Pirates again lacked patience in 2008

In May, I took a look at the Pirates’ plate discipline in 2007 and 2008. In that small sample size, the team had slightly improved from the previous year. Now that the season is over, I figured it would be a good time to revisit this topic.
Here is an excerpt from my original post to get us started:

FanGraphs has some wonderful statistics that quantify a hitter’s plate discipline. Using O-Swing% (“the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone”), we can determine whether certain players are fishing outside the strike zone on a regular basis. In 2005-2007, the average O-Swing% was around 23%. Let’s see how the Pirates are doing this year compared with 2007. (Note: pitchers are not included.)
To start, let’s take a look at the 2007 Pirates. Jose Castillo (35.11%), Matt Kata (35.11%), Freddy Sanchez (33.43%), and Xavier Nady (30.19%) were all major free-swingers. Castillo and Kata were sent packing after the season, but Sanchez and Nady returned to the starting lineup for 2008. Jack Wilson (26.24%) was slightly above average, while Ryan Doumit (24.96%), Cesar Izturis (24.50%), Adam LaRoche (23.36%), Chris Duffy (23.05%), Jason Bay (22.12%) and Ronny Paulino (21.54%) were all about average. Nate McLouth (18.95%), Josh Phelps (18.95%), Jose Bautista (17.85%) and Rajai Davis (16.82%) were the most disciplined Pirates. Overall, the 2007 Pirates swung at 24.58% (EDIT: My numbers were slightly off at that time. The correct O-Swing% in 2007 was 24.61%.) of pitches outside the strike zone, just slightly higher than average.

McLouth, Sanchez, LaRoche, Doumit, Bay, Nady, Bautista and Wilson received the most at-bats for the Pirates in 2008. Sanchez and Nady continued their wild swinging, staying very close to their 2007 numbers. Sanchez chased 33.33% pitches, while Nady swung at 30.47% balls outside the strike zone before being traded. Doumit (30.60%) also became a very impatient hitter in 2008. Wilson (26.94%) was very consistent with 2007, while LaRoche (22.55%) and Bay (20.65%) both improved slightly. McLouth’s patience regressed this year with increased playing time (21.87%), and Bautista also fell off from last season (21.19%). However, both remained slightly above average. New additions to the team’s bench received a moderate amount of playing time. Doug Mientkiewicz (17.15%) was the most patient player on the team, while Chris Gomez (23.35%) and Jason Michaels (23.71%) were right around league average. Luis Rivas (25.42%) was a bit aggressive off the bench.
Several younger players began receiving playing time after the trades of Bay and Nady. Andy LaRoche (25.30%), Brandon Moss (26.93%) and Steve Pearce (24.77%) displayed a bit below average patience. Nyjer Morgan, the oldest of the group, chased 27.65% of pitches outside the zone. One of the main reasons I remain optimistic about the futures of LaRoche and Moss is their history of patience in the minor leagues. These numbers will have to improve soon as they adjust to Major League pitching. The fact that Pearce was right in the same neighborhood in O-Swing% as these two is somewhat encouraging, as he seemed to swing at everything at times this year. In reality, he was much better in 2008 than he was in 2007 (29.27%), although both were very small sample sizes. I’m not convinced that Pearce can be a quality Major League hitter, but I think he has shown enough to get the same opportunities as Moss and LaRoche in 2009.
Overall, the Pirates chased 25.11% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2008. That number increased slightly from the team’s 24.61% in 2007. Accordingly, the Pirates were 27th in baseball in on-base percentage, and 26th in walks. It seems that the Pirates’ strong early-season focus on patience was mostly forgotten as the season progressed. Another likely reason was the increased playing time for younger hitters after the deadline deals, although the loss of the free-swinging Nady probably offset that line of reasoning a bit. Hopefully, as players like Andy LaRoche, Moss and Pearce mature at the plate, these numbers will become more respectable.
One other note. The Pirates Z-Swing% (“The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone”) dropped from 66.62% in 2007 to 63.16% in 2008. The 2005-2007 average was about 67%. I don’t think we can take as much from this statistic as we can from O-Swing%, as swinging at strikes is much more situational than swinging at balls. A batter should virtually never chase a pitch out of the strike zone, while there are many instances when swinging at a strike is the wrong decision. However, when examined along with the team’s O-Swing%, this may further indicate a lack of strike zone management.

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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

Has the Pirates’ plate discipline improved?

Early in the season, many people praised Pirate hitters for utilizing a more patient approach at the plate. The most cited evidence of this improvement was the number of times a player took the first pitch he saw. John Russell and his staff were commended for coaxing this team of free swingers into taking some pitches. However, there is a danger in simply taking the first pitch every at-bat. Once opposing pitchers recognize this trend, hitters begin finding themselves behind in the count right off the bat. While being patient and forcing the pitcher to throw additional pitches is an important aspect of hitting, plate discipline is much more valuable. In other words, swinging at pitches in the strike zone and taking pitches that are not. Simple, right?
FanGraphs has some wonderful statistics that quantify a hitter’s plate discipline. Using O-Swing% (“the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone”), we can determine whether certain players are fishing outside the strike zone on a regular basis. In 2005-2007, the average O-Swing% was around 23%. Let’s see how the Pirates are doing this year compared with 2007. (Note: pitchers are not included.)
To start, let’s take a look at the 2007 Pirates. Jose Castillo (35.11%), Matt Kata (35.11%), Freddy Sanchez (33.43%), and Xavier Nady (30.19%) were all major free-swingers. Castillo and Kata were sent packing after the season, but Sanchez and Nady returned to the starting lineup for 2008. Jack Wilson (26.24%) was slightly above average, while Ryan Doumit (24.96%), Cesar Izturis (24.50%), Adam LaRoche (23.36%), Chris Duffy (23.05%), Jason Bay (22.12%) and Ronny Paulino (21.54%) were all about average. Nate McLouth (18.95%), Josh Phelps (18.95%), Jose Bautista (17.85%) and Rajai Davis (16.82%) were the most disciplined Pirates. Overall, the 2007 Pirates swung at 24.58% of pitches outside the strike zone, just slightly higher than average.
The Pirates made two significant changes to their lineup this season. Doumit began receiving most of the playing time behind the plate over Paulino, who was a slightly more disciplined hitter in 2007. And McLouth was named the everyday center fielder, giving the Pirates a much better batting eye in the lineup. Thus far, Doumit (18.44%) and Bay (17.11%) have been much better than last year. McLouth (17.37%) has continued his smart hitting. Nady (27.02%) is still a free-swinger, but has improved. The addition of Doug Mientkiewicz (14.06%) has also helped. But Sanchez (37.70%) has continued swinging at everything and an overmatched Brian Bixler (33.33%) has received a considerable number of plate appearances due to Wilson’s injury. In addition, Bautista (23.79%) has apparently lost his excellent batting eye. As a team, the Pirates have chased 23.76% of pitches outside the zone.
As you can see, the Pirates have improved their plate discipline, but only by a small margin. Because the improvement has been modest, it is no surprise that the team remains in the bottom half of the league in walks and on-base percentage. Without some improvement in these categories, do not expect the Pirates to continue scoring runs at the impressive rate that they have thus far.
P.S. Is anyone wondering why Freddy Sanchez has struggled so badly this year? Beginning in 2006, his yearly Zone% has been 55.26%, 53.96% and 49.92%. In those same years, his O-Swing% has been 30.45%, 33.43% and 37.70%. In other words, pitchers are throwing him far less strikes, and he is increasingly chasing pitches. That is a recipe for disaster. A disaster we may be witnessing right now.

What went wrong with Zach Duke? Part II – 9/28/2007

Zach Duke made his final start of the 2007 season on September 28 against the Cardinals at PNC Park. It would prove to be one of his most effective starts of the year, as he allowed only one run in seven innings. He struck out four, did not walk a batter and threw 59 of his 91 pitches for strikes. It was a fine finish to an otherwise miserable season for Duke.
First, let us consider how Duke looked during this game. He did a solid job of consistently hitting his spots, a fact that was evident by his efficient pitch count and zero walks. He struggled a bit in the first inning, allowing his only run. However, he settled down and set down the Cardinals methodically from that point. His pitch counts per inning were 25, 14, 9, 7, 14, 11, 11. From watching this start, Duke seemed to have quite a bit of success pitching away from right-handed hitters. The Cardinals never appeared comfortable against that pitch, repeatedly pulling harmless groundballs to the left side of the infield or popping it up. This may have been a result of Duke pitching more effectively inside. In search of an answer, let us look to the PITCHf/x data.
The Cardinals stacked the lineup with right-handed batters against Duke, with Rick Ankiel being the only lefty to face him. Accordingly, 86 of his 91 pitches came against righties. Of those 86 pitches, 47 were on the inside half of the plate and 39 were outside. With this being the first game I have studied, I have nothing to compare these numbers with. However, I did not expect to see Duke throwing that many pitches in on right-handers. Based simply on my perception from watching him pitch, he seems to stay away a majority of the time. Once opposing hitters recognized this, they became extremely aggressive against Duke. I have wondered if the key to his success is keeping batters off balance by pounding them inside. If this game is any indication, that very well might be true. I will definitely keep an eye on this while analyzing other games.
There are countless other pieces of PITCHf/x data to examine from this game, such as his average fastball velocity of 88.07 mph. However, I will hold off on that, as I want to explore data from other games so that I have something to compare. In future games, I will definitely watch for his ability to stay inside on right-handed batters, as well as his velocity and pitch movement.

Posted in 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates, Zach Duke. Comments Off on What went wrong with Zach Duke? Part II – 9/28/2007

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.

Neal Huntington: “We need above-average players”

An interview with Pirates’ general manager Neal Huntington was published at Baseball Prospectus on Sunday. It is an interesting read that gives us a bit more insight into the team’s plans, both in the near and distant future. For some analysis, check out any of these posts. However, it was one simple quote at the end of the interview that interested me:

I feel we need above-average players across the board, and that’s what we’re working to put together in Pittsburgh.

It seems simple, right? If you want to win, acquire players who are superior to other players in the league. However, Dave Littlefield and company never seemed to understand this concept. They appeared determined to find an average player for each position, then sit back and relax. (Or maybe there were other factors involved?)
Here is a look at the Pirates’ 2007 stats, compared with the National League’s average stats for each position:
National League 2007 Average
C – .257/.318/.394
1B – .284/.365/.481
2B – .272/.341/.418
3B – .280/.348/.456
SS – .279/.337/.420
LF – .278/.358/.478
CF – .273/.336/.426
RF – .275/.344/.442
2007 Pirates
Ronny Paulino – .263/.314/.389
Adam LaRoche – .272/.345/.458
Freddy Sanchez – .304/.343/.442
Jose Bautista – .254/.339/.414
Jack Wilson – .296/.350/.440
Jason Bay – .247/.327/.418
Nate McLouth – .258/.351/.459
Xavier Nady – .278/.330/.476
As you can see, this was an unimpressive group last season. Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth were slightly above average for their position; the rest of the lineup was about average or far below. Of course, this is no astonishing revelation. If you are reading a Pirate blog in December, I assume you know that the Pirate offense has been mediocre at best. However, the problem has been that Littlefield was content with that. His plan, if you believe he had one, was to let this group play until they reached free agency. When that time came, he would figure something out. But two years down the road was much too far into the future to consider.
The Pirates are not going to pick up a superstar in free agency. Maybe they can draft and develop one (or maybe even more than one?). I hope they do. But they have a better chance of securing above average players at each position. Huntington has done a good job thus far of saying the right things. I remain cautiously optimistic that his actions will speak even louder.

Is Jason Bay suffering from declining bat speed?

In an article published on November 20, Rich Lederer of BaseballAnalysts.com mentioned that Jason Bay’s “power has been gradually drifting from left toward right field over the past couple of years.” He provided Bay’s hit chart at PNC Park in 2007 to support this idea. This interested me, so I decided to dig deeper into Bay’s hit charts from the past three years. If his poor 2007 season was the beginning of a quick career decline as opposed to a random down year, the cause would likely be diminishing bat speed. That would decrease Bay’s power, and consequently his value.
I went through each of Bay’s hit charts from 2005-2007, with the goal of examining the direction of his power. I tallied the number of balls hit to the warning track (in a rudimentary attempt to smooth out the effects of playing in different ballparks) and recorded the direction of the hit. I used seven different directions: left field line (LL), left field (L), left-center field (LC), center field (C), right-center field (RC), right field (R) and right field line (RL). The following is what I found:

Year LL L LC C RC R RL
2005 12 17 11 14 6 13 0
2006 7 16 14 17 7 5 5
2007 3 9 8 4 8 7 0

As you can see, the number of Bay blasts from right-center to the right field foul pole has dropped only slightly over the past three years. He had 19 such hits in 2005, 17 in 2006 and 15 in 2007. The area where his power decreased dramatically was the left side of the outfield. After sending 40 hits in that direction in 2005 and 37 in 2006, he only produced 20 in 2007. In addition, Bay hit only four balls beyond the center field track in 2007 after 17 the year before. I also glanced at the rest of his balls in play at PNC Park over the past two years, and it appears that there is a general left-to-right shift in all other areas as well.
It is possible that there are other factors involved here. For instance, Bay may be making a conscious effort to hit the ball the other way. This is something I have hoped to see from him since he joined the Pirates, as he has plenty of power to conquer the Clemente Wall. However, it is more likely that this is something out of his control.
This is more discouraging information regarding his future performance, but Pirate fans can still cling to the hope provided by how quickly Bay fell apart. He was fine on June 3, but seemed to forget how to hit the next day and never recovered. I wish I had access to hit chart splits, as it would be interesting to see how often Bay pulled the ball during his second half slump compared with the early part of the season. While it appears from these numbers that his bat speed has declined, it is highly unusual for that to literally occur overnight. Bay’s ability to generate power to left field in 2008 will likely dictate his chances to recover from his disastrous 2007 season.