How do major league baseball teams get better? That was the topic of two articles published separately yesterday.
“How the Pirates Built a Playoff Team” was written by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs. He outlines several explanations for why the Pittsburgh Pirates have improved so dramatically this season.
Pirate general manager Neal Huntington has endorsed modern analytics. Huntington has used modern views on defensive efficiency to improve the Pirates through emphasis on ground balls and made the organization aggressively use data for defensive shifting.
The Cameron article takes this theory a step further and explains how Huntington used advanced metrics (like FIP and xFIP) to identify pitchers who were undervalued by other teams. They were able to acquire Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and A.J. Burnett, and relatively cheaply at that.
The idea that a pitcher can be primarily evaluated on his walks, strikeouts, and ground balls is still a pretty unpopular opinion with a lot of people. It feels wrong to essentially ignore all the other parts of baseball, especially when you see a guy give up tons of hits and home runs and then hear some nerd with a spreadsheet explain that those don’t actually mean that he’s a bad pitcher. A lot of teams — most teams, I’d say — still prefer to evaluate pitchers based on some kind of runs allowed basis. The Pirates, though, bought into the idea that they could build a pitching staff with fixable underachievers. … In all three cases, though, the Pirates chose to buy low on a talented arm who had seen his stock fall because of things that could reasonably be expected to not continue. Those moves gave them two frontline starting pitchers and one of the best relievers in the National League this season.
According to Cameron, the Pirates were also successful because they were willing to ignore entrenched position stereotypes. In the cases of Neil Walker (2B) and Starling Marte (LF) they put better players on the field even though Walker and Marte didn’t fit normal rules for how players at those positions should look and perform.
But instead of buying into the notion of needing power from the corners and defense up the middle, the Pirates just found a way to put their most talented players on the field, and if that meant playing a speed-and-defense center fielder in left, then so be it. Marte has responded with a breakout season, providing remarkable value with his legs on both offense and defense. Rather than thinking his speed would be wasted in a corner spot, the Pirates gave Marte a chance to show what he could do, and he’s been one of the NL’s best left fielders this season. … The idea that players at certain positions need to have a particular offensive skill set is almost entirely outdated, and the Pirates have done well to ignore those norms, putting players at positions where they might not look like the part and getting significant value in the process.
The Reds may have done this somewhat with the acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo to play CF. But also consider Choo playing LF with Billy Hamilton in CF even though Choo isn’t a classic left fielder like Ryan Ludwick.
In sum, the Pirates under Huntington’s leadership are embracing the next generation of Moneyball. In 2013, it paid dividends with the club making the postseason for the first time in over 20 years.
“Accountability instilled in Reds’ pitching staff” was written by Reds beat writer Mark Sheldon. It’s about Bryan Price and assistant pitching coach Mack Jenkins. Price not only preaches a philosophy of accountability, he and Jenkins also follow through. Sheldon details how this approach has influenced the mindset of the entire pitching staff, even its top stars like Mat Latos and Homer Bailey. One example:
As mild-mannered and pleasant as Price usually seems, he can also effectively show that he’s all business and deliver a clear message when it’s time to criticize. Bailey learned that in a July 26 game at Los Angeles, when he was late covering first base on a Carl Crawford infield single. … “I come back in the dugout, and [he said], ‘You were late to first base. That’s unacceptable.’ I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s my fault; it won’t happen again,'” Bailey said. “And it didn’t. It’s about the little things we all must do right. … We are all held very accountable on certain things, as far as pitching goes. If you can’t do that when you come up, you’ll be sent out.”
This anecdote occurred four starts after Bailey had thrown his second no-hitter.
Jeff Brantley has made the point that Price’s approach, of setting high standards and always challenging the pitchers to improve, has made a huge difference. The Reds pitching staff has clearly continued to excel in 2013 under Price’s leadership and carried the team back to the postseason.
Sheldon implicitly makes a strong case for Bryan Price becoming a manager.
If the Reds’ position players were held up to that level of accountability from Dusty Baker, they might cut down on the fielding errors, lack of plate discipline and horrific base running mistakes. But that would fly in the face of Baker’s preferred philosophy of being a “players’ manager.”