Is Neil Walker Poised for a Breakout Year?

Posted by @ 04.22.14


Okay, okay, I’ll say more. The in-the-know reader is likely aware of the fact that Neil Walker is currently tied for the team lead with 6 home runs. This is significant, because the season is a mere 19 games young and Neil Walker has never hit more than 16 homers in a season. I will avoid playing the “he’s on pace for . . . ” game, but inspection of some of his peripheral statistics suggest his power, and hitting in general, could see a big boost in 2014.

On his FanGraphs page, I first noticed:
(1) he is currently hitting .275, close to his career average of .273
(2)his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is currently .250, which is down about 50 points from his career value
(3) his walk rate is currently half of what it was last season
(4) his strikeout rate is down 3% from 2013

Walker has seen small improvements to his walk and K rates since becoming a big leaguer. His walk rate decrease is perhaps worrisome, but there is no reason to think that that will not improve as the season progresses. What is more significant is that he is currently hitting at his career average, but his BABIP is much lower than it normally is. This speaks to the fact that Walker has, perhaps, been unlucky so far and his average is due to rise as more of his batted balls drop into play.

I next considered his batted ball data, again from FanGraphs. His line drive percentage and ground ball percentage are down, slightly, while his fly ball percentage has risen. His home run per fly ball rate has doubled from 10% to roughly 20%. His ground ball per fly ball ratio has been trending downward (towards more fly balls) the last three seasons. So more of his fly balls are going over the fence AND he is hitting more fly balls in general.

What about his average fly ball/home run distance, you ask? Baseball Heat Maps provides that information. Currently, Neil is getting an average of 303 ft per fly ball and home run. That is currently good for 23rd place in baseball, nestling him between Aramis Ramirez and Jayson Werth. Neil’s average distance is up a little over 18 feet per fly ball from last year’s 284 ft. For reference, his three years prior to that were 292, 293, and 294 ft. So he’s currently hitting it farther than ever, but not so much farther than years past.

Neil Walker has been a switch-hitter for his entire career. Though, he struggled mightily last year as a right-handed hitter (to the tune of a .225 average); he was even benched against some lefties down the stretch. For his career, Walker is a .265 hitter from the right side with only 5 of his 60 career homers against southpaws. Over the off-season, he worked on and may have fixed his right-handed swing by, get this, matching his left-handed swing. Travis Sawchik‘s article discusses the journey at length. So far, it seems like Walker’s work has paid off. Against lefties, he is 6 for 14 with a home run following a spring where he went 6 for 17 against lefties with a home run. Though the sample size is still quite small, the early results are encouraging, particularly the possibility of more power as a righty.

It is also worth mentioning that Walker turns 28 this season, entering the middle of the range of when players hit their peak or prime. The early home run numbers and improvements against lefties, coupled with some developing trends regarding his batted ball profile all speak to the fact that Neil is due for his best season as a hitter, perhaps one in which he hits 25+ home runs and cracks .280 at the plate. The season is not even a month old, of course, so there is plenty of time to watch all of this develop.

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Brewers Start Fist Fight on Easter, Catching Up

Posted by @ 04.22.14

The villainous Milwaukee Brewers have taken three of four games from our Pittsburgh Pirates. In rubbing salt into the proverbial wound, the Brewers and Pirates exchanged real wounds on the field. Carlos Gomez, known both for his maturity and tastefully-kempt facial hair, committed one of his opposite-of-rare batflips after hitting what he thought was a home run to center field.

The ball, of course, did not leave the park, but rather caromed back into center field. Gomez, who treated to himself to watching the entirety of the ball’s flight before touching first, turned on the jets and made it to third with a head-first slide. Since Gomez has the mind of a child, he doesn’t understand that his actions affect people and took offense to Cole’s offense. Rather than utilizing an effective technique to defuse his anger, he opted to swing his batting helmet at Travis Snider; a negative side-effect of having a car-bombed mind, I guess. You can watch the rest here, if you have not already seen it. Snider, Gomez, and Brewer coach, Jerry Narron, were ejected. The former two will face lengthy suspensions that should be doled out tomorrow; Martin Maldonado, who sucker-punched Snider, will be suspended, surely.

Losing Snider is in no way a problem for the Pirates. On the other hand, a Gomez suspension promises to be very problematic for the Brewers, who have almost no minor league depth whatsoever. Carlos Gomez is an idiot.

The Brewers went on to win, 3-2.

Ike Davis was acquired from the Mets on Friday for AAA reliever, Zack Thornton, and a player to be named later. The move was obviously driven by Ishikawa’s failures at first base; it also speaks very strongly to the fact that the Pirates are not especially confident in Andrew Lambo. Davis has his warts, typically a low batting average and a K% right around 25%, but is a marked improvement over Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez (against right-handers). He will not be a free agent until 2017. Zack Thornton and the PTBNL are a relatively small price to pay for almost three full years with Ike Davis. Even if he sort of returns to his 2012 form (.226 BA, 32 HR), then the Pirates will win out on this deal.

The Pirates placed Wandy Rodriguez on the DL today citing knee problems. While this is bad news, it is somewhat relieving to know that he won’t be pitching for a while. Some of his problems have stemmed from bad luck – his HR/FB rate is about double what it was last year – but by and large he is eroding. The Pirates recalled Jared Hughes/Lurch to join the bullpen, but it has not yet been announced who will be taking his place in the rotation. The three most likely candidates are Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and Stolmy Pimentel. Locke has only had one start in the minors so far and had a hard time. Cumpton is off to a decent start, though his low K numbers have persisted into this year, and Pimentel has had mixed results out of the bullpen. He has issued four walks in seven innings. My hope is that Pimentel is given the initial chance, but we’ll see what happens.

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Ryan Braun is not just another PED user

Posted by @ 04.21.14

Sports fans’ hate is usually very artificial. Stick two teams in the same division and within a couple of decades they’ll be able to give you lists of reasons why the other team and/or their fan base is terrible. The overwhelming majority of the time these reasons are based on selective memory and confirmation bias.

Hating Ryan Braun is not like that.

Hatred for Braun among the Pirate faithful was pretty pedestrian back when he was just a really good player on a divisional opponent. Every fan base has experienced the admixture of loathing and respect that comes from playing a talented opponent who often gets the best of you. It hit a new level when it was revealed he’d used PEDs. And it came to a boil this past series, where he almost single-handedly snatched away the last two games.

Pirates fans used this occasion to curse him out, which sparked the predictable Brewer fan backlash. And you know what happens when sports fans argue about artificial rivalries, right? It means a lot of really terrible arguments.

Terrible Argument #1: What About Barry Bonds?

What about him? Pirates fans hate Barry Bonds. Lots of them booed him on Opening Day this year. Not to mention that possibly all (and definitely most) of his PED usage came after he left Pittsburgh. And more importantly, this is an ad hominem argument that does nothing to defend Braun.

Terrible Argument #2: Volquez/Other-Pirate-Player used steroids!

You mean before they were on our team? Because as far as I can tell we don’t have a single player on the roster who’s been caught using PEDs while playing for us. Ryan Braun won an MVP award on PEDs. The Brewers have tangibly benefited from his PED usage.

Terrible Argument #3: Doc Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD

I’m not kidding. I actually saw someone make this argument. And what a riposte it is, what with rampant hallucination offering such a clear competitive advantage. Everyone knows it’s a lot easier to get people out when the umpire has a second head.

Put all these aside, though, because the worst argument is one that’s only being implied. All these comparisons imply that Braun’s PED usage is just like any other player’s. It isn’t.

This isn’t a guy with some level of unlikely-but-possible deniability (“My trainer gave me this cream and I just used it”). And this isn’t a guy who just did it, got caught, and served his time. This is a guy who did it, got caught, and continually and categorically lied about it. This is a guy who said the following:

This is all B.S. I am completely innocent.”

This isn’t Mark McGwire conspicuously refusing to say anything. This isn’t a lie of omission. It’s just a lie.

But even that isn’t the worst of it. The worst is that he accused the urine sample tester of being anti-Semitic. Think about that. This is just a guy that works in a lab. And Ryan Braun called him a bigot and tried to get him fired to hide his actions. This is the nuclear bomb in the argument, because there’s no way any serious, rational person can pretend this isn’t a different stratosphere of awfulness. The guy used bigotry as a weapon, for crying out loud, which is not only a horrendous thing to do to another human being, but dilutes the accusations that actually have merit.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, his eventual admission was evasive, defensive, and weasel-worded in the extreme.

Whether or not people should watch sports divorced from moral considerations is an open question. Whether or not Ryan Braun behaved in a craven, ruthless way is not.

Filed under: Ryan Braun is terrible No Comments

Game 16: Volquez Outlasts Gallardo, Pirates Add On, Win, 11-2

Posted by @ 04.18.14

Through the top of the 7th, this was a well-played, close game. Yovani Gallardo kept the Pirates mostly at bay, apart from a 2-run bomb from Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates did, however, manage to work 4 walks against him, drive up his pitch count, and chase him after 6 innings.

The Brewers seem to have a good thing going with their ‘pen when they have the lead, but they are vulnerable outside of their top couple of guys. For instance, in a tie game, the Brewers brought in virtual unknown Rob Wooten; he barely has a wikipedia page. He gave up a single to Jordy Mercer, owner of 3 big league steals, and couldn’t concentrate on anything other than keeping Mercer on first and how a collaboratively-edited, multilingual, free online encyclopedia could have so little to say of him. Wooten threw, what felt like, a dozen times to first. In his rare, carefree moments on the mound, Wooten managed to throw enough pitches to Harrison to get two strikes on him, dashing his dreams of bunting against the metaphorical rocks. Harrison responded by flipping the switch from bunting to raking.


What a swing. The laser shot managed to sneak in just to the right of the left field foul pole, giving the Pirates a 4-2 lead.

The Pirates added another run off of Wooten in the 7th before blowing up the Brew Crew in the 8th. Wei Chung-Wang, a pitcher that the Pirates were unfortunate to lose in the rule 5 draft, came in just so Gaby and Pedro could take him out. Gaby homered, Jordo singled, Tabata doubled, Marte singled, Cutch recorded an out somehow, and Pedro homered. When the dust settled, the game was a laugher, 11-2.

Of course, there are a couple other things of note here. Volquez had a rough first couple of innings, allowing 2 runs on 7 hits and a walk in the first three frames. He was fortunate to only give up the pair of runs. After that, he went on a roll and worked pretty effortlessly through the 7th. Volquez didn’t have his best command tonight, but he only issued one walk (only his 4th of the year). So there’s that.

Russell Martin snuffed out some would-be jams by throwing out a pair of base-stealers, in Lucroy and Scooter Gennett. He is a boss.

The early (and really only) offense off of Gallardo came by way of the aforementioned monster bomb from Cutch in the bottom of the 1st inning. It was his first of the year and, since Starling Marte was on base, it counted for TWO runs. The sound off of the bat was LITERALLY not unlike a lion’s roar. Times a billion.

Cutch 1st HR

Gallardo was stunned, though he managed to puke and rally before pitching another 5 innings. His crazy eyes, unkempt facial hair, history of alcoholism, and look of angry confusion strongly suggest that he is a vagabond at heart. “Not tonight, Yovani! Pack up your bindle and leave,” sprach McCutchen.

Gallardo Stunned


Lohse and Morton rematch tonight at 7:05 pm.

Filed under: BossMart, Home Run Derby, Lion's Roar Times a Billion, revengeance No Comments

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Anywhere Other than Miller Park

Posted by @ 04.17.14

I kid, I kid. I never really bought into the “House of Horrors” stuff and I certainly don’t after last week’s sweep, given that all three games were highly competitive. But home-field advantage is definitely a thing, and it’s probably more pronounced for the Pirates than most teams, given the peculiarities of PNC Park and the deliberate way the roster has been constructed with the park in mind.

All of this is another way of saying: we get to play the Brewers right away again, and this time, it’s on our turf. Except we don’t play on turf. But you know what I meant. Stop making this difficult.

This time the series is four games, and Milwaukee’s early-season pitching-driven high-wire act is already (predictably) falling back to earth a little (though if the Fangraphs comments section is any indication, their fans are totally delusional about the significance of their hot start). The Brewers were drubbed 10-1 combined in the first two games against St. Louis before pulling out a win yesterday.

They face a struggling Pirates team that’s 7-8, and probably should be thankful for even that. The pitching is far sketchier than last year, and the hitting looks a little better–just as pretty much everyone predicted. But the latter is coming in bursts that don’t feel sustainable, whereas the former feels like it could be a problem all year. The Bucs are still prone, based on yesterday’s game against Cueeeeeee-toooooo, to being sporadically dominated by good-but-not-great pitchers.

Whether or not the Brewers have any guys that qualify is an open question. Here are the matchups:

  • Thursday (Today): Volquez vs. Gallardo, 7:05 PM
  • Friday: Morton vs. Lohse, 7:05 PM
  • Saturday: Garza vs. Rodriguez, 7:05 PM
  • Sunday: Cole vs. Estrada, 1:35 PM

Only Saturday’s matchup looks particularly discouraging at the moment. Tonight our fifth starter goes against their first, but then, that actually turned out okay last time.

One of the ways that moderately good teams (which is probably what the Pirates are this year) sneak into the playoffs is by playing disproportionately well in games against the teams challenging them for playoff spots. The Brewers may very well be such a team.

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Assorted Links for a Snowy (?!) Day

Posted by @ 04.15.14

The Pirates are set to resume their home run derby with the Reds at 5:30 pm today. The game was suspended due to rain last night after Cincinnati tied the game at 7 at the end of the 7th inning. It should be well-known by now that the Pirates have hit 6 home runs so far – all of which were solo shots – and the Reds hit 4 themselves. Here is footage of all 10.

Perhaps overshadowed by the Pirates-Reds was the exciting Braves-Phillies tilt. The Phillies rallied for 5 runs in the bottom of the 8th to take a 1 run lead before Dan Uggla hit, what became, the game-winning grand slam. [DeadSpin]

Some insight and perspective on what to make of the Milwaukee Brewers’ quick start. [FanGraphs]

Former Pirate reliever, Jesse Chavez, has excelled in his new role as a starter. Here’s why: [FanGraphs]

Using mathematics and whimsy, Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs ranked all 30 MLB teams’ home plate camera. Rise up and witness how un-canted our camera angles indeed are in Pittsburgh. [NotGraphs]

MLB outfielder, and dope, Jeff Francouer, was recently duped into believing that his Triple A teammate was deaf for an entire month. [TheBigLead]

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A Red Letter Day

Posted by @ 04.15.14

Today is Tax Day; and Jackie Robinson Day! Celebrate accordingly.


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Pirates Hit Six Homers, All Solo

Posted by @ 04.15.14

Last night’s game was insane…or will be when it’s completed. It was delayed while tied, 7-7. They’ll finish it today at 5:30.

The Pirates now have 18 homers on the season. 15 of them have been solo shots.


Filed under: Aggravated Manslaughterer's Row No Comments

Games 13–15 Preview: Pirates @ Reds

Posted by @ 04.14.14

A hot topic of conversation over the off-season was not if the Pirates would regress in 2014, but rather how much would they regress. The consensus was that the Pirates outplayed their peripherals and won an extra half-dozen games or so. That knowledge, coupled with the losses of AJ Burnett, Marlon Byrd, and Justin Morneau led many to believe that the Pirates would struggle this season. Whether or not that is true still remains to be seen; the first 12 games of the year are usually not a bellwether for the next 150 (hear that, Milwaukee?).

Though, it’s interesting how a team very closely-related to the Pittsburgh Pirates were not scrutinized in the same way. Flying well under the radar in the regression department were the Cincinnati Reds. Their only major change of the off-season was replacing Shin-Soo Choo with the speedy Billy Hamilton. Even if the latter meets the insane 100+ SB expectations laid before him, it is unlikely that he will be able to replace Choo’s 20/20, .400 OBP-level production. So far, Hamilton’s gotten off to a slow start, but his .200 BABIP suggests that he’s due to improve. We saw his ability to take over a game with his foot speed at the end of last season, but over a full season can he keep his OBP high enough to merit sticking around at the top of the order? If Hamilton struggles, the Reds do not have a very imposing lineup. Joey Votto practically intentionally walks himself and Jay Bruce is prone to slumps of Alvarezian heights (nadirs?). The rest of the lineup is pretty lousy – Frazier, Philips, Ludwick, and Mesoraco.

Homer Bailey, the recipient of a 6 yr/$105 MM extension, takes the mound tonight against Wandy Rodriguez. Both have gotten off to poor starts in 2013. Wandy struggled in a pair of starts against the Cubs, with his primary concern being the 3 home runs that he’s allowed to date. Homer Bailey’s faced the Cardinals in both of his 2014 starts. He’s been plagued by a high walk rate, low K rate, and has been very hittable (allowing 16 base hits in just under 10 innings). Luck should help out the hit rate, though the Reds have to be alarmed by his walk and K rates to date. Tonight could be a high-scoring affair. Hopefully the Pirates can come out on top.

Let’s go Bucs!

The pitching match-ups:

Wandy Rodriguez vs. Homer Bailey, 7:10 pm tonight

Gerrit Cole vs. Mike Leake, 7:10 pm Tuesday

Francisco Liriano vs. Johnny CUUUUUUUEEEEEETOO, 12:35 pm Wednesday

Filed under: Series Preview No Comments

Thank Goodness the Pirates Play Again Today

Posted by @ 04.14.14

One of the nicest things about baseball, to me, is how relentless it is. Over a six-month period there’s about a 90% chance your team has a game on any given day. It’s a marathon, and that’s a nice change of pace from other sports (especially football), where each game is a big deal and there are often sizable gaps from one to the next. That means the tough losses have a long time to fester.

Lots of teams have the day off today, but thankfully, the Pirates aren’t one of them. I say thankfully not just because Pirates baseball is generally enjoyable, but because when your team’s just been swept, the only way to feel better about it is for them to keep playing and win. I’m glad we don’t have an entire day to stew in the Milwaukee series, and talk about how easily we could have taken any of the three games, or about how we played them better than most of the teams they’ve been steamrolling in the early going.

That’s all true, and the outcome really shouldn’t be especially discouraging given the way it happened. But it will be anyway, so it’s just as well we don’t have to tell ourselves those things for too long.

But remember, kids: individual series’ are artificial constructs based around travel constraints and the linear nature of time, not windows into the team’s collective soul.

First pitch is tonight at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: everybody calm down, everything is terrible, frustration mounting No Comments

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