Public perception is funny. The Reds revamped the rotation and added some lineup pieces and are suddenly expected to take a big step forward. The Pirates lost nobody of consequence, added to their bullpen, and have a full season with last year’s Trade Deadline acquisition Chris Archer and the forecast is that they will have a losing record after going 82-79 last season.
I’m on record as saying I like the Pirates. I’ve mentioned it on BangTheBook Radio, in the season preview, and in various futures pieces. This is a team not getting a whole lot of love. I’ve got some love to give.
In any event, the Pirates were 82-79 last season. They were 44-36 at pitcher-friendly PNC Park and 38-43 on the road. There weren’t any surprises to last year’s numbers. They were 61-52 against right-handed starters and 21-27 against left-handed starters. They were 39-53 against teams .500 or better and 43-26 against teams with losing records. Sure, that included a 14-5 record against Cincinnati, a team that is much better this season, but the Pirates appear to be in a similar place this season.
Pittsburgh scored 40 fewer runs at home, which is no surprise, as PNC Park is just a tough yard for hitting. This isn’t a sexy team. There aren’t a lot of household names. The Reds acquired names that people know. The Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers have names that people know. Sometimes a team can be really solid without big names.
Money Line Spots
I will continue to like the Pirates at home. Even during the 75-87 season in 2017, the Pirates were 44-37 at home. This is a well-defined home field advantage for them because they’ve tailored their team for the conditions.
It is worth noting that the Pirates were overpowered by velocity. Against pitches 95+ mph, they were 25th in wOBA at .295. This is a team with a contact-heavy approach, but not a ton of great contact quality. The Pirates were fifth in K% at just 20.3 percent, but the problem was that they were 18th in average exit velocity. When you add hard throwers into the equation, it makes it that much tougher to make solid contact.
Therefore, when the Pirates face average throwers or soft-tossers, we’ll want to consider them on the money line or in the over department. When they face hard throwers, we can either fade or play unders. There aren’t a ton of starters averaging 95+, but even we scale that back to 93 mph, they were 24th. They’ll hit guys with average or below velocity.
There are also some really interesting starting pitchers here to discuss. I’ll also be looking to apply the Milwaukee Brewers theory to the Pirates. If I think they’re going to have a lead late, they’re going to have the bullpen advantage in just about every game they play. If I can pay reasonable prices in what will become a battle of the bullpens, the Pirates will be on my card.
Everybody knows how good of a park PNC is for pitchers. The Pirates were 81-72-8 to the under, with PNC certainly playing a role in that. Of course, PNC Park also played to over eight runs per game. I wonder if the park factor will be overblown a bit from a totals standpoint this season. You may want to watch how that plays out.
As mentioned above, hard throwers were kryptonite for the Pirates, so those are going to be clear under spots. Oddly enough, 33 games featured shutouts for the Pirates. They were shut out 17 times and they shut out their opponents 16 times. That seems like a lot. Over 20 percent of a team’s games featuring a shutout. Even the Giants, who have a bad offense and play in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball, only had 24 games with a shutout and the Marlins, who are the same, only had 26.
That would lead me to believe that the over/under split is closer to 50/50 this season.
Individual Players to Watch
Trevor Williams – A lot of bettors are going to go into this season thinking that fading Trevor Williams is free money. Williams posted a 3.11 ERA with a 3.86 FIP and a 4.54 xFIP. “Smoke-and-mirrors”. “Unsustainable”. It amazes me that so few sabermetricians are willing to understand the value of inducing ultra-weak contact. It’s almost like they don’t want to believe it exists.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Williams is going to post anything resembling last year’s second half with a 1.38 ERA over 71.2 innings of work with a .216/.274/.304 slash against, a .255 wOBA against, and a 90.8 percent LOB%. That’s not going to happen.
What I am going to tell you is that I think fading him will be overblown. I’m going to run long here because you’re going to hear it on The Bettor’s Box anyway. Williams was 16th in average exit velocity against last season at 85.6 mph. He was 21st in percentage of “Hard-Hit” balls at 95+ mph. He was 15th in average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives.
Allow me to spell it out for you. Here is the breakdown of batting average and wOBA by exit velocity:
95+ mph: .525/.653
93+ mph: .494/ .605
91+ mph: .467/.565
90 mph or below: .198/.184
As you go down in exit velocity, hitter numbers drop in a dramatic way. The fact that Williams is able to limit hard contact, particularly on fly balls and line drives, is why he is able to have success.
Not all ERA/xFIP discrepancies are based on luck. More often than not, they are based on the skill of limiting hard contact.
As a side note, Jameson Taillon allowed the second-highest batting average last season on batted balls with an exit velocity of 90 mph or lower, so he’s going to be in better shape next season.