The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Groundball

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(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /
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The groundball has been a staple for Pirates pitchers throughout the years, but they’ve seen a decline in both their groundball rate and their success in getting outs on groundballs.

The groundball has been a staple for Pirates pitchers, as the club targeted pitchers with heavy sinkers and two-seam fastballs to get opponents to beat the ball into the ground and turn those groundballs into outs.  It’s what current Fangraphs writer and former Tribune writer Travis Sawchik wrote towards the end of the 2013 season and documented in his book Big Data Baseball.  It’s the Pirates model, or it was at least.

At the end of the 2016 season, Sawchik wrote about how the Pirates are going to address some of the deficiencies, and he quotes Neal Huntington saying,

"“We are a copy-cat industry.  Ground ball pitchers have become more valued. We could be stubborn and stay the course and pay more than we ideally like. Or we can look in a different direction and find value in a different way. … It comes back to what may be successful for five years will probably not be for 10. There is a constant ebb and flow.”"

As Huntington notes, baseball is a copy cat league, just look at the increase in shifts across baseball and what is happening with the pitch framing data perhaps due to the value teams place on catchers who can frame well.  The targeting of groundball pitchers by other teams has led to fewer groundballs, as the Pirates added Nicasio and Vogelsong in 2016, something Sawchik noted.  But they also added Ivan Nova at the trade deadline and signed him to a three-year deal last offseason.  Nova saw his groundball rate drop to the second lowest mark of his career, and lowest since 2011.  In fact, the Pirates have seen their groundball rates fall and their rank fall from their perch at the top in their playoff years:

YearGB%Rank
201246.6%6
201352.5%1
201450.5%1
201550.4%1
201646.9%3
201745.2%10

The decrease in rate and rank is partly because of the copy cat league nature and looking for other ways to achieve success, but also with the new “fly ball revolution” hitters have, and a quick search of “fly ball revolution” on Fangraphs produces six articles by Sawchik and many others.  Hitters want to hit the ball in the air because it has a better chance of being a hit, and a far better chance at being an extra base hit.  Overall, however, groundballs have been hit one percent less than five years ago, but the difference between 2013 and 2017 is minimal:

YearGB%
201245.1%
201344.5%
201444.8%
201545.3%
201644.7%
201744.2%

The difference in groundball rate between the first year the Pirates made the playoffs and the last two years is why I think a heavier weight should be placed on the copy cat league, as more money.  Tyler Chatwood is coming off a 1.1 fWAR season and got three years and $38 million from the Chicago Cubs.  Though he is coming from Colorado, and an improvement is likely, the 58.1 percent groundball rate Chatwood produced last season, along with his career rate of 54.7 percent, is an illustration of Huntington describing groundball pitchers becoming more valuable.

There’s another side of the story to the Pirates and groundballs, and that’s turning those groundballs into outs.  Using Fangraphs splits leaderboards, the Pirates had one of the five lowest batting averages in balls in play (BAbip) on groundballs (average and on-base percentage would be the same values as well):

YearBAbipRankLeague BAbip
20120.22150.234
20130.21650.232
20140.21740.239
20150.21320.236
20160.23280.239
20170.23190.241

From 2013-15, the BAbip on groundballs against the Pirates was .215, the lowest in the league, but over the last two years it has been .232, the ninth lowest in the game.  Over the last two years, the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, and Los Angeles Dodgers rank first through third in lowest BAbip on groundballs, and those are three of the last four teams to reach the World Series.  The Houston Astros also have the seventh lowest groundball rate.  From 2013-15, the Pirates, San Francisco Giants, and Dodgers had the three lowest BAbip’s on groundballs.

Converting groundballs into the most outs is an added bonus, as the difference between a .215 BAbip on groundballs and a .232 BAbip on groundballs is an additional 17 hits per 1000 balls in play.  For a team needing all the breaks they can get to reach the postseason, this becomes notable.

The Pirates shortstop defense has also fallen over the last couple seasons.  Clint Barmes was the starting shortstop in 2013, and he produced 12 runs saved and had a UZR of 8.9.  Jordy Mercer took over in 2014, and has held the job since.  In 2014 and 2015, the years the Pirates made the postseason, Mercer had nine runs saved and a 2.1 UZR.  For the Pirates three playoff years, the team had average to above average defensive play from their shortstop.  However, over the last two seasons, Mercer has -10 runs saved and a UZR of -9.9, below average to poor defense.  This is part of the reason the Pirates should have targeted Zack Cozart in free agency, and he only signed for three years and $38 million.  The defense and offense would have been an upgrade.

Next: Should the Pirates Pursue Jarrod Dyson?

The Pirates deviated from their model and looked for ways to improve upon other deficiencies as the price of groundball pitchers, and pitchers in general, on the market have increased.  Part of the problem of the Pirates the last two seasons can be contributed to converting groundballs into less outs than they did in their playoff years.  That, along with the decline in defense at shortstop, is something the Pirates haven’t adjusted for.

*All numbers from Fangraphs

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