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Five Fast Facts: A look at the home runs served up by Pirates starters

Warning: this won’t be pretty

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Five Fast Facts, a semi-weekly series where we throw five fast analytical facts about a Pittsburgh Piratesplayer at you, with some quick commentary.

Pittsburgh Pirates Ivan Nova served up five home runs in his last start.


When I was planning this week’s Five Fast Facts, the masochist in me thought to do a deep dive on each of the quintet of bombs that Nova offered up to willing Dodgers hitters.

Cooler heads prevailed. Today we are going to peel back and look at the bigger picture. Let’s take a look at five fast facts in regards to the Pirates’ starting pitching’s affinity for giving up dingers.

Fist, let’s set the stage. Even after Nova’s five-spot, the Pittsburgh Pirates rank right in the middle of things - 15th in MLB - in the amount of home runs given up by qualified starting pitchers with 66. They are actually closer to the bottom of this dubious list (Rays starters have given up the fewest with 46; 20 less than the Pirates) then they are at the top (Reds starters have been pounded for 89 homers, 23 more than the Bucs).

If we narrow our focus to the National League, things get a little hairier for Jameson Taillon and company, as they have given up the fourth-highest amount of home runs in the senior circuit.

Keeping the ball in the park has been a yo-yo type of issue for Pirates starters. The unit had the fifth best home run tally in March/April with just 15 allowed; That rank rose to the seventh highest in MLB for May (26); For June, Bucco starters found their level again in this regard, giving up the seventh fewest home runs in June with 16. In July to date, Pirates starters have already given up the most home runs in baseball with nine, though that figure is obviously skewed by Nova’s horrendous outing.

I. They don’t come cheap

For the 2018 season to date, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitchers have the third highest exit velocity on home runs in all of baseball with a 104.9 mph measure.

So, the home runs were pretty well-earned by the hitters. And it is not as if the numbers are skewed by a wide range of figures that make up the 104.9 mph rate. Of the 66 home runs allowed by Pirates pitchers, only two had exit velocities of less than 100 mph.

Hitters get paid, too. Maybe not as handsomely as starting pitchers, but they absolutely earn their keep. And those hitters who have teed off on Pirates starters have absolutely earned their homer tallies as well.

Perhaps consistently high exit velocities against Pittsburgh starters are to be expected, when the slugging percentage by zone for the team’s crop of starters looks as ugly as this:

There is a ton of red there. There is a ton of red in spots where you don’t want to see red. While this chart shows slugging percentage for all pitches thrown by Pittsburgh Pirates starters, not just home runs, the point is made: folks are having no problem hitting for power against this group.

II. Perhaps they were just mistakes

Let’s try a different view. Here’s what the home runs allowed by Pirates starters look like in heat map form:

I can think of no better spots for Pittsburgh Pirates starters to hit — regardless of batter stance — than what is shown in this map. If your goal is to allow home runs, that is.

But, let’s be fair. These have to be mistakes, right? It’s hard to say without getting into each and every pitch, but in our next view we can see that if these pitches were mistakes, boy were they ever:

This detailed strike zone plot shows the edges of the strike zone in dotted lines. Should these have been honest-to-goodness mistakes, we might see more dots a bit closer to the edges, and not so deep in the heart of the zone.

There may be a reason for this. Prepare to groan audibly.

III. Stop us if you’ve heard this before...

Of the 66 home runs given up by Pittsburgh Pirates, 43 came on fastballs.

Shocking, right?

It’s a tired trope at this point. The Pittsburgh Pirates are seemingly going to stick with their fastball heavy approach until they have no choice but to adjust. Who knows when that moment will actually arrive.

Maybe I’m not being very fair. In actuality, this is a problem that plagues some of the homer-heaviest clubs’ starting pitching as well:

Home Run Data - Top 5 HR-heavy teams & PIT

TEAM Total HRs HRs on Fastballs HRs on non-Fastballs
TEAM Total HRs HRs on Fastballs HRs on non-Fastballs
CIN 89 57 32
TEX 88 57 31
CIN 83 53 30
KC 81 51 30
CWS 72 53 19
PIT 66 43 23

Here we see the clubs with the top five home run totals among starters, as well as the Pirates. Truth be told, all of these clubs see their fastballs punished much more than their breaking and offspeed stuff.

IV. Three pitches or less sometimes hurts.

A deeper look shows that these pitches aren’t even coming in traditional “fastball counts.”

These dots represent the % of home runs given up on those counts and by pitch type.

Of most concern is the home runs given up on four-seam fastballs (20 in total, nearly half of the 43 total fastball homers) in counts that clearly do not call for a four-seam fastball (0-1 and 0-2, specifically).

Is it the “outs in three pitches or less” mantra affecting the club? This chart seems to suggest that.

V. They give em up early

You often her about the “Times through the order penalty,” where pitchers lose effectiveness when hitters see them two or three times in a game.

Yet, Pittsburgh Pirates starters get beaten up by the long ball early. Of the 66 home runs allowed by the group, 28 — 42.4 percent — come in the first time through the order.

It’s a pretty even affair, with Nova allowing seven home runs the first time through, with Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl allowing six each. Trevor Williams has given up four, with Nick Kingham and Steven Brault giving up two apiece. Joe Musgrove rounds out the offerings with one.

But in the end...

Does this even matter very much, in an era where Three True Outcomes baseball is slowly taking over the game.

For those unfamiliar, TTO refers to an at-bat being decided by a walk, strikeout, or home run - the three outcomes that are only decided between a pitcher and batter. Last season saw 33.5 percent of plate appearances ending in a three true outcome, a modern day record.

As Diana Firstman (great twitter follow) notes in her excellent Value over Replacement Grid blog, the TTO rate is on pace to meet or exceed 2017’s rate through May.

So does it really matter if the Pittsburgh Pirates starters give up this many home runs, in this TTO-heavy landscape?

I’m inclined to say yes, as the Pirates might also lack the pure power hitters to make up for it at the plate. Until that happens, the club needs to do everything it can to limit self-inflicted damage.

They can start by keeping the ball in the park.