Pirates Spring Training Recap
By Jim Sutter
The Pirates have evacuated Bradenton, Florida until next spring and will finally open the regular season tomorrow afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates finished with a less than stellar record of 8-20 with two ties, so it’s a good thing these games don’t count. For those of you who don’t start paying attention until the games do start to count, here is a Pirates Spring Training Recap to get you ready for the regular season.
Juan Nicasio Steals Rotation Spot from Ryan Vogelsong
When Ryan Vogelsong was brought back to the Pirates again in December, General Manager Neal Huntington said that he would be a starter. However, fellow offseason addition Juan Nicasio quickly forced his way into the
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competition for a spot in the rotation. The top two spots in the rotation are already occupied by aces Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano and another was filled by Jon Niese, the other half of the infamous Neil Walker trade. Until Spring Training, the favorites for the other two spots were Vogelsong and incumbent Jeff Locke. Though Nicasio had fulfilled a starter role during his time with the Colorado Rockies, he had struggled there and had spent the 2015 season pitching out of the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen. Nicasio saw some success pitching out of the Dodgers bullpen, posting a 2.83 FIP and striking out 65 batters over 58.1 innings. Between this and the Vogelsong signing, many assumed that Nicasio would pitch out of the bullpen for the Pirates as well. However, comments by Huntington at the time of his signing seemed to leave the door open for Nicasio to earn a spot in the rotation, claiming that he had “…the pitch repertoire and versatility to fill a variety of roles on our pitching staff”.
Despite Huntington’s comments, which it should be noted were made about a week prior to his signing, a spot in the rotation was likely Vogelsong’s to lose. In exhibition games though, Vogelsong did not exactly wow anyone, going 0-2 in his 3 starts and posting a 6.14 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 14.2 innings pitched. Additionally he had 6 walks to only 4 strikeouts. Despite these, to be generous, uninspiring stats, Vogelsong likely did not lose his potential spot in the rotation due to his performance. After all it is only Spring Training. Rather Juan Nicasio performed to such a degree that he essentially stole it from Vogelsong. Nicasio gave up zero Earned Runs over 15 innings pitched this Spring, and that isn’t even the most eye-popping statistic he produced. That honor goes to his 24 strikeouts over those 15 innings. Nicasio faced 59 batters this Spring, meaning that just over 40 percent of those batters sat down without leaving the batter’s box. Nicasio’s most notable outing came against the Baltimore Orioles on March 16th when against a lineup composed primarily of starters he struck out 10 of the 14 batters he faced. It remains to be seen if his Spring success will translate to the regular season, but Juan Nicasio is already looking like he may be Ray Searage’s latest success.
Jeff Locke’s New Delivery
Ever since earning an All-Star selection after a fantastic first half of 2013, Jeff Locke has battled inconsistency and found a permanent home at the back-end of the Pirates rotation. During this offseason Locke worked on a new, simpler delivery in an attempt to reverse this. In 2009, when he joined the Pirates organization, at the suggestion of
his pitching coach in Single-A Lynchburg, Locke began incorporating a turn to first base in his delivery. This adds a bit of deception, but it also may have led to Locke’s inconsistency in recent years. Late last season, Ray Searage suggested that Locke reverse course and remove the turn. Over the off-season the two of them worked on new simpler delivery. The hope is that this new delivery will bring some consistency to Locke and provide much-needed stability at the back-end of the rotation.
When exhibition season started, Locke finally got a chance to test drive the new delivery in actual games. The results were…mixed. After giving up 4 runs over 2 innings with 1 walk and 1 hit batter in his first start of Spring, Locke settled down to some extent. Over his remaining 4 starts he gave up 10 Earned Runs over 17 innings for an ERA of 5.29, but struck out 11 batters and had a WHIP of 1.18. The horrendous first start aside these numbers are not terrible, but it is a small sample size and Spring Training, so not too much can be gleaned from these numbers. Locke obviously did enough to keep his spot in the starting rotation, though as detailed above, Ryan Vogelsong’s iffy performances certainly helped. It remains to be seen if Locke’s new delivery will translate into improvement and consistency in the regular season.
Batting Second: Andrew McCutchen?
Conventional baseball wisdom has always been that a team’s best hitter, who for the Pirates is obviously Andrew McCutchen, should bat third in the lineup. Like much conventional baseball wisdom, advanced analytics have shown that this is actually not very wise. This is particularly in the case of the Pirates, who have largely not had a prototypical cleanup hitter during McCutchen’s career to bat behind him as protection. Several other teams have
experimented with having their best bat slotted second in the lineup, notably the Cincinnati Reds put Joey Votto in that position last season. The Pirates under Neal Huntington have been a team on the forefront of the analytics movement, so perhaps it was inevitable when the Pirates turned in a lineup card on March 17th that had McCutchen batting second.
Much has been said about how the Pirates got McCutchen to come around to batting second by showing him that he came up to bat with two outs and the bases empty 158 times in 2015, second most in the Majors. Additionally, the front office had to bring Clint Hurdle on board with the change. Hurdle, despite being considered a bit of an old-school type of manager has always been receptive to the advanced analytics that the front office preaches. This instance is no different, with Hurdle even admitting that he had to rearrange his own thinking on this matter. After the Saint Patrick’s Day experiment, Hurdle continued to bat McCutchen second and it appears that will be his new home in the lineup. The impact of this goes beyond the additional 15-20 at bats that McCutchen will get this season, as he will also be batting behind newcomer John Jaso who as you’ll read has a penchant for getting on base.
John Jaso Learns First Base, Already Better than Pedro?
The Pirates brought in John Jaso to replace Pedro Alvarez as the new left-handed batter of the First Base platoon. Offensively, the two could not be any different as Jaso draws lots of walks which sees him get on base a lot, as evidenced by his career .361 OBP. The Pirates are also hoping Jaso is different from Alvarez in that he will be able to
pick up the first base position. Coming into this year John Jaso’s primary position was Catcher and he had spent a grand total of 5 innings playing first base in his career. Luckily for Jaso, almost anything will be an improvement on the defense the Pirates got from First Base last year, primarily Pedro Alvarez. Last season, Alvarez not only committed 23 errors, but he had a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of -13, where the league average is zero. The point here is that Jaso doesn’t even need to be good, he just needs to be passable and the Pirates will be getting a defensive upgrade.
The early returns on Jaso defensively are inconclusive given the small sample size. The Pirates have done what they can to get Jaso ready to play the position on a regular basis, giving him 92 innings at first base, over twice as many as the next closest player. Advanced fielding metrics such as DRS and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are hard to come by for Spring Training games, and are unreliable over such a small sample size and games that don’t actually count. For what it’s worth, in those 92 innings at first base, Jaso has two errors in 99 Total Chances, good for a Fielding Percentage of .980. It should be noted that Pedro Alvarez posted a similar Fielding Percentage of .978 last season, albeit over a larger sample size and in games that counted. However, Alvarez also began learning the position during the middle of the 2014 season and had much more game experience at the position as well. According to the eye test, Jaso has looked capable at First Base and is hopefully learning from any mistakes he makes in these Spring Training games. The same cannot be said for Alvarez, who never seemed very comfortable with the position. Though there is no way of knowing exactly how well Jaso will perform at First Base, I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that he will be an upgrade over Alvarez in the field.
Matt Joyce Earns Spot on Active Roster
As a free agent this offseason Matt Joyce was only able to earn a Minor League deal with the Pirates shortly before Spring Training. The longtime Tampa Bay Ray Outfielder has generally had a productive career through his first seven big league seasons, including an All-Star appearance in 2011. However, he is coming off a horrendous 2015 season with the Los Angeles Angels. Though he was only given a Minor League contract, it was always known that
Joyce could earn a spot on the active roster as the fourth outfielder. Because Joyce had reached Major League free agency, the Pirates were required to either add him to the active roster at least five days before Opening Day, release him, or send him to Indianapolis and pay him a $100,000 retention bonus. When the time came, the Pirates were obviously impressed enough by what they saw in Spring and elected to go with the first option.
Despite a slow start, Joyce did pretty good statistically in exhibition play. In 39 at bats, he went 10 for 39 with 4 Home Runs and had a slash line of .256/.420/.615. He also had 11 strikeouts, but one could argue that that was offset by his 11 walks. Another benefit to having Joyce on the active roster is that he provides a left-handed bat off the bench. As the active roster is currently constructed, on days where Jaso and Polanco are both in the lineup, Joyce would be the only lefty option to pinch hit. The Pirates still do have one open roster spot that could be filled by Cole Figueroa, a lefty, or Pedro Florimon, a switch-hitter, but the roster as a whole is very right-handed heavy. Additionally, should any of the starting outfielders miss a significant amount of time due to injury, a revitalized Joyce would be a much more attractive option than starting Sean Rodriguez in the Outfield during the duration. Overall, if Joyce can translate his Spring results to the regular season and return somewhat to the level of play he has produced for the majority of this career, he will prove to be an important asset to this club.
Questions Still to be Answered
Will the poor Spring Training results lead to another slow start?
Each of the last two seasons, the Pirates have gotten off to slow starts that saw them spending the majority of the season looking up in the standings and trying to make up ground. In 2014 through the first month of the season, the Pirates were in 4th place with a 10-16 record and 9 games out of first. Last season was a little better as the Pirates were in 3rd place with a 12-10 record, but still 3.5 games out of first place. With the Pirates looking to avoid having to play in the Wild Card game for the fourth straight year, a good start would be much appreciated for once.
How will the new-look rotation perform?
The Pirates rotation features two newcomers in Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio. While both are veterans, they have seen mixed results with their previous teams. The Pirates have to be hoping that a change of scenery and a healthy dose of Ray Searage will see them perform well enough to anchor the middle and back-end of the rotation with Jeff Locke. It’s vital for the Pirates’ success that they pitch well enough to replace some of the production that was lost from the retirement of A.J. Burnett and the departure of J.A. Happ.
Who gets sent to Indianapolis when Jung Ho Kang and Jared Hughes return?
The Pirates infield and bullpen should get a boost during the first month of the season when Jung Ho Kang and Jared Hughes return from the disabled list. It remains to be seen who gets sent to Indianapolis when that happens though. How the players on the fringe perform during the first few weeks of the season will likely go a long way in determining who gets sent down.
Can David Freese play First Base?
Much like John Jaso, it’s likely that David Freese will have to learn a new position. Though Freese will open the season as the Pirates’ starting Third Baseman, his usual position, this will change when Jung Ho Kang returns. The Pirates are hoping that Freese can be the Right-handed bat of a First Base platoon with John Jaso. Another question to ponder here is, if Freese is able to transition to First Base and produce at a high enough level where does that leave Michael Morse?
When will the young guns arrive?
Many Pirates fans were probably hoping that one or both of Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon would be in Pittsburgh for Opening Day. This was never going to happen for a number of reasons, but it’s likely that both will make an appearance in a Pirates uniform at some point this season. Unlike the other questions here, this is something to watch over the whole season as the soonest either of them would likely arrive would be June.
*Stats from FanGraphs and Pirates.com