Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Pirates' best chance to beat Jake Arrieta

We've known for the better part of the last month that the Pirates' most likely postseason scenario would involve a home game against the Cubs in which they'd have to face Jake Arrieta, who's been so frustratingly good since July that a lot hitters would sooner gouge out their own eyes with a spoon than have to deal with the ungodly late movement two of his three different fastballs. It also doesn't help that Arrieta is seemingly impervious to left/right splits, so what can the Pirates do to beat him?

Probably nothing.

Here's how the Pirates who are the most likely to be on the roster for that game have fared against Arrieta in their careers:
*Sean Rodriguez has never faced Arrieta.

But here's what they can do:

1) Outlast him. 

Outlast him and they have a chance, much as they did on September 16th. Arrieta went eight innings, gave up six hits and a walk in eight innings. He struck out only five, and the Pirates managed to score two runs while he was in the game (one unearned), and the Pirates went on to lose in 13 frames. Once Arrieta is out of the game, the Cubs turn to a series of hard-throwing, walk-prone relievers who are eminently beatable. The key to beating the Cubs is to get Arrieta out of the game. To do this, the Pirates must look to run up Arrieta's pitch count. 

One way to do this is to mandate no first-pitch swings, at least the first time through the order, maybe even the second. The Pirates should not make a single first-pitch out in at least the first five or six innings of this game. Give Arrieta the first-pitch strike if it means making him pitch to you. 

Another way to do it is to structure the lineup so that Arrieta has to face the guys who see the most pitches more often than anyone else. No Josh Harrison hitting second, no Aramis Ramirez hitting cleanup.

Here's a list of those same regulars and the average number of pitches they've seen per plate appearance this season (2015 OBP in parentheses):
Andrew McCutchen: 4.04 (.405)
Michael Morse: 4.01 (.419)
Francisco Cervelli: 3.91 (.375)
Gregory Polanco: 3.89 (.320)
Neil Walker: 3.88 (.329)
Pedro Alvarez: 3.87 (3.18)
Jordy Mercer: 3.71 (.295)
Starling Marte: 3.61 (.334)
Sean Rodriguez: 3.64 (.282)
Aramis Ramirez: 3.49 (.298)
Josh Harrison: 3.46 (.322)

Among hitters with at least 500 PAs this season, the average number of pitches seen per PA is 3.82. Cervelli is 3 PAs away from qualifying, and Walker, Marte, McCutchen and Polanco are the only other Pirates with that many appearances. Mash those numbers together and your batting order for the Wild Card game should come out looking something like this:


Notes on this:

  • The hard truth of it is that the Pirates don't have a true leadoff hitter and should probably have been hitting Cervelli in that spot for a while now. That he hasn't hit any higher than sixth in the order since Jung Ho Kang went down is inexplicable.
  • There is a reasonable case to be made for swapping Polanco and Alvarez. The top four hitters in the order, though, must be static.
  • There's an even more reasonable argument for hitting Mercer 7, Cole 8 and Harrison 9.
  • In all likelihood, the Pirates are not going to do any of these things.
2) Be judicious with the pitching.

This means three things:
  • The only pitchers who should be allowed to appear in this game are: Cole, Happ, Blanton, Soria, Watson and Melancon. That's it; that's the list. 
  • The Pirates should use one of the last three regular season games as a bullpen game. Give Blanton three innings just to stretch him out, then let Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Rob Scahill go nuts. 
  • Happ won't be needed until Game 3 of the Division Series, so he should be up and available for the Wild Card game. The Pirates shouldn't hesitate to pinch hit for Cole early (in the fourth or fifth innings) if the table's set for them to score with Cole's spot in the order coming up. This allows the Pirates to effectively have two long men ready for this game, leave Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero and Antonio Bastardo off the roster and carry extra position players who will be far more valuable should the game go into extra innings.
The Cardinals are hobbling into the postseason. They're still a good team, but they're more beatable now than they've been in the last three years. If the Pirates can get past Arrieta and the Cubs, they have a legitimate shot at knocking off St. Louis, its depleted rotation, terrible bullpen and loathsome fanbase. We'll explore that if an when it becomes necessary.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"The Pirates at the trade deadline," or "Someone please take Sean Rodriguez to the airport"

It's great to be on the buyer's end of a fire sale. Unfortunately for the Pirates, two of the teams liquidating a ton of assets are in their division. You can forget rotation help in the form of Johnny Cueto, bullpen help in the form of Francisco Rodriguez or Aroldis Chapman, and any other deal which would potentially send prospects to the Reds or Brewers. But there are still some great pieces out there for the picking. In fact, this year's trading season looks like the best buyers' market we've seen in years. Here's a quick look at who the Pirates could, might, should and shouldn't pursue in the next few weeks.

Yes, Please! (trade for these guys!)

Mike Napoli
Corey Hart has been utter garbage. He looked like a great buy-low option with solid bounce-back potential, but he hasn't even showed enough that the brass have felt comfortable playing him over Sean Rodriguez at first base or in right field, and that's saying something, given that nothing in Rodriguez's history could lead anyone to believe the Pirates brought him in to be anything other than mildly Barmes-y. Rodriguez is a black hole at the plate (.219/.248/.336 with a 2.2 BB% in 137 PAs so far) and the admittedly imperfect metrics measuring his defense at various positions are all over the damn place. Still, he's logged 194.2 innings at first base this year (.4 UZR) and 109.1 in the outfield (-8) with negligible time at the other infield spots.

That's substantially more playing time than Hart's had. He's played 47.2 innings at first (-1) and 45 innings in right (1.2) -- defensively neutral, but just as bad as Rodriguez at the dish. He's slashing .222/.246/.352 with a 1.8 BB%. That's abysmal, but he's only had 57 PAs. What does it say about the Pirates' opinion of '80s heartthrob Corey Hart they'd rather play a super-utility player with a career .225/.294/.370 and a .145 ISO over a guy who came in with a career .271/.329/.478 line and a .207 ISO? HINT: it says they fucking hate Corey Hart.
Mike Napoli, aka, Baseball Kiesel
At 33, Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli is having a down year on an expiring contract. He's making $16 million this season and hitting a robust .191/.294/.349. But don't judge him on that alone. He's a career .252/.354/.480 guy with a 12.5% walk rate and decent power. He's great against lefties (.273/.386/.517) and slightly better against righties (.244/.341/.466) than Pedro (.246/.319/.469). His walk and strikeout rates (12.1% and 25.6%, respectively) are right in line with his career averages, and he's still making contact at a 75.6% clip. All of Napoli's other peripherals are right in line with his career averages, suggesting he's just had terrible luck to this point in the year (see: .230 BABIP).

He'd be a more than capable replacement for Hart (who's basically persona non grata and on the shelf with a fictional injury), and he'd get Rodriguez out of the lineup and back onto the bench where he belongs. Napoli is due for some major regression with the bat and it's going to benefit someone. Those someones should be the Pirates.

EDIT: Adam Lind should be on this list. He's got an option for $8 million next year, has acceptable power and plate discipline, could play every day and would serve as a capable stop-gap at first. But taking on Lind would mean either relegating Pedro to strictly a bench role or straight-up DFAing him. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of getting rid of Pedro Alvarez, but a lot of people around here seem to really want to see this thing through to its bitter end. If the Pirates could send him back to Milwaukee in a deal, that would be optimal, and it would also give them an excuse to rid themselves of the baseball cold sore that is Travis Ishikawa.

Ben Zobrist
Zobrist's bat would be a nice addition, given that he's an effective switch-hitter who's good from both sides of the plate, gets on base, doesn't strike out and can sort of play a few different positions. He's also playing on an expiring contract and making an eminently reasonable $7.5 million. But Zobrist -- a.k.a. the Rich Man's Josh Harrison -- is a pretty highly sought commodity right now, and he's in the pocket of one of baseball's best wheeler-dealers, so you know he's not going to come cheap -- in fact, Billy Beane's club has a number of good assets to move, and the Mets have already said that they'd be willing to overpay for Zobrist. He's probably a long-shot, but certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Ben Zobrist in happier times
Scott Kazmir
Kazmir is probably Beane's best trading chip. A lefty starter in a walk year, Kazmir's been solid this season, posting 8.29 K/9, 2.87 BB/9 and career-best 46% ground ball rate in just under 110 innings. He's making $11 million and has a $500,000 assignment bonus in his contract that activates if he's traded. But he comes with a long history of injury (not to mention being drafted by the Mets), including time missed this year with shoulder and tricep issues. He's pitching better than any other starter on the market and somebody's going to overpay for him -- it's really just a question of who. I'd love to see the Pirates make a run at getting Kazmir if the price is right, mainly because it would knock Jeff Locke out of the rotation. But that's going to be a steep price to pay for 12 starts, and there's next to no chance the Pirates give him the three- or four-year contract he's going to seek this offseason. Beane is said to be looking for AAA players who are going to be ready to contribute next year. I don't know that the Pirates have any of those who are worth two months of Kazmir.

Jonathan Papelbon
The Phillies are a joke and Jonathan Papelbon wants out. Bully for him. His strikeout and walk rates are still top-notch (9.08/9, 1.77/9, respectively) and he could step into right the seventh- or eighth-inning role immediately, providing the back-end help the Pirates so desperately need. He's making a ridiculous $13 million this year, and his option for next year only vests if he either finishes 55 games this year or finishes 100 total games between this year and last. He finished 52 last year, but has only finished 31 so far this year. A move to a team with an established closer would likely keep that option from triggering, but Papelbon has limited no-trade protection and may block deals to 17 clubs, Philadelphia will likely do all they can to move him. This is a guy the Pirates should be in on.
If the Pirates win the World Series, Jonathan Papelbon will do a stupid little dance.
Tyler Clippard
I hate Tyler Clippard. I hate his stupid glasses and his stupid chinbeard. I hate that he takes 46 minutes between pitches. I hate that someone who works slower than Chris Resop in a molasses flood can be any good. But he is good and the Pirates are in dire need of another good arm in the bullpen. His contract (1 year, $8.3) is kind of outrageous for a setup guy, but a willingness to take on all of his remaining salary would likely negate the notion that Oakland will get decent return on him. If the Pirates can't get Papelbon, Clippard would be an acceptable option.
This guy is good but I hate him anyway.
Ben Revere
If the Pirates are worried about Gregory Polanco, Revere could be a good insurance option. Certainly it's unusual to platoon two lefties in one spot, but one of Revere's few strengths is that he hits lefties (.305/.332/.356) just about as well as he hits righties (.287/.323/.341). He's also stupid fast and reasonably sound defensively. Ideally, you don't want to rely on a slap hitter with zero power who never walks, but Revere's hand-eye coordination is good enough to consistently produce contact, making it less of an issue that he's so reliant on high BABIP.
Acquiring Ben Revere would likely signal a dramatic increase in bunting.
David Price
A total pipe dream, unless Dave Dombrowski is already just phoning it in because he knows he isn't going to be there next year, which is a totally legitimate possibility.

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro's name hasn't come up at all in trade rumors and I'm having some trouble figuring out why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he's 41, serves mainly as a bench piece and has begun the phase of his career where he's going to play on a series of one-year deals until he decides to retire. In fact, yeah, that's probably it. But consider this: Ichiro is exactly the kind of bench piece the Pirates would do well to pick up. He's a backup outfielder who plays adequate defense, he hits righties and lefties equally well and he's miles better than Sean Rodriguez or Corey Hart, both of whom really struggle against pitching. He's not the world-beating .370-OBP guy he once was, but he's an experienced, smart and savvy hitter who can provide exactly the kind of offense the Pirates should be looking for right now -- which is to say, he's a better hitter than anyone else they have on the bench. And if he works out, bring him back next year on the same $2 million base salary he's making now. He's been absolutely buried on the Marlins' bench, and that's a shitty way for a player of his caliber to go out. He could probably be had for a song at this point. As it just so happens, the Pirates have all those other post-game songs they played before fan pressure prompted them to return to playing "A New Pirate Generation" following home wins. Send the Marlins one of those other songs in exchange for Ichiro.

Jim Johnson
The big righty sports a solid fastball-curveball combination that, while not netting a ton of strikeouts, induces a ton of ground balls (60.6%). He's making $1.6 million this season and will be a free agent after this year. Johnson could be an ideal option if the Pirates want another solid, low-cost righty for the pen.

Marc Rzepczynski
You might remember him from his days in St. Louis when his name was just as unpronounceable. The lefty boasts solid strikeout numbers (11.29/9) and an ERA that's 1.28 runs above his current xFIP (2.65). The walks are a concern -- he's putting on close to five hitters per nine innings -- but that's almost a full one above his career average, so there might be some regression coming there. Ol' Zepp is making $2.4 million this year, he's eligible for arbitration next year and he's still only 29 years old. The Indians have a shot at clinching one of the wild card berths, but it's still too early to tell if they plan to buy or sell come the deadline. If they slip at all the next two weeks, you could see them look to spin off a few assets.
This isn't Mark Rzepczynski, but it's not like you know the difference anyway.
Jeff Samardzija
This dude is a pretty competent pitcher who, while he doesn't strike out guys at the rate he used to, has definitely displayed better control than we've seen from him in years passed (1.77 BB/9 in 2015, 3.0 BB/9 career). He's playing on a one-year contract for a terrible team that's going to try its damndest to trade him in the next week. He's not going to overwhelm anyone, but if the Pirates are concerned about keeping Morton or Locke in the rotation down the stretch, this would be the guy I'd go get, and I'd even consider overpaying a bit. And if A.J. Burnett does decide to retire after this year, Samardzija is a steady guy the Pirates could consider to replace him. He'll be slightly more expensive, but not probably ridiculously so. I'm not going to put a picture of him here because I find him really creepy looking.

Yoenis Cespedes
He's a free-swinging monster who absolutely crushes the ball and he's a free agent at the end of the year. Why the hell not? Stick him in right field and turn Polanco into a platoon player for the rest of the season. This would be so much fun.
This guy would freaking electrify the Pirates' offense.

No, Thank You. (please, don't trade for these guys)

Cole Hamels
The Pirates have enough young pitching depth that they shouldn't bother making a play for Cole Hamels. They'd have to give up a ton to get him and he'd cripple their payroll for the next four years Hamels will make $22.5 million each of the next three years and has a $20 million club option which can automatically vest should he meet certain performance conditions. Hamels is a pretty good pitcher, but his contract is beyond outrageous -- especially for a team that's going to look to sign Gerrit Cole to an extension at some point in the next few years.

Dan Haren
Pros: he's available and he doesn't walk anyone. Cons: he doesn't strike anyone out, induce any ground balls and gives up 37 home runs per start.

Cameron Maybin
Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the virtue in buying high on Maybin. He's a former top-10 pick and career underachiever who's having his first truly solid year in his age 28 season, slashing .282/.352/.409. His walk rate is fine (9.2%), he's not striking out a ton by modern standards (18.2%), and he's not relying too heavily on BABIP (.332). He's hitting fewer fly balls and more line drives. Quite simply, the guy is having a pretty solid year. But he's on the hook for $8 million next season and there's nothing in his history to suggest that this performance is repeatable. Maybin would be a solid extra bat for the Pirates, especially if they would like to spell Polanco in right field with a right-handed bat, but his $8 million salary next year and $9 million option for the following year ($1 million buyout) means the Pirates would have to commit at least $9 million toward him unless Atlanta were to pick up a portion of his contract; and even that would mean surrendering more in the way of young talent in the name of making the deal happen. Maybin would be a nice acquisition, but buying high on a player like this is seldom a good idea. Let someone else overpay.

Yovani Gallardo
I get that he's having a good year, but his peripherals aren't particularly promising. His 2.91 ERA and 4.11 xFIP say he's not for real. His strikeout rate is down and his BABIP is low, but beyond that, we saw this guy pretty regularly over his eight years with the Brewers and he just does nothing for me. His numbers aren't too different from Charlie Morton's, and apart from a few differences in repertoire -- Gallardo throws more sliders and four-seam fastballs while Morton leans heavily on his two-seam fastball -- there isn't a lot separating them. Gallardo isn't worth pursuing.

Other stuff
  • Man...this:
  • ESPN's simultaneous jettisoning of high-priced talent -- from high-quality guys like Keith Olbermann, serviceable pieces who drove tons of traffic like Bill Simmons, and even useless, misogynist, race-baiters like Colin Cowherd -- seems to directly align with an attempt to cut programming costs. For us, that means the return of the intolerable time-killing segment series, My Wish, in which ESPN finds critically and terminally sick kids and sets them up to Skype with Michael Phelps or have smoothies with Chris Paul, then films the whole thing to produce 20 minutes of overly sentimental, outrageously exploitative content which costs them next to nothing to produce and serves as free, image-conscious press for athletes whom you're predisposed to think are assholes because, well, they're assholes.
  • The best thing on ESPN that isn't Keith Olbermann or a 30 For 30 film is unquestionably Baseball Tonight during a rain delay, because that's when the guys in the studio go over to the fake field and start doing impersonations of other guys' batting stances while Tim Kurkjian provides the one-man laugh track. Aaron Boone is particularly adept at this, but he'll get a run for his money once Jimmy Rollins retires and joins a studio show.
  • The putt Jordan Speith drained on 16 at St. Andrews was one of the damndest things I've ever seen. Regardless of conditions or how a course is playing, to hit a putt with three separate breaks in it is, with all due respect to Jayson Werth, the hardest thing to do in the galaxy.

Friday, May 15, 2015

NHL playoff predictions: conference finals edition

It's the conference finals! Here are the updated probabilities from the model!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2

I don't have much time right now, so I'll just leave the 2nd round predictions and probabilities here. Soon, I'll write a follow up regarding the model's performance in Round 1, as well as evaluating prediction accuracy and expectations.

But for now, here are the Round 2 predictions:

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Closing a baseball game is not a discreet skill set

The entire Pirate bullpen is blowing it tonight.  Happens.  It's actually great when it all happens at once, because these guys are pretty awesome, and you'd rather their rare bad nights not be spread over multiple games.

Anyway, Steve Blass and Greg Brown on the TV side, just making this so much more difficult than it needs to be.

Blass is talking about how closing is the most difficult job in sports.  Brown is playing devil's advocate, not because he knows his stuff, but because he hates Blass and wants to show him up.  Anyway, the paraphrased discussion goes something like this:

BROWN: But you look at other relievers who often come in during much more difficult situations [1], whereas a closer just has to get three outs and not give up one or two runs.   I'm not disagreeing with you, Steve, I just want you to explain it for everyone at home.

BLASS:  Well... Uh... ask any manager[2].  It's just... those three outs are harder [3].  They just... everything about them matters.  It's do or die [4].

My paraphrased response goes like this:

1. We call those difficult situations "high leverage," Greg.  And just so everyone knows, leverage is measured by the volatility of the game outcome in any given situation.  If it's a ten run game, it doesn't much matter if either team has the bases loaded: the outcome is already pretty determined.  If it's a tied game, we consider it super high leverage because any one swing of the bat could make it a not-tied game.  Super easy to see how this works.  Super easy to realize that the asshole pitching in the 8th inning of a tied game is being entrusted with more responsibility than the asshole pitching the 9th inning of a 1-run game.

2.  Steve, I'm not going to ask any manager about anything for fear of this.  And also because managers are dumb and stupid.  They're the reason we have saves, and bunts, and blogs instead of early bedtimes. 

3.  Those last three outs are not harder.  They're not.  They're just not.  There is nothing about the rules, equipment, stadium, or players that changes significantly.  What changes is perception.  Radhames Liz comes in and gives up a moonshot.  Tony Watson comes in and gets blasted.  Mark Melancon comes in and is crap.  It's all the same,  but we only fault one of them because our memories don't go back more than one inning.  (Actually, mine does, and not to brag but I remember some assbag pitcher for the Cubs giving up a bases loaded double to Jung-Ho Kang.  By the looks of it, the three outs in the bottom 7th were some of the toughest to record.  Perception.)

4.  It's do-or-die when the game is tied and you are really close to the end of the game.  It is specifically not do-or-die when you have the lead.  When you have the lead, it is do-or-else-you-might-have-to-score-more-runs-but-at-least-you-won't-be-dead.  This is absolutely true when you're at home, usually true when you're on the road.

Pitching with the lead is a cushion that is unnecessarily bestowed upon a team's best reliever.  On those rare bad nights, everything is all the more glaring.  But look what stats teaches us: over a long enough timeline (like 162 games) we see a lot of shit and some of it doesn't mean anything, even if it is glaring.  The specific inning in which a reliever is crappy: meaningless.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday baseball wrap-up

Bucs are at .500!  This is great news, because they've been playing quality ball thus far, and don't deserve to be in the red.  Hooray!

Sunday Night Baseball just wrapped up its coverage of the Cardinals and Reds at 10:10pm.  The game started at 8:05pm.  This is incredibly good stuff.  MLB, you are doing something so right, and you deserve a pat on the back. 

About doing something wrong, Cincinnati manager Bryan Price is again a big dummy.  Mike "Sticky Fingers" Leake had pitched 7 innings of 1 run ball when Jon Jay leads off the bottom of the 8th with a double.  Runner on second, no outs, tie game, bottom of the 8th... pretty clear that you really need a strikeout if you're the Reds.  And if you're the Reds, good news: you have this swing-and-miss monster named Aroldis Chapman in your bullpen!  But Bryan Price is like "No.  This one's for Dusty." and he leaves Leake in to pitch to Yadier Molina.

Leake isn't a bad pitcher, but he's not what we call dominant.  He pitches to contact and hopes the ball stays on the ground.  Yadier Molina isn't a dominant hitter, but he is good at making solid contact.  Maybe he comes through with a seeing-eye single here; I'm sitting at home feeling either the deep fly ball to advance the runner or the fielder's choice.   Yadi gives me the fielder's choice, 5-3.

Now there's a runner on third, one out, tie game, bottom of the 8th.  You absolutely need a strikeout in this situation.  Bringing the infield in does nothing to stop a fly ball, and if anything, it decreases the amount of ground your fielders can cover.  Maaaybe you could make a case for an intentional walk followed by wishfully-thinking your way to a double play ball.  But really you just need to get an out without the ball being put in play.  Left handed Kolten Wong deserves to be overpowered in this situation.  He actually yearns for it. 

"Don't do it!" whispers the ghost of Dusty Baker.  "You've gotta respect what Leake has done to get you where you are."

No!  Bad advice!  Don't listen to him, Bryan!  He's trying to get you fired, too!

"A starter finishes what he starts.  You've gotta save your closer for when you have the lead."

Shut up, Dusty, shut up!

"If you do anything here, it should be to warm up two relievers who aren't Aroldis Chapman, just because."

Oh my god, Dusty, you're the reason he did that!!


Right.  So, as anyone who watched knows, it's too late for blogging now.  At least if you're the Reds. Leake gave up the very predictable flyball.  Run scores.  Cardinals record 3 outs, complete the sweep. 

We know SO much about the effectiveness of pitchers.  We know that they get worse the longer they stay in the game.  We know that certain match-ups are superior to others.  We know that Aroldis Chapman is better at throwing a baseball than all but like 30 people in the entire world (none of whom are Mike Leake).  We also know that sometimes a decent but not consistently great pitcher like Mike Leake can go toe-to-toe with a stud like Adam Wainwright for 7 innings or so.  This is what we call: playing with house money.  It is small sample size success, and it has no bearing on a guy's ability to deliver beyond his normal means.

I fully expect Part II of this article to be up tomorrow.  As well as a gif of Kolten Wong saying "But I yearned to swing through three 103mph fastballs!"