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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Game #147: McLouth, Maholm Dominate Cards

PNC Park | 7:05 | Maholm vs. Joel Piniero | Box
It was a good night at the ball yard. For a change. Nate McLouth as a single shy of the cycle and knocked in five runs. Paul Maholm went eight plus, giving up just two runs for his ninth win.
In the “can’t believe everything you read” category, Joel Pineiro started even though the Cards official site listed Brad Thompson. He gave up a two run homer to McLouth in the third and was lifted after giving up a bases loaded, three run double to McLouth in the fifth.
The Cardinals offense was stagnant against Maholm. Only one runner reached third base before the ninth inning, when Maholm tired and yielded to Romulo Sanchez with the bases loaded, one run in and no one out. Sanchez induced a run scoring DP from Nick Stavinoha and ended the game with an Adam Kennedy fly out.
Maholm also drove home a pair of runs with a single in the six run fifth that busted the game open. He has three RBI on the year. Brian Bixler has just two. Former Bucco Josh Phelps walked twice, singled and scored for St. Louis. Former Pirate Opening Day starter Ron Villone gave up one run in one IP.
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Posted in 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates, Brian Bixler, Game Threads, Home, Josh Phelps, Nate McLouth, Paul Maholm, Ron Villone, Ryan Doumit, September, St. Louis Cardinals. Comments Off on Game #147: McLouth, Maholm Dominate Cards

Game #135: Suppan, Cameron Bop Bucs

PNC Park | 7:05 | Maholm vs. Jeff Suppan | Box
I’m posting this before it is over. The Brewers just tacked on three in the 9th to make it 11-3.
Jeff Suppan went seven innings and allowed just three hits. One of those hits was a two run dinger from Brandon Moss.
Paul Maholm’s day was ruined by a five run fifth in which Milwaukee batted around. Mike Cameron popped a three run homer for the big blow in that frame.
I’m not really sure what I expected. With Jason Bay and Xavier Nady gone, everyone and their Geico cavemen knew the Pirates offense would struggle. But this has been truly ugly. Both Adam LaRoche and Nate McLouth are hitting less than .250 for the month. The only thign to look forward to is to see what happens when the rosters expand on 9/1.
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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.

Release of Phelps is perplexing

On Tuesday, the Pirates designated Josh Phelps for assignment in order to make room on the 40-man roster. This move came as a surprise to me, as he enjoyed staggering success in a limited role with the team in 2007. After struggling with the Yankees early in the season, Phelps took off after being claimed by the Pirates in June. In 77 at-bats, he hit .351/.463/.649 for an OPS+ of 187. 11 of his 27 hits went for extra bases as he provided much needed pop off the bench. These numbers are even more incredible when compared with the rest of the Pirates’ offense. As a team, the Bucs hit .263/.325/.411 in 2007, well below league average. Phelps was an anomaly at the plate.
Of course, there are a few reasons that the Pirates’ may view Phelps as expendable. The most obvious is the small sample size of his extraordinary performance. As Pirate fans, we know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in a small sampling of success, only to get burnt. We have experienced it many times. However, while it is preposterous to expect Phelps to duplicate his performance from last season, he has a track record of above average offense. Beginning in 2002, he has produced an OPS+ of 100 or better four times. For his career, he has hit .273/.344/.476 for an OPS+ of 112. No regular Pirate player had an OPS+ higher than 112 in 2007.
Another possibility is that the Pirates did not expect to have a spot for Phelps in 2008. He is unimpressive defensively, and Ronny Paulino, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Steve Pearce and Xavier Nady are all capable of manning Phelps’ primary positions. Assuming each of these players is still with the team next season, there would not be a bench spot available for Phelps. However, it is quite possible that Neal Huntington will look to trade at least one out of the group of Nady, LaRoche and Jason Bay this offseason. If any of these players is dealt, the depth provided by Phelps would be very helpful.
Finally, finances may have played a part in this decision. Phelps earned $600,000 in 2007, and is due a fairly significant raise in 2008 as he is eligible for arbitration for the first time. The team may have deemed that too high a price for a decent hitter off the bench with limited versatility and poor defense. This reasoning makes some sense to me, as the Pirates are not in a situation where they should be overpaying for bench players.
All things considered, it seems silly to release a player who provides above average offense. This is especially true when one takes into account how scarce offensive production is on the team. This will probably not be a significant transaction in the long run, but that does not mean that I have to like it today.

Pirates’ 2007 in review – infield defense

This is the second installment in a series reviewing the performance of the Pirates’ defense in 2007. For this purpose, I will be using Fielding Runs Above Replacement (FRAR) and Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) by Baseball Prospectus (BP). Along with the statistical analysis, I will incorporate what I have seen while watching the team play this year. Since fielding statistics are not as precise as offensive measures, I welcome any disagreement you may have with any of my assessments. Feel free to explain an opposing point of view in the comments section. Here is the first segment on the Pirate outfielders. Today we will discuss the infield.
The Pirates infield in 2007 was Jack Wilson and those other guys. Wilson rebounded from a poor 2006 season, returning to his top defensive form of a few years ago. Outside of his play, the infield was mostly average.
Adam LaRoche was quietly solid at first base this season. He was not a regular on nightly highlight shows, due to his below average range. But he fielded everything hit to him, and made many a difficult play look simple. LaRoche was a steadying presence on the right side of the infield, producing an FRAR of 15 and an FRAA of 6.
Jose Bautista showed some promise at third, but inconsistencies kept his defense from elevating above the level of average. It is possible that his versatility has hurt his defensive development, as he has shifted all over the field since joining the Pirates. In 2007, he was finally given the opportunity to settle in at one place. He was fantastic at third early in the season, but came back to earth as the year continued. Overall, he finished with an FRAR of 9 and an FRAA of -2.
In the second half of the season, many described the defense of Freddy Sanchez as Gold Glove caliber. While it is true that he improved over the course of 2007, we cannot forget how poorly he played in the first half. Early on, Sanchez seemed to botch several makeable plays in each game. Most likely, his injured knee was hindering him, severely limiting his range. His defense did improve dramatically as the year wore on, and it is very likely that the second half Freddy is the real one. But we cannot just toss out all of the struggles he endured before summer began. In April and May, Sanchez’s defense was very detrimental to the team. He finished the season with an FRAR of 7 and an FRAA of -15.
Jose Castillo, as we could have expected, performed unpredictably during limited playing time all over the infield. Cesar Izturis was good after joining the team in July to back up Jack Wilson. Josh Phelps was about average while relieving LaRoche at first. Matt Kata, Don Kelly, Ryan Doumit, Brad Eldred and Steve Pearce each spent irrelevant amounts of time in the infield. Overall, this group produced an FRAR of 14 and an FRAA of 2.
Obviously, Jack Wilson was the component that kept the Pirate infield going. After a couple of years as one of the top defensive shortstops in the league, Wilson attempted to add some strength before the 2006 season. The defensive results were not positive, as Wilson’s range dropped dramatically due to his increased bulk. He slimmed back down for the 2007 season, and his excellent defense returned. Ironically, he was benched for several games in June after a particularly poor showing in the field at Yankee Stadium. But that seemed to light a fire under him, and he played very well the rest of the year. Wilson had an FRAR of 37 and an FRAA of 19 this season.
Overall, the Pirates infield had a total FRAR of 82 and an FRAA of 10, much of which came from Wilson’s excellent defensive numbers. There is the opportunity that this could become a very solid infield next season, mostly because of Sanchez. It seems evident now that Freddy’s early season struggles were enhanced by injuries, leaving him as a very poor second baseman. It is quite possible that he can be an above fielder next season, giving the Pirates a strong middle infield. With a steady LaRoche and developing Bautista manning the corners, the Pirates could gain a win or two with their infield defense in 2008.

Posted in 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates, Adam LaRoche, Brad Eldred, Cesar Izturis, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jose Bautista, Jose Castillo, Josh Phelps, Matt Kata, Steve Pearce. Comments Off on Pirates’ 2007 in review – infield defense

Game #154 at Chicago

Petco Park | 2:20 | Maholm vs. Jason Marquis | Box
It is over in Wrigley. Paul Maholm was ineffective, as was Jason Marquis. Aramis Ramirez hit a pair of three run bombs. Xavier Nady drove in three with a pair of RBI ground outs and a solo homer.
Ramirez’ second homer put the Cubs up for good. It came after Freddy Sanchez dropped a double play flip from Matt Kata. Jack Wilson missed the game to be with his wife, who just gave birth, and Cesar Izturis left the game with an injury. I don’t know if Sanchez’ general lack of familiarity with Kata played a role in the dropped toss or not.
Buccos have now lost seven in a row.
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