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Pittsburgh Pirates and a Running Game Philosophy

A look at the philosophy taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates with respect to managing baserunners.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington
Pirates GM Neal Huntington
Jared Wickerham

In November 10, 2011, free agent Rod Barajas signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. One wonders if he understood at the time what he was getting himself into.

Barajas joined an organization that made a conscious decision to instruct their pitchers throughout the organization to focus on the hitter in potential stolen base situations. This philosophy of prioritizing quality pitches over tactics to keep baserunners at bay extended to pitchers at the major league level, which resulted in a historically poor control of the running game for Pittsburgh in 2012.

In a recent interview with the folks at Bucs Dugout, Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington described their philosophy about controlling the running game.

There's two parts to controlling the running game. One is keeping runners from stealing bases. The other is keeping the hitter from hitting the ball as hard somewhere in play for doubles, and out of play for home runs. So we've probably overemphasized quality pitching [and] quality location at the expense of release time. That is shifting for us as an organization, from top to bottom. We're going to become more cognizant of release time, without costing too much of the quality pitching [and] quality location. We've got to unload the ball a little quicker. We've got to hold the ball better. We've got to vary our times and our looks better, all the things that you can do to minimize basestealing, reduce basestealing.

The Pirates as a unit allowed a league high 154 stolen bases, while managing to catch a scarce 19 runners over the season. The 19 CS was the lowest total recorded by a team in a single season in 50 years, since the Yankees and Red Sox caught less runners in 1963. Of course this dates back to a time in baseball history when there were less games played as well as drastically fewer stolen base attempts. Only the 2007 San Diego Padres team caught runners at a worse rate during this span. The Pirates allowed the Brewers alone to steal 34 bases against them this season. The Diamondbacks allowed only 48 stolen bases total over the entire season.

As a brief illustration of the dramatic effect this sort of decision can make on results, consider the following table contrasting the defensive baserunning numbers of the two Pirates catchers between 2011 and 2012:

Year Catcher Team SB Allowed CS CS% SB Attempt%
2011 Rod Barajas LAD 60 20 25% 7%
2012 Rod Barajas PIT 93 6 6% 8%
2011 Michael McKenry PIT 39 12 25% 6%
2012 Michael McKenry PIT 61 13 18% 8%

The first observation that jumps off the page is the absolute nosedive in the baserunning control achieved by Barajas in his first season in Pittsburgh compared to just one year prior in Los Angeles. In reaching his mid-30s, certainly Barajas would be expected to be in a declining phase of his career, but a drop in CS% from 25% to just 6% in one season is remarkable. Even Pirates' backstop Michael McKenry experienced a noted decrease in CS% in the 2012 season despite having played in Pittsburgh for both seasons.

Another interesting observation from the table is the relatively incremental increase in the percentage of stolen base attempts against Pittsburgh in 2012, considering the utter failure to stop the run, in particular with Barajas behind the plate. In this case, the value presented is the total number of stolen base attempts as a percentage of the plate appearances with a runner on first or second with the next base open. I would have expected a more concerted effort by opposing teams to take advantage of such opportunities to advance runners into better scoring position. While teams did attempt more stolen bases on a monthly basis over the course of the year, these levels track in step with team WHIP, keeping the SB Attempt% relatively stable. Only in September/October did the number of attempts truly rise, relatively speaking.

On the pitching side, nobody seems to have taken the Pirates' philosophy to heart more so than new addition A.J. Burnett. Similar to fellow newcomer Barajas on the other end of the battery, Burnett saw his CS% drop from 23% a year ago in New York down to just 5% in a Pirates uniform.

Of course allowing stolen bases also has the collateral sort of damage like reducing the number of double play opportunities over the course of a season. The Pirates finished 24th in the league with 111 double plays turned.

Using the 2012 runSB and runCS constants, we can say that on average, the net consequence of the Pirates' lack of running game control cost the team about 23 runs in the field. The lack of running game control thus yielded an expected loss of about two wins for the Pirates in 2012.

Having covered the outcome of the negative side of the Pirates' philosophy of baserunning control from the past season, we can try to assess whether there were any realized benefits of having their pitchers focus on the batter. Presumably, less slide steps, less distracting changes of pace and throws over to first, and perhaps less willingness to give in and throw a pitch type or a pitch location to set up good caught stealing potential would hopefully lead to better performance with respect to hitter outcomes in these stolen base opportunity game situations.

One item to note is that there were several changes to the Pirates' pitching staff between 2011 and 2012. Burnett, Erik Bedard and even Wandy Rodriguez added some much needed strikeout ability to the starting rotation in 2012, taking over the innings worked by Charlie Morton and Paul Maholm in 2011.

Due to the number of changes, comparing staff pitching performance between the two years is not very constructive. What we can do is examine the staff performance in prime stolen base situations in each season and compare that to the average performance of the same pitching staff across all situations.

For the purposes of this test, I will focus on the occasions where a steal of second is possible. These situations accounted for 82% of the stolen base attempts in each of the past two seasons, and represent the scenarios where I believe pitchers are most likely to make changes to their preparation, delivery or pitch with controlling the running game in mind.

Year K% NIBB% HR% LD%(*)
2011 -2.3% -0.7% 0.3% 0.9%
2012 -1.0% -1.9% 0.3% 0.3%

Deltas between Pirates pitching staff averages and averages with a runner on first with second base open
(* LD% was only available with a runner on first only, not runners at first and third)

From the table, we can see in the two areas that a pitcher controls the most, strikeouts and walks, the staff improved in 2012 in situations with a steal of second base possible relative to their overall performance in that year. Strikeouts were down less in these prime stealing situations than the year before, and walks were restricted even more. As proxies for the quality of contact that hitters were making in these situations, HR% and LD% are also presented. We can see the line drive rate was held down better this year, while the rate at which home runs were allowed had similar jumps in each year.

This type of data is not conclusive, as there is no way to prove that added focus on making quality pitches in these situations at the expense of the running game are to credit for these year-over-year improvements. The fact that the organization has described such a philosophy makes this the place to look for possible rewards, and if nothing else it would appear the Pirates did make some strides in the areas that they would have hoped for by taking this tact in these situations.

The Pirates front office has apparently decided to move away from this philosophy going forward, planning to once again promote tactics designed at keeping runners in check on the basepaths.

Certainly this is not the only or even the biggest problem facing the Pirates as a team. The team managed a wRC+ of 90 this past season, placing them fifth last in the league offensively. While they finished 12th overall in home runs, they were just 24th in runs scored.

There are also other examples of smaller game details where the Pirates did not perform well in 2012. While likely not related to their defensive running game philosophy, the Pirates also were the worst managers of stolen bases on the offensive side in 2012 as well. Their 42% CS% landed them in the league basement, costing them about 6 runs on offense using the same run constants. Defensively, the Pirates allowed the most bunt hits, and allowed the fifth most runners to reach on an error.

The Pirates have some issues to resolve, both big and small. This same statement applies to every team that missed the playoffs in 2012. I applaud Neal Huntington for speaking openly about the philosophy that they took in running game management. While cause and effect can never be directly shown, the Pirates did improve in batter outcomes most controlled by pitchers in prime stolen base situations in 2012.

While at a first look the stolen base numbers look gruesome, it is important to keep in mind that there was a trade-off at work here, and it is unfair to look at one side without considering the other.

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Credit and thanks to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs for data upon which this analysis was based.