Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone

russell martin pitch framing

When writing today’s Opening Day countdown preview for Vance Worley, I was reminded of his effectiveness in 2014: sharp control, low walk rate, and a propensity for backwards K’s.

Painting the black and collecting called strikes seemed to be a big part of Worley’s game. Upon further review, the entire Pirates’ rotation was above-average in that area:

pirates called strikes 2014

My next thought was that this success could be attributed to 1) the expanding strike zone in Major League Baseball, and/or 2) the acclaimed pitch-framing skills of then-Pirate Russell Martin and Chris Stewart.

“But my goal is not to steal strikes, it’s to keep strikes strikes. I don’t want to lose strikes. The key is trying to fight against what the ball is naturally wanting you to do.” – Russell Martin

Continue reading “Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone”

2014 Pirates in Review: Starting Pitchers

Reviewing the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates. Today, we’ll take a look at the starting pitchers. 

Final stats:

Name W L IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR
G. Cole 11 5 138.0 9.0 2.6 49% 3.65 3.23 2.1
F. Liriano 7 10 162.1 9.7 4.5 54% 3.38 3.59 1.6
V. Worley 8 4 108.2 6.5 1.8 50% 2.73 3.34 1.5
C. Morton 6 12 157.1 7.2 3.3 56% 3.72 3.72 1.3
B. Cumpton 3 3 56.0 5.5 2.4 44% 4.98 3.22 0.8
E. Volquez 13 7 190.2 6.5 3.4 50% 3.04 4.18 0.6
J. Locke 7 6 131.1 6.1 2.7 51% 3.91 4.37 0.1
W. Rodriguez 0 2 26.2 6.8 2.7 42% 6.75 7.41 -0.8

via FanGraphs

Looking to build off an impressive rookie campaign (3.22 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and two solid postseason starts), Gerrit Cole was good, but not exactly great, in 2014. We’d probably be looking at it differently had he stayed healthy, but shoulder problems caused him to miss 24 days in June and another 46 in July/August. His low inning count aside, Cole once again showed promise — an excellent 9.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 49% ground ball rate, 3.23 FIP, 3.25 xFIP — and I like his chances of really coming into his own in 2015. The best part? He just turned 24 two months ago and he’s under team control through 2019.


In his second year of a two-year contract, Francisco Liriano was deservedly given the Opening Day nod. The only thing standing between him and another fantastic season: injuries, as usual. Liriano hurt his groin during a spring training game I was at on March 20th; he looked great that night under the McKechnie lights until he was forced to exit early. Frankie made the Opening Day start anyway, but was shaky to start the season. With his ERA hovering in the mid-4.00’s, Liriano made it to June before landing on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

Although he missed a month of action, he came back better than ever. After the All-Star break, Liriano boasted a 2.20 ERA and opponents couldn’t touch him (.193 batting average, .551 OPS). If that isn’t impressive enough, consider he only surrendered more than two runs in two of 14 second half outings — once on August 19th, a 7 ER blowup vs. Atlanta and again in his final start (4 ER at Cincinnati). Take out the 7-run performance and it’s a 1.54 earned run average after the break.

All in all: a 3.38 ERA in 29 starts, backed up by a 3.59 FIP and 3.40 xFIP; more dominant strikeout stuff (9.7 per 9) and worm killers (54% ground ball rate). Similar to Russell Martin, Liriano re-established himself by coming to the Burgh on a two-year deal. He may be considered part of the free agent class’ second-tier, but he could be a bargain if he keeps throwing like he did in ’13 and ’14 and stays moderately healthy.


Vance Worley was, without a doubt, one of the unsung heroes of this year’s team. He really wasn’t given much thought back in March, when the Pirates purchased him from the Twins near the end of spring training. But he went to work with team pitching guru Jim Benedict in Bradenton and eventually turned in some quality starts at Indianapolis (4.30 ERA looks deceiving; was good for a 2.57 FIP, 8.4 K/9 and 0.8(!) BB/9). By the middle of June, the Vanimal found himself back on a big league roster.

With Cole and Liriano on the mend, Worley stuck around and turned in some solid outings. He wasn’t overpowering (90 mph fastball and average of 6 K per 9), but consistently got the job done thanks to his impeccable command and some help from his defense. A few of the more memorable pitching performances were on Worley’s right arm: his complete game shutout vs. Madison Bumgarner and the Giants on July 28th, and his eight-inning shutout performance vs. Milwaukee on September 21st, the final regular season home game. He was a classic example of the kind of pitching depth good teams need to have. No team will keep their rotation healthy and intact all season long; you need these type of guys to come in, and not only stop the bleeding, but also perform. Vance Worley did just that.


Edinson Volquez… unreal. Proof that sometimes we just need to shut up and believe in what the front office is doing.

volquez

His success has been talked about at length, and while it may have been smoke and mirrors, there’s no denying what he did in 2014. Kudos to Searage, Benedict & Co. for fixing him up. Volquez was visibly a different pitcher than he had been in the past, showing a more consistent delivery and release point, while refining his repertoire and game plan. He threw some important innings for the Bucs, and his last 12 regular season starts were quite dominant (1.78 ERA). We all know what happened in the Wild Card game, but … yeah.

gerrit cole on edinson volquez


Fresh off a three-year contract extension signed last December, Charlie Morton was counted on to be an anchor in the Bucco rotation. For someone with an injury history as lengthy as Charlie’s, that isn’t too wise of a strategy. He lasted until August, when we learned he had been pitching through a sports hernia and needed to be shutdown. He re-appeared for one start in mid-September, but couldn’t last. Morton underwent hip surgery on Sept. 26th, which will leave him out of game action for 6-8 months.

Overall, it’s hard to hate what he does & did this year when he can stay on the field — his respectable 3.72 ERA was matched by a 3.72 FIP; he posted the best strikeout rate of his career (7.2 per 9) along with his always stellar ground ball rate (56%). The reality is that he just can’t keep healthy. If he could log even 180-200 innings, he’d be a great asset at the back of a rotation.


Another weird season for 2013 “All-Star” Jeff Locke. He started 2014 in Indianapolis and didn’t stick with the big league club until June. But he filled in when necessary and spent the final four months of the season in the rotation. Once again, glimpses of dominance followed by ultimate disappointment:

First Half (56 innings) — 2.89 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 0.96 BB/9, .232/.259/.343 opponent slash line

Second Half (75.1 innings) — 4.66 ERA, 5.42 FIP, 4.06 BB/9, .266/.353/.451 opponent slash line

Locke’s proved to be effective when he knows where the ball’s going. When he loses his command and starts walking people, it’s game over.


Brandon Cumpton again filled in as a spot starter when necessary. With the exception of a 10-run abomination vs. Los Angeles, Cumpton did a pretty nice job — he bounced back from that terrible start with five good outings in June, posting a 2.97 ERA in over 30 innings.

The problem with Cumpton as a starter is his limited repertoire (fastball-slider), which doesn’t fool many hitters the second/third time he faces them…

1st PA – .247/.333/.286

2nd PA – .357/.378/.440

3rd PA –  .290/.353/.435


Wandy Rodriguez deserves no recognition for his six outings, which looked more like batting practice. He was rightfully cut by mid-May, but got the last laugh as he took $13 million from the Pirates and Astros.

wandyrod0001


Looking ahead…

Name 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
C. Morton $8M $8M Option FA
A.J. Burnett $8.5M FA
V. Worley Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3 Arb-4 FA
J. Locke Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3 FA
G. Cole Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3
B. Cumpton Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2
F. Liriano FA
E. Volquez FA

via Baseball-Reference

Welcome back, A.J. Yes, he had a bad year in Philly, but his 2012-2013 performance and inning-eating was sorely missed in the Pirate rotation. He’ll join Cole, Worley, and Locke as the healthy Pirate starters. Charlie Morton’s status is uncertain for now. Hopefully this is the summer Jameson Taillon can jump to the majors, although he may need more time as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Also keep an eye on Nick Kingham at Indianapolis. It’s looking like the Pirates should sign or trade for another starter, whether that’s Liriano or someone else. They could use a top/mid-rotation guy to fit between Cole and Burnett, and the depth is always necessary.

Next up: we’ll review the bullpen.

Go Bucs

15 Questions for the Second Half — Answered

During the All-Star break, we had 15 questions for the upcoming Pirates’ second half. Here are the answers.

1. Can they avoid a second half slump?

This question was built around the premise that in each of the first three seasons under Clint Hurdle, the Bucs played better ball in the first half than the second:

2011: .522 / .347

2012: .565 / .403

2013: .602 / .551

Their .516 winning percentage first half winning percentage was the lowest of the Hurdle era, so it wasn’t too hard to buck this trend. They won 39 of 67 games, good for a .582 win % to avoid the second half decline.

And, just for fun, consider this from the old post:

[quote_simple]On the other hand — the Pirates have played 67 games since May 2nd, winning 39 of those. If they kept that pace over the next 67, they’d finish with 88 wins. Maybe enough to sneak into the Wild Card (the Giants, who currently hold the second WC spot, are on pace for 89 wins). But the Bucs will have to avoid any sort of second half slump.[/quote_simple]

They managed to keep that pace and land right on 88 wins — tied with SF in the Wild Card.


2. Can the pitching improve?

FIRST HALF

ERA: 3.76
FIP: 3.97
xFIP: 3.82
K/9: 7.25
BB/9: 3.04
GB%: 49.5%

SECOND HALF
ERA: 3.10
FIP: 3.55
xFIP: 3.55
K/9: 8.08
BB/9: 3.14
GB%: 52.1%

Absolutely, and it certainly helped for the playoff push. A healthy Francisco Liriano once again looked like an ace, Gerrit Cole turned in some solid starts upon returning, Edinson Volquez was unbelievable from an ERA standpoint, and the bullpen saw better results. They flipped the switch at just the right time to get the Bucs back to October.


3. Can the offense stay steady?

The Pirates had one of the most well-round offenses in the league with the success of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Russell Martin, Starling Marte, and Neil Walker. After so many years of dismal offensive outputs, this was refreshing. They were good as a unit in the first half (.256/.331/.388, 105 wRC+), then got even better in the second half (.264/.327/.428, 113 wRC+) — hit for slightly more average, kept a steady OBP, and got a big boost of power. Their 113 wRC+ post-All-Star break was second-best in the Majors behind the Dodgers (115). Give Jeff Branson a raise.


4. What’ll happen at the deadline?

Nothing! The Pirates stood pat at both the non-waiver July 31 deadline and the waiver August 31 deadline. This was a bit of a surprise, but Neal Huntington & Co. believed that “no move was the best move.”

In hindsight, this probably hurt them in the long run. Of course they didn’t match on a Jon Lester or David Price deal, but even adding a legit bullpen arm could have gone a long way. Looking at how the postseason is shaping up (Giants and Cardinals in the NLCS), the Pirates were pretty close.


5. What’s in store for the MVP?

Unfortunately for Cutch, a first career trip to the disabled list was in store. He was hit by 7 pitches, including the 95 mph retaliatory fastball to the back in Arizona.

He *only* hit .295/.393/.482 in the second half, though his struggles actually came before hitting the disabled list (8-for-48 slump entering August, possibly some proof that he may have been hurting before that HBP).

Although he probably wasn’t 100% upon returning, McCutchen returned to ridiculous form and hit .324/.409/.559 from mid-August through the end of the year.

Overall, it was his third consecutive season of hitting better than .300/.400/.500 — he’s the fifth Pirate to accomplish that, joining Honus Wagner, Paul Waner, Arky Vaughan, and Brian Giles.

McCutchen was even better at the plate than he was last year, making another MVP case:

cutch city


6. Can we get an El Toro breakout?

What’s the opposite of a breakout? He appeared in only 29 games after the All-Star break, committing five more errors and hitting just .208 with a .625 OPS. El Toro became even more of a defensive liability at third base, forcing the team to try him out over at first base. He played 37 innings over there before suffering a foot injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season.


7. How about some first base productivity?

Meh. Ike Davis continued to get on base at a decent clip and finally showed some power (.440 slugging in the second half), hitting a couple of memorable homers against the Cardinals in late August. Gaby Sanchez continued to do nothing, batting .239 with a .670 OPS and just two homers. Both are candidates to be non-tendered this winter, depending on how the organization feels about Alvarez at 1B (and a few other factors).


8. Which Francisco Liriano will show up?

The good version. He posted a 2.20 ERA in 86 second half innings, boasting a 9.8 K/9 rate. He surrendered more than two earned runs in only two of his 14 second half outings — a 7 ER outburst vs. Atlanta on August 19th, and a 3 ER performance vs. Cincy in his last start of the year. Will that be his last start in a Pirate uniform?


9. Can Gerrit Cole come back strong?

Yep. He struggled to work deep into ballgames upon returning, but only got better as we got deeper into September. His last three outings:

vs. Boston: 7 innings, 2 runs, 7 K, 0 BB
@ Atlanta: 7 innings, 2 runs, 8 K, 2 BB
@ Cincinnati: 7 innings, 1 run, 12 K, 0 BB

Wish he pitched the Wild Card game, but whatever.


10. Is that the real Jeff Locke?

Nah…

First Half: 2.89 ERA, 2.95 FIP

Second Half: 4.66 ERA, 5.42 FIP


11. Can they beat the Central teams?

They were just 13-26 against the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds in the first half. Here’s how they fared in the second:

vs. Cards: 2-4
vs. Brewers: 4-2
vs. Reds: 3-3

They had no trouble knocking the Brewers out of the race, but still couldn’t handle the Cardinals. That three-game sweep in STL in early September was a killer.


12. Will the Brewers turn it around after a miserable end to the first half?

LOL no. After winning 2 of their final 13 games heading into the All-Star break, the Brew Crew went 29-37 in the second half. They lost 22 of their final 31. Absolute choke job.

brewers playoff odds


13. How will the Cardinals fare without Yadier Molina?

They went 21-19 in Molina’s absence. But the Cardinals always find a way — they once again won the Central and are in the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year.


14. Can the Reds make some noise without a few of their key players?

Haha, no. The Reds were absolutely atrocious, going 25-42 after the All-Star break. Only the Diamondbacks had a worse record in that span.


15. Playoffs?!

Ah, yes. Even if it was only one game (and a terrible one at that)… hard to believe they made it back. It was painful to see it end so abruptly, but can’t take a playoff spot for granted after two decades of losing.

playoffs 100

Go Bucs


Photo: Jason Miller/Getty

Arms Race: Bucco pitchers flip the switch

We know how solid the Bucs’ bats have been in 2014 (Jeff Branson deserves a raise). They lead the National League with a .331 OBP, they have nine players with double-digit homers (most in MLB and new franchise record), and they are the only team in baseball that has five regulars with an OPS over .800.

But how about the pitching staff? What led them to the promised land in 2013 started slowly in 2014. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole were injured and inconsistent; Wandy Rodriguez spontaneously combusted; Edinson Volquez and Charlie Morton were good, not great; the once dominant Shark Tank was looking more like an aquarium, as leader Jason Grilli faltered and later was traded to Anaheim.

Things picked up a bit, but the Pirates were devastated by a seven-game losing streak in mid-August. By the 19th, they sat just two games over .500 at 64-62 with 36 games to play. Since then, the pitching staff has flipped the switch.

Over the last 30 days, the Bucco arms are dominating the MLB ranks. They’ve easily been the best staff in the last month, and it’s easy to see why they have won 18 of their last 26 games.

LAST 30 DAYS:

2.29 ERA (1st in MLB)

52.1% ground ball rate (1st in MLB)

8.62 K/9 (2nd in MLB; 1st in NL)

They’re getting back to the Bucco brand of pitching — lots of strikeouts, lots of ground balls, and ultimately stellar run prevention.

In this hot stretch, the pitchers have allowed just 2.65 runs per game, while the offense is churning out 4.69 runs per game — a +53 run differential in 26 contests. This play is partially due to the weak caliber of opponents (thanks Cubs (twice), Phillies, Red Sox) but impressive nonetheless. Gotta beat up on the subpar teams, and that’s exactly what the Pirates have done. A month ago, their playoff odds were below 25%; now, they’re north of 95% with a little over a week to go.

Thankfully, the pitching has turned it up a notch. G. Cole dominated over 7+ last night, and Liriano has a 0.82 ERA over his last five starts. The stunner of the year, Edinson Volquez, has a 1.73 ERA since early August. Jeff Locke has been serviceable when he has his command (2.88 ERA last six times out), and Charlie Morton made a healthy return on Tuesday. More importantly, the bullpen is returning to form. The relievers have posted a 1.38 ERA and 2.26 FIP over the last 30 days, both marks the lowest in Major League Baseball. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are doing what they do, Big John Holdzkom has been more than just a legendary story, and the middle guys (Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, John Axford) are fitting their roles.

The offense is firing on all cylinders. The pitching has flipped the switch. 10 games remain. If they can keep rolling, we’ll be watching October baseball once again.

mark0001

Go Bucs