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.

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.

The FOX “National” Broadcast Will Lower Viewership For Pirates-Royals

There is occasionally talk about the FOX Saturday Baseball broadcasts being the “big stage” for baseball teams. Often, that’s true. If there is one huge national game on FOX, or even splitting the nation to two or three games, the broadcast is available to more people than just the regional cable broadcasts.

But for Saturday’s Pirates-Royals game, being on the FOX broadcast actually reduces the broadcast territory.

First, let’s look at the Pirates broadcast map for games aired on the ROOT Sports cable channel.

The important point here is that Pirates games on ROOT Sports are available throughout much of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So what territory will be able to watch Saturday night’s Pirates-Royals game on FOX?

Click on image for bigger map at The 506.

While the FOX broadcast gains a little larger chunk of Ohio, much of West Virginia (and Erie, Pa. area) is lost to Indians-Cardinals and most of eastern Pennsylvania instead gets Mets-Yankees. That has to be a net loss of viewership area for Pirates fans.

What about for Royals fans in the Midwest? The team’s website says most games are “available in Kansas City, Kansas, western and central Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas and Oklahoma.” That is a healthy dose of area. So how much of that will get to see Saturday night’s game?

Again, click on the map for a larger version at The 506.

Most of Kansas gets to keep the Royals broadcast, as does a good bit of Nebraska. But it seems like a lot of Missouri is lost, and forget about Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa.

So it seems to my eye that being one of the FOX “national” games drastically reduces the number of people who can watch Saturday’s Pirates-Royals game. No one outside of those pictures above will be able to watch the game. And we haven’t even touched the fact that people who normally watch Pirates or Royals games on are plum out of luck.

There is a rumor, I don’t know how much truth there is to it, that the Pirates could have moved the game back to  4:10 pm ET to air on the regular cable channels. But pushing back the game three hours would inconvenience the sellout crowd who bought tickets to the game/Boys II Men postgame concert. So 7:15 ET on FOX it shall be, no matter how much the FOX broadcast map limits viewership.

MLB and FOX, frustrating baseball fans together since 1996.

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:

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.)

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.


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.