With pitchers and catchers reporting soon, I've been gearing up to get back into blogging shape for the 2013 season. In doing so, I came across the following two graphics on ESPN's Home Run Tracker:
These two images are the home run charts of Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, respectively, from 2012. As a writer I love all of baseball's little literary nuancesl and as a scientist I love the way that baseball's hidden truths can be teased out of its reams of statistics, but as a baseball fan I love the way an opposite field home run can just absolutely suck the life out of an opposing pitcher.
Baseball's almost here. Life is good.no comments
Jonathan Sanchez is close to a deal with the #pirates. word is, he's healthy and worked all winter on mechanics.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) February 4, 2013
There are two ways to react to what would almost certainly be a minor league deal for Jonathan Sanchez. One is to shrug and say, "Well, I'd rather have Jonathan Sanchez in camp on a minor league deal for a tryout than Brian Bass. If Oliver Perez can become an effective LOOGY four years after ceasing to be a relevant big league pitcher it can happen to anyone." The second is to freak out and draw conclusions about Francisco Liriano's deal and/or health.
I think it's safe to sit back and assume that the only way that Jonathan Sanchez ends up in Pittsburgh on Opening Day is if he pitches his way there, Liriano or no Liriano, so let's take a second and discuss the possibilities of that happening. Once upon a time, Sanchez was mentioned practically in the same breath as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum as pitchers that were going to bring the Giants back to relevancy in the post-Barry Bonds world. The mention of Oliver Perez in the first paragraph was not an accident; Sanchez has always racked up strikeouts as a fastball/slider guy, but control has always been an issue for him and besides 2010, nothing has ever really clicked for him.
Since 2010, things have been brutal for Sanchez. His walk rate jumped to 5.9/9 innings in 2011 and he missed time on the disabled list with a couple of injuries. That winter, he got traded to the Royals for Melky Cabrera. He was terrible with the Royals and got traded to the Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie, who had been completely vanquished by Coors Field. He again struggled with health and only made 15 starts, he struck out 45 and walked 53 in 64 2/3 innings. His average fastball speed dipped to 90 mph.
All of which is to say that I'm all for bringing talented-but-busted guys in on minor league deals and the Pirates do have a valid need for a lefty out of the bullpen because Tony Watson is not great and Justin Wilson is unproven, but Sanchez has a lot to prove before I'd think he was worth more than an invite to camp.no comments
According to the Sports Xchange, which is a wire service, the Pirates still haven't finalized their deal with Francisco Liriano yet. Apparently the club would like to bring Liriano in on a minor league deal (presumably with similar terms to the deal he's been close to signing multiple times) with a shot at earning a roster spot, while Liriano wants a guaranteed contract and roster spot (via Pirates Prospects).
At this point, it's pretty safe to say that this whole situation is a huge mess for the Pirates. If they want Liriano on a minor league deal, that's a pretty good indication that they either don't think he's healthy enough to pitch for most of 2013 or that they literally have no idea what the status of his arm is and want to see him throw before signing him.
At this point the Pirates are backed into a corner, because Shaun Marcum is off the market and their options are now to either work something out with a Liriano that may or may not be healthy, give up a draft pick and overpay Kyle Lohse to enter the decline phase of his career in black and gold, or put McPherson/Locke in the rotation and cross their fingers. None of these options are particularly attractive.no comments
With the beginning of spring training approaching and free agency pretty much wrapped up, we've hit the portion of the off-season where the prospect-ranking people do their prospect ranking. In turn, that means that it's time for me to start paying attention to prospects and to swear that this is the year that I do a better job of following prospects on WHYGAVS, only to abandon that by the third week of the season. But it's still January, so let's dig in!
The news that has people buzzing the most this week is John Sickels' farm system rankings, which places the Pirates fifth. Earlier this month Jim Callis said in a chat at Baseball America that he's got the Pirates eighth overall. BA's official system rankings won't be released until their annual comes out next month, but it seems like a safe bet that the Pirates will probably be in the bottom half of their top ten when it does. We don't have Baseball Prospectus's organizational rankings yet, but they'll presumably be ranked fairly well there since Jason Parks called the Pirates' system "one of the most impact-heavy systems in the game" back in December. Last year, Sickels had the Pirates' 12th, BA had the Pirates 11th, and BP had the Pirates 8th. Obviously we'll have to wait for all of the lists to be certain, but it seems to me like it's probably fair to say that the current consensus is that the Pirates have one of the ten best farm systems in baseball, and that it's gotten a little bit better over the last 12 months with breakouts from Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco off-setting the loss of Starling Marte's prospect status (meaning that he no longer qualifies for prospect lists, not that he's no longer considered a promising player).
There was quite a bit of talk about how good the Pirates' system is versus how good it "should" be given the huge draft bonuses given out when Neal Huntington's job security was discussed last fall, but I'm not sure that frames the question quite right. Entering the 2013 season, pretty much every minor league player of consequence has been acquired by Neal Huntington and the scouting staffs lead by Greg Smith and Rene Gayo. Figuring out how good a system "should" be based on money spent is a fool's errand and so the question is this: do the Pirates have a good minor league system that will lead to future success? What are the most encouraging things happening in the system right now? What are the most worrisome things?
At the very end of last year, Charlie wrote at Bucs Dugout about how the Pirates' 2013 roster seemed to be filled with "high-beta" players; guys that have a wide range of possible outcomes from the very good to the very bad. I think that the Pirates' system right now is built very similarly. There are very few teams in Major League Baseball that have five prospects with the ceilings of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Luis Heredia because I don't think any of those guys really have ceilings. The problem is that Polanco and Hanson are exceedingly young and haven't even played one game in Advanced-A between them, Heredia is even younger and hasn't pitched in full-season league yet, and Cole and Taillon are pitching prospects. Those five guys could be superstars or the Pirates could end up with two injury-prone starting pitchers and three guys that never materialize above Double-A or anything in between. It's incredibly hard to forecast the future of the franchise because the range of outcomes for their best prospects are so wide.
This is why every write up of the Pirates' system mentions their lack of depth or top heaviness: if Cole or Taillon gets hurt or Polanco/Hanson/Heredia fail to develop, there's not really much in terms of second-tier talent that could fill in the gaps that that would create. There are guys like Clay Holmes and Nick Kingham and Josh Bell, but they're all far away from the Majors, too, and there are guys like Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke, but they're fringe prospects at best. Every single minor league system has to deal with degrees of uncertainty, but the Pirates' system has a pretty huge amount of it right now.
If you look a little further into the way the system has been constructed, it's not hard to see how this has happened. Greg Smith had four top five draft picks handed to him before the new draft constraints started and while it's too soon to make a real judgment on any of them, from where we stand today it looks like the Pirates made pretty good picks in three of those four drafts (not perfect picks, necessarily, but good ones). I don't think that's a bad track record given the way that even the best prospects develop. The problem is that they haven't added much depth behind those three players from the draft, despite spending a lot of money trying to do so. The reality is that if Cole and Taillon both pan out, misfires like the Zacks (Von Rosenberg, Dodson, Fuesser) of 2009 won't make much of a difference.
Of course, this takes us down two different roads. How likely are Cole and Taillon to pan out? Do the middling-to-bad draft results after the first round bode poorly for the future if the Pirates stop having a top five pick every year? You can sort of start to construct an answer for the first question: it seems to me that the Pirates have a pretty clear organizational philosophy in regards their pitchers and that they've done a pretty good job (thus far, at least, knock on wood/fingers crossed) of keeping minor league pitchers free of serious arm injuries, which means that while no pitching prospect is a slam dunk, which I think bodes well for Cole and Taillon. The second question is murky and pretty much unanswerable from where we are right now, but it's definitely something worth keeping in mind.
Talking about what Smith has done only considers part of the system, though, and the most encouraging thing that's happened to the Pirates in the minor leagues in the last two years isn't Cole or Taillon. Instead, it's Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson. For a team to succeed in Latin America, their scouts have to have an ability to see things that other scouts don't see. Because Dominican and Venezuelan prospects are signed at such a young age, slam dunk signings (check out this slightly aged list for reference) are hard to come by on the international free agent market and that for every Miguel Sano there's probably more than one Michael Ynoa. Gayo's always had a reputation for unearthing hidden gems and Marte, Hanson, and Polanco have all come from off of the radar (of the trio, only Hanson's signing bonus was above $100,000) to turn into legitimate prospects in the last two seasons. Given the budgetary restrictions on international signings after last winter's CBA agreement, being able to find players like this is going to be hugely important in the next few seasons. Now that we're starting to see some early results from Renee Gayo's operation, it seems like the Pirates have the beginnings of a very encouraging international and Latin American scouting program. Outside of Andrew McCutchen, this is probably the best thing that's happened to the Pirates in 20 years.
Given that the minor league system belongs entirely to Huntington and that the Pirates have quite a few key pieces in place in Pittsburgh, prospect development is going to take on a new sense of urgency in the immediate future for the Pirates. This year, Gerrit Cole is going to get his first taste of big league baseball. Jameson Taillon has been highly rated based mostly on promise over results to this point, but 2012 was probably the last year he can get away with that. How he pitches this year will be very important to determining what kind of pitcher he's going to be. Another strong year from Hanson and Polanco will transform them from interesting young players worth watching into exciting prospects. All of these things are important to a Pirate organization that wants to get a winning team on the field during the Andrew McCutchen era.
The top heaviness/depth issue shouldn't be downplayed, though. Neal Huntington took over a team in late 2007 with limited big league talent and a bad farm system. Without a ton of money to spend on free agents, the remedy in that situation is pretty universal: build up the farm system and then through a combination of trades and prospects, create a winning team. From where we stand in 2013 the Pirates' path to a winning team in the near future is clearer than it's been in a while, but there simply aren't all that many paths. That means that the the farm system is good and it has the Pirates in a better place than they've been in for a while, the dependence on a few prospects still makes it a less than ideal situation.no comments
Over at SB Nation today, Grant Brisbee has a good piece up about the Pirates' "perfectly whelming" offseason that addresses something I've wanted to talk about for a while: the perception that the Pirates have mostly been sitting on their hands over the winter.
The Pirates haven't done a lot over the winter, of course, but as Brisbee points out, their roster has been in a constant state of flux pretty much throughout the entire Neal Huntington era. As things stand today, the Pirates' opening day starting rotation will be 40% different from last year's opening day rotation (60% different if you don't count AJ Burnett, who was on the disabled list), plus they're going to trot out a new starting catcher and an outfield that only has Andrew McCutchen as a constant from last April. That's quite a bit of turnover from one Opening Day to the next without even considering the bullpen.
The question that gets asked about most teams at this point of the winter, when all of the wheeling and dealing is done, is whether or not the team in question has made themselves better over the winter than they were in the previous season. It's easy (and not entirely unfair) to look at the Pirate team that tanked in August and September of last year, see only a few cosmetic changes, and wonder why there's any reason to think that the Pirates could be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. The reality, though, is that for teams in the Pirates' situation, any significant improvement has to come from young players making themselves better and not from outside help. The reason the 2013 Pirates could be better than the 2012 Pirates isn't that Russell Martin or Francisco Liriano or Mark Melancon or Jerry Sands will put the PIrates over the top, it's that Starling Marte could turn into anything between Andrew McCutchen and Chris Duffy, that further evolution by Pedro Alvarez will turn him into a borderline elite power hitter, and that Travis Snider is still only 25 with a chance to a productive every day player.
I feel like I say this every winter, but the Pirates can't ever really go into the off-season with the goal of adding elite talent that will transform the team. What they have to try to do each winter is to find the right players to build a supporting cast that's good enough to help support a contending team if the younger, more talented players have the breakthroughs that the team is hoping for. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from 2012, but some of the more obvious conclusions to draw from various points of last season are that the rotation was desperately lacking in the second half of the season, that Alex Presley and Jose Tabata are not every day Major Leaguers, and that Rod Barajas sucked.
Instead of asking if the Pirates got better this winter, let's ask a different question. If Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez both hit 30 home runs and Neil Walker puts up a .768 OPS at second base, do the Pirates have a supporting cast that can turn help buoy those performances into a winning or contending team? Last year, the answer was no. This year? Well, we'll see.no comments
A couple of months ago, word leaked out that the Dodgers were close to a TV deal with FOX that would bring the Dodgers somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-7 billion over 25 years, bringing them something along the lines of a quarter billion dollars a year. Today, Bill Shaikin of the LA Times is reporting that that deal will not come to fruition, and instead that the Dodgers are going to work with Time Warner to create their own TV Network (Sports Net LA).
On its face, this might seem to be unrelated to the Pirates. The Pirates don't have a great TV deal (Frank Coonelly denied at Piratefest that the Pirates were only pulling $18 million a year from ROOT Sports, but the reality is that they really can't be making much more than $30 million a year based on what other similar-sized markets are making, whether they own their own sports network or not), but they're not alone on that front. There are several other teams that signed TV deals just before the explosion of TV money that seem to be in similarly bad situations: the Braves, Cardinals, Brewers, and Royals all appear to be in similar situations.
This does affect the Pirates, though, in a bit of an unseen way. The new CBA, ratified after the 2011 season, requires large market teams like the Dodgers to share about a third of their TV revenues with smaller market teams like the Pirates. All of that money goes into a pot that is then paid out according to need. If you recall the leaked financial documents that Deadspin got a hold of a couple of years ago, the Pirates were receiving close $30-40 million a year back in 2008 and 2009 -- well before the TV boom -- from revenue sharing.
What makes the Dodgers forming their own TV network particularly noteworthy is that when the Dodgers were sold to Magic Johnson's Guggenheim Group last year, it appears that they struck a deal with the league to cap their sharable TV income at $84 million per year if they formed their own TV network. As noted in that article, that's twice what the Dodgers were making in TV rights at the team the terms were agreed to in bankruptcy court in 2011, but far, far less than the money the Angels received shortly after the cap was set in December of that year. In short, what the agreement means is that if the Dodgers pull in $170 million in TV rights from SportsNet LA in 2013 (which is on the low end of the estimates), their effective revenue sharing tax rate would be about half of the 34% specified in the CBA. This issue is apparently one of the things that's holding the TV deal up and it's something that likely could end up being settled in court.
It's only been a couple of years since the huge TV money has started to trickle into baseball, but it's easy to see its effects already. The Angels signed a monstrous TV deal in December of 2011 and in the last two offseasons they've committed huge, huge sums of money to Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, and Josh Hamilton. The Dodgers took on an immense amount of payroll at mid-season last year in their trade with the Red Sox, basically on the assumption that a ton of money was coming their way this winter from the TV negotiations. Imagine where things are headed if the court decides in the Dodgers' favor. If that happens, it stands to be reasoned that other large market teams with their own sports networks (the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets, along with the Nationals and Orioles to an extent) will want similar exemptions.
It's not like the playing field in baseball is level now between the big markets and small markets, but the Dodgers' decision to make their own TV network is going to kick off a fight that could result in things being even more slanted away from small markets than they are now. The way that this revenue sharing situation with the Dodgers is decided is a huge deal and it's one that's going to decide what direction baseball is headed in for the forseeable future.no comments
With Francisco Liriano officially signing with the Pirates yesterday, details about his mysterious "non-pitching arm" injury were bound to emerge and today we have some thanks to Bill Brink at the PG, via El Caribe, a Dominican newspaper. The report is that Liriano broke his humerus by falling in his bathroom and that his arm was in a cast after the injury. Falling in the bathroom is one of those weird things that's hard to gauge. It definitely sounds like it could be a cover story for something else, but I could also see myself leaving, say, a beer fermenting bucket sitting out in the bathroom and tripping and falling over it in the middle of the night.
In any case, let's talk about a broken humerus in the non-throwing arm. Unfortunately, arm bones are not discussed in "Dry Bones," so instead click on over to Wikipedia and look at a humerus. We are almost entire bereft of other details here (whether it's a displaced fracture or not, whether there was a dislocation of the shoulder, etc.) so it's pretty hard to speculate on how long this sort of thing might keep him out, but let's look at his throwing motion anyway, because it's late January and these are things fans do in late January.
That's just for a point of reference and not any comment on Liriano's actual mechanics. The upper arm/shoulder on the non-throwing arm is what helps create the whipping motion that generates torque through the zone. Imagine pitching with a fracture in that part of the arm. There might be enough separation between the injury (which we know happened around Christmas) and when the season starts for him to get some innings in spring training and to be ready for April, but it's impossible to say that without knowing all of the details here. The same can be said for the Pirates' caution: it's possible to read into it a bit and conclude that the Pirates know the injury is serious enough to make Liriano miss time and that's why they wanted to renegotiate, but it's also possible that they simply want their bases covered in the event that Liriano misses a lot of time, no matter what the initial diagnosis is.no comments
If you had to look at the whole of 2012 -- the excitment, the disappointment, all of the individual breakouts and meltdowns -- and wanted to take one thing away from it that would bear well for the future, I think that most Pirate fans would take Pedro Alvarez's breakout season. At this time last year, all of us were flat-out terrified of Pedro's future as a big league player: his trip through the minors was good but not quite as excellent as expected and his 2011 was so disastrous that it wasn't hard to imagine that he'd never be quite right as a big league player. When he got off to a terrible start in April, people were rightly discussing whether he was one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory.
Starting on April 21st, though, Alvarez began to silence the doubters. He had two hits against the Cardinals on that day, then homered in both ends of a double header four days later, and by May 3rd he'd homered five times in 11 games and his seasonal OPS was up to .912. His season was a bit of a roller coaster from that point on, but he ended the season with 30 home runs, 25 doubles, a .467 slugging percentage, and a wOBA/wRC+ of .335/112 (that is: slightly above average). These numbers are encouraging for a hitter that was so very lost 12 months ago and you can even finesse them a bit to be even more so. If you eliminate Alvarez's terrible start (that is, if you start counting on April 21st), he hit .255/.330/.479 with 28 homers and 25 doubles in 139 games. If you start counting from after his second bad slump (from May 5 to June 15 he hit .143/.228/.223 across 33 games, then broke out of it by going straight-up Galactus on the Cleveland Indians), Alvarez hit .274/.352/.518 with 22 homers in 94 games.
This is all well and good, but picking arbitrary end points and using them to prove things that you want to see happen is a great way to be disappointed. It's every bit as instructive to point out that Alvarez's strikeout rate for the entire season was 30.7%, that his strikeout rate from April 21st onwards was 29.7%, and that his strikeout rate from June 16th onwards was 29.6%. In short, that means that Pedro Alvarez is striking out a ton whether he's not or he's not hot, and when the only thing a hitter does consistently is strike out a ton there's plenty of reason for concern.
In the entire history of baseball, there have only been 33 individual seasons in which a player has struck out 180 times or more. As you might guess, the list is heavily populated by current players. Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, and Mark Reynolds are all on it four times and Jim Thome is on it twice. Dunn, Howard, and Reynolds are pretty instructive for our conversation here, so let's talk about the three of them.
Most people likely think of Howard as a more consistent hitter than Dunn and of Dunn as a more consistent hitter than Reynolds, but Howard and Dunn have been fairly streaky themselves across the seasons. Howard watched his OPS+ go from 167 to 144 to 125 from 2006-2008, which is a pretty significant drop that people tend to gloss over because of his huge homer and RBI totals. Smack in the middle of Dunn's run of four 40-homer seasons is 2006, when he had an OPS+ of 114. Reynolds is a known roller coaster, going from OPS+ of 127 to 97 to 116 to 107 over the last four years. It's easy to spot where these down years come from, too. If we consider Howard's prime to be from 2006 to 2009, his worst year was 2008 and that was the year he had the lowest batting average (.251). In Dunn's four straight 40-homer years, he only hit .234. In Reynolds' best season (2009) he hit .280. In his worst (2010), he hit .198.
We don't need to go deep into all of this right now, but the generally accepted concept in sabermetrics right now is that hitters, to some extent, lose control over the outcome of any at-bat in which they put the ball in play. Since we're deriving norms from huge numbers of at-bats, any given season can be defined as a small sample size in which you can expect some amount of variability. In English, every once in a while a .300 hitter like Freddy Sanchez hits .344 and wins a batting title simply because the randomness of the universe allows for him to have a season where a ton of balls find gaps and holes that otherwise might not. Three true outcome hitters like Alvarez, Howard, Reynolds, and Dunn spend most of their time homering, striking out, or walking which means that the number of balls they put into the field every season is lower than most hitters, which in turns means that they should be even more prone to this variability (NB: I haven't actually researched whether high strikeout hitters have higher batting average variation than the average hitter and I'm sure that someone has, so if someone has and I'm wrong please let me know).
As it relates to Alvarez, this is all important because his strikeout rate, walk rate, and line drive rate didn't change much from 2011 to 2012 and while we can infer that he definitely hit the ball more solidly because his pop-up rate dropped and his HR/FB took a jump as a result, the differences there probably don't explain the dramatic improvement we all perceived for him last year. There are more concern points, too. Alvarez's strikeout rate is above 30%, while the two hitters from this group that had long stretches as good hitters (Howard and Dunn) are below 30%, while Reynods is above 30%. Alvarez also has the lowest walk rate of the group and he's the only one that's below 10%. The reason that Dunn managed to sustain an OPS+ of 136 between 2004 and 2010 despite a .254 batting average and a aircraft carrier full of strikeouts is because he walked 16.2% of the time (750 bases on balls in 4634 plate appearances). Alvarez drew 57 walks in 586 plate appearances -- 9.7%. To be a really good hitter, Alvarez needs to walk more than that if he's going to strikeout as much as he does.
I'm not mentioning this to be depressing, just to point out that Alvarez is still very much a work in progress despite all of the home runs last year. The reality is that he's still two weeks away from his 26th birthday, that he's only got the equivalent of two seasons worth of Major League experience, and he's only played one full big league season from beginning to end. I'm saying that there's room for improvement, but he's still at a point where it's not unreasonable to expect improvement from him. The reality, though, is that I'm still incredibly unsure of what he's going to do in 2013.no comments