The Pittsburgh Pirates Have A Blocking Problem


The Pittsburgh Pirates have been blessed the last four seasons with strong defensive catchers, especially in the area of pitch framing.  But there has been a weakness in their games, most notably their blocking ability.

Baseball Prospectus provides fans with the look at the most innovative metrics in baseball, ranging from true average, to deserved run average, to pitch framing, and now, they even have pitch tunneling data.  They provide great ways to analyze and digest the game, and as sabermetrics have grown into the mainstream over the years, Baseball Prospectus has increasingly been a point of reference to me.

Because of the mass amount of research done by their stats team and writers, we have data that can match what we see, or go against our eye test and prove us wrong.  But we’ve heard how the Pirates have great pitch framers, and that’s led to the team making the playoffs in three of the last five seasons.

In 2012, Rod Barajas ranked 104 out of 108 catchers in framing runs with -14.7.  In the offseason leading up to 2013, the Pirates brought in Russell Martin on a two-year deal worth $17 million.  In 2012, Martin ranked 6th in framing runs with 17.3.  In 2013, his excellent pitch framing was a huge boost to the Pirates, as the club went from 27th in framing runs to 8th.  Martin finished eighth.  The Pirates didn’t stop their though.

The Pirates two main backup catchers, both fan favorites, Tony Sanchez and Michael McKenry finished 31st and 94th respectively.  What did the Pirates do?  They brought in Chris Stewart from the Yankees to back up Martin.  Stewart finished ninth in framing runs (11.2) in 2012 and fourth (18.1) in 2013.  The club found an inefficiency and targeted it, and the club ranked sixth best in 2014.

Sep 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) gestures to the dugout against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli (29) gestures to the dugout against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

After Russell Martin left in free agency after the 2014 season, they traded for Francisco Cervelli.  Cervelli was coming off a season in which he ranked 19th in framing runs, a mark of 5.7, but he did so in only 2510 chances – the second lowest amount among those in the top 20, and one of four to have less than 4000 chances.  The tandem of Cervelli and Stewart led the Pirates to the second best record in the league, as the club ranked first in framing runs with 26.1.  The Los Angeles Dodgers finished second with 20.2.

Through injuries, the club’s rank declined, as Cervelli and Stewart both missed significant time, and the Pirates finished below .500 for the first time since 2012.

Despite the Pirates strength in pitch framing, there is an area in which they are rather weak in, blocking.  In this piece from last January, in which Jonathan Judge revisited the blocking runs model, he wrote:

"“Suffice it to say that the new values make clear that pitch blocking, while not producing value in the range of pitch framing, is nonetheless an area where runs are being gained and lost.”"

A quick look at just past balls shows the Pirates had the tied seventh fewest passed balls in 2013, tied for the 10th least in 2014, tied for 18th least in 2015, and tied for the 25th least (4th most) in 2016.  Each year, they’ve kept getting worse.  But how many runs have they been losing?

To start, what are blocking runs?  Baseball Prospectus defines blocking runs as:

"“Runs a catcher saves (usually over the course of a season), based on EPAA.There’s a factor for each year-level combination which varies from less than 0.20 to more than 0.33, averaging around 0.27. This factor is multiplied times EPAA times EPAA chances (Blocking Chances) to get EPAA Runs (or Blocking Runs).”"

This is the metric I’ll be using over the course of this post.  Of course, knowing what EPAA is would also be helpful.  EPAA is, as defined from Baseball Prospectus,

"“EPAA – Errant Pitches Above Average – is the official name for Passed Balls and Wild Pitches above average”"

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So let’s begin our look at the teams blocking problems, starting with 2012, the season in which Rod Barajas was the starting catcher.  Barajas, who never had a league average offensive season and had a horrendous two years prior in pitch framing was a confusing signing at the time, and still remains one today.  But Barajas did have 0.3 blocking runs for the Pirates in 2012, the one positive thing he did, and backup McKenry had 1.4.  The team finished 12th in baseball in blocking runs, and with their by far league low -7.4 throwing runs and fourth worst framing runs, this was a surprise.

But in 2013, the team regressed in blocking runs.  Martin provided adequate value, posting 1.4 blocking runs, which ranked 15th.  But McKenry (-0.8), Sanchez (-1.4), and John Buck (-0.2) cost the Pirates, and the team posted -1.8 blocking runs and ranked 18th.  The Cardinals, who won the division by three games, finished first in blocking runs with 6.0.

The Pirates improved to -0.7 blocking runs in 2014, Stewart and Martin both having 0.3 and Tony Sanchez with -1.4, but their team rank slid remained constant at 18.

The following year, 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished second in baseball with 98 wins.  They finished two games behind the Cardinals, but after clinching the division they rested their starters in the final series against the Atlanta Braves.

Despite being the best team in terms of framing, their blocking was a problem.  The team had -1.4 blocking runs, finishing 26th, finishing 1.7 runs below the Cardinals.  Cervelli had -1.3 blocking runs, Stewart had -0.3, and Tony Sanchez had 0.2. Their -3.2 throwing runs ranked 28th, 5.4 runs worse than the Cardinals who finished second. The Pirates led the league in throwing runs in 2013 and 2014. Little things add up to a two game difference.

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But the teams change in throwing runs is for another day, as 2016 also saw the Pirates rank poorly in blocking.  The team once again ranked 26th, but with -3.6 runs.  Chris Stewart posted -1.7 blocking runs, and Cervelli posted -2.1.  Erik Kratz and Elias Diaz each posted 0.0, and Jacob Stallings posted 0.2.

Cervelli still finished as a top pitch framer, ranking seventh with 10.6 framing runs, but the decline in blocking runs should be a concern.  Over the last four years, Cervelli has gone 0.9, 1.0, -1.3, and -2.1 in terms of blocking runs.  His blocking chances over those four years have been 633, 1656, 4902, and 4035.

As a team that values backstop defense, Cervelli’s blocking is a problem.  His elite pitch framing adds much more value than what is lost by both his blocking runs and throwing runs, but is still something to keep an eye out for.  After all, the little things add up over time.

*Numbers from baseball prospectus