First Pitch: Maybe the Pirates Pitching Staff Won’t Regress

Is Jeff Locke's lack of regression due to the infield shifts? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Is Jeff Locke’s lack of regression due to the infield shifts? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

We’ve talked a lot this year about regression. Jeff Locke is a regression candidate. Jeanmar Gomez is a regression candidate. The entire Pirates’ pitching staff has combined to lead the league in BABIP, and it’s not close. You could say the same for strand rates, although the Braves and Royals are close behind them.

Every time the topic of regression comes up, it is met with “Maybe (insert player here) is the exception. Maybe he is doing something that allows him to continue with these unexpected stats.” Usually the arguments read as desperation, trying to find some way that Jeanmar Gomez is actually a 2.76 ERA pitcher. And usually the players end up regressing.

So far the Pirates haven’t regressed. It’s not like regression comes from flipping a switch. It’s not like Jeff Locke will maintain a .225 BABIP up until the point where you check out his stats on FanGraphs. Regression actually doesn’t even involve the season stats. It just means that if you continue playing the way you have been playing, you won’t continue putting up the ERA you have been putting up.

To figure this out, we usually look at the league average numbers. For example, with BABIP the league average is around .290-.300. Then we use those numbers to say things like “Jeff Locke won’t maintain his .225 BABIP which will make his ERA drop in the future.” But is there a way to avoid regression?

James Santelli wrote about the Pirates’ strategy with defensive shifts today. It’s an excellent article, and shows a big part of why the Pirates have been so successful this year. One of the things I found interesting was that the Pirates have steadily seen an increase in their defensive metrics over the last four years, and they’re doing that this year by going heavy on the shift. They’ve shifted the most of any team in baseball this year, and have had more shifts in the first half of 2013 than the last two full seasons combined.

James talked about the value of defensive shifts, and detailed how many runs were saved. It got me thinking about whether the shifts were responsible for the low BABIP numbers. The Pirates have a huge lead in two things: BABIP and ground ball percentage. Their .265 BABIP is 10 points lower than any other team. Their 51.2% ground ball rate is 2.6% higher than any other team. So the Pirates are getting a ton of ground balls, and they’re also shifting the defense around, allowing them to get to more grounders than a “normal” defensive alignment would allow. When you combine those two things, it only makes sense that they have such a low BABIP.

That’s not to say that the BABIP will remain at .265. It’s not impossible, as the Rays had that mark over a full season in 2011. But every other team the previous three years was at .274 or greater. This also doesn’t mean that we won’t see regression from certain pitchers. The team averages a .265 BABIP. So that still doesn’t explain why individual pitchers have much lower percentages. If the Pirates are using the same shifts for all of their starters, then you can’t use the shifts to explain why Locke has a .225 BABIP or why Gomez is at .223 when A.J. Burnett is at .264 and Francisco Liriano is at .319.

I think you can make an argument that the shifts will lower the BABIP numbers below the normal .290-.300. Figures such as FIP assume a pitcher will regress all the way to that level. Jeff Locke has a 2.12 ERA after tonight’s start, and a 3.86 FIP. But if he’s not regressing to that .290 range, and is only going to around .265-.275, then his FIP would look much better. There would still be some regression, but I think you could say that about any pitcher with an ERA close to 2.00.

If you haven’t read the article James wrote, you need to check it out. I don’t want to say it’s the only reason the Pirates are winning this year. There are plenty of other factors you can point to that lead to the team’s improvement. Even if you look at the idea of shifts alone, you still need pitchers who can locate their pitches in the right location, and it helps to have good defensive infielders and ground ball pitchers. But it’s safe to say that the shifts are playing a big role in why the defense has been doing so well, and the defense is playing a big role in why the pitching staff and the team are doing so well. It’s a strategy that seems to be catching on more and more, and the Pirates are out in front as the team using it the most. It’s also a strategy that can lead to extra outs, fewer runs, and extra wins. That’s the type of strategy the Pirates need to embrace all the time.

Links and Notes

**Download the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 12: Prospect Analysis on Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, and Tyler Glasnow. Also includes an interview with 2013 first round pick Reese McGuire.

**The newest episode of the Pirates Roundtable is up. This week we had Jim Rosati from North Side Notch, Ed Giles from In Clemente Weather, and David Manel of Bucs Dugout stopped by.

**Pirates Prospects to Appear on ESPN 970 With David Todd On Wednesdays.

Draft and International Signings

**Pirates Sign Sixth Round Pick Adam Frazier, 37th Round Pick Dennis.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**Pirates Sign Dominican Outfielder Edinson Lantigua.

**Pirates Sign Dominican Shortstop Adrian Valerio.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates International Signing Tracker.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Heredia Shakes Off Tough First Inning For Another Strong Start.

**Minor League Schedule: Seven Games On The Holiday Schedule.

**Sanchez, Black, Harrison, and Johnson Named International League All-Stars.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Munoz and De La Cruz Stay Hot In Win Over Reds.

Pirates

**Pirates’ Defensive Shifts: The Hidden Secret Behind Baseball’s Best Team.

**Pedro Alvarez’s 21st Homer Powers Bucs to 6-5 Win

**Pirates Notebook: Tabata Returns, Will Burnett Pitch a Rehab Start?

**Pirates Activate Jose Tabata; Phil Irwin Has Surgery.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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  • rburgh

    Hey Tim! You’re coming around. I’ve been making essentially this argument on various sites for about a month now, and I guess it’s starting to take hold. I’m pretty sure it’s a valid concept for discussions within one season, although I don’t think it will necessarily work very well from year to year.

    Interestingly, the total number of “shifts” Santelli claims for the Bucs averages out to just over 3 per game, so it’s not like they can’t play straight-up defense very well. I would estimate that Locke’s regression “target” is an ERA of 3.20-3.30, based on his regressing to a BABIP of .265. This is surely good enough to win a lot of games.

  • skliesen

    Defensive positioning from the IF are certainly a major component to the Pitcher’s overall effectiveness as this article and James’ article claim. In addition, having Marte covering LF is a valuable piece of the equation, too. However, I would consider what Russell Martin bring to the party to be the biggest change from last year.

    Martin’s ability to frame pitches gives “nibblers” like Locke a distinct advantage. Not to mention his cannon for an arm, too.

    All of these factors play a part in the positive results generated this year, but Martin’s contributions outweigh the others in my opinion.

  • esd4

    Another factor in this year’s run prevention, probably a bigger factor than the shifts, is russell Martin. Martin is buying strikes with his pitch-framing, which has a lot of value in and of itself (about as much as the stated value of the shifts in Santelli’s article), but like the shifts, it also has ancillary benefits. The Pirates are throwing the fewest strikes of any pitching staff in baseball at 43.7%. There’s only a four percentage-point difference between them and the most strike-throwing staff in the game, but that small difference is having a big impact. Basically, the Pirates are throwing the ball low in the zone or even out of the zone and relying on Martin to buy them strikes. By keeping the ball low and out of the hitting zone, they’re getting consistently weak contact. Their GB% is by far the highest in the game, and their LD% is second-lowest (closer to first than to third). The weak contact is a big part of why the defense is able to turn so many BIP into outs. And Russell Martin makes it all possible by being able to buy so many strikes for the staff so that the pitchers can pitch on the edges instead of being forced to come into the zone.

    (Just noticed sklieson’s comment above. I should have just responded to that. Coke to you, friend.)

  • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

    No jinx!
    We need to dehex Mazarro.