Is there value in losing?

One of the biggest debates among Pirate fans this off-season has centered on whether the team should be aggressive in the free agent market. My stance has been that it would provide little help, so why bother. The team is at least a few years away from being competitive, so why not wait until we have developed a good group of players before searching for that last piece. In December, I examined what it would take to build a contender through free agency. Let’s just say it was unrealistic.

Here’s an excerpt from a post Charlie wrote last week:

In the past, I’ve been dismissive of the idea of dropping real cash on veteran free agents, and I probably will be again. Just so I’m clear here: generally, I don’t think the Pirates should waste their money or future on expensive free agents, and I don’t think the Pirates should, at this stage, sign any free agent who jeopardizes their future in any way: by blocking an interesting youngster, by preventing them from spending lavishly on the draft or Latin America, or by causing them to have to pay the free agent while he’s declining and the rest of the team is very promising. But I think this market provides the Pirates a special opportunity to pursue legitimately good players without doing any of those things.

This is a smart way to look at free agency, and it is a thought process I agree with. But the question on my mind today is this. Does signing a player simply to improve the 2009 team hurt the future of the franchise? For example, if the Pirates hypothetically signed Manny Ramirez for a couple million and put him in left field instead of Nyjer Morgan, would it be counterproductive? He would not be blocking a young player, he would not destroy the budget and it would not be a long-term commitment. He would probably improve the team’s record by about five wins, getting us to 70 or 75 wins. That would make the season a little more bearable, and may even attract some additional fans to come down to PNC Park. It would also give the Pirates a lower draft pick, which hurts a team that is attempting to restock a lousy farm system. It would not make us a playoff contender. If you are not going to win, is there value in losing big?

About a month ago, Shawn at Squawking Baseball asked if the Pirates were losing on purpose for this very reason. (Pat commented on the post at the time.) He made a great point about the team’s usage of Luis Rivas:

Consider: this past spring, Dan Fox introduced a defensive metric on Baseball Prospectus that rated Luis Rivas as one of the worst defensive middle infielders in the last fifty years. Weeks later, Fox was hired by the Pirates. And yet Rivas played over 400 innings at second or short for the Pirates last year, with predictable results.

I should probably make something clear. I do not root for the Pirates to lose. I cannot do that. There is no better feeling than watching the team win a game, and that is exactly what I hope for every time I sit down to watch a game. In addition, I do not think Pirate management is purposely trying to lose. They made some mistakes when constructing the bench last season, and when Jack Wilson was injured, suddenly Rivas and Brian Bixler were our best options at short.

But wouldn’t it make sense to cut some corners in a year when contending seems improbable? Wouldn’t it make sense to sign Craig Monroe to provide outfield depth when someone like Adam Dunn is still out there? Dunn would be more fun to watch during the season, but management shoud not be worried about that.  They should only be focused on creating a championship team.  I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that if I were in charge of a major league team, I probably would not have the courage to purposely punt a season in order to acquire a valuable draft pick the following year. Then again, one must be bold to rebuild an organization that is in the Pirates’ situation.

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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.

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Four veterans file for free agency

Doug Mientkiewicz and Chris Gomez filed for free agency yesterday, the first day in which players were permitted to do so. Jason Michaels and Luis Rivas are also eligible for free agency, assuming the Pirates decline Michaels’ $2.6 million option.

Mientkiewicz is the only one of this group that I would like to see the team retain, as the other three are well below average offensively. Mientkiewicz, on the other hand, is useful off the bench because of his good on-base skills. But he seemed to grow disenchanted with the clubhouse late in the season, and I doubt he will be interested in returning. We may not see any of these players with the team next season.

EDIT: Michaels and Rivas are also free agents. The Pirates declined Michaels’ option.

Posted in Chris Gomez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels, Luis Rivas. Comments Off on Four veterans file for free agency

2009 Defense

I stumbled upon Chone Smith’s 2009 defensive projections today, so I thought I would take a look at how the Pirates stacked up. Here are the players I tentatively expect to make up the starting lineup, along with each one’s projections. COF stands for “corner outfield,” as there are no separate projections for left and right field.

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JVB, Belisario removed from 40-man

The Pirates continued cleaning up the 40-man roster today, removing some additional spare parts. John Van Benschoten and Ronald Belisario were sent to Triple-A Indianapolis in a move that was not surprising by any means. We have all witnessed JVB’s struggles the past few years, as his return from injuries has gone anything but smoothly. His future as a starter is bleak, and there is little reason to keep him on the roster with the increased pitching depth in the system. Belisario has lost some velocity after injuries, and is not really a prospect at this point.

This leaves four open spots on the 40-man roster, two of which will go to Tom Gorzelanny and Phil Dumatrait when they come off the 60-day DL. Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels, Chris Gomez and Luis Rivas will soon become free agents, creating four additional openings. The Pirates must add several minor leaguers to protect them from the Rule V draft.

Posted in Chris Gomez, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels, John Van Benschoten, Luis Rivas, Phil Dumatrait, Tom Gorzelanny, Transactions. Comments Off on JVB, Belisario removed from 40-man

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.

Game #136: Sabathia Fires One hitter

PNC Park | 1:35 | Karstens vs. C.C. Sabathia | Box
C.C. Sabathia struck out eleven and allowed just one hit and three walks in tossing a complete game shutout. The Brewers completed a pair of double plays behind him and C.C. faced just two over the minimum.
The lone hit was a dribbler from Andy LaRoche that Sabathia failed to field in the fifth inning.
Rickie Weeks led off the game and Bill Hall and Gabe Kapler drove home a pair later in the game to provide a lot more than Sabathia needed.
Jeff Karstens had allowed just Weeks’ homer in the first before running into trouble in the seventh. He allowed a one out double and a walk and was yanked in favor of Tyler Yates who gave up a two run double to the first hitter he faced – Hall.
10 straight losses. Its a battle for the cellar between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Good times.
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