For the third year in a row a starting pitcher flew the coop as a free agent after his struggling career was revived in Pittsburgh under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage. Following the 2013 season A.J. Burnett cashed in with the Philadelphia Phillies. Last offseason Edinson Volquez signed a two year $20 million deal with the Kansas City Royals. J.A. Happ has become the latest Pirates’ reclamation project to get his big pay day from another team. Happ was able turn a great two month stretch into $36 million over 3 years from the Blue Jays. It is a pretty powerful indicator of the Pirates’ reputation at fixing pitchers that a guy with a 4.13 ERA and 4.20 FIP over 9 seasons can land $36 million guaranteed dollars off of the success of two months of quality pitching with the Pittsburgh Pirates after so many years of mediocrity. It is time for the Pirates to start better using their reputation as a destination for pitchers that want to revive their career.
I really wanted the Pirates to retain J.A. Happ. But if the Pirates handed out multi-year contracts worth $36 million to every pitcher that strung together a good ten start stretch for them then they would have a bunch of bad pitchers on their payroll. Jeff Locke has the same 4.20 career FIP as Happ, and Locke once pitched well enough over three months to earn an All-Star bid. How silly does it sound to offer Jeff Locke $36 million? Timing is everything and a bounce back season leading into free agency is the kind of timing that can land a pitcher a lot of money. The Pirates have a great track record of helping pitchers like that cash in.
Instead of fighting the obvious it is time to embrace the strategy fully. The Pirates should double down on reclamation projects. I’m not saying the Pirates should get more of them. I think one free agent project signing at a time is perfect. But the Pirates should tweak their strategy by aiming either for higher quality pitchers or exert pressure to lock these kind of reclamation project pitchers into a second year with the club. Both strategies would take a little more money. Here are two examples:
Example 1: Pirates attempt to convince Jeff Samardzija that a year in Pittsburgh could get him an even bigger payday next offseason. Two years ago it looked as if Samardzija was headed for a monster free agent deal. But a poorly timed rough season with the White Sox during his walk year killed a lot of his value. Samardzija is still going to get a nice payday…just not the $150 million multi-year deal he would have gotten had he continued to pitch well in 2015. But if Samardzija were to have a great bounce back season with a team on a 1 year deal he could still get that monster contract. There is no better place to attempt that than Pittsburgh. Samardzija has a much higher ceiling than the typical reclamation signing, but of course this would cost more money than the Pirates typically pay for a reclamation pitcher. No matter how appealing the scenario Jeff Samardzija isn’t signing anywhere for $8 million. But would $20 million for one season and another shot at a huge payday next offseason pique his interest? The Pirates need to find out.
Example 2: Secure a second year club option with your reclamation projects. For the sake of argument let’s say the Pirates sign Trevor Cahill who they have been rumored to have interest in. Cahill fits the mold of a reclamation project bounce back candidate. Instead of signing him for a single year and then watching him walk via free agency after as solid season pitching at PNC Park, the Pirates should double down by demanding the deal include a second year club option. The appeal to these kind of deals to a pitcher like Cahill is the opportunity to get to free agency again with rebuilt value. So if he is going to consider losing an additional year of control he will need to be compensated well for it. The club option year would have to be significant money, probably in the vicinity of $12 million with a healthy $3 million buyout if not exercised. No matter how Cahill were to pitch the Pirates would end up paying him significantly more than what it would take to control him for just one season. But if Cahill pitches as well as the other recent reclamation signings that the Bucs have made then that second year could be great value.
Either of these strategies would be a gamble for the Pirates. But if the Pirates believe in their success with fixing pitchers then these are gambles worth taking. So my advice to GM Neal Huntington is simple….Double Down on your next reclamation project starting pitcher free agent signing.
Almost every team runs into a roster crunch at some point. When a roster crunch occurs hard choices have to be made and players with no remaining options are designated for assignment. Often times these are useful players that the team would like to retain. But that is not always possible. If players are useful to your team chances are likely they will be useful to other teams as well. To be assigned to the minors a player with no remaining options must pass thru waivers unclaimed. If another team claims the player he is lost and organizational depth is depleted. But an interesting thing occurred with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014. They had two useful experienced major league players (Jose Tabata and Vin Mazzaro) that they were able to outright without being claimed multiple times. Both players had the right to refuse a minor league assignment. They accepted the assignments because they were earning money on guaranteed contracts. Their existing contracts are also what dissuaded teams from claiming them off of waivers in the first place. Teams are rarely interested in taking waiver claims on players earning above minimum salary. Essentially the byproduct of a couple of poor contract decisions that GM Neal Huntington made with Jose Tabata and Vin Mazzaro was that he got to stash them in AAA Indianapolis for depth. It certainly was not Huntington’s plan to overpay these players for them to perform for the Pirate’s AAA affiliate. But what if there was a situation in which it might make sense to overpay a potentially useful player just so you could stash him in the minors without him being claimed? Perhaps that is the explanation for the Radhames Liz contract.
When the news broke last month that the Pirates were signing Radhames Liz to a guaranteed major league contract worth reportedly $3 million most people assumed that it meant he would be almost guaranteed to make the club out of Spring Training. That was somewhat disconcerting to Pirate fans since no one knew much about the guy and he hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2009. Players like that do not command major league deals. More typical of a player of Liz’s ilk would be a minor league contract and perhaps a Spring Training invite. Sure, the Pirates have done well at finding diamonds in rough, but they usually don’t get a ticket straight to Pittsburgh. They have to get polished first. The Pirates obviously feel they have something special in Radhames Liz. He was managed this year in the Dominican League by Dean Treanor, the skipper of the Bucs AAA affiliate Indianapolis Indians. Maybe I’m misreading the tealeaves, but this feels much different than the type of shot the Pirates usually take on a fringe major league talent. This seems like a pitcher that they want to take time with and cultivate. In order to do that they need some time and they need to protect him. Paying him 3x the minimum major league salary does that. If Liz isn’t ready to help the Pirates at the end of camp they can still slip him through waivers without another team claiming him because the size of his contract will scare teams off. The Pirates won’t have to carry him on the roster all season long like they did last season with Stolmy Pimentel just because they fear losing him. This is entirely speculation on my part. I could be completely off base. Or I could have just uncovered Neal Huntington’s newest plan to stash talent in AAA.
Major League Baseball has a problem. Pitchers are coming in high and tight to the brightest hitters in the game with zero fear of retribution. The only real protection offered is the fear of retaliation against one of their own. But pitchers are obviously willing to go over that line, and a culture of vigilantism that leads to a tit for tat response to hit batsmen only causes these incidents to escalate in very dangerous ways. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen has seen a steady diet of pitches this season targeting his upper body. He has already been injured once this season as the result of a pitch from Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Randall Delgado that hit McCutchen in the ribs. The Diamondbacks felt the need to retaliate for a pitch from Pirates’ reliever Ernesto Frieri that broke Paul Goldschmidt‘s hand. And that hasn’t been the only time McCutchen has been thrown at. Pirate pitchers have hit more batters than any team in baseball this year. That makes for a lot of angry opponents that feel their only means of recourse is to throw at Cutch in retaliation. So that leaves Andrew McCutchen as a man under fire.
What I find interesting during these beanball occurrences is that the pitchers never suffer. They always get to fire the weapon but never have to worry about taking cover. When Giancarlo Stanton was hit in the face the other night by Mike Fiers, the man that had to take the punishment was Carlos Gomez. Seldom do you see a pitcher getting drilled for his own actions. Frankly, there is very little opportunity to take action against a pitcher that is plunking batters. It isn’t even a possibility in the American League due to the designated hitter rule, and even in the NL relievers never hit and starters rarely get more than 2 ABs a game.
There is a school of thought in baseball amongst pitchers that they must pitch inside to be successful, and there is no reason for them not do it aggressively. If a pitch gets away from them and plunks the batter the only penalty is the batter is awarded first base. That is an extremely light punishment and does not deter pitchers from throwing inside. To truly stop pitchers from wildly throwing up and in to hitters the penalties for missing in that location needs to be more severe. My solution is to change the rule so that if a pitch hits a batter above the waist the batter is awarded two bases. I believe this penalty would be severe enough to force pitchers to pitch more cautiously inside. Pitchers can still pitch inside if they want, but they would have to do so with more precision. I also believe this rule change would have a psychological impact that would lessen the desire of an opponent to retaliate for a hit batsman. Teams tend to be more inclined to retaliate if they feel hitting a batter was purposeful. If the penalties for hitting a batter were more severe opponents would be less likely to view a hit by pitch as intentional.
I am very much a baseball traditionalist that loathes the idea of most rule changes. But the game has already changed so much and sometimes that necessitates a rule change. In this period of baseball history batters are getting hit at extraordinary rates. In the last 30 years hit by pitch rates have more than doubled. In 1984 1 out of every 240 batters was hit by a pitch. In 2014 the rate has increased to 1 out of every 111. And pitchers are throwing harder than ever before too. Since pitchers seldom hit in this era they face the consequences for hitting a batter less than ever before. Star players are being put in serious jeopardy and the league is doing nothing to protect them. It is becoming evident that the game can no longer police itself simply thru fear of retaliation. That has to change or more stars like Giancarlo Stanton are going to be injured from high inside fastballs that get away from pitchers. It is time to create a real deterrent for hitting batters in dangerous areas. It is time time to make the penalty two bases for a hit by pitch above the waist.
Last Sunday the Pittsburgh Pirates fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a controversial game ending play in the bottom of the 10th inning. The Pirates were attempting an inning ending 6-4-3 double play when the throw from Pirates 2B Jayson Nix hit Diamondbacks base runner Nick Ahmed in the left hand. Ahmed slid hard and late to breakup the double play and appeared he may have attempted to swat the throw his hand, at least that is how the Pirates saw it. The Diamondbacks contend Ahmed slid normally as any runner would to try and break up a double play. The on field umpires let the play stand contending Ahmed did not alter his slide and thus there was no evidence of intent to block the throw. If you haven’t yet seen the play here it is:
We know what the biased eyes see on this play. If you side with the Pirates you see interference. If you side with the Diamondbacks you see a clean play. Even the opinion of the on field umpire crew is biased in retrospect. Unless there is a truly egregious error made an umpire is going to stand by their call. But what do other umpires think? You can go to this thread discussing the play on the popular umpire.org message board to find out: umpire.org topic: Interference, yes or no?
Keep in mind the umpires that frequent this board are not MLB umpires. They are however trained umpires that work games at the Little League, AAU, High School, College, and Semi-Pro levels. They know the rules of the game better than 99.9% of baseball fans. Here are some of their comments about this controversial play.
“It’s tough to tell, from the three different angles, none show when and how he lifted his arms. All I see is the arm already lifted in a nonchalant fashion.”
“U2 said everybody throws arms up when they slide. I think I’m getting interference though. Clearly the actions of the base runner interfered with the play on BR.”
“I can see it go either way…But the runner was making what appeared to be a legal slide…within reach of the bag…
And as memory serves, I believe it an inherent characteristic of runners when beginning their slide to have the arms go up…So he was doing what he was supposed to be doing…INT, perhaps…But I can only imagine that U2 gave a solid statement of fact supported by the rules to support the ruling he made…
I am anxious to hear any post game reports on this one.”
“I’d call the interference. Something odd with this slide makes me see intent. Yes, arm(s) will go up when runners do a bent leg slide, but I expect the opposite hand of the tucked leg would be the one higher in the air. The slide just looked way too fishy. I think it looks even worse at real speed than when it was slowed down. I can see how it could go either way though.”
“Obvious interference. They need to add these calls to IR.”
“clearly intended to interfere with the fielder. He was clearly out but slid into the fielder’s feet for the purpose of knocking him down. In professional baseball this was a completely common, normal and legal play. It just looked worse because it ended the game.
If this was a high school game using FED rules you have a textbook FPSR violation. But the big boys don’t play that way.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a serious dilemma on their hands. 3B Pedro Alvarez has committed 22 throwing errors already this season. Pedro has developed an inability to make seemingly routine throws to first base. This bizarre affliction is called focal dystonia, or more commonly known as the “yips”. The condition is so terrifying to baseball players that they often refer to it as the “The Monster”. It ended the career of former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass. Steve Sax and Mark Wohlers eventually recovered from the condition. Other players such as Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch had to change positions to escape it. Perhaps that will ultimately be what Alvarez needs to do. It has long been thought that due to Pedro’s size and eventual decrease in mobility as he ages, he would end up transitioning to 1B later in his career. Maybe the yips will hasten that transition. Unfortunately for the Pirates that is a tough thing to do in the middle of the season. The Pirates are already carrying a pair of 1Bs on the roster in Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis. Not to mention there is at least some what of a learning curve to playing a new position. The future for Pedro might be at 1B, but it is more likely the Pirates will keep him at 3B for now and try to manage the issue and hope Pedro can get it under control. That won’t be easy.
I’m not going to profess to know everything about the yips, but I do know a thing or two about them. I have experienced the yips, and I’ve never completely gotten over them. I played baseball in college and then afterwards I played men’s sandlot baseball for more than a dozen years. I never once had an issue throwing the ball in a game. But I can’t throw batting practice. It is absolutely frustrating. One pitch will land three feet in front of the batter and the next will wind up behind the hitter. I have been asked to help coach youth teams and I have turned them down because I know I can’t throw BP.
Last year I found another place where the yips have manifested. I took an umpiring class and joined my local amateur umpire association. In the first inning of my first game behind the dish I go to throw a new ball to the pitcher after a foul hit out of play. The ball wound up 15 feet over the pitcher’s head. I felt two inches tall. It is still a mental block for me. Now I almost always hand a new ball to the catcher. It is frustrating, it is embarrassing, and it eats at me. I have to imagine those feelings would be a thousand times worse for a professional athlete playing in front of huge crowds with millions more watching on television. I feel for Pedro. I know this is maddening. I hope he can tame the monster.
Cincinnati Reds CF Billy Hamilton steps into the batters box and immediately the Pirates defense is on high alert. The corner infielders move up to defend the bunt. The middle infielders cheat in a few a steps because they know it will be difficult to throw out the speedy leadoff hitter from the edge of the OF grass. Hamilton shows bunt and takes the pitch from Charlie Morton for a ball. 3B Pedro Alvarez cheats in another step. The count reaches 2-1 and Hamilton is almost assured of seeing a fastball. No pitcher wants to fall behind and issue a free pass to this kind of baserunner. Hamilton slaps the next pitch to the right of Alvarez just out of his reach for a single. Under normal circumstances Pedro would make this play, but defending the bunt takes the angle away from him. Now things are about to get really stressful for Morton and the Pirates’ Defense. Morton has to divide his attention between Hamilton at the plate and the hitter Todd Frazier. Morton gets ahead of Frazier 0-1 and the Pirates are sniffing that Hamilton might be on the move. Catcher Russell Martin calls for the pitch out. No dice, Hamilton stays put. On the next pitch Morton holds the ball in the set position for an especially long time to try and freeze Hamilton. It works. Hamilton can’t get a good read and he stays put again. Unfortunately, the pitch was a 59 foot curveball that Russell Martin has difficulty blocking. The ball squirts just far enough away for Hamilton to advance to second base. Did the distraction of Hamilton at first base cause Morton to lose focus and fail to execute the pitch? Morton is able to retire Frazier and now Joey Votto steps to the plate. Ordinarily the Pirates would love to put an over shift on Votto. But with Billy Hamilton still on second base Pedro Alvarez must stay close enough to defend third base from the steal. It doesn’t matter, Hamilton swipes third base anyway. Votto then lifts a fly ball to right field that is too short to score most base runners. But Billy Hamilton is not most base runners. He scores standing up.
As a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates I hate Billy Hamilton. As someone who grew up watching baseball in the 80′s I love Billy Hamilton. For me Hamilton harkens back to the brand of major league baseball of my youth when Vince Coleman would swipe 100 bases in a season and Brett Butler would collect 188 bunt base hits in a career that spanned the 80′s and early 90′s. This small ball style of play began to die as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the home run record at the dawn of the steroid era. The growing community of sabermetric minded baseball people were eager to help bury it. Armed with years of data, run expectancy charts were developed that seemingly proved the inefficiencies of small ball tactics.
Analysis of run expectancies tells us that base stealing requires roughly a 70% success rate to provide any positive contribution in scoring runs. Prior to 2003 only twice did the league average success rate for steals exceed 70%. With the explosion of home runs during the steroid era runners began to take a more cautious approach on the base paths. Stolen base attempts per game dropped considerably as managers preferred to conserve outs, play a station to station style of game, and rely on the long ball. In light of the sabermetric data this all made for sound baseball strategy. But there is a hidden unquantifiable impact in small ball tactics that is missed by the those people that too heavily favor sabermetrics in the way they think about the game. For instance let’s look at Billy Hamilton. Hamilton has swiped 38 bases in 53 attempts this season. That represents a success rate of just under 72%. The data says that the Reds are just barely breaking even in scoring any extra runs due to Hamilton’s base stealing. But what the data doesn’t show is how strongly Hamilton’s base stealing abilities influences the game. He changes defenses. He alters pitch selection. When he gets on base he is always in the head of the opposition. Perhaps efficiency is not the end all and be all when considering offensive strategies. There is an influence, a psychological impact on the opponent that should also be considered. Just because it can’t be measured doesn’t mean the pressure to defend a stolen base attempt, or even the pressure to defend a sacrifice bunt doesn’t create some advantages.
This is not to say that the lead data analysts that front offices are employing do not grasp the importance of these hidden immeasurable effects of various baseball strategies. David Manel of Bucsdugout.com wrote an exceptional article last week in which he discussed his findings on the effectiveness of defensive over shifts with Dan Fox, Pirates’ Director of Baseball Systems Development for the – Pirates getting creative with defensive shifts. In the article Mr. Manel pointed out that despite the rapid adoption and exponential increase of defensive shifting by all teams over the last three seasons defensive efficiency has not improved. However, the insights provided in the article by Clint Barmes, Jimmy Rollins, and Dan Fox make it clear that there is more to evaluating the success of the shift than just defensive efficiency. Mr. Fox spoke of how the Pirates use the shift to hem in hitters and influence them to change their approach at the plate.
Hitters have become pull happy and have eschewed bunting and hitting to the opposite field in their thirst for power. Defenses have countered by shifting fielders to the pull side of the field. Influenced by the shift, some hitters are searching for answers to beat it such as trying to hit more to the opposite field and even laying down an occasional bunt. It is a vicious circle and it is very much like the cat and mouse game played by base stealers, pitchers, and defenses for decades. In the end the efficiency of the tactic matters most, but the hidden psychological impacts should not be completely ignored. There is value in influencing an opponent. It is just difficult to measure how much.
Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco is on the fast track to PNC Park. Every major scouting service has the young OF ranked as a top 25 prospect. Polanco is 5 tool player. He is a potential star and most people believe he will get the call up to the majors in the middle of the 2014 season. The Pirates are set in LF with Starling Marte and CF with Andrew McCutchen. It appears that Polanco’s immediate future in Pittsburgh will be as the right fielder. But that might not be the best usage of the talented young prospect.
The Pirates have a number of internal candidates to play RF this season. Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, Jaff Decker, and Andrew Lambo are all in the mix. The alternatives at 1B are significantly thinner. They have Gaby Sanchez to occupy the right side of the platoon and the unproven Andrew Lambo. The Pirates have been shopping for a 1B all offseason to no avail. As the roster currently stands, 1B is the Pirates biggest hole. It is my belief that Pirates should start giving Gregory Polanco some reps at 1B to potentially fill that hole if it still exists at mid season. Polanco could get a crash course on playing 1B in Spring Training. His playing time at AAA Indianapolis should then be split between 1B and the OF during April and May. If Polanco could add this positional versatility it means the Pirates would have an elite prospect that they could turn to during the season to fill in at four different positions. If production is lagging at either RF or 1B Polanco would be the player internally the Pirates could turn to. If Marte or McCutchen were to get injured Polanco would be in line to plug those holes as well.
This wouldn’t be the first time a team has employed this strategy with an elite defensive OF prospect. In the late 90′s the Angels moved Darin Erstad to 1B because they had a crowded outfield and a hole at 1B. He bounced back and forth between CF and 1B much of his career depending on what needs the Angels had in a given season. Erstad proved to be a natural at 1B. He would eventually win gold gloves at both CF and 1B.
This is not to say that Gregory Polanco would pick up the 1B position as easily as Darin Erstad did. However, Polanco does have many of the same tools. He is left handed, nimble, and has good heighth for the position. He is a natural athlete. Polanco should be able to learn the 1B position well enough that he could competently play it if called upon at mid season.
There are still some players on the trading block such as Justin Smoak, Ike Davis, and Mitch Moreland that the Pirates might end up acquiring to play 1B in 2014. Even if they do acquire one of these players I still think it makes sense to get Polanco accustomed to 1B. That added positional versatility could still come into play. All of the 1Bs that are available have flaws and question marks. The Pirates have no immediate prospects at 1B to turn to. If whomever they turn to at 1B washes out they are left with no good internal options.
Some would argue that putting Polanco at 1B would waste his athleticism. However, I would argue that 1B is a more important defensive position for the Pirates than RF. The Pirates have constructed a ground ball heavy pitching staff. They have embraced a strategy of over shifting the infield defense. A mobile left handed 1B could allow for more radical shifts on right handed hitters. Polanco could play further off the bag than any other 1B in baseball. If PNC park had a spacious right field it would be a different story. However, right field at PNC park is not an extremely demanding piece of real estate to defend. Would Polanco’s range really add much over an average player within the smallish right field dimensions of PNC Park? For these reasons I believe the Pirates should consider Gregory Polanco as an option at 1B.