It All Comes Back To Spending, Pirates Fans

Andrew McCutchen

What follows is a list. Each line is where the Pittsburgh Pirates ranked in terms of Major League payroll, among the 30 teams.

The list begins with the year Bob Nutting took over as principal owner.

2007 – 27th
2008 – 27th
2009 – 28th
2010 – 30th
2011 – 28th
2012 – 26th
2013 – 27th
2014 – 27th
2015 – 25th
2016 – 21st
2017 – 23rd

More spending does not automatically equal more wins. However, in conducting the most rigorous and deepest analysis I have seen on the subject, Noah Davis and Michael Lopez found that “more money generally means more wins.”

Gerrit Cole Pirates

Credit: Jon Dawson/Creative Commons

The truly frustrating part? The Pirates were set up for more money to directly equal more wins.

In my debut of a (short-lived) sports analytics column for Pittsburgh Magazine in March 2015, I pointed out that the Pirates were in the perfect spot to spend. They had reached the playoffs the previous two seasons, seen attendance and revenue rise, and most importantly, saved enough money through their re-building process to make that splash.

It didn’t happen.

Those 2015 Pirates were two wins short of taking the division. In 2014, the Bucs were also two wins short of the division title. In 2013, three wins short.

All of those turned out to be years where a little bit of spending — on an extra pitcher, on an extra bat — would have had an outsized impact on where the team landed in October.

It’s what allowed the Cubs to jump from $89 million to $167 million in two years.

Championship.

It’s what allowed the Astros to methodically work their way from $24 million to $45 million to $69 million to $97 million to $127 million.

Again, championship.

Andrew McCutchen Pirates

Credit: Keith Allison/Creative Commons

One other thing money allows you to do: make mistakes. You whiff on a six-figure contract? Eh. There’s more cash where that came from.

The Pirates don’t live in that world. And while I have grievances to air with Neal Huntington, in the grand scheme his bankroll is tighter than that of almost all of his fellow GMs.

And so, you get risk aversion.

You need young, cost-controlled players to compete. When a David Price or a Giancarlo Stanton hits the trade market, you can’t feel confident dealing multiple top prospects for him. They’re your currency.

You need that dreaded “financial flexibility.” Free agency? Pfft. The biggest free-agent contract your owner ever signed was 3 years, $39 million.

You get a No. 1 pick, and draft a state-of-the-art workhorse pitcher like Gerrit Cole. But you see his agent is Scott Boras. A long-term extension is a fairy tale.

You know how beloved Andrew McCutchen is, from the die-hards to the go-once-a-year-with-work-friends crowd. But on your budget, are you really going to spend on his age-32 season, his age-33 season, and so on?

Winning frugally? It can be done. But not for long. Not consistently. Not at a level that can realistically compete with the teams that, every year, are spending $50 million more than you. $70 million more. In the Dodgers’ case, $140 million more.

As for me, I’m on a word count budget. Gotta keep it under 500. Seems fitting.

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Fastballs and Stress: Five Problems for James McDonald (And Reasons For Optimism)

It has been a lonely few starts on the mound for McDonald. (Jon Dawson/Creative Commons)

How quickly things change when you are in the heart of a pennant race.

Six starts ago, Pirates pitcher James McDonald was putting up some of the best numbers in baseball — 3rd in the National League in both ERA and baserunners per inning. Six starts ago, Buccos fans were steamed that McDonald was not on the All-Star team, and talking about him as a Cy Young dark horse (myself included). Six starts ago, McDonald was seen as a pitcher that would lead Pittsburgh’s charge to the first postseason in a generation.

In reality, six starts is not a whole lot of time to evaluate a pitcher. One time through a tough lineup can sway the numbers a lot, a few bloop hits could drop in or a pitcher could just come out flat on a given night.

Yet one can not deny that fans are seeing a vastly different James McDonald than they saw a month ago.

It is a pennant race, and patience is at a premium. As the Pirates sit right on the Wild Card bubble heading into Thursday, and it is possible that McDonald could be relegated to the bullpen.

That decision is up to Clint Hurdle. But I wanted to look at what has changed for “J-Mac” over those six starts since the All-Star Break (or ASB). Props go out to Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs for the raw data; I could not have done it without them.

1. Command falls to pre-2012 form – In the first half of the season, McDonald was vastly improved at throwing strikes. Part of it seemed to be the influence of veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett and catcher Rod Barajas. McDonald was aggressive in the zone and it got results. But since the break, his strike rate has dropped below his career rate.

2. Fastball velocity is down – I took a look at McDonald’s fastballs (both his four-seam fastball and two-seam sinker) and found a noticeable drop in average velocity. His fastball offerings are down a full mile per hour since the All-Star Break. Keep in mind that McDonald’s 171-inning season in 2011 was the first time he had ever pitched more than 72 innings in a Major League season. Now he is at 141 innings this year and counting, so this McDonald that averages 92 mph on fastballs will likely remain for the rest of the year.

3. Opponents are getting their bats on his fastball – With McDonald’s drop in fastball velocity, hitters have found it much easier to put the pitch into play.

4. His slider has not been as effective – McDonald used the slider as a knockout in the first half, relying on it especially against right-handed hitters. Since then, it has still been a good pitch, but it is more hittable and not the dominant offering it had been. Perhaps the drop in velocity is a factor?

5. Many long innings – People often measure a pitcher’s stress level in a game by pitch count, and their stress level over a season by innings count. Hell, I just did the latter a couple paragraphs ago! But it is also good to see if he is throwing a lot of high-stress innings, which I measure as innings with 25 pitches or more. Given McDonald’s troubles, he has a lot more of these innings that take a lot of pitches to finish. Before the break, he averaged 15.3 pitchers per inning. Since then, he has averaged 19.3 per inning.

Okay, so all of those charts identify the particular problems McDonald has struggled with over the last month or so. But there are reasons to think that he might improve. In fact, there are some very good reasons to think that McDonald will pitch better over the last several starts of his season (assuming he stays in the rotation).

1. He is still making hitters swing and miss — especially with his curve – One of the main elements of McDonald’s game has been generating whiffs. His stuff is dominant at times, especially when he has his fastball-slider combination working. But since the All-Star break, McDonald has mixed in his curveball more often — and for good reason. Since the break, his curve has gotten hitters to flail almost as well as his slider does. Keep the curves coming.

2. Bad BABIP luck – If you’re not familiar with BABIP, it stands for batting average on balls in play. Many sabermetricians say that unless a pitcher generates a lot of groundballs or a lot of line drive, fluctuations in BABIP are largely due to luck. Specifically, if a pitcher’s season BABIP is lower than his career BABIP, that’s good luck. If it is higher, that is bad luck.

McDonald has been unlucky since the All-Star Break. One big reason this should improve is the Pirates’ quality defense, which has the 3rd-highest rate of balls in play converted to outs in all of baseball.

3. Bad home run luck – Another sabermetrics theory on balls in play: pitchers mostly control giving up fly balls, less so for home runs. So in practice, if his season home-run-to-fly-ball rate is higher than his career rate: bad luck. If it is lower than his career rate: good luck. You can see that, like BABIP, McDonald’s luck has been a tale of two halves.

4. His line drive rate has held steady – Despite McDonald’s fastball and slider being put into play more often, opposing have not exactly smacked him around. This falls in line with our feelings that his recent BABIP is simply bad luck. A pitcher should not have that high of a BABIP unless there are a lot of liners being allowed.

So there you have it. The bad and the good of James McDonald. The referendum on whether he will stay in the rotation could come Thursday in his next start, though it would be wise to be patient and see if his luck turns.

INTERVIEW: Pirates Bloggers On Twitter

It’s just like being there!

For most MLB teams, it would be odd that the most popular blog writers live outside of the team’s home city. But this is Pittsburgh. Steel industry leaving, jobs available elsewhere, Pittsburgh Diaspora and so on.

Five of the most popular Pittsburgh Pirates bloggers don’t even live in Pennsylvania. Pat Lackey of Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke is a grad student in North Carolina. Cory of Three Rivers Burgh Blog lives in Wisconsin. North Side Notch‘s Jim Rosati is in Kentucky. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects lives in Virginia. So does Brian McElhinny of Raise The Jolly Roger, who studies at the University of Virginia.

How do these diehard fans and bloggers maintain the experience of watching a Pirates game with fellow fans, when any fellow fans are hundreds of miles away? With Twitter, of course. The five writers sport a combined 17,000 Twitter followers (give or take a few folks that might follow all or some of them). That is a lot of fellow fans to interact with. So what do these guys think of interacting with Pirates fans on Twitter? I asked them:

1. What are your overall feelings about Twitter?

 @WHYGAVS: I think my favorite thing about Twitter is that it can be whatever you want it to be; I can use it to have real discussions with both Pirate fans and the people that cover the team, I can use it to take the pulse of what other fans are thinking, I can use it to celebrate or commiserate a win or a loss, and on top of everything it’s hands down the best source of real-time news anywhere.

 @timwilliamsP2: Last year there was an earthquake about 30 miles away from my house in Virginia. I was in Pennsylvania at the time, but I was able to go on Twitter 10 seconds after my wife called me, do a search, and find that it was indeed an earthquake that shook our house. Twitter’s search is the best feature for current event topics, in my opinion. And as far as sports and prospects, it really sheds light on rising prospects. Just look at what the #FreeMattHague hash tag did for Hague’s recognition among Pirates fans.

 @ThreeRiversBlog:  I also love it because it only lets you use 140 characters. I know sometimes I wish I could write one more sentence but it forces you to get your point across quickly. It can be a good and bad thing but for the most part I don’t want to read a three paragraph tweet. If I wanted to do that I would go read the person’s blog or articles.

2. Has Twitter changed the way you watch Pirates games/sporting events?

 @NorthSideNotch: For me, being a Pittsburgh sports fan living in Louisville, KY, I can’t even watch games with friends or family who share that feeling of pulling for the same outcome. But when Twitter came along, you are suddenly involved and sharing thoughts and feelings about everything with hundreds of other people doing the same thing you are doing. Watching games on television are so much more fun because of that.

 @WHYGAVS: It definitely has. During games, keeping a Twitter client running is the internet equivalent of watching the game in a room full of fans. Was that pitch a strike? What is Clint Hurdle thinking? Was that error Barmes’s fault or Barajas’? I immediately have access to as many opinions as I need, which is very different from watching a game in an empty room.

 @ThreeRiversBlog: I think it has for me. When I am watching the game at home I have Tweetdeck open and just love seeing what other people have to say during the game. It might be jokes or what the team should do in a certain situation but there is nothing better than when a big play happens and you look at your timeline and everyone is freaking out about it. It is almost like you are there watching it with other people. When I am at games… and there is a close call it is nice to jump on Twitter to see what people are saying who are watching it on TV and have access to replays.

3. How much does Twitter/Facebook drive traffic to the site?

 @RTJR: Every time I post something, the link goes out to Twitter and Facebook and provides a decent bump in traffic (always depending on how interesting the post is, of course). I’d still run the site without it, but it would certainly be more difficult to promote my work.

 @TimWilliamsP2: For the first two years that the site was running, Twitter and Facebook was huge. Referrals represented over 50% of the traffic to the site, and Twitter was a key source… I’ve got about five times as many followers on Twitter than on Facebook. As for the referrals, Twitter represents 8% of the traffic to the site. Facebook sends 1% of the traffic to the site. Most of it these days is direct traffic. So the site would definitely be my full-time job without that traffic. However, that traffic helped get the site to this point.

 @NorthSideNotch: All of my posts are linked to the Twitter and Facebook accounts for the web site. I would say that about half of the site’s daily traffic comes from clips from the links that are posted through social media sites. As far as maintaining the blog without that additional traffic, I would have to say I probably would still do it. However, the interaction with readers on Twitter and seeing the amount of content people will check out definitely makes it easier to maintain.

4. Tim, has Twitter helped to drive book sales or in finding new writers?

 @TimWilliamsP2: I don’t really track where [book] sales originated. But I’m sure it’s like anything else in that it puts the product in front of more eyes. As for new writers, it has helped find a few contributors to the site, usually in the form of a guest post. A few weeks ago, I saw that someone I followed, who runs another site, saying they would be covering the West Virginia game today. I got in touch with them, and they’ll be contributing an article to the site. I wouldn’t have known about this person if it wasn’t for Twitter. When I was hiring a beat writer, one of the key requirements was that the person had Twitter and is very active on the service.

5. How do you think the Pirates organization can use Twitter better? Or do they already use it well?

 @ThreeRiversBlog: I think they could probably use it more to interact with fans. They are getting better at using it but I think it would be awesome if they used it for short interviews with players where they would take questions from fans. It’s all about give and take and trying different things. There is so much you can do with Twitter that all you have to do is ask a question and you will get thousands of responses, especially if you have as many followers as a professional team like the Pirates does.

 @RTJR: I think they do a pretty decent job. I think MLB has some restrictions on stuff that official team accounts can post, but I don’t know exactly what those are. It is kind of alarming how few followers they have (47,000, not that much more than PNC Park’s capacity). My suggestions would be to try and reply and connect with fans more (see @Mariners) and create some sub-accounts to tweet specifically about things like tickets, in game promotions and entertainment, news/lineups, etc.

 @WHYGAVS:  I don’t really mind how the club uses it now, to be honest, which is to break news and keep fans updated about things happening at the ballpark… That said, I do think that teams like the Reds and Astros have done a good job putting their social media people forward on Twitter (Jamie Ramsay and Alyson Footer, respectively), to kind of give a face to the team beyond a faceless automaton. Given how tight-fisted this club is with the flow of information, I doubt we’ll ever see that happen.

 @NorthSideNotch: I guess the one thing I would say they could improve on would be to use it as an advertisement more often, like having a free commercial spot. Perhaps it could be just sending out links to the ticketing site, posting promotional videos, running more specials on tickets, etc. The Pirates are a business, and like any business, they need customers. One of the best things about Twitter is that it allows you to reach a very broad customer base and it does not cost a penny. That needs to be taken advantage of.

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Thanks to these guys for taking the time to email with me. Suffice to say, any Pirates fan on Twitter should consider them essential follows.