Pittsburgh Pirates 2020: End of the Neal Huntington One-Size Fits All Model


This past fall, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting shocked the stalwart Pirate faithful when he announced a front office house-cleaning. Out went manager Clint Hurdle, then team president Frank Coonelly, and, finally, general manager Neal Huntington. Nutting showed his human side in describing his thought process for such sweeping changes. Specifically, Nutting alluded to the success of ex-Pirate pitchers such as Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow and the success they found in another uniform.

As reported by Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh-Post, Nutting specifically said the following:

"“Watching the challenges on the field, on and off the field, in the clubhouse, and, frankly, watching some of our players that we have drafted and developed perform so well for other teams, there’s a certain point that our fans became tired. I became tired…It was crystal clear that we needed to move in a different direction.”"

Travis Sawchick, author of Big Data Baseball and MVP Machine, noted this conundrum as early as June 2019 in an interview with 93.7 the Fan

"“You look what the Rays did with Glasnow, Meadows, and Shane Baz at a minor league level. You have to wonder why were the Pirates unable to do these things with these players?…With Gerrit Cole, why were the Pirates not telling him to do what the Astros were telling him to do?…Why did his strike out rate explode when he went to the Astros? His swing and miss on fastballs skyrocketed and it wasn’t like this was a multi-year project. As soon as Cole began pitching for the Astros he became better immediately…Why are some teams getting more out of other team’s players?…When [Cole] came over to the Astros…they showed him video of pitches they thought he should throw more and where he should throw them…they told him to get rid of his two-seamer [aka sinkerball] which the Pirates had wanted him to throw and wanted everyone to throw a two-seamer [aka sinkerball]…[the Astros] told him to throw his four-seamer [aka fastball] up, throw your breaking balls [aka slider/curve] more in this location and voila you have a much better player…and I think part of the Astros’ success is that they are very individualized when it comes to player development, they look at what each player does well and they implement a plan a to get the most out of that skill set…the Pirates did have success…they set those record groundball rates and they had those groundballs hit into the shift…and they wanted more and more pitchers to throw two-seamers [sinkerball] but the issue with that is that not every player is meant to throw a two-seamer…thats not how they maximize their gifts. I do think the Pirates fell victim to kind of putting some square pegs into round holes where the Astros and the Rays are the opposite of that. They are very individualized…”"

While Sawchik presciently goes on to speculate that the Astros may also be cheating in the same interview, his point that other teams were maximizing Pirates’s players skill sets stands.

From 2013-15, the Pirates found a market inefficiency in throwing sinkerballs and forcing opposing players to hit into shifts. As a result, the Pirates had a system-wide strategy to throw sinkerballs regardless of skill sets. An examination of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano‘s sinkerballs thrown during this era shows why the Pirates fell in love with this strategy. Unfortunately, the rest of the league adjusted (i.e. launch angles) exposing the Pirates and their neglect in maximizing player’s strengths.

In order to quantify this front office failure, I examined five Pirates pitchers (Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, and Joe Musgrove) who either joined the Pirates or left the Pirates since 2015. I also examined Jameson Taillon for a control in the study as he remained with the Pirates for the greatest length in time during this period. Specifically, I examined the number of sinkerballs thrown and their resulting success. All the Pirates pitchers examined either left or joined in the Pirates in 2018 with the exception of Morton who left the Pirates at the beginning of the 2016 season. Below is a chart showing the number of Sinkerballs thrown by each selected Pirates pitcher between 2015-2019:


(*Left Pirates/**Joined Pirates/italic=injury shortened season)

Chris Archer00059**53
Gerrit Cole1469413959*19
Charlie Morton35244*262211160
Tyler Glasnow01130*0
Joe Musgrove274279**87
Jameson Taillon19221719234

By way of comparison, here is the opposing batters’ batting average when each pitcher threw their sinkerball from 2015-2019.  Chris Archer did not throw the sinkerball until 2018 and spiked upon his trade to the Pirates. Glasnow only threw the sinkerball for one year with the Pirates and after being traded to the Rays he ceased using it. Cole’s usage of the sinkerball has dropped each year after leaving the Pirates as has Morton’s usage. Musgrove’s sinkerball usage nearly doubled upon being traded to the Pirates. Taillon’s usage has remained consistently high during this entire period.

Sinkerball Batting Average Against

(*Left Pirates/**Joined Pirates/italic=injury shortened season)

Chris Archer0000.327**0.378
Gerrit Cole0.2390.3250.2640.176*0.294
Charlie Morton0.3170.316*0.3020.2720.328
Tyler Glasnow00.4310*0
Joe Musgrove0.3330.2630.355**0.361
Jameson Taillon0.3060.3470.2560.235

Finally, here is an examination of the strikeout rates for each pitcher from 2015-2019.

Strikeout Rate for all pitches

(*Left Pirates/**Joined Pirates/italic=injury shortened season)

Chris Archer29%27.4%29.2%25.4%**27.2%
Gerrit Cole24.3%19.4%23.1%34.5%*39.9%
Charlie Morton17.1%26.8%*26.4%28.9%30.4%
Tyler Glasnow22.9%18.4%29.1%*33%
Joe Musgrove21.5%21.2%20.6%**21.9%
Jameson Taillon20.3%21.3%22.8%19%

After review, it appears Sawchik’s narrative holds up. In general, it appears that when the pitchers joined the Pirates, their sinkerball usage and batting average against rose. Meanwhile, the respective K% dropped after joining the Pirates. The inverse is also true, when Pirates pitchers left the team, their number of sinkerballs dropped and their corresponding K% rose. Fortunately, newly hired general manager Ben Cherington appears to agree with Sawchik’s assessment as stated in his initial press conference (See video from WPXI-11),

"“We are going to build a baseball operations culture that is player-centered…[there are]…four activities that we need to be great at. Identification of players. Acquisition of players. Development of Players. And ultimately Deployment…or putting players into the best position to succeed. I think being good at those four things is what drives success in a place like Pittsburgh…So in order to be great at that, we need to keep the player in the center of that…”"

With all that said, here’s a ray of hope for 2020. Despite Archer’s horrendous 2019 season, according to Baseball Savant,  Archer had the 10th most swing and misses with his slider in all of baseball and the second highest swing and miss percentage in the top 12. Even more than the aforesaid Cy Young runner-up, Gerrit Cole.

2019 Slider Swing and Misses

RankPlayer# Swing & Miss PitchesTotal # of Pitches ThrownSwing & Miss %
1Patrick Corbin342329910.4%
2Matthew Boyd23131187.4%
3Justin Verlander23134486.7%
4Clayton Kershaw21626728.1%
5Robby Ray21630647%
6Jack Flaherty21431796.7%
7Jacob deGrom20232976.1%
8Shane Bieber20033326.0%
9Jon Gray17823737.5%
10Chris Archer17720988.4%
11Kenta Maeda17224337.1%
12Gerrit Cole16833625%

A renewed focus on emphasizing player strengths, such as emphasizing Archer’s slider and abandoning his two-seamer (sinkerball) should pay dividends for the Pirates in 2020. Here’s hoping that Cherington and the Pirates are better prepared to draw the most out their 2020 talent and abandon the one size fits all mentality.