January 2007

Mailbag Goodies

Bay11 How cool is this Jason Bay photo? Thank you to the reader who sent it to me to share with everyone.

It’s time to reach into the mailbag and answer some of your questions, like this one I received today:

"Enjoy your blog, good work.  Hey, you dropped a hint of what I assume was a Brad Penny rumor last week but you haven’t commented since.  I am curious as to what you know about this because ever since his 2 years @ about 16 mil were available, I thought he would be absolutely perfect for the Buccos situation." — DB

There has been some speculation that a West Coast team might be making a trade soon and that might free up a starting pitcher who has been vocal about wanting to pitch under Jim Colborn again. Right now it is nothing more than pure speculation based on a few coincidental facts. And no, Brad Penny isn’t the pitcher in the rumor, DB, although he would be an interesting pickup.

"I’m still wondering about Melky. At 22 years old what would it take to acquire him now? Reason I ask is his age, our 22 year olds are still in A ball. He certainly must have something Nady does not have." — LM

When we heard that the Yankees asked Cabrera to shut it down by skipping the Caribbean World Series, everyone’s first thought was that they expected him to have an expanded role next year. Then it became obvious that our initial thoughts might have been a bit hasty as the New York press started shooting out articles about how good Melky’s defense was last year, contrary to what most folks believe.

Are the Yankees posturing in an attempt to get more in a pending trade? That’s the general thought right now. However, I don’t see us matching up in a trade to get Cabrera.

"Dejan and the Post-Gazette is getting more confusing every time I read their coverage of the Pirates. On batting order questions, Dejan initially said it was all about where Jason Bay would bat, then he turned around and said it was all about where Freddy Sanchez would bat, then his third article said he preferred to see Wilson batting second. The next day his partner in crime, the Stats Geek, came out and said Wilson should bat eighth.

What the . . ??

When LaRoche was picked up Dejan said the Pirates would have the strongest middle of the order lineup since the early 90′s when the Pirates went on to win the division three years in a row. Then today he said the Pirates scored the lowest number of runs in baseball in the second half and finished his Q & A by saying the offense looks interesting on paper, but much needs to be proven.

Huh?

I’m confused. The one point he did make that stood out was that we didn’t score many runs in the second half last year. What do you think that means for the Pirates going into 2007?" — LC

Dejan is the same reporter who was drumming up Jack Wilson trashing Jose Castillo in the press too. Maybe it is because he is an excellent hockey beat reporter who converted to baseball and he is used to seeing hard hits, body slams, and knockout punches in the NHL? Just a guess.

Here is some of what Dejan missed.. while the team did score the fewest runs in baseball in the second half, they also allowed the sixth fewest runs to score against them. In fact, when you remove the five blowout games where the opposition scored 10 or more runs against us, the Pirates actually outscored their opponents in the second half 259 – 257.

Two of those blowouts were by Chacon, two of them Santos pitched in, one Torres gave up 5 runs in one inning after Maholm left with the game tied, and one of them Juan Perez and Brian Rogers gave up 5 runs after Snell exited.

Nor did Dejan mention that most of the Pirate starters logged 330 innings with a combined ERA below 4 in the second half — Duke 3.65, Maholm 4.28, Gorzelanny 3.25, Youman 2.91, and Snell 4.75. In fact, the team ERA of 4.01 was 5th best in baseball after the break.

Those are some very significant facts that weren’t covered.

I tell my readers this — there isn’t one source that is a complete source. Take all the available information you can find, put it in a shaker with gin and vermouth, mix, pour, and enjoy. Just don’t forget the 5 to 1 ratio and never add ice.

"Please explain to me how Yoslan Herrera could possibly be ranked the fourth best prospect in the Pirates’ farm system by Baseball America today when he hasn’t pitched competitively in nearly three years and the writer who projected him fourth has never even seen him pitch?" — FN

Good question. I suppose it has to do with the relative lack of depth in the Pirates’ farm system and John Perrotto, who made the projections, must have spoken to some of the Pirates’ brass before ranking him. But that is only a guess — I haven’t spoken to Perrotto.

I did find it interesting that Neil Walker was listed second in front of Brad Lincoln. I certainly don’t agree with that projection but you never know. I also found it odd that John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington weren’t even mentioned in the article. I’m sure that will put a fire under their seats.

Here are the Pirates Top Ten Prospects from Baseball America:

1. Andrew McCutchen, of
2. Neil Walker, c
3. Brad Lincoln, rhp
4. Yoslan Herrera, rhp
5. Josh Sharpless, rhp
6. Steven Pearce, 1b
7. Brian Bixler, ss
8. Brad Corley, of
9. Todd Redmond, rhp
10. Mike Felix, lhp

Revisiting Wilson in the Two Hole

Yesterday’s post set off an email avalanche in my in-box. The post wasn’t meant to be a scientific study – it was only meant to give you a general feel how Wilson did in the two hole against the MLB average 2B last year.

I got probably 30 emails from folks explaining to me how the AL and NL are vastly different creatures, even more telling me Jack batting second was a complete waste of time because his OBP is so low, some wanted to try and use STATS, Inc’s runners in scoring position stats to tell me Jack didn’t belong there, and so on, and so forth.

Everyone had a different opinion and reasons why they felt the way they did, but one theme ran true in those emails – 99% were not in favor of Jack Wilson batting anywhere but 8th.

But few of those emails made any sense as to their reasons why.

If you have been following my posts regularly then you know I expect the Pirates to play a lot of very tight games in 2007. You don’t typically win one-run games by mashing the ball. Instead, you win one-run games with more luck than the other team had that night. Some luck is simply a bi-product of baseball Gods but most luck is generated by opportunities. The first manager, team, or player that fails to execute on a routine opportunity typically loses.

The Pirates are in the NLCD where pitching and defense typically determine if your team will be a contender or a cellar dweller. Small-ball is somewhat more important in the NL but the higher number of close games any team plays, the more critical small-ball becomes. It’s part of generating that luck we talked about above.

I was asked by quite a few people to put up some realistic examples (each event has sample counts in the hundreds, if not thousands) of Jack batting second and compare his productivity to NL only #2 batters. I did that in two stages – stage one showing just 2006 opportunities, and stage two showing 2003 – 2006 opportunities.

Here are the four scenarios I used and the percentages of successful base runner advancements:

MLB Wilson Wilson MLB
06 06 03-06 03-06
Runner at 3B 39.9% 33.3% 40.0% 39.9%
xx1, 1×1, x11, 111
Runner at 1B anytime 48.7% 53.8% 48.8% 48.8%
1xx, 11x, 1×1, 111
Runner at 1B, 2B open 50.0% 56.6% 49.5% 49.4%
1xx, 1×1
Only 1 Runner on 46.8% 51.1% 48.1% 47.3%
1xx, x1x, xx1

The four scenarios are very simple. For example, the first one, Runner at 3B, indicates Wilson successfully advanced a runner from 3B to score 33.3% of the time in 2006 – a 6.7% difference from his average rate of 40% from 2003 – 2006. The base states under each scenario are also as you would expect — xx1 means a runner was only on at third; 1×1 means a runner was on at first and third; and so on.

Bringing home the bacon just 33.3% of the time certainly seems like failure, especially considering that rate was 6.6% lower than the average NL #2 hitter last year. There’s no question that Wilson tanked in this role last year by his own 2003 – 2006 average.

When you go to ESPN or another stat house and you look at his .250 BA driving in men from 3B, you easily cringe, but you aren’t seeing the whole story. For instance, Jack had 37% more runners at 3B last year to drive in than he averaged each year from 2003 – 2005. That seems like a lot of failure, until you consider the difference between what he did drive in, and what he would be expected to drive in at the 40% rate between 2003 – 2006, was only two runners less.

That’s not enough to cry spilled milk over and a good example of why looking at runners in scoring position batting averages are virtually meaningless on their own. When you consider Wilson came to bat with a 15% higher two-out rate in 2006 than he averaged between 2003 – 2005, you can easily see why his production bringing home that runner from 3B was off some. That isn’t explained at ESPN though.

The remaining examples are simple to follow and they acknowledge what Tracy has been saying about Wilson – that he is clearly an above-average #2 hitter and he is getting better and better. Not in batting average, not in OBP, not in SLG.. but in helping to produce small-ball runs.

That is what helped us to win 68% of our 19 one-run games in the second half last year, and that is what it will take to win in 2007.

Small-ball.. not mash-ball.

Lineup Construction: Wilson in the Two Hole

A few folks have asked why I am pumping out so many statistical posts right now and the answer is simple — it’s slow. Some folks hate statistical posts, some love them. For those that hate them, the good news is I’m close to being done.

One of the most talked about issues right now is the batting lineup. I was in the process of running thousands of runs on my modeling program and was going to post the results but, to be quite honest, the variance differences I was coming up with wasn’t worth wasting my time on the project. (How sad is that?)

Instead, I decided to test Jim Tracy’s theory that Jack Wilson is the best player to bat in the second hole of the lineup. More specifically, I wanted to know how well of a job Jack Wilson has done moving the lead runner over.

I looked at Wilson’s stats in every base and out state batting from the two hole in 2006. I also did the same for Freddy Sanchez no matter where he batted last year and then I looked at every two hole batter in MLB in 2006 to measure them both against. The resulting graphic below looks at the success rate in each state. Freddy’s stats are offered here just for you to gander at – they really mean nothing in the big picture because his role last year wasn’t to be a two hole batter.

While there are some small sample size warnings across the board for Freddy and Jack, I did look at Jack’s 2002 – 2005 stats as well and they weren’t so different that the overall picture would change by any means. In fact, he actually looked much worse in most cases.

Here is the 2006 chart showing the percentages of runners successfully advanced :

This is very easy to read.. there are three out states all listed in the left hand column – 0 outs, 1 outs, and 2 outs. The seven base states are just like you would expect.. 1×1 means a runner at first and third; 111 means bases are loaded; etc. The lead runner is just that.. if the bases are loaded, the lead runner is the man at 3B, the next runner is the man at second, and the last runner is the man at first. The # opps means how many total opportunities were available to that player in each of the states.

You can see that Jack Wilson saw his most frequent opportunity to move a runner over when there was no outs and a man only on at first. In that state he was successful 8.1% more often than the average MLB two hole batter was last year in moving the runner over. The value difference between what we expected Wilson to have in this state from the league average rate and what he did have was 6 — six more runners were advanced than the average #2 batter in MLB.

Wilson was also more successful in a couple of other reasonable opportunity states – when there was a runner at 1B and one out, a runner at 1B with two outs, and a runner only at 2B with no outs. The rest of his values were either very close or below MLB league average two hole batters, or there wasn’t enough opportunities to realistically measure him against the MLB median.

One thing is clear – Jack Wilson is an above average batter in the two hole with a man at first base and all the rest of the bases empty – no matter what the out state is. There he does an exceedingly good job. He also did a good job in a few other states. When I looked at the rest of our roster for an acceptable two hole batter to replace him with other than Sanchez, I couldn’t find one that even came close.

On the other hand, Freddy’s role was to bang the runners around the bases and to get them home when he could – not to give himself up by moving runners over – and Freddy clearly did an outstanding job at that. In the 15 states where two or more men were on base (108 total opportunities), Freddy fell below 50% in advancing those runners in only three states, and never did he fall below 33%.

Ok – I hear you. Small sample size warnings. Fair enough. But I still couldn’t find another MLB player in the NL that met or exceeded that feat other than Chase Utley, albeit I only looked at about 30 other players.

Jim Tracy was right – batting Jack Wilson in the two hole makes sense, especially with Duffy in front of him and Sanchez behind him. Moving Sanchez to the two hole and Bay to the three hole would be a disaster because we then force Freddy to be the ‘give yourself up guy’ to move Duffy into scoring position.

For those that question Duffy’s ability to get on base and that batting Sanchez in the two hole might mean there could be a base runner on for Bay and then LaRoche if Duffy doesn’t get on, you can’t ask Jim Tracy to plan as if he expects Duffy to fail. Tracy has to plan based on Duffy producing at league average leadoff rates and that means the first potential out comes from Wilson moving him over.

Lastly, there has been some speculation that by batting Sanchez second and Bay third they will see more at bats during the year. That is true, but not enough to create new roles for each player based on where they are batting.

For instance, if Duffy gets on base ahead of Sanchez, is Freddy supposed to give himself up, or just forget about moving Duffy over hoping he gets a hit? Remember now, it is significantly easier to move a runner over than it is to get a hit in MLB. Duffy scoring from 1B on a single is not anywhere near as certain as Duffy scoring on a single from 2B.

Changing roles for a few more at bats, many of which would probably be unproductive anyway, makes no sense at all.

I agree with Jim Tracy that Jack Wilson should bat second behind Duffy. I also agree with Tracy that LaRoche should bat 4th and Bay 5th except against left-hand starting pitchers, as Tracy has mentioned. Bay eats southpaws for dinner but he has a harder time against right-handers. LaRoche is just the opposite. So expect Tracy to flip these two back and forth based on who starts the game against us.

And don’t forget that Bay is a 20+ stolen base threat. That won’t matter much when slow man LaRoche is on base ahead of him, of course. But Bay will be somewhat of a distraction to the opposing southpaw pitchers LaRoche has a hard time hitting, and it just might create more hittable pitching sequences for LaRoche.

The lineup we used in the second half of last season was successful because the team did a decent job in the roles assigned to them. Duffy got on base, Jack moved him over, Freddy drove him around the bases and got on for Bay, etc. There is no reason to change that success as long as each man does his job.

Head-To-Head: Castillo vs Sanchez at 2B

Dave Littlefield has already made it clear – either Jose Bautista or Jose Castillo will be the 8th position player in 2007. If Bautista wins out, he’ll play 3B with Sanchez shifting over to 2B. If Castillo wins out, he’ll play 2B and Sanchez will play 3B.

Measuring each player’s offensive talent is fairly easy. All you have to do is go to the wonderful FanGraphs site and compare them in numerous categories from projection systems to how they compare by age. By the looks of things, Bautista seemed to have had a minor power breakout last year. But don’t forget, he is one year older than Castillo.

Measuring each player on defense is quite another story. We can look at fielding percentages or range factors but they don’t tell us anything we can accurately measure against.

For instance, Bautista had a .927 Fielding Percentage last year playing 3B for the Pirates and committed 6 errors. We do know that’s not good but how much worse was that compared to Sanchez’s 10 errors and .980 Fielding Percentage at 3B last year?

Don’t have a clue? Me either. We can guess all day until the cows come home but that’s all it would be – a guess. Bautista has only played a little over 300 innings at 3B and that was spread across four teams in three years.

So the better way to try and evaluate the Bautista vs Castillo angle is to compare Sanchez vs Castillo at 2B defensively.

I took both 2005 and 2006 statistics for every event except errors and batted ball distribution, which are based on 2006. I then combined them for each player and compared each in various scenarios. I then added the median stat line for all MLB second basemen for a final comparison, and here is what I found —

I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions from the stats because I think the answer to who is better is clearly obvious, and there should be no question in Littlefield’s mind who starts at second or third next year.

The percentages are against the total number of opportunities that player had for the event. Realize that there is some small sample size warnings with Sanchez’s data since he didn’t have a lot of time at 2B the last two years. However, none of the events had ridiculously low opportunities – they all had reasonable enough numbers to draw conclusions from.

We have all heard the recent adolescent outbursts by Jack Wilson ripping into Jose Castillo.. telling him he needs to bring his game this year.. he needs to leave Mr. Lazy at home.. etc. We heard a few remarks last year from Jack about how he felt Sanchez was the obvious choice to play second and that he felt more comfortable on the field when he did.

The fans care less what Wilson thinks or wants.. we simply want wins with the best eight players on the field behind the pitcher.

That’s a no-brainer.

But you have to wonder why Jack Wilson’s game has tanked at shortstop ever since Freddy Sanchez came to the team. And you have to further wonder why the stats point to Jack Wilson making mistakes on the field when he plays with Castillo that he doesn’t make with Sanchez. I’m not going to suggest he is doing it on purpose, but it wouldn’t be the first time it happened in baseball if he is.

Simply look at Wilson’s 11% error rate above when Jose attempts to turn a DP with him. Castillo isn’t throwing the ball over the firstbaseman’s head. Castillo isn’t throwing the ball in the dirt five feet in front of the firstbaseman. Castillo isn’t dropping tha ball on the relay. Those are Wilson’s errors.

And he has made a ton of them since Sanchez came aboard.

Perhaps we should be looking at whether or not to bench Wilson in favor of Castillo or Sanchez at shortstop? I mean, Dave Littlefield did shop Wilson at the deadline last July.

And Wilson knows that too.

Perhaps we have unmasked the true motivation behind Wilson’s outbursts this winter. Tell me, which team wants a player who creates clubhouse problems with his fellow players? Which team wants a player that can’t hit the side of a barn? Which team wants a player who is below average defensively?

None of them do. And Wilson knows that too.

Dad always said there was a reason for everything.

Ok – I’ll leave you to the stats and to draw your own conclusions. If you have any questions about the graphic, just leave a message in the comment section.

Score One for the Pirates Marketing Director

You have to wonder if the Pirates intended the new bright red jersey in 2007 as a joke on the fans considering, in the spectrum of color, red is as low as it gets.

How ironic.

Then there is the Internet rumor that questions whether Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy wanted opposing teams to see the ball out of the pitchers hand better and he felt he could accomplish that with the bright red background on the pitcher.

Could be.

One Bucco Blog reader surmised it was to taunt the Reds because 17% of the games we play on Friday night at PNC will be against the Reds.

Corny, but maybe.

One of the discussion forums on the Internet said the Pirates are doing it because they have a new office in China this year and they want to get a running start on signing talent. Besides, the forum message stated, our scouts will need to wear something red over there.

Now that one is out there.

I don’t care where you go, or who you talk to, the fans all believe the new bright red jersey is the ugliest ever seen, ugly as sin, blindingly ugly, or YUCK!

I think the uniform is a great idea. In fact, the Pirates Vice President & Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Tim Schuldt has pulled off a major marketing coup this week and he probably doesn’t even know it.

Or he doesn’t want to acknowledge it if he does.

I suppose my fellow bloggers aren’t from the same 60′s generation I grew up in. I mean, not only did I get to see Abbie Hoffman in Chicago in 1968, but I remember things they probably have never even heard of like nike bases with missile silos in our corn fields outside of Chicago.

Back then we were anti-war demonstrators. Today we are the silent majority who actively support our troops (not the war, mind you – just the troops) because it’s our sons and daughters over there now.

Big difference age makes, huh?

No, I think Schuldt knew exactly what he was doing when he announced the new uniform will be worn on Friday night games at home.

Smart Schuldt.. very smart.

See, those of us in the silent majority show solidarity and support for our troops by wearing red on Friday.

I like it. I like it a lot.

Kudo’s to the Pirates for getting something right even though they probably had no idea what they were doing when they did it.

Sea of Red on Friday’s at PNC everyone.

Jason Bay Disarmed Part III

I started looking hard at Jason Bay’s fielding in left field in March 2006 after I noticed a significant amount of base runners taking extra bases on him in 2005 compared to the average left fielder in the game.

In Part I of this series I examined the base runners tendencies, and in Part II I broke down Bay’s stats based on an excellent article at The Hardball Times by John Walsh called "Cannons and Popguns – Rating Outfield Arms". Walsh confirmed what Bucco Blog had been saying – that Bay had the worst LF arm in MLB in 2005.

The Associated Press reported that Jason Bay broke his right wrist in May 2003 when he was hit by a pitch, but he continued to play in the Padres minor league farm system shortly after a 15-day disabled list stint. The Pirates then obtained Bay in August of 2003 in the Brian Giles trade.

After the 2003 season ended, Bay had labrum surgery to to repair a tear in his throwing shoulder and, by his own words later in 2004, he never really felt comfortable throwing hard during the year. By the end of 2004 he was saying he felt fine.

When the 2005 season opened, Bay declared that the shoulder was 100% and that he never felt better so I looked hard at his statistics that year to see if opposing teams really believed him. They didn’t, as you saw in Part II of this series.

Part III of this series is to see if Bay improved any in 2006 holding base runners over his disastrous 2005 season. Perhaps his shoulder wasn’t 100% in 2005 as he claimed it was and maybe there would be a marked improvement?

I went back to John Walsh’s five plays that he used to measure outfield arms with in 2005, and that I used to measure Bay with as well in Part II. Using Retrosheet’s 2006 MLB dataset I came up with the following figures:

Bay05and06disarmed_1The keys in this chart are the "diff" and "diff 05 and 06" columns.

The "diff column tells us how many fewer or more base runners Bay allowed in each event in 2006.

The "diff 05 and 06" column tells us how many fewer or more base runners Bay allowed in 2005 and 2006 combined over the average LF during that same time.

As we expected to see, Bay did improve in almost every opportunity in the five plays over his 2005 production.

Unfortunately, while Bay’s improvement was noteworthy, it was not significant. The reason was because of one field – the one I have highlighted in red.

When there was a runner on 2B and the batter hit a single to Bay, there was a 15% higher probability that the base runner was going to score on Bay than the average MLB left fielder. In other words, teams were running more on Bay in 2006 than in 2005 in that event.

And they were successful too.

The real problem with this is that that event occurs more often than any of the other events other than a single to Bay with a man on 1B. It’s only logical to assume that a base runner is not going to try and advance on any left fielder when the play is in front of the fielder. But even then they ran more on Bay than the average LF.

In fact, Bay fielded almost 40% of all line drives hit to the outfield off our main 5 starters last year while seeing the lowest number of fly balls.

According to Walsh’s article, Bay was -12 runs defensively in 2005. My results show Bay at about -14 runs defensively in 2006. The cause for concern here is that teams are running more and more on Bay as each year passes, even with Jack Wilson running halfway to the fence to get Bay’s relay throws last year.

One point I want to make here is that when Freddy Sanchez played SS instead of Jack Wilson, Bay’s ability to get base runners to hold tanked significantly, most likely from the opposing team’s lack of respect for Freddy’s arm compared to Jack Wilson’s cannon. Bay’s 2006 numbers are inflated some from Sanchez playing SS but not so much that if Wilson played all year Bay would have been less than -10 runs.

On the flip side of the coin, Bay does a very good job of getting to balls in play and converting them to outs as he is a click above the league average left fielder. That’s pretty good considering the size of LF at PNC. But as I noted above, balls put in play from our main five starters that have the higher run value – line drives – are heading to Bay more often than not. So the fact Bay can cover the ball on flies isn’t really a big deal – halting that base runner is.

I had been an advocate of moving Bay to 1B and acquiring a "lefty McThump" bat to play LF instead. With the addition of Adam LaRoche, that will never happen now, and for good reason.

The Pirates have a growing defensive problem in left field with Jason Bay that can’t be ignored. Perhaps Wilson needs to run out toward Bay on every play in 2007 instead of most plays like in 2006? One thing for sure, Freddy Sanchez should not play shortstop with Bay in LF. I estimated that Bay would have been -26 runs defensively with Sanchez at SS over 159 games based on the numbers generated in 2006 when Freddy did play SS.

However considering Bay’s offensive impact, worrying about him in LF isn’t anywhere near as significant an issue as our developing right field problem — who is going to play there?

Bautista? Nady? McLouth?

They are all horrible route runners in the outfield. Not just horrible but rancid. Plus, they offer below average offensive production for a corner outfielder. I’m assuming Dave Littlefield is continuing to look for an upgrade or else he is going to see this team lose a lot of games because of our right field woes.

Tidbits

PirateFest is in motion – be sure to get down and see all the players.

At the same time, the Pirates annual winter Fantasy Camp is taking place and the Bradenton Hearld has a nice article with some pictures to enjoy.

Evidently Jack Wilson ripped into Jose Castillo at PirateFest while talking with Stan Savran on Sportsbeat. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"He told FSN Pittsburgh’s Stan Savran in a televised interview last night that, unless Castillo improves his work ethic, he would prefer Freddy Sanchez next to him at second."

‘"I want whoever’s going to make this a winning team," Wilson said. "Right now, Freddy is my second baseman, in my mind. He’s the guy I can trust to go 100 percent and get the job done. Castillo’s got to show me something. You’re going to see it in spring training. If he’s slimmed down and ready to work, he’s going to have a good year. But, if it’s the other way around, we’re going to have some problems."

How sad.

I am of the old school player’s camp and a firm believer that no player has the right to rip another player in the media, no matter how small the rip. That’s showboating, especially when the player doing the ripping had just as poor a year as the player he is ripping.

Jack Wilson has no right to disrespect another member of his team. There are numerous ways for Wilson to show his leadership role rather than ripping into a fellow player. At that point it is no longer a team. If Wilson has something to say about Castillo, he should say it to his face.

I’ve mentioned over-and-over here that the Pirates continue to have clubhouse problems and this is just another red flag going into 2007.

Prayers go out to Nolan Ryan and B.B. King who were both hospitalized the last couple of days.

Think Pittsburgh is the only city where everyone questions the lack of player payroll spending? Not a chance, as St. Petersburg Times columnist John Romano is starting to question the motivations of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays new ownership group.

Quick – which player has the most stress on his shoulders heading into 2007? Jose Castillo, Chris Duffy, or Adam LaRoche?

Easy – Chris Duffy.

Few fans remember Duffy was in Bradenton last January trying to rehab his hamstrings. Even fewer fans know that Duffy had a wrist/hand injury in early May that put him on the pine. But almost every fan can tell you he failed to report to AAA. That was a week after being put on the pine because of his injury.

This year Jim Tracy has said he needs Duffy to step up. Even statistical guru Bill James mentioned in my interview the other day that Duffy’s performance was one of the two keys for the Pirates in 2007.

Today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when Jason Bay was asked what lineup he would like to see in 2007, he said:

"You know what?" he continued. "A lot of this is going to hinge on Duffy, anyway. If the top of the lineup isn’t working, things will have to shuffled."

The problem with the pressure cooker being turned on high heat for Duffy is that he is heading into what might become only his first full season of play. That’s simply too much pressure to be putting on the young man and we have to expect him to fail just as most first and second-year players do.

But wait – there’s even more pressure.

Sitting in the Pirates farm system in AA is one of the nation’s top rated center field prospects by the name of Andrew McCutchen who everyone around the game seems to believe can make a successful transition from AA to the big show next year. I don’t believe that.. McCutchen didn’t believe that.. and I’m sure Littlefield doesn’t believe that either. But some do.

If you are Chris Duffy, how would you handle all the stress? You can’t.. I don’t care who you are. It is going to affect him.

How much, is yet to be seen.

Tidbits

Remember these headlines about this time last year?

"Ed Eagle says Burnitz will get 30 dingers!"

"WV Newspaper: Pirates Can Compete For Wild Card."

Some folks just lose it when February starts getting close. Maybe it’s FanFest that drives them over the edge, I don’t know.

However, some folks don’t buy into the hype:

"Pirates Looking More and More McClendon’ish"

"Stats Geek: Forget 2006.."

SG over at Replacement Level Yankees Weblog ran 2,000 Diamond Mind (DM) simulations last year using ZIPS, BP’s PECOTA, and DM’s own projection stats and he had figured the Pirates will lose:

– 86 with Diamond Mind’s projection disk;
– 84 using PECOTA’s projections with DM; and
– (ready for this?) 81 using ZIPS projections in DM runs.

Yes, that was the first .500 prediction I had seen since the 90′s from a decent statistical mind, as SG is.

I said we’d lose 98 punching 4 keys on a calculator.

We lost 95 of course, so I suppose I creamed all three of the projection systems using DM.

I mentioned the other day that we are looking at 89 losses this year and will finish fifth in the division as the roster stood after acquiring LaRoche.

SG’s early run using CHONE’s projections has the Pirates losing 88 (knew I read that somewhere). Since the CHONE runs were done before LaRoche was added to the mix, I assume the projection will climb several more wins.

That made me want to go back and reopen my own projection data until I pulled the DVD out and read what I wrote on the disk: "2007 Pirates Projections – Littlefield GM".

I put the disk away comfortable with my work and realizing that SG must have pushed the same buttons Dave Littlefield did when he suggested Tike Redman should bat in the three-hole a couple of years ago.. or that he should sign Burnitz and Casey last year.. or that he should make Oliver Perez an add-on to the Hernandez trade last July.. or that Nady in right-field makes sense this year, or.. well, you get the idea.

Somethings just can’t be programed into Diamond Minds SG.

Ah shucks.. Jeff Weaver’s heading to Seattle to pitch. Who would have guessed he wasn’t coming to Pittsburgh?

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Patty Paytas, vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh Pirates, last night was honored as Renaissance Communicator of the Year by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Public Relations Society of America." Kudos go out to Ms. Paytas.

The Toronto Star talked about Tomo Ohka yesterday:

"While Ohka was supposedly flying from Japan to Toronto yesterday, his agent, Jim Masteralexis, indicated they had turned down two-year offers from both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals for the chance to play with a contender – or, more to the point, for a team that was going to score some runs."

I wonder if Ohka got a new screwdriver in his contract? Best of luck Tomo.

When Did Pittsburgh Become a Country Town, a guy named Sean asks.

Everyone wants to see Ryan Vogelsong’s wedding pictures. Here they are for you.

Well this makes sense. How ironic – drafted by the Pirates in 2005 and now can’t  land a starting role with LSU. So he left the team.

The Indy Indians posted their spring training schedule a few days ago. Warning – I’ve never heard of that site before so exit with caution.

Poopsburgh Pirates? Coming from a guy named Bub, no less. Seventy-seven wins is what he predicts for the Pirates. Wait.. wait.. I know where I’ve heard that name before – isn’t he the last guy to get his butt patted in the Brewers commercial last year? Yeah – yeah! That’s him! Where’s the nearest KFC?

Thanks for the shouts Pastime, BeyondTheBoxScore, Can’t Stop The Bleeding, MetsBlog (Matt – it is Jake not Lou.. hehe), and everyone else not listed.

If you made it down this far you’re due a treat. Do I hear the pitter-patter of little rumor feet making their way toward Pittsburgh from LA? I barely hear them in the wind but what I do hear says starting pitcher. Stay tuned.

First Pitch Balls in Play: How to Win in 2007?

David Appelman of FanGraphs fame, penned a nice article called Expanding the Strike Zone over at The Baseball Analysts in December where he looked at how often pitchers got batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. That article caused one Bucco Blog reader to send me an email asking:

"The Pirates walk so many batters you would think they would throw more strikes on pitch one instead of trying to get batters to chase. We have to be well below league average on first pitch strikes, aren’t we?" — JG, Penn Hills

Great question.

So I poured over the 2006 statistics to find out.

Using Retrosheet.org’s 2006 database I determined that the Pirates pitching staff as a whole obtained 1.7% more first pitch strikes than the MLB league average — 60.0% vs 58.3%.

Maybe that’s part of the reason why our hits allowed per nine innings was so high last year, I immediately suspected. After all, if batters went to the plate knowing there was a higher probability of seeing a first pitch strike, you would think they would be sitting dead red on the first pitch every at bat.

So I looked, and here is what I found:

Of the 844 first pitches put in play against Pirate pitching last year, sure enough – 33 of them went for home runs (0=didn’t reach base, 1=single, 2=double, 3=triple, and 4=home run). That certainly seemed like a lot considering the Pirates only allowed 156 total home runs all year.

I also noticed opposing batters reached base 31.9% of the time when the first pitch was put in play. That had to be above the MLB league average I thought.

So I looked.

Here is how all 30 MLB teams did as a whole:

Interestingly, Pirate pitching suppressed base runners 0.5% more than the MLB league average pitching staff when opposing batters put the first pitch in play.

Go figure.

I then thought maybe some of the Pirates suppression was spurious because of errors committed on the plays.

So I looked.

Nope – 2.0% league average error rate for MLB and 2.3% for the Pirates – the equivalent of two additional errors for the year.

Considering the Pirates gave up the fourth highest number of walks and the tenth highest number of hits last year, you would think our starters would have said ‘here’s an easy one for you’ on the first pitch to every batter and grooved a nice two-seamer low over the plate for them to whack at.

So there you go – the Pirates did a better job than most MLB teams of keeping men off base if the first pitch thrown was put in play by the opposing team.

Perhaps you have already guessed the rest of this story by now considering we won less than 30% of all away games last year. While young players typically have a hard time adjusting to road trips for a year or two, it is especially hard for young pitchers who face the crowd noise and the other teams confidence in front of their fans every pitch.

And it showed up in the stats too.

While Pirate pitchers exceeded MLB league averages in suppressing base runners or getting the first batter or two to put the ball in play at PNC, on the road it was a completely different story. They got hammered because batters tended to wait for the fourth or fifth pitch and they drove it, and drove it hard. Not so at PNC Park where we went right after batters.

Part of that is explained off by some of the very hittable parks we travel to like Wrigley. Some of it could be explained off because our staff knew they had some pretty rough defenders behind them last year and possibly they felt they had to make perfect pitches in away games. But most of it is simply not being aggressive on the mound on the road.

Great question JG. My guess is that Jim Colborn will instruct the Pirates pitching staff to start grooving move first and second pitch strikes on the road next year and win or lose from the results.

Because opposing batters won’t be looking for that.

DirecTV or No Direct TV?

I decided I better answer some of my readers questions about the MLB – DirecTV deal that seems to be upsetting a lot of folks.

How do I feel about it?

I use MLB.tv exclusively so it doesn’t affect me. I simply pump the video feed out of my home computer into my flat screen and I can watch the spin of the ball in slow motion with all the new gadgets my Sony TV has.

Besides, I never could stand DirecTV shutting off and rebooting at any random moment to try and fry outlaw access cards.

Am I concerned about cable TV losing out to DirecTV?

No. I wasn’t worried about the local stations losing out to cable TV years ago either.. or radio losing out to local TV before that. But I have to admit I do miss turning on an AM radio and hearing a game for free.

Am I concerned that the prices may eventually go up since the output is being even more restricted?

No. I’ll let Congress worry about that.

Plus, if you buy an MLB.tv subscription you can actually see every game despite the local blackouts, even though you may have to wait until the morning to see the game. On Extra Innings, it was either on or not and there were many times I wasn’t able to see a game I wanted to see.

Will a lot of fans be rightfully upset over this deal?

Absolutely. But they have options. And, no, I don’t believe MLB.tv (the option) will ever go away.

Look at this another way – Extra Innings had about 300,000 subscribers in 2005 across both cable and satellite platforms, where MLB.tv already had 1.3 million (Kagan Associates estimate).

The bottom line is, I expect to see a lot more folks signing up for MLB.tv’s service now and in return we should start seeing some additional services to compliment that package, as has been MLB’s trademark in recent years past.

Throw the dish away if you can – you really will love the ball games on your home TV.

Besides, in a few years that home computer will be running almost everything in your house. You will be connected to a fiber optic cable instead of copper and you’ll be doing things like visiting your doctor for minor issues, shopping at Publix, and having the KitchenAid repair man automatically showing up to change the water filter in your $1,500 KitchenAid refrigerator.

All free.

But that’s my take —

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