Pittsburgh Pirates: Lets Build A Lineup
Pitchers and catchers report on Monday. The announcement to move Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco positions was announced on Super Bowl Sunday. Baseball season is upon us, lets construct the Pirates 2017 lineup.
There are lineup tools, such as Baseball Musings lineup analysis, but don’t necessarily apply to now. This can be seen in their two models, 1989-2002 and 1959-2004, and since it’s 2017, there is the potential of the model being outdated. Also, as pointed out by Jack Moore in 2011, there is the issue of only two inputs into the system – on base percentage and slugging percentage. Moore wrote on fangraphs:
The other problem (a much smaller problem, given we’re already dealing with minutia) is the only inputs are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In The Book, the inputs used are linear weights by each lineup slot. It’s important to realize that different batting slots tend to see different situations – leadoff sees bases empty often, third sees nobody on and two outs quite often, fourth sees most runners, etc. – and therefore a single from a hitter in one slot isn’t necessarily worth the same as a hitter in another. Compared to the issues with the run environment, this is minor, but it can still spit out some odd orders.
The easiest way to create a lineup, would be applying what The Book concluded. Moore summed up the conclusion of The Book, by saying:
Take the best three hitters at #1, #2, and #4 (with power leaning towards #4 and OBP leaning toward #1). The next two go in #3 and #5. Then the worst four go in #6, #7, #8, and #9
So this is how we’ll construct our lineup. The best hitters one, two, and four. Filled in by three and five, with the worst four batting six through nine. We’re also going to ignore platoon situations and different line ups against left handed pitchers (for now at least). The Pirates have faced 171 left handed starters since 2012, 21.1 percent of the time. They also have not faced a left handed starter more than 30 percent of the time since 2006 (30.2). Keep it easy, the team will face a right handed starter near 80 percent of the time, base every lineup like they’ll face a right handed hitter. The lineup will be based on the season numbers projected from Steamer, for now at least.
The leadoff hitter should be one of the teams three best hitters according to The Book. Josh Bell actually projects to be the fourth best, but his .336 projected wOBA is not that much different from Jung Ho Kang‘s projected wOBA of .337, or even Marte’s projected .338 wOBA.
The difference comes in their on-base percentages. Jung Ho Kang is a power hitting threat, with a low on-base projection (.337). Kang has posted a .355 on-base and a .354 on-base on prior years, but even if Kang was projected to have a high on-base, he’d be best suited for the middle of the order.
Marte has posted a career on-base of .345, including a .362 on-base percentage last year. He does not walk often, just 4.7 percent in his career. He seems to get hit a lot, 3.2 percent of his plate appearances have ended in a HBP, and for reference, only 0.86 percent of plate appearances have ended up in a HBP since 2012.
That leaves us with Josh Bell. Bell is projected to have a .355 on-base, .425 slugging percentage, and a .144 isolated power. His projections favor him having more on-base skills than power skills, a 10.0 percent walk rate to a 2.3 percent home run rate.
Bell does not run all that well, even posted a -1.8 BsR in a small sample last year. But Bell gets on base, does not project to have a higher power rate next year, so putting him as the table setter is best.
Last season, the Pirates moved McCutchen to the number two spot in the batting order. A move praised by fans of sabermetrics. The three spot sees two outs and no runners on, and the Pirates felt moving McCutchen up a spot would help the Pirates with their run scoring output.
McCutchen struggled early on last season, and no batting second was not the reason why. Consider this, before McCutchen had the series off against the Atlanta Braves, he had a .310 wOBA, 93 wRC+, 0.4 BB/K rate, and a 34.8 percent hard contact rate in the second spot (278 PA). Hitting third, McCutchen had a .305 wOBA, 90 wRC+, 0.2 BB/K, and a hard contact rate of 30.1 percent.
McCutchen is projected to be the Pirates best hitter according to Steamer. Projection a .363 wOBA. He is projected to have a high on-base of .378, making him a potential for the leadoff spot. But his power, .470 slugging and .187 ISO, is more beneficial with him hitting second in 2017, just like where he was for the first half of 2016. A high on-base player in Bell leading off with McCutchen second will help the Pirates most over the course of the season. Clint Hurdle should put McCutchen back in the two spot, permanently.
Gregory Polanco got off to a great start. Through the end of June, the former top prospect had a .373 wOBA and 136 wRC+, and was hitting balls 91.8 mph to go along with his .352 BABIP. But from July on, Polanco struggled. He posted just a .284 wOBA and 76 wRC+. Polanco’s average exit velocity dropped to 89.5 mph, and with that came a .228 BABIP. But Polanco’s walk rate also fell from 11.9 percent to 5.8 percent, and his o-swing percentage rose from 30.4 percent to 31.8,
Despite his second half swoon, Polanco finished with a .331 wOBA and 108 wRC+, his best season as Pirate. Polanco’s show flashes of his potential, and if he stays healthy, he has a great shot of outperforming his projections.
From The Book, we know the three hitter comes up to bat with nobody on and two outs often, so the three spot in the order is not all that important compared to other spots, despite the old thought of “best hitter bats third.”
Polanco projects to be the fifth best hitter with a .328 wOBA, far off from Kang, Marte, and Bell’s similar wOBA projections. Polanco projects at a .168 ISO, giving him more power than Marte (.159), but he’s projected to reach base a lot less, a .333 on-base. The third spot fits him well.
Assuming Jung Ho Kang does not get suspended for DUI, which a trial date has now been set, Kang will start as the Pirates 2017 third baseman. Kang’s .337 projected wOBA makes him the team’s third best hitter, behind McCutchen and Marte. The Book told us the three best hitters should be batting first, second, and fourth. We’ve failed that outside of the number two spot with McCutchen. But the difference between Bell and Kang and Kang and Marte are minimal, 0.001 points of wOBA.
The reason Kang gets the spot here is his power. His projected slugging of .445 might not be as high as Marte’s (.447), but Kang’s projected .184 ISO is much better than Marte’s projected .159 ISO. Kang has the power and roughly the same amount of offensive ability.
His projection may seem to be low on his power, Kang has posted slugging percentages of .461 and .513, to go along with ISO’s of .173 and .258. The concern for Kang would be how often his fly balls left the park, as Kang has posted 16.9 and 23.2 percent home run per fly ball rates in 2015 and 2016. League average those two years were 11.4 percent and 12.8 percent respectively.
Kang will likely regress in terms of fly balls leaving the park, but one thing he did extremely well, was barreling up the baseball. Of his 206 batted ball events, Kang had 20 barrels, or a barrels/batted ball event of 9.71 percent, third best on the team last season. If Kang keeps up his ability to barrel the baseball, he will provide the power, more so than Marte, which cements Kang as the Bucs cleanup hitter.
The new Pirates center field is probably the most electrifying player on the Pirates, but he is also one of the most frustrating. Marte has a low walk rate, under 4.5 percent every year outside of the 6.1 percent he posted in 2014. His swinging strike rate has been above the league average mark ever year of his career, and is career number of 12.7 percent.
Marte also swings… a lot. The last three seasons, Marte’s swing percentages have been 50.4, 56.8, and 54.1, and that has been accompanied by o-swing (out of strike zone) percentages of 36.3, 39.4, and 39.2. League average in swing percentages the last three years were 46.2, 46.9, and 46.5. Those go along with o-swing percentages of 30.7, 30.6, and 30.3.
We know Marte is going to swing and swing a lot, but he still is a solid offensive player. Marte has posted wRC+’s over 115 (low mark of 116) since 2013, and he has been below the average strikeout rate the last two seasons.
Marte’s projections have always had him low, and he has exceeded him. His BABIP’s have constantly been high, with his lowest mark being .333 in 2015, and that was surrounded by a .373 and a .380 BABIP. But Marte is still an offensive threat, but his lacking in true power, career .158 ISO, and low walk ability, Marte is not suited for the four or two spot. Marte’s left with either batting third or fifth.
From The Book, we learn:
The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.
Marte does provide more value than Polanco, and despite being the second best hitter – small difference in projection from Kang – Marte batting fifth is perfect, especially since he does not live and die with the long ball.
In terms of being the Pirates sixth best hitter, Josh Harrison does not fit that. He’s projected only a .310 wOBA, but the reason he is batting sixth will come next slide. Harrison, of the four remaining players, is projected the most power, .403 slugging and .124 ISO. His biggest fault is he doesn’t get on base, career walk rate of 3.5 percent and projected 4.3 percent. But at the same time, Harrison doesn’t strike out, only 14.3 percent for his career and a projected 15.4 percent.
Harrison does swing at large amount of pitches out of the zone, 38.3, 38.4, and 37.1 percent the last three years. At the same time however, Harrison makes lots of contact with pitches outside the zone, 71.7, 72.6, and 77.9 percent since 2014. This is Harrison’s biggest fall, as he ranks 227th of the 287 batters in average exit velocity on pitches outside the zone (minimum 50 abs).
Harrison lacks plate discipline, which is part of the reason each year his bat has regressed. He’s gone from a .365 wOBA and 137 wRC+ in 2014, to .313 and 100 in 2015, to .301 and 87 in 2016. It has been a constant decline, and his swing percentage has increased each year, 52.2 percent, 54.2, and 54.3.
But his drop power is also concerning. Going from a .159 ISO (95 PA) in 2013 and a .175 ISO in 2014, Harrison has produced an ISO of .103 and .105. But given his advantage in slugging compared to Jordy Mercer, despite Mercer’s higher on-base skills, Harrison fits here at six.
The Book tells us
The old-school book says the rest of the lineup should be written in based on decreasing talent. Hitting ninth is an insult.
The Book basically agrees, with a caveat. Stolen bases are most valuable ahead of high-contact singles hitters, who are more likely to hit at the bottom of the lineup. So a base-stealing threat who doesn’t deserve a spot higher in the lineup is optimized in the #6 hole, followed by the singles hitters.
So with Francisco Cervelli projected to be the Pirates sixth best hitter, .320 wOBA. But he doesn’t have the stolen base threat that Josh Harrison possesses. Harrison has swiped 18, 10, and 19 the last three years. He will likely be in the 15-20 range again in 2017.
Cervelli is a high contact hitter, posting contact rates of 75.7, 82.1, and 80.4 percent since 2014. Over the last three years, the league average (non pitcher) rates are 79.5, 79.1, and 78.4 percent. Cervelli also has a career contact rate of 82 percent.
Cervelli is also a singles hitter, posting ISO’s of .106 and .058 the last two seasons. The last two seasons, Cervelli singled in 22 percent of his at bats and 19 percent of his plate appearances. League average those two years were 17 percent and 15 percent respectively.
Cervelli’s projected ISO of .096, once again a high contact singles hitter. Harrison’s stolen base threat has him sixth, which leaves Cervelli seventh.
Jordy Mercer mashes left handed pitchers, but right handers are a different story. Against left handers, Mercer has a career .369 wOBA and 138 wRC+, while against right handers, it’s a career .278 wOBA and 75 wRC+.
Overall, Mercer has been a below league average hitter, facing right handed pitchers 335 percent more of the time. His career wOBA is .298 with a 89 wRC+. Over the last three seasons, Mercer has gone from a .291 wOBA to a .265 wOBA to a .304 wOBA. 2015 was a low light, posting a .203 wOBA and 24 wRC+ in April followed by a .202 wOBA and wRC+ of 24.
He’s often been criticized for his performance, fairly or not. But he plays everyday and he will make contact. Mercer has a career strikeout rate of just 16 percent, and a career low 14.2 percent. His contact rate is 83.6 percent for his career, with a high of 85.8 percent last season.
Jordy projects once again to be a high contact hitter, STEAMER has him at a 15.8 percent strikeout rate. Despite the high contact, Mercer does not make hard contact, just an 87.1 mph exit velocity for his career, and in 2016, Mercer just had a barrel per plate appearance of 1.5 percent.
Mercer projects to be the Pirates worst hitter, .303 wOBA. His ISO of .122 projects to be much better than Cervelli’s, but Cervelli is a better hitter – about 11 percent better in terms of projection. This leaves Mercer in the eighth spot, which suits him well, and has been his spot most of his career.
To recap, here is the Pirates lineup:
- Josh Bell, .336 wOBA and .144 ISO
- Andrew McCutchen, .363 wOBA and .187 ISO
- Gregory Polanco, .328 wOBA and .168 ISO
- Jung Ho Kang, .337 wOBA and .184 ISO
- Starling Marte, .338 wOBA and .158 ISO
- Josh Harrison, .310 wOBA and .124 ISO
- Francisco Cervelli, .320 wOBA and .096 ISO
- Jordy Mercer, .303 wOBA and .122 ISO
The temptation to bat Cervelli ninth, due to his on-base percentage skills. But as Baseball Prospectus shows, the difference is minimal with the pitcher eighth or ninth
It doesn’t really help all that much in a best-case scenario and it doesn’t hurt all that much if everything goes wrong. Compared to a traditional pitcher-hits-ninth lineup, it’s pretty much break even. The biggest effect might be that it probably annoys the guy who has to hit ninth behind the pitcher.
Going by what The Book says is the most safe way to build a lineup. Putting your worst four hitters in decreasing order from six through nine is the best. With Cervelli’s high contact and high single rate, and Harrison’s ability to steal bags, the flip there makes sense.
We’ll get a glimpse of what the Pirates plan to do shortly, but in terms of an everyday lineup, against right handed pitchers, anyway, this should be the Pirates plan of attack.