Interleague schedule will be an interesting test for Pirates

As you probably read in today’s Post-Gazette, the Pirates have not fared well in the past during interleague play. Actually, if you have been following the team closely the past few years, you probably already knew that. It seems as if the Pirates are often still hanging around as the calendar turns to June, luring fans into cautiously feeling hopeful about the season.
Then the American League shows up. And the season is essentially over.
In 2004, interleague play made up a large portion of a Pirates’ 4-21 stretch. And just like that, a 23-22 team was suddenly sitting at 27-43. The Bucs immediately went on a ten-game winning streak, but even that was not enough to save their season. Their 2-10 interleague record played a huge part in the 72-win season.
In 2005, the Pirates won four of their first six interleague games, including a 17-2 laugher over Tampa Bay that left them at 30-30 on June 11. But a 1-5 road trip against the Yankees and Red Sox sent the team into a tailspin from which it would not recover.
The following season, the Pirates lost their first six games of the season. They were 15 games under .500 when they played their first American League team, so the season was already lost. But interleague play still proved to be plenty embarrassing. During an epic 13-game losing streak, the Pirates were swept by both the Twins and the Royals. Kansas City was 19-49 entering the series, and the two worst teams in Major League Baseball proceeded to play possibly the ugliest series I have ever seen. It was one of the lowest points for the Pirates during this 15-year stretch of futility. The team was 27 games under .500 when the interleague schedule concluded.
Last season, the Pirates were eight games under when they met their first AL opponent. Just days after the Daniel Moskos/Matt Wieters draft debacle, the Bucs played poorly as they were swept by the Yankees in New York. Despair was in the air and protests were being planned, as the team tried to salvage some wins during interleague play. They won five of seven before dropping their final five games against the American League.
This year, the Pirates begin the interleague portion of the schedule with a record of 33-34. Hope still remains for the rest of the season. Yes, the team’s performance during this stretch is not that significant in the big picture. Yes, the single most important objective for 2008 is infusing the organization with talent. That includes trading veterans for prospects, even if it hurts the chances of success in 2008. But that does not mean we shouldn’t enjoy the rare opportunity to witness competitive baseball in Pittsburgh. Interleague play is one of the major hurdles we have faced in recent years. It would be great to still have this positive feeling on June 30.

Posted in 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates, 2006 Pittsburgh Pirates, 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates, 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates, Daniel Moskos. Comments Off on Interleague schedule will be an interesting test for Pirates

What went wrong with Zach Duke? Part I – Introduction

It is no secret that the stock of Zach Duke has plummeted in the past two years. In a 2004 season split between High-A and Double-A, the 21-year-old went 15-6 with a 1.46 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP. Duke also struck out 142 and walked 30 in 148.1 innings. He began 2005 at Triple-A Indianapolis, and was obviously an important piece of the Pirates’ future. He did nothing to slow his progress in Indy, going 12-3 with a 2.92 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. On July 2, 2005, he made his Major League debut in Milwaukee. He won his first six decisions, and finished the season 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. Duke regressed in 2006, posting an ERA of 4.47 and a WHIP of 1.50. In 2007, the wheels totally fell off. He went 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA, and allowed opposing batters to post a ridiculous .359/.394/.547 line. He also missed a large chunk of time due to an arm injury.
As the 2008 season approaches, Duke has gone from a rookie phenom to a huge question mark. Management recently stated that he will start the season in the Pirates’ rotation, but his performance this season may determine whether he has a legitimate future in Major League Baseball.
So what went wrong with Zach Duke? I can think of a few possibilities, and I plan to find the answer. It is possible that his approach is flawed. Maybe he is not throwing inside often enough, or not mixing his pitches effectively. Another alternative is that his mechanics are unsound. I am not a pitching expert, so this will be difficult to determine. Other possibilities that will be complicated to identify include Duke tipping his pitches and injury issues. Finally, Duke just might not have the stuff to compete at the highest level. It is reasonable that he could have dominated the minors with good control and an intelligent approach, and started well with the Pirates before scouting reports flooded opposing clubhouses. Now that there is a book on him, he may just not have the talent to produce.
My goal is to find some measurable difference between Zach Duke in 2005 and Zach Duke in 2007. I plan to look at a few games from each of the past three seasons and analyze Duke’s performance. I will definitely look at his final two starts in 2007, as those games have PITCHf/x data available. I will also watch other games from earlier in the season, and do the same for past seasons. I hope to finish this study before the regular season begins on March 31. More importantly, I hope to find some evidence that Duke could possibly return to his 2005 form.

Last Year’s Trade Deadline Could’ve Been a Lot Worse

I don’t often write about being right … but for some reason, I feel vindicated. I’m sure Dave Littlefield does, too.
A long time ago, during the off-season, I believe, I put up a post about how the Pirates’ 2006 trade deadline deals weren’t that awful. No, we didn’t maximize our returns—but the junk we traded away wasn’t worth much to begin with.
I was laughed at.
Consider this a “where are they now” for all of the involved parties:

Acquired RHP Brian Rogers from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for 1B Sean Casey; Acquired OF Xavier Nady from the New York Mets in exchange for RHP Roberto Hernandez and LHP Oliver Perez; Acquired P Jesse Chavez from the Texas Rangers in exchange for RHP Kip Wells; Acquired RHP Shawn Chacon from the New York Yankees in exchange for OF Craig Wilson.

We got:

  • Brian Rogers – Currently boasts a 2.61 ERA in 31 innings at Indianapolis. A solid, if not special, right-handed reliever who should be able to make the club next year. In two innings with Pittsburgh this season, he allowed three earned runs.
  • Xavier Nady – Our starting right fielder, and a good one, too. Not like the “Armando Rios” kind of outfielder that we used to get in trades. X is hitting .282/.343/.490 with 11 HR and 42 RBI. Jason Bay has 11 HR and 46 RBI in 60 more at-bats.
  • Jesse Chavez – Has a 4.02 ERA in 40 innings for Indianapolis. Was named to the 2006 Arizona Fall League All-Prospect Team. Won’t turn 24 until August.
  • Shawn Chacon – A jack of all trades who, after closing last night’s game, has pitched in every conceivable role with the Pirates this year. We all know what Chacon brings to the table—at times, not much—but the results he’s provided this year have been more than acceptable.

We sent:

  • Sean Casey – The Tigers’ starting first baseman is hitting .287/.346/.375. Don’t compare that line to LaRoche’s—compare it to the average first baseman’s. Sean provides no pop at a key offensive position. He signed a $4 million deal in free agency.
  • Oliver Perez – He’s doing pretty well.
  • Roberto Hernandez – Bobby was signed to fill a late-inning role in the Cleveland bullpen. He has a 6.23 ERA in 26 innings and has walked nearly as many batters (16) as he’s struck out (18).
  • Kip Wells – Kipper recently got pushed to the bullpen, as his starts were becoming too painful to watch. He was 2-11 with a 6.93 ERA in 14 starts for St. Louis this year.
  • Craig Wilson – Was widely available in free agency, eventually catching on with the Braves not long after the Pirates acquired LaRoche. He tanked in Atlanta, hitting .172 in 58 at-bats as part of a first base platoon. He was given his unconditional release in mid-May, and is now playing for the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox.

Yes, if DL could go back in time he wouldn’t have included Perez as a throw-in for the Nady-Hernandez trade. No, I didn’t think that was a good idea. He sold Ollie at his lowest possible value, and it’s coming back to bite him in the behind.
But other than that—what else would you take back? Littlefield lost one trade, tied another and won two. Far from the tragedy of a deadline that it was originally made out to be, I think.

First Pitch Swinging Data and Cold Weather Thoughts

Finally got all the first pitch swing data published. If you click on the “stats” link next to any of the photos of the writers, you’ll be taken to another page with data for each player on the club on a year-by-year basis going back to 2002. I’m definitely a numbers guy. So, I dig this kind of stuff. It was stated in many places that Jason Kendall rarely offered at the first pitch. I didn’t realize just how true that was. In 2004 Kendall swung at the first pitch in just 3% of his at bats. The league average that year (actually the league average hasn’t changed since 2002) was 28%.
In 2006 the Pirates OBP when they put the ball in play on the first pitch was .371 versus an overall OBP of .327. That’s a dramatic improvement for the club compared to 2005. Both Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson had their 1 pitch AB OBP improve tremendously between 2005 and 2006. Both were at .300 on the nose in 2005. In 2006 the 1 pitch AB OBP for both players was .378. Of the regulars in 2006, Jose Castillo had by far the worst 1 pitch AB OBP. His was just .269 versus an overall OBP of .290. Randall Simon, of course, hacked at everything.
With the cold weather cancelling some games and making it nearly unbearable to attend other games, a lot of people have proposed having the first week or two of the season played only in domed stadiums or in warmer venues. I’m all for that and I have two other things to add:
1. Return Opening Day to Cincinnati. Back in the day, the only game on OD was in Cincinnati as a tribute to the city having the first professional baseball team back in the 1870s. Baseball celebrates tradition more than any other sport, but is always willing to sell out that tradition if they can make more money. (Hey, Pete Rose, you can attend the All-Century team celebration because Master Card is forking over a lot of dough.) The bastardization of Opening Day is one of many examples. The Reds and their opponents should play on Monday. Everybody else starts Tuesday. Doesn’t solve the weather issue, but it is how it should be.
2. Each team should play seven double headers each year. That way the season could either start the same week as it always did and then clubs would have an extra seven days off during the season. Or, more preferentially, to help avoid weather related issues, the start of the season could be pushed back one week. How this would work is that teams would flip-flop between having three home double headers and four away double headers one year and then the next year host four double headers and play in three away from home. Since a lot of the trouble this year occurred in the second week of the season, adding double headers to the schedule wouldn’t be fool proof (or weather proof). This, of course, will never happen because owners won’t agree to lose revenue from three or four home games a year.

Oliver Perez – The Next Jason Schmidt?

If one were to ask a Pirates fan to make a list of the worst trades in team history, there is little doubt that the 2001 disposal of Jason Schmidt to the San Francisco Giants would appear high on the list. On July 30th, 2001, The Pirates traded Schmidt and outfielder John Vander Wal (a productive player in his own right) to the San Francisco Giants for two of the all-time greats, pitcher Ryan Vogelsong and outfielder Armando Rios.
Upon leaving Pittsburgh, Schmidt blossomed into one of the best power pitchers in all of baseball.
Suffice it to say, the move did not work out for the Pirates. After accumulating an ERA more befitting of an airline jet (5.86) than a pitcher in the major leagues, Vogelsong has taken his batting practice act to Japan. Rios last played professionally in 2005…for the Long Island Ducks of the Independent League. Rios was also named in the BALCO case, and is an admitted user of performance enhancing drugs. Which makes you wonder, how bad would Rios have been if he didn’t cheat?
On July 31st, 2006, the Pirates traded another talented but inconsistent power pitcher, this time to the New York Mets. At the time of the trade, it was clear that Oliver Perez was in need of repair. His fastball wasn’t so fast, and his control was MIA.
Which is why it was so disturbing to watch Perez mow down the Atlanta Braves in his first start of the 2007 season. Perez was bringing serious heat, and his slider was nearly unhittable. Just ask All-Star Andruw Jones, who struck out and had his bat shattered by the diabolical pitch during the game. Perez was cool and confident, his trademark hop over the foul line having returned. It was 2004 all over again.
Schmidt just took a little longer than most pitchers to harness his considerable talent. Still just 25, one can’t help but wonder if Perez is also about to blossom while wearing a different uniform.

Since You’ve Been Gone

A quick scan of the baseball news over the last couple of days brought me face-to-face with a couple of stories about ex-Buccos. One memorable. One not so much.
According to this story, Craig Wilson hasn’t toned down the personality that angered Pirates front office personnel.
And, surprisingly, Victor Santos has enjoyed a nice Spring with the Reds.
So, how have some exiled 2006 Bucs fared this Spring?
Jeromy Burnitz has retired. According to a recent article, he is staying in shape by taking the occassional jog around the block. But he absolutely refuses to walk.
Sean Casey has had a decent, but uneventful Spring for Detroit. In 52 at bats, he’s hit .288 with no homers and no walks.
Mike Gonzalez is excited to be pitching for a perennial contender in Atlanta. He has not pitched well this Spring. In 10 innings, he’s allowed 7 earned runs.
Jose Hernandez has… Oh wait, he’s back with the Bucs.
Roberto Hernandez has posted a 3.00 ERA this Spring for the Tribe. But, he’s walked six and only struck out three in nine innings.
Oliver Perez has pitched a club leading 25-2/3 innings for the Mets. He is 2-3 with a 3.51 ERA. Good news for the Mets is that he has 20 whiffs against 7 walks.
Joe Randa has also retired. I would imagine he could find a coaching job if he wanted one.
Britt Reames – well, I can’t find any news on him. I don’t see him in any club’s Spring Training stats.
Santos has pitched in 8 games for the Reds. He has given up no runs in 12-2/3 innings pitched. He’s walked three and whiffed 10.
Ryan Vogelsong is pitching in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers.
Kip Wells has pitched the way Pirate fans always wanted him to. In 17 innings he has given up just two runs for the Redbirds. He has struck out 15 and walked 7. He has pitched so well that even Hall of Famer Jim Palmer praised him. Not sure if Palmer told Wells to call 1-800-LOAN-YES or if he asked him to be be his co-star in the next Jockey commercial. Word on the street is Jockey is wicked jealous of the MJ/Kevin Bacon on screen chemistry in the Hanes commercial.
Wilson has continued his free swinging ways. He has struck out 18 times in 56 Spring Training at bats. His batting average so far is just .214. But six of his 13 hits have been for extra bases.

Great Bucs’ news for a change; Marketing director resigns….

What’s up everyone. Great to be on board with Cory and Randy.
Bucs’ fans received the best news since the LaRoche trade recently.
Tim Schuldt, the Bucs’ chief marketing and sales director, resigned to take a similar position with Motorsports Authentics in Charlotte, N.C.
Schuldt’s department was responsible for such marketing slogan doozy’s such as last year’s “We Will” and 2005’s “Come Hungry”.
Now of course I’m not saying Tim was responsible for creating those slogans, but as the director he sure as hell approved of them.
Good luck to Tim in his future endeavors, maybe we’ll see a “We Will, Ya’ll” slogan in NASCAR-land soon.