Saturday, October 7, 2017

FRANCO has a lot to say

I don't blog much anymore because ...well ... being histrionic about sports on the internet isn't what it once was for me. But whatever, Nils just had a baby and I only see Matt when I drive by him on the side of the road, so FTC, you're my only friend left. Here's what's going on:

Joe Girardi is an idiot. I think everyone is covering this, but let's pile on.

Here's a table that lists manager replay challenges in 2017. If you sort it by total successes, you see Girardi is #3 overall with 30 overturned calls; even more impressive is that he's correct a league leading 75% of the time.

All that is basically meaningless.

The only thing that matters is that a manager be aggressive with challenges in high leverage situations. The penalty for being wrong with a challenge is that you don't get to do it again for the rest of the game... unless it's the postseason, in which case you have to be wrong twice to lose your invisible red flag. There is basically no consequence at all for taking a long shot gamble during a high leverage situation, except losing the ability to take a potentially better gamble in a later, high leverage situation, assuming one comes around. So chalk this up to another guy who is paid millions of dollars to watch sports being risk averse.

Speaking of being risk averse, I can't help but think of how terrible Neal Huntington was this year. I love NH, and we at FTC were defending him before people knew what a Pedro Alvarez was. However, he chickened out in the worst possible way when it came time to trade Cutch and everyone else 29 years of age or older.

Watching Cleveland, it's hard to think of an American League team with more depth in recent years. This is a phenomenal roster, and they got that way by drafting well, getting lucky (after a string of years being snakebitten), and selling high.  Here are some people they traded away once:

Shin Soo Choo: 0.8 WAR in 2017
CC Sabathia: 1.9 WAR in 2017
Cliff Lee: retired
Jake Westbrook: retired

Here are some things they got back:

Corey Kluber: 8.0 WAR in 2017
Trevor Bauer: 3.1 WAR in 2017
Michael Brantley: 2.1 WAR in 2017
Carlos Carrasco: 5.4 WAR in 2017

Those four latter guys took a long time to pan out, but it happened and Cleveland is competitive because of it.  Had Cleveland let Sabathia or Lee walk after their Cy Young years, maybe they'd still be in the mix in 2017, but they wouldn't be the team to beat.

And that's the point. Trades alone aren't the ticket; drafting well, smart FA signing, good luck, you need it all.  I'm not asking the Pirates to reboot every other year. But they have to know that the window has closed for a Cutch-led playoff team.  Cole is under arbitration control for 2 more years and then he's a free agent. Cervelli and Harrison and Mercer are great complimentary pieces, but are just old, injured garbage on their own. Polanco and Marte aren't as good as we thought, but they're okay. Basically, there isn't anyone on this team that shouldn't be considered trade worthy.  And when that's the case, it's time to take a 75 win team down to a 65 win team and start building for 2020ish.

Finally, I want to say it's always bothered me that the Cleveland baseball team is deeply invested in racist iconography.  Growing up there, I was that kid with the vintage C cap that I bought at the Western Reserve Historical Society museum, because I refused to wear the Wahoo. The other kids made fun of me for wearing such a small brimmed hat. I told them that was historically accurate, and that their way of life was based on white washing genocide. Both points were true then, and they're true now. Hats really did have smaller brims in the 1920s, and America really is a horrible sham at best. I'm not looking for debate on that point (if you feel the need to debate it, read more books, preferably some written by people who don't look like you).

I'm just throwing this out there because I want to jump on the bandwagon with Cleveland-- really, I want to do anything at all Francisco Lindor tells me to do -- but the redface racism is unacceptable.

Onward, towards decency.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

This week in Francisco Liriano

In the name of emphasizing the absurd overreaction to the Pirates dumping of Francisco Liriano's terrible contract last year, the logical take on which you can read here, FTC is proud to introduce a new recurring segment in which we look at why it's good that the Pirates got rid of the worst pitcher in baseball.

Now the Blue Jays don't even want him. Per MLB Trade Rumors:

2:14pm: The Jays and Royals are “making progress” on a deal involving Liriano, reports MLB.com’s Jon Morosi (via Twitter).
2:03pm: Francisco Liriano has struggled mightily this season, but Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweets that the lefty is still drawing some interest. Sherman adds that the Blue Jays “may be close to dealing him.” To this point, the Royals have been the one club that has been definitively connected to the 33-year-old Liriano.
Playing out the final season of a three-year, $39MM contract, Liriano has seen his strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates each trend in the wrong direction, and his ERA has correspondingly soared to an unpalatable 5.99. Liriano’s 8.2 K/9, 4.9 BB/9 and 43.1 percent grounder rate would all rank as his worst marks since a disastrous 2012 campaign split between the Twins and White Sox...Nearly all of his struggles this season have come against right-handed hitters (.289/.394/.512), as he’s limited opposing lefties to a putrid .241/.267/.379 batting line. Liriano has a 16-to-1 K/BB ratio against lefties in 2017 and has struck out nearly 27 percent of the left-handed hitters he’s faced.
I've been pretty delinquent in keeping up with "This Week in Francisco Liriano" since the first installment, and I know that's a lot of text up there, and you're probably pissed that you're reading this instead of Chris Cillizza's #hottakes, so let's just look at those numbers one more time:

8.2 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, 5.99 ERA, 1.67 WHIP. The home runs are up, too: 1.29/9.

He's faced 351 batters in 76.2 innings. That's 121 over the minimum. That is what happens when you walk 12 percent of the hitters you face. Now, a middling AL Central team is looking at him as possible bullpen piece, mostly because they wouldn't have to give up anything to get him as long as they're willing to eat the final two months of his contract.

Before we go, let's check in with The Prince Who Was Promised, Reese McGuire. Here's the most recent note on the Pirates' former catcher of the future:
7.21.2017McGuire (knee) was removed from Double-A New Hampshire's disabled list to begin a rehab assignment at the Jays complex in Dunedin.
McGuire has played in 22 minor league games this season, 16 of which have been in AA. His numbers from those games: .216/.311/.373. He has played a total of 37 games since being traded. But I'm sure his defense has been otherworldly, and that the baseball fans of New Hampshire sing songs about his pitch-framing abilities.

And what of Harold Ramirez, the plucky little outfielder who was also one of the Pirates' top 10 prospects at the time of the deal?

Through 348 plate appearances in 88 games in AA this year, Harry is slashing .260/.304/.373 with an abysmal 5.5 percent walk rate. Six homers! Four steals! Harold Ramirez! Get him up the fuck up here!

Sure, these are small sample sizes, and yes, both guys are still just 22. But this is not what you want to see from the guys scouts consistently rate as your top prospects. Disturbingly, it's pretty close to the norm for what the Pirates have been getting out of their higher draft picks. That these guys were top 10 prospects in their system says more about that system than it does about the players. 

But yeah, worst trade ever. You're all idiots.

With the trade deadline looming, stay tuned for expanded FTC coverage of Tyler Glasnow's frustrating attempts at properly using a light switch.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This week in Francisco Liriano

In the name of emphasizing the absurd overreaction to the Pirates dumping of Francisco Liriano's terrible contract last year, the logical take on which you can read here, FTC is proud to introduce a new, recurring segment in which we look at why it's good that the Pirates got rid of the worst pitcher in baseball.


Start No. 1
April 7, 2017 at Tampa Bay
1/3 IP, 5 ER, 3 H, 4 BB, 1 K


In the shortest start of his career, Liriano threw 35 pitches, only 13 for strikes. Of those 13 strikes, five were called, and only two came on swings and misses. The other six came by contact. As the heat map from this performance shows, only 11 of the 13 even clipped the zone. It's impossible to overemphasize how extraordinarily terrible this is, but here's how the local scribe at the Toronto Sun saw it:

While a brush fire closed a major highway servicing Tropicana Field on Friday night, inside the stadium the Tampa Bay Rays burned Blue Jays starter Francisco Liriano.

The Rays did not do this. Francisco Liriano is his own self-contained dumpster fire.

After the Jays took an early 2-0 lead on Troy Tulowitzki’s two-out double to right, the Rays got right back into it in the bottom of the first when Evan Longoria smacked a 92-mph four-seam fastball from Liriano over the left-field wall with Steven Souza on base. Liriano struggled big-time in the first and, following the Longoria blast, had one out and runners at first and second, prompting a visit to the mound by pitching coach Pete Walker.

Soon after that, Liriano threw a wild pitch, moving the runners to second and third. Brad Miller then punched a double to left centre, scoring Rickie Weeks and Derek Norris. After DH Daniel Robertson hit a single to left, Gibbons pulled Liriano for long reliever Dominic Leone who got Peter Bourjos to ground out to second, though Miller scored on the play, staking the Rays to a 5-2 lead.
As for the top-shelf prospects the Pirates sent to the Blue Jays in order to unload Liriano's salary, we'll update when there's something worth noting. That said, Harold Ramirez is slashing .286/.286/.286 through two games, and Reese McGuire hasn't quite matched those numbers yet.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Enough of this anti-intellectual crap

Analytics aren't exactly new to baseball. Shifts aren't exactly new to baseball. As such, players complaining about analytics and shifts is not new to baseball, which is part of what makes this, from the Trib's Rob Biertempfel, so galling:

Let’s cut to the chase: the Pirates were shafted by their shifts. Against Pablo Sandoval and Sandy Leon — neither of whom has sprinter’s speed — the infield set up with SS Jordy Mercer hugging the second base bag and, when Leon was up, with 3B David Freese in shallow right field. The numbers say Sandoval and Leon (who are both switch-hitters) more often pull the ball to the right side when they bat lefty.

The ball Sandoval hit went precisely to the spot where Mercer would have been standing if he wasn’t shifted. And, of course, Leon would not have bunted to no-man’s land if Freese, the third baseman, had actually been at … um, third base.

Nobody is asking Gerrit Cole to play third base, you dolt. Part of putting on shifts like the Pirates did against those two hitters involves conceding the infield hit if the batter can earn it. Sandoval earned his. That's a calculated risk the Pirates took. And to Leon's credit, he laid down an excellent bunt that Gerrit Cole failed to field cleanly, though not for a lack of effort.

There was palpable frustration in the clubhouse after the game. However, none of the players dared speak up about the shifts during interviews. It’s a tiny clubhouse, and several coaches and front office folks were within earshot — as well as the Pirates’ traveling analytics wonks, who set up their laptops on a table in the center of the room.

Cole and Cervelli expressed what Biertempfel characterized as frustrations in coded language, but Mercer was less subtle.

Mercer: “It sucks. That’s the bad part about the big shifts. In big situations, it doesn’t work out for us sometimes.”

The operative word here is "sometimes." The point of the shift is to place your fielders in such a way that it maximizes the chance of getting a particular hitter out. It's not going to work every time, just as playing your fielders at normal depth wouldn't work every time. But there's a growing file of tangible evidence that this stuff works.

We went through this same thing back in 2013 when A.J. Burnett did his best old-man-yells-at-cloud until he begrudgingly capitulated with a mea culpa that amounted to "whatever, I'm just going to pitch one more year and never think about this ever again."

But think about this: this was game 1 of 162, and at least one player is already complaining about the Pirates' organizational philosophy. I don't begrudge Mercer this, and I don't think it's his fault he doesn't understand it -- this isn't how he learned to play baseball, and it's not how he wound up a major league player. It makes him uncomfortable. Evidence-based practices are hard to implement in any field -- not just baseball, and if there has to be a little bit of hand-holding along the way, I'm okay with that. Even if the hands being held are those of millionaire professional athletes.

This is just another area in which the Pirates have continuously fallen short. When you refuse to spend on the talent and instead choose the route of "we're going to try to make the most out of what we have here using data," you need to go the extra mile to show your players and coaches why you're doing what you're doing. That means translating it into terms they can understand and doing all you can to get them to buy in. 

The Pirates aren't incapable of this. In Travis Sawchick's excellent book "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak," he recounts an offseason conversation between Pirates GM Neal Huntington and Manager Clint Hurdle that ultimately got the old, gum-chewing skipper to buy into the front office's data-driven approach. The Pirates are capable of having these conversations, and if they hope to win on a budget without alienating their players, they're going to need to have more of them.

This isn't to say the Pirates' methods aren't flawed -- those methods are closely guarded trade secrets. What we know about them is only what we can discern from examining patterns in their decision making. But we're several years into this experiment and the players are still complaining based on what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding. This is something the Pirates need to rectify, because failure to do so will only hurt them in the long run.