Huntington’s Trades and My Golf Game

Depending on who you talk to, my fanaticism regarding the Pirates is stupid, sadistic or unwarranted. Or perhaps all of the above and then some. It has been too long since the team has made a string of moves that put the club in better shape. It reminds me of my golf game. Having played baseball and basketball up through high school and generally shunning golf because it was expensive, time consuming and didn’t involve playing defense, my golf game as it stands now is terrible. I play once (maybe twice) a year. However, on any given hole I’m liable to make one decent shot – off the tee, from the fairway (if I’ve found it), out of a bunker or the rough or maybe sink a decently long put. However, I am unable to put together several decent shots in a row. If I did, I maybe could be a bogey golfer. Instead I normally break 120. That’s like the Pirates – they might make a good move (getting Jason Bay for Brian Giles, getting Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon), but they have failed to make several good moves in a row. So, instead of being respectable, the Pirates are quite poor. Year after year.

Instead of addressing the situation head on – playing more golf, taking some lessons, studying the game – the Pirates have relied on patch work moves (going to the driving range and hitting 50 balls a few days before my annual round) like signing aging veterans and hoping that maybe the club will reach respectable win total (bogey golf). It hasn’t worked.

Given that I’m headed to Pittsburgh on Saturday for my annual weekend of Bucco games at PNC with my brother, I’m saddened that I won’t see many players that I’ve seen in the past. However, Neal Huntington recognizes that the strive for mediocrity is not the way to get the fan base excited. His trades have been difficult, but his philosophy is correct. Rebuild the team from the ground up. Maybe, maybe in two to three years this club will be shooting par and making a run into September. That’s what I’m hoping for.

In the meantime, how do you sell this club to the casual fan over the next couple of years? How do you get people in a down economy to buy tickets to watch a team that won’t compete? Clearly this team will not contend in 2010, barring some unforseen move(s) or player development. The “come see ’em while they are young and hungry” approach has been used before by this club. And if the players don’t hustle (Lastings Milledge on Tuesday night for example) when they hit infield grounders, the fans aren’t going to want to watch a club that loses and doesn’t play hard. Huntington has his work cut out for him in two areas – building a talented club and keeping the operation profitable while the product struggles on the field. Whether the club posts a bogey or a snowman, I’ll be watching (and still avoiding improving my golf game). Call me what you will.

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Nyjer Morgan has been more valuable than Jason Bay

I have written many times that Nyjer Morgan will never be a quality major league starter. He is too old to be a prospect, he possesses no power and his on-base skills have never been sufficient to supplement his solid batting averages. I complained repeatedly when he was given playing time over guys like Steve Pearce and Nate McLouth over the past two years. I was again unhappy as the 2009 season approached and it became apparent that Morgan would start in left field and Pearce would head back to Triple-A.

However, somewhere along the line, I warmed to the idea of Morgan playing the role of placeholder until Andrew McCutchen is ready for Pittsburgh. I think it was when I penned these pieces on the Pirates’ defense. At that point, it occurred to me that Morgan was going to be a giant defensive upgrade over Jason Bay. I predicted a two-win improvement, and it looks like I grossly underestimated the advantage. A quarter of the way through the year, Morgan is already worth almost two defensive wins more than Bay. Over a full season, that difference could reach five wins. That is an incredible statistic.

Obviously, Nyjer is no Jason Bay at the plate. Nyjer has been a nice surprise thus far, with a line of .303/.380/.366. Bay, on the other hand, has destroyed the American League to a tune of .302/.437/.647. But before we compare the two, let’s take a look at the subtle improvements Nyjer has made to his game. No longer is his value tied up only in an empty batting average. He has walked in 10.1% of his plate appearances, a vast increase over recent years. He has offered at only 23.8% of pitches outside the strike zone, better than league average and another improvement over his past two seasons with the Pirates. That improved patience has helped him raise his on-base percentage and improve his value at the plate.

Back to the Nyjer vs. Bay comparison. Obviously, Bay is much more valuable due to his monster start at the plate, right? Not when you consider defense. Here is the value of each player in 2009:

  Morgan Bay
Batting 0.8 17.8
Fielding 9.9 -9.0
Playing Time 5.5 5.8
Positional
Adjustment
-1.2 -1.9
Value (in
runs)
15.1 12.7
WAR 1.5 1.2

That’s right. Nyjer Morgan has been more valuable in 2009 than Jason Bay. Shocking.

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com, the greatest website ever invented. The stats are current through May 20.

Posted in Jason Bay, Nyjer Morgan. Comments Off on Nyjer Morgan has been more valuable than Jason Bay

The future of the defense – Part 1, Outfield

As Pirate fans, our focus is currently on the future. The team is likely two seasons away from any clear improvement, and a potential championship club is years away. With that in mind, I wanted to take a futuristic look at an important aspect of the team that often receives little attention: the defense. Let’s start with the outfield.

The Pirates’ defense was near the bottom of the league in 2008, as it has been for the last several years. When the team dealt Jason Bay and Xavier Nady at the trade deadline, they also unloaded two pretty poor fielders. Nate McLouth won a Gold Glove, but virtually every advanced defensive statistic had him well below average among center fielders. I think McLouth was shortchanged a bit by those metrics, but Gold Glove caliber defense is a stretch. He’s probably about average, maybe slightly below. Long story short, the Pirates boasted a pretty lousy defensive outfield in the first half of 2008.

The 2009 outfield will likely consist of Nyjer Morgan in left, McLouth in center, and Brandon Moss in right. Moss is similar in ability to Nady. With younger legs and sturdier hamstrings, he is probably a tad better. With limited space to cover at PNC Park, we’ll say he is about an average fielder. Morgan, despite a weak arm and the occasional bizarre route, is a much better fielder than Bay. His tremendous speed allows him to cover a great deal of ground, which is necessary in the vast left field of PNC Park. That speed will also compensate for his lack of arm strength a bit, as he can get to balls much more quickly. Over the course of a season, replacing Bay with Nyjer is probably a two-win defensive improvement in itself.

The most exciting part is that the outfield should be greatly improved over the next two years. Andrew McCutchen will join the team sometime this season, and Jose Tabata will likely be arriving in 2010. McCutchen will push McLouth to left, and Tabata will switch from center to right when he arrives. That will give the Pirates three outfielders that originally came up as center fielders. That is quite a bit of range to work with.

Further down the road, there is some additional athleticism we can envision wandering around the outfield grass. Robbie Grossman and Wesley Freeman, two highly-touted high school outfielders from the most recent draft, are center fielders with good range. They may find a place in the Pirates’ outfield one day.

Overall, there is an encouraging outlook for the future outfield defense. Next up, the infield.

If the Pirates kept Bay and built through free agency

In Dejan’s Q&A today, someone questioned why the Pirates do not take advantage of the current market, in which prospects are arguably overvalued while free agents are undervalued. In the subsequent discussion, Dejan endorsed the idea that the Pirates should have held onto Jason Bay and tried to build a competitive team in 2009. I am not going to go into why that would have been a bad idea, as Charlie has already done an excellent job of doing so. Be sure to read his breakdown.

I want to look at what the Pirates would have needed to do in free agency to give the team a shot at the postseason in 2009. Let’s assume that the Pirates made the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade, but decided to hold on to Bay. Below is the team’s hypothetical starting lineup to finish 2008, along with each player’s age and total value in runs. I am using Justin Inaz’s player values, which include defensive value.

Pos. Player Age Value
C Ryan Doumit 27 28.1
1B Adam LaRoche 28 16.6
2B Freddy Sanchez 30 -1.7
3B Jose Bautista 27 0.8
SS Jack Wilson 30 9.6
LF Jason Bay 29 31.6
CF Nate McLouth 26 31.7
RF Nyjer Morgan 27 7.7
Total     124.4

If we add it all together, we have a total of 124.4 runs. Now let’s assume the Pirates had an unlimited budget and could sign any free agent they wanted. Here’s a hypothetical 2009 lineup, with each player’s 2008 value.

Pos. Player Age Value
C Ryan Doumit 28 28.1
1B Mark Teixeira 29 74.2
2B Orlando Hudson 31 12.9
3B Joe Crede 31 18.4
SS Rafael Furcal 31 24.2
LF Jason Bay 30 31.6
CF Nate McLouth 27 31.7
RF Manny Ramirez 37 56.1
Total 277.2

This lineup totals 277.2 runs, an improvement of 152.8 runs over our first lineup. Now let’s do the same thing for the starting rotation. First, a 2008 rotation. Second, a hypothetical 2009 rotation.

Player Age Value
Paul Maholm 26 27.7
Zach Duke 25 19.8
Ian Snell 26 14.3
XXXXXXXXXX 15.0
Total 76.8

Player Age Value
C.C. Sabathia 28 73.8
A.J. Burnett 32 57.0
Derek Lowe 26 52.2
Paul Maholm 27 27.7
Zach Duke 26 19.8
Total 230.5

I took a few liberties with the pitchers. Paul Maholm, Zach Duke and Ian Snell were the only pitchers to hang in the rotation for most of the season. Since I am assuming the superior 2009 rotation will have five healthy pitchers for the entire season, I think it is fair to assume that some combination of full seasons from Jeff Karstens, Phil Dumatrait, Ross Ohlendorf, Tom Gorzelanny, et al could combine for 15 runs while filling those final two spots. This obviously is not the most precise method, but I think it works for this purpose. The 2008 rotation is worth 76.8 runs, while the theoretical 2009 rotation is worth 230.5 runs. That is an improvement of 153.7 runs.

The Pirates finished the 2008 season with 61.8 third-order wins. If we nullified the Bay trade, we can adjust that to about 63 wins. If we were to assume that each player’s value would remain the same from 2008 to 2009, we can add 306.5 runs due to our improvements to the lineup and rotation. With 10 runs roughly equaling one win, that’s about 30 additional wins. That leaves us with 93 wins. The division winning Cubs had 94.5 third-order wins in 2008.

So there you have it. The Pirates could have competed for the postseason in 2009 if they held onto Bay. They simply would have needed to sign Mark Teixeira, Orlando Hudson, Joe Crede, Rafael Furcal, Manny Ramirez, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe. And avoid any major injuries for the entire season. That’s all.

Pirates defense according to PMR

David Pinto has been releasing his 2008 Probabilistic Model of Range (PMR) numbers, so I figured we should check out how the Pirates performed. PMR is a fielding metric that basically uses an assortment of play by play data from Baseball Info Solutions (such as direction and velocity) to determine an expected number of outs for each team or player. Using the expected number of outs and the total number of balls in play, David can calculate the expected Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER). Finally, he compares the actual DER and the expected DER to come up with the PMR ratio. A ratio above 100 signifies a positive defense, while a ratio below 100 indicates that the defense is hurting the team.  (Click here for more details.)

Dan Turkenkopf converted these ratios to defensive runs above or below average per 4000 balls in play, or approximately a full season.

Here is how the Pirates fared in 2008, position by position.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who Ya Rootin’ For? The Ex-Pirates Factor

For what seems like the millionth straight season, I am relegated to rooting for either:
1. a good story in the post-season or
2. a former Pirate to do well in the post-season
With the Cubs gone and the Brewers gone, the good stories shake out like this:
1. Tampa Bay in the post-season and worst to first
2. Joe Torre’s escape from New York
3. The Phillies going for just their second World Series title ever
4. The Red Sox becoming the new version of the Evil Empire
So, let’s look at all the ex-Pirates remaining in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Jason Johnson and Joe Beimel are in the bullpen. Johnson’s ML tenure with Pittsburgh was a meager three games back in 1997 before he was taken in the expansion draft. Beimel has come back from the edge of being out of baseball to becoming a rubber armed stud in the Dodgers bullpen. Over the last two seasons, he has pitched in 154 games, tossed 116-1/3 IP and allowed just one home run. His three seasons in Pittsburgh were quite a bit less successful. He never posted a better than league average ERA for the Buccos, but has done so in each of the past three years in La-La Land.
Philadelphia Phillies
The Phils have Matt Stairs and a couple of almosts. The Pirates almost traded Kris Benson for Ryan Howard all those years ago. And the Buccos almost signed Chad Durbin this past off-season. Stairs had a solid single season in Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay Rays
Al Reyes and his 15 games pitched in 2001 are it.
Boston Red Sox
Tons of ex-Pirates here. From the brief – Sean Casey and Dave Ross – to the long ago in Tim Wakefield to the painfully, recently removed in Jason Bay.
Clearly when looking at the crop of ex-Bucs on post-season rosters, the Red Sox have a huge upper hand.
So, who am I pulling for?
1. Tampa Bay – hard not to pull for a team that blindsided me and most everyone else
2. Boston – if the Sox beat the Rays in the ALCS, I’m hoping Bay puts up MVP numbers in the WS
3. Philadelphia – I was born there
4. LA – Torre already has his and so does Manny Ramirez

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.