Originally published on highheatstats.com.
The ascension of the Pittsburgh Pirates, from two decade of losing to 94 wins and the NL Wild Card, was not an easy one. The franchise had to completely revamp everything, from they way they do business on the international market to the way they play on the field. Gone were the frugal Pirates of the past. In 2011, GM Neil Huntington and his mates scoured the high seas, spending a record $17 million in the amateur draft in order to turn the franchise around. And while many of those players (top pick Gerrit Cole aside) have yet to make an impact on the big league level, the message was sent. Pittsburgh was here to compete.
That aggressive front office approach in the draft has bled over into other areas of the franchise as well. After decades of doing everything in their power to avoid spending money on free agents, Pittsburgh opened up the coffers for Russell Martin, who was brought in on a 2 year/$17 million dollar deal to fortify what had previously been an extremely weak catching position. Along with Martin, veterans AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and Justin Morneau among others have been traded for in an effort to raise the roster’s overall talent level. And perhaps most importantly, modern-day analytical analysis has been embraced.
Nowhere is that new, modern approach to baseball more evident than in the Pirates’ commitment to the defensive shift. Pittsburgh was one of the shiftiest teams in baseball this season, using one defensive maneuver or another over 400 times. That ranks 2nd among all of the franchises currently in the playoffs, trailing only the original super-shifters, the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s a huge jump from 2012, when Pittsburgh shifted just 105 times and the numbers back up just how effective all those extra defensive movements were. Pittsburgh ranked 3rd in baseball as a team in defensive runs saved and they finished tied for 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls put in play that are then converted into outs.
Let’s just pretend for one moment that the advent of the modern bullpen never happened. There’s no such thing as a LOOGY, Jerome Holtman never invented the save, and starting pitchers are handed the ball at the start of the game with the expectation that they will work a minimum of 7 innings. Now, I’m fairly sure the Player’s Association and a majority of the big league managers would riot if this kind of thing ever happened, but I know one place where everybody would be happy: the National League Central.
You see, apart from Pittsburgh, none of the NL Central teams have been able to cobble together a solid bullpen.The Cardinals struggles have been well-documented this year and for good reason. St. Louis currently has an ERA north of 6.00 out of the bullpen, which is good for dead last in baseball. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee haven’t been much better ranking 20th, 18th, and 15th respectively in ERA.
But when a starting pitcher is on the mound? Look out, because each of these ball clubs has put together a quality rotation and most of them are running at full power right now. But which one of these star-studded starting staffs is the best?
2012 saw a revival of sorts for the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the franchise playing competitive, meaningful baseball all the way into the final month of the season after two decades of incompetence. The 79 wins the Pirates piled up represent the most games they’ve won in a calender year since 1997, and the expectation for 2013 to be the first winning season since 1992 has reached a fevered pitch. The fast starts in 2011 and 2012, along with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and a promising cadre of young pitchers give fans a reason to believe again. But Pittsburgh has some foundational problems to address at the core of their roster. Shortstop Clint Barmes would struggle to hit water if he fell out of a boat, the corner outfielders are woefully inadequate for a true contender, and the pitching staff is in need of a true ace. But none of those issues are as glaring as the Pirate’s ongoing comedy at the catching position, where Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry received a majority of the playing time.
A week and a half ago I previewed the month of September and attempted to divide teams up into Contenders or Pretenders. The National League in particular, had a bunch of teams withing reasonable striking distance of a playoff berth, particularly if everything broke right. Well so far so good, because damn near every team at the top of the running for the NL Wild Card spot is slumping, which means that teams like Arizona, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee have been reawakened from the dead. St. Louis has lost 5 of their last 6, while Los Angeles has lost 6 of 9 since acquiring Adrian Gonzalez in the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and don’t even get me started on the nasty slide the Pirates are in. The wheels have fallen off in the Steel City, as Pittsburgh is just 13-25 since the start of August while winning just 2 of their past 10 games. Atlanta is still looking good at the top, so the question is worth asking: does anybody want to win the win the 2nd Wild Card spot? And could one of the long-shot teams entering the month of September (Philadelphia, Arizona, and Milwaukee) sneak in there?
With one month of the 2012 regular season left things have gotten absolutely chaotic in the chase for the NL MVP award. The frontrunner for the award has fluctuated throughout the 2012 season, so much so that baseball fans might feel like they’re riding a roller coaster due to all the ups and downs on the leader board. First up was Joey Votto, who was in the midst of a potentially historic season before succumbing to an injury that’s had him riding the pine since mid-July. Next up was Andrew McCutchen who, much like his team, has been mired in a nasty slump of late. The Pirate centerfielder is hitting just .245/.324/.316 with 1 homer, 4 doubles, and 13 RBI in his last 111 plate appearances (28 games). He’s firmly entrenched in this race however, because even with the slump McCutchen still leads all NL hitters in OPS+, runs scored, and hits. But his struggles of late have opened the door to a new crop of potential MVP candidates, all of whom boast strong numbers and nearly every player is on a competitive team. Let’s take a look at the field of candidates and break down their odds of taking home the hardware at the end of the season. Bold numbers indicate the player leads the league in the statistic
One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.
We’ve already talked about the Ichiro trade, the early sales from South Beach, a pair of deals made by the Phillies to improve NL West contenders, and the Zach Greinke deal was covered perfectly by Jonah Keri, so now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the deals around the major leagues during this busy last week, beginning with a trade that has flown completely under the radar thus far.