In part one on Wednesday, I talked about how Brad Lincoln was able to get more groundballs in 2011, which went a long ways towards halving his home run rate and making him more effective than he was with the Pirates in 2010. In part two, let's tackle the deeper questions. What made Lincoln more effective last year and is it something that we can count on from him in 2012?
First stop: the pitch types tab on Lincoln's FanGraphs page. Lincoln throws three pitches that are pretty distinguishable on the PitchFX charts, so the pitch types should be pretty reliable. In 2010, Lincoln threw his fastball 65% of the time, his curve 25% of the time, and his changeup 10%. Last year, he threw his fastball 70% of the time, his curve 12% of the time, and his change 18% of the time. In short, he threw his fastball a little more, his changeup a lot more, and his curveball a lot less. That's a shift that could result in more groundballs, particularly if Lincoln's fastball showed more sink last year. Let's dial up the PitchFX
If you need a refresher on picking out pitch types from the break charts, go here. It's really easy to see where Lincoln's extra changeups are (right around the horizonal axis), and if you go just a little bit up and to the left from there [if you're looking at the graph in terms of traditional x,y coordinates I'm looking right around (-10, 5)] it looks like there might be a few more blue dots in the area that we'd generally associate with two-seam fastballs or sinkers.
It's not a huge difference, though, so lets look a little bit deeper. I'm particularly interested in Lincoln's solid four start run when he joined the rotation in late August of last year (between August 22nd through September 6th). Let's pull those starts out on the same chart.
It looks like an awful lot of Lincoln's fastballs in those four starts trended more towards two-seamers/sinkers, especially in comparison to 2010. More changeups and more sinkers; that's got Ray Searage and Jim Benedict written all over it to me.
What's interesting about this to me is that when Lincoln was drafted, it was generally established that his fastball and curveball were good and he needed a changeup to become an effective pitcher. In 2012, he threw the changeup 18% of the time with decent results (FanGraphs scored it as a tick above average) and he was still only marginally effective.
The reason for that is that he still just doesn't fool many batters. A strikeout rate of 5.5 K/9 innings isn't great and if you look at the plate discipline numbers of hitters facing Lincoln and compare them to league average, you can see that while Lincoln did a much better job across the board in 2011 (that is: getting hitters to chase out of the zone, getting hitters to swing and miss, lowering contact rates both in and out of the strike zone, etc.), he still gives up more balls in play than he should.
So why does that happen? The pitch value numbers would seem to indicate that it's his fastball that's being feasted on. With a groundball rate of over 50% in 2011, though, I'm not sure it'd be fair to speculate that his fastball is flat. It's not quite the fastball that the Pirates hoped he'd have when he was drafted in 2006, probably, since it averages below 92 mph, but I'm not sure it's necessarily a bad pitch, either. What stands out to me from poring over these numbers is this: Lincoln's walk rate last year was not exactly exemplary (3.02 BB/9 isn't bad, but it's worse than his minor league numbers and it's not great for someone with a strikeout rate below 6 K/9 and it's also the only category he didn't improve on from his ugly 2010 debut year), but he throws a lot of balls in the strike zone. PitchFX says that 52.1% of his pitches are in the strike zone, compared to a 49.8% league average in 2011.
Lincoln throws a lot of balls in the strikezone, doesn't miss a ton of bats, and still walks a decent amount of hitters. The only conclusion I can take from that is that he's not really fooling hitters, that they're sitting on his curve and changeup waiting for a fastball that they can rope. I don't know if that's because he throws too many strikes or because he's tipping pitches or because he and his catchers are jway too predictable with pitch sequence or because he just threw a ton of fastballs last year and his fastball command is way better than his offspeed command. I do know that based on 2011 alone that I think he deserves a shot in the rotation before Kevin Correia. If the coaching staff can find a way for him to keep hitters just a little bit more off balance than he has in the past (Tangent: I'm not talking about a huge improvement here and also, please keep in mind that this is a pretty nuanced situation that I'm not sure the coaches can help him with. If he's tipping they can obviously fix that. If it's an approach thing or if it has to do with fastball command vs. breaking ball command, they might be able to fix it but they also might not be able to do anything at this point in the guy's career.) he might even make a decent back-end starter. I doubt he'll ever be more than that, but right now I think the Pirates would be plenty happy if he could emerge as a #4 starter in 2012.
The Phillies released John Bowker this week to let him pursue a contract in Japan. This is not a huge deal at all. I always thought that based on his minor league numbers, Bowker deserved more of a chance with the Pirates, but it was clear both in Pittsburgh and San Francisco before that there was something about Bowker that his front offices and managers didn't think would translate to the big leagues and that he wasn't likely to get that shot, nor was keeping him from playing going to turn into a Craig Wilson/Freddy Sanchez situation.
The main reason that I mention this is so that I can link to Grant Brisbee's piece at McCovey Chronicles about Bowker, because it's just an excellent piece of sports-blogging. It's funny how things circle: part of the reason that I liked the Javier Lopez trade so much initially (and don't get me wrong: the Pirates got nothing from it and I still think it was a good trade) was that Brisbee hated it and the reason he hated was that he felt the way about Bowker that I was about to feel.
Good luck in Japan, Mr. Bowker.
If the 2012 season was starting tomorrow, the Pirates rotation would likely feature James McDonald, Erik Bedard, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, and Kevin Correia in some order. That's an interesting because of the talent that exists in the first three spots, but it's also a paper-thin one. Charlie Morton already has an injury that could cut into the early part of the season and we don't know how it will affect him. Counting on Erik Bedard to throw 200 innings is foolish. McDonald had an up-and-down 2011 season that left us with a lot of questions. Karstens is a serious regression candidate after his breakout year last year, and Correia's likely to be throwing pitches that look like watermelons most of the time. Even if the Pirates go out and add Jeff Francis and bump Correia, there's a depth problem. Heck, there's a bit of a depth problem even if they break open the checkbook and sign Edwin Jackson.
There are, of course, a few internal options that could end up providing depth. Jeff Locke had some success in a handful of Triple-A starts last year before an ugly end to the season with the Pirates. Rudy Owens struggled a bit in Triple-A, but may rebound if the shoulder problem that manifested itself late in the 2011 season was holding him back. Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson may get another shot at starting, though they're both in the bullpen at the present. From this (admittedly early) vantage point, none of these guys seem likely to break camp with the team or to unseat Correia (who's clearly the weak link right now), so instead I want to focus on Brad Lincoln.
After a very difficult stint with the Pirates in 2010, Lincoln at least showed some progress in 2011. He made a spot start for the Pirates in July, joined the bullpen in early August, then made seven starts of varying quality from mid-August through the end of the season. His 4.72 ERA on the year wasn't great, but he nearly halved his homer rate (he gave up nine homers in 52 2/3 innings in 2010 and just four in 47 2/3 in 2011), which was a huge problem for him in his first Pirate stint, and even increased his strikeout rate (4.3 K/9 to 5.5) a bit, though he was still a bit below where he needs to be to be effective there. If you factor in his much-improved groundball rate (37.2% to 51.6% in 2011), you can see that Lincoln's FIP and xFIP weren't bad last year and if you use either of those stats to measure his short season, he was grades out better than James McDonald.
So did Lincoln make a stride forward with the Pirates in 2011? Is it something he can build on, a sign of something to come? Or will his home run problem and low strikeout rate come back to haunt him and keep him from ever being even a mid-rotation big league starter? To try and get an answer to this question, let's start by comparing his Triple-A numbers with his big league numbers. Triple-A goes first.
|AAA (3 seasons)||AAA||20||15||.571||4.28||48||48||267.0||270||139||127||22||55||1||220||17||9||1109||1.217||9.1||0.7||1.9||7.4||4.00|
|162 Game Avg.||5||12||.300||5.74||39||29||171||204||117||109||22||53||7||92||12||2||767||69||1.505||10.8||1.2||2.8||4.8||1.74|
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
When Lincoln first got to Triple-A in 2009, he had some of the same problems he had during his first stint with the Pirates in 2010. He gave up too many home runs and he didn't strike out a ton of hitters. In 2010, he increased his strikeouts at the expense of some control and in 2011, he made strides with the home run problem and had the best K/BB rate of his three partial years with Indianapolis.
That leaves me with some questions. Why did his home run rate go down and his groundball rate go up last year? Was it some work that the Pirates' staff did with him, or was it something else? What's his ceiling in the big leagues in terms of strikeout rate? It has to be higher than 5.5 K/9 for him to be a useful big league pitching, I think. Can he lower his walk rate without serving up meatballs again?
At least some of this can be answered with PitchFX, but some of it is a wider question about Lincoln's ceiling and what makes a useful pitcher in the big leagues. And that's where I'm headed with part 2.
As expected, Paul Maholm signed a one-year deal with the Cubs with an option for 2013. It's worth $4.25 million, which is a nice value for the Cubs and certainly a price I wouldn't have argued with had he signed the deal with the Pirates. The other pitching news today is that the Orioles signed Taiwanese lefty We-Yi Chen to a three-year deal. The Pirates showed at least passing interest in Chen earlier this winter, though it's possible that his recent injuries (which resulted in some ugly numbers in 2011) scared them off.
You can do the math yourself here, but with Maholm and Chen and Aaron Cook (who signed with Boston over the weekend) all off the market, the Pirates' choices for more starting pitching depth are awfully limited at this point in the winter. Beyond going out and bringing in more NRIs for spring training (which isn't an awful idea, of course), the market is pretty much limited to Jeff Francis and Edwin Jackson. Francis would be cheap (I'd expect Maholm's deal to dictate the terms of his deal), though unexciting, while Jackson (who the Pirates haven't shown interest in beyond reporters and bloggers hypothesizing, as far as I can tell) would be a bit pricier and require a bit of a long-term committment.
I also think it's worth noting that the Orioles signed both Tsyoshi Wada and Wei-Yi Chen this winter and they signed Koji Uehara before the 2009 season. I always say that I want to see the Pirates involved in the bidding for NPB players, and this sort of thing is why. It's sort of a Catch-22 (if you've signed some NPB players, you're more likely to be able to sign more, but if you haven't, it can be difficult to start, especially if, say, for theoretical example, Akinori Iwamura had a bad experience in Pittsburgh) and the Pirates have signed some teenage amateurs from Taiwan, but it's somewhere I'd like to see the Pirates make some inroads.
Ken Rosenthal tweeted this morning that the Cubs are close to a deal with Paul Maholm. There's no word on length or deal, but assuming that Maholm does sign with the Cubs there are two things I think we can be pretty sure of:
- Maholm will make a start against the Pirates in which his fastball doesn't top 87 mph, but he sets a career high in strikeouts.
- Jeff Francis will probably be a Pirate in 2012.
So the Steelers played this football game tonight, and it kind of had a lame ending if you're a Steeler fan. Maybe you heard about it. If you know anything about the internet, you know that it more or less caught on fire like a fetid pile of gabage in the immediate aftermath, with two sides being drawn: pro-Tebow and anti-Tebow. You probably know how it unfolded from there. Some unfortunate people were caught in the crossfire. One of them was Andrew McCutchen's girlfriend.
and so much animosity towards @MariaHanslovan.She meant no harm towards the Steelers.she is a fan n God fearing christian.simmer down folks.— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) January 9, 2012
In two months, #22 is literally going to be the only person that can drag an undertalented group of baseball players towards something that hasn't happened in Pittsburgh for two decades and to create some kind of crazy, improbable, Disney Movie moment not unlike the one that Mr. Tebow delivered for his fans tonight. Please be nice to his girlfriend.
It's Friday. There are seven Fridays until spring training games begin. There are 12 until Opening Day. Just typing that makes me feel a bit warmer inside. I think I speak for everyone when I say, "Hurry it along."
While perusing MLB Trade Rumors this morning, hoping to find anything interesting happening on the Pirate front to write about, I noticed that there are still an awful lot of first baseman on the free agent market. Presumably, guys like Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena are all waiting for Prince Fielder to sign before picking a team in hopes that one of the desperate runners-up in the Fielder Derby will pay them a little more than they're being offered right now.
Here's the thing, though: the Prince Fielder Derby isn't nearly as heated as Prince or Scott Boras had hoped. Right now, it seems like almost a slam dunk he's going to end up in Washington because they're the only team that really seems interested beyond a passing glance. So what if we hit mid-January and Lee, Pena, and Kotchman are still on the market and could be had for reasonable prices? The Pirates haven't been openly interested in any of them except for Lee and since they traded for Casey McGehee and tendered Garrett Jones, it seems like they're probably done adding at the position.
But what happens if they suddenly find that they could have Carlos Pena on a one-year/$8 million deal? Or Kotchman for $5 million? It would create a bit of a log-jam that might necessitate a Garrett Jones trade, but it would probably make the Pirates a bit better in 2012 (well, Pena probably would, Kotchman would be a gamble).
I kind of doubt anything's going to happen here, I just think it's interesting that it's now January are there's still quite a few free agents on the market left at a position that the Pirates definitely had some need at when the winter started. I do think there's a chance that Jones/Kotchman/Nick Evans make a better combo than anyone expects and end up being quite a bit more productive than the first base position was last year, pre-Lee, but there's still some room for improvement.