The Pittsburgh Lumber Company, these guys aren't.
The 2019 Pirates have mostly squandered brilliant starting pitching by scoring just 3.23 runs per game, which ranks 28th in the majors. Even when you adjust for park and league factors, their on-base plus slugging percentage is 25 percent worse than the overall MLB average (75 OPS+). That's 25th in the game, and a huge step down from last year's middle of the road 97 OPS+.
There has been one positive development amid the sea of outs and one-two-three innings, however: Josh Bell is seems to be morphing into the terrifying power hitter that fans and the franchise have been waiting for since the team persuaded him to turn pro back in 2011.
With a 147 OPS+, Bell is the only regular position player aside from Melky Cabrera (128 OPS+) with an adjusted batting line that is better than the big league average, and his production dwarfs his output during a disappointing 2018 season (111 OPS+). He ranks just outside the top 30 among all qualified MLB hitters, and he has already hit half as many home runs this season (six) as he did in all of 2018 (12).
So, how has the 6-foot-4, 240-pound switch-hitter rediscovered his power stroke?
Here are three key reasons.
• He's smoking the baseball. Last year, Bell put the ball in play at an average of 90 mph. That's pretty good (the MLB average is 87.4 mph), but not exactly elite for a first baseman. This year, though? Bell's average exit velocity is 94.1 mph. That's good for 11th among all big leaguers who have put at least 25 balls in play this season. The only players who have ripped the seams off the ball with more authority are Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Yoan Moncada, Franmil Reyes, Christian Walker, Christian Yelich, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick and Gary Sanchez. About 53 percent of his balls in play have been classified as hard hit (meaning 95+ mph), which is 17th in the majors and up from his mark of 39 percent in 2018. Bell is making absolutely lethal contact.
• He's hitting for power to all fields. Last year, Bell hit for some power to center field, but his slugging suffered when he put the ball in play to his pull side or the opposite field. This year, he's crushing pitches in every direction. Take a look at his slugging percentage by side of the field, compared to his production last season as well as the overall MLB average. The graphic below includes Bell's production from both sides of the plate.
With a whopping 1.200 slugging percentage to center field, Bell trails only the Yankees' Luke Voit (1.231) among all MLB hitters. His .684 slugging percentage to the opposite field ranks in the top 30 among qualified hitters as well.
• He's killing breaking and off-speed stuff. Bell is hitting for more power versus fastballs, too, raising his slugging percentage from .458 last year to .617 in 2019. But his progress against sliders, curveballs and changeups has been even more impressive. In 2018, Bell slugged .339 versus breaking pitches. This year, he's slugging .583. He was a singles hitter against off-speed pitches last year (.318 slugging percentage), but has obliterated them in 2019 (.545 slugging percentage). No matter what pitchers are throwing, Bell is doing damage. Maybe it's time to break out the knuckleball or a screwball.
While Bell is still scuffling defensively (he has committed a pair of errors and cost the Pirates a pair of runs compared to an average first baseman), his heavy hitting has more than made up the difference so far. It's probably still too early to declare him an elite power hitter from this point forward--most projection systems expect him to slug around .460 during the rest of the 2019 season--but Bell's superb April at least gives the Pirates hope that he can be a long-term fixture in the middle of a lineup that has been battered by injuries and underperformance.
• Doing more with less: Like, well, literally all of his rotation mates, Joe Musgrove is off to a phenomenal start in 2019. He boasts a Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) of 2.51, which is more than a full run below his mark in 2018 (3.59). FIP estimates a pitcher's expected ERA based on factors that are less luck-prone and more within the pitcher's direct control--namely, strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. Musgrove has done that while throwing his fastball at an average of just 90.9 mph. That's down more than two full ticks from his average fastball velocity in 2018 (93 mph). That decrease hasn't hindered the effectiveness of the pitch. In fact, quite the opposite. Musgrove's fastball has been +1.4 runs better than an average MLB heater per 100 pitches thrown, according to Fangraphs. In 2018, it was +0.5 runs above average per 100 pitches thrown. It helps that Musgrove has a deep repertoire. He's throwing his fastball just 48 percent of the time (50 percent last year), while mixing in plenty of sliders (26 percent of his pitches) and changeups (16 percent). Both the slider (+2.5 runs above average per 100 pitches) and changeup (+1.1 per 100) have been stellar, too.
• Can you spare a run? How bad has the Pirates' hitting been in 2019? Once you adjust for park and league factors, the last time that the Pirates' lineup was this punchless (25 percent below average) was back when Branch Rickey was GM, Fred Haney was the skipper and Roberto Clemente was a rookie. The 1955 Pirates were 24 percent worse with the lumber. The only other seasons where the offense struggled as much or more than in 2019 include '55, 1954 (25 percent below average), 1953 (27 percent below average) and 1952 (30 percent below average). Unless the Pirates' rotation continues to perform like a bunch of Bob Gibson clones, the bats will need to step up big time.
• Devin Bush a bargain? In 2018, the Steelers watched teams gobble up top-rated inside linebackers before they had the chance to take one in the first round. Not this year. Pittsburgh traded up to the tenth spot in the 2019 draft to select Michigan's Devin Bush, acquiring a celebrated three-down linebacker while parting with the 20th overall pick, their second rounder in 2019 (52nd overall) and their 2020 third-round pick. So, did the Steelers get fair value? The Pro Football Reference Draft Pick Trade Value Chart suggests that they paid the going rate to trade up in round one. The trade chart, based on Jimmy Johnson's work with the Cowboys, assigns a numerical value to each draft pick. The tenth overall pick that the Steelers acquired from the Broncos has a value of 1,300 points. The 20th overall pick has a value of 850 points, and the 52nd overall pick has a value of 380 points. If the third-rounder that the Steelers traded next year comes toward the end of the round, then it has a value of about 175 points. You could argue that the 2020 pick has less value, since it can't be converted into a present-day player. That's 1,300 points for the Steelers, and about 1,400 points going back to the Broncos. A fair deal--and one that Pittsburgh won't regret in the slightest if Bush lives up to his immense potential.
• Plenty of snaps for Barron: Even with the first-round selection of Bush at inside linebacker, expect to see plenty of Mark Barron in 2019. The safety-turned-inside linebacker who signed a two-year, $12 million free agent deal should get snaps in a hybrid role, chasing around running backs and tight ends who have become a more prominent part of the passing game. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Steelers faced offensive formations featuring three or more receivers 66 percent of the time last season. That means more nickel and dime formations for Pittsburgh, and more playing time for a guy like Barron who has experience in both stopping the run and dropping into coverage.
• Ben still going strong: Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old--an age where QBs used to be well into retirement or limping toward it. But there are plenty of reasons why the Steelers felt comfortable signing their franchise QB to a three-year contract extension. On a per-pass basis, Roethlisberger is still one of the best in the game at his position. In 2018, he ranked eighth among QBs in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). A Football Outsiders stat, DVOA represents the per-play value that a player contributes compared to an average NFL QB. DVOA is adjusted for game situation (down, distance, field position) and the quality of the opponent. With a 14.6 percent DVOA, Roethlisberger trailed only Tom Brady (15.4), Jared Goff (16.4), Ryan Fitzpatrick (16.8), Matt Ryan (18.2 percent), Philip Rivers (27.3), Drew Brees (36.8) and Patrick Mahomes (40.1) among QBs with at least 200 pass attempts. Advanced age aside, you can argue that Roethlisbeger remains in the upper tier of QBs.
• New and improved Gudbranson? When the Penguins acquired defenseman Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks, some fans grumbled. In a roundabout way, Pittsburgh had managed to turn the quintessential Mike Sullivan player--the ultra-quick, defense and transition game-minded Carl Hagelin--into a lumbering blue liner whose claim to fame was clocking Tom Wilson. A strange thing happened along the way, though: Gudbranson actually played really, really well with the Penguins. In Vancouver, he was a massive drag on the Canucks' puck possession. The team generated -7.4 percent fewer shots during five-on-five play compared to when he wasn't on the ice. In Pittsburgh, Gudbranson actually helped boost the Penguins' five-on-five shot share by +5.5 percent. So, what changed? Gudbranson still wasn't much of a factor offensively, averaging 0.11 points per game and 3.8 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time (compared to 0.14 points and 4.9 shots in Vancouver). But he was stifling defensively. Gudbranson helped allow 27.8 shots per 60 minutes of even-strength play, compared to 36.8 with the Canucks. Scoring chances fell massively, too (21 per 60 minutes with the Penguins, 33.9 with the Canucks). Gudbranson only played 19 regular-season games with the Penguins, but the early returns suggest he might be a better fit than many people--this writer included--thought.
• The Jack Johnson experience, Year 1: We're one year into the oft-discussed, oft-maligned five-year, $16.25 million contract that the Penguins handed Jack Johnson last summer. The advanced stats remain ugly--the Penguins took 5.6 percent fewer shots with him skating during five-on-five play (worse than his career mark of -3.4 percent). His points per game total (0.16) was also about half of his 0.33 career average. Making matters worse, Johnson also wasn't very good at one thing that Jim Rutherford specifically cited upon signing the former Blue Jackets defenseman: breakout passing. In 2017-18, Johnson ranked in the 92nd percentile among all NHL players in possession entry rate, according to research conducted by CJ Turtoro. When it came to ensuring his team had possession when entering the offensive zone, Johnson was better than 92 percent of the league. This past year, though? Johnson ranked in the 30th percentile in possession entry rate. He was worse than 70 percent of the league. With four years to go, it's becoming harder to find the positives in Johnson's game.
• Moving on: Matt Cullen may still be deciding whether he plays in 2019-20, but you can make a compelling case that the Penguins should thank the highly-respected veteran for all that he has contributed and find a new fourth-line center. This past season, the Penguins generated -8.2 percent fewer shots than the opposition when Cullen skated during five-on-five play compared to when he was on he bench. That was the fourth-worst differential among all NHL players who appeared in at least 50 games, besting only Luke Glendening (-8.9 percent shot differential), Gabriel Bourque (-9.3 percent) and Jay Beagle (-9.3 percent). Cullen is a defense-first payer, with about 81 percent of his faceoffs taking place in his own zone, but opponents had a much easier time peppering the goalie when he was skating (37.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time) compared to his last stint with the Penguins in 2016-17 (28.8 shots against per 60 minutes).
THE NATIONAL TREND
• Crushing it: Contact is a rarity in today's MLB. But when hitters do but the bat on the ball, they're killing it. In 2019, 37.2 percent of balls put in play have been classified as hard hit (meaning it left the bat at 95+ mph). That's the highest hard hit rate on record since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking batted ball data back in 2002. A decade ago, the hard hit rate was just 26.9 percent. Alas, the Pirates haven't joined the hard hit party. Just 28.1 percent of the team's balls put in play have been hit 95+ mph, the lowest rate in the majors.
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