The Pirates' reversal of fortune

Falling flat on his face, or making a great play? - Justin K. Aller

The happy story of 2013, the Pirates, are not having a happy time in 2014. Here's why.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, darlings of the 2013 season, find themselves in a familiar position in 2014: more losses than wins. Many analysts predicted regression, saying that the Pirates couldn't repeat their success. Others, including myself, saw their incredible run prevention results as the product of an organization-wide strategy, which can be repeated year to year. What has happened? Who's right (so far)?

Looking at the position players first, there doesn't appear to be any regression. Their power is down (.151 ISO last year vs. .130 ISO this year), but that could be attributed to the miserable April experienced by the majority of baseball this year. Overall, the offense is clicking along as it did last year; their 2013 team wRC+ was 98, and it's 97 this year. Offense is only part of the position players' responsibilities, though.

The organization-wide strategy involved shifting heavily to mask the defensive deficiencies of less highly regarded infielders. I'm not particularly confident saying anything definitive about defensive numbers this early into the year, but there doesn't seem to be a difference this year from last year. DRS likes the Pirates maybe a bit more than last year, but UZR thinks the team is a lot less range-y. Neil Walker's FanGraphs Def value is much lower than last year, but according to Inside Edge's fielding numbers, he's made 100% of the routine plays. Other infielders' numbers haven't changed much. I don't see any clear and convincing evidence of regression here.

The problem, therefore, must lie with the pitching staff, right? Coming into Sunday's game, the Pirates were allowing 4.3 runs/game, a far cry from the 3.6 runs/game of 2013. Is it really as simple as that? "Allow more runs, and you'll probably lose more games" is a statement that only a few people would argue. Well, if the defense is still OK, it must be the pitchers who are responsible for the increase. That's partially true.

The team's K% is down; losing A.J. Burnett and replacing him with Edinson Volquez probably didn't help. More importantly, there appears to be a home run problem with Pirates pitchers. The table below shows the starters' HR/9 and HR/FB% in 2014 (as of Sunday morning) compared to 2013.

Name 2013 HR/9 2014 HR/9 2013 HR/FB% 2014 HR/FB%
Gerrit Cole 0.54 1.15 8.1% 16.2%
Francisco Liriano 0.50 1.05 8.3% 14.3%
Charlie Morton 0.47 0.61 9.2% 9.7%
Edinson Volquez 0.52 1.04 9.1% 11.9%
5th Guy 0.60 1.66 8.9% 15.2%

The 2013 numbers for Edinson Volquez are actually A.J. Burnett's, whom Volquez more or less replaced. The 5th guy's stats for 2013 are Jeff Locke's, alone, while in 2014 it's Jeff Locke, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brandon Cumpton put together. I could have compared 2014's 5th guy stats to just about anyone from 2013 not named on the above list and the results would still be the same. Then again, all the home runs against the 5th guy belong to Rodriguez. Regardless, the Pirates' starters are giving up more home runs than last year. The starters overall rank 6th worst in HR/FB%, but they're very close to the teams just above them.

It would seem that the woes of the 2014 Pirates are due to the long ball. While pitchers probably have more control over home runs than other batted ball outcomes, the home run rate tends to hover around average for most pitchers. The Pirates' starters' triple slash ERA/FIP/xFIP of 4.56/4.36/3.92 suggests that the Pirates have been victims of poor luck in both outcomes and home run rate. Assuming the poor weather conditions did indeed have an effect on the power of the Pirate hitters, it is reasonable to assume that the same weather should have affected the Pirates pitchers. The fact that their home run problems have occurred in this environment is not a good sign. However, regression should still bring their home run numbers down; those HR/FB% numbers are unsustainable. Maybe they won't be as good as last year in run prevention, but they aren't as bad as they have been so far. In this instance, I do see evidence of regression. Last year, home runs were limited. This year, so far, home runs are excessive. Somewhere, there's a middle point the Pirates will find.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Kevin Ruprecht is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royal Stats for Everyone. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.

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