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.
It lines up even better if you look at xFIP.
Meanwhile, his fastball usage had the opposite effect. When he threw it more, his FIP was lower.
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.
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:
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:
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.