McCutchen, Pirates need help.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Andrew McCutchen has never drawn more than 89 walks in a season, and right now, he's on track to increase that by a healthy margin. For the first time, opposing pitchers and catchers are making a point of pitching around McCutchen and putting the onus on the hitters who follow.
In the first quarter of the season, it's a strategy that has paid off. Pedro Alvarez has a .200 average, and entering Saturday's action, the Pittsburgh hitters who have filled the cleanup spot ranked 20th among 30 teams in OPS (.693). The batters hitting in Pittsburgh's No. 5 slot ranked 22nd in OPS.
Those numbers must improve. The Pirates, who face the St. Louis Cardinals in their first "Sunday Night Baseball" appearance since 1996 (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), have good starting pitching and a good bullpen. But their start has been sluggish, with their offense ranked in the bottom third in runs, and they cannot count on McCutchen to consistently contribute; as the Pirates have seen early this season, he is getting a small handful of pitches with which he can do damage. He is being treated like their Miguel Cabrera.
Maybe Alvarez will be the hitter who will do more; maybe it will be Ike Davis, who has been productive in his first weeks with the Pirates, posting a .359 on-base percentage, although with a mere five extra-base hits in 59 at-bats. When Davis first joined the Pirates, they let him get settled in. Now, there is more work being done with him to get him back to what he did before he got hurt in the second half of last season, when he was able to keep his weight back more consistently.
Maybe Starling Marte -- who has been hitting in the No. 5 spot lately -- will be a help, now that he has worked through some early-season struggles at the plate. Maybe Gregory Polanco will help after he arrives, whenever that is. The Pirates probably want to be sure that Polanco is fully prepared to help when he arrives, to reduce the time required for his initial growing pains, just as the Tampa Bay Rays do with their prospects.
The good thing for the Pirates is that just about every NL Central team is grinding through issues early in the year. The Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are having problems scoring runs, too, and the Milwaukee Brewers have managed to play through a lot of injuries early.
• Once again on Saturday, St. Louis struggled to get the big hit.
• McCutchen was not in the lineup (left foot soreness) on Saturday, when the Pirates rallied to win.
• Josh Harrison has been hot in the leadoff spot. Marte has been coming around since hitting in the No. 5 spot.
• The smart money is on Polanco, writes Travis Sawchik.
Around the league
• Billy Butler got into a heated discussion with the Kansas City Royals' first-base coach, Andy McCullough writes.
• Max Scherzer just keeps winning.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. A Phillies prospect was promoted to Triple-A.
2. Andre Ethier was benched against a right-hander.
Dings and dents
1. Adam LaRoche landed on the disabled list.
2. Chris Sale is close to returning.
1. The Nationals suffered a gut-wrenching loss.
2. Miguel Cabrera had a big day.
3. The Rockies did what the Rockies do.
4. Zack Greinke gave the Dodgers a badly needed lift against the Giants.
5. The Mariners' Chris Young was impressive.
6. Jeff Samardzija was great again. Chris Bosio likened him to Randy Johnson.
• Just like old times, the Phillies' veterans rallied.
• A heavy dose of road games is not helping the Cardinals.
• Bryan Price says he hasn't lost faith in J.J. Hoover, writes C. Trent Rosecrans.
• Yasiel Puig's reputation precedes him, Steve Dilbeck writes.
• CC Sabathia is still trying to adjust.
• Steve Clevenger continues to do good things.
• Caleb Joseph is enjoying his time in the big leagues.
• John Jaso was in hero mode.
• The Detroit players miss Jim Leyland's humor.
• Mike Ilitch made a rare public appearance.
• Urgency is needed in selecting baseball's next commissioner, writes Bill Shaikin. From his piece:
While [Bud] Selig and a small group of owners have launched preliminary discussions about a successor, according to people familiar with the matter but forbidden to speak publicly about it, other owners say they have no idea that any process has started.
"A lot of clubs want to see a search," said one, "and they want to see it soon."
If Selig has his way, there will be no announcement of any formal search. He fears that qualified candidates might excuse themselves from consideration if their names are disclosed. He worries that even putting forth a timetable might hamper the search.
Yet, even within ownership circles, the absence of information fuels speculation. Could Selig change his mind about retirement, as he has done previously? Could a search committee decide he is the best candidate and persuade him to stay on, at least through the 2016 labor talks? Could the executive council of owners decide to run the sport itself until after the labor talks, then appoint a commissioner?
The answers are no, no and no, at least from those close to Selig. That those questions have arisen at the ownership level speaks to a process that values confidentiality over consensus, at least so far.
That is remarkable, given how Selig treasures consensus. He works the phones like a lobbyist, trying to ensure every vote is 30-0. For now, he is gathering input, very deliberately.
We hear that Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and Arte Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels are among those involved in the early talks about a new commissioner. Ultimately, though, would the owners simply let Selig pick his successor?
"Absolutely not," one said.
Selig has positioned his deputy, Rob Manfred, as his successor. Manfred is the logical choice, as baseball's longtime labor negotiator, and indications are that owners are not inclined to favor candidates from outside the sport.
And today will be better than yesterday.
MLB needs to re-evaluate fly ball ruling.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Almost two decades ago, one of the official scorers regularly used by an American League East team was a guy who was always really grumpy, and he seemed to take out his anger on fielders. Baseballs would be hammered at infielders at speeds that might awe even Chuck Yeager, and immediately, in an era in which you couldn’t always count on replay being available, the scorer's call over the press box public address system would be definitive, with a dollop of sarcasm mixed in: “Error!” Never mind that the infielder would have risked any future paternity -- or, at the very least, a handful of teeth -- if he had actually attempted to stand in the way of the ball.
By the time I witnessed the work of this particular official scorer, I had covered professional baseball for five seasons, and based on that experience, I thought that official scorer had zero feel for the speed of the game and was probably a frustrated fan who might’ve been turned down for an autograph request as a child. He seemed to expect the infielders and outfielders to catch everything.
One afternoon, there was an easy high fly ball into right-center field that I can still remember to this day, because of what happened next. The center fielder looked at the right fielder, the right fielder looked at the center fielder, and this pop fly fell between them, probably five feet from either guy -- and the bitter official scorer instantly called “error!” (I cannot recall which of the two outfielders was charged.) When the decision flashed on the scoreboard, players and coaches from both dugouts looked up to the press box with questioning body language, because for years, they had never seen a scorer interpret that type of play that way.
To this day, a catchable pop fly that falls untouched near a fielder is routinely called a hit. Or at least that was the case until Friday night, when Yu Darvish had a perfect game ended by teammates botching an easy pop fly. Second baseman Rougned Odor and right fielder Alex Rios converged on the ball with two outs in the seventh, and after it dropped -- and after a lengthy delay -- Rios was charged with an error.
Two innings later, with Darvish just one out from a no-hitter, David Ortiz hit a hard grounder through the infield for a clean single, which took some of the onus off the official scorer. But after the game, Boston manager John Farrell told reporters of the error call on the pop fly: “Ten times out of 10 times, that's a hit."
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports
Darvish lost his no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning.
Ortiz said: “We all understand that when it comes down to the rules of the game. That’s a hit. That’s the rule that we all know.”
That’s not the case, Jason Collette wrote on Friday night; by rule, that play can be called an error. And it should be. A pop fly that falls between fielders is a defensive mistake (and not to be confused with a popup that falls because of gusting winds). With this sort of play, the grumpy official scorer -- who otherwise was the worst I ever saw -- had it right, theoretically: A major league infielder or outfielder should catch the ball in that situation.
But I suspect that because the official scorers haven’t wanted to assign blame to a particular fielder when the ball fell untouched among multiple fielders, that play has, in day after day and year after year of precedent, been ruled a hit. A category of “team error” would be useful, but it’s not currently available.
Since 2014 is the “Year of The Rule Change in Major League Baseball,” why not tack on one more assignment for the good folks on Park Avenue: One way or another, they should instruct official scorers how to rule on the sort of high fly/popup we saw Friday night.
If they determine that kind play should be ruled an error -- and I think it should, if it’s done consistently -- then they need to make it clear, with a directive that the rule book should be interpreted according to the context. Like the high strike, the rules say one thing, and the practical application has been something completely different.
If MLB wants that play called a hit, well, then this is a great opportunity to declare that henceforth, in-game precedent should stand as the rule -- and the written rule needs to be changed.
The official scorer is confident he made the right call.
On the hit, Ortiz said the shift messed up the Rangers, Peter Abraham writes.
Around the league
• On Friday’s podcast, Will Clark told stories from his playing days; Orioles GM Dan Duquette addressed rumors of his team’s interest in Kendrys Morales, the play of Manny Machado and contract talks with Chris Davis and Matt Wieters; and Karl Ravech and Justin Havens addressed the Dan Uggla change in the Atlanta lineup.
• On Thursday’s podcast, we had Terry Francona and Jayson Stark.
• The Giants beat the Dodgers again -- that’s 17 of the past 27 -- but lost Brandon Belt, Henry Schulman writes. After the game, Bruce Bochy ran through his first-base options.
• Yasiel Puig was admonished by Madison Bumgarner after he homered.
Moves, deals and decisions
• An Orioles outfielder needs surgery.
• The Orioles won their fourth straight, Dan Connolly writes.
• Lastly, Steve Gilbert explains all that goes into minor league moves.
Apologies for the short list of links; I’m having some major computer issues this morning.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Johnny Cueto's secret weapon.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Johnny Cueto's left knee buckles. To the runner on first, it appears, if only for an instant, that Cueto is about to lift his front leg and deliver a pitch. Instead, it's Cueto's back foot that moves first, two lightning-fast steps rotate his body nearly 90 degrees, and he throws a bullet to first base across his body. This Cueto two-step is the single best defense against baserunning in baseball, more effective than Yadier Molina's fantastic arm and quick release, and capable of making stolen base attempts untenable for even the fastest runners in the game.
The rate of pickoffs, perhaps unsurprisingly, is closely tied to the intent to steal, and when calculating success rates, it makes sense to include them in our calculations. Since the beginning of 2011, Cueto has nabbed eight runners with his move to first base -- note that all pickoff numbers in this article do not include pickoff-caught stealing -- while another 13 have been caught stealing second. Only two runners have stolen second base successfully on him. In other words, runners have been successful in less than 9 percent of their attempted steals of second base on him.
John Lackey highlights the other end of the spectrum. Lackey hasn't picked off a runner from first base since 2003. Over the past three-plus years, 65 runners have stolen second base on him, while only nine have been caught, a success rate of 88 percent.
So how much of this difference between these two pitchers can be explained by their battery mates, the runners they've faced, the game situations they've pitched in and just plain ol' luck? Well, independent studies by Thomas M. Loughin and Jason L. Bargen, John Dewan and Max Weinstein agree that pitchers have considerably more control over the running game than catchers do. John Dewan estimated that pitchers have 65 percent of the control, with the other 35 percent going to the catchers. In fact, pitchers have more control over the runner's chance of success than the runner himself.
To identify the most effective pitchers over the past three-plus seasons and to see just how successful they've been, I followed in Loughin and Bargen's footsteps and built two mixed-effects logistic regression models. The first model predicts the probability of a stolen base attempt based on the pitcher, the catcher, the runner, the inning and the score as well as the lineup position of the batter. The second model predicts the chance of that stolen base succeeding based on the players involved. These models provide estimates of how much each runner, pitcher and catcher affects both the probability of a stolen base attempt and the chance of success.
More on the Cueto-Lackey divide
While Cueto has enjoyed having above-average catchers, according to our model, he is easily the dominant factor in his own success. Paired with an average catcher and pitted against a typical runner, Cueto cuts the typical chance of success -- 67 percent -- in half, to 33 percent. Lackey, in the same situation, increases the chance of success to 82 percent.
The best and worst pitchers in terms of estimated success rate of a typical runner with an average catcher (includes pickoffs).
Best SB success rate
Johnny Cueto 33%
Mark Buehrle 44%
Zack Greinke 44%
Clayton Kershaw 46%
Craig Breslow 48%
Worst SB success rate
John Lackey 82%
David Robertson 81%
Dale Thayer 81%
Drew Pomeranz 81%
Luke Gregerson 80%
To put Cueto's prowess -- and Lackey's weakness -- into perspective, the best catcher, A.J. Ellis, drops the usual 67 percent success rate to only 57 percent on his own, and the least effective catcher, John Jaso, merely brings the probability of success up to 72 percent.
The model also allows us to explore hypotheticals. For instance, a Cueto/Ellis battery would bring the chance of success down to a dismal 25 percent. Even when the most efficient runner in the game, Jarrod Dyson, attempts to steal against our imaginary Cueto/Ellis battery, he can be expected to succeed only 36 percent of the time. Meanwhile, an average runner would enjoy an 86 percent success rate against a Lackey/Jaso battery, and Dyson could be expected to succeed better than 91 percent of the time.
The ratings that our model assigns to baserunners line up closely with what we had expected based on their times to second base. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Dyson, Carlos Gomez and Jacoby Ellsbury had the fastest average stolen base times in baseball last year, and our statistical model places them first, second and eighth, respectively, in expected success rate after accounting for the batteries they've run against.
While Johnny Cueto is by far the most effective at catching runners, there are a number of pitchers who have been more effective at discouraging baserunning. In the most typical stolen base situation -- a runner on first with second and third base empty -- runners have attempted a steal 10.5 percent of the time in recent years. However, with Erik Bedard, Josh Tomlin or Bartolo Colon on the mound, our model estimates that the probability of a stolen base attempt drops to 4.1 percent. With Mike Adams, David Robertson or Lackey on the mound, it jumps to 25 percent.
Most obvious stolen base situations of 2014
According to our model, the most obvious stolen base situation of the year occurred in the top of the 11th inning in a May 3 game between the Dodgers and Marlins. After a Carl Crawford two-run home run, Dee Gordon beat out a ground ball to first base and found himself on first with Carlos Marmol on the mound and Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Our model predicted an 87 percent chance of a stolen base attempt thanks primarily to the combination of Gordon, the fourth-most aggressive base stealer in the game, and Marmol, who struggles mightily holding runners on. To no one's surprise, Gordon took second on the first pitch.
The surest stolen base occurred on May 5 when Alcides Escobar stole second base against Dale Thayer and Yasmani Grandal. Thayer is the third-easiest pitcher to steal against in the game, Escobar is one of the most efficient runners and Grandal is the second-most ineffectual catcher following John Jaso. Our model estimated a 90 percent chance of success. With an excellent jump, Escobar took second base rather easily. To demonstrate just how confident he was, two batters later Escobar stole third with two outs.
The most foolhardy attempt of the year, according to our model, occurred on April 6, when Adam Eaton made his first stolen base attempt of the year against James Shields and Salvador Perez. Our model gave him a 40 percent chance of success and, indeed, Eaton was thrown out, if only barely, despite Perez needing to reach for a pitch at his toes.
If nothing else, please keep this information in mind when setting your daily fantasy lineup. If your team's speedster is facing Cueto, don't expect much.
Teams embrace smarter 'small ball'.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
"Small ball." Depending on how you view baseball, that's a term that's either a fond reminder of better days gone by or an anti-intellectual phrase that makes your skin crawl. There's room for both interpretations, but there's little argument to be had that for most of the last decade, it's been a kind of baseball that's been disappearing. As home run power increased and advanced thinking explained the value in not giving away outs, the kind of plays traditionally associated with "small ball" -- stolen bases, sac bunts, etc. -- gradually appeared less and less often.
But baseball is once again changing, with offense at lows not seen in years -- or in some cases, ever. Through Thursday morning, teams are averaging 4.19 runs per game, down nearly a full run from 2000's high of 5.14, and the strikeout rate is on pace to set a record for the sixth season in a row, currently at 20.6 percent. Home runs are down to 0.88 per game, which is not only the lowest since 1992, it's only ever so slightly above 1950's 0.84.
With offense more difficult to come by, the value of a single base or run has increased. Managers can't simply wait for the three-run homer, as they might have in the recent past. If done smartly -- and that's the key here -- some of the more traditional tactics can have more relevance today than they might have before, and we can see a few teams finding success in 2014 doing just that.
Bunting the right way
Sorry, sacrifice bunt fans; you'll find no favor here. With rare exceptions, it's still a play that is largely misused in most cases other than when a pitcher is batting.
That said, bunting for a hit can be useful when done correctly, like when the defense is playing back or is heavily shifted.
Approximately one-fifth of the way through the season, the Nationals already have 15 bunt hits. That's as much or more than six teams had for the entirety of 2013, and it's only the second week of May. Only two teams since 2002 have managed even 54 bunt hits; at their current pace, the Nationals would have 75.
More impressively, the Nationals have been doing it effectively. Since 2002, the 2008 Cleveland Indians stand as the team with the highest rate of turning bunts into hits, at 45.8 percent. Excluding the 2014 teams who have fewer than seven bunt hits, the Nationals' 48.4 percent would be the new most efficient team of the last 12 years. New manager Matt Williams has stated that while he calls sacrifices from the bench, players have the ability to bunt on their own if that's what the defense is giving them; Danny Espinosa, who has just a .236 OBP over the last two seasons, is taking advantage of that freedom by successfully bunting for seven hits, the most in baseball.
Stealing with success
While the stolen base was a huge part of baseball a century ago, it wasn't as prevalent in baseball's "golden age" of the 1950s as many like to remember; the eight lowest steals-per-game marks all came in that decade. After a peak in the late 1980s (0.87 steals per game), the steal declined steadily to the point that last year, we were seeing only one successful steal every other game, or about what it had been in 1973. That's up slightly this year, but as a whole, teams aren't stealing with a great deal more regularity than they usually do.
What they are doing is this: stealing smarter. This year's caught-stealing percentage of just under 25 is the lowest in history, and with less risk, some teams are putting that to good use. The leader in that department right now: the Oakland Athletics, who have been successful on 88 percent of steal chances, stealing 23 bases against just three failures.
Though Coco Crisp is their primary thief, he's not exactly Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton, either. Ten different A's have at least one steal -- second-most in baseball -- and Oakland ranks third in wSB (weighted stolen bases), a metric that compares stolen base opportunities with the league average. The A's don't necessarily have exceptionally skilled runners, because they rank poorly in extra bases taken and FanGraphs' "Ultimate Base Running" stat, but when it comes to steals, they're picking their opportunities and doing it well.
Taking what you can get
Under "Runnin' Ron" Roenicke, the Brewers recorded the second-most stolen-base attempts from 2012-13, so perhaps it's no surprise that they lead baseball in the highest percentage of extra bases taken -- going from first to third on a single, for example -- at 52 percent, well above the average of 40 percent. Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria took notice in late April, saying, "If you overthrow a ball, they take the extra base. They're constantly looking at taking the extra base."
The aggressive approach on the basepaths ties into the team's offensive philosophy, since they currently lead the National League in swing percentage at 49.5 percent and lead baseball in swinging at the first pitch. Running wild doesn't always end well, of course -- no team in baseball has been caught stealing more times than Milwaukee's 12. But stealing bases is an entirely different type of skill than taking the extra base, and Roenicke's Brewers have realized the benefit of that kind of baserunning better than anyone else.
Believe it or not, pulling up the rear: Cincinnati, despite the presence of the speedy Hamilton, taking extra bases just 29 percent of the time. If maintained, that would be the lowest number of this century, and it's just one of the many issues plaguing the Reds, who have outscored just five teams.
None of this should be mistaken with the idea that "small ball" is back, of course. Teams have learned too much over the years about what constitutes smart baseball to go back to the days of low-probability steal attempts and self-defeating sacrifice bunts. Even in the days when teams were celebrated for winning using those methods, it was usually secondary to far more important aspects of the game. (The 2005 champion White Sox particularly come to mind, trumpeted for being "small ball" despite hitting 200 homers and having a near-unprecedented run of pitching health.)
But as the run-scoring environment changes, strategies must change, as well. So far, these teams are doing things just a little better than their competitors.