BRADENTON, Fla. – “We haven’t won the division. So what’s to say it’s not worth taking a look at something else? We’ve got to explore all the different opportunities.”
The Pirates have been no strangers to embracing advanced statistics and unconventional approaches on the field, in order to gain an extra edge on the competition. They were one of the first teams to embrace defensive shifts to a large degree. The same goes for focusing on strong pitch framing catchers, and placing a high value on catcher defense. Some of the approaches haven’t worked out — the original “no-triples” outfield shifts and the approach where pitchers ignored base runners completely in 2012 — but for the most part, the Pirates have been ahead of the trend and have found ways to add a few extra wins to their total.
This year’s focus is a concept that has been around for several years, but still isn’t widely adopted across the game, simply because it’s not how the game was always played. The Pirates are shuffling their lineup, putting their best hitters at the top, and ignoring speed in the leadoff spot. Andrew McCutchen has been batting second for the last week, while John Jaso has been hitting first overall.
As I said, this isn’t a new approach. It’s been around from Tom Tango for some time. You can find the summary of the idea at this article from 2009, but the quick summary is below.
Another way to look at things is to order the batting slots by the leveraged value of the out. In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate. Here’s how the lineup spots rank in the importance of avoiding outs:
#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9
So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision.
The biggest change here is moving McCutchen to the number two spot from the number three spot. The change was made after the Pirates realized last year that McCutchen came up to the plate 158 times (23% of his plate appearances) with no runners and two outs. That was second, only to Paul Goldschmidt. The move goes against the long-held idea that the best player in your lineup hits third.
“The challenge for me is, for 47 years the baddest dude in the game hit third,” Hurdle said. “And that started to flip a few years ago as you look at it. I think it makes some sense. I’ve got to kind of re-arrange my thinking on it, and what’s best for our team. How do we maximize our run production? How do we find a way to put our most consistent, highest opportunity to be the productive lineup? All these different metrics are giving us different run totals.”
The run totals aren’t going to be massive by optimizing your lineup. You might see 30 extra runs over the course of a season with this approach. But that translates to three extra wins. The Pirates are in a situation in the NL Central where every win counts.
“We haven’t won the division,” Hurdle said. “So what’s to say it’s not worth taking a look at something else? We’ve got to explore all the different opportunities.”
If they can do something as simple as batting McCutchen second to get a few extra wins, then it makes all the sense in the world to do it.
“The reality is we’re always going to have to find small ways to get better, whether it’s how we do things or who’s doing them,” Neal Huntington said.
Huntington pointed out that the Pirates needed to get the best players, aka the guys who get on base the most, the most opportunities. He also mentioned that Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco didn’t run much in front of McCutchen last year, not wanting to run into outs. This takes a huge weapon from their game. And that explains why the Pirates have no concerns about the slower, but high OBP hitting John Jaso batting leadoff.
“It’s not a perfect world,” Hurdle said on Jaso’s lack of speed at the top. “Slowing up guys, I don’t know about that. I know sometimes, guys are hesitant to run when you’ve got a guy who can swing the bat in front of them, because they don’t want to make an out. So there’s the other side of it. I think he can go first to third. I don’t think he’s going to clog up the bases at all. Matter of fact, I think he’s a very solid base runner. I think his speed will play out the way it plays out. So that’s not that big of a concern.”
This is an approach that the Pirates couldn’t really take in previous years. Last year they had a more traditional lineup, with Pedro Alvarez being the typical power hitter in the middle of the group. The team shifted their focus to on-base percentage and fewer strikeouts this year, replacing Alvarez with John Jaso. They did something similar the year before, switching from Russell Martin to Francisco Cervelli, and seeing a drop in power for an increase in OBP.
“Cervelli was the first guy for a full year, if you look at his numbers, that we wanted to make sure we just let him simmer,” Hurdle said of the focus for OBP. “Let him keep doing what he was doing. He showed us a year of it. Kang has the potential, healthy upon his return, on-base percentage was an elevated number. We didn’t really have any other guys at the time that have been .340, .350, .360 guys. You look at .310, .320, and those areas.”
The Pirates now have the potential for a great OBP team. Cervelli has been in the .370 range in each of the last three seasons, although the 2013-14 seasons combined for 223 plate appearances. Jaso was .380 or higher in three of the last four years. McCutchen has been the best by far, topping .400 in each of the last four years. And Kang put up a .355 OBP in his first season in the Majors.
As usual, this approach started in the advanced stats department, with Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Josh Smith, and others crunching the numbers. This was all based on the existing research, although the Pirates finally had a team where this could work.
“You read some of the really intelligent people that are out there and some of the things they’re talking about, then you try to figure out how does it apply to what you’re actually doing,” Huntington said. “The difference between theory and reality sometimes is light years apart, and other times it becomes relatively close. It’s something we’ve actually talked about for years. As we looked at this group and putting this group in a position to find a little bit better offensive production in a perfect world, at least in the theoretical world, this was something where we came together. Now we’re working to see how it plays out in the real world.”
It’s one thing to have a theory and players who fit that theory. It’s another to have a manager willing to go along with the idea, and take such unconventional approaches with each lineup spot. Clint Hurdle has been very open to these ideas in the past, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I paid attention to the numbers for the most part the year I was fired,” Hurdle said. “They were just starting to trickle in, in Colorado. The year I spent with MLB Network in the back room, it was like free play. It was something that I was kind of leery to go back to, but once I got in, I started talking to the guys, I had no where else to go. I had nothing to do. I said, let me check it out.”
Hurdle started digging into the numbers, and it opened his eyes. He recognized that this was the way the game was heading. He still recognized that the numbers side of things didn’t factor the human element, but that the numbers played an important role which was ignored in the past.
“When I got here, it was a whole new gig for me, with Fox and Fitzgerald, and the programs that had already been put in, defensive metrics in our minor league system,” Hurdle said. “It was a buy-in investment. It didn’t happen overnight.”
Breaking Down the Lineup
The Pirates have been very consistent this week batting John Jaso at the top of the lineup. They’ve also had McCutchen as a fixture at number two. You can pretty much mark it down that this will be the order heading into the season. This order makes sense, per The Book. The leadoff hitter should be one of the best hitters on the team, and without home run power. In terms of OBP, Jaso would be second on the team to McCutchen, but McCutchen has more power. So it makes sense to bat Jaso first, with a bigger power threat and a high OBP guy behind him.
The number three spot isn’t as important as was once thought, so we’ll get back to it.
The number four spot is the best hitter on the team with power. The Pirates don’t have a lot of power on their team, and have been batting Starling Marte in this spot this Spring. It makes a lot of sense, as he has power and is fairly good at getting on base.
The next best hitter should go in the number five spot, which is why it makes sense that Francisco Cervelli has been hitting behind Marte a lot.
The Pirates had David Freese in the number three spot on Wednesday, and this makes sense, considering the lowered importance of the position. You want a good hitter, and a guy with some power, but not your best guy. It will be interesting to see how this is handled when Kang returns. I think you could make an argument for Kang hitting cleanup, which raises the question of where you hit Marte (he’s got a lower OBP, but some power, so third makes sense).
The six through nine spots are arranged in decreasing order, with speed up top. The Pirates had Gregory Polanco batting sixth, ahead of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. The latter guys are arranged in the right order by OBP, and are both are weak in terms of power. Putting Polanco ahead of them allows his speed to play. He can move into scoring position without having to worry about taking the bat out of a good hitter’s hands, and by moving into scoring position, he increases his odds of scoring a run with Harrison and Mercer unlikely to do more than a single or a double.
To recap, the lineup that seems most likely:
- John Jaso
- Andrew McCutchen
- David Freese
- Starling Marte
- Francisco Cervelli
- Gregory Polanco
- Josh Harrison
- Jordy Mercer
Using this year’s ZiPS projections, the Pirates lineup with Freese would amount to 4.617 runs per game with this optimization (I used Gerrit Cole as the pitcher in my scenario, using this lineup tool). When Jung-ho Kang returns, if you do nothing else but swap Freese out for Kang, you get 4.776 runs per game. By comparison, the Pirates averaged 4.302 runs per game in 2015.
So despite the loss of power, this year’s high OBP, highly optimized lineup projects for 51-77 extra runs on the entire season over last year’s totals. Of course, the flaw here is that it won’t be that exact lineup every single night. But it’s easy to see that the lineup this year should lead to more offense than last year’s lineup, and it’s not out of the question to think the difference could be measured in enough runs to equal an improvement of a few wins.