Tuesday, October 1, 2013

This is why we lifted all those weights

So it's October 1st and there's a Pirates game in just under two hours. How the hell did that happen?
Dave Cameron did a fantastic analysis of this last week on Fangraphs, which is well worth a read, but four out of the five items he touches on can be traced back to one thing: they finally started paying attention to the right numbers.
It wasn't just the front office, either. The coaches and players did, too. About two weeks ago, the Trib's Travis Sawchik wrote what I think might go down as the most revealing piece of sports journalism anyone has done in this city for a while when he did a feature on the Pirates' use of defensive shifts.
Shifting is one of the items Cameron touches on in his breakdown, but from that piece came this nugget:

“We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training,” Hurdle said. “We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.
“I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument.”
The signings of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin proved great moves. So too, for that matter did bringing back Charlie Morton on a one-year deal. But that Neal Huntington was able to get Clint Hurdle and his staff into a place where they were open to the idea of managing with a sabermetric bend to the game goes beyond just employing defensive shifts -- it's an absolute game-changer.
Last October, Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout hosted a bloggers' round table with the Trib's Dejan Kovacevic. This was in the wake of the reporting on what appeared to be the militaristic, non-baseball culture the Pirates had established in their minor league system. During the hour-plus chat Dejan did with the bloggers, I brought up the question of numbers, and what if any role Dan Fox was playing in the team's decision-making.
FTC: What’s Dan Fox doing? Do they just not listen to anything he says? Clint Hurdle definitely doesn't listen to Dan Fox.Dejan: This is true, actually. Not sure if you’re being hypothetical there, but you’re right either way.

This was the last information anyone outside the organization reported until Sawchik told the story of Huntington meeting with Hurdle and selling him on the idea of maybe hearing what Fox had to say.
From Sawchik's piece:

“Nothing gets implemented from where I sit. I have no power to make it happen, so Clint's willingness and openness to information is key,” Fox said. “They committed to it.”

It's impossible to emphasize how huge this has been for the Pirates, but it also fundamentally changes our understanding of the organization. It's evidence of a method to the madness after a pair of seasons during which we had significant reason to question the existence of or adherence to any method. 

2011 and 2012 were all smoke and mirrors, and the peripheral stats all said so. That wasn't the case this year. So while I approached July with trepidation, numbers like xFIP and BABIP, combined with the pitching staff's eminently reasonable walk rates, all said that this was more likely real than not. Then, they brought up Gerrit Cole and shit became incredibly real.

Before the season started, FTC completely panned the signing of Francisco Liriano. What evidence did we have that the Pirates knew something everyone else didn't? After two straight epic collapses, what credibility did they have to make such a claim?

It turns out the Pirates knew the same things about Liriano as everyone else; the only difference is that the Pirates decided they'd get more out of Liriano if they politely asked that he never rear back and try to throw 97, and instead focus on making his two-seamer -- which was already a fantastic pitch -- the center of his repertoire. And while they were at it, they had all their other starters do that, too.

In the season preview, FTC said the ceiling on Russell Martin was "not a colossal waste of money." Another gross miscalculation. Not only was Martin not a waste of money, he wound up being one of the 20 best players in the National League, having the second-highest WAR among catchers, and turning out the best defensive season that any catcher has had in at least the last 11 years. Certainly, part of this is pitch-framing. But Martin has also been outstanding at throwing out runners and blocking balls in the dirt, the latter of which, it turns out, is exactly a skill you want your catcher to have when you're fielding a rotation of guys who rely so heavily on sinkers. 
Once we know more about defensive metrics for catchers, it's going to be fascinating to look back at Martin's 2013 campaign to see where it fits with regard to his career.

What looked like a pair of last-ditch moves to make a run at .500 turned out to be well-considered attempts at implementing a coherent and logical organizational philosophy: groundballs, strikeouts, defense. So yes, I was wrong about those guys and I'm completely happy to admit it. This has been the most fun season of baseball I've ever experienced, and no amount of being right is worth the reality that we're going to be playing ball today (I add, parenthetically, that FTC was dead-on with its preseason lauding of Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson, and its straight-up dismissal of Jonathan Sanchez, Brandon Inge and James McDonald).

It absolutely kills me that I'm not wearing black down on the North Shore right now. I am, however, about to make my way over to a certain undisclosed location in Lawrenceville to watch the game and hopefully live-tweet. If they win tonight, I'm really hoping I'll find a way to get to the divisional series -- in fact, I'd give multiple years off the end of my life to be there. If they don't, I probably won't get out of bed tomorrow, and I'll be holding Nils and Franco personally responsible for going to the game without me.

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