Pirates Notebook: Pittsburgh Moneyball

I’ve been studying trends on the make up of the Pirates this season, and so far there have been a few trends to emerge. After the Nate McLouth trade, I noticed the players we received fit the trends I had identified. Maybe it’s just a wild theory, but I have a feeling the Pirates are creating their own “Moneyball” system.

People remember the book “Moneyball” mostly for the MLB draft portion of it. However, the whole concept was a focus on stats and performance indicators that were undervalued around the rest of the league. For example, on-base percentage was one of those featured stats, of course that stat isn’t so under-valued now.

There are several trends I’ve noticed from the Pirates that leads me to believe they’re attempting their own version of “Moneyball”. Those trends are:

1. Ground Ball Pitching: The average major league starter will have a ground ball ratio of 42 percent. To date the Pirates have three pitchers in their rotation with above-average ground ball ratios. Those pitchers are Paul Maholm (49.1%), Ross Ohlendorf (45.7%), and Zach Duke (45.4%). Jeff Karstens and Ian Snell are both just below average around 40%.

As for some of the players the Pirates have acquired? In their recent trade the Pirates added Charlie Morton, who has a 46% ground ball ratio in AAA this year, after posting an incredible 57.5% ground ball ratio in AAA last year. Jeff Locke has a 54.8% ground ball ratio in his time at high A this year, after posting a 55.4% ground ball ratio in A ball last year. Then there’s Steven Jackson, who has a 44.1% ground ball rate at AAA this year, with a 75% ground ball rate in his extremely short time in the majors so far this year.

So what’s the significance of ground balls? Check out my post from back in April, detailing how much ground ball pitchers put up better numbers than any other pitcher.

2. Strong Defense: We’ve heard the talk about how Nyjer Morgan ranks as the best defensive outfielder in the game this year. That is based off of the FanGraphs Ultimate Zone Rating, which places Nyjer not only at the top of all outfielders, but as the best defensive player in the majors.

So how do the other Pirates stack up? Jack Wilson ranks as the third best shortstop in the game this year, according to UZR. Brandon Moss ranks as the sixth best outfielder amongst all qualified players. Andy LaRoche, Adam LaRoche, and Freddy Sanchez are all around average at their positions. Andrew McCutchen hasn’t played much in the majors, but is known for solid defense.

As for the infield, one of the big hires this off-season was adding Perry Hill, who is an excellent coach as far as infield defense goes. That’s key when you combine a strong infield defense with a rotation that has a focus on ground ball pitchers.

In the recent trade, the Pirates added Gorkys Hernandez, who is a strong defensive outfielder. In fact, Buster Olney reports that he heard from within the Pirates organization that the Pirates were concerned with Nate McLouth’s range, and his ability to throw from the outfield, and they wanted to move him before he started to lose value. According to the FanGraphs UZR, McLouth ranked 42nd in the majors amongst all qualified outfielders.

That certainly would explain why McLouth was suddenly traded, why the return was low, and why we started to see teams running a lot on McLouth, especially with an increase of tag up plays from first to second.

3. Speed and Line Drive Hitting: The Pirates lack a big home run hitter. In fact, they lack home runs in general. What the team seems to be focused on is speed, and line drive hitters who aim for the gaps. The current top of the order features two leadoff style hitters in Andrew McCutchen and Nyjer Morgan, followed by Freddy Sanchez in the number three position, who isn’t known for his power, but is known for being a solid hitter.

As for the line drives, Andy LaRoche currently ranks second in the majors amongst qualified players in line drive ratio. Freddy Sanchez ranks 11th in the majors in line drive ratio. As a team, the Pirates rank 11th in the majors in line drive percentage.

So why is this significant? Last year the qualified hitters with a line drive percentage of 20% or more combined for a .286 average. The players with a line drive percentage of less than 20% combined for a .273 average.

The Pirates who are above 20% this year are Andy LaRoche, Ramon Vazquez, Freddy Sanchez, Jason Jaramillo, Robinzon Diaz, and Delwyn Young. The front office added all of those players in the last year, with the exception of Sanchez. However, they did extend Sanchez, buying an option for his first year of free agency (which has caused nothing but controversy).

The Pirates don’t have a bunch of home run hitters on the roster. However, they possess ground ball pitchers, strong defenders, speed, and line drive hitters. Whether this approach will result in a winner is the big question. If it does, we could see the “Moneyball” sequel centered around Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly.

The MVP Tracker

The MVP Tracker is updated through the 6/5 loss. Here are the updates from tonight’s victory:

1. Jason Jaramillo: .106 WPA
2. Matt Capps: .097
3. John Grabow: .093
4. Andy LaRoche: .085
5. Adam LaRoche: .083

Other Stuff

-Alex White went 8.1 innings in his recent start, allowing one run on nine hits, with 12 strikeouts and 3 walks. The numbers look good, except that White needed 128 pitches in the outing. This is the fifth time White has been over 120 pitches this season.

-Kyle Gibson has a stress fracture on his forearm and will be out for six weeks. Missouri is done for the season, so this has little effect on Gibson, but could impact his draft stock. I’m not sure if this injury would drop him to the second round, but I’d be all over him if he fell to the Pirates at pick number 49.

-Chuck Finder at the PPG has a feature on Gibson and the Pirates. The main focus is on Gibson’s willingness to sign early. I don’t think Gibson is a bad player, but I think there are slightly better options. Also, with Gibson out for six weeks, I’m not sure signing early really matters. I’d hate for the Pirates to make their decision on what will amount to a few weeks extra time in the minors.

-There has been a lot of talk that Dustin Ackley could be passed over by Seattle and San Diego due to his asking price. The Pirates showed last year that they wouldn’t balk at the demands from Scott Boras. I’d be ecstatic if Ackley fell to us (and I’d spontaneously combust if we passed over him). You can catch it all on Tuesday in the live blog of the draft.

-Check out my feature on Jacob Turner, who is one of my finalists for our first pick in the draft. My draft preview will be up Monday morning.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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