Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chicken Wire, Duct Tape and Spit: Assessing the Pirates

That's Clint Hurdle's new favorite phrase when asked how the Pirates are winning these days.

As WTM's signature line says at BucsDugout, "You are entitled to you're own opinions, You are not entitled to your own facts." I think some Pirates fans have started bordering on irrationality when it comes to assessing the Pirates' performance.

Last night I was listening to a talk show host talk about how frustrated he was with last night's loss. That's fine. I can see some - not much, but some - validity in that. Unfortunately, it takes me awhile to get home from the postgame show and I kept listening. For 25 minutes. The host and various callers were talking about all the Pirates' baserunning mistakes (see below) and finally he just said he felt like the Pirates "crapped away" the game and also suggested they did the same against Boston on Sunday. At that point I had to turn it off. When I got home I couldn't help myself, so I got on a Pirates blog and saw some similar arguments. I decided to sleep on it and see how it felt in the morning. The same.

First some facts. The Pirates are a bit "lucky" to be 40-39. Their Pythagorean Record based on runs scored and runs against suggests they should be 38-41. Also, they are 13-8 in one-run games. While Bob Walk, among others, thinks one-run wins are a sign of a good bullpen, history would suggest they aren't. Again it is more likely the team has been a little lucky and will probably regress back toward .500 as the season progresses.

Looking at specific statistics, at the plate the Pirates are 14th in the NL in wOBA and K%. They are 15th in SLG and ISO. They are 8th in BABIP. On the mound they are 12th in FIP, 15 in xFIP, but 6th in ERA. As you might suspect from those numbers, the staff is dead last in K/9 because the starters can't strike anybody out, averaging only 5.4K/9.

Those numbers aren't a formula for success. They aren't even a formula for a .500 team. The reality is the Pirates have the fourth-best BABIP against, the sixth best LOB%-against, virtually identical to 2-5, and have played very well defensively. That and some luck have the team right around .500 at the half way point.

Now let's look at the most recent five games against Boston and Toronto. The scores were as follows: vs. Boston W 3-1, W 6-4, L 4-2. vs. Toronto W 7-6, L 2-1.

During the Boston series the Red Sox had more hits, walks and home runs, the Pirates struck out more often and commited more errors. The difference in the series was the Red Sox went an amazing 1-for-26 with runners in scoring position and left 29 men on base. The Pirates were 6-for-26 with RISP and left 23 men on base. In Sunday's game spefically, the Pirates walked six, committed four errors and got out-hit. Probably the more appropriate assessment is they played like crap, not that they crapped it away. Yet, in the end they won two of the three games in the series.

So far in Toronto the peripherals are almost comically against the Pirates. The Jays have 11 extra base hits and five home runs. The Pirates three extra-base hits and two home runs. Pirates batters have struck out 20 times to the Jays' six, but they have out-walked them seven to five. Again the difference has been at bats with RISP where the Pirates are 5-for-13, leaving 12 on base and the Jays are 1-for-15, leaving 13 on base. Sure, last night the Pirates had three men thrown out on the bases*, but you might forget the Jays had two, including their leadoff batter in the first when they later got a walk and a single.

(*I'm amazed how many people are killing the Pirates for their baserunning last night. Let's look at the three outs on the bases:

1.) Walker thrown out at the plate on a chopper to third.

Situation: There were runners on first and third with no outs in the fifth of a scoreless game, and the Pirates had managed two hits against Brandon Morrow, a strikeout pitcher. Matt Diaz was at the plate and Ronny Cedeno and Eric Fryer were on deck.

Assessment: Walker was running on contact and the ball was a chopper to the left side. This was a coaching-staff decision and I generally agree. If you get thrown out you still have two on and a runner in scoring position. Bautista made a good play. I think it was the right decision, with the bottom of the order coming up. Walker wasn't running on his own.

2.) Diaz hung up between second and third.

Situation: Still a scoreless game in the fifth, now with Lyle Overbay on second and Diaz on first and one out. Cedeno bloops a single to right-center. Overbay scores and Diaz is hung up in a rundown between second and third. He is tagged out while Cedeno moves to second.

Assessment: This could have been a smart play or a bonehead play depending on what Diaz was seeing. Unfortunately I couldn't tell from the replays or the announcers. If Overbay was going to score easily and there was no chance of a play at the plate, then Diaz made a bad mistake. However, if Overbay, a slow runner, didn't get a good read on the bloop and the Jays may have had a shot at him at home, Diaz did exactly the right thing in rounding the bag and forcing the cutoff man to make a decision with only one out. In a scoreless game in that situation the Pirates would absolutely give up an out to guarantee the run scoring. Often in this situation the Pirates airmail the cutoff man and the team on the bases gets the best of both worlds, the run scoring and the runner to third. In this case the Jays made the play, but Diaz stayed alive long enough to allow Cedeno to get to second. Again, not a clear answer.

3.) Jones gets picked off first after breaking for second.

Sitaution: Garrett Jones on first with two outs and Andrew McCutchen at the plate, top of the eighth, down 2-1.

Assessment: On a 2-2 pitch Jones gets the steal sign, breaks for second and slips. Realizing he will be out by 20 feet, he reverses course and tries to get back to the bag, but is picked off by a good throw by Jose Molina. Criticizing this is just asinine. Yes, of course it's a bad play to slip when breaking for second, but things happen. This was not a mental error or a decision by Jones "to inexplicably stop" as one poster called it. Jones actually made a good decision once he slipped and Molina made a good throw. Again this was a coaching-staff decision to have him running. If he gets thrown out stealing Cutch leads off the ninth. If he makes it, there is a man in scoring position for Cutch. I have no problem with that thinking. A single by Cutch in that situation doesn't score Jones from first.)

So in the five games against the Sox and Jays thus far, the opposition has gone 2-for-41 (.049) with RISP and left 42 men on base. Is some of that because of good Pirates pitching? Sure. Is it going to continue at that pace? Not a chance in hell.

The larger point is Pirates fans should be doing backflips that they are 3-2 in these five games and 40-39 overall. The pitching staff has been good, though the starters have, as expected, been unable to sustain their fantastic first two months. The bullpen continues to be excellent, but the offense is and should be a major concern. The Bucs need to stay in touch until the all-star break and then get Alvarez, Tabata, Pearce and Doumit back and have them perform up to levels that they have seen in the past in order to generate more offense.

If that doesn't happen and the team puts up offensive numbers like this in the second half and the pitching drops off at all, their record is much more likely to be closer to 10 games under .500 than the 40-39 mark they are sporting right now.

When Clint Hurdle says it's chicken wire, duct tape and spit, he is showing that he and the front office understand that while injuries have forced the Pirates to rely on a major league-high 42 players, the team needs to play better to sustain even this level of performance based on their peripherals. The suggestion from some that the Pirates are blowing games that they should win just shows that the are looking through a very Pirates-colored prism. If things don't change they better find a smoke machine and some mirrors as well.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Return of Zach Duke

Zach Duke was taken in the 20th round of the 2001 amateur draft, a lefthanded pitcher out of Midway high school in Waco, Texas. He made his professional debut the next year in the Gulf Coast League posting an 8-1 record, a 1.95 ERA and a WHIP of 0.933. And just that quickly the Legend of Zach Duke was born.

That's pretty much how it went as he climbed through the system. The numbers, aside from a declining strikeout rate, were outstanding and in 2004 he led all minor leagues with a 1.46 ERA and was named the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

On July 2, 2005 he made his major league debut against the Milwaukee Brewers, striking out nine and getting a no-decision in a 5-3 loss. From July 2 to July 21 he had a string of 22 consecutive scoreless innings and beat Gred Maddux and the Cubs 3-0. He was named National League Rookie of the Month, compiling an ERA of 0.87 which was the best among all starting pitchers in the major leagues. He became only the second Pirates rookie to win his first five decisions and only the fourth pitcher in the live ball era to have an ERA below 1.00 after his first six starts. He finished the year 8-2 and most hardcore Pirates fans can recite his 1.81 ERA from memory. The Legend had become tangible.

I watched Duke pitch live for the first time that year August 18 in Shea Stadium. He went 7 innings, gave up 2 hits and 0 runs. He walked 1 and struck out 5, throwing 103 pitches before being removed. The Pirates won the game 5-0 and Duke raised his record to 6-0. The Mets didn't get their first hit until the fifth inning and I remember laughing at Cliff Floyd as he struck out swinging two different times, completely fooled by Duke's offspeed stuff. His game score of 77 was his highest of the season and I walked out of the game thinking the Pirates had found their ace for the next five years.

In hindsight, that game may literally have been the apex of Zach Duke's Pirates career. From that point he compiled a record of 39-70 with the team. He had a solid 2009 even though he led the league in losses and he made the All-Star as an injury replacement. But after six seasons with the Pirates opposing batters were hitting were hitting .305/.351/.462 against him, and on November 19, 2010 the Bucs designated him for assignment. On November 24 he was traded to the Arizona Diamonbacks for a PTBNL that turned out to be reliever Cesar Valdez. The Diamondbacks avoided arbitration by signing Duke to a one-year deal for $3.5 million with a club option for 2012.

Tonight Zach Duke returns to PNC Park and will start against his former club and good friend Paul Maholm as the Pirates try to raise their record to 30-30 for the first time since 2005. I wasn't a big fan of the pitcher that Duke became and wasn't unhappy to see him moved. But at the same time I felt bad for a pitch-to-contact lefty generally pitching in front of a bad defensive team which is how things played out for Duke.

It all seems a bit serendipitous. Maybe Duke can go six strong before the Pirates get to the Snakes pen as they did last night. Either way this one will draw more than average interest as the Pirates try to get back to .500 against a former teammate.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Daily Numbers 6/2: Chris Capuano's 7th Inning. Later a Homicide?

A couple of posts from my Extra Innings blog to whet your appetite if you aren't getting over there on a regular basis. If you watched the Pirates 9-3 victory over the New York Mets last night you probably wouldn't be surprised if Mets pitcher Chris Capuano was arrested for homicide overnight. Capuano breezed through six innings. He had given up 3 hits, 0 runs and thrown only 71 pitches. Here is a pitch-by-pitch recap of what happened in the seventh:

Batter: Andrew McCutchen

First Pitch: Infield single to first baseman Daniel Murphy. (Misplayed by Murphy & Capuano)

Batter: Neil Walker

First Pitch: Bunt single to third baseman Willie Harris. (Misplayed by Harris)

Batter: Matt Diaz

First Pitch: Ball
Second Pitch: Infield single to pitcher Chris Capuano. (Misplayed by Harris)

Batter: Chris Snyder

First Pitch: Called strike
Second Pitch: Infield single to shortstop Ruben Tejada. Run scores 2-1. (Misplayed by Harris on force at third)

Batter: Lyle Overbay

Frist pitch: Ball
Second pitch: Single to center off the glove of Angel Pagan. Run scores 2-2. (Misplayed by Pagan)

Chris Capuano is removed from the game after throwing 8 pitches. All five batted balls should have been converted into outs. Of course the three remaining runners would all come in to score, including one on another infield hit.

On the inning Capuano threw 8 pitches, gave up 5 hits and 5 earned runs. I'm certain the water cooler in the clubhouse had a bad ten minutes after Capuano left the field.

The 3 Best Catches You May See All Year (Poll)

I posted this on my Extra Innings blog, but for those of you who don't get there I thought I'd re-post here because these catches are all fantastic. Two occurred yesterday. Vote on the right as to which you think was best.

May 14, CF Roger Bernadina Washington Nationals

June 1, CF Adam Jones Baltimore Orioles

June 1, CF Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates