Clinched: How the 2015 Pirates made it back to Buctober

It’s official: with a victory over the Rockies on Wednesday night, the Pirates have sealed their third consecutive playoff berth. Yes, it’s the third year in a row that the Bucs have clinched on September 23rd. Turning into the best day of the year.

Further, it’s now the third time that the Pirates have appeared in the postseason three years in a row:

Pirates Consecutive Playoff Appearances
(The playoff format expanded to two rounds in 1969… Three rounds in 1994… And expanded Wild Card in 2012.)

In 2013, the feeling was pure joy; finally, the playoffs were back in Pittsburgh. Last year, it was almost relief; the Pirates hovered around .500 for more of the season than we would have liked (they were only three games over on September 3rd), but a late run proved that the previous season wasn’t exactly a fluke. This team had what it took to be among the league’s best.

This season, though, the feeling is a little different. They expected to be here. They’re not celebrating as much yet, at least not publicly all-out. Chasing the Cardinals all year has, once again, been unsatisfying, and the thought of another do-or-die Wild Card game is not exactly flattering. This team, despite having the second best record in all of Major League Baseball, has spent exactly zero days in first place. That’s just too bad: they could finish with or near triple-digit wins to be the best Bucco club since at least the early 1990s.

Still, many teams would love to be in the Bucs’ position right now. It’s an awesome accomplishment. Regardless of what happens next month, this has been another great year for the team. Let’s take a look at how they got here.

Continue reading “Clinched: How the 2015 Pirates made it back to Buctober”

MLB’s Most Strategic Managers

The impact of a Major League manager has been a bit of a topic this winter, as Joe Maddon bolted to Chicago for five years and 25 million of the Cubs’ dollars. As everyone knows, the Cubbies have been dreadful recently and are still looking for their first World Series title since 1908. Maddon can certainly change the culture over there, but how will it translate onto the field?

SportsCenter recently ran with this ridiculous graphic…

joe maddon 16 wins

…saying they think he’ll contribute 16 more wins to the Chicago Cubs (“Cubs being Cubs” — funny as it is — isn’t too profound, either).

For players, we have wins above replacement. Jon Lester was worth 6.1 WAR in 2014, and projects to be worth 3-4 in 2015, so you can see where ESPN sees a 5+ win improvement over whichever replacement level pitcher he knocked out of their rotation. But for managers? It’s much tougher to quantify.

Tony LaRussa had a pretty solid quote on this kind of idea back in August:

“Our attitude as a coaching staff was, we were involved 162 games. And we felt that somewhere along the way — whether it was moving an outfielder or moving an infielder, the hitting coach tweaking hitters — we felt our job was putting people in a position to win… But I don’t know how you put a measure on that in number of games.”

So maybe we can’t quantify a manager’s win value just yet. But what about from a strategy standpoint? “…we felt our job was putting people in a position to win…”

There’s a managerial section of the 2015 Bill James Handbook, featuring a number of statistics for each manager, ranging from lineups and substitutions to pitcher usage and other tactics. How can we see which manager employed the most of these strategies in 2014?

joe maddon cubs

Keep in mind, there are a ton of caveats to a manager’s “strategy.” Each team faces entirely different situations. Perhaps a team’s lineup is changing so frequently due to injuries, or the platoon advantage can’t be controlled so well because of roster construction, or whatever. This is all part of what makes quantifying a manager difficult.

But let’s see what we can do. Here are the categories we’ll use, all thanks to the Bill James Handbook: 1) lineups used, 2) percentage of players who had platoon advantage at start of game, 3) pinch-hitters used, 4) pinch-runners used, 5) defensive substitutions, 6) relievers used, 7) stolen base attempts, 8) sacrifice bunt attempts, 9) runners moving with the pitch, 10) pitchouts ordered, and 11) intentional walks ordered.

I decided to calculate z-scores for each category, which measure how many standard deviations a value is above/below the mean. This gives us an idea of how many moves of each type a manager made compared to the guys in the opposing dugouts, as defined by the criteria above.

To make it more accurate, I split up managers by league. Pitchers hitting in the National League makes a big difference, especially when it comes to pinch-hitting and bunting:

Average pinch-hitters used in AL: 111
Average pinch-hitters used in NL: 258

Average sac bunt attempts in AL: 39
Average sac bunt attempts in AL: 76

For example, the overall MLB average for pinch-hitters was 184, which was only topped by the Blue Jays and A’s in the AL. All NL teams were well over the 184 mark. By z-score methodology, that would’ve made the National Leaguers look way more PH-savvy when it’s really a fault of the rulebook. So we must compare each to their peers within their respective leagues.

Anyway, I then summed each category’s z-score for a final “strategy score,” to find which managers utilized the most and least tactics compared to their peers. I thought about weighting categories differently — say, tinkering with the lineup probably has a different impact on the game than a single pitchout — but decided to keep them all equal for now.

Without further ado, here are the results…

American League: Most Strategic Managers in 2014
1. Lloyd McClendon, Mariners (8.48)
2. Mike Scioscia, Angels (6.45)
3. Terry Francona, Indians (5.07)
4. John Gibbons, Blue Jays (3.70)
5. Robin Ventura, White Sox (1.47)

American League: Least Strategic Managers in 2014
11. Joe Maddon, Rays (-1.50)
12. Buck Showalter, Orioles (-4.79)
13. Ron Washington, Rangers (-5.27)
14. John Farrell, Red Sox (-5.92)
15. Bo Porter, Astros (-7.00)

Lloyd! The former Pirate manager finishes in first, having used an above-average amount of different lineups, platoon advantages, pinch-runners, stolen base attempts, and pitchouts, just to name a few. McClendon filled out a lineup card with 69% platoon advantages, fifth-best in the American League and a sound improvement from his days in Pittsburgh. He also called for more pitchouts than any other AL skipper (30), a category he used to dominate on the Pirates’ bench as well (led the NL with 67 in ’02 and 73 in ’03). Stealing first base wasn’t part of his arsenal this year, though.

You’re probably wondering about Maddon. I figured to see him at the top; not near the bottom. But he didn’t stick out in many categories, especially not like he has in the past. Looking at his previous numbers, Maddon typically uses many different lineups (led AL in 2012 and 2013), pinch-hitters (led six years in a row from 2008 to 2013), and stolen base attempts (led four times between ’08 and ’12). It was a down year for the Rays, and maybe a down year for Joe, too. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in a National League setting.

And perhaps we get a glimpse here of why Bo Porter was fired in Houston. He clearly didn’t do a lot behind the bench, and there were rumblings that Jeff Luhnow — one of baseball’s most forward-thinking general managers — engaged in “excessive second-guessing of (Porter’s) in-game management.” Hmm…

Anyway, how about the NL?

National League: Most Strategic Managers in 2014
1. Clint Hurdle, Pirates (9.02)
2. Bud Black, Padres (5.49)
3. Don Mattingly, Dodgers (2.33)
4. Bruce Bochy, Giants (1.45)
5. Walt Weiss, Rockies (0.56)

National League: Least Strategic Managers in 2014
11. Terry Collins, Mets (-1.51)
12. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves (-1.88)
13. Ron Roenicke, Brewers (-2.34)
14. Matt Williams, Nationals (-5.92)
15. Mike Redmond, Marlins (-6.55)

Woah, Clint! Hurdle runs away with this one. He employed the most pinch-hitters and put the most runners in motion (can recall a number of successful hit-and-run’s this year), while also ordering the most pitchouts and intentional walks. That’s the second year in a row Hurdle has used more pinch-hitters than anyone in the National League, further emphasizing the need of a strong bench. The Pirates are well on their way with Travis Snider, Corey Hart, and Sean Rodriguez, and could look even better if they lock up Jung-Ho Kang.

You’ll notice Matt Williams at #14. The first-year Nats manager was criticized for a few issues this year, especially his bullpen usage in the playoffs. He might not have known what he was doing, but won the NL Manager of the Year award anyway — there wasn’t a great storyline this year, the teams that were supposed to be good were good (STL and LAD), and an already talented team gave a rookie manager a league-leading 96 wins, so there’s your nod.

What we’ve done here is simply a look at the amount of in-game moves a manger made to try to presumably help his team win from a strategic standpoint. Keep in mind — this isn’t measuring a manager’s effectiveness. (That’s the next step, and hopefully something we can work on soon.) Not all stolen base attempts work, not all bunts are smart, etc. Hurdle thought it was a good idea to put 43 men on base via the intentional walk, but the Bill James Handbook declared 17 of those “Not Good” decisions (meaning the Pirates were unable to get a double play on the next batter, or get out of the inning without allowing any additional runs).

There’s basically no correlation between a manager’s overall “strategy score” that we calculated above and his team’s winning percentage — well, it’s a weak one but it is positive with an r-squared value of 0.1009 …

mlb managers strategy

There were managers like Williams, Buck Showalter, and Brad Ausmus, who perhaps didn’t need to call for much in-game move-making and still reaped the benefit of a good winning percentage. Actually, if you remove those three from the equation, there is a much better correlation — r-squared of 0.33.

It is notable that there weren’t any high-strategy managers with a low winning percentage (see the area below Bud Black). That’s pretty much the only section of the graph that’s untouched, and what makes it stronger when you remove Williams/Showalter/Ausmus.

On the flip side, some of the lowest strategy managers produced very low winning percentages (Washington, Porter, Farrell, etc.)

This is quite preliminary, but maybe it’s a good first step. It might not be entirely possible to quantify a manager’s “on-field” contributions, but hopefully we can get closer to a better understanding sometime in the near future.

***Once again, all data courtesy of the 2015 Bill James Handbook. Highly recommend it.***

Go Bucs

The 2014 Pirates & How they made it back to Buctober

[quote_simple]”Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” – Henry Ford[/quote_simple]

It’s official: with the Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win in Atlanta + Milwaukee’s 3-1 loss in Cincinnati, our beloved Pirates are headed back to the postseason. For the second consecutive September 23rd, they’re popping champagne in the clubhouse.

Admit it — you wrote this team off at least once this season. You doubted them. You thought we wouldn’t see the Pirates back in the playoffs. That was my line of thinking countless times this summer, probably too many times to count on both hands. When was it for you? After the 10-18 start? After Cole, Liriano, Walker, Marte, or Cutch got hurt? After the seven-game losing streak in mid-August? After the three-game sweep in St. Louis at the beginning of September, when the Bucs left just three games over .500?

This team battled as much — or more — than any other. They got hot at the right time. They controlled their own destiny and made the most of it — they’ve now won 15 of their last 18 games and are locked into the 2014 postseason.

Here’s how they got there.


cutch cigar clinch

There’s our MVP…”

The Pirates wouldn’t be where the are today without #22, the face of the franchise, the reigning MVP — Andrew McCutchen. The smooth-swinging center fielder has taken this team to new heights. He appropriately reached base four times on Tuesday night and scored the eventual game-winning run. On the year, Cutch is batting .313/.408/.540 — he’s on his way to a third consecutive .300/.400/.500 season. He’s once again been the steadiest hitter in the National League and is deserving of more MVP votes. Even in a year he hit the DL for the first time ever, suffered from a rib injury, and became the victim of too many beanballs, McCutchen was as good as ever. Thank you, Cutch.

An Engine

josh harrison pirates

“…(there’s) our engine.

Other than maybe the legend of John Holdzkom, it’s hard to find a story as good as Josh Harrison this season. You know the deal: from the Bucco bench to the All-Star Game, J-Hay became a fixture in the Pirates’ lineup. The team took off when he started getting consistent playing time in mid-May, and he was invaluable around the diamond – left field, right field, second base, third base, you name it. More over, Harrison saved the day when Pedro Alvarez simply forgot how to throw. Pedro was a vital part of the 2013 Bucs, and with no one of value at 3B in the system, it was crucial for him to keep it up this year. When he faltered, the Pirates were so very lucky to have J-Hay step in and not miss a beat. Even after his All-Star appearance, Harrison has been one of baseball’s best hitters in the second half. He’s even right in the thick of the batting race in the final week. He never gave up. He hustled day in and day out. He is the engine of this team. Thank you, J-Hay.

A Heartbeat


“And that over there, that’s our heartbeat.”

Russell Martin — a great player, a great teammate, a great leader — has become the heartbeat of this team. They call him Super Russ for a reason — he’s revitalized his career here in Pittsburgh, becoming a fan favorite and even one of the best performers in the entire league in 2014. Having consistently solid defense plus superb offense out of their starting catcher has played a huge role for this team. Two years as a Buc, two playoff appearances. Thank you, Russell Martin.

An Improved Offense

With McCutchen, Harrison, and Martin guiding the offense, the Pirates were in a good place all year. Add in great seasons from Neil Walker and Starling Marte, and you have yourself a really solid lineup. Those five impressively rank among the top 22 offensive performers in the National League. Overall, the Bucs’ non-pitchers rank first in OBP (.341), first in wRC+ (116), and fourth in batting average (.269) in all of Major League Baseball. Thank you, bats.

A Flip of the Switch — Pitching Staff

After paving the way in 2013, the Pirates’ pitchers weren’t so consistent to start 2014. Everyone in Pittsburgh was calling for a pitcher at the deadline — even if it wasn’t David Price or Jon Lester… just someone. Starter, reliever, didn’t matter. It looked like this staff needed a boost (and you could still look at it and say they do), but they flipped the switch themselves. Since September 3rd, the starting pitchers are 13-1 with a 1.95 ERA. The relief corps has the best ERA in baseball this month by more than a full run. Thank you, arms, and keep it up into October.

A Little Help from their “Friends”

While the Pirates went on a surge, they wouldn’t have made it if not for total collapses by the Brewers and Braves.

wild card odds

September records:

Brewers – 7-14

Braves – 4-16

Thank you, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

A LOT of Resiliency 

A slow start — the bats were cold in April, and the pitching wasn’t where it was in 2013. They lost far too many divisional games early on, looking like they had already played their way out of the race. Injuries to nearly all of their key players — the top two arms, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, missed a lot of time; Walker and Marte were out for a bit; Cutch going down looked like the dagger. But they battled through it all. Thanks for never, ever quitting.

A Front Office that Believed from Day #1

You remember the quote from deadline day: “no move was the best move.”

You probably played it over in your head as the Pirates lost seven in a row.

But maybe… maybe they were right. They didn’t mortgage their future, yet are still going to have a chance to play for the World Series. Sure, they could’ve added an impact player to improve those chances. But, after all we’ve been through — and now two straight postseason appearances — perhaps we should just trust the direction of the front office.

This is a forward-thinking front office. Be sure to check out the Grantland article about quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald and his work with the team.

They believe in what they’re doing, and I think we should believe in them. Thank you, Neal Huntington & Co. for steering this Pirate ship in the right direction.

A Manager of the Year

Clint Hurdle deservedly won the Manager of the Year award last year. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he should win it again. You’d be hard-pressed to find a manager as positive as Hurdle, even through all the hip pain he’s currently enduring. If you check out that Grantland article, you’ll find that, even as an old school guy, he’s fully bought in to what the new school stat guys are giving him.

Hurdle believes in the process, and he’s guided this team to success. It’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that the Pirates will be in the playoffs after all that they went through. But Hurdle is at the head of that; he pulled this team through it. You may not always agree with his on-field decisions, but I’m not sure there’s another man I’d want managing the Pittsburgh Pirates right now. Thank you, Mr. Hurdle, for re-bonding this city with its baseball team — something you’ve preached since Day #1.

What a ride.

playoffs 100

After watching so many years of losing baseball, this all makes it worth it. Seeing the Pirates celebrate and pop champagne after such an up-and-down year — those are the moments you remember for quite some time.

Can’t wait to watch some October baseball.

Enjoy this, Pittsburgh.

Congratulations, Pirates. Thank you.


Little things that have killed the 2014 Pirates

Every time you think the Pirates are on their way to something special, it seems to fall apart. The latest: series wins vs. Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, only to be swept by the Cardinals at Busch Stadium to start a crucial month of September. It has been a frustrating year, indeed.

It’s going to be maddening if/when this team misses the playoffs by a few games. They’ve had opportunity after opportunity to make a push — each other “contender” has also been quite mediocre, and the National League just doesn’t look that strong.

There have been a number of “little things” hurting this team. There are bigger things that need focus, too — not (drastically) improving the team in the offseason, not addressing needs at the trade deadline(s), a lack of depth, the bullpen blowing a game per week (or so it seems), Pedro Alvarez forgetting how to throw (causing position changes and roster adjustment), et al. But here are some of the little things that, with a little physical or mental adjustment, could change the outcome of a game — and a season.

Pitchers can’t hit

Before the season, we wrote that one way the Pirates’ offense could improve would be by having the pitchers actually hit the baseball.

They’ve been just as terrible.

2013: .104/.138/.104
2014: .104/.139/.108

Their pitchers’ batting average ranks 12th of 15 NL teams, and their slugging percentage is dead last. One extra base hit this year. One. But that’s one more than last year, so…

Gerrit Cole is the only one who resembles a hitter; he has 27% of the staff’s hits this year. Francisco Liriano would rather be anywhere in the world than in a batter’s box.

Francisco  Liriano Hitting (2)

It’s the National League. Pitchers have to bat. And they do make a difference. Each out in a baseball game is significant; there are only 27. When your pitcher is coming up three times and not even coming close, you’ve handed the other team an entire inning’s worth of outs for the game.

Look at what Adam Wainwright did on Tuesday night. Three legit at-bats, three runs batted in — that’s almost as many RBI as the Pirate pitchers have all season (4). The Cardinals won, 6-4. The opposing pitcher was a difference maker with the bat. If only the Bucs could have that happen every once in a while.

They don’t know how to bunt

You don’t have to be a sabermetrician to realize that excessive bunting can be stupid. There’s no reason to take the bat out of a good hitter’s hands and give the other team an out (again, those “outs” are, uh, pretty important).

But it’s even more infuriating when they legitimately cannot bunt. They just aren’t good at it.

Entering Wednesday, the Pirates had attempted 77 sacrifice bunts — second most in the NL, behind Milwaukee’s 83. However, they were successful just 50 times. That’s a 65% success rate, second worst in the NL (just ahead of Washington’s 63%).

That’s just fundamental stuff. Clint Hurdle‘s an old school guy and will continue to put on the bunt sign. But if you’re gonna bunt that much, at least be good at it…

Dumb Baserunning 

If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen the term “TOOTBLAN” … a lot. If you’re not up with the lingo, that stands for “thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop” … and yes, people actually keep track of such baserunning blunders.

The Pirates actually aren’t leading the league in TOOTBLAN’s anymore, but they’re still in the top 5 with 64. That’s a lot of mistakes. The main culprits: Starling Marte (18!), Josh Harrison (7), Gregory Polanco (7), Andrew McCutchen (5).

They’ve made a ton of outs at third base (16) and home (19), both ranking among the most in the NL. Their baserunning could be a lot better.

McCutchen’s defense — positioning and arm

This hurts the team more than you’d think. Despite being a Gold Glove winner in 2012, defense is not Andrew McCutchen’s strong suit.

Cutch has cost the team eight runs with his defense this year, worst of any Pirate. By the metrics, his arm has been the worst of any center fielder in Major League Baseball.

While it looks stronger at times, Cutch’s throwing arm is just generally weak. If you watch the games, you’ll also notice that he makes some dumb throws (wrong base, doesn’t hit cutoff man, etc).

McCutchen also plays waaay too deep at times. For a guy who has exceptional speed and can range back well on fly balls, I’m not sure why he does this. Gregory Polanco plays extremely deep as well, though he can make up for it with a cannon of an arm. Paired with a weak arm, it hurts on plays like this — today’s walk-off winner:


Starling Marte looked (mostly) good in center field when Cutch was hurt, and he’s the superior defender. It’s extremely doubtful that the Pirates would move the face of the franchise & MVP out of the premier position, but it makes sense on the surface.

Bullpen usage

This has been discussed at length before. Whether it’s not matching relievers to proper leverage situations, only using Tony Watson and Mark Melancon in their specified innings/roles (which he didn’t do today, finally), or leaving the starters in too long, Hurdle makes debatable moves with his pitching staff. He left Cole in too long on Monday, and Locke just a bit too long on Tuesday (even though he had 10 relievers to choose from). It’s easy to nitpick in hindsight, but there are plenty of situations that don’t go in the Pirates’ favor when it involves Hurdle’s bullpen management. Now that they have a full bullpen with September call-ups, there’s no reason for him to be hesitant in these crucial games.

Bullpen construction

This involves overall roster construction (which is a big deal), but it relates to the bullpen usage in that it did make things difficult for Hurdle in the first five months of the season.

For whatever reason, the Pirates carried two long relievers all year long. Their affinity for Jeanmar Gomez cannot be explained. In addition to Gomez, they kept Stolmy Pimentel around and only used him a handful of times. And when he was hurt, Brandon Cumpton was around for long relief duties. That just doesn’t make sense.

Hurdle clearly (and probably rightfully) didn’t trust them in high leverage situations, but that limits your options and the bullpen was pretty much two men short. It tired out the other arms and forced them to sometimes use a one inning guy for two innings (like Jared Hughes on Sunday, blowing the game). It didn’t make sense for the Pirates to not upgrade their bullpen, and it really didn’t make sense for them to carry two long relievers on a 25-man roster.

Let us know if you have any more.

23 games to make things right. But it might be too late.

Go Bucs

Monday Morning Links 7/14/14

– CBS Sports gives the Pirates a “B” grade for the first half:

[quote_simple]”They were eight games below .500 on May 20, so heading into the break three games over is definitely a good thing for Pittsburgh. The offense has been good and the addition of Gregory Polanco gives the Pirates an unbelievable outfield that is under team control for years. The pitching, though, has been disappointing.”[/quote_simple]

– The Bucs have set their rotation for after the All-Star break:

Francisco Liriano (Friday vs. Rockies)
Charlie Morton (Saturday vs. Rockies)
Jeff Locke (Sunday vs. Rockies)
Edinson Volquez (Monday vs. Dodgers)
Vance Worley (Tuesday vs. Dodgers)

– Liriano was … shaky in his return on Sunday. Six walks in four innings.

Josh Bell was the Pirates’ lone representative in yesterday’s All-Star Futures Game. He went 0-for-1 and played some right field as the US team won, 3-2.

Clint Hurdle is looking forward to helping coach the National League team on Tuesday.

– An excellent piece from Travis Sawchik on the Bucs’ superstar, Andrew McCutchen, and an interesting quote from GM Neal Huntington:

[quote_simple]”We truly hope Andrew McCutchen retires as a Pirate. That is going to be incredibly challenging to do, but that is our long-term goal. The contracts are always a challenge. If a player gets hurt or under-performs, there is no recourse for the club, but when the player drastically out-performs the contract, there is a lot of heat and attention. ‘Why don’t you extend him longer?’ I’m sure there will come a point in time for us to revisit it as it will with other players we signed to multi-year deals.”[/quote_simple]

– The Home Run Derby takes place on Monday Night at Target Field. AL Lineup: Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Brian Dozier, Adam Jones, Yoenis Cespedes … NL Lineup: Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Frazier, Justin Morneau, Yasiel Puig, Giancarlo Stanton. All eyes are on Stanton.

– The Orioles’ released Tim Alderson yesterday. Acquired by the Bucs for Freddy Sanchez in ’09, Alderson just hasn’t figured things out in the minor leagues.

– Speaking of former Pirate farmhands — Brock Holt just keeps doing it for the Red Sox. He went 5-for-6 (!) with a home run on Sunday afternoon, leading the Sox to an 11-0 win over Houston.

NL Central Standings at the All-Star Break:


Wild Card Standings:


On Tap This Week:

Monday — off (HR Derby)
Tuesday — off (All-Star Game)
Wednesday — off
Thursday — off
Friday — vs. Rockies, 7:05
Saturday — vs. Rockies, 7:05
Sunday — vs. Rockies, 1:35

Go Bucs