About David Manel

I’m a college professor in Pittsburgh and an avid baseball fan. Far too much of my time is spent playing baseball simulation computer games (Diamond-mind.com ootpdevelopments.com). This blog came from my resolve to finally spend more time researching and writing about a topic that has been a lifelong passion. If I could do this full time, I would. I grew up outside of Detroit, and have lived in Pittsburgh for the past 12 years. I follow both the Pirates and the Tigers closely.

Moving to Bucs Dugout

Hello all,

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be moving over to Bucdugout.com. Please consider joining me there for the very best in Pittsburgh Pirates coverage.

I want to thank everyone who visited this site. Your encouragement inspired me to continue working hard at something I love. See you at the new digs!

David Manel

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Offensive Efficiency

This idea for this study came directly from the excellent blog: Tiger Tales: A Detroit Tigers Blog (follow on Twitter @tiger337). I am merely replicating what he did for the Tigers, with the Pirates.

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This study looks at offensive efficiency – i.e. whether a team is scoring as many runs as it should given its total number of singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks and other offensive events.

In order to measure efficiency I went to Fangraphs.com and copied the wRC (Weighted Runs Created) stat and the actual runs scored for each team in the National League. I subtracted wRC from Actual Runs to derive the difference; then I divided Actual Runs by wRC to get an “Efficiency Rate.”

A team is efficient offensively if their Actual Runs are even, or above wRC. It is inefficient if below.

wRC Explained

Simply put, wRC tells us how many runs should have scored based on what hitters have done at the plate. In other words, it is an estimate of runs scored, based on the totality of offensive events for each team.

Results

Observations

The Pirates offense has been the most efficient in the National League. They have scored 10.5% more runs than they should have. Simply put, they are taking advantage of their opportunities – limited as they may be.

The other side of the of the coin is this – the Pirates “should” have scored 12 runs less than they have. As unimaginable as it is, their offense has created only 114 runs – for an average of  2.59 a game (actual average R/G 2.86). As unbelievable as it is to say, there is some truth to the statement that the Pirates have been “lucky” to score as many runs as they have.

Much thanks to Lee Panas of Tiger Tales: A Detroit Tigers Blog (follow on Twitter @tiger337) for the idea.

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WAR of Position: Pirates vs. NL Average

The table below compares the aggregate WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of the Pirates roster vs. the rest of the National League. The NL average is calculated without the Pirates.

In order to understand the significance of this table you should become acquainted with WAR:

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the number of wins that a player adds above what a “replacement player” could provide. A replacement player is a so-called 4A guy – think Mario Mendoza, Brian Bixler or Nate McLouth. A team with only replacement players is expected to win 48 games in a season. (Link to WAR explanation at Fangraphs.com).

For position players, WAR it takes into account offensive production, defense, baserunning and the importance of the position played. WAR for pitchers takes into account runs allowed above what a replacement pitcher would allow, with adjustments for relievers and starters.

Results

Observations

Currently the Pirates are receiving below replacement level production at three of the eight fielding positions. Remember, replacement is different from “average.” Average players are quite good; replacement players are borderline career minor leaguers.

The biggest differences between the Pirates production and the rest of the National League are at first base (difference of 1.5) and left field (difference of 2.3).

Only the starting pitching and centerfield positions are producing at above NL average.

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The Argument for Trading McDonald

First Things First

The Pirates are not serious contenders this year. They should not do anything that in any way weakens the 2013-2014 teams. Trading James McDonald, or any core player, for the primary purpose of improving this year’s offense would be a serious mistake. Any and all moves involving core players must be only be done with 2013-2014 in mind.

The Argument for Trading McDonald

The Pirates need to be legitimate contenders in 2013-1014. (Certainly Neal Huntington needs them to contend.) In order to make a run at the postseason in ’13-’14, the Pirates are going to need to be bold. The tactic of overpaying for one-year rentals in hopes of trading them off for underachieving former prospects must end. That strategy will not bring a winner next year, and it has proven ineffective.

In order to win in 2013-2014, and sustain it for five years, it is increasingly clear the Pirates will need two-to-three league average, or one-to-two above average, position players. The farm system cannot meet that need.

Conventional wisdom says that in late June, early July, the Pirates will trade players like Bedard, Hanrahan, Correia, maybe Karstens, parts of the bullpen, McGehee, and Jones. The question is, will these players bring back what the Pirates need to in order to contend in 2013-2014? Can they bring back legitimate, 25-28 yr old, major league hitters?

If “yes”, than there is no more talk about McDonald; if “no”, then we need to continue to talk.

If the players mentioned will not bring the return necessary for contention next year, the Pirates have two options: 1) Be aggressive in the free agent market and overpay for a couple of proven 30+ yr old offensive players; 2) Trade off a core player who has reached his peak value for league average, low-cost, position players.

The first option is unlikely to work. First, the Pirates have had a notoriously difficult time getting high profile free agents to even consider signing with them. Second, the financial burden of overpaying for two years of average to above-average production will have devastating consequences for the future.

The second option brings us to James McDonald. At this moment he is at, or close to, peak value. The question is, can he bring the Pirates a legitimate, top, major league ready prospect (ETA of late-2012)? Or, better yet, can he bring a couple league average players who can plug glaring holes at relatively low-cost?.

If the answer is “no”, then their is nothing left to discuss; if the answer is “yes”, then, the Pirates should seriously consider it. Here’s why:

Moving McDonald right now allows the Pirates to fill holes on their ’13-’14 roster at relatively low cost. With the money saved, they will have the financial flexibility to be aggressive in the free agent market this off-season. Instead of overpaying to patch holes, the Pirates would pay fair value to become average, and overpay to become a contender in the off season. This is a path to contention in 2013-2014.

Conclusion

Trading an asset like James McDonald when he is at peak value is exactly the bold type of move that this front office should consider. However, and let me be clear about this – it is done only with an eye on 2013-2014. Moving him under the circumstances I’ve outlined, not only provides a path to contention in 2013-2014, but more importantly it preserves the financial flexibility necessary for for sustained success once Taillon and Cole are ready.

Outside of McDonald, the only other piece that will bring the club value this season is Hanrahan. However, every team in the league knows the Pirates are desperate, so they are not likely to get value. Moreover, most other general managers now know that closers are overvalued.

Young starting pitchers, on the other hand, are an incredible asset. The Pirates have depth in this area. No one expected McDonald’s value to get this high. It is unlikely to ever be this high again. The opportunity has arisen to be bold; the front office should seriously consider it.

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Projected wRC and Actual wRC

Last night I compared the Pirates projected OPS and wOBA statistics against their actual OPS and wOBA (here). In this update, I transform the projected wOBA statistic into Weighted Runs Created (wRC).

Simply put, wRC tells us how many runs have resulted from what a batter has done at the plate – i.e. how many runs he is responsible for creating. You can find the formula for transforming wOBA into wRC here. I used the actual number of plate appearances for the players represented. This, of course, introduces some error because if the Pirates were hitting better, they would have more plate appearances. However, the difference is so slight that we really don’t have to worry about it. Here are the results:

If the players in this study were producing at exactly their projected wOBA level, the Pirates would have scored an estimated 41 additional runs. (This assumes that the pitchers and and Matt Hague produced exactly as they have.)

The Pirates Record if Offense Producing as Projected?

If the Pirates offense were producing at its projected wOBA level, and the pitching/defense gave up the same number of runs, here is the Pirates estimated Pythagorean record:

If the Pirates hitters were matching their projections, and pitching/defense performed exactly the same, we could expect the Pirates to have the same record as the St. Louis Cardinals.

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Since October 2007: Pirates Free Agent Position Players and WAR

Below is a list of free agent position players that Neal Huntington has signed since becoming the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The list only includes players who registered statistics with the Pirates. The WAR statistic includes only the time each player spent on the Pirates roster.

To date, Neal Huntington has added .1 position player WAR to the roster via free agent signings.

The most productive free agent the Pirates have signed since October 2007 is Garret Jones, 3.7 WAR. The least productive players were Lyle Overbay and Ryan Church, -.8.

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(If you find any omissions or errors please, as always, let me know)

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the number of wins that a player adds above what a “replacement player” could provide. For position players, it takes into account offensive production, defense, baserunning and the importance of the position played. WAR for pitchers takes into account runs allowed above what a replacement pitcher would allow, with adjustments for relievers and starters.

A replacement player is a so-called 4A guy – think Mario Mendoza or Brian Bixler. Fangraphs sets the number of expected wins from a team with only replacement players at 48. (Link to WAR explanation at Fangraphs.com). So, adding a player with a 1 WAR to a team of all replacement players, would increase the wins expectation to 49.

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Pirates: ZiPS Projected OPS v. Actual OPS

Again this week, the Pirates offense struggled to score runs. Many fans and members of the media are coming to the conclusion that this is more than an early season slump. If they are right, the Pirates offense is not only bad, it could be historically awful.

After listening to sports talk radio last night, and reading Dejan Kovacevic’s article in the Tribune-Review this morning, it is clear that Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington is going to be placed firmly on the hot seat by the Pittsburgh media in the coming days. The question is, how much of the mess is his responsibily?

On the one hand, the answer is obvious – “all of it”. He constructed the roster; its performance, one way or the other, is his responsibility.

On the other, a baseball general manager constructs a roster based on expectations. Clearly, Neal Huntington (and every other person in-and-out of baseball) thought this offense would produce more than it has. The players and coaches also bear some responsibility for performing below even the most cautious of projections.

The question really isn’t whether Neal Huntington had higher expectations or not. Rather, it is how much higher were his expectations? We can answer that.

Every baseball general manager uses some type of projection system to estimate future performance. One of the most popular is ZiPS (Szymborski Projection System). It is highly likely that Neal Huntington looked at projections very similar to these when he was constructing the 2012 roster.

I went to Fangaphs.com, and downloaded the ZiPS projections for OPS and wOBA (Szymborski Projection System) for each position player. I then did the same for the actual OPS/wOBA. (Please read this for an explanation of ZiPS.)

Here are the numbers:

It is far too late (early in the morning) for much analysis right now. I’ll let the numbers speak from themselves. However, I do want to point out that besides the obvious lack of production from Barmes, McGehee, McLouth and Tabata, a huge story is Alex Presley. Last season he had a .804 OPS, .350 wOBA, 122 wRC and 1.2 WAR. When he was hitting, he sparked the Pirates offense. His decline and return to the minors hurts this club more than has been acknowledged.

This study is continued and includes projected runs scored here.

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Return to Average: Week 6

This is the fifth week I’ve tracked the Pittsburgh Pirates offense relative to NL average (hereherehere and here). (I started tracking after the second week.)

It is important to compare the Pirates offense to league average because it is likely that their pitching/defense is only slightly better than league average. If they hope to win 75-85 games this year, they are going to have to score something close to a league average number of runs.

Last week, I began tracking Runs Allowed to 90% of NL Avg. There are three reasons for tracking Runs Allowed at this lower rate:

  1. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the offense will come within 5% of NL average runs. If the Pirates are going to end up close to 80 wins, they’re going to have to allow (well) below NL average number of runs per game.
  2. If the offense were to have stunning turnaround, allowing only 90% of league average runs would make them a pennant contender
  3. League average runs allowed would be a disappointment at this point. Expectations are that they will remain, at least, slightly below NL Avg. To finish 90% league average would be special accomplishment for the staff, even if the offense never comes around.

This week’s numbers:

Offense

The Pirates played seven games this week and scored 21 runs – an average of 3.00 RS/G. Their RS/G increased to 2.88, from 2.85. Last week they needed to average 4.41 runs to reach NL average by the end of the season. That number has increased to 4.46. In other words, the Pirates offense will have to score at a rate of 10% above the current NL average for the rest of the season in order to reach a NL average number of runs.

  • Blue = The average RS/G for the week.
  • Red= The average RS/G for the season
  • Green = The number of RS/G the Pirates will have to score in order to reach league average.

Pitching/Defense

The Pirates played seven games this week and allowed 31 runs – an average of 4.42 RA/G. Their RA/G increased to 3.65, from 3.50. Last week they needed to average 3.86 Runs Allowed to remain below 90% NL average by the end of the season. That number has decreased to 3.65. In other words, the Pirates pitching/defense will have to give up 10% less runs than current NL average for the rest of the season in order remain below 90% league average RA/G.

Pythagorean Record

Each week I update the Pythagorean record of the Pirates based on two scenarios:

  1. Pirates offense scoring NL average runs; and the defense allowing its actual average runs
  2. Pirates defense allowing NL average runs; and the offense scoring its actual average runs.

Observation

This is the type of week that should make Pirates fans very nervous – the pitching/defense showed signs of regressing, and the hitting remained stagnant. In fact, the pitching/defense has given up over 4.40 RA/G, two of the last three weeks.

The level of offensive futility this season is staggering. A few numbers to put things in perspective.

  • The Pirates K% is 23.8%. The highest K% in MLB history is 24.7% (2010 Dbacks). At their current pace, Pirates would end with 2nd highest.
  • The Pirates BB% is 6.1%. Since 1969, the lowest BB-rate is 6.1%, by the 2002 Tigers.
  • Entering Sunday’s game, the Pirates wOBA was .268. The current pace is fourth lowest in MLB history (since 1903). Lowest ever is .264, ’63 Colt 45’s.
  • The Pirates on base percentage is .269. The Lowest in history (1903) is .266, ’08 Superbas. Current pace is second lowest.
  • The highest individual K% for a season is 35.4% by Mark Reynolds, 2010. Pedro Alvarez K% is currently 36.5%.
  • Without Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates slashes are .203/.253/.321 .574OPS
  • Clint Barmes has one in 129 plate appearances. That is worst in the league .(.8 BB%)
  • Finally, if they maintain their current pace, the Pirates will score 466 runs this year. The lowest total for a 162 game schedule is 463, by ’68 White Sox
  • The Pirates K/BB ratio is 3.92. Since 1913, the highest full season K-to-BB ratio is 3.17 by the 1968 New York Mets.

That’s it for this week. We’ll see where things stand next Sunday after the Pirates play the Mets and Cubs at home. The Pirates won’t face the difficult slate of starting pitchers this week that they did last week, so we should expect things to get better. They really can’t get much worse – can they?

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2011 Return on Investments: Core and Homegrown Talent vs. Free Agents and Mercenaries

(Work in Progress)

Neal Huntington’s free agent signings have been the source of much discontent among Pirates fans. A common critique is that he “doesn’t know how to evaluate major league talent.” I think that analysis is premature, though taken at face value the results shown here will not make my case very well. As in all things, context is necessary.

I think the argument is premature because it does not take seriously enough the Pirates stated strategy. Many of the free agent pickups made by the Pirates are not designed to make them a winning team now. The goal is to win in the future (next year or two), and to sustain the winning. This requires building a solid core, and that process is well underway with good results.

The free agents the Pirates acquire are generally stop-gaps, which allow them to field a competent major league team; and from whom they might catch lightening in a bottle. The long-term goal is to sell off these players at a value that brings in younger, cheaper, league average talent. Sure, they hope to get lucky and put together a contending team, but that has not been the most important concern that last few years – nor should it have been.

In recent years, the Pirates have entered the free agent market with a set of goals different from many other teams. Their approach was bound to be inefficient in the short term, and it has been. A potential problem is that it has been too inefficient.

The key to Neal Huntington’s, and by extension the Pirates, success, is the core of low-cost, high production players they are putting into place. Once that is accomplished (and it almost is), free agent acquisitions that bring a one-to-one ratio between dollars spent and production will be the key. In the meantime, as we will see, they are overspending for very little free agent production. At least that is the story from 2011.

2012 could be different, as Bedard and parts of the bullpen, especially Hanrahan, Resop, Cruz, should produce, and likely will return some nice value via trades. Ideally, Correia, Barmes and McGehee will regain value, as well. I am not saying the Pirates will trade all of these players (indeed, they won’t), but certainly they would be wise to, if they can get low-priced, league average talent in return.

Below I look at the return the Pirates realized on their 2011 investments. I break up the roster into “Core/Homegrown” players and “Free Agent/Mercenaries.”
As I see it, the Pirates have a two-pronged strategy, and I think breaking up the roster in this way reflects that. Core/Homegrown is self-explanatory. These are guys that the Pirates consider having a future with the club. Free Agent/Mercenaries, were likely never considered as long-term Pirates.

I have left out some players who were acquired in trades in recent years because I’m not sure if they are “core” or not. Moreover, I included some players in “core” who may not actually be here when the “winning years” come – i.e. Hanrahan, Jones, McKenry, Harrison, Presley. Finally, I included Brandon Wood in Free Agent/Mercenaries, but a good argument could be made that he deserves a completely different classification – one that would include a player like Xavier Paul. (If I had time to remake the graphs, I’d probably remove him.)

Finally, even if you find my explanation and classifications above incorrect – perhaps the Pirates strategy is not as I interpret it – I think you’ll find the numbers interesting.

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This study follows the same methodology that I used in this post. I’m looking at the return the Pirates are getting on their investments in players.

What follows will make much more sense if you know about the WAR and DOLLAR metrics. I am going quick introduction here, but if you are familiar with both WAR and DOLLAR feel free to skip the next section.

WAR and DOLLAR

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the number of wins that a player adds above what a “replacement player” could provide. For position players, it takes into account offensive production, defense, baserunning and the importance of the position played. WAR for pitchers takes into account runs allowed above what a replacement pitcher would allow, with adjustments for relievers and starters.

A replacement player is a so-called 4A guy – think Mario Mendoza or Brian Bixler. Fangraphs sets the number of expected wins from a team with only replacement players at 48. (Link to WAR explanation at Fangraphs.com). So, adding a player with a 1 WAR to a team of all replacement players, would increase the wins expectation to 49.

DOLLAR is simply WAR transformed into a monetary value. It is explained at Fangraphs as follows: “the best description of the question that the valuation is answering is ‘how much would you expect to have to pay to replace this performance in free agency if you knew that you were going to get this level of value exactly?’” (Full explanation here.)

It is important to note, this is NOT a salary predictor. It simply tells us the salary a player who generated X number of wins above replacement (i.e WAR) would be expected fetch in a completely open and efficient free agent market.

Given current free agent market prices, the cost of 1 WAR worth of production is estimated at $4.5. So, a team could expect to have to spend $4.5 to purchase 1 WAR in a free and open market.

As mentioined, Fangraphs.com estimates the number of wins for a team of replacement players at 48 games, so, to reach .500, a team will need about 33 additional WAR  – in the range of $148.5 DOLLARs. (Of course, luck can more or less affect a team’s actual record. So gaining 33 WAR often will not necessarily result in exactly 81 wins.)

However, it is important to remember that Major League Baseball does not have a completely open labor market. High performing players with less than three years of service time have their salaries controlled by their teams. After three years, players become arbitration eligible. I mention this because the DOLLAR statistic is built off the assumption of a completely open labor market that doesn’t exist. More importantly, it highlights the importance of drafting and developing young talent. If done well, teams should get a very high DOLLAR to salary ratio – i.e. lots of production at low cost. In other words, team’s don’t have to spend $148.5 to gain 33 WAR. In fact, if the players they have under “contract control” over perform at a high enough level, they should be able to spend much less.

The challenge for small market teams like the Pirates is to maximize WAR/DOLLARs at the lowest possible salary. We might call it maximizing efficiency (perhaps there is better terminology), and it relies on a combination of a lot of production from underpaid players and smart, efficient, free agent acquisitions.

Method

  1. Gather the 2011 Pirates end of year salaries from Pirates Prospects.
  2. Generate a report from Fangraphs.com which includes the DOLLAR and WAR metric for the 2011 team.
  3. Subtract DOLLAR from  salary to get the “Difference.”

Results

I have divided the 2011 roster between Core/Homegrown and Free Agent/Mercenaries.” Red means that the Pirates “overpaid”; Black means they got more production than they paid for. (Bonuses and prorated salaries are factored in thanks to PiratesProspects.com)

2011 Free Agents and Mercenaries:

Total salary spent/DOLLAR received:

2011 Core and Homegrown:

Total salary spent/DOLLAR received:

Observations

If you followed the 2011 Pirates, the results are not very surprising. The Pirates received a better return on their investments in Core/Homegrown players than in Free Agent/Mercenaries.

They realized a 675% return on their investment in Core/Homegrown; and a 101% loss on their investment in Free Agent/Mercenaries.

The Pirates Core/Homegrown generated 17.7 WAR last year; while the Free Agent/Mercenaries performed below replacement level -.1.

Conclusion

The Pirates Core/Homegrown largely carried the team last year, and they provided excellent salary-to-production value (a very good sign!); the Free Agent/Mercenaries cost a lot of money, and only produced at replacement level. Worse, Free Agent/Mercenaries did not bring much in return, in terms of trades. It this regard, 2011 was a failure, and adds ammunition to the “Neal Huntington doesn’t know how to evaluate Major League talent” argument.

However, I would contend that the Pirates approach to purchasing free agents was bound to lead to more failures than pay-offs overall. Last year, was particularly bad. But, 2012 is showing signs of turnaround in this regard.

Later on this season I’ll run a similar analysis of the 2012 team. My guess is that things will look better.

That is all for now, I’m off to Detroit for the upcoming series. Please remember this is a work in progress. Any and all suggestions for improving it are much appreciated. Over the coming days, I’m sure this will be changed to reflect those suggestions.

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