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Do The Pittsburgh Pirates Miss Pitching Guru Jim Benedict More Than Expected?

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Jason Rollison (Featured BBBA Writer/Owner – piratesbreakdown.com) 

This past off-season the Miami Marlins hired away former Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching guru, Jim Benedict and named him their Vice President of Pitching Development, which is a new position specifically created for the for the former minor league pitcher turned advance scout.

Despite being credited hand-in-hand with Ray Searage for their numerous reclamation projects, Benedict’s specific contributions were at times difficult to fully quantify.

With Benedict gone, the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates have seen their pitching devolve from an area of strength to a current weakness. Is this simply due to the loss of Benedict? Or are there other factors at play? Can we draw any conclusions from Benedict’s new team’s performance?

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The Pittsburgh Pirates Payroll In 2016 + Roster That Could Have Been

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Jason Rollison (Featured BBBA Writer/Owner – piratesbreakdown.com) 

After a second consecutive exit from the playoffs by way of the wild card game, the Pittsburgh Pirates promised a bigger payroll this season, but could they have done better?

In December, Neal Huntington and Frank Connelly both hinted the Pirates target payroll would be approximately $105 million for opening day.  As it stands, the Pirates opening day payroll was about $100 million.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the team’s pitching staff wasn’t off to a rough start, the first base platoon partner wasn’t gone after two weeks, and the Cubs weren’t the center of the baseball universe at the moment.  The saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20,” but we consider what could have been if the Pirates had spent their money a little differently.

Let’s start with the breakdown of the opening day payroll broken down by position: (Note: Only players included on opening day 25-man roster/DL are included below.)

The rules for this little experiment are simple.  We cannot exceed $105 million, and our payroll has to include 28 players due to Jared Hughes, Elias Diaz, and Jung-Ho Kang starting the season on the major league disabled list. 

If we choose any players the Pirates did not sign, we will assume the Pirates could have signed said player(s) to the same terms.  Knowing what we know now, here’s a look at what the Pirates roster could have been.

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The Numbers Behind John Jaso’s Early Success

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Jason Rollison (Featured BBBA Baseball Writer/Owner – piratesbreakdown.com) 

To say nothing of his more-than-capable defense at first base, John Jaso has been a revelation at the top spot in the batting order for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

John Jaso has put up some solid slash lines over his career, so it should not come as much of a surprise that he currently carries a .414 on-base percentage as part of an .897 OPS.

How has Jaso been able to acclimate himself so quickly and effectively to the top of the Pirates’ lineup?

A Solid Foundation

For Jaso, his propensity for quality plate appearances starts with the first pitch.

His F-Strike percentage (percentage of plate appearances that start with a strike) clocks in at 53.3 percent. That figure represents the third-best on the club, behind Starling Marte (52.5) and Gregory Polanco (51.6). While the importance of first-pitch strikes has been debated in recent years, good things happen for Jaso on a 1-0 count. More on that later.

In looking a bit deeper at what Jaso is actually seeing on the first pitch, the four-seam fastball is seen the most at 46 percent. It likely may not even matter what type of pitch Jaso sees first, as chances are it won’t be anywhere near the strike zone.

His Zone % (percentage of pitches seen in the strike zone) is 47.8 percent, which is not significant on its own until coupled with his O-Swing % (percentage of pitches outside of the zone that a batter swings at).

Jaso’s O-Swing percentage clocks at 16.5 percent, nearly two-thirds better than the league average of 30 percent. Incredibly, he isn’t even the best on this Pirates team in this regard. That honor belongs to David Freese and his 15.7 percent clip. Regardless, Jaso’s rate is fourth-best in the National League for anyone with 50 or more plate appearances.

The foundation that Jaso lays in his plate appearances almost feels as if he dictates to pitchers how the PA will go. He absolutely refuses to chase anything out of the zone, and such an approach can force an opposing pitcher to offer something he may not necessarily want to offer on the next pitch, which usually comes at a 1-0 count.

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For The Pittsburgh Pirates – There Is No Next Year

Following a quiet offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2016 hoping a large group of top prospects are prepared to make significant contributions to the big league club down the stretch.

Following a quiet offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2016 hoping a large group of top prospects are prepared to make significant contributions to the big league club down the stretch.

Jason Rollison  (Featured BBBA Writer/Owner – pbcbreakdown.com) 

Follow The MLB Reports On Twitter 

In 2006, the Pittsburgh Pirates started their “We Will” campaign.  Of course, that year is well remembered as the year the Pirates decided to commit to the rebuilding effort.

The next year, Neal Huntington would be brought in as the new general manager, and the completion of the rebuild process was brought to fruition in just six years after a rotating door of front office staff and players failed to reverse the losing streak that nearly forced the team to move.

The “We Will” campaign was meant to embody the work ethic and integrity expected of every member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Instead, it became the target of ridicule from many fans.  The banners hanging from the façade of PNC Park did not help matter as disgruntled fans poured out following loss after loss.

Even in success, Pirates fans couldn’t dodge the pangs of defeat.

Following the success of the team in 2013 making a laughingstock of Johnny Cueto in the wild card game and taking the Cardinals to the brink of elimination before melting down in game five of the NLDS, the fans and players expected more, but who could have possibly anticipated the wonders that were Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta?

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As the Pirates Lurch Forward Towards Opening Day, The Debate Over The Everyday Lineup Continues

pirates+logoJason Rollison  (Featured BBBA Writer/Owner – pbcbreakdown.com) 

Follow The MLB Reports On Twitter 

With John Jaso now seemingly entrenched at the top of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup, coupled with Andrew McCutchen pointed towards remaining in the number two slot, many observers now wonder what the rest of the batting order may look like against the Cardinals on April 3rd.

Despite the focus on the top of the order, it may be the bottom of the order that can take a step forward for the club.

In 2015, the seventh and eighth hitters for the Pirates performed reasonably well.

There are a couple of interesting notes when considering the Pirates’ performance form the bottom two spots in the order.

First, the 114 rating for wRC+ (weighted runs created +) led the NL from the seventh spot (100 is considered an “average” score). This will likely continue for 2016, as we will see shortly.

From the eighth spot, the wRC+ rating of 93 might seem underwhelming, yet only two teams in the NL had a rating of 100 or more. The St. Louis Cardinals were far and away the most productive in this regard, with a 110 rating.

2016 will likely be another story completely, as the changes at the top have ramifications that will be felt all the way through the order. While Pedro Alvarez‘s free swinging ways often led to his insertion in the lower third, his departure and a re-focusing on quality at bats results in a case of addition by subtraction.

If spring batting orders over the past week are any indication, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco or Josh Harrison could be reliable bats at the 7th spot.

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Is Matt Joyce The Answer To The Pirates’ 4th Outfielder Spot?

Matt Joyce had a down year in 2015, but his history as a starter in the outfield could make him the Pirates’ best fourth outfielder option come Opening Day.

Matt Joyce had a down year in 2015, but his history as a starter in the outfield could make him the Pirates’ best fourth outfielder option come Opening Day.

Jason Rollison (Featured Baseball Website Writer – piratesbreakdown.com) 

Follow The MLB Reports On Twitter 

The final signing of the Pirates’ off-season might have happened last week when the team signed outfielder Matt Joyce to a minor league contract.

The move wasn’t a major one, but it may have filled one final need the Pirates had before heading into spring training: the fourth outfielder position.

He’ll be competing with Sean Rodriguez, Jason Rogers, Mike Morse, and Jake Goebbert for playing time, and to be the primary outfielder off the bench come Opening Day. Out of the available choices, is Joyce the best option the Pirates have for that role?

I’d argue yes. As a fourth outfielder, a player is the first option off the bench to give either Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, or Gregory Polanco a day off, and would also be used as a pinch-hitter and possibly a late game defensive replacement.

Joyce has by far the most major league experience in the outfield (5163.0 innings) compared to the next closest in Morse (3061.2) and Rodriguez (662.1).

He also has a higher career WAR at 9.0, the next closest being Rodriguez at 7.3. He’s the only one of the group to be an All-Star may be arguably the best overall offensive player of the group (Morse has more power, but has fallen off since his career 2012 campaign).

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BBBA Audio Podcasts For The Week That Was

sully and eirann

Sully Baseball Daily Podcast

(Sully has a Streak of 20 minute shows everyday since Oct.24/2012 – archives for the week listed below)

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Can Gerrit Cole Rely On His Slider Again In 2016?

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Jason Rollison (Featured Baseball Writer/piratesbreakdown.com)  

Follow The MLB Reports On Twitter 

In what seems like another lifetime ago, I wrote that Gerrit Cole was now relying on his slider in 2015 as his go-to pitch.

At the time, Cole’s development of a killer secondary pitch to complement his fastball was something that was in its infancy.

After bursting onto the scene in 2013 with a fastball that could tap 100mph on radar, Cole showed a greater reliance on his fastball while still mixing in his sinker, slider, and curveball.

He even put an emphasis on his still-burgeoning changeup early in the season before that, too, which also took a backseat to the heat.

Despite that emphasis on secondary pitches, Cole was often forced to go back to the fastball in 2014.

The simple fact is that the changeup, curveball, and sinker were getting knocked around a bit, with line drive rates of 30.43 percent, 35 percent, and 28.07 percent respectively.

The sinking fastball and changeup both had batting averages against of .300 or more, with the changeup also displaying a crooked .643 SLG percentage.

It was clear that Cole was still figuring out which weapon in his arsenal would be that second “go-to” pitch.

Enter the slider.

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Pittsburgh Pirates Deep Dive: Jon Niese

EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

An intriguing ground ball rate and three years of control were enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to obtain Jon Niese. What comprises the left-hander’s makeup as a starting pitcher?

Several weeks have passed since Neil Walker was traded to the New York Mets for starting pitcher Jon Niese.

The move still resonates strongly with many Pittsburgh Pirates observers, often serving for many as the fulcrum of a questionable off-season.

We’ve analyzed the move previously, and from all angles. For the latest in our “Pittsburgh Pirates Deep Dive” series, we are going to look at the trends that are seen when analyzing Niese purely by past performance.

For this breakdown, I took a look at Niese’s game logs for the entire 2015 season. This includes all of his regular season appearances – 29 starts and three relief outings.

By looking at the entire snapshot of a full season, I expect to be able to easily identify any developing trends.

When he was acquired, the book on Niese was that he had good groundball-producing ability and a varied pitch mix. Two of those pitches – a sinking fastball and a cutting version – saw groundball rates above 60 percent in 2015.

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Pittsburgh Pirates Must Continue To Strengthen Bullpen

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Recent history shows that good things happen when the Pittsburgh Pirates pay close attention to their bullpen. 2016 should be no exception.

In 2012 the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves in the middle of ‘Epic Collapse II.’ While their miserable finish to the season would extend one of the most notorious streaks in professional sports, that particular season served as a blueprint to illustrate how the team could improve its fortunes going forward.

That blueprint was not found at an everyday position; nor was it found with the men tapped to start the game on the pitcher’s mound.

It was found in the bullpen.

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