Which of those three players should they have replaced last season with a higher paid player?
Francisco Liriano has not pitched a whole lot better in his first two starts since the All-Star break than he did in the first half of the season. And that is actually good news for the Pirates.
I know that sounds crazy. Liriano’s first-half ERA was 4.72 and since the break he has allowed only one earned run in 12 innings. That looks like two completely different pitchers. But there is a striking similarity. His first-half ERA and his second-half ERA are both mirages.
Liriano’s first-half xFIP (3.76) shows that his pre-All-STar pitching was about a full run better than his 4.72 ERA.
Unfortunately (but not really), Liriano’s last two starts indicate that his second half is going to be a lot more like his first-half xFIP (which wasn’t bad) than his current 0.75 post-All-Star ERA.
His ERA since the All-Star break is 3.97 runs better than it was before the break. But his second-half xFIP of 3.38 is only 0.38 runs better than his first-half xFIP.
Liriano, has definitely been better in his last two starts; just not by all that much. But the good news is . . . he wasn’t all that bad in the first half of the season! Take a look:
First-Half Frankie / Second-Half Liriano
K/9: 9.55 / 9.00
BB/9: 4.95 / 3.75
Groundball Rate: 52.1% / 53.6%
Line Drive Percentage: 19.0% / 21.4%
Liriano has, indeed, been a little better in the second half. And a good portion of that improvement stems from his seeming to have gained control of his control. Walks have always been a key factor for Liriano and in his last two starts his rate has dropped by more than 1 walk per 9 innings. But the biggest factors in his absurdly improved ERA have a lot do with luck – both good and bad.
In the first half, Liriano’s HR/FB rate was an unseemly 14.8%. That was about 5 points worse than the league average and was due for a regression to the mean. On the other hand, however, his second-half HR/FB% is not going to remain at its current 0.0%.
The other luck factor for Liriano has been “Batting Average on Balls in Play” (BABIP). In the first half, Liriano’s BABIP was just about league average at .301. In his last two starts it has been an unsustainable .241. Just like his 0.0 HR/FB%, Frankie’s second half BABIP is going to increase – just as a matter of his luck turning from line drives (which have actually increased in the second half) being hit straight at gloves, into dribblers finding holes through the infield.
But, in the end, it’s all good. Liriano doesn’t have to continue with a 0.75 ERA in order to help push the Pirates into the post-season – and further. An ERA that matches his second-half 3.38 xFIP will do just fine. And, come to think of it, an ERA that matches his first-half xFIP wouldn’t be all that bad, either.
SABERBUCS pre-season projected xFIPs for Pirate starting pitchers compared to their actual current xFIPS:
Projected / Actual
Liriano: 3.78 / 3.71
Cole: 3.51 / 3.58
Morton: 3.86 / 3.79
Volquez: 4.16 / 4.34
Locke: 4.22 / 3.48
Wandy Rodriguez: 3.95 / 4.40
Would you be pleased with the production of Pirate first-baseman Ike Davis, if just three more of his fly-outs had gone for Home Runs – and nothing else about his hitting was any different?
What if I told you those 3 fly-outs turned long-balls – all by themselves – would take Davis’ batting line from its current .232/.351/.342 — .693 OPS to .245/.362/.392 — .754 OPS.
I’m guessing that you would very likely smirk, “Not good enough . . . yeah, I like the on-base, but that’s a first-baseman slugging .392!”
“Okay,” I say, “How ’bout if I told you that .754 OPS is just 8 points below the major league average for first-baseman.
“Hmmph. Why shouldn’t we want better than average?”
“Good question,” I smile. “What if I told you that just five more fly-outs turned home runs – again, a-a-a-l-l by themselves – would take his current batting line up to .253/.369/.409 — .778 OPS?”
You might still grumble.
“What makes you think that this guy is going to come up with five more home runs – or even three?”
And now I’m really gonna piss you off.
And you just might respond in rhyme. (think about it)
No. Not Batting Average on Balls in Play. I’m talking about HR/Fly-ball Percentage. A number which can fluctuate wildly and randomly for major league hitters.
Ike Davis’ current 2013 HR/FB% is 7.4%. Last year, his rate was 11.8%. And, given his 5 HR on 68 fly-balls, that increase from 7.4% to 11.8% turns his 5 HR into 8 – an increase of 3. And that bit of bad luck, turned just a little better, takes his OPS from .693 right on up to .754.
So, how do we know that last year wasn’t the anomaly. That his 11.8% HR/FB rate in 2013 wasn’t extra lucky and this year is the real Ike?
Because that 11.8% from last year is 2.7 points BELOW his career average. And if he had his career average HR/FB% in the first half, he would now have 10 HR. That’s right. 5 more than he has now. And those five fly-outs turned long-balls – a-a-a-l-l by themselves – would take his OPS from its current .693 up to .778. 16 points better than the average major league first-baseman.
“So,” you roll your eyes, “You’re telling me that a little bit of luck is going to take Ike Davis – all by itself – from awful to better than-average? Not buyin’ it!”
“No. I’ve got a little more up my sleeve.”
Ike Davis has already improved this year.
His career walk rate is 12.6%. It went up to 15% last year. And has has stayed there this year: 15.6%.
But here’s an even better improvement. Davis’ career K rate is 23%. This year, it is all the way down to 17.4%.
Take a look at the list of players who, this year, have had at least 200 plate appearances with a BB rate between 14% – 16% and a K rate between 17% – 20%; very similar to Ike Davis:
Derek Norris: .883 OPS
Adam LaRoche: .824 OPS
Dexter Fowler: .773 OPS
Reuben Tejada: .648 OPS
Ike Davis: .693 OPS
What’s the difference?
Well, with Fowler, the difference is Batting Average on Balls in Play; a number substantially affected by random luck. His is .333. Davis’ is .274 this year and .284 for his career.
The difference with Tejada is that Tejada has zero power (2 HR in 308 PA), never had any power, and never will. Davis has hit a HR once every 27.7 plate appearances in his career. Tejada has homered once every 416.75 plate appearances.
And the difference, this year, between Norris, LaRoche, and Davis is the stat I cited above: HR/FB%, which is also substantially affected by luck.
Norris’ 2014 HR/FB% is 14.8%; just 0.3 points better than Davis’ career rate, but exactly twice his unlucky 2014 rate of 7.4%.
LaRoche’s 2014 HR/FB rate is 13.5%; lower than Davis’ career rate, but a lot higher than his 2014 rate.
But that’s just one year. So, let’s take a look at a list all of the players, since 1970, with at least 1,000 career plate appearances who had BB and K rates similar to those of Ike Davis in 2014 (15.6% BB; 17.4% K). Here are the names and career OPS of players with career BB rates between 15% – 16% and K rates between 17% and 20%:
Joey Votto: .950 OPS
Jason Giambi: .916 OPS
Jack Clark: .855 OPS
Nick Johnson: .840 OPS
Otto Velez: .810 OPS
Carlos Santana: .800 OPS
Those are all pretty good numbers. But Otto Velez is the player most similar to Ike Davis – regarding BB, K, BABIP, and HR/PA. Would you take an .810 OPS from Davis in the second half?
But you can also make an objection to those numbers. I’m using the career numbers of the comparable players and just the 2014 numbers of Davis. So, let’s do a comparison of Davis career BB, K, and HR rates.
Davis career: BB 12.6%; K 23.1%; Plate Appearances per HR: 27.7
Here is the list of all of the players, since 1970, who have had at least 1,000 career plate appearances with a BB rate between 12% – 13% and a K rate between 23% – 24%:
Ray Lankford: .841 OPS
Jason Bay: .841 OPS
Brad Hawpe: .845 OPS
Chris Duncan: .806 OPS
All of the above players had career HR rates that were very similar to Davis’ career 27.7 PA/HR. But they all have significanty better Batting Averages on Balls in Play. Davis’ career BABIP is .284. The above players’ BABIPs range from Duncan’s .307 to Hawpe’s .337. However, Davis is a good example of the random variations of BABIP. In 2011, his BABIP was .344. The following year, when he did pretty well – with 32 HR – his BABIP was a miserably unlucky .246.
I think I have already made a convincing case for not giving up on Ike Davis – after his 280 PAs this season. But you may be thinking, “How do you know that his drop in HR is all about an unlucky HR/FB%? How do you know that he just flat-out isn’t hitting the ball very hard?”
Another legitimate question. And I have an answer.
Davis’ Line Drive Rate is 22.2%. That’s the best of his career. Even better than the rate he had in 2012, when he hit 32 Home Runs. And 7.1 points better than the Line Drive Percentage of Pedro Alvarez, who has 10 more HR than Davis. The major league average LD% is 20.5%; 1.7 points lower than Ike Davis’ LD%.
Still not convinced to give Ike more time?
Ike Davis career batting line in the first halves of seasons is .227/.315/.382 — .697 OPS. In the second halves of seasons, his batting line is .266/.373/.493 — .866 OPS.
And Davis’ first half, last year, was far worse than the .693 OPS that he has posted, so far, this year. He was Brandon Inge, last year, before the All-Star break. He had a .505 OPS. After the break, he was Joey Votto. Believe it or not, Ike Davis had a .954 OPS in the second half of last season.
The moral of the story?
Never, never, never give up on a player who has hit for power, has an excellent walk rate, and has cut his Ks by nearly 25%!
Ike Davis will post a .780 OPS in the second half of 2014.
Gregory Polanco may well become a perennial All-Star and even win a couple of MVP awards as the Pirates outfielder. He seems to have the talent to become the next Andrew McCutchen. But, at age 22, and having just 283 PA at AAA, he is not what the Pirates need in rightfied – right now.
Polanco got off to a wonderfully hot start after being promoted . But the league has caught up, passed him, and left him eating dust. Over the last 28 days, he is hitting .181/.277/.265 — .542 OPS. And that is not the result of a common-place one or two week struggle. Polanco has, indeed, struggled over the past two weeks. He is hitting a terrible .150/.209/.150 — .359 OPS. But even before his “terribles” began, he was having troubles. In the two weeks prior to his most recent 14-day .359 OPS, he hit .209/.333/.372 — .705 OPS.
And Polanco’s fielding is currently a wobbly “work-in-progress.” His UZR is 3.3 runs below average. (That may not sound bad, but over a full-season it extrapolates to -20.3. A contender cannot live with that.) He is -2.0 on the Defensive Runs Saved scale and Fangraphs has him at -4.9.
So, what can the Pirates do about rightfield?
Well, they could bring back Jose Tabata, who was hitting .289 when he was demoted. But Tabata had a miserable .656 OPS through the first two months of the season.
Travis Snider is hitting .294 with a .745 OPS since June 1. But he is “Travis Snider.”
They could trade for Alex Rios, Josh Willingham, Marlon Byrd, or Gerardo Parra. But Rios, Willinham, and Parra aren’t exactly guarantees to produce. Byrd is 36 and owed $8 million for next season and has contractual clauses that could trigger an $8 million option for 2016 – his age-38 season. And I’m not big on any deadline deals that trade a prospect who could be a key piece in runs at the playoffs for six full pre-free-agency seasons.
I’d be willing to trade minor leaguers on the level of Mel Rojas, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton, or Willy Garcia, but what that get the job done?
Unfortunately, the Pirates have already traded the player who might have been their best option in the very likely – nearly certain – case of Polanco not living up to MLB standards in his age-22 rookie season. (Should he really have been expected to do any better than Roberto Clemente, who hit .255/.284/.382 – .666 OPS in his rookie season; very similar to Polanco’s current .655 OPS?)
And who was that best option? Chris Dickerson, a 32-year-old outfielder who was hitting .309/.407/.479 — .886 OPS at Indianapolis, before being traded to the Indians. (Saberbucs profiled him favorably at this link when the Pirates acquired him.) Dickerson had 7 HR and 12 stolen bases in 280 AAA plate appearances, with an 11.8% walk rate and 23.2% K rate.
Could Dickerson be helping the Pirates right now? Well, in his first 27 plate appearances with Cleveland he has 10 hits, 2 home runs, and a double. 27 PAs is way to small to talk about OPS, but . . . well, you can look it up if you like.
And Dickerson’s career UZR/150 is 18.4 runs ABOVE average. That’s not just good. It’s extraordinary. And other fielding measures back that up. His Defensive Runs Saved per year is +13 and Fangraphs has him at +11.9 in 268 career games.
The Pirates acquired a fine Polanco-safety-net last winter – and sold him to the Indians for a handful of trinkets.
I believe that walk rate is the vital statistic in evaluating Josh Harrison’s hitting. He is a free swinger, who doesn’t strike-out much and will probably always have a low walk rate. The issue is how low.
In his minor league career, Harrison hit .308 with a .795 OPS and a 5.9% BB rate. At AAA, he hit .314 with an .856 OPS and a 6.4% walk rate. Those walk rates are not good, but they are a lot better than what he posted in his first three seasons with the Pirates – 1.5%, 3.6%, and 2.1%.
Harrison’s greatly improved hitting this season came with an increase in his walk rate that brought it to a point similar to what he had in the minor leagues.
In May, Harrison hit for an .844 OPS with a 5.7 BB%. In June, he had an .823 OPS with a 5.5% walk rate. July, so far, is a very small sample size of just 44 plate appearances, but Harrison has only walked one time and has a .645 OPS for the month.
Harrison doesn’t need to post the high walk rates of Russell Martin and Ike Davis, but he does need to be more selective than he was in his first three years as a Pirate – if he is going to continue to post above-average major league numbers.
Andrew McCutchen began his Pirate career at age-22. He is now 27. And his first six seasons indicate that he may very well be on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Compare McCutchen’s career numbers to those of Roberto Clemente from ages 22 through 27:
Plate Appearances: Cutch: 3,586; Roberto 3,302
Batting Average: Cutch: .299; Roberto: .305
On-Base Percentage: Cutch: .385; Roberto: .343
Slugging: Cutch .498; Roberto: .443
OPS: Cutch: .884; Roberto: .786
Home Runs: Cutch: 120; Roberto: 63
Stolen Bases: Cutch: 140; Roberto: 24
BB%: Cutch: 11.7%; Roberto: 5.4%
K%: Cutch: 16.8%; Roberto: 10.3%
K/BB: Cutch: 1.44; Roberto: 1.91
WAR: Cutch: 31.6; Roberto: 19.3
But the number which I believe best compares the overall performance of hitters from different eras is “weighted Runs Created Plus” (wRC+). It adjusts for the player’s home park and it compares the players numbers to the league averages during his career.
McCutchen’s career wRC+ is 143. That means that his hitting has been 43% better than league average. Clemente’s wRC+, from age 22 through age 27, was 110; 10% better than league average. He finished his career with a 129 wRC+.
Andrew McCutchen has a big head start on a Hall of Fame career and he just might end up being a greater player than the Great Roberto Clemente.