2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

I grew up in Cleveland, and by city ordinance, I’m actually supposed to hate the city of Pittsburgh with every fiber of my being. I never quite saw the point. It’s a football thing. The Indians and Pirates were never really rivals, and I never really cared about football. I actually went to an Indians-Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium, before they tore it down. So, with that said, I welcome you to installment #9 in our 30 part series taking a look back, team-by-team, at the year that was 2007. Ladies(?) and gentlemen, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Record: 68-94,6th in NL Central (the only sixth place team in baseball)
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula):68.99wins (724 runs scored,846 runs allowed)
Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs
MVN Blog:
Pittsburgh Lumber Co.
OtherPirates Resources:
Latest News
Contract Status
Trade Rumors
Overview: I think I’ve pinpointed the source of the problems with the Pirates. They don’t win games. The Pirates last had a winning season in 1992, the year that Barry Bonds left the team. The last time a surly soon-to-be homerun champion left a team because they didn’t want to pay him, that team didn’t win for the next 86 years. Hmmm…
What went right: Adam LaRoche was supposed to be the straw that stirred the proverbial drink in PNC Park. And he was… for half a season. Part of his problem is that he did it in the second half. First half success stories are talked about ad nauseum because their stats look so gaudy halfway through, and the rest of the season, they are dropping, but still look good. LaRoche (whose name always freaks me out, because the Lydon LaRouche people always seem to show up and ask me to vote for him as I’m walking to work) went the other way. His first half batting line was .239/.324/439. Yuck. His second half line was a much more pallatable.312/.371/.482. But, a word of caution about LaRoche: a lot of people wanted to interpret his 2006 season as a breakout season, which is why the Pirates were willing to give up the remarkably consistent Mike Gonzalez in order to obtain his services. A big improvement in performance, can be one of two things, a legitimate breakoutin which a player has actually become a better player or a statistical outlier. LaRoche’s 2007 stats bear an eerie resemblance to his 2004 and 2005 stats. Uh oh.
But maybe not all is lost: LaRoche did cut down a bit on his strikeouts and increased his walks and his batted ball profile is a little more tilted toward fly balls. He did suffer a bit of a drop off in HR/FB, which suggests a possible power outage, but absent an injury, the best prediction is that it would rebound to his career average of around 15% (up from 11% this year.) He’s a better hitter than he looked like last year. But I wouldn’t bet on him to be like his 2006 self.
Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny both threw 200 innings for the first time in their careers, and emerged as two pretty good starters. Pretty good. Let’s not get carried away and say that they’re amazing. Among pitchers with at least 100 IP (so basically, starters), Snell ranks 30th in pitching VORP. So, since there are 30 teams, Snell qualifies as the last #1 in baseball. Gorzelanny is #32. There are teams with a worse 1-2 punch, but there are better. And we won’t get into the 3-4-5 punch to the stomach that comprises the rest of the Pirates rotation. If there’s one thing that I can say for both gentlemen (and to be fair, about Pirates #3 starter Paul Maholm), neither one gives up many line drives, comparatively. But neither one has world-class stuff. At 25 and 26 next year, Gorzelanny and Snell might (might) improve their use of what they have. But then, if they do, it perhaps gives Pittsburgh two top 25 pitchers in their starting staff. It’s just that when we say Top 25, we mean #22 and #24 or something like that.
What went wrong:OK, let’stalk about Jason Bay. The question on every Pirate fan’s mind is what happened to the All-Star who tossed up OPSs of .961 and .928 in 2005 and 2006? How did he end up with a VORP of 3.9(!) in 2007? The second questionamong Pirate fansis whether the Pirates should trade him. Let’s answer both questions. Here’s what didn’t change last year: Bay’s pitches per PA were slightly down, althoughnot noticeably so (and actually higher than his 2005 season). His batted ball profile was stable from 2006 to 2007, although in 2005, he was hitting a lot more line drives. A few things did change: His BABIP fell well below his career average. His HR/FB did likewise. His walk rate dropped too. BABIP is a good bet to regress back to his career mean,but what’s wrong with his walk rate? There are two possible explanations. In 2005 and 2006, Bay’s balls/pitch rate were 40 and 41%. In 2007, it was a mere 37.5%. Walks are the product of taking pitches, while strikeouts are the product of having a good eye. I don’t have the 2007 data available for my response bias and sensitivity measures of the strike zone, but my guess is that Bay will have a response bias that’s too high. He’s not striking out any more than he used to,so he would do well to relax and take a few extra pitches. Either that, or there’s a hole in his swing. Take a look at how Bay performed when facing a fastball, especially one in the strike zone. There’s a lot of foul ball/swings and misses in there. Is Bay having trouble making solid contact for some reason? If he is, he might be swinging at bad pitches, making weak contact and hitting soft grounders and soft liners where he used to hit smashes and frozen ropes. Those are easier to turn into outs.
Should the Pirates trade him? Well, the real question in this case is “What’s he worth?” Any trade that will bring back more than a player is worth should be made. (If St. Louis called and said Pujols for Bay, straight up…) Bay’s perceived value is somewhere between his 2005 high and his 2007 low, as it generally is when good players have bad seasons. There are those who fear that his real value is his 2007 low, and that the Pirates would do better to trade him now while they could still get more than he’s worth. Then there are those who are worried that the Pirates might sell low on Bay. Even if he doesn’t regain his 2005 form (which looks a little bit more like an aberration now), his diagnostics say that he’s due in for at least some bit of a rebound. If he can fix that little problem with his swing, all the better. I think Bay’s 2007 is the bottom of the roller coaster, and there’s another hill just ahead. Like a roller coaster, he won’t go as high as the last hill, but I see no reason why he can’t get back around his 2006 levels. If the Pirates do trade him, they should do so because they are rebuilding, and they should demand an appropriate price for a left fielder who still does have a good amount of pop in his bat. Perhaps they would do well to wait until the trading deadline, when the price of such a commodity always seems to go up a little bit.
Yeah, that about sums it up:The Pirates recently hired Indians assistant GM Neal Huntington to be their general manager. Huntington was quoted as saying:

“We are going to utilize several objective measures of player performance to evaluate and develop players. Well rely on the more traditional objective evaluations: … but well also look to rely on some of the more recent variations: VORP (value over replacement player), Relative Performance, EqAve (equivalent average), EqOBP (equivalent on base percentage), EqSLG (equivalent slugging percentage), BIP% (balls put into play percentage), wOBA (weighted on base average), Range Factor, PMR (probabilistic model of range) and Zone Rating.”

Wow. A Sabermetric dream come true. We’re actually starting to spread our seeds around baseball.
The special place I have in my heart for Salomon Torres: Here’s to Salmonon Torres who has been one of the best in the game at protecting small leads over the past few years… well, until this year. If you’re outside the Pittsburgh area, you probably didn’t know that because Torres, until this year wasn’t allowed to try to save games. This year, he recorded 12 saves, but blew 6, and Matt Capps was installed as the team’s closer. However, from 2004-2006, Torres was in the top 10 in the majors at protecting slim leads, once you consider leads gotten before the 9th inning, protecting more than 90% of them. This year, he protected 73% of leads assigned to him. Torres is actually a pretty good example of a Sabermetric axiom: a reliable relief pitcher is hard to find. We get such small samples of the work of relief pitchers, it’s hard to tell whether the measures we get are statistically reliable.
Is Freddy Sanchez a good hitter?: I know, he won a batting title. It’s just that batting average is an awful statistic. In 2006, Sanchez’s BABIP was .370, which is ridiculously high and well above what he could sustain. But with that said, Sanchez is routinely among the tops in the majors for hitting line drives (he was 12th in 2007) and he doesn’t strike out much (or walk). He’s a singles/doubles hitter and he’s probably good for 180 hits, which I have to say would look nice at 2B for most teams. The problem is that because he doesn’t walk all that much, his OBP (106th among 162 qualifiers last year, he was in the 40s in 2006), which should be the real basis for the batting title, leaves something to be desired. Don’t be overly impressed by the batting average. It masks a small weakness in his game.
A little closer look at Steven Pearce: He’s not a household name, probably because he’s not involved in the trade talks for Johan Santana. But, I always try to look through a team’s minor league system to see if there’s anyone interesting coming up. Steven Pearce looks like that guy for the Pirates. He’s a RF/1B who basically ran through the minor league system this past year and was putting up .900+ OPS at each stop. He got a cup of coffee call up at the end of the year, and I’m keeping an eye on him. He’ll be 25 next year, which probably means he’s on the rise in terms of his abilities. In fact, take a look at what Bill James projects for Pearce next year. Fantasy players, consider it just a little tip you might want to keep to yourself on draft day. He’s worth a flyer in a deep league, especially in the OF.
Outlook: Said Neal Huntington in an interview with Baseball Prospectus, “We need above-average players.” Assuming that Huntington doesn’t believe that the Pirates are loaded with superstars and that he needs to downgrade, that statement tells you a few things. When your GM subtly disses the team like that, it’s not a good sign. But, as a baseball fan with a Sabermetric bent, I’m intrigued to see what Huntington, who seems to understand the value of Sabermetrics in the game, will do in five years at the helm. The Pirates are re-building, but in my perhaps very biased opinion, they started with the right person at the top. Now, if they could only get some fans in the stands. They ranked 15th in the NL in attendance last year… so much for the charm of a new ballpark.

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4 Responses to 2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. dan says:

    “I think Ive pinpointed the source of the problems with the Pirates. They dont win games.”
    It’s all so clear now.
    And for the record, I think Bill James’s predictions (or his company’s or whatever) seriously overrate rookies with short track records. Last year, Kouzmanoff was projected to hit .321 with 21 homers and 121 rbi. Let’s just say that he wasn’t an MVP candidate. I don’t have last year’s projections available, but I happened to remember that one. (btw, check out hunter pence’s projections)

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    It makes sense that James would overstate rookies, especially if based on MLE’s, which are always a tricky business. Still, I’m interested in what anyone who destroys minor league pitching like that might do.

  3. Wrigley's Believe It Or Not says:

    I just found this series on the MVN site. A table in each story linking to the previous articles would be very helpful. Thanks.

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    Wrigley, at the bottom of the post, click on “Year in Review” in the keywords. Or, type year in review into the search box in the top right corner of the page.

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