Monday, April 11, 2011

Whassup With the Whiffs & Walks?

Hey, ten games doesn't make a season. But as small as sample as it may be, it shows a couple of trends that could derail the season - league leading walks rates by the pitchers and league leading K rates put up by the hitters.

The pitching is particularly worrisome because the problem with control is so widespread among the staff. The Bucs give up 4.45 W's per game, compared to 3.43 in 2010; out of 13 pitchers to appear so far, eight have more walks per nine than the team average.

Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, Joel Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen and surprisingly, Jose Veras, have all been throwing strikes. Ah, but those other guys...

Charlie Morton is averaging nearly seven walks/nine innings, Jeff Karstens and J-Mac are in the six range, and Ohlie gives up five. The bullpen band of Chris Resop, Garrett Olson, Mike Crotta and Evan Meek have given up a dozen free passes in 16-1/3 innings, almost seven walks per nine innings. What's a coach to do?

Well, probably not much. The bullpen guys have a history of wildness, averaging 4-5 walks/nine in their careers. One guy that might have a chance to snap out of his funk is Mike Crotta, who yielded fewer than two walks/nine in the minors; we'll see if his recent meltdown was an anomaly or becomes SOP in the bigs.

Ditto with half the starters; McDonald and Morton both have traditionally walked about four hitters per/nine; Ohlie and Karstens may just be riding a rough streak; they've averaged three free passes/nine during their careers.

There are a couple of more numbers to add to the mix. One is strikeouts; the Bucs are abysmal in that category too, averaging just 5.61 Ks per/nine. Then stir in fly balls that leave the park. Pittsburgh's average is 4.7%, second lowest in MLB now, and it should eventually regress to double that figure (it was 10% last year for the Pirates.)

Mix it all up, and it leads us to xFIP, which predicts ERA based on pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate. Pittsburgh's ERA over the first 10 games in 3.29; the xFIP is 4.70.

So if they don't add a couple of Ks to the day's work and subtract a couple of walks, the bottom is eventually going to fall out.

The hitting problem isn't nearly as pronounced, but still a hindrance. The Bucs have K'ed 86 times in 10 games, going down on strikes 25% of the time (it wasn't much better in 2010 at 22.4%). That's every fourth batter, and it's an inning killer.

And it doesn't look like a situation that Gregg Ritchie can do much about. Among regulars, only three are striking out at a rate greater than the team average. Pedro has struck out 34.1% of the time, but hey, he sat down 34.3% of the time in 2010.

Dewey is having a tough start of it; he's going down 30.8% of his at-bats; his career average is just 19.6%. Ditto for Neil Walker, who is actually leading the club in K%; he whiffs 37.5% of the time, while his lifetime average is just 21.7%.

It's likely that Doumit and Walker will regress to their norm, but there is one added factor to the Pittsburgh Kid's future - he's flashing some power, and with that, he may pile up more Ks along the way. His career ISO, which measures power, is pretty solid at .161, but this year, it's a sky-high .225. So he may be trading K's for extra bases.

Catchers will also keep the team whiff rate up. Beside Dewey, Jason Jaramillo, although hitting OK, still strikes out 28.6% of the time, and when Chris Snyder returns, he's a lifetime 26.1% K victim.

Even more worrisome than the K rate is the simplest measure of offensive competency, the batting average. Pittsburgh hit .242 last year; they're just batting .238 so far in 2011. Four of their ten position guys are hitting .200 or less; only two are hitting .300 or better.

Hey, given the numbers game, 5-5 is an acceptable start. But if the stats don't start to trend Pittsburgh's way in the coming weeks, it's gonna be another long year.

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