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.
There are many possible reasons a guy gets hit a lot, most notably how close he stands to the plate. However, Harrison doesn't seem to stand anomalously close to the plate like some hitters do. Watch these Anthony Rizzo HBPs and you'll see how much he hangs over the plate, leading to the obvious conclusion that this is why he gets hit. Don't just look at his feet, look at where his body is positioned relative to the plate in all those plate appearances in that video.
However, Harrison doesn't seem to do the same thing. Look at the screenshot below from one of HBP earlier in the season:
His feet are close to the chalk of the batter's box, but he isn't hanging over the plate, asking to get hit. Maybe his tiny frame psyches out pitchers who are worried they won't throw it in the small strike zone and actually end up more wild as a result. Maybe pitchers are throwing retaliatory pitches for the single transgression of being a bubbly, happy player throughout his career. Maybe he has a magnet installed his body that only attracts the juiced ball. No matter the reason, this is a strange thing that's happening.
What's even weirder is that pitchers have pitched Harrison down and away for his entire career:
A similar chart is generated for this season only, despite all the HBP he's had this year. I don't have much of an explanation for this season other than that maybe it's just a statistical outlier because those kind of things happen. Either way, it's helping his OBP (and his All-Star game case) this year.
Josh Harrison has been the best 2B in the NL this year by WAR. If you look at Baseball Reference, he's the 18th best player in the NL overall and the highest ranking second baseman by WAR by a decent margin. Fangraphs has Harrison first as well. Throw in his positional versatility and I think he's an obvious candidate to make the All-Star Game and should undoubtedly be the starter for the NL.
Unfortunately, fans get to vote on players and Harrison isn't even in the top 5. Compare him to Javier Baez, the second leading vote getter and his 0.4 WAR, and you're likely to be angry. The All-Star Game is stupid because of the selection process; rather than representing an opportunity for the best players to showcase themselves, it turns into a silly popularity contest among players from the teams in the largest markets, which is a less fun even to watch.
I understand Harrison will likely make it as the Pirates representative (Ivan Nova will likely join him as well), but it's still frustrating that guys like Harrison don't get consideration immediately simply because of a fan vote that favors larger teams and players who get media coverage despite not actually playing well.
The Pirates lost a bunch of games in infuriating fashion last week. Since the start of the weekend, though, the Pirates have won four straight on the backs of good pitching from Nova, Taillon, and Cole and the fact that the offense is actually putting up some runs. A huge part of that is Andrew McCutchen. Over those four games, Cutch is 8-17 with two homers, 4 R, and 6 RBI. As Andrew McCutchen goes, so go the Pirates.
Cutch was in the midst of an 0-15 stretch when he got two off days in a row back on May 24-25. Articles were written about how he was benched due to poor play and how he had hit rock bottom. But there was some hope: McCutchen himself claimed “I know what I’m doing wrong"; mechanical fixes don’t happen overnight, but in Cutch’s case, he sure seems to have figured something out. Since that benching, McCutchen was moved to sixth in the lineup and has been hitting .397/.480/.730 over 75 plate appearances. Five homers pop up in that line as well; basically, we’re seeing the old Andrew McCutchen again. Similar strategies have worked in the past with him in terms of giving him some time off, and it seems to be working this time too.
What’s weird is that it’s difficult to know what changed. If you look at his plate discipline numbers before and after the change, they’re nearly identical, with a big increase in contact % outside the zone from 65.6% to 81.3%. However, it’s unlikely to explain the change in his performance.
One other possibility is the percentage of fastballs that he’s seeing, which has increased 9 percentage points (51.7% to 60.7%) from his pre-benching to his post-benching. It’s possible that pitchers are more confident that they can get him out with fastballs and that they aren’t facing 2013 MVP McCutchen anymore. This, coupled with a change in his mental/mechanical approach at the plate, could be the catalyst to spring this recent surge from the once-lauded MVP.
Caveats apply, as slumps can be broken and resurface as quick as the wind, so it’s not time to call the Pirates division winners on McCutchen’s back just yet. However, these positives have remained over the course of about a sixth of a season worth of plate appearances and I think cautious optimism is the best policy at this point. The division is still within easy grasp if the Pirates can turn things around from their early season struggles; McCutchen is just the guy they could lean on to do that if he keeps producing at the plate.
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.Read More
It’s been more than an internet minute since the Starling Marte suspension startled Pirates fans and Major League Baseball as a whole. The internet is full of hot takes, and steroids users have been vilified over the past 20 years in Major League Baseball (but maybe not as much as they once were). I’ll steer clear of most of that, because anything I would write has already been written a hundred times over.Read More
The saying that March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” holds true in Pittsburgh. Just like St. Patrick’s Day, Lenten Fish Fries, and the occasional Easter Sunday, sub-zero temperatures and minor blizzards are perennial calendar entries. Then, when the spirit of yinzers in every borough and township have hit the breaking point, the gods of weather (Joe DeNardo) grant us respites. Temperatures quickly rise and the precipitation turns to rain straight through to May. It may not be paradise, but it is always welcome.Read More
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’.Read More
The Pirates’ season has been a bit strange so far, with them being exclusively involved in sweeps (two for and two against to put them tied for third place at 6-6 on the season). This series was seriously cathartic, though. The Pirates really struggled at Wrigley last year, winning only a single contest there, and went 4-14 against the Cubs overall, which is no way to win a division against what many people consider to now be the premier team in baseball (although I’m not convinced of this sentiment).Read More
[Before starting this article, I’d like to preview a new segment that’s going to be coming on Bucco’s Cove all summer. Myself and occasional contributor/musician extraordinaire Tim Vitullo just finished a fantasy baseball draft for a unique league format: Pirates players only. We’ll both be bringing you updates throughout the season about our squads, the Clemente Bridge Bums and the Federal Street Fracas. Look for a post later this week about the league format and both of our thoughts on the draft results!]
With Opening Day only two hours away and my slothfulness at a local maximum, I’m going to condense a few ideas that I meant to be separate posts into one post with a paragraph, give or take some space, about each topic.
Ivan Nova is the biggest key to the Pirates this year
Having two good starters is enough to win some games, but having three (plus some serviceable guys in the back end) is what will really get a team into playoff contention. The Pirates re-signing Ivan Nova this offseason shows their belief in his turnaround and is a different free agency-approach than they’ve had with reclamation projects like Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ. That $26 million also represents the second largest contract handed to a free agent starting pitcher this offseason (behind Rich Hill). I’m not sure if that says more about the available free agents or Nova or the Pirates, but Nova is sure to be a key cog this season in getting the Pirates over the hump.
The Jung-Ho Kang farce
I don’t deny that Kang is a fuckup. Getting a DUI is inexcusable, getting multiple DUIs is inexplicable, and getting multiple DUIs when you easily have enough money to at least hire an UberX every single day is graduating with a degree in idiocy, summa cum laude. The federal government’s desire to keep out bad hombres such as Kang has put the Pirates in a bit of a pickle, although they clearly saw this coming by extending Freese last year, which helps to soften the blow. Regardless, Kang is a career .273/.355/.483 with a glove that plays at 3B and SS (the Pirates’ thinnest position this year) and would be a big addition to the squad, assuming he can straighten up and lay off the bottle. Recent reports suggest the Pirates think they can get him a visa, so we’ll all just sit around and hold our breath.
Gerrit Cole — #1 starter or ace?
Cole regressed last year from his 5th place Cy Young finish in 2015. The big difference was several injuries that seemed to slow down his season and prevent him from getting into a rhythm. By all accounts, Cole is healthy and ready to go this year, being named the Opening Day starter for the first time in his career. The questions around him are whether we can expect him to show the ace potential that he showed in 2015 or the inconsistency that plagued him throughout last year’s operation. I’m bullish on Cole’s prospects for the year as he creeps closer to free agency and think he’s going to be a big component of the Pirates’ success this year.
There’s a lot of question in the bullpen, but I don’t think this guy is one of them. The quick fantasy opinion for 2017 from Fangraphs: “Rivero is one of the top non-closer relievers - in both fantasy and reality. Give him a long look if you're speculating for saves, especially in NL-only.” Rivero is really, really good, and I think even the complainers about the Melancon trade last year are going to see the value in the return they got. He isn’t a free agent until 2022 and could see save opportunities as early as this season. There aren’t many lefties who can throw the gas that he does (he had the fourth highest average fastball velocities among lefties last year). He can pound lefties low and away,
but actually has a reverse split for last year, limiting righties to a .203/.290/.337 line over 55.1 innings last year. Look for Rivero to really blow up this year and become a household name beyond just Pirates fans (and Nationals fans who regret trading him away for two meaningless months of Mark Melancon).
All the young dudes
In the rotation, I’ve already covered Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova. Nova provides the potential for the biggest swing, but the younger starters, collectively, are equally important. Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow. This crew will decide the fate of the Pirates three out of every five games and are what give the Pirates the ceiling to win the division if the dominoes fall just perfectly. I have a lot of faith in Taillon — his curveball is filthy and I fully expect him to be fantastic this year, potentially the Pirates best pitcher and a dark horse in the Cy Young race (although with Clayton Kershaw in the NL, is there really ever a race?). Kuhl progressing from being an innings-eater to a #2/3 starter would be a huge help, but it’s hard to see many routes for that.
I’m glad to see that the Pirates made Glasnow the fifth starter. This is a bit of a departure from how they’ve handled pitching prospects in the past and I like the chance they’re taking. It might blow up in their face, but Glasnow could also come in and blow the doors off the league and use his second-highest difference between perceived and actual velocity (as discussed briefly starting at the 26:26 mark of this episode of Effectively Wild) to dominate and push the Pirates’ rotation from good to very good.
Young position players will be key as well. Josh Bell makes his full-time debut this year — the biggest question is how long it takes for his power to come around and he can really become the force at the plate that he’s supposed to be. Adam Frazier is another key young player, with the ability to bounce around the field and hit for a high average. Jung-Ho Kang’s potential return from exile in the land of the KBO and a 0.05 DUI BAC limit will have an impact on Frazier’s playing time as he would get pushed a slot down the depth chart if that were to happen. However, Frazier may force Clint Hurdle’s hand by hitting well in his opportunities and leaching playing time away from Josh Harrison and David Freese. Frazier is sneaky good but lacks the power that the modern game so values, but looks for him to emerge as a regular starter by year’s end. At worst, he’s fantastic depth.
Bucco’s Cove has been on an impromptu hiatus for long enough to be considered on the verge of being defunct, but fear not, loyal readers. This blog is back in the Bucco business. After a startlingly quiet offseason for both the Pirates and the league as a whole, Spring Training is in full swing, the United States has finally asserted dominance in the sport they invented (or at least popularized), and we’re getting tantalizingly close to Opening Day. This is the first in a multi-part series in which I’ll try to address most of the interesting storylines for the Pirates this year. So let’s get into it.
Josh Bell’s name has been tossed about for several years now as he’s climbed his way through the minors. We got our first taste of him last year when he was called up for a midseason series against the Cubs in which he promptly got on base seemingly every time he stepped to the plate. I remember the series distinctly because I was making my annual trip to Pittsburgh to catch some games with my old man and some of my friends. When Bell came up against Arrieta that Friday night, he ripped the first pitch he saw for his first career hit while my dad and I were at a gas station in Murrysville listening on the radio. It was exciting, to say the least. The grand slam he smashed the next night to put the Cubs away for good was one of the coolest things I’ve seen live at a ballpark. This moment sticks out in my mind along with those two straight extra inning wins against the Cardinals and the Cuuuuuueeeee-ttttttoooooooooo Wild Card game as some of the highlights of the last few years.
So where does this promising young chap go from here? Obviously first base has been a gaping hole for the Pirates in recent seasons. The spinning top of defense-first players, guys converted from other positions, platoon partners, and Pedro Alvarez’s blurry facsimile of a Major League-caliber defender has never been satisfying in the way that having a strong defender and big bat at first can be. Not every team can have an Anthony Rizzo or a Paul Goldschmidt despite their aspirations, but the Pirates might have found their guy in Bell.
The converted outfielder already clearly has the bat and patience at the plate despite only being 24. This full season of playing time should get him on track to really ascend into the upper echelon of hitters in the coming seasons, and his athleticism as a converted outfielder should help him adjust defensively to first base. I’m not expecting Bell to win a Gold Glove this year, or even be as good defensively as John Jaso, but letting him get his hacks in a year will be crucial to helping him develop into his full potential.
Bell is going to be a key cog in the lineup this year despite all the uncertainty. Treading water offensively at first base is no longer an option in a division with the juggernaut Cubs, and a highly competitive National League will take no prisoners in the Wild Card race. There are several questions when it comes to the lineup, McCutchen’s potential resurgence being chief among them, but right up there is whether Josh Bell can show up and make an immediate impact by getting on base and driving in runs (assuming he doesn’t eventually move up near the top of the lineup, which is quite possible if he can sustain some of the momentum he has from mashing his way through the minors).
As prospect is just a prospect until they’re a player, though. Promise doesn’t get much play unless you deliver. This is the key for the Pirates this year as a whole — converting prospects to Major League players and potentially even stars. If Bell steps up and hits 20 HR and gets on based at a .370 clip, that would justify the prospect status. Conversely, defensive miscues and laggard stats at the plate could sink his season quite rapidly, given the other options the Pirates have to man the alpha bag and their potential for qualifying for the playoffs given a few sticks falling favorably.
Josh Bell has a big opportunity to make a splash in his first full year in the Majors. Major League baseball has been trending toward younger and younger players being Major-League ready immediately upon entering the league, with some stats showing players simply declining as they get older from the time they enter the league. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, but Josh Bell making an immediate impact and being the manifestation of some baseball maxim about it being a young man’s game would go a long way to helping the Pirates get back into playoff contention.
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.
As has been reported by the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen will move to RF for the coming season. This has been a long time coming; it's been apparent that Starling Marte's defense has been second-best among left fielders in the past three years (only behind Alex Gordon), while Cutch has clearly suffered from the early effects of old-age. Marte has a cannon, while McCutchen has a bit of a limp noodle out there. Marte is so awesome that he doesn't even have to try to throw people out and still does:Read More
God dammit. I picked the worst year to start a blog. Not because the Pirates are disappointing or because they aren’t doing well or anything; I think the team this year is fascinating and they’ve been playing out of their mind since the weird deadline moves and they’re doing all this despite Andrew McCutchen not playing to his standards (although, after many false alarms, he miiiiiiiiggggggghhhhhhhtttttt finally be coming around, just in time for the stretch run). I say this because I’ve been busy as shit this summer and haven’t had as much time as I’d like to write the blog.Read More
"I'm glad it looks that way." -Tony Watson, in response to a question about how he maintains his ice-cold demeanor regardless of the inning he's pitching
The trade deadline is past, and boy was it weird. But teams still play baseball games after the trade deadline, and so it happened for the Pirates today in a 5-3 victory over the punchless Atlanta Braves.Read More
“What the hell was that?” –2016 Pirates fans
The trade deadline has come and gone, and it was a busy one for the Buccos despite my prediction several days ago. (Yeah, I’ll eat my words and take responsibility for the stupid shit I said, I’m not Donald Trump.) They managed to dump some salary, dump more salary, get guys with years of control, trade away two of their top 10 prospects, trade away their stalwart closer, and get some guys back who are various levels of facsimiles of real baseball players. The only thing they didn’t do is trade back one of the guys they got for one of the guys they gave up. If you’re a Pirates fan, you’re definitely griping about at least one of these moves, maybe a few of them, and possibly all of them if you’re a true yinzer. Whichever of these levels you’re at, I commend your quick rush to judgement over something that cannot be judged in full until, in some cases, 10+ years from now.
Given that, I’m here to immediately judge all of the Pirates’ deadline moves, so buckle up because this should be a long one.Read More
I'm writing this from my phone so this will be short, without frills. The Pirates got a much needed win against the Mariners yesterday. The defense was spectacular. If you didn't watch the game, do yourself a favor and watch all the defensive highlights. While you're at it, watch the offensive highlights too. Cutch got it going with a good game, Kang was better than he's been, and the Pirates erupted for ten runs.Read More
The trade deadline is coming up in one week, and things are getting down to the wire. There’s a dearth of players available and many contending teams that want them, so the Pirates seem to be priced out of the market for a lot of the guys they would find useful. Furthermore, other teams are getting wise to the strategy of trading for players with years of control (see: Cole Hamels last year, the interest in Matt Moore and Chris Archer this year, and the high price for Andrew Miller). With that as the stategy for other legitimate, large-market contenders, it’s going to be difficult for the Pirates to pull off a trade, as they certainly aren’t going to give up Tyler Glasnow AND Austin Meadows for Chris Archer after he’s struggled this year compared with his past performance (not to mention that that's a huge give no matter how Archer is pitching this year).Read More
This was a weird one. Jameson Taillon took a comebacker off his head that bounced all the way to Starling Marte in left field and somehow stayed in the game to finish out six strong innings, yielding only a single run. Thank Blackbeard’s ghost he’s okay. Mark Melancon blew his second straight save when he was only one pitch away from closing the game out. At least this time, it didn’t take a whole extra game to decide the victor.Read More