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Pittsburgh Pirates Analytics Mailbag

Elias Diaz’s swing was different in 2018. Photo by AP.

It’s not always easy coming up with fresh topics. It doesn’t help when the Pirates are quiet throughout the winter and spring training games are barely underway. I needed some inspiration, so I decided to outsource this whole “creative spark” craze to Twitter last week and asked for some writing prompts. The Internet came through with some good ideas and I’m going to ruin them with numbers and charts!

?What if Brault Stops Walking People ?- A Thought Experiment, Part I

“A thought experiment ? is a dangerous proposal for me. Now I can go off the deep end and say it was just an experiment.

Brault had decent enough control in his climb to the majors, but he had a walk problem in 2018, finishing with 5.6 BB/9- the second worst in baseball (min. 60 IP). He made some mental and mechanical changes this offseason to try to address this, and he looked good in his spring training debut, throwing 19 strikes in his 23 pitches.

Since this is a ?thought experiment, ? what if he somehow cut his 13.8 BB% down to around the league average rate (8.5%). His 2017 walk rate was 8.6% in the majors and 9.2% in AAA, so it ?s not too outlandish.

Brault faced 413 batters last year, so cutting 5% from his walk rate would mean eliminating 20 walks. Going off of his 20% strikeout rate, let ?s assume he strikes out four of those 20. While we ?re assuming, I ?ll take a leap and say those 16 other PAs do not result in a home run or hit batter. If those 16 at-bats will fall in line with his 2018 BABIP, five are hits and 11 are outs.

One third of the runners Brault let on last year eventually scored (51 of 149), so not only do we add 5 potential extra innings pitched because of the extra outs, you can argue he also shaves five earned runs off his ERA. If that ?s the case, then his final season stats look like this:

96.2 IP, 3.91 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9

That ?s a more than respectable stat line. There ?s still hope for Brault if he can get his walks under wrap.

“What if Brault Stopped Walking Batters”- A Thought Experiment, Part II

Now of course that didn’t happen, and it’s foolish to pretend it did. It was just an experiment. Here’s a more practical look at how his control problems impacted his pitch selection.

Going by xwOBA, Brault’s best pitch last season was his changeup (.251) and his worst was his four-seam fastball (.368). (This is assuming Brault’s cutter and slider are the same pitch but Baseball Savant misclassifies them.) When Brault was ahead in the count — or at least still battling — he threw his changeup often (14.1%). When he needed to throw a strike (2-0, 3-0, 3-1 and 3-2 counts), he rarely used it (5.9%). Not only that, he almost exclusively used his fastball in these counts just to get the ball over the plate.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Batters were sitting on Brault’s fastball when he was behind, too. When he needed to throw a strike, batters had a .496 xwOBA against his fastball. In all other counts, it’s .301.

Control problems kept Brault away from his best pitch, made him throw his worst one more and made his worst pitch even worse. There’s a lot riding on his new delivery to get the ball in the zone, but if he can, we’d probably see a very different pitcher.

How Diaz Became A Hitter

It looks like Diaz might be injury list bound with an infection. Hopefully that doesn’t impact his upcoming season, especially since his bat was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Pirates in 2018.

Diaz’s wRC+ skyrocketed from 52 in 2017 to 114 in 2018. This is due to cutting down on his ground ball rate (52.3% to 44.7%) while increasing his average exit velocity (86.2 MPH to 89.6). Those improvements seem to derive from a classic mechanics change: he lowered his hands. Here he is in July of 2017:

And here he is jacking a tater in September of last year:

For a different angle, here’s a sac fly he hit earlier in the same game:

This change has helped many batters hit more fly balls. Not only did Diaz do just that, but he also pulled more of his flies. I touched on the importance of that for TPOP last August. I also wrote for PiratesGuide 2019 that Diaz went from pulling 4.5% of his fly balls in 2017 to 32.6% in 2018, making him the most improved batter on the team in this category. Eight of his 10 home runs came this way.

Diaz got through the zone faster, hit the ball harder and put it in the air more often in 2018. 2019 will prove if that was a one year wonder or a foundation year.

Pirates vs The Rest Of The Division

I’ll save the payroll question for a rainy day, but the four sector question seems like a good way to end this post. I put the most stock into Steamer’s projections, and at the moment, they have the Pirates in last place in a brutal NL Central. If there is any positive news, it’s that there are only a handful of games away from a playoff spot in the projected standings. Last week, I took a look at what each player and position would need to do to make that jump to being a playoff team, but that doesn’t take the rest of the division into consideration. What’s the gap like?

I changed the final two sectors to starting and relief pitching. Here’s how the Pirates compare to their division competition.

Courtesy of, organized by FanGraphs. Projections as of 2/28/19. Click to enlarge.

If this game was just outfielders and pitchers, the Pirates would be golden. They may not lead the division in WAR in any of those categories, but it is the highest combined wins in these three sectors. It’s the infield that’s holding them back. A+ analysis, I know, but the infield is the strength for three of these teams. The Pirates don’t have anyone projected to be anywhere close to Javier Baez for the Cubs, and Baez is their third best infielder.

The Pirates were always going to need to outperform their projections to be in the playoff mix. They don’t necessarily need to get that extra WAR out of their infield, but it looks like that’s the part of the team with the most room to grow.

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.

4 Comments on Pittsburgh Pirates Analytics Mailbag

  1. Great stuff as usual.

  2. Phillip C-137 // February 28, 2019 at 9:37 PM //

    First off, I’m glad you guys are still alive, out of prison or back from wherever you’ve been.

    Second, good article, particularly timely since Brault walked 3 batters in a row to start the 2nd inning today vs the Yankees. Since I didn’t see or hear any of the game I’m curious what his pitch selection was in the 2nd and if he does quit walking people the next question is does he have the “stuff” to get folks out.

  3. Ron Christman // March 1, 2019 at 9:25 AM //

    The author does a better job than most but no baseball analyst/journalist I know of figures in the coaching and training staff and few figure in specific venue characteristics into their player analysis. Playing 81 games in the park with the deepest leftfield power alley and the largest square footage in left-left center field drives down comparative statistical numbers and is an equalizer when NL Central teams have to come into PNC for 9-10 games. That led to the Pirates leading the division in wins, home runs, et al head to head even tho’ there are a combined six 30+ home run hitters on the other teams.

    As for coaching, reputation wise, no one brought in hitting coaches the quality of Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz. . . . and no one brought in a two time all star, two time world series champion and world series MVP shortstop like David Eckstein. He’s actually known more in the industry as a fielding clinician than a player.

    I admit to being an advocate of quality modern coaching and players who are always working to improve no matter how long they’ve been in the majors. The Pirates have both the kind of coaches and players I like. I don’t expect ‘grand’ changes but Corey Dickerson moved from “suspect defense” to a Gold Glove leftfielder with the incremental changes brought on by the Pirates coaching and training staff. It wasn’t just with Corey, the Pirates outfield, as a unit, put up better numbers than the NL All Star outfield last year.

    Don’t expect the infield to become gold glovers but simple incremental changes at the four positions can result in significant collective improvements. I’ll be watching for those ‘little’ changes.

  4. Platooning Pirates are going to be stealthy effective I think. Not a powerhouse, to be sure, but an above avg starting 8. Consider: Cervelli /Diaz 2018 .271/.365/.439 ? 22-91-72, ops+120. Bell last 2 yrs .258/.345/.440. Ops+110. Could easily improve. Ditto Frazier. 2018 vs RHP .291/363/.490. Could pull a Scooter.We ?ll skip SS ? but clearing the Mercer Bar not that hard. Moran vs RHP .295/.354/.436. Ops+118. Hopefully Kang can fill the other end . Melky and Chizz (Mizzy?) last 3 years combined splits (900ab) .300/.342/.475. Then add Polanco back in. Marte and Dickerson are going to produce (hopefully )at expected levels. Pitching seems good. If they thread the needle they can win 90

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