Pirates trade Tony Watson to Dodgers

Originally reported by Pirates Breakdown and then retweeted by some higher profile dudes, the Pirates are sending Tony Watson to the Dodgers for two prospects. The deal was consummated in the run up to the trade deadline and will mean that Neal Huntington has managed to turn Watson, a player with a 4.69 FIP and -0.1 WAR this year, into something, a feat in and of itself.

Watson will be a free agent at the season's conclusion, so this deal seems to be great for the Pirates. Watson's presence in the bullpen isn't going to make or break their playoff chances, as larger forces will be needed to put them back into the division race. Meanwhile, the impending free agency of Watson means that he was more or less valueless to the Pirates, so two prospects, regardless of caliber, is a strong return. Kudos to Huntington for getting this done.


Don't get excited just yet

The Pirates have won two exciting games against the Brewers this week in comeback fashion and have won six of their last eight against the NL Central and nine of their last eleven overall after a nasty four game skid as the calendar turned over to July. While this has been exciting and is coming at an opportune time, the Pirates have a lot left to do before we can call them contenders.

With the deadline approaching so rapidly, it’s almost completely necessary for them to finish off this sweep of the Brewers. Anything less will leave them, at best, five games out of the division lead (which is realistically their only path to the playoffs) with only eleven days to go before the trade deadline. Although they could bank some wins against the Giants and Padres in the run up to the deadline, it might be too late by then, given that the Cubs are on a winning streak that is creating a tangled crowd at the top of the standings.

You should be excited because it’s fun to watch your team win, especially when they do so in dramatic fashion. Gregory Polanco has been a man on a mission lately, McCutchen is still ripping the ball, and Starling Marte is back to hopefully bolster the lineup. The bullpen has been solid after some disappointment earlier in the season, so things are looking up, but it hopefully isn’t too little too late with this ragtag group. Get greedy and get that intradivison sweep and we’ll call the 2017 Buccos contenders. Until then, I’m wary of how some losses here could influence Neal Huntington (who, by the way, is on the hook for his job at the end of the season as well) at the deadline.

Buccos at the break: Better buckle your belt

Picture yourself on the top of a mountain, looking at out sweeping vistas. Possibly you’re imagining the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies, or the razor sharp edges of Patagonia, or the forests of the Appalachians. Maybe you’re picturing New England in the fall, with its blazes of orange and red and burnt orange and mahogany and dark orange and yellow. Perhaps you live in Florida and have never been more than 100 feet above sea level (fun fact: Florida has the lowest high point of any of the fifty states at Britton Hill, a mere 345 feet above sea level), but you can still imagine what it’s like to be on top of a mountain. You know you’re standing at the top and have good enough footing to stand in a single spot because the top of a mountain isn’t some homogeneous ending to the sloping earth below.

Now picture yourself on top of a different mountain. Not a real mountain, but the kind you would draw on a piece of paper. The kind created when you simply scrawl two not-quite-straight lines coming to a point and then draw a third, squiggly line below that to represent the snow line. This mountain has those two lines come a distinct point, with slopes on either side that would send an intrepid stick-traveler tumbling down to the bottom. You can imagine that it’s possible to balance on the top of this mountain, but it would take great concentration and strength to maintain that position for any period of time; strength and concentration that no person possesses, leading to the inevitable forced descent down the snowy slopes, below the treeline, and back to whatever it is with which you decorated the bottom of your mountain drawing. This is the type of precipice that the Pirates’ season currently sits on, teetering and able to slip in either direction at a moment’s notice, with each and every game holding the future of both this season and the franchise in the balance.

The Pirates have no doubt been snakebit this year. Some things are out of the control of anybody in the organization; no one is to blame for Jameson Taillon’s cancer, but that bit a chunk out of his season at a time when he was an integral part of the rotation for the Bucs. Other things are the fault of individual players not achieving their potential, most notable of which was Andrew McCutchen’s continuation of last year’s 0.7 WAR season prior to May 26. And yet others are the fault of individual players for their choices off the field — Jung-Ho Kang drank that alcohol himself and Starling Marte, knowingly or unknowingly, took those heavy-duty anabolic steroids himself. Had none of these misfortunes manifested themselves in the Pirates locker room this season, we’d be looking not at a team teetering on the edge of a cartoon mountain, but one triumphantly looking down from the top of a real one at the struggling remains of the NL Central.

That is not the world in which we exist, however. The Brewers are the only team that showed up this season while the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals all kind of suck. Luckily for them, any of these squads has the ability to turn things around and pull close to the Brewers without much time elapsing. The Pirates could be that team.

However, the other thing working against them is the clock running up to the trade deadline, in which Neal Huntington will be the man on which all eyes at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rest. Many names have been floated as possible trade chips, including Josh Harrison, the Pirates’ lone All-Star; Juan Nicasio, the pseudo-closer who has found a new baseball life in the bullpen; and none other than Andrew McCutchen, the franchise star who’s had trade rumors swirling for some time now given the Pirates ineptitude last season and his impending free agency.

July 14 will start a two week stretch in which the Pirates determine the entire course of their franchise’s short-term future. Closing the gap over the Brewers to around four games will allow for the Pirates to justify retaining their good players and making a run at a weak division in a year in which they should have been contenders. Falling to a double-digit deficit in the same time frame will force Huntington’s hand to look to the future, as McCutchen’s recent hot streak should earn a more significant return than whatever haul they would have gotten this past winter or would get at any point in the future. (The necessity of trading McCutchen merits its own close look, which I’m not prepared to do at this point. Rather, I’ll simply say that I think he’s worth retaining next year no matter what, both from the logical perspective of him being a part of a playoff-caliber Pirates team next year and from the emotional perspective of wanting to seem him playing in PNC Park for both as long as possible and his entire career.) These two weeks are going to be significant and really determine whether the Pirates are playing to be contenders in 2017 or 2020.

Optimism isn’t without merit. Andrew McCutchen has been hot, Jordy Mercer has been hitting well over the past month, and the bullpen seems to be stronger in recent days (despite Felipe Rivero’s arm potentially falling off). The schedule is favorable as well, in that playing consecutive series against the Cardinals and Brewers should give the Pirates the opportunity they need to make a run at the division lead and stuff the Brewers. They’re also playing the Giants and Padres right before the deadline, which will hopefully pad their win total a bit and stave off any rash moves involving the trading of marquee players that will be useful to a contending Pirates squad for the remainder of 2017 as well as 2018.

All of this hyperole could be for nothing, though, as my best guess is the Pirates will make more Melancon-for-Rivero type trades at the deadline, although there’s no obvious candidate for who Melancon is this year. The core of the Pirates team is in place at least through the end of next season, leading me to believe that they’ll keep everyone together and make another run at it next year and hope their luck is a bit better and everyone who’s a key player can stay on the field. Neal Huntington recently confirmed this, saying “We think we can be serious contenders next year… There’s no reason we can’t be better with Cole and McCutchen going into next year. Our goal is to maintain a level of competitiveness every year and not to have to jump back and build all over again.” This will hopefully hold true despite the on-field outcomes in the coming weeks. Still, though, these games are important because even a little tilt in either direction could make a huge difference, since each season is a discrete entity and you either make the playoffs or don’t. If we’re primarily examining the Pirates as a team over the remainder of this season and next, the 2017 playoffs are 50% of the playoffs under the microscope; without hope for a berth in this year’s postseason, it would be much easier to restock the farm at the expense of a single season in 2018.

The future is coming, and it’s coming fast. Pay close attention for the next two weeks and watch the it unfold before your eyes.

Burgh Bites: Josh Harrison is leading MLB in HBP

You may think this Burgh Bites series is only about Josh Harrison, but that just happens to be the case for the first two articles in this series. Harrison got plunked twice in last night's game against the Brewers, pushing him to a league-high 14 HBP this season, including getting hit twice in three different games as well as four consecutive plate appearances earlier in the season.

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The Pirates are in last place, but it’s a good kind of last place

The Pirates are in last place, a position all-too-familiar to fans of this team since at least Barack Obama’s first term (and let’s be honest, what five year olds are reading this blog?). Not all last places are created equal, though. This year’s NL Central has been such a tightly contested race that the Pirates’ 28-35 record would be good for third place in the NL East despite that fact that they would be trailing the Nationals by 9.5 games instead of the 4.5 they are behind the Brewers right now.

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Bucco Brawlin': A Pirates-only rotisserie baseball league

I (Matt) caught wind of a unique rotisserie baseball format last year on Reddit: the single MLB club, two-team league. This year, I approached occasional Bucco’s Cove contributor Tim Vitullo (who also happens to be my friend) about doing this with the Pirates this year. We had some discussions and set the format and conducted our draft prior to the beginning of the regular season. We present to you: Bucco Brawlin’.

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Intentional walk rules to change

MLB has made a formal proposal to the players' union to change the intentional walk rules to not require pitches to be thrown. A good article popped up recently on Fangraphs about this, which echoes a similar article I wrote last season when the idea was first floated. My previous article is reproduced below.

From May 24, 2016:

It was reported recently that, starting in the 2017 season, intentional walks will no longer require four pitches to be thrown and the batter will simply be awarded first base. It’s almost certain that this has to do with MLB’s recent gush of changes to try to improve pace of play (despite the fact that recently-instututed replay reviews take much longer than they should and are generally awful and boring).

This is, for me, irrationally upsetting. From 2000-2015, there were 19,637 intentional walks issued. With 2,430 MLB games each season, this means there are 0.51 intentional walks per game. I’m not sure where to find information on the pace of pitches during intentional walks specifically, but I pulled some data from this article from 2010 on pitch times in general. If you assume each team threw the same number of pitches during the course of the season in question, you come out to an average time of 20.8 seconds per pitch. This means that an intentional walk of four pitches takes just over a minute (62.4 seconds, on average) from the first pitch to the last pitch. With some rounding, this means the new intentional walk rule is saving, on average, 30 seconds per game, which is a pittance compared with the total time a game takes and how much time is wasted on other trivial things.

These rough calculations show that the amount of time that is wasted on intentional walk pitches on a per game basis is less than the amount of time it takes to tie your shoes in the morning. At this point, you might be inclined to ask “who cares?” A small amount of time is a small amount of time, wasted or saved. However, I’d like to point out two positives to the current system under which intentional walks are completed.

The first is that the nature of an intentional walk is that you’re putting a guy on base for free because you would rather pitch to someone else than the guy you’re walking. This almost always happens in a tense situation in the game. This doesn’t happen very often if there are no runners on base, the opposite of a tense situation. In fact, since 1913, only 152 batters have been walked intentionally with no one on base.

[Sidebar: An incredible 41 of those 152 (27%) were Barry Bonds, including 19 in 2004.]

[Sidebar 2: The most recent person to have this happen to them was Andrew McCutchen last year, in the 11th inning of the first walkoff win against the Cards prior to the All-Star break. There were two outs, and McCutchen was only walked to force Pirates’ pitcher Deolis Guerra to bat, who promptly grounded into a forceout at second base. Here’s the video of Cutch’s walkoff homer later in the game, just because it was awesome.]

Random musings aside, the intentional walk with nobody on has happened, on average, barely more than once per year in the last hundred or so years. Therefore, the situation calling for an intentional walk almost always has some tension connected to it, and tension in baseball is exciting. Why, then, would that be the one minute you eliminate from the game? It would make more sense to eliminate boring minutes, like pandering to American nationalism during the seventh inning stretch by playing God Bless America or allowing challenges prior to the late innings of baseball games.

Furthermore, the rate of intentional walks is decreasing in recent years, which is probably both a product of the end of the steroid era in baseball and changes in thinking about putting guys on base related to sabermetrics. This makes this even less important for baseball to eliminate because it's happening even less often.

The second reason that intentional walks pitches should be retained is that there’s the really rare chance that the pitcher or catcher will screw up. The inadvertent nature of such foibles provides great joy or consternation for those watching, depending on whether your team is the addressee or addressor of such unintended missives. For example, Jason Kipnis scored just last season on a wild pitch during an intentional walk. It would appear at first glance that plays of this sort should be eliminated by the time players reach puberty, but everyone makes mistakes and the very best baseballers in the entire world are no different!

With the elimination of the intentional walk pitches, you won’t ever see something like Miguel Cabrera getting a hit to drive in the go-ahead run:

And if your Google-fu is good enough to find cat memes, you can find this clip from a game between the Lancaster Barnstormers and the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League, in which the Patriots win on a walkoff wild pitch during an intentional walk attempt in the 12th inning:

While these plays are few and far between, weird things happening that aren’t supposed to happen is one of the things that makes baseball really exciting. While this rule change is admittedly not a big deal, it’s a small, small part of the homogenization of baseball that is taking away some of the quirks and excitement from the game.

Stats in this article on intentional walks all came from www.baseball-reference.com.