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Pirates Offseason Sequel Sampler

Well, TPOP readers, we made it. The offseason is in the rear view mirror, and we will have Pirates baseball every weekend from now to the end of the September. To wrap up the winter, I want to go back and write a few afterwords to the posts I ?ve made over the last four months. Is this a lazy cop out for a post and an even lazier way to re-promote my favorite offseason pieces? Sure, but it beats talking to Cleverbot again.

Vazquez ?s Best Pitch Makes Him Worse

Back in January, I wrote a piece about the best pitches on the Pirates staff. To the surprise of no one, Felipe Vazquez ?s changeup was near the top. It does it all. It tricks batters, spins, is hard to square up. In a lot of ways, it is the perfect changeup. It also gets him into trouble.

In the first four months of 2017, there was a trend that in months where Vazquez threw his changeup more, his FIP was higher. When he threw it less, his FIP was lower. In 2018, that trend carried on throughout the season.

Courtesy of FanGraphs.

It lines up even better if you look at xFIP.

Courtesy of FanGraphs.

Meanwhile, his fastball usage had the opposite effect. When he threw it more, his FIP was lower.

Courtesy of FanGraphs.

Granted, the data may be a little skewed. Vazquez had some forearm discomfort at the same time as fastball usage went down and the changeups went up. He might not have been physically able to throw consistent heat and hoped a pitch that looked like a fastball would be a good enough substitute. It wasn ?t. If he needs to ease off the gas again at any point in 2019– or if a potential pitch clock slows him down— more curves and sliders would be better.

Dr. SABRLove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Opener

The Rays bet on the opener last year and won, finishing with the third best ERA in baseball from its inception through the end of the season. Some teams have floated the idea around this offseason, including the Pirates.

But not everyone is a fan. Madison Bumgarner and Gerrit Cole have spoken out against potentially not pitching the first inning, even though both have a history of struggling out of the gate.

Bumgarner career 1st inning ERA: 3.87

2nd-9th ERA: 2.88

Cole career 1st inning ERA: 4.36

2nd-9th ERA: 3.18

Interesting. It makes you wonder how many other aces– or at least good pitchers — could use openers.

FanGraphs ? splits tool gives inning by inning results for every pitcher since 2002. I went to Baseball-Reference ?s Play Index Tool and found the top 100 starting pitchers by ERA+ since then (minimum 50 starts and 75% of their appearances being starts). This includes Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners and perennial All-Stars. Think of the best starters over the past 17 years. They ?re on the list.

I then compared their first inning ERA as a starter since 2002 vs. their starter ERA in every other inning. If you want to pour over the results, you can find them here. If you want the short answer, I broke them down to five categories:

Click to enlarge.

If you think the bottom half of those 100 are skewing the results, here are the top 50:

Of the top 50, 32 pitchers did worse in the first compared to just six who did better. Even if you consider ?even ? as a vote against the opener, this is still a filibuster-proof divide.

The opener. It ?s not just for ?Plan D ? fifth starters anymore.

STEAMER Says The Pirates Are On The Outside Looking In

When the first 2019 STEAMER projections came out in November, the Pirates were forecasted for 34.2 team WAR. The good news is now that the offseason is done, STEAMER now projects them for 36.3 WAR. The bad news is they are in last place in the NL Central.

To be fair, they aren ?t exactly buried in the standings. In fact, they projections have them just five games out of a wild card. Last year ?s team beat their preseason STEAMER total by five WAR, and five more wins above replacement would put the Bucs right at my 40.9 rule.

To equally distribute the 5 WAR needed to make the playoffs, each starter would need to beat their projections by 0.3 wins and each reliever and bench player by 0.1 wins. Here ?s how that roster would look:

Courtesy of Steamer.

Most of these totals seem attainable. In fact, the outfield and Cervelli were worth at least that much WAR last season, and Frazier barely missed the cut in a partial season. The starting pitching is going to need to take another step forward and maybe get a little help from Mitch Keller along the way, but 14.5 WAR is a reasonable goal. The same goes for 4.6 wins from the bullpen.

The Pirates frustrated many– including myself– for being too conservative this offseason, but this is arguably the second most complete team that has come to Bradenton in the Clint Hurdle era (the exception being 2015). They don ?t have an MVP talent like Andrew McCutchen, but just about every position has a capable veteran or a younger player with promise. This isn ?t a sexy team, but even in this Hunger Games of a division, they should be competitive.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

5 Comments on Pirates Offseason Sequel Sampler

  1. The too conservative comment makes me want to ask a smart guy like yourself, what would you have done differently?
    You need to give a Grandal $20M to come here or give Gio 3 years or go 5 years with Keuchel. To get players to Pittsburgh you need to offer more years, more money or a starting opportunity they don’t have elsewhere (Chisenhall, Lyles). Curious what your take would have been.

    • Alex Stumpf // February 21, 2019 at 1:28 PM //

      As much as I would love to see Gonzalez or Keuchel in that 5th spot, I get why the Pirates are concerned with contract length. I think 1/$9 for Moose would have been perfect for PNC Park at third base, keeping the spot warm for Hayes in 2020, but they wanted to stick with Moran.

      But there are some players that I don’t understand why the Pirates were never connected to. They give up a young, controllable outfielder for Erik Gonzalez, and even though I like the guy, I think his ceiling is a Jose Iglesias type player. Meanwhile, Iglesias is still hanging around as a free agent and could be picked up for a couple million. Liriano could be a good lefty reliever, but for another million, they could have had Jake Diekman (who I really like), and Diekman comes with a 2020 option and a track record as a reliever.

      I don’t want to advocate for spending money just to raise payroll, but if they would have even just reinvested the Ivan Nova $, they could have shored up this team.

  2. Cervelli and Musgrove never seem to make it through a whole season without missing considerable time. Does Streamer take that into account? Nut Bag thinks the new hitting coaches are going to make a big Difference?

    • Alex Stumpf // February 21, 2019 at 1:20 PM //

      There are two versions of Steamer projections: one where they try to project playing time and another when they base it on if the player was a healthy everyday starter. I went with the one where they factored playing time. They have Cervelli at 448 PAs and Musgrove at 162 IP, which may be a little high based on their injury history, but within reach IMO.

  3. Nice article. Bill James did a study many years ago looking at line-up construction that showed the most runs are scored in the first inning and the fewest the 2nd. More recent studies have confirmed this so first inning ERA might have more to do with facing a team’s best hitters and in precisely the preferred order. That being said, if a team has an “opener” that matches up well against the opponent’s top of the line-up it only makes sense to use him.

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