Love This Time, Pirates Fans

Pirates fans, these are the good times.

I know you know this, but it bears repeating — these are the times you have been waiting for as a fan, and you ought to enjoy it.

If you were at PNC Park for tonight’s game (or even watching on TV), you felt the crowd electrify when Russell Martin hit the go-ahead home run. Rob King called it “one of the most dramatic moments in PNC Park history,” and he is absolutely right. Watching the drama of September baseball finally come to Pittsburgh feels incredible.

So my request to you, Pirates fans: be grateful. I don’t mean grateful in a “you must like Bob Nutting and never criticize management” kind of way. I don’t mean grateful in a “how could you be mad at anything when the Pirates are in the playoffs?” kind of way.

What I mean is: this is the kind of September (and forthcoming October) that we saw in other cities for 20 years, and we dreamed that the same excitement could come here. Be grateful for that. Let your emotions, high and low, run wild. The next few weeks represent the pinnacle of baseball and sporting drama.

Be grateful to be a part of these new Pirates golden years. They may not last forever.

Sports are funny for many reasons. One of them: U.S. professional team sports are not a zero-sum game. They are less than a zero-sum game. At the end of a season, there’s always: 1 fan-base celebrating, 3 or 4 fan-bases being satisfied at overachieving and about 25 fan-bases left disappointed and often angry.

Why do we as sports fans subject ourselves to this losing system? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ However, we can change it within ourselves. At the end of this Pirates season, if they don’t win the World Series, go ahead and be disappointed and angry. It’s natural.

But right now? This is the fun part. This is why we root and nonsensically devote our time, money and passion to this losing system. Because right now is hope. Right now is fun. Right now is joyous. Be grateful to feel those emotions after 20 years of apathy, and lose yourself in the right now.

What Makes a Good Major League Ballpark?

Dodger Stadium Evening

If you’re expecting the type of researched pieces of import that you’ve seen the last few days (well, researched enough for a blog), you best turn around now. I’m writing as I travel on Interstate 70 heading to Washington, D.C. for the Friday night Pirates-Nationals game.

Don’t worry, my dad is driving. I have not yet mastered the ability to type on a laptop and drive on the interstate at the same time. Surface streets? Sure. Not the interstate.

Nationals Park will be Major League Ballpark number 15 that I have visited. So in terms of visiting every park, I’m halfway there/living on a prayer. At some point I will craft a ranking of the 15 stadiums that are unfortunate enough to have had me as a guest, along with tips for fans looking to visit, but that will be another day when I have steady Internet access.

There are elements of a good ballpark to my eyes. It should (among other elements) feel intimate without needing to know if the guy two rows down put on deodorant this morning, have quality food options that reflect the area, feel connected to the neighborhood around it, support an exciting atmosphere in the crowd, and if possible, have a nice view.

Citizens Bank ParkI won’t give away too much of what I like and dislike from the park’s I have visited. That would ruin the forthcoming rankings! But I will say that being unique scores points with me. Citizens Bank Park is well-constructed, has ample room in the concourse, tasty food and fosters a fun atmosphere for baseball. But the red-brick-and-steel design and placement in the middle of a parking lot that should have its own zip code restrict any feelings of originality or connection to Philadelphia as a city. I’m sure it’s an improvement on Veterans Stadium, but it won’t be in my top class.

I don’t much care about a stadium’s capacity being too big or too small, but it needs to be well-designed to its capacity. Dodger Stadium represents a brilliant way to hold 56,000 fans. Three decks plus a smaller “top deck” that doesn’t extend too far around, plus outfield sections that don’t extend too high. Chase Field feels more cavernous, even though it has fewer seats. Good design can mask a park being “too big.”

Finally, it helps to be nice. One of the reasons families return to Disney parks and resorts year after year is the company’s devotion to customer service. People visiting the park are not “customers,” they are “guests,” and they are treated as such. Some teams should take this to heart. The ushers have to maintain order and the cashiers are probably making minimum wage, but you are in the guest service business. There is no reason that you can’t treat your fans as well as Disney treats its guests. Trust me, it pays off.

All right, well it is time to do a little D.C. sightseeing before I get a taste of Nationals Park. Maybe it will find its way toward the top of the list.

Top 15 Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects for 2013 – A Compilation

Gerrit Cole
Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole was ranked as the Pirates’ top prospect on all six lists.

With regard to sample sizes, if some is good, more is better. I compiled the Top 10 rankings of prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system from Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks, along with the Top 20 rankings from Pirates Prospects,’s Jonathan Mayo and SB Nation’s John Sickels.

Outside of the top seven prospects, who all appeared in the Top 10 of every list, players can have wildly different spots in individual rankings. Kyle McPherson was rated everywhere from 7th (Baseball America, Mayo) to 13th (Sickels). Tyler Glasnow was slotted as high as 8th (Pirates Prospects, Baseball Prospectus) and as low as 19th (Mayo). Wyatt Mathisen fluctuated from 7th (Baseball Prospectus) to 16th (Pirates Prospects).

None of these individual lists are necessarily wrong, and I certainly do not wish to denigrate the hard work all of these outlets/writers do to evaluate prospects. Quite the opposite, as these are the six outlets I respect most for their analysis of minor league systems. The rankings just reflect the wisdom of multiple experts to try to gather the strongest list possible.

1. RHP Gerrit Cole
2. RHP Jameson Taillon
3. OF Gregory Polanco
4. SS Alen Hanson
5. RHP Luis Heredia
6. OF Josh Bell
7. OF Barrett Barnes

8. RHP Nick Kingham
9. RHP Kyle McPherson
10. C Wyatt Mathisen
11. RHP Clay Holmes
12. RHP Tyler Glasnow
13. LHP Justin Wilson
14. 2B Dilson Herrera
15. RHP Bryan Morris

Just missed: C Tony Sanchez, RHP Vic Black, 1B Alex Dickerson, LHP Andrew Oliver

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.

The Pirates Should Not Trade For Justin Upton

Upton may not be the superstar he seems to be, if he leaves Arizona. (Congvo/Creative Commons)

When I saw the news that the Pirates have engaged in discussions for Arizona’s Justin Upton, I was excited as anybody. This was Justin Upton, the 24-year-old phenom that blasts towering home runs and finished 4th in MVP races. I imagined Upton as a superstar cleanup hitter behind Andrew McCutchen as they led Pittsburgh from ignominy to a pennant.

But not everything is as it seems. When looking at a trade rumor, sometimes perception is not reality. Looking at the facts now, I don’t think the Pirates should trade for Justin Upton.

1. Upton’s offensive numbers are helped substantially by playing in Phoenix.

Two graphs demonstrate this pretty well. The first shows Upton’s 2011 numbers at Chase Field, and on the road:

Oh. Well, that’s not really fair. I mean, that’s one season. Let’s take a larger sample size of Upton’s 660-game career:

Well then. Yes, Justin Upton hits the ball far. And many of those no-doubt home runs in Arizona you see on SportsCenter would be no-doubt home runs in Pittsburgh.

But Chase Field is a very hitter-friendly park, largely because the desert air allows the ball to travel further, especially when the retractable roof is open. The average player’s OPS is 28 points better at home. A 180-point difference is a major red flag to me regarding Upton.

And the dead-pull hitter Upton has become does not make him the best candidate to keep up his power numbers with PNC Park’s massive left field.

Here is a brief list of players that have posted a better road OPS than Upton over the last three seasons: Alex Gordon, Josh Willingham, Shin-Soo Choo, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd. Those are all good hitters, but hardly superstars.

2. Which Justin Upton would the Pirates get?

Last year, Upton was a bona fide MVP choice: a six-WAR player, a 30-homer hitter, owner of an .898 OPS and a terrific fielder and baserunner.

But this season is different. He only has seven homers at the break and a .755 OPS. Despite the fact that he has a higher BABIP (meaning more balls dropping in for hits), Upton’s batting average is down.

For my money, the biggest factor is that Upton is not hitting the ball as hard. Last season, he averaged 0.82 groundballs for every fly ball, and this season he is averaging 1.39 groundballs for every flyball. There is speculation that Upton has lingering shoulder problems. But whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Upton killing more worms with his grounders than he did last year.

3. His contract is significant to a small-market team.

Yes, Upton is cost-controlled. But that cost is a lot to a small-market club. (phxwebguy/Creative Commons)

When Upton is putting up MVP-like numbers as he did last year, money is almost no object. But if he continues his current groundball troubles, the contract becomes important. He is signed through 2015, and the last two years of the contract come up big. Upton will be owed $14.25 million in 2014, then $14.5 million in 2015.

That may be a drop in the bucket for the Yankees or the Rangers, but it is of utmost importance to the Pirates. Upton’s contract could take up more than 20 percent of the payroll, all for a player who seems to be a bit of an enigma.

Theoretically, the Pirates would be dumping a truckload of top prospects onto Kevin Towers’ yard, and then will have to get another truck full of Upton’s money for the rest of his contract. Instead of dealing away prospects for that scenario, the Pirates should use that money to try to make a splash on a free agent this offseason, or commit some cash for a Neil Walker or James McDonald extension. That way, the Pirates don’t have to give up…

4. The Diamondbacks will want far too much.

… Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon, Rudy Owens and Robbie Grossman. That’s who Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects thinks will have to be traded by the Pirates to get Upton. All are former or current Top 100 overall prospects, or in Owens’ case, a pitcher with a lot of value as a future rotation guy. These talented, cost-controlled young players are as good as gold for a small-market team looking to compete in these next few years. Arizona will likely ask for all of them, and they are in no hurry to deal Upton. If Towers doesn’t get overwhelmed by a trade offer, I think he would be just as happy to keep Upton around through 2015.

Instead of giving up the moon and the stars for one player, the Pirates should make a smaller splash: outfielders like Carlos Quentin, Shane Victorino, Josh Willingham or David DeJesus could make an impact on the 2012 Pirates team, and be had for much less.

Don’t commit to a player that derives most of his value from hitting in Arizona, a player that could prevent future free agency signings, a player who may not keep up his MVP status from last year. Justin Upton is a very good player, but there are far better trade options out there for Neal Huntington and the Pirates.

ANALYSIS: Five Reasons Erik Bedard Is So Underwhelming, And How To Fix It

Erik Bedard has stayed off the DL, but where is the dominance? (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)

Erik Bedard has been frustrating. There’s no other way to put it.

He was the Pirates’ Opening Day starter, and held true to that title through the month of April. In one span, he made hitters swing and miss so much that their whiffs created a tornado.

But now his season numbers in ERA and WHIP are now worse than Kevin Correia. What happened to the dominant Bedard we saw in April? Where is the pitcher that everyone said would be good as long as he stays off the disabled list?

Before we explore that, let’s look at his repertoire. Bedard is largely a three-pitch guy: four-seam fastballs, two-seam sinkers and curveballs have made up 85 percent of his pitches this year. He will also occasionally mix in a changeup to righties and a new cutter to lefties.

With that in mind, here are the five main factors for Bedard’s struggles, as I can tell. As always the data is from the indispensable Brooks Baseball.

1. His velocity is down.

This is not a huge surprise, since Bedard is now 33 years old and has been more banged up than Eric Lindros. But even from last year to this year, the average velocity on Bedard’s fastball has dropped from from 91.2 mph to 89.6 mph.

This leads to one major problem: the other team is hitting his fastball harder. Last year, 16.5 percent of Bedard’s four-seam fastballs put into play were line drives. This year, 26 percent of his fastballs put into play have been liners. It’s a small sample size, with only 46 fastballs being made playable this season, but 16.5% to 26% represents a huge jump.

The drop in fastball speed is likely making his changeup less effective as well. If your fastball is not a high-speed threat, that changeup becomes more hittable.

2. Bedard is not generating swinging strikes, especially since his minor injury in May.

A huge part of Erik Bedard’s game is getting opposing hitters to whiff. Between 2007 and 2009, he was one of the best pitchers in the American League at getting hitters to swing and miss. That ability has steadily decreased since that time.

He is not getting as many swings and misses on his fastballs and changeups, which hurts his overall game. Before Bedard suffered back spasms on May 9, he was getting opposing hitters to whiff on 9.2 percent of his pitches. Since then, only 6.9 percent of his offerings have made hitters swing and miss. That leads to a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate.

The back spasms are far from the only reason for Erik Bedard’s struggles. But you can’t deny that the injury has represented a pivot point for his results this year.

3. Righties are hitting him better than they ever have before.

For most of his time in the Majors, Bedard has been known as a left-hander without a discernible platoon split: righties have a .693 OPS against him over his career and lefties have a .681 OPS. Not much to see there.

This year has been different. Right-handed hitters own a .791 OPS (and 8 homers) against Bedard this season, compared to lefties hitting for a .656 OPS. Again, small sample size since Bedard has only faced left-handed hitters in 78 plate appearances.

But compared to 2011, Bedard is striking out far fewer righties and walking far more of them. That is beyond problematic; it is part and parcel to his troubles. He needs to work on his fastball command. Against righties this season, he is not throwing his four-seamer for strikes as often (38.4 percent ball rate vs. 35% ball rate last year).

4. His sinker has not been as effective.

It is a small qualm, but Bedard has not gotten great results from his two-seam sinker. The sinker is a big part of Bedard’s repertoire, especially against left-handed hitters.

The problem is that sinker has lost velocity just like the four-seamer, and it is not getting hitters to swing and miss. Instead, they are hitting it harder than ever:

The ground-ball rate is encouraging. But the fact that hitters are getting so many line drives off Bedard’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs (again, loss of velocity) means that Bedard has the 6th-highest line-drive rate among any National League pitcher. If hitters are knocking line drives off you, you are in trouble.

5. He needs to improve his pitching from the stretch.

For some reason, Bedard has a 2.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the bases empty this season, but a 1.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio with men on base. There’s nothing in his career before Pittsburgh to demonstrate any innate trouble with pitching from the stretch, so perhaps Bedard just needs more confidence attacking the zone with runners on.

So what’s the solution?

In Searage We Trust. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)

I’m not a pitching coach. But Ray Searage is, and he is a very good one. He has overseen the breakthroughs of Jeff Karstens and James McDonald, and the potential renaissance of A.J. Burnett and Brad Lincoln. I can only speak to what I have seen in Bedard’s starts and what the data tell me.

Don’t let Bedard start until July 20. That will give Bedard 13 days between Major League starts. That is one week to rest and one week to work on his command. When he returns on the 20th, that would give Bedard three starts before the MLB trade deadline. If the rest does Bedard and his back some good, he can earn his rotation spot for August. If he continues his downturn, there will be other pitchers available to take his spot.

(Note: It looks like manager Clint Hurdle will give Bedard 10 days of rest between starts to “give him time to tweak,” per Kristy Robinson. That sounds pretty good.)

—  Have him throw more curveballs (especially for first pitch). Bedard seems to work off his fastball and changeup for his first pitch. But Bedard’s curveball is probably his one true “plus” pitch, and he can command it for strikes a decent two-thirds of the time. At this point of his struggles, everything is up for debate, even the pitches that Bedard works off to start at-bats.

Work on fastball command. If the velocity is down on Bedard’s fastball, so be it. Aging is a bitch. But Bedard is walking 10 percent of hitters this year, which is among the highest rates in the NL. On Friday night, Bedard walked Buster Posey on four straight fastballs. That’s unacceptable. If he can’t consistently put his fourseam fastball in the zone, Erik Bedard won’t be long for this baseball world. Use Bedard’s period between starts to work on getting that fastball on top of the plate.

But look back before that four-pitch walk to Posey on Friday night. The first time through the Giants order, Bedard through three no-hit innings with only one walk. That’s what he can do: generate flyballs and groundballs and get hitters to whiff and give the Pirates a chance to win.

To go back to the old sabermetric standby, Erik Bedard’s second-half ERA will probably be closer to 4.19 (his current xFIP) than his first-half 4.80 ERA. That is a decent jump, but it won’t happen just because the numbers say they should. Bedard has a lot to work on.

The Pirates have already received enough good starts from Bedard to make him worth the one-year, $4.5 million contract. But if he can look more like the pitcher fans saw in Baltimore and Seattle, he could be worth so much more. He could even be on the PNC Park mound as the Bucs wrap up a pennant.

Pirates Have Probably Faced The Toughest Starting Pitching In The NL, And It Has Hurt Them

Roy Halladay, Mat Latos and Matt Cain have all held the Pirates scoreless this year. (Photos via Creative Commons)

Opening Day will always be exciting. Spring has sprung, the grass on the field is green once again and you can always count on every seat being filled. Fans wait all winter for the joyous return of baseball.

But there was no joy in Pittsburgh on Opening Day 2012. All-World pitcher Roy Halladay kept the Pirates scoreless for eight innings, and allowed just two baserunners on a cool afternoon. New Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon wrapped it up, and the Bucs lost their home opener 1-0.

It was a sign of things to come, as the Pirates enter interleague play with baseball’s worst offense. But it was also a precursor to more good starting pitchers faced by the Pittsburgh lineup.

The Pirates have probably faced the toughest starting pitching in the National League through May 17. The earned run average of opponents’ starting pitching has averaged 3.45 this season, compared to the 4.06 average ERA across the NL. If the Pirates faced average starting pitching, they would project to have three more wins this season.

(Note: I took the sample size of ERA since the start of last season, in order to get a number that is more reliable than simply the eight or nine starts that pitchers have made this season. All 2012 ERA numbers have removed starts against the Pirates, since including those numbers would obviously lower the pitcher’s ERA.)

Facing pitchers who average half-a-run better than average has to have deflated the Pirates offense. However, they are still underperforming against those great pitchers. Opposing starters have held Bucco batters to an average of 2.9 earned runs per game, about a half-run lower per game than expected.

I compared the Pirates’ numbers in these areas to two other NL Central teams that have below-average offenses this season: Chicago and Milwaukee. Cubs’ opponents have averaged a 3.58 ERA, while Brewers’ opponents have averaged a 3.99 ERA (with starts against those respective teams removed, as well). So the Pirates have faced tougher starters than both of those teams, and I feel comfortable saying the Bucs have faced the toughest starting pitching in the NL. Checking all the other teams would take about 14 hours, if you want to try to prove me wrong.

So what does this all mean?

The Pirates offense is worse than it should be, but it’s noticeable that the good opposing pitching has directly affected the team’s offensive output this year.

The Bucs’ run output is about 16% lower than expected, based on the ERA of opponents’ starting pitching. If the Pirates were facing an NL-average starter every night, they would likely be scoring about 3.33 earned runs per game, instead of the 2.9 earned runs per game they have put out this season.

An extra 0.43 earned runs per game translates to an extra 16.3 runs to the current offensive output. The team’s pythagorean record (it’s a projected record based on runs scored and runs allowed) is currently 15-23. With those extra runs against average pitching, that pythagorean record would be bumped up to 18-20.

Part of the Pirates’ struggles (not all) has been the bad luck of facing some of the toughest pitching in the National League. It doesn’t get any easier Friday Night with defending AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander on the bump. But perhaps the Bucco bats will come to life in the dog days of summer, against what could be more hittable opponents.

If you would like to look further into the data, here are the links to the Pirates, Cubs, and Brewers numbers, all should be correct through May 18. Any questions? You can email me at

(Note: I saw this article from Randy Linville right before I was about to publish this blog post. I disagree with his conclusion, since 1. I removed starts against the Pirates for my ERA numbers, 2. I used a larger sample size of eight months of pitching, rather than two.)