A little under a year ago, things weren’t exactly looking up for Neal Huntington and the Pirates’ front office. The team had improved significantly over the previous two years, but had just suffered its second straight late-season collapse. A lot of fans – including me – thought the team should find a new GM. More importantly, principal owner Robert Nutting had stated he was going to do a thorough review, one that was widely expected to result in the firing of Huntington, or at least some of his top assistants. In the end, Nutting made no moves, but that merely increased the pandemonium. One headline blared, “Nutting Chooses Failure.” And then there was the endless trumpeting – lasting literally the entire off-season – of non-stories about Navy SEAL training that wasn’t actually Navy SEAL training, and silly motivational e-mails, as if these things were more vital to a baseball team than, you know, baseball. Obviously, I thought there was a case to be made for letting Huntington go, but it certainly didn’t emerge from the off-season racket.
As we all know now, if Nutting truly was choosing failure, he chose badly. Despite some poor play of late, the Pirates have broken their 20-year losing streak and clinched a winning season, and are very likely to make the post-season. You’d think the seemingly narrow escape last fall would have triggered wholesale changes in the front office’s methods. Instead, what’s remarkable about this season, and the way this team was assembled, is just how little changed about the way the front office went about its baseball moves. After all the criticism and the ownership review, the Pirates are still following largely the same strategies they’ve followed since Huntington took over. They’re getting better results, of course, but that’s a different issue. I don’t know whether it’s luck or regression, or whether it’s a case of the front office simply getting better over time at what they do, as people often do. Certainly they’ve refined some of their strategies, as we’ll see. Probably a lot of factors have played into it. Anyway, I thought I’d look at the striking similarities between the moves that produced this team and those that they’ve made in the past.
By this time, most lower revenue teams have figured out that high-salaried free agents, or other burdensome contracts, are the surest path to failure in MLB. (Whether teams like the Angels, Mets, and Blue Jays have learned the same lesson is another matter.) The Pirates have been even more reluctant than most to venture into the deadly trap known as the free agent market. In fact, they’ve steadfastly refused, under this front office, to engage in bidding competitions for free agent talent. Initially, that meant they’d sign only guys who had no other serious offers, like Lyle Overbay. They’ve since refined their strategy, though, to take advantage of the fear of some mid-level players of getting frozen out if they wait too long to sign.
The increased sophistication of the Pirates’ free agent strategy became evident after the 2011 season. The Rod Barajas signing was similar to that of Overbay, and turned into just as big a failure. With Clint Barmes, though, the Pirates combined a two-year offer with a tight deadline, taking advantage of the fact that their primary competitors for Barmes, the Brewers, were still dithering over whether to pursue Prince Fielder. Barmes took the Pirates’ offer and, although he hasn’t hit at all, his glove work has played a key role in the team’s drastic improvement in run prevention. All you have to do is look at their standing in defensive efficiency, which is essentially the percentage of balls in play turned into outs. They went from 13th in the NL in 2011 to 5th in 2012 to 4th this year, just slightly behind the 2nd place Cubs.
The Pirates’ approach after the 2012 season with Russell Martin was remarkably similar to their approach with Barmes. While the Yankees tried to decide how to spend their untold millions, the Pirates signed Martin to a two-year deal just a month after the World Series. No other serious suitor had a chance to emerge. Of course, another strong parallel between the Barmes and Martin signings was the emphasis on defense; more on that below.
Although the signing of Martin was strikingly similar to that of Barmes in some regards, it did involve a good deal more money, $17M to $10.5M. In fact, this site criticized the signing, stating that Martin wasn’t worth the cost. I’d prefer to think that the Martin signing represented both a followup on the tactics used with Barmes and an effort to learn from the failed Barajas signing. What the latter showed was that a team that fancies itself a contender can’t risk tying up a regular position with a player who’s both low-upside and high-risk. Barajas was 36 and clearly declining — especially his throwing — when the Pirates signed him, and they ended up with bottom-tier performance both on offense and defense. Martin presented some risk on offense, especially if you think batting average is the be-all and end-all of hitting (more below), but he was a lock to be a major defensive upgrade. I’m hoping the Martin signing showed a new conviction on the Pirates’ part that, if you’re trying to fill a regular role, you should stay out of the free agent market unless you can at least afford a player of Martin’s caliber.
As hitting has become more and more difficult to find, teams have increasingly seen defense as the most efficient area to upgrade. Huntington’s front office has focused from the start on ways to improve the team’s ability to record outs. They’ve long expressed a desire to have a center fielder playing left in PNC Park, and now they’ve got Starling Marte. They’ve also looked to deploy defensive shifts with increasing frequency. Their early efforts were mainly in the outfield, earning them the stereotypical slighting comments from the local media about playing the game with computers. In the last year or two, they’ve radically increased their reliance on shifts, especially in the infield , and their shifts have received significant credit for helping the team’s turnaround, most recently in comments by ESPN analyst Keith Law shortly after their 81st win. The Pirates are far from the only team that’s gone heavily into shifts, but they’re one of the more extreme and the results have been evident.
The emphasis on defense plainly figured into the signing of Barmes and Martin as well. Barmes has been one of the top-rated shortstops in the majors in recent years by most defensive measures. And Martin has been a massive defensive upgrade from Barajas, despite at least one notoriously ill-informed article opining that Martin was a marginal defensive upgrade at best. Aside from the fact that Martin couldn’t help but be a drastic improvement over Barajas’ historically bad throwing, Mike Fast’s pitch framing research for Baseball Prospectus showed Martin to be one of baseball’s best at turning balls into strikes, with Barajas being below average. There’s no way to be sure, but Martin’s work is a likely factor in the surprising showing of the team’s pitching staff.
Another factor that’s been a constant with Huntington, and one that bears a close relationship to the emphasis on defense, is ground balls. The Pirates have focused on obtaining groundball pitchers throughout his tenure; their staffs have induced grounders at an above-average rate every year since he became GM. There were two drawbacks, though: until the last couple years, their defense wasn’t up to the challenge, and their pitchers rarely missed any bats. They were last or next-to-last in the NL in strikeout rate every year under Huntington until 2012, when they were still below average. This year, their K rate has finally edged above the league average and they’re leading the majors by a wide margin in ground ball percentage, 52.9% to the Cardinals’ 48.8% at this writing. Combined with the upgraded defense and the shifts, the emphasis on groundball pitchers – better ones than in the past, who also miss some bats – has been a key factor in the team’s outstanding run prevention.
For the sake of balance, I should point out that not all of the team’s strategies have been successful ones. From his first year, Huntington has chosen to stock the bench with veteran backups. It’s been a profoundly bad strategy. I won’t go through the long, sad list; suffice to say that nearly every veteran the team has acquired as a bench player has been so bad that he’s been dumped by mid-season. This year’s choices – Brandon Inge and John McDonald – were, if anything, worse than most.
Huntington has consistently made it a point not to expend significant resources on the bullpen. The reasons should be obvious. No reliever, not even a closer, has the impact on a team’s fortunes of a starting pitcher or a regular position player. In addition, reliever performance is highly volatile, making it unwise to get committed to relievers for longer terms. And, finally, the reverence attached to the closer role, and especially the notion that only a select few relievers can be successful closers, is bunk.
Huntington’s early efforts at bullpen construction were hampered by two factors: he inherited a barren farm system that was years away from providing a flow of good arms, and he simply didn’t make very good choices in cobbling together a relief corps. The failures tended to meet one or more of several criteria: former top prospects (Chris Bootcheck, Sean Gallagher, Hayden Penn); hard throwers who . . . well, threw hard (Tyler Yates, Denny Bautista); and very hittable sinkerballers (Franquelis Osoria, Stephen Jackson).
With the farm system now producing relievers like Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes, Huntington has had to do less cobbling, but his methods haven’t fundamentally changed. Jason Grilli was a hard-throwing, former early-first-round pick who’d never had much success despite being in his mid-30s. Vin Mazzaro was another struggling, former top prospect who was both a fairly hard thrower and a sinkerballer. Jeanmar Gomez (a pickup I didn’t like at all) was another sinkerballer who evidently was badly hampered by a poor defense in Cleveland. Same ideas, just better execution.
And then there’s Huntington’s continuing refusal to sink a lot of his meager resources into relievers. He’s signed exactly one reliever to a multi-year contract, and that was Grilli, who signed a two-year deal at the bargain total price of $6.75M. Huntington stood his ground when it meant non-tendering closer Matt Capps to avoid paying him an arbitration salary, a move that still seems dubious. And Huntington traded closer Joel Hanrahan while he still had some value, before he became expensive. That move produced knee-jerk criticism from the usual national level commentators. It also was criticized by local writers, one of whom termed it “clearly a salary dump” and thought the team should have passed on Martin and Francisco Liriano, and let go of Charlie Morton, in order to retain Hanrahan. But the move worked precisely for the reasons Huntington had always applied to bullpen moves: Hanrahan would have become too expensive, it was a risk to assume that he’d continue at his 2011-12 level, and Mark Melancon was a good candidate to bounce back from a rough season.
One especially striking similarity between the Pirates’ last two off-seasons has been their acquisition of players with poor traditional statistics in recent years, but other statistical indications that they were candidates to bounce back. I don’t know for sure how much, if at all, the Pirates relied on statistical analysis in acquiring these players, but I’ll bet it played some role.
The Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett when he was coming off two seasons with 5+ ERAs with the Yankees. His xFIPs, though – a measure that attempts to remove from ERA the effects of defense and fence distances – were much better, at 4.49 and 3.86. He also had maintained a high strikeout rate, showing that his stuff was still more than good enough to get major league hitters out. And he’s done exactly that with the Pirates.
This past off-season, the Pirates acquired three players with similar statistical issues. Liriano was, in some ways, very similar to Burnett. His last two ERAs were over 5.00, but his xFIPs were 4.52 and 4.14, and his K rate remained high. Melancon’s 2012 ERA was 6.20, but his xFIP was 3.45 and he struck out nearly a batter an inning. Martin’s 2012 batting average of .211 produced consternation in some places. He was still walking a lot, though, and hitting for solid power, making him no worse than an average offensive player for his position. What’s more, his batting average on balls in play of .222 was very unlikely to remain that low, indicating that to some degree he’d just had bad luck. All three, of course, have been major contributors to the Pirates’ success this year.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pirates’ never-ending, almost touching faith in Charlie Morton. They’ve been convinced since they traded for him in 2009 that he has the stuff to be a good major league starter and nothing seems to shake that convinction. They stuck with him through a horrific 2010 season, then through assorted injuries, including Tommy John surgery. Their decision to re-sign him for 2013 while (temporarily) letting Jeff Karstens go seemed puzzling to many, including me, but Morton has been the team’s third-best starter recently.
Much of the off-season criticism focused on Assistant GM Kyle Stark and Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway. The farm system was portrayed as being dysfunctional, with Stark ridiculed because of one e-mail and both men accused of being unqualified. (The accusations seemed to focus on a lack of coaching experience, even though these are administrative, not coaching, positions.)
Nevertheless, Stark and Broadway are still in their positions, presumably still as “unqualified” as ever. Their roles and their prior qualifications haven’t changed. Somehow, though, the system has managed to gain widespread regard as one of the best in baseball. The top of the system is loaded, not just with first round draft picks, but top prospects like 2012 breakout players Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson (both signed for modest bonuses out of the Dominican) and 2013 breakouts Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham (5th and 4th round draft picks). Numerous other players have taken steps forward, as well. These include the oft-disparaged Tony Sanchez, who had a big year in AAA and was chosen by Baseball America as the International League’s post-season All-Star catcher.
The Pirates’ practice of going heavily in the draft after projectable high school pitchers especially seems to be bearing fruit. That approach appeared to be floundering after the struggles of the 2009 draft class. This year, however, not only have Glasnow and Kingham become top prospects, but other pitchers, like Jason Creasy and Ryan Hafner, have had encouraging seasons.
What’s particularly marked the system’s success is the contributions made to the Pirates this year by largely unheralded prospects. Justin Wilson has become one of baseball’s best left-handed relievers. So has Tony Watson, drafted by the previous front office but moved to relief by this one. Jordy Mercer has taken over part of the shortstop job. Brandon Cumpton, who was never on anybody’s prospect lists, gave the team a brief but very big lift. Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin, both low-round picks, developed into viable major league options, although they got hurt. Kris Johnson became an option after failing to make any progress in six years with Boston. Stolmy Pimentel suddenly looks like a very good prospect after similarly making little to no progress with Boston. (I’m starting to feel about the Red Sox and Yankees like Yankees fans probably felt about the Kansas City Athletics back in the ’50s and early ’60s.) Going back further, the Pirates turned around Jeff Locke, who was struggling with Atlanta at the time the Pirates traded for him.
The fact is, highly successful player development has played an important role, both in the major league team’s success this year, and in a farm system that appears likely to be rated among the game’s 3-5 best. The Pirates have done this with the same people running things, staying the course despite the Hoka Hey furor during the off-season.
I could go on. The bottom line, though, is that when I look at how the Pirates got to where they are now, I see a team that’s stuck to its principles in the way it runs its baseball operations. A year ago, these same principles didn’t seem (at least not to me) to be working, but they are now. Huntington has often counseled the need for patience and trusting the process, and he should feel a fair amount of vindication right now.