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The dog days of February

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Charlie observed, during his podcast with David Todd, that this has been a difficult offseason to analyze both because of the Pirates' relative inaction and because of the seeming opacity of the logic behind several of their transactions.

Hope, ever the province of the pre-Spring Training days, may spring eternal, but belief in the ongoing effectiveness of Ryan Vogelsong or Sean Rodriguez almost seems to demand an act of faith. Little in the way of publicly available analysis exists to validate either move--one's (well-founded) faith in the front office's prescience represents perhaps the most compelling defense of the decisions.

It would be a gross abdication of writer-ly responsibility, however, to refrain from commentary solely due to the Pirates' failure to make a significant splash (I'm reminded, here, of a proverb about a fool opening his mouth), and in this spirit, I'd like to offer a few topics that might potentially influence the Pirates' 2016 season more than, say, Mat Latos' absence.

Pulled Grounders: The Pirates' Secret Sauce?

I watched a lot of South Park during college. An uncomfortable amount. To the point where I started dropping unsolicited South Park quotes on innocent bystanders during parties, then cackling maniacally at my own wit. It generally went something like this:

ME: Don't lie, Stan. Lying makes you sterile.

INNOCENT BYSTANDER: Um.

ME: Hahahahfgwrgiop*snort*frwrwrhah

INNOCENT BYSTANDER: I just remembered something really important that I have to do right this minute.

If you do this enough, your party invitations tend to start drying up.

Which is why you can understand my trepidation when confronted with the opportunity to use yet another South Park reference in a quasi-social situation. I've been conditioned to believe that upon writing this the pretty brunette with whom my 21-year-old self was awkwardly flirting will reappear out of thin air and throw her drink in my face.

No matter, though.

Because, you see, I believe the Underpants Gnomes are an apt metaphor for our current understanding of the Pirates' pitching strategy. Never heard of the Underpants Gnomes? Watch this video. You can thank me later.

Our understanding of the Pirates' pitching strategy pretty much goes like this:

1. Induce ground balls

2. ??????

3. Profit

Indisputably, there is a certain inherit benefit to generating ground balls. For one, it's difficult to hit them over the fence. The Pirates' ground ball rate last year was 50.4%, tops in the majors. They also allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings, at 0.66. These two things have a fairly obvious relationship.

More generally, the league hit .236/.236/.255 on ground balls last year, good for a .215 wOBA. It hit .230/.225/.666 on fly balls, good for a .364 wOBA. Pulled ground balls, in particular, have the worst outcomes of any batted ball type.

And yet major league front offices, composed overwhelmingly of capable, intelligent people, don't appear to prioritize ground balls to the extent that the Pirates do. If the formula for success were as simple as acquiring ground ball pitchers and watching them outperform their peripherals, Andrew Friedman would be at Yovani Gallardo's front door with roses (to be fair, the Dodgers do employ eminent ground-balling prodigy Brett Anderson, and for all I know Friedman could be at Gallardo's front door with roses right now).

I think part of the answer is that the ground balls themselves are one step removed from the actual phenomenon. Earlier this winter, FanGraphs' Eno Sarris wrote an interesting article about pulled ground ball rates. Sarris focused specifically on Athletics starter Sonny Gray, but the relevance to the Pirates' staff will, I hope, be immediately apparent.

See Sarris's chart below:

All five of the Pirates' principal starters ended up among the league leaders in inducing pulled grounders. Perhaps we've stumbled upon part of the reason the Pirates' system of defensive shifting is so successful: they have a pretty good idea (better than most teams) of where the ball is going.

John Jaso's Plate Discipline

One could argue, without much opposition, that BucsDugout has already reached its saturation point for John Jaso commentary. Due to the timing of Jaso's signing (immediately before the Christmas dead zone in news coverage), his was virtually the only story to discuss for upwards of a week. At this point, everyone has probably voiced whatever opinions they hold about Jaso.

For instance, some folks see that he's a really good hitter who compares favorably to the Pirates' outgoing first baseman:

Jaso has been better than Alvarez every year since Alvarez entered the league. Moreover, Jaso's wRC+ (a composite statistic that combines all aspects of offensive performance, indexed to 100) hasn't dropped below 120 since 2011. Interestingly, Steamer projects Alvarez and Jaso to be very similar hitters moving forward (112 wRC+ for Jaso versus 110 wRC+ for Alvarez).

Alvarez's raw power is justifiably famous. I like to use batted ball exit velocity to try to isolate a player's power, and last year only Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Sano topped Alvarez's average exit velocity of 99.02 MPH on fly balls and line drives. Jaso's raw power is still respectable--his average fly ball/line drive exit velocity of 94.02 MPH put him in the upper quartile of MLB hitters--but that isn't really his game. Rather, the way Jaso stands out is via his plate discipline.

This summer, I  wrote a piece on how to interpret plate discipline data. It included this graphic:

Jaso didn't have enough plate appearances to appear in the graphic above, but had he qualified his 71.1% Z-Swing % and 23% O-Swing% would have placed him firmly in the top left 'Andrew McCutchen' quadrant of hitters who aggressively attack pitches within the zone while showing above average restraint in chasing balls. Jaso's excellent plate discernment would appear to position him well to stave off physical decline moving forward.

Neftali Feliz is the King of Popups

Neftali Feliz did not have a good 2015. He posted a 6.38 ERA. Multiple teams effectively gave up on him. Things like this happened. And yet the Pirates signed him, this past winter, to a non-insignificant major league deal that presumably reflects their confidence in his ability to serve as a late-inning reliever.

It's impossible to write about Feliz without some discussion of his interesting career arc. Six years ago, he was a twenty-one-year-old phenom who saved forty games for the Rangers. This inspired an ill-advised conversion to starting, and in the years since injuries and poor command have rendered Feliz ineffective. Or so the narrative goes.

In reality, 2015 was the first season Feliz didn't prevent runs at an above-average rate--see below:

Feliz has always run a large gap between his peripherals (what FIP and xFIP measure) and his actual runs allowed. On his career, he's beaten his FIP by about half a run. Our default position should be skepticism whenever it comes to pitchers who seem to violate defense-independent pitching theory, and it's easy to conclude that 2015 simply represented a well-overdue correction of sort for Feliz's previous good fortune. But there are good reasons to believe that Feliz is a genuine contact manager whose continued defiance of his mediocre peripherals is sustainable.

Consider: there are 397 pitchers who've thrown at least 250 innings since Feliz entered the league in 2009 (Feliz has thrown 289.2). Among them, he ranks fourth in BABIP allowed. He ranks twenty-second in HR/FB. He ranks second to Mariano Rivera in soft contact rate (of note, the recently acquired Eric O'Flaherty is third, Tony Watson is fifth, and Mark Melancon is seventeenth). All of these things probably have something to do with one remarkable fact: nobody in baseball generates popups more frequently than Neftali Feliz. A ridiculous 18.1% of the fly balls he allows are popups--Koji Uehara is second at 15.7%.

It becomes much easier to beat your peripherals when you're collecting free outs at a historic pace. Jeff Sullivan already covered some of this earlier this year, but I think it's still an underrated point. Nothing in Feliz's contact profile dramatically shifted in 2015--he still generated a ton of soft contact and a ton of popups. There's been an awful lot of discussion about whether Ray Searage can "fix" Neftali Feliz--but what if he doesn't really need fixing?