PITTSBURGH — As I wrote on Monday after the Pirates’ home-opening win over the Minnesota Twins pushed their record to 4-0 to start the year, it’s still very, very early.
Sure, there’s reason for enthusiasm with that kind of start, even when much of it came against a Detroit team that many are predicting to finish in the cellar of the AL Central. But still, it’s too early to put a lot of stock in the Pirates’ results.
The same thing goes for individual numbers. Unless you think that Michael Feliz’s ERA will stay at 18.00 and Gregory Polanco’s OPS will remain 1.425, it’s hard to put a lot of stock into what’s been done from a statistical standpoint.
But unlike the numbers that we mostly glossed over for the six weeks of spring training, there are lessons to be learned in what’s happened in the first four games of the Pirates season. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, but this early, the small picture might be a better place to start to look.
For me, it’s about considering process over results.
Yes, Polanco’s OPS is inflated, but why? There are two good answers there.
One is that he’s murdering the ball when he hits it. Polanco has put the ball into play nine times so far this season. Four of those have had exit velocities of over 98 MPH: a home run, two doubles and a fly out. He’s also hitting the ball in the air more, with a 0.40 ground ball to fly ball rate. He has been over one his entire career and posted a 1.13 mark last season. Over 50 percent of the balls he’s hit this season have been in the air.
The other thing that Polanco has done is draw a ton of walks. His walk rate is currently a Barry Bonds-esque 30 percent. There’s no way that will last. But a league-average walk rate is around 8 percent. If Polanco is hammering the ball, there’s plenty of incentive to pitch around him. His career walk rate is 8.6 percent, put in 2017, it was just 6.6. A return to his average or an improvement upon it would go a long way to increasing Polanco’s value as a hitter.
“I think, right now, he’s seeing the ball really well,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Sometimes, when you’re up there, it’s a ball out of the guy’s hand. Sometimes, you’re gearing up and you want a hit more than you want a walk and you maybe chase. Right now, he seems to be holding his ground pretty good and getting some pretty good looks. These guys watch highlights. They see a guy hit a couple balls and take some good swings, maybe they’re backing off and trying to take advantage of somebody behind him.”
Are Polanco’s hard-hit fly balls and newfound jaundiced eye random noise or the products of a real change? That’s what to look for in the coming weeks.
When it comes to prioritizing process over the results, it’s pretty easy to look at the Pirates bullpen through four games and envision a grisly return to the mean. The Pirates relievers as a group posses a 4.98 xFIP, the fifth-worst in Major League Baseball.
Strangely, of the eight pitchers in the Pirates bullpen, four have given up runs and four have not. Of the four that have are the team’s two best according to xFIP — Edgar Santana (2.53) and Felipe Rivero (2.83) — and the team’s two worst — Feliz (7.55) and Dovydas Neverauskas (7.94).
For pitchers, the most repeatable actions are strikeouts and walks. Rivero has struck out six in 2.2 innings. Santana hasn’t walked anyone in 1.2 innings. The next most repeatable factor is the ability to get a ground ball, and Santana has been tops at that, with 57.1 percent of the balls in play off his pitches staying on the ground. Meanwhile, Neverauskas has allowed 50 percent fly balls and has had just one strikeout.
It’s clear that the Pirates still have a lot of work to do when it comes to figuring out roles in the bullpen, especially in the sixth inning and earlier. If the early results are looked at carefully, it’s probably Santana that’s put himself in the best spot going forward.
“At the end of the day, we had some guys cut some teeth, grow through adversity, and we won as a team,” Hurdle said.
LEFT FIELD OF DREAMS
Not all early-season evaluations have to be empirical. Advanced defensive stats take a notoriously long time to normalize, so not a lot should be put into Corey Dickerson’s two defensive runs saved in left field.
But he’s certainly looked the part out there despite playing in a pair of spacious outfields in Detroit and Pittsburgh. His up-the-line throw to home in extra innings against the Tigers on Opening Day wasn’t pretty but did just barely get the job done. That’s an area to continue to monitor. But the rest of the job seems to be well within the abilities of Dickerson, who said he feels comfortable out there, even at PNC Park.
“It’s big, but, I’ve played in Colorado and played in Tampa in some big ballparks,” he said. “You’ve just got to position yourself well, know what part of the ground you’re giving up and be able to cover the ground you can cover.”
Jameson Taillon tied a career high with nine strikeouts on Monday against the Twins. He got strikeouts with four different pitches: a swinging strikeout on a ridiculous up-in-the-zone changeup to Eddie Rosario, two swinging strikeouts on curveballs in the dirt, three on four-seam fastballs just off the plate and another on a four-seamer that was blown by Byron Buxton.
Not to minimize Taillon’s stuff, but his late-breaking curve and combination of location and velocity on his fastball have always made them potential swing-and-miss pitches. But Taillon’s changeup looks improved this year and he also got two strikeouts on two-seamers that went for called strikes. That’s a bit of a rarity.
“Hopefully, it starts becoming common,” he said. “That’s the goal. I’m kind of throttling the four-seam and two seam better than I have in the past. It’s not just one or the other on any given day. It’s going to be both, to both sides, up and down. I think I became a little one-dimensional last year. That doesn’t work at this level. Now, I’m trying to have four different locations with the fastball, with two different fastballs to give them different looks.”
With every adjustment and statistical phenomena discovered in the early part of the season, it’s important to recognize that change can be temporary and that success can be fleeting, but by digging into the numbers, you can still find the beginnings of meaningful storylines.