When discussing any of the Pirates’ offseason acquisitions, see how far you get into the conversation before you utter one of the following two phrases:
1) "Maybe the Pirates see something…"
2) "Maybe Ray Searage can…"
If you’re me, it usually takes between zero and three sentences, with an average of about 0.04 sentences if we’re discussing a pitcher. There’s a reason that these vague sentences have become boilerplate analysis any time the Pirates make a move: We know their front office is evaluating players based on constantly-evolving statistical factors that aren’t necessarily available to the public. We also don’t specifically know what these factors are. This leaves even the most rational, analytical fans and writers to essentially just sort of guess that the Pirates see something in any given acquisition -- either statistically or mechanically -- that we don’t.
In January, the Pirates signed Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $3.9 million contract. Last year, Feliz posted a 6.38 ERA in 48 innings with Texas and Detroit. When trying to make sense of this signing, one might run through the typical advanced statistical analyses: "Sure, his ERA was high, but his xFIP was … 4.42. Still not impressive. 7.31 K/9 (meh), 37.5 GB% (not good), 0.4 Fangraphs WAR (ok), WAR of -0.2 and 0.1 the previous two seasons (bad)."
So why would a GM like Neal Huntington who notoriously doesn’t spend on relief pitching shell out $4 mil for a pitcher on three straight so-so years when he’s already paying a closer $9.65 million? Here’s where those mystery sentences come in...
1) Maybe the Pirates see a shift in the relief pitching market that they can exploit for value? Maybe they see a new way to use middle relievers to piggyback off short-inning starters and get more high-quality innings for less money than mediocre starting pitchers cost?
2) Maybe Ray Searage can make Neftali Feliz instantly good? He already throws hard, etc. etc.
Surely a stats-conscious and money-extremely-conscious team like the Pirates wouldn’t just blow 5% of their payroll on a guy who might just pitch 45 not-even-that-good innings, right? There has to be something else going on here.
This is the Catch-22 with attempting to analyze the current Pirates. We can be reasonably certain that, whether or not Feliz works out -- same with Jon Niese or Juan Nicasio or whoever -- that the Pirates saw something beyond their Fangraphs pages that made the team believe those players could be more valuable to the 2016 team than their market values would indicate.
Here’s where we get into the "guessing at magic" part. If those players don’t pan out, we may never know what the Pirates did see in them, the way we now know why they pursued players like Francisco Cervelli and Jung Ho Kang and [Insert Name of Any Suddenly Good-Again Pitcher]. But simply saying "The Pirates must see something because they always do" isn’t actual analysis, it’s verbal shrugging. And yet, it’s a completely essential component to any attempts to rationally make sense of their moves.
The days of simply loading up a player’s stats page and saying "Oh, his ERA was a run and a half higher than his xFIP and they’re getting out of Great American Ballpark, so he'll be better" are long gone. Now, forward-thinking organizations are evaluating players based on their own constantly-evolving criteria which may not be available to the public. And as long as teams like the Pirates continue to outperform all statistical predictive models of their success, we’ll have to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt that they’re seeing stuff that no one else is seeing, even if our attempts to make sense of this fact come in the form of rational, thoroughly written columns that conclude "I ... guess they know what they’re doing?"
Plus, if our vague, shrugging arguments need some work, we can always just have Ray Searage fix them.