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Series Preview #22: D-backs vs Pirates

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A D-back sweep would be like Yogi Berra’s favorite dessert - “Pie a la mode, with ice cream.”

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Pirate outfielders celebrate
Pirate outfielders celebrate
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

What’s the Pirates’ story?

In the off-season, the Pirates changed their team by trading away center fielder Andrew McCutchen and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole. This season, their strengths are at catcher (Cervelli is one of the best in the Majors), closer (Felipe Vazquez’s last season ERA+ of 258), and their power hitting outfield (Gregory Polenco, Starling Marte, and Corey Dickerson).

However, their results generally match pre-season expectations and the Pirates rank 4th in the NL Central. They are in a rebuilding year.

How do Diamondbacks compare to Pirates?

Let’s look at offense, bullpen, and defense.

Offense. For the season (especially in March/April/May), the Pirates offense was clearly better than the D-back based on two measures – runs per game and OPS+.

  • For the season through 7 June, the Pirates average 4.66 runs per game (8th) and the D-backs average 3.93 runs per game (26th).
  • For the season through 7 June, the Pirates OPS+ is 105 (tied for 6th-8th) and the D-backs OPS+ is 77 (last in the Majors).

In that context, recent events have been remarkable. Goldschmidt’s bat is back! Outfielder Jon Jay joined the D-backs’ party. Let’s look at runs per game in June! The D-backs averaged 6.5 runs per game, which is a 65% increase over their season average. In June, the D-backs offense has broken out!

Bullpen. The Pirate bullpen was overused. After starting the season as mostly untouchable, it is now below average. One example was on 31 May, Vazquez (highly regarded closer) blew a 3-run lead in the ninth inning. For the season their bullpen ranks 24rd in wins above average (WAA) (negative 1.2 wins). The D-backs rank third in the Majors with positive 2.3 WAA. When the starters are done, advantage D-backs!

Defense. D-backs defense is nearly the best in the Majors. The Pirates are below average. Let’s look at two measures of defense: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and unearned runs allowed.

  • The D-backs Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of positive 14.2 compares well to the Pirates UZR of negative 4.2 (Source FanGraphs through June 7).
  • The D-backs rank tied for second to fifth in defense with 11 unearned runs allowed. The Pirates rank 17th in defense with 20 unearned runs allowed (source: Baseball Reference through 7 June).

Let’s look at the big picture in the context of run differential (runs score minus runs allowed). The D-backs run differential is 31 runs, while the Pirates run differential is 1. (Baseball Reference through 9 June)

While the Pirates offense and bullpen were great at the start of the season, in June the tables have turned. Looking at the big picture the D-backs are favored to win the series with the Pirates based on two measures:

June runs per game: D-backs 6.5 vs Pirates 3.1

Season run differential (scored minus allowed): D-backs 31 vs Pirates 1

Who will pitch in this series?

Monday. Joe Musgrove (215 ERA+, 8.1 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9) vs Patrick Corbin (149 ERA+, 11.6 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9)

Joe Musgrove said, “Going to the bullpen last year in Houston, I learned a lot about myself as a pitcher and really learned how to work out of jams and how to keep myself calm in uncomfortable situations. All those things I did in the bullpen are going to make me a lot stronger as a starter [for the Pirates].” He was correct based on his three starts this season.

Patrick Corbin pitched excellently in March/April - his ERA was 2.25. In May/June, he had two difficult games – excluding those two games, his ERA for May/June is 1.82. These two pitchers are evenly matched.

Tuesday. Trevor Williams(96 ERA+, 6.2 SO/9, 3.0 BB/9) vs Buchholz (231 ERA+, 7.9 SO/9, 1.1 BB/9)

Trevor Williams pitched excellently in March/April - Trevor Williams’s ERA was 2.29. That changed in May/June. Trevor Williams has had consistently difficult games with an ERA of 6.06.

This season, Clay Buchholz has 4 starts. His ERA is 1.88. That is not a typo: 1.88 ERA. He truly is pitching at an All-Star level. Advantage D-backs.

Wednesday. Jameson Taillon (98 ERA+, 8.5 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9) vs Zack Greinke (121 ERA+, 9.5 SO/9, 1.5 BB/9)

In May, Jameson Taillon introduced his slider, which had not been seen previously. Mostly right handed batters saw it (28 of his first 34 sliders). For more detail see this article by Jason Rollison, SB Nation. What makes this change especially interesting is that the Pirates have a “fastball heavy doctrine.”

Zack Greinke pitches better at home. This season, his home ERA is 1.64, while his away ERA is 5.91. This is a home game. Advantage D-backs.

Designated hitter in 2017 All-Star game
Designated hitter in 2017 All-Star game
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Player in the Spotlight

The player in the spotlight hit 45 home runs in high school. When he graduated, he was not recruited and he received no draft offers.

Like many athletes, he had a dream to play professional baseball. He publicly told people his dream. He pursued his dream by playing baseball in community college. In his freshman year, he was noticed.

After his freshman year, he was drafted in the 29th round. Good things were happening and he was not yet ready to leave. He returned to community college.

The following year, he was drafted in the 8th round by the Rockies. This time, he was ready to take the next step!

In addition to pursuing his dream, the player in the spotlight has another remarkable characteristic; he continued to find ways to improve his skill, year after year. Although he reached the Majors, he still had a major weakness.

The player in the spotlight had a weakness hitting fastballs (career numbers wFA/C of -.23, wFC/C of .18, and wFS/C of -1.45). Largely for this reason, the Rays traded him to the Pirates in exchange for very little: a minors player (A level), and Daniel Hudson (with Pirates paying part of his salary), who was released within a month.

His strikeout rate was 24% in 2015, 2016, and 2017. What if he could find a way to better hit fastballs? He did! In 2018, his strikeout rate fell to 10%! Wow.

What did he do? He did something simple that made a huge difference to his strikeout rate. He choked up on the bat. In each at-bat, he varied the distance from the end of the bat up to two inches. He said, “It depends on the counts, the pitches (that the pitcher) has, what I’m thinking.”

Corey Dickerson pursued his dream and keeps finding ways to improve his skills. Corey Dickerson is the player in the spotlight.

Are D-backs hitting fastballs?

On 24 May, Zack Buchanan wrote an article for The Atlantic. One of his points was that Statcast batted-ball data showed that 7 D-back hitters (Owings, Peralta, Dyson, Goldschmidt, Pollock, Avila, and Ahmed) should have had better results hitting fastballs this season. Is hitting fastballs a problem for the D-backs?

This season Goldschmidt, Peralta, and Dyson are below their career numbers for fastballs. Also, Lamb and Ahmed are below their career numbers for cutter fastballs. This season, hitting fastballs is a problem.

Runs Above Average Per 100 Pitches

Pitch Type Player 2018 career
Pitch Type Player 2018 career
Fastball(wFA/C)
Paul Goldschmidt 0.56 1.72
Jarrod Dyson -1.25 -0.37
David Peralta -1.44 0.08
Cutter Fastball(wFC/C)
Jake Lamb -6.03 0.14
Nick Ahmed -3.53 -0.72
Data Source: FanGraphs

Corey Dickerson improved his hitting against fastballs by choking up on the bat. Let’s consider whether choking up on the bat is worth consideration.

Let’s start with Goldschmidt. He said, “I looked at the numbers from previous years, and I was good on fastballs.” So he focused on making his swing and approach the same as previous years. His hitting slump ended 25 May. In June, his bat is awesome! It would have been a mistake for Goldschmidt to try to change his swing and approach to anything other than what it was.

Next, let’s look at Dyson. On 8 June against the Rockies, he was choking up on the bat. I don’t know whether he took the next step to vary the amount of choke based on counts and pitch types. Because of his blazing speed, any change that increases balls-in-play is likely a great thing. It is worth consideration.

For other D-back players (Peralta, Lamb, and Ahmed) who are below their career numbers against fastballs, maybe choking up on the bat, at least occasionally, is a simple idea with possibly profound impact.