STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- I'm sure you've heard by now, but this site is five years old today!
Over those five years, Pirates fans have seen their team go from a team seemingly poised to maintain a competitive window for a significant length of time to a club that has waffled into quasi-contention over the past few seasons.
I thought it might be a fun exercise to revisit a handful of the more interesting story lines and trends over those five seasons from a statistical standpoint. By no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list. Far from it. Rather, consider these to be a few that carried significant impact. I'd love to hear from you down in the comments with your contributions to this list.
First up, a tale of a former MVP that suddenly took a nosedive, all seemingly from one minor change.
CUTCH MOVES TO SECOND IN ORDER, DROPS OFF
The Pirates were coming off of a second consecutive Wild Card round exit in 2015, being outclassed in what amounts to a play-in game for the real playoffs. One could hardly begrudge them, then, for trying Andrew McCutchen in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. After all, data showed that hitters in the second spot receive about 30 more plate appearances per season, as well as more RBI chances. So why not put your best hitter in that spot instead of rigidly keeping him third?
Well, score one for the human element in the fight against analytics with this one. McCutchen did not respond well to the change at all, and it led to his worst season with the Pirates in terms of wOBA with a .329 figure, as opposed to the .393 he posted during his MVP 2013 season and the god-like .412 he put up in 2014. All told, McCutchen hit .237 with a .718 OPS in 61 starts batting second, as opposed to a .268 average/.799 OPS in the number three slot.
Perhaps it was a lost season for McCutchen regardless of the change -- and that can be applied to the team as well, for that matter -- but all we have left to judge his 2016 by are the numbers. I'll stop short of saying this down year hastened his departure from PNC Park, as that seems like it was destined to happen — the Pirates just were not going to be able to afford him with their limited payroll. But what the slump-filled season might have done is give the organization a glimpse into what their club would look like without McCutchen's usual production.
EVERYTHING ABOUT THE 2015 PITCHING STAFF
Quick, can you tell me which Pirates starter struck out the most hitters per nine in 2015?
No, it wasn't Gerrit Cole. It was Francisco Liriano, who struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings across his 30 starts. He was at the peak of his powers then, and his slider was never in better shape. Those two starters would each tally more than 200 strikeouts. Liriano led the way with 205, while Cole nipped at his heels with 202 punchouts. Those two totals represent two of the eight seasons since 1950 in which a Pirates starter has compiled 200 or more strikeouts. And 2015 still stands as the only season in which the club had two starters collect 200 or more in the same campaign over that same time frame.
Perhaps this nugget encapsulates just how good the team's starting pitching was. Here's a deeper look at where they stood among all MLB starting pitching that season:
Aside from a pedestrian walk rate, Pirates starters were the real deal in 2015. And, see those ground ball/fly ball rates? Can it be no wonder, then, that the club got saddled with a reputation of doggedly chasing ground balls no matter how such an approach would put them firmly behind when trends went the other way? Because I sure as heck am not surprised when I revisit these numbers.
The bullpen also pulled its weight:
The relief unit was a little less flashy, but ended the season as the most effective unit by many indicators. Mark Melancon grabbed the headlines with a 51-save season, but Tony Watson was the glue that held the bullpen together. He carried a 1.91 ERA that year while leading all relievers not named Melancon in innings pitched. The club was also boosted by bargain trade acquisitions Arquimedes Caminero (3.62 ERA/8.8 K/9) and Antonio Bastardo (2.98 ERA/10.0 K/9).
In fact, 2015 might also go down as Neal Huntington's best year in acquiring pitching help that turned immediate dividends. Not only did he win the deadline (in terms of pitching, at least) in acquiring J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria, but he also recognized that A.J. Burnett still had some effective innings in him. "Batman" gave the club every last bit of good baseball he had left, and finished the year (albeit, cut short by injury) with a 3.18 ERA and 7.8 K/9.
Is anyone still wondering how the team won 98 games? Because this is the answer.
THE SLOW ACCEPTANCE OF BREAKING BALLS
In 2014, Pirates pitchers threw breaking balls for 23.1 percent of their pitches.
In 2019, when the breaking ball is seeing its highest ever usage in the Statcast/Pitch Tracking era at 28.7 percent, the club is finally in lock step with this trend, though the organization was likely kicking and screaming along the way. Here's a look at the team's tortured journey:
Before I go any further ... gee, look: there's 2015 again. The club's best pitching staff in the Huntington era also seemingly stayed closer to league-wide trends than it ever did. Hmm.
I digress. For all the drum-beating that goes on about the Pirates finally -- finally! -- embracing the breaking ball, one should never forget that Jameson Taillon took it upon himself to throw a slider that fateful day in May of 2018 that seemingly opened the flood gates for the club to be open to fully embracing the breaking stuff, even though they had been laying the groundwork for some time.
To be fair, the team had identified the need to change in targeting Ivan Nova and his 28.96 percent curveball usage at the 2016 deadline, followed by intense interest in curve-heavy Jose Quintana during the subsequent off-season.
Still, that too can be considered a half-measure as Nova dropped his curve usage by roughly 7 percent the following year in favor of, you guessed it, a heavier emphasis on his sub-par fastballs.
For the Pirates to replicate the 2015 pitching figures above -- to approximate them, even -- the powers that be will need to avoid the hand-wringing and second-guessing that comes with embracing a change like this. As the fictional portrayal of then Athletics GM Billy Beane uttered in the film version of Moneyball, "Adapt or die." That is the only dogma that the organization should subscribe to, especially when the pitching cupboards are stocked with a fair amount of talent.
These are but three statistical through lines that have stuck with me over these past five years, which seem to have flown by. What about you? To borrow a phrase from this site's founder, I'll be in the comments for whatever you've got. And, they don't have to be analytically/statistically bent. Anything is fair game.
Also, I'd like to take a moment to thank Dejan and everyone on the team at DKPS for bringing me on this season to add to the already sterling Pirates coverage. To work alongside such giants in the industry has been a real treat for me, and I don't take it lightly. Most of all, I'd like to thank you, the reader, for keeping me on my toes and always coming with the best feedback in the business, and also for, well, your readership! As DK has reiterated many times over, this site is nothing without you, and we are forever grateful.
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