Monday, June 27, 2011

Pitch and Catch

OK, time to take a look at the Bucs, surprisingly still hangin' around as Independence Day looms. And why? We can explain it in three words - pitching, pitching, pitching.

But it's not like the staff has suddenly blossomed, although Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and Hanny have been quite pleasant surprises. Very few of us, GW included, foresaw this much improvement. There are a combination of ingredients stirred together that led to the staff's strong first half performance.

It's been quite a storyline. The ERA has been sliced from 5.00 in 2010 to 3.50 this season, and run-and-a-half improvements are unheard of. But a closer look at the xFIP - Fielding Independent Pitching - shows a much more subtle improvement, from 4.35 last year to 3.98 in 2011. So why have this year's guys thrown better than their stat projections while last year's staff underperformed so badly? 

First, the bar was raised a bit by Clint Hurdle. He let it be known that seven innings was what he wanted from his starters, and was willing to back it up by keeping guys in the game even when they were running low on gas. The Buc starters are going 6 frames per start now; it was 5-1/3 innings in 2010. Doesn't sound like much? How about 50+ innings per year that the bullpen doesn't have to eat.

And he's worked the bullpen beautifully so far. He's kept the innings down, mixing and matching his young relief corps, and managed the set-up by committee approach after Evan Meek's shoulder woes as well as any skipper could.

Next, Ray Searage restored a collaborative relationship with the pitchers, communicating well and developing game plans based on his guys' strengths and knowledge, not the opposing batters' weaknesses and computer sims. He also tweaks as well as any other competent MLB pitching coach; that should be a given at this level. Together, they toughened up the staff mentally and gave them a sense of ownership in the results.

Confidence, of course, is a key factor, and the coaches have helped grow that in the staff. So far they've nursed brief meltdowns professionally and gotten guys back on track - think Chris Resop and Jose Veras - without throwing them under the bus or panicking. When arms get rubbery, they're rested, ala Charlie Morton or the three-days-and-sit bullpen rule. There's no more "pitching through a dead arm period" bull being served.

All the coddling in the world doesn't help if the the pitchers can't get guys out. And for the Pirate staff, that's really a function of the team behind them rather than their ability to miss bats. The Pirates average 6.14 K's per nine innings; only two teams rack up less. And that's even fewer than last year's 6.54 K's/nine. Walks show the same way. The current staff has shown modestly more control, issuing 3.23 walks per nine compared to 3.43 in 2010, certainly not a difference-making gap.

But a look at the BABIP - batting average of balls in play - tells the story. This year, opponents that put the ball between the white lines hit for a .286 average; last year it was .311. Add in the strand rate of 75% this season as opposed to 67%, and it's easy to see how the runs against have plummeted from 5.35 per game last year to 3.92 this year. That run a game makes a world of difference in the wins-losses column.

And credit for that has to go to the defense, particularly McCutch and Ronny Cedeno. Andrew McCutchen was statistically slandered by the odd, "no triples" outfield defense the Bucs played last year. His UZR 150 (Ultimate Zone Ratings place a run value on a player's defensive play; the 150 option evens out the difference in games played) was -12.9. Set up in a more traditional alignment this season, it's up to +13.4, scatter-gun arm not withstanding.

(Interestingly, Jose Tabata's UZR 150 went from +9.6 to -5.1, even though to the eye he's playing LF equally as well as he did last year. That rating exhibits why stats are useful little buggers, but often need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. However, together they show +12.1 runs saved over last year's play, and that's the number that counts.)

Cedeno's problems with the stick are well documented, but this year he's been consistent with the mitt. His UZR 150 is +8.1; it was -4.0 in 2011. Neil Walker is still a work in progress, but has improved his rating from a dismal -17.1 in 2010 to a much more acceptable -3.9 now.

So the middle, where all good D starts, has really tightened up for Pittsburgh this year. Its 2011 UZR 150 is 17.6; it was -34 in 2010, and that's 52 saved runs worth of improvement. In essence, the team's leather has gone from leaking runs to preventing them by making more plays, as shown by the BABIP and strand rates, and the staff is the beneficiary.

Hey, we tip our hats to Hanrahan, Karstens and Morton for the surprisingly good performances they've delivered. We applaud Hurdle and Searage for their mature handling of the pitchers. But mostly we give credit where credit is due, to a strong defense behind a pitch-to-contact staff.

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