This is a note from my good friend Scott McMurtry, who has spent over a year working on this new book chronicling his Pirates fanhood in 2012. He describes it for you below, and I just want to note that if you are a Pirates fan dedicated enough to read my ramblings on a regular basis, you will certainly enjoy this book. It’s written from a different perspective, integrating social media and sabermetrics in to the life of a die-hard baseball fan. I hope you’ll take a minute to check out the entire book if you like the preview.
Scott: As you may remember from the other time we did this a few months back, I wrote a book called #LetsGoBucs last summer about following the Pirates’ 2012 season. It was supposed to be the story of membership in one of baseball’s most downtrodden fanbases and turned into, well, you know what happened last year. What started as an account peppered with sarcastic pessimism quickly became an uplifting tale as the Bucs soared in the standings through June and July, only to end–somehow–even more depressingly than any of the previous 19 losing campaigns. But the story, as you’ll see in this excerpt, is at least as much about the institution of baseball fanhood in the 21st century as it is about following the Pirates, and how things like Twitter (and, as you might deduce from the title, it’s very much influenced by Twitter), blogging, and advanced statistics help serious fans experience games in unprecedented detail. All of these events are on display in this selection, which is an excerpt from a chapter centered around a Pirates-Royals game in June. Check in out and see what you think. If you like what you see, the rest of the book is available right here on Kindle for a cool $8.39. It is also available on the iPad, Nook, and several other platforms – just search “#LetsGoBucs.” I hope you enjoy it (obviously), and if you’ve got any other questions, email me at email@example.com and log onto www.wordsabovereplacement.com for book info/other sports musings. Go Bucs.
This excerpt picks up after we decided to head to the Pirates-Royals game at the last minute on June 8th. Continue reading to see the free preview.
We are rewarded for our procrastination with seats in Section 331, which has never been confused with the Lexus Home Plate Club. Nonetheless, I’m just happy to be in the ballpark again. Also, being in peanut heaven on the left field side allows for a nice view of the Pittsburgh Skyline (unlike being stuck in the right field bleachers, where you are both far away from the game and lacking a vantage point to see the sun set behind the David L. Lawrence Convention Center).
I’m also happy about tonight’s pitching matchup. The Bucs are sending Erik Bedard and his 56 strikeouts in 55.2 innings to the hill against Kansas City’s former #1 overall draft pick, Luke Hochevar. Hochevar does not look, in statistics or in form, like a 1-1 draft pick. He has a decent fastball in terms of velocity (92.7 MPH average in 2011), but it’s flat and clearly lacks any deception or late movement; according to FanGraphs, opposing hitters have produced 38 more runs against it than versus the average heater over the course of Hochevar’s career. His curveball and changeup also receive dismal Pitch Value ratings (-27.2 and -19.1, respectively). His only decent pitch by this standard is the slider, but it can’t possibly make up for the fact that his other three offerings turn ordinary hitters into All-Stars. Hochevar has a classic pitcher’s frame at 6’5’’/220 lbs, but his crouched delivery and 3/4-arm slot are more reminiscent of Mike Leake than Roger Clemens. Then there are the results: Hochevar has never posted an ERA lower than 4.68 in any of his four big league seasons, and his mark for 2012 sits at a post-Astrodome Jose Lima-like 6.63 going into tonight. Now, with a normal pitcher, I’d throw in the caveat that his FIP is not all that bad—sub-4.00, in fact—ergo he must be unlucky, but Hochevar is one of those guys for whom you have to throw fielding-independent numbers aside. His career ERA is a full point higher than his FIP in nearly 650 career innings, so it’s pretty clear that he lacks the “major league threshold” of talent assumed in the FIP formula. The ERA-FIP differential is largely thanks to the fact that his strand rate has never broken 66% (yuck). Thus, it’s fair to presume that he just pitches substantially worse out of the stretch, and that the number is never going to stabilize.
Oh, and the other thing I think of when I see Hochevar on the mound is that he was the 1-1 pick of the 2006 “Brad Lincoln Draft,” meaning that the first three pitchers off the board in a class that included Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer, and Joba Chamberlain were Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, and Brad Lincoln. The joys of Monday morning quarterbacking MLBJFYPDs.
Before the Pirates get a crack at Luke Human Batting Practice Machine, Erik Bedard holds the Royals scoreless in the top of the first. He strikes out the leadoff man, Alex Gordon, on three pitches, and the second hitter, Yuniesky Betancourt, on four. The only surprise is that neither came on a curveball. Bedard’s slow, bending curve is his signature strikeout pitch, and it’s a thing of beauty. He’s ridden it to a 8.7 career K/9 rate, fifth among active MLB starting pitchers. In 2007, he led the AL in K/9 at an incredible 10.93. There’s no doubt he’s one of the premier strikeout pitchers in baseball….but there’s a reason he’s pitching for the Pirates.
For big market teams, a big pitching acquisition (“hired gun”) might be a CC Sabathia, or a Johan Santana, or a Roy Halladay. Our version of a “hired gun,” by contrast, is not an impeccably perfect front-line starter. There has to be something flawed about a pitcher for the Pirates to be able to acquire him. Example: A.J. Burnett, who we obtained from the Yankees this winter in exchange for some spare minor league parts. If you’re reading this book, you’ve probably heard of him. He’s developed a reputation as a top starter over the years—enough of a reputation to make the Blue Jays and Yankees want to sign him to $111 million worth of contracts. Burnett’s flaw? Well, he pretty much sucked in New York. Sucked to the point that Brian Cashman was begging for someone to take him off his hands. As in, he was willing to pay the majority of Burnett’s salary in order to keep him out of pinstripes. In swooped the Pirates (obviously, eager for a bargain buy) and voila, we have a “hired gun.” Not as clean and pretty as signing Cliff Lee, is it?
In the case of Bedard, his history of missing time due to injury made him a candidate to wind up in Pittsburgh. After his strikeout-crazy 2007, the Orioles wisely shipped him to Seattle for five players. One, everyday centerfielder Adam Jones, turned out to be Andrew McCutchen Lite, and the Mariners no doubt rue the day they sent their top hitting prospect away in exchange for 255 innings of Bedard over four seasons. Bedard was great for Seattle when he was on the mound—3.31 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning as a Mariner—but habitually missed starts due to (grab a pen) hip inflammation, lower back soreness, labrum debridement, glute and hamstring strains, left shoulder inflammation, a torn left labrum, bone spurs in the left shoulder, and left knee soreness. It’s a wonder the guy didn’t just start over and try to learn how to throw right-handed. The Mariners traded him to Boston midway through 2011, and when he appeared on the free agent market over the winter, his value had declined to the point that the Pirates were able to snatch him up at the cost of “just” $4.5 million. With Bedard, you know you’re getting an excellent and abundantly talented pitcher. You just don’t know how often you’re getting him. Which is what made him available to the Pirates. Bedard’s actually made it through the first two months of 2012 with only one minor injury scare (a reappearance of the lower back soreness that caused him to leave a May 9 start against the Nationals after the first inning), which can be classified as a rousing success. He’s pitched well, and his nasty bender and corresponding whiffs make him a joy to watch for Pirate fans who are used to soft-tossing, contact-prone left handed starters like Paul Maholm and Zach Duke. So +1 for Neal Huntington.
Bedard skirts a two-out walk to our former hypothetical trade target Billy Butler by getting a soft pop out from Mike Moustakas, and it’s Hochevar time. Alex Presley, recently recalled from Triple-A, begins the Pirates’ offensive night by striking out looking. Maybe even Hochevar is capable of holding this lineup down. They’ve shown signs of life in the last few weeks—10 runs against the Cubs on May 27, 8 and 6 in two games during the Brewers’ series, and another 8 against the Reds on Tuesday—but it’s still a motley crew at best. Neil Walker restores my faith with a ringing single into right-center. With ten hits in the last six games, he’s been one of the catalysts for the offensive resurrection, and it’s nice to see him hitting like himself again. Could use some more extra base hits, but, hey, let’s not ask for too much now. Up comes the man of the hour.
“The centerfielder, number twenty-two, ANNN-drew, muh-CUTCH-EN.”
I’d like to commission a study of the crowd decibel levels produced by the announcing of each Pirate hitter’s name just to see if McCutchen would beat all the other ones combined. When he steps to the plate at PNC Park, there’s a buzz in the air that signals three things. One, this is one of the best players in baseball. Two, this is our superstar, the franchise savior whose coming has been anticipated for decades. Three, thank God that a decent hitter is up to the plate because we’ve grown tired of watching these other scrubs hack away fruitlessly. I don’t think there’s another player in the game whose status is quite like McCutchen’s. There are great young players all over, but none carry all the baseball hopes and dreams of his city on his shoulders. Bryce Harper is labeled the Nationals’ “savior,” but let’s face it: the Nationals are good anyway. They’re stacked with pitching and they already have a franchise player in Ryan Zimmerman. Harper’s at-bats create a similar buzz in Washington, but it’s because of his raw talent more than anything else. The Royals are counting on a trio of young players (Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas) to lead them out of their losing doldrums. All we have, in terms of players currently at the major league level, is Cutch. So when he steps out of the on-deck circle, we make noise both because he’s captivating to watch now, and because he represents The Future and all its elusive success.
I look over to the scoreboard and see McCutchen’s slash line. It’s so pretty right now that you’d want to hang it in your foyer: .331/.391/.561. Symmetrical and everything, with all those ones. At some point in this game, the board is going to display the “Pirates Leaderboard,” and it’s going to reveal that McCutchen leads the team in every offensive category. So when he rolls over Luke Hochevar’s first pitch and taps a meek grounder to short, it’s doubly disappointing. Naturally, I want to see something dazzling, like a triple to the right-center alley where his helmet flies off between first and second because he’s moving too fast. I also don’t want to see those beautiful numbers take a hit, because the longer he can maintain a spot among the National League leaders in average, OBP, slugging, extra-base hits, and WAR, the more likely it is that he’ll finally receive the recognition he deserves as one of the finest players in the game today. Maybe, I don’t know, he’ll be named to the All-Star team before the eleventh hour this year. Still, the soft groundout was exciting because right off the bat you could tell it was going to be a close play due to his speed. You’re the best, Andrew.
McCutchen’s grounder puts Walker on second with two outs and brings Garrett Jones to the plate. GFJ summons a little bit of his 2009 magic and ropes Hochevar’s 1-1 pitch off the centerfield wall. Walker scores to make it 1-0, Pirates. It seems that Jones can still hit fastballs from crappy right-handers.
Alvarez, who is unquestionably Bad Pedro right now, steps up next. He is hitting exactly .200 on the season: a perfectly horrific 33 for 165. When the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez second overall in 2008, I think their concerns were centered around his long-term status as a first or third baseman, not whether or not he would be locked in a perpetual struggle to stay above the Mendoza line. Bad PedroÔ postpones having to choose a side above or below Mr. Mendoza by drawing a walk, and Jose Tabata grounds out innocently to Hochevar to end the inning. We scored a run without McCutchen reaching base? I’ll take it.
Bedard’s second inning is marred only by another full-count walk, this one to Eric Hosmer. Nothing to worry about command-wise—Butler and Hosmer just battled him with multiple 3-2 foul balls until he missed—but each extra pitch Erik Bedard throws is another tick from a time bomb that threatens to destroy his shoulder, his elbow, or both. He strikes out Alcides Escobar on three more fastballs. The Royals are totally off-balance when Bedard is ahead in the count with two strikes; they have to prepare for the curveball but he’s crossing them up with his sneaky fastball. This guy knows how to pitch.
The Pirates reap the benefits of interleague play in the bottom of the second. Because Ned Yost wanted to get his everyday DH, Butler, in the lineup, he stuck his usual first baseman, Hosmer, in right field for the night and penciled Butler in at first. They don’t call this a calculated risk for nothing. Rod Barajas hits a catchable looper towards right-center, and Hosmer not only doesn’t catch it: he somehow lets it get by him far enough that Barajas, who runs like he has milk crates attached to his ankles, can advance to second. Ugly baseball all around.
But nothing compared to what happens on the next play. Clint Barmes, he of the .526 OPS, laces a single into left-center. Great, Barmes actually got a hit, first and third with nobody out WAIT A MINUTE WHY IS BARAJAS TRYING TO SCORE? I’m watching in horror as the Pirates’ 250-pound catcher and his 5.7 40-yard dash speed barrel toward home, destined to make the first out at the plate. There is stupidly aggressive baserunning, and then there is sending Rod Barajas home with nobody out and the baseball in the hands of Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy has one of the strongest and most accurate arms around. Barajas is a sitting duck. I’m on my feet with my arms in the air, screaming “WHAT?!”
Francoeur’s throw is his usual rope, but slightly up the third base line. Barajas shuffles (or the closest athletic approximation of shuffling he can do) himself inside the line, and makes an awkward slide/dive/flop toward the inside corner of the plate. I don’t think he travels forward, but when he lands, his right hand is touching the plate. Safe.
That was like watching a defensive tackle pick up a fumble, stagger for 30 yards, and collapse on the goal line for a touchdown. And to think that seven hours ago I was watching the most graceful athlete of all-time. Might have to revise the definition of “athlete” so that Barajas and Federer can’t be in the same category. 2-0, Bucs.
Bedard then bunts Barmes to third, but Alex Presley hits a grounder straight at Butler and can’t get the run home. Thankfully, Neil Walker finds the hole between first and second with his groundball, and Barmes scores to make it 3-0.
These comments are both in jest.
A few years back, DK wrote a terrific article that attempted to debunk the existence of “clutch.” He cited the fact that, given a large enough sample size, a player’s performance in “clutch” situations will turn out to be pretty much the same as his performance in “regular” situations. He also quoted Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez, who were being hailed as “clutch hitters” at the time, as saying that the way to approach “clutch” situations was to take the exact same approach as you would in any other plate appearance.
The existence virtual nonexistence of “clutch” applies to Neil Walker because in 2011, he was labeled “RBI Machine” due to the fact that for a large stretch of the season, he led the team in runs batted in. And RBI hitters must be “clutch,” right? Well, if you take a closer look at the numbers, Walker hit .271/.342/.419 with men in scoring position—a shade better than his overall .271/.334/.408 line, but nothing extraordinary. It’s also a fairly small sample size (184 plate appearances), so slight variations from the norm are expected. And RBI don’t tell you much about a hitter’s production, because they’re a context-dependant stat. Of course Walker was leading the team in ribbies—he was hitting fourth, behind Andrew McCutchen and his team-leading OBP. It’s not that crazy that he “led all NL second basemen in RBI” for a long stretch, either. He’s already an above average hitter for his position, and no other NL second basemen hit cleanup. So when people praise Walker’s “clutchness” or “RBI ability,” we sabermetrically-inclined tweeters roll our eyes. Neil Walker is a very good player, but let’s not make him into something he isn’t.
If you’re not convinced, let’s play a game: name the “clutchest” player in baseball.
Time! There’s a 94.6% chance your answer was “Derek Jeter.”
Well, contestant, it took me 7.3 seconds to go to Baseball-Reference and find “Derek Jeter Career Batting Splits.” It appears that your answer’s career numbers with both runners on and runners in scoring position are in fact slightly worse than with no men on base. Thanks for playing!
[Jeopardy exit music; I walk over to contestant and give Trebek-like disingenuous smiling consolation handshake.]
After Walker steals second, McCutchen flies out to left to end the inning. All is going well, except for McCutchen’s 0-for-2 and the effect of the three-run lead on the Friday night crowd. They’re in a good mood now, and that means I’m about to get pissed off. That baseball atmosphere-destroying phenomenon is approaching.
Worse, it’s originating in our section. A couple of (drunk?) college age guys are standing in the aisles and gesturing at the fans around them to start the evil dance. Luckily, it doesn’t make it all the way around, but the fact that the wave took root at all is disturbing.
Bedard begins to falter upon appearance of the wave. (Coincidence? That’s up for you to decide.) He walks Gordon with one out, bringing Betancourt to the plate. Yunieski Betancourt’s name is something of a joke with the sabermetric crowd, because he combines a total antipathy for the base on balls with horrific ratings in all advanced defensive metrics. Despite being about a replacement-level player, he managed to remain a starting shortstop in the major leagues from 2006-2011. So kudos to Yuni for tricking someone into making him a regular every year.
“Uh oh, here comes Yuni,” I say with a chuckle.
@rtjr, who is in on the joke, says, “You know, in the offseason people laughed at the idea of us signing him, and now…”
“We have Clint Barmes.”
Yuni takes one of his unbridled rips at Bedard’s 1-0 offering and blasts a flyball to deep center. McCutchen almost makes a spectacular catch against the wall, but can’t hold on. The ball caroms back toward the infield and Gordon scores from first. 3-1. Butler flies out to Tabata in deep left, but Moustakas shoots a liner in between Barmes and Alvarez to bring Yuni around and cut the deficit to one run. The inning ends on another long flyball that Tabata catches near the warning track. With all the hard-hit balls, it feels fortunate that the Royals only scored two there.
More craziness ensues in the bottom of the inning. Alvarez smashes a one-out double over Frenchy’s head in center (Nudging him above .200! For now…) and moves to third on an infield single by Tabata. Then Hochevar uses the old “fake to third, throw to first” pickoff move, which hardly ever works above Pony League. But Tabata bites, and the Royals have him in a rundown between first and second. After a few throws, Pedro—no Carl Lewis himself—breaks for home and scores without a throw. Tabata is tagged out, but the net result is positive. Not well played by any of the involved parties.
I guess this is Pirates-Royals we’re talking about. Also Yuni was in the play.
Bedard rolls through the fourth with only the blemish of a groundball single, but at the same time, “bad news” arrives via Twitter.
Of course, this doesn’t really matter, and has no effect on anything except that Stanford’s chances of advancing to Omaha just crashed. If Appel had taken a liner to the jawbone, that would be worrisome to Pirates fans. A bad start? C’est la vie.
Hochevar has his first easy inning in the bottom of the fourth, but to be fair, it was against Barmes, Bedard, and Presley. More of a “rehab inning.” Bedard gets through the top of the fifth without a run, setting up a much-anticipated moment: the results of the fan selected “between innings” song. It’s….
Just so there’s no confusion: the pleasurable melodies of Carly Rae Jepsen during breaks in the action? Therapeutic. Thousands of fans standing and throwing their hands up while pitches are actually being thrown? An affront to not only the game of baseball, but society as a whole.
The Pirates fail to score, squandering a leadoff single from the RBI Machine. McCutchen grounds out weakly again, the third time he’s made an out while ahead in the count. Disappointing, but nothing to make a stink about. Bedard returns to the mound and carves Francoeur up with a wicked changeup-fastball-curveball sequence, culminating in a swinging strikeout. Watching Bedard induce whiffs through the use of guile is, in a lot of ways, cooler than watching Verlander or Kershaw collect strikeouts on the strength of their superior stuff. The extra coolness is negated by those morbid “How much longer are we going to see this for?” thoughts. He strands another groundball single and strolls into the dugout with a scoreless frame. Hochevar pitches the sixth as a lame duck; with his team down, he’ll surely be pinch-hit for when the Royals bat in the seventh. He allows a leadoff single to Tabata, who is promptly caught stealing because the Pirates always get caught stealing. Their success rate for the year is hovering around 50%. (Yes, worst in the majors.) If it was a one-run or tie game, I’d blow a fuse about how we just ran ourselves out of an inning, but given the score I’m less agitated. Hochevar strikes Barajas out and fields an easy tapper from Barmes to end his night. At least he’s done one thing well—that’s his fourth assist.
It was a classic Hochevar performance: a .409 BABIP and only 6 of 10 runners stranded. I want to believe you’re not that bad, Luke. I really do.
Bedard finally has his own 1-2-3 inning to conclude his outing. The line on Bedard: 7 innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks, 5 strikeouts. Pretty solid. He’s pinch-hit for by Josh Harrison, who—wait for it—flies out on reliever Tim Collins’ first pitch. Way to make the new guy work! A Presley groundout and a Walker strikeout later, and Jason Grilli enters the game. It’s a below average inning for him: only one strikeout. Given his preposterous 14.73 K/9 this season, Grilli’s more likely to strike out two hitters in an inning than one. #SACK, indeed.
Grilli has been the perfect bridge to closer Joel Hanrahan, who comes on for the ninth.
(Search “Joel Hanrahan entrance video” and you’ll see this in the “MPH” and “RPM” auto-themed montage.)
The Hammer’s results have been excellent this year—2.86 ERA, 15 saves in 17 chances—but the peripherals are still a little bit troubling. Even though his strikeouts are up, he seems to have reverted to the high walk rates that plagued him in his pre-Pittsburgh days. Also, he’s allowed four homers in 22 innings, compared to just one in 68.2 last year. There was no way he was going to sustain a 1.9% HR/FB rate again in 2012, but the fact that more balls have been hit in the air against him suggests that we’re due to see the uptick in his home runs allowed continue.
Another reason we should trade him, if possible. He’s still a very good pitcher, but closers remain overvalued on the market and if we could steal a prospect or maybe even a reliable bat from a team in exchange for Hanrahan, I’d do it. His stock is still high, and Jason Grilli and Brad Lincoln are more than capable of pitching the ninth. It seems sort of unkind, because I like Hanrahan, but as he’s jogging out of the bullpen to the blaring tunes of Slipknot’s “Before I Forget,” all I’m thinking is, I hope we can trade this guy.
Eric Hosmer pushes Hanrahan to a full count before flying out deep to McCutchen. One down. The Hammer coaxes a softer flyball out of Alcides (not Yunel, as I mistakenly thought for the first four innings; he’s the one on the Brewers) Escobar, and only pinch hitter Clint Robinson stands in the way of a Bucco victory. If you’re just catching the end of a Pirates win on TV, you’ll be able to approximate the attendance by gauging the noise level during the last hitter. The 36,000+ in attendance haven’t made too much of a racket for a few innings, but now they’re raucous. Hanrahan obliges them by jumping ahead 0-2 with a 96 MPH fastball and a tight slider that Robinson swings through. Once you’re down two strikes to Hanrahan, it’s over. He can rip off his nastiest slider without fear of missing the zone or just blow you away with the heat. He chooses the wipeout slider, and Robinson chases it for strike three. Ballgame.
 “1st round—1st pick”
 Lima’s ERA in 2000, his first year in Enron (haha) Field: 6.65. Close enough. Allowing 48 home runs will do that to you.
 I don’t know what this is, but it sounds unpleasant.
 As I type this, Bedard is probably tripping over a vacuum cleaner cord and spraining his ankle.
 No, Microsoft Word, not “Moustaches.”
 And not because he threw it off on purpose to draw attention to his haircut, like that Nationals’ guy from the last paragraph did on his first major league hit.
 I’m still not over this, if you can’t tell.
 (Nickname) Garrett FREAKIN’ Jones. It just kind of stuck.
 I can hear you traditionalists yelling “I thought you said all bunts were stupid, geek!!!” Bunting with a pitcher hitting .111/.111/.111 checks out with the percentages. I, and all other sabermetrics people, know this is the right play. Carry on.
 “And then I said, ‘Hey, maybe Yuni would’ve gotten to that ball!’” (uncontrollable laughter)
 As long as they approach it the same as any other inning and don’t get fooled into thinking they need to be extra “clutch.” The idea that a “closer mentality” is necessary to finish games is only true if you convince yourself it actually exists (which it doesn’t).