this season. Polanco has also yet to ground into a double play this season which is pretty incredible for a player with a ground ball rate of 60.7%. Last year he hit into just 1 double play in 89 games. Even though his offensive abilities have yet to fully materialize, the Pirates have to be happy with the weapon on the bases that they have in Gregory Polanco.

 

Is it Time to Worry About Mark Melancon?

The lifespan of a closer tends to be very short. Very few closers maintain effectiveness year after year. And when they do fall from grace it is often very swift. I’m looking at you Ernesto Frieri, Chris Perez, and Jim Johnson. So as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates it causes me great concern to see Mark Melancon get hit so hard by the Tigers in the Pirates’ home opener. We saw this story last April with Jason Grilli and it wasn’t pretty. Lucky for the Bucs that Melancon had a four run lead to work with in the 9th inning. He needed every bit of that lead to just barely survive the Tigers’ onslaught. The Pirates need the backend of the bullpen to be effective. Any closer can have a bad day, so it shouldn’t be that alarming to see Melancon get roughed up. But there is something about Melancon’s early season appearances that portends to trouble ahead – a precipitous drop off in his velocity.
 
chart
 
As the chart above shows Melancon has lost more than 3 mph off of the Cutter – his bread and butter pitch. Last season Melancon averaged 91.9 mph with his Cutter. This year it has dropped to a very hittable 88.7 mph. Melancon has only made three appearances thus far, and in only one of those games did he enter in a high leverage situation. But this is an alarming drop off. A 3 mph loss in velocity is no small drop, and velocity changes tend to stabilize very quickly. Something is going on here. Either Melancon is injured or he really is losing steam from his Cutter. Perhaps he will gain some of it back, but gaining back 3 mph seems very unlikely. Can Melancon pitch effectively at this velocity? I have my doubts. The Pirates might need to switch closers in the near future.
 

Final Analysis of the Pirates Offseason

On the eve of a new baseball season it seems an appropriate time to take a final retrospective of the Pittsburgh Pirates offseason. The 2015 Pirates will return most of the core from a team that has qualified for the playoffs as the NL Wildcard each of the last two seasons. The lone exception is star catcher Russell Martin who signed with the Blue Jays.
 
Because the Pirates’ core players are relatively young, productive, and cost controlled there were few glaring needs that needed to be addressed by GM Neal Huntington. That is not to say he didn’t have plenty of work to do. Upgrading a good team is harder than upgrading a mediocre one. Huntington started the offseason by attempting to retain his best free agent pieces. He extended 1 year qualifying offers (and later made multi-year contract offers) to Martin and starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. He failed to sign Martin, but he did ink Liriano to a 3 year $39 million offer which may well have been the coup of the offseason if not for A.J. Burnett‘s decision to return to the Pirates after a one year stint in purgatory….I mean Philadelphia. Burnett essentially replaces Edinson Volquez in the rotation who left via free agency to sign with the Royals. After filling the needs in the rotation the front office turned its attention to finding a catcher to replace Russell Martin. The Pirates did so by acquiring Francisco Cervelli from Yankees in exchange for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. This was followed by a series of moves aimed at strengthening the bench and the bullpen with a heavy emphasis on positional versatility and power arms.
 
One of the important things to keep in mind when evaluating an offseason trade is how they fit into the whole offseason plan. Often we get carried away with looking at individual trades and declaring an immediate winner or loser. I am guilty of this too. I certainly felt dealing a promising prospect like Buddy Borden to the Rays for utility player Sean Rodriguez was an overpay. Joely Rodriguez seemed a bit steep of a price for southpaw reliever Antonio Bastardo too, though in my opinion the need for another quality lefty in the bullpen justified that move. Later in the offseason OF Travis Snider was dealt to the Orioles for Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault – a pair of promising left-handed pitching prospects. Many fans and members of the Pittsburgh media criticized this deal as well. Some even accused this of being nothing more than a salary dump. If you look at all of these trades together and focus on the net returns you see a much different picture
 

The Pirates traded the following major league players this winter: Ike Davis, Travis Snider & Justin Wilson. Combined 2015 salary: $6.15 million
 

The Pirates traded the following prospects this winter: Buddy Borden, Joely Rodriguez, and Shane Carle
 

The Pirates acquired the following major league players this winter: Sean Rodriguez, Francisco Cervelli, Antonio Bastardo, Arquimedes Caminero, and Rob Scahill. Combined 2015 salary: $7.0 million
 

The Pirates acquired the following prospects this winter: Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault
 

There were a few other depth pieces (such as Steve Lombardozzi) and cash that changed hands in these trades, and the Pirates also picked up some International signing slot money, but at the end of the day we can summarize the net of all these deals in this way: The Pirates got a starting catcher, a utility bench player and several bullpen pieces in exchange for two left-handed platoon players and a promising lefty middle reliever. The salaries are basically a wash, talent is close to equal, but the players acquired are better fits for the roster this year. That is what offseason trading is all about – moving pieces around to find better fits. As for the prospects, in my opinion the Pirates have come ahead in these deals. Stephen Tarpley is the best prospect that changed hands in any of these trades.
 

Of course the trades were only half of the story in the Bucs’ quest to build a better bench and bullpen this season. The team bid farewell to Gaby Sanchez and Clint Barmes and signed Corey Hart as a free agent. They made a surprise addition by signing pitcher Radhames Liz to a guaranteed MLB contract despite the fact he hasn’t pitched in the majors in 6 years. Whether Liz turns out to be any kind of upgrade is yet to be determined. However, the scouts were impressed with the upper 90′s velocities he was posting in the Dominican Winter League, and if the Pirates feel he is a worth a flyer I am more than willing to trust them on this given their track record of fixing pitchers. And the final free agent addition was the one with the most upside – shortstop Jung-ho Kang. Kang has mashed for several seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. He blasted 40 homes with a 1.198 OPS in the KBO last year. Kang’s power is intriguing, but what he can do against MLB pitching is still a big question. He is making an unprecedented jump from a position player in the KBO to the major leagues.
 
So did the front office do enough this offseason to improve on a team that last year won 88 games? It is to tough to say because all of the improvements are on the margins. It may even be fair to question if the team is better at all. I do believe the rotation, bench, and bullpen are marginally better. But there is no clear cut certain upgrade that was added to the team this offseason. Perhaps more should have been done. The Pirates had the resources to do more. According to the latest Forbes estimates the Pirates raked in $43.6 million in profits last season – 5th highest in all of baseball. The Pirates are capable of competing for top free agents. Russell Martin was signed away by the Blue Jays. James Shields signed with the Padres. The 2015 Pirates would be better with either of those two players, yet they were signed by two teams that had lower revenues than the Pirates did last season.
 
Despite the lack of a truly big free agent splash or blockbuster trade, I think Neal Huntington mixed and matched well this offseason. I am bullish on the Bucs in 2015. I predict a 91-71 record and their first division title since 1992.
 

Expect A.J. Burnett to Return to his 2013 Form

It is understandable if A.J. Burnett would like to take a mulligan for his 2014 season. No veteran pitcher wants to waste one of the final seasons of his career getting tagged with 18 losses on a last place ball club. Last season started with a regrettable decision to leave the Pittsburgh Pirates and their analytic approach to defending ground balls in favor of an opportunity to make more money in Philly and be closer to his home in nearby Monkton, MD. He got off to a good start to the season, but lost effectiveness after a hernia injury in April. His strikeout rate dropped from 9.85 K/9 in 2013 to 8.00 K/9 last season. His ground ball rate dropped from 56.5% to 50.9%. To his credit he pitched the entire season with the injury and amassed 213.2 innings. That speaks to the competitor that Burnett is. Not many pitchers would gut out an injury like that for a team having such a miserable season. Yes, there were escalator clauses in his contract based on the number of starts he made. But he proved it wasn’t about that when he exercised his option to opt out of his deal with the Phillies in 2015 so that he could return to the Pirates. That sets up 2015 as a do-over for the 38 year old Burnett. Now the question becomes can he return to the form he displayed in his first stint in Pittsburgh?
 
Despite his age A.J. Burnett is a pitcher I think you can count on for a bounce back. His hernia is now repaired. I believe the injury was the biggest factor in his struggles last season. Burnett’s GB% plunged after the injury. He started the season by posting a very A.J. Burnett-like 56% GB% in the month of April, but the rate dropped to just 42.6% in May and 47.1% in June. The only month in which he posted a GB% below 50% in his entire two year stay with the Bucs was April of 2012 when he made just two starts because he missed the first few weeks of season while recovering from a fractured orbital. As the season wore on his ground ball rate began to rise as Burnett became more acclimated to pitching with the injury. But he was never really quite the same pitcher. Now the injury is repaired and it appears Burnett is back on track. Burnett said he feels great this Spring. There does not appear to be any lingering effects from his offseason surgery. As long as Burnett is healthy there is no reason he can’t be as effective as he was in his previous go around with the Pirates. That means high ground ball rates with plenty of Ks too. At the very least he will be better than what he was with the Phillies last season. Even with the injury last season Burnett had value. He chewed up valuable innings and posted a 1.5 fWAR. That was more than the 1.0 fWAR Edinson Volquez contributed for the Pirates. A healthy Burnett can be a significant upgrade.
 

Should Jung-ho Kang Start the Season in the Majors?

Hitting a baseball is not easy. In Major League Baseball, the highest level of the game, the reactionary time needed to hit a baseball is at the edge of human ability. At this level even minor adjustments can be extremely difficult. So it is no wonder that Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang is finding the game difficult in his first go around against major league quality pitching in Spring Training with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kang has just 3 hits in 27 ABs in the Grapefruit League. Even more concerning is his 11 strikeouts. Yes, this is just Spring Training. Yes, the same size is too small to be meaningful. But that doesn’t change the fact that Kang is struggling against the best pitching he has ever faced. The Pirates gave Kang a short respite last week to work on some adjustments at the Pirates minor league camp. He returned to game action yesterday against the Orioles by going 0 for 4 with 2 Ks.
 
If this Spring Training has proven anything it is that Jung-ho Kang is going to need time to get acclimated to major league pitching. Unfortunately, camp is probably not going to be long enough for that to happen. The season is less than two weeks away. So the Pirates are going to have a dilemma. Do they take him north with the club or ask him to go to AAA Indianapolis for a few weeks for further evaluation? It is a tough decision because the team has essentially boxed themselves into placing Kang on the 25 man roster. The Pirates have spoken all along that they intend for Kang to start the year in Pittsburgh. It seems as if they even promised him as much. But I have to believe they did not imagine his struggles this Spring would be so severe. Can they go back on their word? And would that even be what is best for his development? Kang needs playing time, but he also needs to get acclimated against major league quality pitching. The best way to do that is to play in the major leagues, though if Kang continues to struggle playing time will be scarce even if the Pirates do roster him. It would be hard to justify cutting into Jordy Mercer‘s playing time at SS if Kang continues to whiff in 40% of his ABs.
 
We are still very early in the Jung-ho Kang experiment. Nothing Kang has or hasn’t done this Spring Training should alter the long term plans or projections the Pirates have for him. But the short term plans are a different story. It may be necessary to hold off on the Jung-ho Kang major league debut for a little while.
 

Radhames Liz Is Not a Lock to Make the Pirates Bullpen

Which relievers the Pirates choose to round out their bullpen is perhaps the only roster question left to be answered during this Spring Training. As Charlie Wilmoth of BucsDugout.com has pointed out, John Holdzkom‘s hold on a roster spot might be tenuous at best because he is one of the few relievers with options remaining. Arquimedes Caminero, Radhames Liz, Jeff Locke, and Stolmy Pimentel are all out of options. The only relievers with options remaining besides Holdzkom are Jared Hughes, Bobby LaFromboise, and Tony Watson. LaFromboise is certain to be optioned to AAA while Watson is guaranteed to be the primary setup man on the big league staff. Caminero has a fastball that approaches 100 mph and has been fantastic this Spring. It seems he has pitched himself onto the roster. Hughes has a career 61% ground ball rate and significant big league experience. Being the closest thing the Pirates’ bullpen has to a ground ball specialist helps Hughes’ case tremendously. Jeff Locke will probably be kept around because he makes the most sense as a swing man/spot starter. Radhames Liz is thought to be safe because the Pirates are paying him a $1 million guaranteed MLB contract. All of these factors put Holdzkom on shaky ground. He might have to start the season in Indianapolis simply because he is one of the few relievers that can be stashed in the minors.
 
But then again maybe it is a faulty assumption that Radhames Liz’s guaranteed MLB contract means he has already earned a roster spot. The Pirates did not hesitate to designate Vin Mazzaro for assignment last Spring when he was making similar money. The concern that Liz would not clear waivers also seems to be misguided. Teams do not make a practice of taking on a million bucks for an unproven relief pitcher. It is hard to imagine a team putting in a claim for Liz when they weren’t willing to make him such a contract offer in the offseason. Is the market for Radhames Liz really greater now than it was in December? I think not. Radhames Liz looks like a very stashable player in my opinion. If the Pirates must decide who to roster between Holdkom or Liz the decision should be based solely on merit.
 

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