Pirates Went With a Familiar Starting Pitching Strategy at the Deadline

Here are two pitchers to compare, just using their stat lines.

Pitcher A – 4.64 ERA, 4.05 xFIP, 108.2 IP, 6.79 K/9, 2.65 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, .319 BABIP, 70.9% LOB, 11.1% HR/FB

Pitcher B – 5.06 ERA, 4.04 xFIP, 115.2 IP, 7.55 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 1.40 HR/9, .299 BABIP, 70.6% LOB, 14.0% HR/FB

In each case, the pitcher has been struggling, but has advanced metrics that say the pitcher should be doing better. The strikeout and walk rations are good in each case, and the xFIP numbers are almost identical, in the 4.05 range, which would be a solid number four starter. There are signs of bad luck with each pitcher — the .319 BABIP for Player A, and both have a high HR/FB rate, although Player B is more extreme.

Player A is J.A. Happ, who the Pirates acquired at the trade deadline to replace A.J. Burnett in the rotation. Player B is Jeremy Hellickson, who, according to Jon Heyman, the Pirates targeted at the deadline as well.

Now let’s take a look at a few more pitchers.

Pitcher C – 5.15 ERA, 3.86 xFIP, 190.1 IP, 8.18 K/9, 3.92 BB/9, 1.47 HR/9, .294 BABIP, 70.0% LOB, 17.0% HR/FB

Pitcher D – 5.34 ERA, 4.14 xFIP, 156.2 IP, 9.59 K/9, 5.00 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9, .300 BABIP, 66.5% LOB, 12.9% HR/FB

Pitcher E – 5.71 ERA, 4.07 xFIP, 170.1 IP, 7.50 K/9, 4.07 BB/9, 1.00 HR/9, .325 BABIP, 64.5% LOB, 11.9% HR/FB

There are some differences here — all of these pitchers had poor control numbers for one — but the overall result is the same. They’re pitchers who have horrible ERAs, but advanced metrics that say they should be better. You may be ahead of me here, knowing who these players are, so I’ll give them to you in order: A.J. Burnett in 2011, Francisco Liriano in 2012, and Edinson Volquez in 2013. Or, in other words, the numbers each starter put up the year before they became reclamation projects for the Pirates.

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that the Pirates took a similar approach at the deadline as they did in previous years in trades and free agency: find a guy putting up some of the worst numbers in baseball with advanced metrics that say they should be performing better. Then have Ray Searage work with those pitchers to fix their mechanics, change their approach to pounding the strike zone and focusing on more ground balls, and play into the PNC Park factors and the Pirates’ defense.

The only problem with this approach mid-season is that you need immediate results. In some of the previous cases, the results came instantly. In others, especially with Volquez, the results took some time, needing about a month or more for the results to show up. The Pirates don’t have that kind of time right now with Happ.

Fortunately, the low walk totals suggest that this transition should be a lot easier. Happ doesn’t have a big control problem to fix, which means there probably wouldn’t be a big overhaul needed for his mechanics. But that doesn’t mean it will be simple, as we saw with his first start this week, where he was bounced in the fifth inning, giving up four earned runs on eight hits, with two walks and six strikeouts.

It’s hard to take much away from one start, but Happ definitely had a change in his approach from his time with Seattle. He was throwing his four-seam fastball 62.6% of the time, up from 51.5% with Seattle. The two-seamer saw a slight drop, going from 11.4% to 9.1%. The biggest difference was that he saw a massive increase in his slider (12.3% to 25.3%), while almost completely eliminating his curve and changeup (1% and 2% respectively).

Again, it’s tough to make too much out of one start. This approach could have just been team specific. But it would make a lot of sense for the Pirates to have Happ focus more on the slider and less on the curve and changeup. His slider has been his best pitch this year, with a .561 OPS against. No other pitch is below .722. His fastballs haven’t been as effective, with a .797 OPS on the four-seam, and an .838 OPS on the two-seam (which saw a slight drop in usage with the Pirates).

Unfortunately, if the fastball remains easy to hit, then there’s not much that Happ can do to benefit from the slider being more effective. It’s not like he can just stop throwing the fastball. But if the Pirates can just focus on fixing that one pitch, then Happ would have an effective two pitch combo to work with. And that’s where we get to another recent trend with another Pirates starter.

Gerrit Cole is currently throwing his fastball just as often as he has in the previous two years, relying on the pitch 67.1% of the time (there could be a difference in the usage of two-seam and four-seam, but Pitch F/X has been horrible classifying Cole’s pitches, and that’s not unlike all of the minor league pitchers who watch him pitch at Pirate City, then go up to him at the end of an inning and ask for clarification on what pitch he just threw). A big change this year is that he’s leaning heavily on the slider, seeing a jump from 12.1% to 22.8%. That has taken away from his curve and changeup.

Now Happ is not Gerrit Cole in any way. Happ might have a good slider that isn’t getting hit much, but Cole’s is barely getting hit at all, with a .449 OPS against. And Cole also has great numbers from his fastball. That’s why he’s an ace. But the approach is interesting, because after just one game it seems the Pirates are putting Happ on the Cole route, where he’d pitch off the fastball, combined with heavy slider usage. Again, this approach requires him to start getting better results with the fastball, and the Pirates need those results quickly.

I don’t know if the results will come quickly for Happ, and if they don’t, then this experiment won’t end up working for the Pirates. But just looking at the comparisons to previous reclamation projects, and comparing the pitch usage after one outing, it appears the Pirates are using some familiar approaches in order to try and make Happ a successful reclamation project on the fly.

UPDATE: Happ is getting skipped in the rotation. More details in that article. It will be interesting to see whether he gets some work in with Ray Searage during his time away from the rotation.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 7, 2015 3:36 pm

    Trying to put a positive spin on a bad pitcher and bad trade…I get it, but I don’t agree with it. There was nothing in Happ’s past to suggest that he would be anything more than what he is – a below average major league pitcher. His only time that he was more than that was 7-8 years ago when he came up through the Phillies system. OTOH, Liriano and Volquez had fairly recent success and their success was at a much higher and sustained level than Happ ever was. Apples and oranges if you ask me.

    I’d like to see some candid criticism of the Pirates here from time to time, when it is deserved. And, the Pirates inability (or not wanting) to pickup a decent starting pitcher at the deadline was a big mistake.Even Richard is better than Happ – and we gave him the Cubs. Sampson was better than Happ, although unproven at the major league level, than Happ (who was very proven to be lousy) and we traded Sampson for Happ – go figure!

    Glasnow is not the ideal option, but he is our best option to strengthen our rotation down the stretch. I’d give him a couple more starts in Indy and see how he progresses.

    • I agree with almost everything other then Glasnow as our option. He needs to learn how to pitch, not just throw hard. We have Liz in AAA that can do that. He also needs to learn how to control the running game. Glasnow could be a special pitcher, but he is far from ready at this point IMO.

    • It’s not a positive spin at all, and it’s not even spin. I just noticed some trends today, and it was clear what the Pirates were trying. As I noted, it’s very risky and in no way guaranteed to work out.

    • Going by numbers happ is still a better pitcher than locke or morton. Let’s let uncle ray do his thing over the next ten days or so and then see where happ is. If he’s as bad as he was in his first start then I’ll jump on board with you. If searage gets happ back to being a servicable pitcher (which is what I think will happen)then you can get on board with me.

    • Adrian Sampson with the 4 ERA and 7 K/9 in AAA is better than JA Happ? What are you smoking, man? Sampson’s quick and dirty major league equivalent ERA is well over 5.

  • If the Bucs are lucky, they can skip Happ’s next turn and then, when he gets bombed again, they can option him to AAA and bring up Liz to see if he is AAAA or MLB caliber.

    And, if we’re REALLY lucky, AJ will be back for at least 3 or 4 starts in Sept and be sharp.

    That’s a lotta luck we need.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      August 7, 2015 3:37 pm

      Some rain outs would help too – timed when Happ is due to pitch! 🙂

      • I tend to agree but it would be nice if this guy can give us a couple of quality starts. One bad outing can be forgiven if he has another then fire Huntington, Searage and old lad Nutting.