Anybody who saw what the Pirates did over their first 100 games in 2012 probably thought it was a great story. Anybody who continued to follow the Pirates over their final 62 games probably called the first half a fluke and wrote them off. As it turned out, it was wrong to write off the Pirates in 2013. After beginning the 2012 season with a 58-42 mark after 100 games, the Pirates sat two games back in the National League Central. Sixty-two games later, the Pirates ended the season 79-83, 18 games behind the Cincinnati Reds.
What happened in 2012 is a concept discussed in Joe Peta’s outstanding book Trading Bases. Peta describes something called “cluster luck”, which is where teams play better over a stretch of games because of timely hits in high-leverage situations. For the Pirates pitching staff in 2012, their slash lines against weren’t drastically different between halves, but the timing of when hits happened was different. In the first half, Pirates pitchers stranded 75.7 percent of baserunners as a team. Their BABIP against of .276 was below league average and their 3.48 ERA compared to a 3.92 FIP signaled that regression was coming. In the second half, it did, as the left on base rate fell to 69.5 percent, their BABIP against climbed to .296, and the team’s ERA ballooned to 4.38, even though the FIP stayed pretty similar at 3.96.
The Pirates, led by GM Neal Huntington, who served under Mark Shapiro with the Cleveland Indians, one of baseball’s more progressive front offices at that time, did a lot of data analysis to help figure out the team’s issues. One of the most radical turnarounds in baseball was made possible by a dramatic change in defensive philosophy. Huntington, his staff, and Manager Clint Hurdle sat down after the season and found an inefficiency that they could exploit. The secret was in defensive shifting.
The Pirates had started to implement some changes in 2008, but it was after the 2012 season that they found the right formula. The Pirates compiled a pitching staff of ground ball guys, a rather surprising decision given the pitcher-friendly outfield at PNC Park, and were able to get the message across that pitchers were to trust the defense. In 2012, the Pirates were -25 in defensive runs saved. In 2013, the Pirates saved 68 runs defensively. The proof is in the pudding, as the Pirates allowed 97 fewer runs in 2013.
The scheme changes were able to take a rotation that featured reclamation project Francisco Liriano, soft-tossing southpaw Jeff Locke, underwhelming swingman Charlie Morton, and veteran AJ Burnett and turn it into one of the game’s best groups statistically. Of Pirates pitchers that made eight or more starts, no one had an ERA above 3.59.
The Pirates are a fascinating case study in both sabermetrics and defensive theory. But, is it sustainable? Oddsmakers seem to expect some regression from the Pirates, who won 94 games last season, six games better than their projected record using Pythagorean Win-Loss. The best line for those that want to bet the under is at BetOnline.ag with a line of 84.5 and -115 on both sides. 5Dimes.eu also has 84.5, with the under at -145. BetDSI.eu and Bovada.lv are both at 83.5 with -110 on both sides at DSI and a -125/-105 at Bovada.
Key additions: Edinson Volquez, Chris Stewart
Key losses: Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett, Garrett Jones
The latest project for pitching coach Ray Searage will be Edinson Volquez. Searage did a great job with Francisco Liriano, a guy who, like Volquez, had some major control issues earlier in his career. The hope will be for Volquez to sneak into the fifth starter spot and provide the Pirates with another average or better arm in the rotation.
Unfortunately, a rotation spot opened up because AJ Burnett moved on to Philadelphia. He’s a huge loss for the Pirates as a guy that led the team in innings pitched and strikeouts. He posted a 3.30 ERA, but the second-best FIP at 2.80, and led the starters with the best SIERA at 3.03. Burnett’s 4.0 fWAR will be difficult to replace.
Chris Stewart combines with Russell Martin to create the game’s best defensive tandem behind the plate. More on that later, but Stewart had 25 runner kills in 109 games. Martin had 41 last season for the Pirates. Between those two, running on the Pirates pitching staff will be very difficult, which will help to keep double plays in order for the ground ball staff.
For a team that had a marginal offense to begin with, losing Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones leaves the team with some depth questions, but neither player had much of an impact last season. Jones had 440 plate appearances but was a negative WAR player and Morneau only made 92 trips to the plate. The same can be said about Marlon Byrd, who was an August waiver trade deadline addition. He had an impact while he was there, but he only had 115 plate appearances.
Why bet the over?
Teams that are willing to go the extra mile to find market inefficiencies and exploit them are always worth valuing a little bit higher than others. The Pirates rotation definitely lacks household names, but their unique defensive shifting coupled with an understanding of how important pitch framing is will add value to a pitching staff that most are probably writing off.
The loss of AJ Burnett is unquestionably big, but the impending emergence of Gerrit Cole should fill some of the void. Cole was extremely impressive in his 19 starts last season with a 3.22 ERA and a 2.91 FIP. In Cole’s first 41.2 innings last season, Cole posted a 3.89 ERA with a 2.78 K/BB ratio. The issue for Cole is that he only struck out 14.5 percent of batters. Whether it was the tutelage of Searage or Cole’s raw talent, the second half was decidedly different. Cole struck out over 25 percent of the batters he faced and had a 2.85 ERA and a 2.72 FIP. Cole won’t turn 24 until September and by that point he may be a bona fide ace in the Pirates rotation.
There aren’t too many red flags that jump off the pace with Francisco Liriano’s performance last season. He was effectively wild, walking 9.5 percent of hitters, but striking out 24.5 percent for a 2.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Any time a pitcher has 75 percent or higher rates for strikeouts and ground balls, he’s going to be extremely effective. Liriano was just that with a 3.02 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. His SIERA projects a little bit of regression at 3.43, due in large part to a high percentage of line drives, but his line drive rate was well above his career average and could normalize this season.
The rest of the Pirates rotation remains a bit of a mystery with Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Edinson Volquez all striving for a spot. There are three spots available, so only one guy will be the odd man out. Morton looks like a lock for one of those spots after his 2013 campaign. Morton made 20 starts in his return from Tommy John surgery and went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA and a 3.60 FIP. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy, but his 62.9 percent ground ball rate was tops among all pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched. He fits right into what the Pirates want to do defensively and that locks him into the rotation.
If healthy, Wandy Rodriguez should also secure a spot. Part of the decision will be financially-motivated since Rodriguez, even with the Astros paying $5.5M of his contract, will be the second-highest-paid Pirate this season. Rodriguez was shut down with forearm soreness, generally a precursor to Tommy John surgery, but he went the rest and rehab route and is reportedly throwing pain-free in the spring. If Rodriguez can contribute, he exhibited great control last season with a walk rate of just 4.6 percent. He was one of the few that used PNC’s outfield to his advantage with a .255 BABIP on balls in play with one of the lower ground ball rates on the team.
Between Locke and Volquez, there’s some risk involved with both guys. Locke’s first half could best be described as the element of surprise, as he posted a 2.15 ERA with a .197 batting average against. His 3.80 FIP signaled regression on the way and it hit about as hard as possible for a pitcher. Locke’s second half ERA in 57.1 innings was a hideous 6.12 and his walk rate ballooned to 13.5 percent. He’s likely a guy that will hover around a 4.00 ERA unless he can cut down on the walks. His season FIP was 4.03, with a xFIP of 4.19 and a 4.47 SIERA. Volquez is essentially a right-handed version of Locke at this stage of his career, just with a higher ground ball rate.
Be on the lookout for Jameson Taillon, who may follow Cole’s 2013 path. Taillon made six starts for Triple-A Indianapolis last season, so he should be up with the club at some point. He’s a consensus top-20 prospect that would definitely solve the Pirates depth concerns at starting pitcher.
It’s important to keep in that mind that this rotation will overachieve because of PNC Park’s dimensions and the defensive shifts. There’s a reason that the Pirates were spectacular at home with a 50-31 mark. Not only was the defensive shifting a key contributor, so was Russell Martin. Martin registered a caught stealing percentage of 40 percent. Statcorner.net’s Pitcher Report also says that Martin was 17.1 runs above average in pitch framing. Newly-acquired backup Chris Stewart was second in that category, 22.7 runs above average last season. Pitch framing data is calculated by using PITCHf/x to count pitches outside the strike zone called strikes and pitches inside the strike zone called balls. Martin helped his pitchers to 134 additional strike calls last season. Catchers that can frame the zone help pitchers immensely and that’s what Martin and Stewart will do this season.
The Pirates have the core of their bullpen in tact entering the 2014 season as Jason Grilli returns from injury and Mark Melancon moves back into the setup role. Grilli and Melancon posted FIPs of 1.97 and 1.64, respectively, and both exhibited elite command. Melancon walked eight batters in 71 innings en route to one of the best relief seasons in quite some time. Tony Watson is the lefty specialist, but he’s not as useless against righties as most lefties tend to be. Justin Wilson is another reliable lefty with nice ground ball numbers. The Pirates bullpen, if it stays healthy, will protect a lot of leads.
The Pirates offense is a collection of very interesting skill sets. Andrew McCutchen is the most complete player with tremendous numbers all over his stat line. McCutchen was one of eight 20/20 guys with 20 HR and 20 SB, joining Carlos Gomez, Mike Trout, Hunter Pence, Will Venable, Ian Desmond, Coco Crisp, and Shin-Soo Choo in that category. Include defense in the mix and McCutchen is a top-five position player in MLB. If McCutchen returns to 31 home runs like he hit in 2012, he could easily be a nine-win player.
After McCutchen, it’s a very diverse group. Pedro Alvarez is the all-or-nothing home run threat with 36 home runs and over 30 percent of his plate appearances ending with strikeouts. Starling Marte is the speedster with decent power and an aggressive approach. He hit 12 home runs, stole 41 bases, and reaped the benefits of a .363 BABIP. He and McCutchen form a great defensive outfield from right center to the left field line. Neil Walker and Russell Martin combined for over 30 home runs and an above average walk rate. Gaby Sanchez was sidetracked by injuries, but he also would have had double digit home runs to accompany a great walk rate at 13.8 percent and a .361 on-base percentage.
This is a balanced lineup capable of a lot of things. It has speed, power, contact, patience, and a reliable superstar MVP candidate that just keeps getting better.
Why bet the under?
The loss of Burnett is a big deal, even though Cole can fill the void. If Cole does fill the void, somebody else still needs to big up the remaining slack. Liriano will be expected to duplicate, or at least come close to, his 2013 season. It’s a big task to ask of a guy who was plagued by inconsistency and seemingly irreparable control problems prior to last season. Liriano is also extremely reliant on his slider, which is always an injury concern for pitchers. With a guy who has already had major elbow surgery, the risk is high.
The risk is also high for believing in Rodriguez. It’s highly unlikely that rest and rehab would be the cure-all for a 35-year-old’s forearm/elbow problems and expecting him to stay healthy is not very wise. There’s depth behind Rodriguez that can survive in Pittsburgh with defense, the catching, and the pitcher-friendly park, but the Pirates would have to tap into it quickly if he goes down. That depth, which includes Jeanmar Gomez, who has never held down a Major League job, and Jeff Locke, who has control concerns of his own, would do well to be league average.
Offensively, Starling Marte is probably in line for some regression. It’s very hard to put up quality offensive numbers with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.5-to-1, but that’s what Marte did last season. What helped his on-base percentage and steals numbers was getting hit 24 times by pitches. Only Shin-Soo Choo was hit more often. His speed will still be a factor, but on an offense that needs all of its parts in working order, expect Marte’s production to decline by few runs.
Jason Grilli is definitely no guarantee to stay healthy and the Pirates bullpen has some depth concerns behind the big three of Grilli, Melancon, and Watson. There are a lot of inexperienced guys. Another issue for the Pirates is that they had a postseason run for the first time in a long time there have been teams that have had a playoff hangover. The Indians in 2007 come to mind as a team that relied heavily on a few relievers and they had one of the league’s worst bullpens in 2008. Bullpens are volatile and workloads and high-stress innings that guys aren’t used to can take a toll the following season.
Play: Over 83.5 (-110, BetDSI)
I’m going to go contrarian here and support the Pirates. Their advanced analysis clearly works and Ray Searage has done a fantastic job. The element of “cluster luck” I brought up earlier from Joe Peta applies to the Pirates offense in 2013. Overall, they batted .245/.313/.396/.709 as a team. But with runners in scoring position, they batted just .229/.316/.334/.650. Their wRC+ of 78 was worse than everybody except the Twins and Marlins. The power drop was most surprising and should improve this season.
This is a team that plays great defense all around the diamond, is tailored to its home ballpark, and has a unique skill set in the lineup that can manufacture runs with small ball or the long ball. The loss of Burnett isn’t enough to take this team down 11 wins. With Taillon probably up near midseason to replace whoever is struggling at that time, the Pirates could go on another run and make some noise in the playoff picture.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.