Welcome to Stats 'N’at, a weekly feature that takes a deep dive into the numbers that define the Pittsburgh sports scene.
Growing up, I dreamed of being the next Pittsburgh sports superstar. I even practiced. I dressed up as sack master Kevin Greene for Halloween, complete with a blonde wig and inflatable biceps re-purposed from a brother's Hulk Hogan costume. I saluted like Jaromir Jagr after every dekhockey goal I scored. I paid homage to Willie Stargell -- and drove my Little League coaches insane -- by imitating Pops' windmill batting stance. (This being the '90s, I didn't have too many contemporary baseball heroes). I learned math, not in class (sorry, Mrs. Anderson), but by crunching sports stats by hand.
At some point -- probably when I got the bat knocked out of my hands by a future Division I pitcher (my hands still sting) -- I realized I wasn't going to be Pittsburgh's next sports star. So, I decided to write about those stars. That decision led me on a winding road that featured many media outlets, many pro and college locker rooms, and ungodly amounts of late-night caffeine. And, happily, it has led me here to DKPittsburghSports.com.
I'm a longtime member of this site because it has always felt like the content was made just for me. And that's exactly what I want this column to be: For you. Let's explore cutting-edge stats together, and collectively learn something new about the Penguins, Steelers, Pirates, and the local college teams. Bring me your questions, and I'll do my absolute best to answer them.
Let's get to it ...
For some among the Pirates' fan base, sentiment toward the Chris Archer trade has devolved from initial elation to consternation.
Archer has underwhelmed in black and gold, posting a 6.45 ERA through his first five starts, including his worst start yet Sunday in Milwaukee. That continues a trend of underachievement for the two-time All-Star: Once you adjust for park factors and quality of competition, his 2018 ERA is 12 percent worse than the Major League Baseball average. The Pirates need much more from Archer to justify trading Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and power-armed 2017 first-round pick Shane Baz to the Rays.
But Archer still has top-of-the-rotation talent and should surrender far fewer runs from here on out. Consider:
• He's been unlucky, getting victimized by bloop hits and seeing-eye singles. That wasn't the case Sunday in Milwaukee, but his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .350 for the season, which is nearly 50 points above his career average. He does surrender slightly harder contact than the average MLB pitcher (batters have an average exit velocity against Archer of 89.5 mph, compared to the 87.3 league average), but that’s not enough to justify the sky-high rate of balls falling for hits against him.
• He’s still got swing-and-miss stuff. Among MLB starters who have thrown at least 110 innings, Archer has the 15th-highest swinging strike rate (13.3%) and ranks 20th in strikeout rate (9.6 per nine innings). The whiff rate on his signature slider (35.4%) is right in line with his career average. Of his five strikeouts Sunday, three came swinging through sliders. He can still dominate hitters.
• His ERA is 6.45 since joining the Pirates, 4.72 for the season. The latter ranks 76th among MLB starters with 110+ innings pitched. But his Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) — a more accurate barometer of long-term success that accounts for strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed — is a much more palatable 3.81. That’s just outside the top 30 among MLB starters. In fact, Archer has one of the five largest disparities between his ERA and FIP among all MLB starters:
It might be years before we can truly say whether the Archer deal was worth it, but the splashiest acquisition in recent franchise history hasn’t lost his ability.
• Glasnow dealing: Speaking of the Archer deal, what in the world has gotten into Glasnow?
In Pittsburgh, the 6-foot-8 righty struggled so much with his control that he went from a consensus top-20 prospect to a low-leverage reliever within the course of two seasons. Given another opportunity to start by the Rays, Glasnow has a 3.80 ERA in five outings. He has cut his walk rate to an acceptable level (3.42 walks per nine innings with Tampa, 5.46 with the Pirates), and has actually raised his strikeout rate, to 12.2 per nine innings.
So, what’s different so far?
He’s getting ahead in the count more often, throwing first-pitch strikes 58.2% of the time with Tampa, compared to 52.3% with the Pirates and the 60.6% MLB average. And, while Glasnow hasn’t changed his pitch mix much (he’s still throwing fastballs more than 70% of the time), he has changed the location of his fastball. With Pittsburgh, Glasnow tossed 35.2% of his fastballs to the upper third of the strike zone. In Tampa, he’s challenging opponents up in the zone 45.3% of the time.
Many pitchers have decided to throw more high fastballs, attempting to thwart the deluge of launch angle-obsessed hitters with uppercut swings. Glasnow looks like he’s adapting, too.
• The defense needs an overhaul: The Pirates have completely fallen out of playoff contention for a variety of reasons, but one overlooked culprit is the club's poor defensive performance.
According to Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) stat, the Pirates have collectively been minus-40 runs worse than the average MLB team. DRS measures a player's defensive value compared to an average defender at his position, and accounts for errors, range, arm strength and accuracy, and double-play ability. A win is estimated to be worth about 10 runs, so the Pirates' lousy defense has cost them about four wins in the standings.
Help could be on the way: Third base prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes is considered a much better defender than Colin Moran (-8 DRS), and Kevin Newman could be an upgrade at shortstop over a declining Jordy Mercer (-11 DRS).
• A new era of great, old QBs: Mason Rudolph’s in town and might be the eventual successor, but Ben Roethlisberger has made it very clear — in his words, offseason training regimen, and on-field play — that he’s not going anywhere. He’s coming off a 4,000-plus passing yard campaign in 2017, and he seems poised for another one during his age-36 season.
That used to be an age when quarterbacks were either washed up or already retired. But, with the benefits of modern medicine, better nutrition and training plans, and rule changes meant to prevent serious injury, older QBs are thriving. Last year, Roethlisberger ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic. DVOA measures the per-play value of a particular quarterback compared to an average QB. Joining Ben in the top ten in DVOA were old-timers Tom Brady (second in DVOA during his age-40 season), Drew Brees (third during his age-38 season), and Philip Rivers (fourth during his age-36 season).
Terry Bradshaw was out of the league by 36. Ben and his QB cohort are still going strong. Maybe this is the new norm across the NFL.
• Too much money for Vince? As a former sixth-round draft pick who clawed his way to the active roster, earned a starting job, and recently signed a lucrative contract extension, Vince Williams is unquestionably a developmental success story. But should the Steelers have been so eager to give Williams a four-year, $20-plus million deal?
As a pass rusher, the 28-year-old is a beast. He racked up eight sacks last season and ranked third among all NFL inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' pass rushing grade (with a score of 88.2 out of a possible 100). The rest of his game, however, is limited. Williams had a 55.8 grade in pass coverage, and a 56.1 grade against the run. Both of those grades ranked outside the top 80 among inside backers.
• The Boz gets a big deal: Another Steeler with a great backstory, former Giants and Texans castoff Chris Boswell, got paid this past week. Boswell, 27, received a five-year extension that pays him just under $20 million in total, and makes him the sixth-highest paid NFL kicker on an annual basis.
If he keeps producing like he has over the past three seasons, The Boz will earn his money. He has made 89.5% of his attempted field goals in the NFL. Since the AFL-NFL merger, the only kicker with a minimum of 90 attempts with a higher field goal percentage is Justin Tucker (90.2%). Boswell isn't just booting a bunch of 30-yarders through the posts, either. He has a career 83.3% success rate on field goals of at least 40 yards.
• The old man and the C (or wing): Matt Cullen, about to celebrate his 42nd birthday and coming off a Minnesota homecoming that didn't go according to plan on the ice, is back with the Penguins while trying to earn a bottom-line spot in 2018-19. It won't be an easy task, given the Penguins' center depth, collection of promising young wingers, and Cullen's wretched performance with the Wild.
He had his lowest full-season point total (22) since the 2003-04 season, and Minnesota's share of shots attempted was 8.1% worse with Cullen on the ice compared to when he was on the bench. Among players who suited up for at 60 games last season, only Justin Braun (-8.5%), now-former Penguin Tom Kuhnhackl (-9.6%) and Jay Beagle (-10.8%) were more of a drag on their team's possession metrics.
• High risk, low reward: Everyone knows that the Penguins under Mike Sullivan like to play at warp speed, which leads to some spectacular offensive results and, of course, plenty of chances for the other team. But last year, their uptempo style burned them more often than it had during their back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning campaigns.
In 2017-18, the Penguins generated 50.7% of total High-Danger Chances (HDCF) during their games. High-Danger Chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, are scoring chances that are especially likely to lead to goals because they're shots taken closer to the net, come off the rush, and/or involve a juicy rebound. The Penguins' HDCF% placed 12th among NHL teams last year, a run-of-the-mill rank. In 2016-17, the Pens had a 53.7 HDCF%, fourth in the NHL. And in 2015-16, they had a 55.1 HDCF% that was third.
Put another way, the Penguins generated considerably more high-quality shots than the opposition while raising Lord Stanley. Last year, they gave up as many as they got.
• ... but Murray's not off the hook: The Penguins giving up so many quality scoring chances obviously affects Matt Murray, and offers an example of why it can be difficult to quantify goalie value on raw save percentage alone. But even with the Penguins hanging him out to dry at times, Murray still needs to be sharper.
Murray's expected save percentage last year was 92%, according to Corsica Hockey. Expected save percentage is calculated based on shot difficulty, including shot location and odd-man rush situations. His actual save percentage was 90.7%, so he stopped 1.3% fewer shots than would be expected in 2017-18. In 2016-17, Murray stopped 1.6% more shots than expected, and in 2015-16, he stopped 0.7% more shots than expected.
He's 24, he can still be a franchise-caliber netminder, and he clearly had a lot on his plate last year. It would be a huge boon to the Penguins' chances of winning three Cups in four years if he returns to form.
• Mack attack at Pitt: The Pitt football team added an unexpected potential playmaker to the mix when wide receiver Taysir Mack, a transfer from Indiana, was ruled eligible for the 2018 season. As a freshman for the Hoosiers, Mack averaged 13.5 yards per reception. The Panthers, meanwhile, have to replace Jester Weah (17 yards per reception last season), and lack big-play threats among returning wideouts (Rafael Araujo-Lopes led incumbent receivers with 12.3 yards per catch).
• Without Quadree, a quandary: While Pitt adds Mack, they say farewell to one of the school's all-time threats in Quadree Henderson. The Steelers hopeful averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return during his college career, and 13.4 yards per punt return. For comparison's sake, the ACC averages last season were 22.1 yards per kickoff return and 9.7 yards per punt return. Henderson routinely flipped field position for the Panthers. Unless they find another ace returner, Kenny Pickett and company will have to supply more splash plays to make up the difference.
• McSorley keeps climbing: Heisman hopeful quarterback Trace McSorley is rewriting the Penn State record books. He already holds the school's all-time passing touchdown record (59), as well as the record for total touchdowns (77) and total offensive yards (8,268). He's a handful of huge games away from surpassing Christian Hackenberg's record of 8,427 career passing yards. Shorter QBs face a steep climb in the pros, but McSorley's surely playing his way into a shot at an NFL career.
THE NATIONAL TREND
• Younger, better position players: Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and the ridiculously young and talented Braves swept the Pirates last week. If it seems to you like MLB position players are skewing younger—and hitting the ground running—then you’re on to something.
The average age of MLB position players this season is 28.2 years old, which is the lowest collective age since 1980. Hitters who are age 25 or younger this year have compiled 146 Wins Above Replacement (WAR, an all-encompassing measure of a player’s batting, fielding, and baserunning value compared to that of a typical Quad-A-type player). That’s already the tenth-highest WAR total during the Expansion Era (1960-present) for position players who are 25 or younger.
With a month of baseball left, the 2018 young guns could crack the top five and maybe even get reasonably close to the Expansion-Era mark of 184 WAR, set by the 2015 cohort of age-25-and-younger position players.
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