Recapping 2018: Pittsburgh Pirates Edition | The Process Report

Recapping 2018: Pittsburgh Pirates Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each. The order will mirror the final team rankings running in reverse order so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get one to two of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts. Here’s a link to the report for this club from last offseason.

Past:

30 – 21: BAL CWS MIA TEX KCR SFG SDP DET MIN CIN

20 – 11: ARI LAA PIT

It was easy for any baseball fan to root for the Pittsburgh Pirates after decades of malaise finally translated into a strong run of performance in the twenty-teens. They never spent, and it wouldn’t have really mattered until it did, and you can see that the team eventually raised payroll closer to $100 million in 2018 dollars, but by then it was probably too late. We saw this with Arizona, to an extent, where a team finally enjoys some multi-season success, which leads to greater revenue, which gets spent down the road when it might already be too late. The guys that made the Pirates a feared club have mostly moved on, and the hoarded prospects and marginally higher payroll have failed to replace that lost production. In a tough division it’s very hard to play to the middle and hope for the best, but when you never fully commit you can never get truly hurt. For fans of the Pirates I’m guessing they wish the team had done a little more through that solid run instead of spending a little more money when it mattered a little less.

The offense showed spurts of fantastic production, but when they weren’t clobbering the ball there was a lot more time spent as a slightly below average unit. The hot streaks lift the whole line considerably, and likely contributed to good results in the box score, but the longer stretches of pedestrian performance put a lot of pressure on a pitching unit that could have used some help. You can also see how the positive spikes mostly dried up down the stretch after making a couple of splashes at the first deadline, though neither of the incoming players addressed the offense. The team has shown no indication that they plan to build on this small strength unless you’re really in love with Lonnie Chisenhall. Where can they stand to improve?

Leading the charge was Francisco Cervelli who will be entering his final year of arbitration. You can see an incredible start that he wasn’t quite getting to all of, but still showed well above average. Then he hit a shelf as the position once again beat him into the ground. From there he was mostly an average or better guy for the rest of the year, but it’s hard not to wonder what a full healthy season might look like if he wasn’t getting crushed behind the plate. The walk rate was incredible while managing a strikeout rate a bit below the average, though that did climb fairly steadily throughout the year. Where the wear really showed up was in his declining exit velocity that also saw his launch angle come down a good bit. You can see in the spray chart that he shouldn’t be thought of as a big time power hitter, but there is a solid mass of extra base hits in waiting around the 20 degrees and 100 MPH intersection. Cervelli is a great hitter for a catcher, but maybe it is time to start seeing if he can be a good enough hitter at a different position.

Francisco Cervelli

The next group showed virtually identical production, but the homegrown trio gets there in slightly different ways. Starling Marte put in a full season of work after missing half of the one prior for a PED suspension, and it was a pretty good one. It was a bit odd that early on he was overperforming a good deal and then later during his best expected production he saw some of his worst actual performance. Part of that is the fact that he doesn’t walk much so when it’s not falling in he’s not getting on. A gradually declining launch angle mirrored gradual improvement to his strikeout rate, and you can see the exit velocity really fall off at the end. Perhaps a sign of fatigue after missing so much time the year prior.

On the other hand, Josh Bell showed much more consistently improving production, though coming from a below average floor thanks to his sluggish start. Turning a good walk rate into a great one deserves the lion’s share of the credit, especially when the strikeout rate showed little change. A mid-season adjustment led to him hitting the ball down a lot more often, but he also increased his exit velocity over the course of the year. There is a good chance to buy low here as the total line is a bit soaked from the lesser production, but all signs point to Josh Bell figuring it out at the plate even if the glove at first base is a lot less exciting.

If Marte is the hacker and Bell is the patient guy then Gregory Polanco splits the difference to help give the team a formidable Cerberus that should allow one guy’s strengths help cover for another’s weaknesses against any given pitcher. The orthodox head of this devil dog strikes out a bit more, but it comes with walks, and he’s likely the most powerful of the three. The knock has always been missed time due to injuries, and oft-streaks that probably have a lot to do with trying to play through injury issues. The bug bit again during, perhaps, his best season to date. A late-season collapse of his walks brought the very good production back to the average, but paired with the declining exit velocity it’s quite likely that the eventual surgery was merely the spike in the rail and that he was dealing with this issue for a good time prior.

Starling Marte

Josh Bell

Gregory Polanco

With the everyday players above the team was able to platoon third base with David Freese getting lefties and byproduct of the Gerrit Cole trade Colin Moran seeing the righties. It played out mostly as the team would hope as each player was an above average hitter, and Freese well above albeit in the smaller role. Freese was seeing a ton of misfortune earlier, but with very little change in his expected production his actual completely caught up for the rest of his run before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Very little changed outside of the results. Moran, however, looks to have seen a typical rookie route. Initial success was driven by a patient approach that mostly collapsed once he got around the league. Both launch angle and exit velocity linearly declined. It stands to reason he will be better able to hold up over the season with lessons learned, but he’ll also have to be on the field even more with Freese’s departure. With the team needing to sort out both second base and shortstop, it would behoove the club to have a good option that can play all three and hopefully hit right handed. You know, like a good version of Josh Harrison.

David Freese

Colin Moran

The other catcher, Elias Diaz, was no slouch at the plate, either. He put the ball in play a ton, and often very hard. You’ll see below that he had a bunch of exceptionally hard-hit balls, though a good deal of those were down. As a catcher it’s likely that those hard grounders aren’t beaten out as often as guys that play less physical positions than catcher. If so, that explains the wide gap between his averagey actual production and the much higher expected. When things met it was at that lower actual level where they paired fairly tightly the rest of the way. This coincides with a gradual increase to his launch angle so it’s quite likely that he was getting the ball off the ground more, but not seeing much improvement in actual outcomes, and a dramatic decrease in expected. Part of this is due to a nearly doubled strikeout rate sustained over the rest of the season with falling off exit velocity. Wearing down is part of the job, especially if he’s going to be a most days catcher going forward. The bat looks to be average or better, which is plus for the position, and Baseball Prospectus saw roughly average defense. The Pirates might have found their next good catcher. This upcoming season for Elias Diaz can cement that opinion.

Elias Diaz


Pittsburgh picked up Corey Dickerson and salary ballast from the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the season with interesting minor leaguer Tristan Gray and relief pitcher Daniel Hudson going back to the American League outfit. Dickerson again showed that he can be one of the very best hitters in the game. Playing both parts, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is enough to drive one mad, and it’s likely Dickerson polarized fans yet again. His was a season of adjustments, it would appear. He came out of the gates as aggressive as ever with tons of high fly balls that drove an above average start. Then the strikeouts started ramping up as pitchers exploited the aggressiveness so he shortened up his stroke producing more line drive contact that plays better at his exit velocity band than high flies. It didn’t translate all that well to his production until he was able to bring the strikeouts down, which he did for a spell that saw him enjoy fantastic production. When they crept back in to go with his worst walk rate of the year he completely cratered in reality, while hitting his second worst trough of the year. He’d rebound a bit to close, but the team must have very little idea what to expect going into his walk year, which likely puts a damper on recouping value before he is out the door.

Corey Dickerson

Outgoing shortstop Jordy Mercer signed with the Detroit Tigers to go play shortstop over there, but should not be overly difficult to replace for the club. Outside of one strong run early, without getting to nearly all of it, at that, he was mostly a below average hitter. The better performance came when strikeouts were depressed, which aligned with periods when his walk rate was better, too. Diminishing exit velocity over the course of the season looks like an issue so those higher strikeout period late was a very tough stretch. It’s a lot of liners in the 100-105 MPH area that mostly lead to singles when they get through. When he does get the ball up it’s usually maxing out around 100 MPH which are less likely to leave the yard.

Jordy Mercer

A fairly similar ballstriker, Adam Frazier’s game is about hitting liners that get down. There’s a low ceiling for production there, but unlike Mercer, Frazier strikes out a good deal less. The exaggerated walk rate early looks like pitchers seeing if he would get himself out, but it eventually stabilized around league average. He consistently struck out less than the average meaning those extra balls in play at least had a chance to be productive. He overperformed for much of the good stretch, but even upon regression you’re looking at an average or better hitter who can cover second and corner outfield and hit righties. That’s a useful piece.

Adam Frazier

It’s easy to get down on Josh Harrison for never getting back to the extremely strong 2014 that led to his team-friendly contract that turned out to be a little less friendly than hoped. Ironically, his departure might open the biggest opportunity for improvement as a player that can move around the field while hitting a little is nice to have. Last year was more of the same where his best runs look pretty average and his worst well below.

Josh Harrison

The bats proved to be the strength of the club with all, but one regular looking like an above average hitter, but the same cannot be said for the pitching where several performers got a ton of opportunity without helping the team all that much. There were a couple of absolutely horrid runs, but also long stretches of average or better performance. Often, the actual results were better than expected, and occasionally wildly so. This may speak to a better than average defense on the field or merely the way fortune waved that day. It’s worth mentioning that the Pirates were the last team I have with a negative run differential. Their -15 runs paints them as a .500 team, which they were, but if they could have gotten a little bit more out of the arms maybe they go a little bit further. New additions Joe Musgrove and Kyle Crick performed well when able to go, and the deadline acquisition of Chris Archer should provide a solution for several years, but what if they had another one or two good ones?

Their best starter, Jameson Taillon, probably profiles more as a good mid-rotation guy than a lower end ace, but he’s good and good teams need more, not less, of these kinds of arms. Incident-free for the first time in ages, thankfully, Taillon’s somewhat rough stretch preceded his best, with both standing out as the poles for the season. In between you can seen consistently average performance throughout the season. The last month or two were a little better than a similar term prior, but Taillon does a good job keeping his team in the game. The stronger stretch appears to be buoyed by a strikeout rate in the mid-20% area with a really weird falloff interrupting a prolonged stretch of siddown goodness. The walks were consistently around average or better, too. He seals the deal by also allowing a little bit better than average production on contact. Guys like this probably slip under the radar more, because they’re not producing eye-popping figures in one area that maybe distract from the warts that come in tow. Instead, he’s a well-rounded guy that gets outs, limits runners, and hopefully can now annually add volume that pushes him up even further.

Jameson Taillon

The next best performers were a trio of relievers that took different paths this year. Richard Rodriguez, not the serial killer, I checked, was the most consistently pretty good. Better early before the walk crept into his game, but the parabolic strikeout trend shows he might have been making some adjustments at the highest level once teams had a look at him. The bigger name is closer Felipe Vazquez who is one of the very best arms in the game when he’s running well. Striking out over 40%, at times, and well above average much of the rest of the times, creates a very high floor, but there were a couple of more worrisome areas. He started the year fairly ordinary due to the lower strikeout rate, which he shrugged off, but the close to the season shows that similar issue paired with a sharp jut in his exit velocity and launch angle. Perhaps, fatigue from a long season and not something more nefarious, but the shelf life of guys that throw this hard is generally pretty short.

The last reliever, Kyle Crick, came over in the Andrew McCutchen trade prior to the season. He got off to a pretty good start until the walks started to get out of hand. At his worst he still looked like an average reliever, but harnessing those could leave him as more of a higher leverage option.

Richard Rodriguez

Felipe Vazquez

Kyle Crick

Another trade acquisition, this time for Gerrit Cole, Joe Musgrove had a late start to the year due to a shoulder issue. Hardly what you want to hear about the guy you just traded an already pretty good pitcher for, but he proved worth the wait. Outsized actual production early eventually caught up or even surpassed his better expected production allowed. This left him mostly on the good side of average, and even more encouraging is the massive spike in strikeouts late that came with an improvement to his walk rate, as well. If that’s a new gear then you’re probably looking at a second middle to top of rotation option to pair with Taillon, and leaves Musgrove as an untalked about nice scoop late in your fantasy leagues.

Joe Musgrove


The fact that these next two showed similar production over similar amounts of work isn’t the only interesting thing as Tyler Glasnow was one of the pieces used to land big fish Chris Archer. While both are two-pitch guys, Archer has figured out how to avoid walks on his way to piling up strikeouts, while Glasnow is still a work in progress there. The spike later in the season, and prior to the trade are a bit worrying, while Archer saw nice growth in his strikeout rate as he started to incorporate some new principals and adjust to the weaker league. Archer’s tradeoff for the low walk rate is that he gives up fairly hard contact while Glasnow was more around the average, and admittedly in a relief role, which is less burdensome. While Glasnow was hit a little harder than those expectations, Archer took that up even a notch further, and you can see what that inflation looks like in his top-left production chart. If that regress the team is looking at a third mid to top of rotation starter that should leave the team eager to fill in behind where performances were worse.

Tyler Glasnow

Chris Archer

One of those options might be Trevor Williams who finished the season on an incredible run of good performance. You can see that a lot of that was unearned, but this is also a period where his expected performance was continuously better than average so this could speak to a legitimate change that unlocked a bit more. The jump in strikeouts helped a bunch, but that didn’t really impact heavily until the very end of the season. The bowling ball sinker keeps the contact down, but this is muted in his launch angle averages due to also getting a ton of weak pop outs. There was enough scary stretches to leave him profiling more as a back of rotation guy, but that’s useful, and if the gains at the end of the season carry over he could feature even more prominently.

Trevor Williams

With Ivan Nova already shipped off to the Chicago White sox the options behind Williams might be many, but none look like traditional starters. It’s quite likely guys like Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Nick Kingham can pitch up in more of a multi-inning bullpen role, but that’s going to take buy-in from the player, and a management philosophy that seeks to become a little less traditional. The team would likely benefit from another arm that can look mid-rotation much of the time and push everyone else back a little, but with so many internal candidates it is far more likely the team will throw them all at the wall to see who can stick. The margins aren’t huge here, but for a middle of the road teams every win carries special importance.

Below you will find the rest of the prominent players from this past season and how they broke out in four different ways. I will save the commentary here as the charts speak for themselves once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking at, and by cutting down on the verbiage it allows for looks at more players. Each chart looks at a rolling 100-plate appearance (or ball in play) average with the top left showing each player’s true and actual wOBA* over the course of the season. Top right shows the rolling strikeout and walk plus hit by pitch rates, and the bottom left shows the exit velocity and launch angle combinations for every ball in play. Lastly, the bottom right quadrant shows each player’s exit velocity and launch angle over the course of the season. Feel free to start a conversation on twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about any of these players. More than happy to have those chats.

 

Steven Brault

 

 

 

 

Michael Feliz

 

 

 

 

Nick Kingham

Chad Kuhl

 

Austin Meadows

 

Ivan Nova

 

 

Edgar Santana