Wednesday, May 20, 2015
By Michael Waterloo
firstname.lastname@example.org @MWaterloo_LDN on Twitter
May 19, 2015
It would be far too easy — not to mention lazy — to call Travis Sawchik's debut book "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak," Moneyball Part 2. Frankly, as great as "Moneyball" was, it's not on the same level of "Big Data Baseball" when it comes to the content.
"Moneyball" was terrific at explaining the value of on-base percentage (OBP) in baseball, which Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used to find undervalued players.
On-base percentage — while still a better metric to use instead of batting average — is old news to the stat and sabermetric community. What Sawchik does is highlight the secrets to success by using hidden value for the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.
For a quick history lesson, the Pirates were the laughing stock of baseball for 20 years, as they endured the longest losing streak in North American professional sports. After two straight second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012, manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington were on the hot seat, knowing that they had to make 2013 a success, or they were out of a job.
When the Pirates hired Hurdle, a big part of it was due to the Pirates feeling he was a manager who would adapt from the old-school mentality of managing, as the book illustrates. After managing the Colorado Rockies, Hurdle had a brief stint with the data-heavy MLB Network as an analyst. The Pirates, a small-market team with a payroll consistently in the bottom 10 percent of a sport without a salary cap, needed to find a way to be competitive. It wasn't with an increased payroll, but it was by installing an analytic department within the team - a model that the Tampa Bay Rays used to lead them to success.
The secret for the Pirates, thanks to quantitative analysts Dan Fox, a former writer for baseball prospectus, and Mike Fitzgerald, a MIT graduate, was to get the most value out of their current roster by aligning their defense in shifts. Instead of having their infielders play in traditional spots, they would align them accordingly for each hitter based on his batting tendencies.
Sawchik describes the resistance that some players had, as it was breaking the mold that they've grown up with since they were kids. In spring training, Kyle Stark, assistant general manager, would put an X on the ground for the players to know where to position themselves. Fox and Fitzgerald would show the players proof that their idea worked, thanks to devices such as PITCHf/x and TRACKman.
Getting the fielders to buy in was one thing, but they had to get the pitchers to buy in, too, including stubborn veteran A.J. Burnett. In order to best utilize the infield shift, the Pirates went away from the straight four-seem fastball for their pitchers, and shifted — no pun intended — to having their pitchers throw more two-seam fastballs and sinkers, which had a downward trajectory to induce groundballs. Pitchers like Burnett and Charlie Morton bought in, and saw the results.
Burnett, for example, according to a chart in the book, threw his sinker just 13.6 percent of the time in 2011. In 2012, he threw the pitch 35.7 percent of the time, lowering his earned run average from 5.15 to 3.51. The importance of defensive alignment could be seen in Burnett's 2011 numbers. Although his 5.15 ERA was high, his xFip — expected independent fielding pitching, which takes into account factors out of his control, such as defense — was just 3.86.
The next step for the Pirates, with their limited budget, was to find hidden gems in free agency that fit the prototype they were looking for. Fox and Fitzgerald found two guys they believed would be perfect for what they were trying to accomplish — veteran catcher Russell Martin and veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano.
Martin's offense in New York with the Yankees left much to be desired, other than his power numbers, which were aided by a hitter-friendly ballpark. But the Pirates didn't want him for his offense. They wanted him for his leadership, throwing arm and his pitch-framing ability. Pitch framing, as Sawchik goes into great detail, is the ability for a catcher to get borderline pitches for strikes. It was another hidden value in the game of baseball that was overlooked by many, but not the Pirates. It's a skill that Martin used to make Jeff Locke — an average pitcher, at best — an All-Star in 2013. He also used it to revitalize Liriano's career, as the combination of pitch framing, an aligned defense, a wipe-out slider and a new arm slot made Liriano an ace during the season.
With pitch framing and defensive alignment comes saved runs. According to Sawchik, every 10 runs saved is equivalent to one win. The Pirates had a 93-run improvement in 2013, good for an increase in 9.3 wins. Using the wins above replacement (WAR) metric, purchasing a player in free agency with a 1 WAR costs $5 million. A player worth a 9.3 wins would cost around $50 million, but the Pirates were able to add that value to their team by shifting their defense and getting their pitchers to throw groundballs without spending an extra penny.
For Martin, in his two years in Pittsburgh, according to Sawchick, a Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he produced a 9.4 WAR, which is worth approximately $50 million on the open market. The Pirates spent just $17 million on him, finding a $33 million value.
The Pirates went on to the National League Division Series, before losing in a decisive Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals. But it was a successful season for the Pirates, and the rest of baseball took notice. Teams throughout the league implemented an analytic department, and shifting was taking place in baseball more and more around the league.
"Big Data Baseball," published by Flatiron Books, not only appeals to hardcore baseball fans and Pirates fans, but everyone in general. Sports fans will understand and appreciate the model, while non-sports fans will be able to understand the basic principal ideas, thanks to Sawchik's clear explanations.
"Big Data Baseball" is a home run debut for Sawchik, and is a must-read for all, especially baseball fans.
Monday, May 18, 2015
By Jay Cohen
May 17, 2015
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett throws against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 17, 2015 in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)
CHICAGO (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates needed another strong outing from their most consistent starter, and A.J. Burnett stepped up again.
Burnett worked around five walks while pitching seven innings in his third consecutive win, and the Pirates stopped a four-game losing streak by cooling off the Chicago Cubs with a 3-0 victory on Sunday.
Burnett (3-1) allowed three hits and struck out seven while handing Jake Arrieta his first loss in six career starts against Pittsburgh. He has allowed two runs or less in each of his eight starts this year after losing 18 games with Philadelphia last season.
''Just trying to keep the ball down. I mean, that's it,'' Burnett said. ''Not get away from my game, try to keep to my strengths, no matter what the guys at the plate are trying to do.''
Burnett's seventh consecutive outing of at least six innings came after Pittsburgh used seven relievers in the series opener on Friday, and then Antonio Bastardo and Arquimedes Caminero for a second straight day in Saturday's 4-1 loss.
''He pitched with the will to win,'' manager Clint Hurdle of Burnett, who lowered his ERA to 1.38. ''Competed very, very well.''
- Lester helps Cubs to 6th straight win, beats Cole, Pirates The Associated Press
- Pirates-Cubs Preview The Associated Press
- Cubs 3B Bryant pulled after 4 innings due to illness The Associated Press
- Wood pitches Cubs past Pirates 6-2 for 4th straight win The Associated Press
- McCutchen reaches milestone as Pirates top Cubs 8-1 The Associated Press
Francisco Cervelli had a hand in Pittsburgh's first two runs after the catcher was shaken up in the fourth when he was hit in the groin by a foul tip. He had an RBI single in the fifth, and then singled and scored on Neil Walker's two-out double in the eighth.
''He's a tough man,'' Hurdle said. ''He's swinging the bat well. We liked him for a lot of reasons. You're seeing them play out right now.''
The Cubs had won six in a row and seven of nine. Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant was pulled after four innings, and the team said he was dehydrated.
''How can I possibly be upset right now?'' manager Joe Maddon said. ''It's impossible. We played well again today.''
Arrieta (4-4) also pitched seven innings, allowing five hits with seven strikeouts and one walk. He began the day with a 4-0 record and a 2.70 ERA in his career against Pittsburgh.
''It's one of those games where you feel like you won,'' he said, ''because you played fairly well, you were just unable to scratch across a couple of runs or get the big hit in that certain situation.''
Chicago's best scoring chance came in the fourth, when it loaded the bases with one out on two walks and Starlin Castro's single. But Jorge Soler looked at a called third strike and Chris Coghlan flew out to the warning track in center field.
Tony Watson escaped a jam in the eighth when Castro lined to center with two on, and Mark Melancon finished the five-hitter for his ninth save in 10 chances. Addison Russell bounced into a fielder's choice with runners on the corners for the final out.
Bryant went 1 for 2 before he was replaced by Jonathan Herrera on a warm, muggy day at Wrigley Field. He hit .455 (10 for 22) with three homers and eight RBIs on Chicago's 6-1 homestand.
Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler made a terrific diving catch to rob Andrew McCutchen of a hit in the first inning. But Walker got Fowler back in the third, making a nice stop on sharp grounder to second before throwing to first for the out.
''When we play defense like we did today and get a pitching performance like A.J. put together, you're going to have a pretty good chance of at least getting (an) opportunity to win,'' Walker said.
Cubs: INF Tommy La Stella left a rehab appearance with Double-A Tennessee in the fifth inning. The Cubs said he aggravated the inflammation on the right side of his rib cage and was traveling back to Chicago for evaluation. ... LHP Tsuyoshi Wada (mild left groin strain) will come off the disabled list to start Wednesday at San Diego.
Pirates: Following an off day on Monday, LHP Francisco Liriano (1-3, 2.96 ERA) gets the ball for the opener of a two-game set against Minnesota. RHP Ricky Nolasco (3-1, 6.38 ERA) goes for the visiting Twins.
Cubs: RHP Jason Hammel (3-1, 3.11 ERA) is scheduled to start of the opener of a six-game road trip on Tuesday night at San Diego. After three against the Padres, the Cubs travel to Arizona to take on the Diamondbacks.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
By Mark Madden
May 18, 2015
Canada’s Sidney Crosby, right, takes a shot at goal, next to Russia’s Dmitri Kulikov, left, during the Hockey World Championships gold medal match in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday.
© (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, hockey’s biggest A-list stars, played for a B-list hockey championship yesterday in Prague.
In North America, the winner of the sport’s most coveted trophy is boiling down to who can block the most shots and be systematically superior.
Don’t hate the players. Hate the game.
These Stanley Cup playoffs might seem exciting because of the preponderance of one-goal games. Heck, that’s literally all the New York Rangers play.
But it’s not exciting hockey. Games are seldom decided by offensive flurries, though good goaltenders (read: huge goalie equipment) have something to do with that. Intangibles like “intensity” and “grit” are glamorized, but where’s the real glamour?
On Sunday, it was in Prague. If, Sunday afternoon, you flipped back and forth between the final at the World Championships and the Anaheim-Chicago game, the prevailing quality of the former was readily evident.
If you’re tired of reading this column over and over, I’m no less tired of writing it. This is not my vision of hockey. Skill should not be minimized.
Pittsburgh owes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman much gratitude because he fought to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. But when Bettman says the league is better off with a bunch of 60-point scorers instead of a few 100-point scorers, it shows utter disregard for the marketability of star power.
Coaches are to blame. Any coach has more influence than a standout player.
The NHL is reportedly considering outlawing the two-line pass again. The NHL began to allow passing from the defensive zone to the far blue line in 2005. In theory, that opens up the rink. Visions of breakaways danced in our heads.
But the coaches ruined it.
When that rule change was implemented, coaches quickly found a way to be conservative on both sides of the puck. On defense, they moved the trap back. On offense, they started utilizing that stretch-pass tip-dump that makes too much of a game fly by with teams on the forecheck trying to force a mistake.
Change that rule back, and the trap moves up. Just a different kind of dull.
Few coaches coach to win. Most coach to not get fired. None coach to entertain.
Even the statisticians fouled the waters. In 2005, blocked shots became an official stat. It gave jabronis a number to compile, to show GMs at contract time. Then coaches made it a religion. Using shot-blocking as “strategy” has replaced things fans want to see -- goals and saves -- with something people don’t care about.
Some of the things that slow hockey can’t be legislated out.
Some of the things that slow hockey won’t be legislated out.
The referees are never going to call the rulebook exactly as written on a consistent basis. Every time there’s a mandate for more penalties, it quickly recedes.
The NFL understands that it’s in the entertainment business. The owners determine the method of play. They’re tied directly to the bottom line. In the NHL, the GMs determine the method of play. Tight and close equates to more job security for them.
Hockey’s direction puts the Penguins in an odd position. What wins more in a boring, low-scoring league: Two superstars, or systematic excellence better strengthened through depth? Do you ditch your legacy to pursue bland success?
I never want to see the Penguins park the bus. I can’t see owner Mario Lemieux leaning in that direction, either. If that’s the price of winning, don’t pay it.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Friday, May 15, 2015
By Joe Starkey
Thursday, May 14, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
July 23, 1976; Latrobe, PA, USA: FILE PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll during training camp at St. Vincent College.
The New England Recidivists are getting what they deserve. Be sure of that. But let's not forget that outside of Foxborough, Mass., there are 31 NFL cities where home teams reside in glass houses.
Better said, every team has cheated. More than once. That would include the one that plays at Heinz Field and used to play at Three Rivers Stadium, where, on June 1, 1978, a cub reporter named John Clayton — now of ESPN fame — broke a story in The Pittsburgh Press titled, “Steelers' Secret Slips Out.”
Did it ever. In fact, it was way “more probable than not” that the Steelers broke NFL rules, and powerful coach Chuck Noll was far more than “at least generally aware” of it.
A wonderful website called yourteamcheats.com reminded me of the incident. The site chronicles cheating episodes from all 32 NFL franchises. The Steelers, of course, have had a bunch.
Clayton's story began this way: “What secrets lurked behind Chuck Noll's closed doors at Three Rivers Stadium?”
The second paragraph answered the question: “Noll locked the doors of rookie camp to the media and was very selective about who could watch the activity. No wonder. The Steelers were holding contact workouts in pads, a violation of league rules which will probably result in a substantial fine.”
Actually, it resulted in the forfeiture of a third-round draft pick.
Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn't need to launch an investigation to get to the bottom of what Clayton, in his story, termed “Shouldergate.” He only needed to look at the photograph next to the story — the one of Steelers lineman John Banaszak wearing shoulder pads!
The modern equivalent would be a shot of Tom Brady sticking a needle into a football before a game.
Clayton, then 24, remembers how quickly the storm gathered. Born in Braddock and a graduate of Duquesne, he didn't need anyone to tell him how big the Steelers had become after winning two Super Bowls. Or how such a story might infuriate the masses.
When it broke, Clayton went from Barely Regarded to Most Wanted. Fans called the newspaper and threatened to break his limbs. Or worse.
Clayton remembers iconic talk-show host and team broadcaster Myron Cope ripping him on the air. One day, Cope fielded a call from an irate fan who knew Clayton well.
“My mother called up Myron,” Clayton recalled Thursday. “She said, ‘I agree with you. He shouldn't have done that.' ”
At first, Clayton hadn't realized the Steelers were breaking NFL rules. One defensive lineman mentioned he was sore from practice and another — rookie Randy Reutershan from Pitt — said hard pads irritated his sunburned shoulders.
But it wasn't until Banaszak, a veteran, asked Clayton to help remove his shoulder pads that alarm bells went off. It remains the only time in a career spanning parts of five decades that Clayton had a player ask for such assistance. He maintains it was because Banaszak wanted the story out.
Clayton called the league offices to check on the rule.
“Within five minutes, the Steelers called and said, ‘You can't report we practiced in shoulder pads,' ” he remembered.
The irony, Clayton said, is that it was the Steelers who wanted the no-pads rule because “they felt the Raiders were having offseason practices.”
He felt bound by duty to write the piece.
Noll went ballistic. Clayton went on vacation. It was a preplanned trip. He and Noll never did discuss Shouldergate though, according to Clayton, they developed a cordial relationship when Clayton became a beat writer and later went national.
Had Twitter been around, Clayton might have suffocated under an avalanche of hate tweets. The phone messages were bad enough.
And when he returned from vacation, he discovered he'd been temporarily barred from the Steelers facility.
A few months later, Clayton recalls walking toward the stadium and running into a rather important person: legendary Steelers owner Art Rooney. The Chief.
The encounter could have gone poorly. It did not.
“The Chief looks at me and says, ‘Hey, I heard they were kind of rough on you,' ” Clayton recalled. “Then he said, ‘You done good, kid.' ”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/8364345-74/clayton-steelers-pads#ixzz3aCn59ER7
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook