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Scouting by the numbers: Pittsburgh Pirates

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An analytical preview of the Twins fourth opponent - Aug. 3-6

Minnesota Twins v Pittsburgh Pirates
Pirates’ first year manager Derek Shelton served as Rocco Baldelli’s bench coach in 2019
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

It will be a home and home split series against the re-building Pirates as the Twins host the first two games before travelling to Pittsburgh to start an eight game road trip. The Pirates are managed by former Twins bench coach Derek Shelton, who is tasked in his first managerial position with sorting through a group of prospects, former prospects, and veterans to identify and develop those that might be part of Pittsburgh’s next competitive team.

Opponent Overview

The Pirates are re-building and completely shook up their management team during the off-season, bringing in new leaders in the dugout (Shelton) and in the front office (Ben Cherington). Those changes make 2020 an assessment year for this franchise. They will be trying out and evaluating many young players, some drafted and developed in their farm system, some acquired in sellers trades, and others scooped up for a second audition after having failed to stick in other organizations. Many of the young players were high draft picks and will be getting extended opportunities in 2020, including outfielders Cole Tucker (1st round, 2014), Bryan Reynolds (2nd, 2016); infielders Kevin Newman (1st, 2015), Josh Bell (2nd, 2011), and Colin Moran (1st, 2013); and pitchers Joe Musgrove (1st, 2011), Trevor Williams (2nd, 2013), and Mitch Keller (2nd, 2016). Of those names, none have much more than 3 years of major league service time and the club’s average age is 27.8 years, making them the sixth youngest team in MLB this season.

The team brought in a couple of low-cost veterans looking for larger role opportunities this offseason – pinch runner extraordinaire Jarrod Dyson to platoon in center and left hander Derek Holland to eat innings in the rotation. Outfielder Gregory Polanco is returning from an injury plagued 2019, and touted righthanders Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon are both likely to miss all of 2020 after offseason surgeries. The bullpen is largely unknown but does include with a couple of familiar names for Twins fans in Nick Burdi and Nik Turley.

Overall, there is some talent here, but it’s unproven at the major league level, and there will be a lot of churn on the fringes of this roster. Top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B) is expected to arrive in 2020, along with outfielder Jared Oliva and first basemen Will Craig and the Pirates also have one of baseball’s most unique prospects in 6’7 shortstop (you read that right) Oneil Cruz, although he is likely still a year or more away from Pittsburgh. The Pirates have little hope of competing for the playoffs in 2020, even with the expanded format, and will mostly be looking for developmental strides from the prospects and to get lucky on some retreads as they try to build a core group for the future.

Four Breakdowns:

★ ★ ★

1. Contact that doesn’t hurt

Many of the names listed above were with the Pirates last season, when the club finished 69-93 and in the bottom third of MLB in nearly any statistical category you want to look at. Interestingly, one area the team did not struggle in was making contact at the plate. Pittsburgh finished 2019 with a 19.8% strikeout percentage, good for 2nd best in all of baseball, behind Houston. Alas, avoiding strikeouts (usually a good thing for an offense) did not lead to much success for the Pirates, who collectively posted baseball’s 20th best on base percentage and 24th best slugging percentage. The avoidance of strikeouts was due, in part, by the team’s swing aggressiveness. As a group, the Pirates swung at a third of first pitches in at-bats and put up baseball’s highest rate of swings at pitches in the strike zone (71.4%). Contrary to many other swing happy teams, the Pirates made a high rate of contact – 78.1% of their swings, 4th-best in baseball.

The problem was, that contact was not very good. Pittsburgh performed in the bottom third of MLB in terms of exit velocity (88.3 mph) and those batted balls were very frequently on the ground as illustrated by their 46.6% ground ball rate and 10.2-degree average launch angle, both second worst in MLB. By contrast, the Twins averaged 89.7 mph exit velocity (3rd, MLB), had baseball’s lowest ground ball rate (38.8%) and highest launch angle (14.9-degrees). When you add it all up for Pittsburgh, you have a team that makes contact by swinging often early in counts and at pitches in the strike zone, but the resulting contact is frequently poor and on the ground, where its damage can be limited.

What to look for:

In general, making contact is better than not making contact, but making the kind of contact Pittsburgh made in 2019 is not a recipe for productivity. So far in the tiny sample size of 2020, Pittsburgh’s trends have carried over. The team’s average exit velocity thus far is just 86.5 mph (2nd worst), yielding baseball’s lowest hard-hit percentage (29.3%), and the launch angle remains unproductively low at 10.5-degrees. From a scouting standpoint, there is little reason for Twins pitchers to be cautious against these hitters – outside of first basemen Josh Bell, who finished 2019 with 37 homeruns as the result of a 47% hard hit rate (29th, MLB) and 92.4 mph average exit velocity (14th, MLB).

★ ★ ★

2. Old Friends

Even though the Pirates are re-building and will likely see many more than thirty players take the field in their uniform in 2020, they currently have several “old friends” for Twins fans, including manager Derek Shelton, second catcher John Ryan Murphy, and relievers Nick Burdi and Nik Turley. Here’s a quick update on where the three players have been since their time in the Twin Cities.

  • #18 – Catcher - John Ryan Murphy

Readers of this site will remember Murphy as the centerpiece returned to Minnesota in exchange for centerfielder Aaron Hicks following the 2015 season. After only 26 games of below replacement level production for Minnesota, Murphy was sent to Arizona where he spent 2+ seasons as a backup catcher, accumulating only 299 plate appearances. Murphy was traded to Atlanta for cash at the trade deadline last summer, before signing as a free agent with Pittsburgh for 2020.

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images
  • #57 – Right-Handed Reliever – Nick Burdi

Former Twins’ second round pick, Burdi has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. When healthy and available, he wields some of baseball’s best pure stuff, including a fastball that has averaged 98.5 mph so far in 2020. Viewed as a potential future closer, Burdi was selected by Philadelphia from Minnesota in the rule 5 draft after the 2017 season. The Phillies immediately traded him to Pittsburgh for international free agency bonus money and the Pirates have been patient as Burdi has rehabbed from multiple surgeries since. He’s made only 15 career MLB appearances, but he’s healthy now and the Pirates think they might have their future closer.

  • #71 – Left-Handed Reliever – Nik Turley

Turley spent parts of the 2017 season with the Twins, bouncing up and down from the minors before a September roster expansion call-up. The Twins waived Turley after the 2017 season, and he was claimed by the Pirates. Before the 2018 season even got underway, though, Turley was suspended 80 games by MLB for a performance enhancing drug violation. While suspended, Turley injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, keeping him from any appearances in affiliated baseball in 2018 or 2019. Despite the long absence, Turley won a spot in the Pirates bullpen in summer camp

★ ★ ★

3. Not catching the ball

Another area the Pirates will be looking to shore up in 2020 is on defense. The 2019 team allowed baseball’s 2nd-highest batting average allowed on balls in play, .315, a number that wasn’t driven by the pitching staff allowing hard contact. The Pirates pitching staff finished in the middle of the pack in hard hit %, barrel %, and exit velocity allowed, yet tied for the worst weighted on base average on contact (which focuses only on batted balls in play). It’s clear that the defenders’ inability to turn batted balls into outs was the main culprit of these results. The Statcast defense data also backs up this story, as the 2019 team finished 29th in outs above average (OAA), with -20. Only the Orioles were worse. If you prefer other defensive metrics, Fangraphs’ ultimate zone rating (UZR) pegged Pittsburgh at -54 runs below average, worst in the MLB by a wide margin, and the team committed 121 errors (2nd most).

What to look for:

Shortstop and third base were the two worst positions by the defensive measures, contributing a combined -24 OAA last season. Pirates right fielders weren’t far behind with -8. On the brighter side, some of that was counterbalanced by second base (+13), where starter Adam Frazier contributed +12 OAA (tied, 12th most, MLB) on his own. The team is hoping 2nd-year starting shortstop Kevin Newman will improve with experience and has started to rotate third baseman Colin Moran at first with Bell, with both players spending time in the new designated hitter spot, in hopes of improving the defense at those positions.

★ ★ ★

4. Scouting Josh Bell

Now in his fourth season as the team’s main first basemen, the 27-year-old Bell had easily his most productive major league season in 2019. His 37 homers, 116 RBI, and .367 OBP combined to make Bell 35% better than league average offensively, but his total value was weighed down by poor defense, resulting in a surprisingly low 2.5 WAR campaign. A switch hitter, Bell is much more potent from the left side of the plate, where he clubbed 28 of those homers and batted 73 points higher. Unsurprisingly, given the results, digging into Bell’s success in different parts of the zone reveals the fact that he has more holes in his right-handed swing (shown in the blue below):

What to look for:

Bell is a traditional switch-hitter; in that he always bats opposite the pitcher’s handedness. With the Twins projected to throw lefties in the first two games of the series (Thorpe, Hill) I’d look for them to primarily attack Bell with fastballs up and in, countered with their big curveballs down below the zone. As a stronger left-handed and low ball hitter, Bell should prove to be a tougher matchup for Jose Berrios and Randy Dobnak. Both pitchers will need to be pinpoint in commanding their pitches down and away to Bell – the changeup and curveball for Berrios; and the sinker and changeup for Dobnak.

Have a question or topic about a Twins opponent that you’d like to be explored? Please leave a comment and let me know!

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.