One area that concerns me about the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates is the team’s bench. To me it just looks weak on paper and I have the feeling that has been the case for quite some time now. The Pirates depth or lack there of has been an issue for years and while it is steadily improving I believe some spots, especially the middle infield, are still lagging behind. My belief the Pirates bench was weak in past seasons, including 2012, was not really based on any research but rather jut an observational opinion. I decided to take a look at the numbers and see according to Fan Graphs WAR just how well the Pirates bench in 2012 stacked up to the other 4 teams remaining in the NL Central (Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs).
The first step to do this was determining exactly what a bench player was. I’m not merely looking for how well a team does with its pinch hitters but rather how well a team’s non-regulars do when pinch-hitting and when giving a regular starter a day off. Two obvious constraints came to mind one pitchers are obviously not bench players and bench players will not have as many plate appearances as starters. Using those two constraints I narrowed my list down to all non-pitchers and then eliminated anyone with 400 or more plate appearances. Four hundred was really just an arbitrary end point but it seems like a solid number for a regular starter, it represents roughly 60% of a 650 PA season meaning the player probably had to have played more than 50% of the time. Going even further I opted to eliminate any player with fewer than 50 PA. Players such as that likely didn’t have a chance to contribute much off the bench and were probably either short-term injury callups or September roster expansion players. These constraints limited the player pool to a manageable size for bench players but still left me with a few oddities such as Starling Marte and Rod Barajas being listed as bench players. Obviously those two and other like them are not bench players so I decided to look at the number of plate appearance the remaining players had per game played. A typical bench player should have a lower number because while they will make some starts a lot of their plate appearances will come as a pinch hitter or late inning replacement limiting their PA in those games to 1 or 2. Again I opted to choose an arbitrary dividing line of 3.3 plate appearances per game. It may seem random but it indicates that in at least a third of his games the player was receiving at least 4 plate appearances and to me that was a good enough dividing line. Finally I opted for one more constraint and that was removing all catchers. This may seem a little odd but typically speaking backup catchers receive a larger number of starts than a typical catcher and are often not used in pinch-hitting situations. In short catchers really don’t fit my standard ideal of what a bench player really is.
These constraints left me with a various number of players left for each team. The Reds had 4, the Cardinals and Brewers each had 7, the Cubs had 9 players and the Pirates topped the list with 10 such players. I looked at the total number of plate appearances each of these groups had and at the total number of WAR they produced on the season. The Reds were low and the Cubs were high but the other three teams all had right around 1200 plate appearances. So I decided to look at the stats on the basis of 1200 plate appearances which for the NL Central at least appears to be roughly the average number of plate appearances each “bench” received. The results can be seen below. I’ve also included the actual WAR and total number of plate appearances.
Cardinals: 5.1 WAR/1200 PA (5.4 WAR, 1263 PA)
Brewers: 1.9 WAR/1200 PA (1.8 WAR, 1118 PA)
Pirates: 0.8 WAR/1200 PA (0.8 WAR, 1255 PA)
Cubs: 0.4 WAR/1200 PA (0.5 WAR, 1538 PA)
Reds: -0.6 WAR/1200 PA (-0.4 WAR, 835 PA)
A little to my surprise the Pirates actually finished third. The Cardinals total was just incredibly insane and the Reds total was much lower than one would assume a successful team to be but then again they had very little reason to use it. For those of you interest the players included for each team I have listed below:
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Shane Robinson, Lance Berkman, Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers
Brewers: Nyjer Morgan, Cody Ranson, Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, Taylor Green, Jeff Bianchi, Edwin Maysonet
Pirates: Casey McGehee, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Drew Sutton, Matt Hague, Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Nate McLouth, Yamaico Navarro
Cubs: Bryan LaHair, Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Dave Sappelt, Adron Cardenas
Reds: Chris Heisey, Wilson Valdez, Miguel Cairo, Xavier Paul
In reality it is difficult to draw much from this. The Pirates bench wasn’t good but it was better than the Cubs and the Reds. That sounds good but the Cubs were awful in 2012 and the Reds used their bench only two-thirds of time that the Pirates or basically any other NL Central team did. One thing I did draw on was just how difficult it was to determine a bench for the Pirates and the Cubs. I had originally started out planning on picking the 5 most frequent bench players from each team but it became difficult to do that with the Pirates. Harrison and McKenry were easy picks but the next three proved impossible which is why I opted to go with the above formula. For the record the Pirates and Brewers would have been helped out the most if I would have included back up catchers in my analysis.
One thing I do think we can take from this is that there is room for the Pirates to improve on the bench. It might be unfair to expect the Pirates or any bench to rise to the St Louis Cardinals level but if the Pirates bench can improve to around the Brewers 2012 level which was approximately 1.2 WAR there is reason to believe some ground could be made up. The Cardinals are likely to see some sort of regression from the great 2012 season from their bench so it is possible the Pirates by improving to just 2.0 WAR from their bench could pick up as many as 3-3.5 games on the Cardinals just with their bench improving and the Cardinals returning to a more normal level. Bottom line the point I’m trying to make here and in my post The Bottom of the Roster is that the Pirates can make up ground not only by having their big names like McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker and Marte perform better but also by making some small but noticeable strides simply with team depth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Pirates could pick up 4-5 wins compared to the Cardinals just by strengthening their depth and having the Cardinals return to a more normal level that the Pirates.
Sometimes for no reason at all I like to look at baseball related things and analyze them. There is really no larger purpose to this article except I had a curiosity and looked to solve it. Essentially my question is what makes a number one starter a number one starter and so on and so forth. Is it a certain ERA, strike outs, being tough to hit. What is it that defines a top pitcher. Well I’m not a big statistical researcher so I don’t like to delve into things too deep without some sort of general idea what I’m looking at so I usually make some sort of assumption, see what that gives me and proceed from there. Well this is my first attempt at answering that question and as usual I went with an assumption. I decided for general purposes to call a #1 starter a player who posts a WAR greater than or equal to 4.0 and for each subsequent spot I drop 1 WAR (ie a 3.0-3.9 WAR player is a #2 starter). I then wanted to know what the ERA, WHIP and K/BB were for each group in 2012. The result can be seen below:
4.0+ WAR: 3.15 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, 3.78 K/BB
3.0-3.9 WAR: 3.43 ERA, 1.193 WHIP, 3.05 K/BB
2.0-2.9 WAR: 3.95 ERA, 1.286 WHIP, 2.71 K/BB
1.0-1.9 WAR: 4.33 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, 2.45 K/BB
0.0-0.9 WAR: 4.85 ERA, 1.434, 1.92 K/BB
-0.1 or lower WAR: 6.14 ERA, 1.588 WHIP, 1.46 K/BB
On its surface that makes sense to me. I always felt that roughly speaking the difference between each rotation spot should be about a half run of ERA. While that isn’t exactly what I have here is it is roughly close. However upon closer look I’m not sure these numbers really tell the whole story. I looked at the percentage of starts made by each group of pitchers:
In an ideal world the first 5 groups would all be even at 20% and the last group would not exist but of course we all know this isn’t an ideal world. Still the low % of starts made by pitchers on the top end suggest I’m setting the bar too high. I decided to take a different approach and order the pitchers by WAR and then split them into 5 groups each of which started approximately 972 games. In case it’s not obvious where that number comes from that is the number of major league baseball games in a year multiplied by 2 since there are 2 starting pitchers divided by 5 since there are 5 rotation spots. I didn’t bother with splitting the data set exactly as I’m just looking for a rough figure here:
#1: 3.23 ERA, 1.162 WHIP, 3.48 K/BB
#2: 3.76 ERA, 1.255 WHIP, 2.88 K/BB
#3: 4.35 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB
#4: 4.28 ERA, 1.344 WHIP, 2.25 K/BB
5: 5.64 ERA, 1.539 WHIP, 1.64 K/BB
Relatively speaking the effect this new classification has on #1 and #4 starters in minimal but the #5 starter group is greatly impacted by the dreadful performance of the negative WAR group. Also the #2 and #3 starters are severely dragged down and it is actually an insignificant amount separating a #3 and a #4 starter. Needless to say there are plenty of problems with this data set.
In the past I have always used the rule of thumb that a 3.25 ERA was the average for a number one starter and that for each additional starter you add half a run. So number two would be 3.75, number 3 4.25, number 4 4.75 and number 5 would be 5.25. I’m not sure how accurate that really is though and my above attempts really don’t do much to enforce the opinion or not. Taking one last look at this for now I decided to ignore all the pitchers who posted a negative WAR and all the pitchers with fewer than 5 starts and focus on the remaining group. This left me with 203 starters totaling 4406 starts or about just over 880 starts per rotation spot. The results can be seen below:
#1: 3.20 ERA, 1.157 WHIP, 3.56 K/BB
#2: 3.74 ERA, 1.254 WHIP, 2.87 K/BB
#3: 4.17 ERA, 1.303 WHIP, 2.60 K/BB
#4: 4.31 ERA, 1.334 WHIP, 2.37 K/BB
#5: 4.96 ERA, 1.447 WHIP, 1.90 K/BB
Once again I am surprised by the relatively little separation between a number 3 and number 4 starter. Also surprisingly in all 3 measurements the values for a number 4 starter as remained relatively constant giving me a fairly good idea of what a number 4 starter really is. Once again the #5 spot is subject to some wild fluctuations based on a handful of horrible starters. My method made an attempt to remove some so the number is not way out of line.
Bottom line I think I need to study all this in more detail and try a few other methods of looking at how to define each rotation spot but I think these three methods give me a good starting place. My original idea of a .5 run step in ERA appears to fit the first 3 rotation spots fairly well but the drop off to the fourth small is less significant while the drop off to the 5th spot is difficult to determine which much accuracy but it can be though of as around .5 run. I want to make an attempt to research this more in-depth at a later date and I’ll make sure to share my findings but as an initial survey I thought this was fairly interesting while not all that informative.