Real Progress: How to better evaluate Neal Huntington’s record as Pirates GM

Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez, a 30-home-run hitter drafted by Neal Huntington. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)

Columnists come up with fun generalizations on occasion.

The won-loss record is the only way to judge any general manager.

– Ron Cook, noted baseball scholar. September 28, 2012

That’s right, Ron Cook. It’s the only way to judge a general manager if you don’t factor in payroll, market size, revenue, meddling owners, injuries, expiring contracts, bad managers you didn’t hire, strength of schedule or any number of other factors over which a Major League GM has little to no control.

Over the last few days, it has become fashionable to quote the Pittsburgh Pirates’ won-loss records under the last three general managers as a way of “proving” the Pirates have made no progress under Neal Huntington. I have even see writers I respect like Alan Robinson and Dejan Kovacevic repeat the records.

Doing so completely disregards the state of the Pirates franchise when Neal Huntington took the job on Sept. 25, 2007, as well as the strategy he took to fix it. Huntington had no control over how the team was built before he became GM, and yet some people want to categorize the sins of the past under his name (with regards to the 2008-10 Pirates teams).

While previous GM Dave Littlefield didn’t tear up the soil and salt the earth in his final years as general manager, he did leave the new management in a peculiar situation. The Major League club was passable, but not a contender, and the farm system was in the bottom half of MLB in terms of overall talent.

The first three years of Neal Huntington’s tenure as general manager saw a definitive strategy in mind: trade Major League players whose contracts are set to expire, and replenish the minor league teams with future players from top to bottom. The result of that strategy has produced thousands of words and arguments already, touting the successes (acquiring Jeff Karstens, Joel Hanrahan, James McDonald, etc.) as well as admonishing the failures (Tim Alderson, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, etc.). Jose Tabata, the jury is still out on you.

My point is not to evaluate whether Huntington’s thrash-and-burn strategy has worked or not. But one simply has to recognize that Huntington and Co. knew the immediate consequences of it: liquidating the Major League roster of players like Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche and Xavier Nady took a mediocre Major League roster and made it bad. So the Pirates surely wouldn’t win a lot of games from 2008 through 2010, but rather improve the farm system in an attempt to build a true playoff contender beyond those years.

When folks quote the Pirates’ won-loss record under Huntington, they are completely ignoring the one basic truth about his tenure: his goal was not to make the Major League team a winner by 2010. Quite the opposite, actually, as the 2010 team had the youngest offense in all of baseball. Again, I’m not here to draw a conclusion whether Huntington should keep his job. I’m simply stating the facts behind his strategy.

Since those fire sale years, the Major League product has improved. The 2009 and 2010 Pirates teams limped to a .367 winning percentage and a minus-411 run differential. But the 2011 and 2012 teams made the jump to a far more respectable .464 winning percentage and a minus-126 run differential.

Being under .500 and having a negative run differential is not the goal. But the Pirates have undoubtedly shown improvement under Neal Huntington, and there’s more talent on the way.

So fine, Ron Cook, et al. If you would like to keep quoting records, I would like to make a suggestion. Quote the won-loss records for the last three Pirates’ general managers in their fourth and fifth full seasons on the job. It is far from perfect, and certainly doesn’t eliminate the variables of which a GM cannot control. However, it draws from the notion that GMs of small-market teams should be evaluated on the performance of the team later in their tenure, not at the very beginning of a rebuilding project.

Charting the Pirates general managers in their 4th and 5th years on the job

Note that Littlefield took over in July 2001, so I took 2002 as his first season. And while Bonifay wasn’t able to improve on that 79-win product in 1997, he got almost four more seasons to do so. Littlefield? His time as GM only saw the transformation of a 62-win team into a 68-win team with little to speak of in the minors.

Huntington has built something from that 68-win team/shallow farm system left behind by Littlefield. It’s now a 77-win team (with possibly a couple more wins to go this season) featuring a far better farm system to create a sustainable product.

Yeah, I just played your game, Ron Cook. I judged the general managers based on win-loss record. And by doing so, Huntington actually looks better than all the anger about the Pirates’ 2012 collapse would have you believe. After all, he has substantially improved the Pirates’ win-loss record each of the last two seasons without shipping out any prospects better than Robbie Grossman or Rudy Owens.

A winning baseball team in Pittsburgh? It’s in progress.

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.

My Generation: Pirates Fans Deserve To Share A Playoff Contender

Could Pirates fans sell out, like in Boston? (Laura Padgett/Creative Commons)

They were applauding a strikeout in the 1st inning.

It was mid-August evening in Boston, the kind of hot muggy night mosquitoes dream about. The normal 2008 sellout crowd was packed into Fenway Park like a family road trip in a Camry.

But when the Red Sox fans applauded Jon Lester getting Rangers’ cleanup man Milton Bradley to swing and miss to end the Top of the 1st, I was applauding right along with them in my black-and-yellow Jason Bay jersey.

The best baseball atmosphere I have ever experienced was that game in Boston. With the Red Sox down a pair of games in the AL East but holding on to a wild card spot, the Fenway Faithful were an assembly of 37,876 with a purpose.They were all paying attention to the game, an alien concept to a 14-year-old Pirates fan. They were focused on each pitch; offering a standing ovation to more than just home runs.

Long before the Boston fans celebrated another win by singing along to “Dirty Water,” I was hooked. It was a contact high of sharing winning baseball with thousands of others.

Cause a big sensation

The ballpark is a different place when it is packed. (Jon Dawson/Creative Commons)

That is exactly what I want to see in Pittsburgh this weekend. The noise and focus may not be to the same extent as Fenway in the heart of a pennant race. It is still June, the Pirates are coming off 19 losing seasons instead of a World Series, and the Bucs probably won’t send seven All-Stars to the Midsummer Classic.

But the team is winning. They are two games out of a playoff spot, putting aside how early that kind of standings-watching may be. Pittsburghers are great baseball fans, just waiting to see a team worthy of their passion and applause. I expect some high attendance in cozy PNC Park, as told to me by the employee at the box office. More importantly, I expect to see folks that are there almost solely to cheer on the Pirates to victory (putting aside Boys II Men fans on Saturday). That’s something that hasn’t been seen too often around here.

Believe me, I love walking up to the ballpark, buying a $20 for $10 from a scalper, then sneaking me the one of the many empty seats behind home plate, where the ushers are as apathetic as the businessmen on their Blackberries. But being surrounded by a huge crowd that is locked in to the game at hand is an experience that can not be beat.

The question now is, can the Pirates maintain that atmosphere longer than they did last year? Can they turn people lining up at the box office on a Friday morning in June into fans cheering on a division leader instead of a playoff long-shot?

Trying to find the key / to fifty million fables

James McDonald is becoming a Cy Young candidate before our eyes. (Alan Kotok/Creative Commons)

They have the opportunity. The great pitching is more sustainable than last year’s model, thanks in no small part to offseason additions Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett racking up high strikeout totals, and James McDonald transforming into a bat-missing All-Star candidate. Even the rotation’s weak link, Kevin Correia, could be swapped out for Brad Lincoln or the efficient Rudy Owens at some point soon. And while the bullpen is due for a regression from their 2.56 ERA, the peripheral stats and an NL-average FIP (3.79) will likely keep the reliable relief coming.

But we all know it’s the offense that needs improvement. Much grumbling has been expressed over the troubling first two months for winter acquisitions Clint Barmes and Casey McGehee. But even if those two rebound and approach career norms, it won’t be enough to light a true fire under an ice-cold Pirates lineup.

No, the offensive turnaround still lies in the potential of one man in particular, and I think you know who I am talking about:

Meet the new boss / same as the old boss

Alvarez is 5th in the Pirates lineup Friday night. (Matt Bandi/Creative Commons)

It has been written time and time again as to become a cliché: the key to the 2012 Pirates season lies in Pedro Alvarez. And yet all clichés have in them a hint of truth. For the Pirates to keep a steady pace with the Reds and Cardinals, they need El Toro to unleash his bullish power.

So far, as center fielder Andrew McCutchen goes, so goes the offensive production. Using Bill James’ “runs created” stat, Andrew McCutchen has created 23.1 percent of the Pirates offense, with Neil Walker (12.9 percent) a distant second. That’s the largest share of any MLB team’s run production this side of Joey Votto (23.4 percent).

That is a testament to Andrew McCutchen’s rising star, but also deeply troubling if McCutchen were to slump or suffer an… well, let’s not even say the “I” word.

We are well aware of what Pedro Alvarez can do. Pirates fans have had visions of him regularly smacking baseballs into the Allegheny River from the time he was chosen out of Vanderbilt with the number two overall pick in 2008. There is no need to rehash the odyssey of Alvarez’s last four years.

Don’t get fooled again?

But we have seen the flashes. Just remember that two-week hitting binge from April 18 to May 4. In 54 plate appearances, he smashed six homers, four doubles, and compiled a .367 average and 1.224 OPS. The strikeouts were there too, but Alvarez didn’t look like he was flailing.

Now for more numbers: The good news is that Pedro Alvarez is swinging at substantially more pitches in the zone this season compared to last year (63.5% in 2011 up to 70%) and making contact with more those pitches (84% up to 85.5%). His line drive rate is down, but he is cutting down on ground balls and infield flies. It’s easy to envision more balls in play dropping for hits moving forward, as his .253 BABIP is far below his .300 career BABIP.

If Alvarez can adjust to the higher number of sliders and curveballs he is seeing this season, he could be in business. With his high strikeout totals, Neal Huntington may never get the star slugger desired. But he might just get an above-average third baseman that is still just 25 years old, and that is an asset.

Then Huntington could stand to add a productive 30-something piece to the lineup like Josh Willingham or Carlos Quentin, giving manager Clint Hurdle the opportunity to put together a lineup that is a legitimate threat to opposing pitchers instead of a Major League laughingstock.

The happy ones are near

PNC Park can be more than just a bastion of losing baseball. (Will Reynolds Young/Creative Commons)

Pittsburghers are longing for a contender, especially those my age that only know a pennant race as something fans of other teams get to feel. They are longing to look at the standings in August and see “PITTSBURGH” at the top. They are longing to watch the Pirates highlights lead off SportsCenter. And most of all, they are longing for a winning team to cheer on like they mean it.

Places like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia may take most of the playoff spots and the World Series, but they don’t have a monopoly on loud crowds and excitement at the ballpark. They don’t have to be the only ones who get to applaud their pitcher striking out a guy in the 1st inning.

And now, let’s finish it off with a video cut together by the phenomenal Kurt Gingrich: