Strengths & Weaknesses Within the NL Central

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After a long, cold winter, we’re getting awfully close to Opening Day 2015. The National League Central looks to be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball this season — all five teams could hang around for a while, and at least three might be vying for a postseason spot come September.

This division has a lot of intriguing players who will put their respective teams in a position to compete. FanGraphs did a rundown of their positional rankings last week, ranking how all 30 teams stack up position-by-position based on wins above replacement projections. Team WAR totals by position can be found HERE. While there isn’t a perfect correlation, their WAR projections are typically a strong indicator of success, as Jeff Sullivan wrote in December.

Using FG’s depth charts/team WAR totals, I broke each position on each team into percentiles (based on all of MLB) and displayed the NL Central on some radar charts below. Each position includes bench playing time — for example, the Pirates’ projected wins above replacement at second base isn’t just Neil Walker; it’s Walker (2.9 WAR in 525 PA), Jung-Ho Kang (0.4 WAR in 140 PA), and Sean Rodriguez (0.1 WAR in 21 PA).

Let’s take a look, starting with our Bucs…

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Pirates Grapefruit Report: Week 4

josh harrison pirates

We’ve (almost) made it: the last week of spring training is here, and the Pirates will be breaking camp in just a few days.

Monday, 3/23 – Pirates 7, Rays 6

Francisco Cervelli hits his third home run in four days; A.J. Burnett give up five runs over 4.2 innings; Arquimedes Caminero strikes out four in two scoreless frames.

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Jung-Ho Kang Ditches Leg Kick (For Now), Crushes Triple

jung ho kang pirates

Jung-Ho Kang and his transition to American baseball will be a storyline for 2015 and beyond. The biggest question remains to be whether or not he can translate his exceptional hitting ability from the Korean Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball. His gaudy numbers from the KBO — including a 40-homer, 1.198-OPS campaign in 2014 — were impressive for any level, but there was and is a definite, necessary adjustment period to MLB pitching.

Kang has been battling that adjustment period this spring; John Perrotto’s reporting for DK’s site sums it up:

“I think he has talent and he can eventually be a useful player in the big leagues,” said a scout from a National League team. “Right now, though, he’s not ready to face major league pitching. His bat is too slow because of the big leg kick at the start of his swing. The pitchers throw harder here than in Korea and he’s getting beat by good fastballs. He needs to adjust, and that’s hard to do in the big leagues.”

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The Diminishing Power of Corey Hart

corey hart pirates

Corey Hart is one of the new faces in Pirate camp this year, and, well, it feels kinda weird. Hart was a member of the Milwaukee teams that annually torched the Bucs of the late-2000’s, so the immediate memories of him aren’t particularly fond. Moreover, he’s coming off the worst season of his career — a .203/.271/.319 showing in Seattle, featuring only 6 home runs and a 70 wRC+ in 68 games.

However, it really wasn’t that long ago that Hart was hitting the ball as far as some of the biggest boppers in all of baseball. Take a look at where he ranked on home run & fly ball distance over the years, via Baseball Heat Maps:

Year Average Distance MLB
2010 308.4 17th
2011 313.72 2nd
2012 302.62 12th
2013 -  -
2014 281.76 119th

Knee surgeries — on both right and left — forced him to miss the entire 2013 season. His right knee caused him trouble again in 2014, landing him on the disabled list for a month late in the year. Hart’s aching legs cost him a lot of baseball the past two years, and there’s reason to believe it sapped his power as well. His home run to fly ball ratio in 2014 was his worst ever and a steep decline from previous seasons:

Year HR/FB
2010 16.8%
2011 19.7%
2012 18.1%
2013 -
2014 8.0%

When looking at his average fly ball distance above, that makes sense. A move from hitter-friendly Miller Park to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field likely played a role, but the injury problems shouldn’t be ignored.

Here’s a visual look at his fly ball/home run power over the past five years…

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How Every Pirates Starter Gets a Ground Ball

aj burnett francisco liriano

By now, everyone knows the Pirates have placed an emphasis on getting ground balls from their pitchers. They’ve led the league in ground ball rate two consecutive seasons, featuring a staff full of above-average worm killers.

But how exactly do they induce these ground balls? Which pitches and in which locations give them an edge? Here’s a look at what the (projected) starting five did in 2014 — whether it be a groundout, ground into double play, or ground ball single; split by batter handedness (LHH on the left; RHH on the right)…

Francisco Liriano

francisco liriano ground ball pitcher

Two Seam 37%
Change 30%
Slider 25%
Four Seam 8%

When Liriano’s not making batters whiff, he’s making them put the ball on the turf. He loves his changeup (red dots) and slider (purple) for whiffs and grounders alike, while his two seam fastball/sinker (blue) is also particularly effective. There’s a ton of action low and away to right-handed batters; all of his stuff works down there, like this sinker that runs away from Peter Bourjos:

francisco liriano two seam

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