What Went Right in 2011
The 2011 campaign is over and the Pirates have another losing season in the books. That’s . . . how many in a row? I dunno, some really large number. It’s like having ants at your picnic and wondering exactly how many there are. At least this year was a little different, enough to make it possible to write about what went right and what went wrong. The previous few years, it was only possible to write about what went wrong and what went wronger. So let’s start off with the good news. That way, if you can’t take it, you can skip the next part, sort of like pretending the season ended in July.
With useful, if not necessarily definitive, defensive statistics becoming available, there have been times recently when teams have made dramatic turnarounds that have been credited primarily to improved defense. The 2008 Rays and 2009 Mariners are two examples, although the improvement was fleeting in the latter case. The Pirates saw a similar, if smaller, turnaround in 2011, and it had a significant impact on the pitching staff. How much was the pitching and how much the fielders can’t be measured with certainty, but when several different measures tell the same story, it’s impossible to dismiss those conclusions as the product of some meaningless stat.
Some of the Pirates’ improvement was simply the product of players becoming more experienced. That’s most obvious in the case of Neil Walker. By the time he became the Pirates’ regular secondbaseman last year, he’d played a whopping twenty games at the position in his entire life. Not surprisingly, all the defensive measures showed him to be horrible, leading to a feeding frenzy of fans in some quarters calling for him to be moved back to third. The added experience clearly helped. By the Fielding Bible’s +/- measure, he went from -11 runs to -2, or from bottom-of-the-barrel to a little below average. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR — available at fangraphs.com) tells a similar story, with Walker going from -17.1 to -2.2. The data suggests that he’s very good on balls hit up the middle, which makes sense because he gets more of an advantage from his strong arm. His big weakness is on balls to his left, which depend on pure quickness, which Walker wouldn’t have to the same degree as a smaller secondbaseman.
Two other big beneficiaries of added experience were Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. The defensive stats left a lot of fans wondering after McCutchen’s first two seasons, showing him to be at or near the bottom among center fielders. In 2011, UZR and +/- both show him going from far below average to above or well above average. Some of this may be due to different positioning, but added experience probably played a role, too. Alvarez still isn’t good. In fact, he’s still bad, but by both measures he wasn’t as bad in 2011 as 2010.
Along with McCutchen and Walker, the biggest difference in the Pirates’ defense was Ronny Cedeno. UZR had Cedeno improving from roughly the bottom quarter of shortstops to the 9th best. By the +/- system, he went from 33rd to 3rd. I have no idea why. Cedeno himself says he was better focused, which is probably the best explanation. Whatever the reason, Cedeno’s hitting is still an issue for the Pirates, but his defense isn’t.
The Pirates may also have gotten some help from players they called up from the minors. Both defensive measures like Alex Presley and Josh Harrison (at third). Chase d’Arnaud . . . well, he has a lot of work to do still. These are extremely small sample sizes, though, so the ratings are of very limited usefulness.
This is where the improvement in the Pirates’ defense becomes undeniable, even if you have no patience for stats like UZR and +/-. In 2010, the PIrates had the worst rotation in the NL by a huge margin, with a 5.28 ERA to second-worst Milwaukee’s 4.65. In 2011, they improved to 4.21, ranking 11th. They fell that low only because their starters wore down and, except for James McDonald, missed varying numbers of starts late in the year. Their starters, again with the exception of McDonald, were extreme pitch-to-contact types who missed fewer bats than any other team’s rotation. That left them heavily dependent on their defense, so the sort of improvement they showed couldn’t have happened with the abysmal defensive play of 2010. That showed especially with three starters: Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton.
Maholm probably is an underappreciated pitcher, due to generally high ERAs during his career. He’s usually allowed a lot of baserunners, with WHIPs in most years above 1.40. In 2011, however, his WHIP was 1.29, just above his career low of 1.28 in 2008. The result was a career-best ERA of 3.66, far below his unsightly 5.10 of 2010. Despite the wild swings in his ERA–it was 3.71 in 2008 and 4.44 in 2009–at least one measure suggests Maholm has been a much more consistent pitcher. According to FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which attempts roughly to measure what a pitcher’s ERA would have been with an average defense, Maholm was victimized by very bad defenses in 2009-10. His FIP in 2010 was 4.18, not nearly as bad as that 5.10. In 2009, his FIP was 3.83 compared to the 4.44 ERA. In 2011, Maholm’s FIP of 3.79 was not far off his 3.66 ERA. This suggests his 2011 performance wasn’t a fluke, but more a product of improved defense and Maholm’s own pitching.
Karstens is more complicated. In the past there wasn’t that much variance between his ERA and FIP. In 2011, his FIP was nearly a full run higher, 4.29 to 3.38. This suggests his season was probably, in part, a fluke. He did clearly make some improvements. He walked fewer, gave up fewer flyballs and fewer line drives, and got more groundballs. The result was roughly 25% fewer extra base hits and about 50% more double plays (as a percentage of GIDP opportunities). There’s every reason to expect him to be a legitimate major league starter, but more a back-of-the-rotation type than the mid-rotation starter he appeared to be in 2011.
Plenty has been written about the change in Morton’s delivery, as he went from over the top to a three-quarters arm slot. The results were dramatic. His groundball rate went from 49% in 2009 (I’m ignoring his tragicomic 2010 season) to 58.5%. He allowed just a little more than one HR for every 30 innings. Morton struggled with his control sometimes and, like most pitchers who get a lot of grounders and don’t strike out many hitters, allowed a lot of baserunners; his WHIP was 1.53. That, combined with his low strikeout rate of 5.8 per nine innings, raises the possibility that he can’t sustain his success. His FIP of 3.77 was about the same as his ERA of 3.83, though, which suggests it wasn’t just luck. There are reasons to think Morton will improve. This was his first season with rebuilt mechanics, so he’s probably still a work in progress. He may also need to build up his stamina. The sample sizes are small, but he had a 5.81 ERA in 13 starts with four days’ rest, 2.99 in 11 starts with five days, and 1.38 in five starts with six days or more. He probably remains the most unpredictable of the Pirates’ pitchers, but he’s not the pitcher he was in 2010.
Andrew McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan
The Pirates didn’t have many outstanding individual performances in 2011. In fact, outside of the rotation, they didn’t have a great many good performances. Two players, though, did stand out.
McCutchen’s season may not be fully appreciated by some fans because his batting average fell from .286 in both 2009-10 to .259, and because he faded in the second half, hitting just .216. Some of the fade may have been the effect of the long season on a player who’s still young—he won’t turn 25 until October 10—and some may have been the effect of being the standout in a pathetically bad lineup. Possibly as a result, McCutchen has seen fewer pitches in the strike zone each year, from 51.7% to 49.8% to 47.3%, and saw fewer fastballs in 2011 than in either previous season. Nevertheless, the season was a step forward for him. Part of the gain was on defense, which I already mentioned. The other part was that he made the transition from leadoff hitter to middle of the order bat.
The change in McCutchen’s approach was obvious from more than the career high of 23 HRs. He struck out more, which unlike his teammates is acceptable because of the power gain. He also walked more than ever, finishing fifth in the league. His ISO (isolate power) reached a career high. McCutchen is still a couple years short of what should be his peak and he’s only going to get stronger. He’s being pitched differently now and will probably continue adjusting to that. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue improving.
Hanrahan’s success was more obvious, thanks to the 40 saves and 1.83 ERA. Like McCutchen, though, he became a different type of player. He went from throwing a lot of sliders to relying more on his fastball. He threw the latter 83% of the time, as opposed to 61% in 2010, and in the process increased his average velocity by about one mph, from 96 to 97. One result of the change was a much lower strikeout rate; he went from nearly 13 per nine innings in 2010 to eight in 2011. Normally that might be a bad sign, but the tradeoff was worth it. Hanrahan throws a heavy fastball with far above average sink, according to the PitchFX data available at Fangraphs. The change cut his walks by about 50% and his HR rate went from 0.78 per nine innings to almost nothing: 0.13. In fact, long hits of any type were very hard to come by against Hanrahan. His opponents’ batting average dropped just one point, from .221 to .220, between 2010 and 2011. His opponents’ slugging average, though, fell from .350 to an anemic .276. His groundball rate also increased from 42% to 52%, which in turn tripled his rate of inducing double plays. It’s a lot easier to protect one-run leads if all you’re allowing is singles and you’re wiping out some of them with GIDPs. Hanrahan became a much more reliable pitcher in 2011, which served the Pirates well.
Apart from Hanrahan, the Pirates’ bullpen made progress in 2011. It wasn’t dramatic. The team’s ERA in relief went from 4.57 in 2010 to 3.76. With hitting down generally, that was only an improvement from 14th in the league to 12th. But the front office seems to be refining its approach in building a bullpen, and did a much better job than in Neal Huntington’s first two years, especially.
Huntington’s basic approach hasn’t changed much. He avoids giving big contracts to relievers, with the idea that guys with good arms are always available cheap, if you make the right decisions. And he still focuses on pitchers with velocity that at least reaches the mid-90s. Only one basic part of his approach seems to have changed: He seems (hopefully) to have dropped his fascination with one-pitch sinkerballers like Franquelis Osoria and Steven Jackson.
The difference is that the Pirates have managed, over roughly the last year, to find a good number of arms who are worth hanging onto. Instead of strong-armed, scattergun pitchers whom the fans would prefer to see go away, like Denny Bautista, Tyler Yates, Brendan Donnelly and Sean Gallagher, this year Huntington found a number of potential keepers: Jose Veras, Chris Resop, Jason Grilli and Chris Leroux. They all had their ups and downs, but they’re all worth hanging onto and all are still short of free agency.
Not everything went well. Huntington failed to come up with a useful left-hander during the off-season. His only acquisition, Joe Beimel, was a predictable failure. Tony Watson was an upgrade and has significant potential if his command improves. Dan Moskos had a good ERA but was extremely hittable for a pitcher who’s supposed to have good stuff. The team also never came up with a reliable eighth inning guy, as Veras’ control problems surfaced every time he seemed to be settling into the role. A healthy Evan Meek could fill that need. But the Pirates go into the off-season with more answers than questions in the bullpen.