Francisco Liriano embodies the rising trend of pitchers throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone than ever, writes Fangraphs’ August Fagerstrom. In 2014-15, Liriano recorded to two lowest single-season zone percentage marks (the number of pitches thrown in the designated strike zone) since the stat began being tracked. However, he also coerced opposing hitters into chasing more than a third of his out-of-zone pitches, yielding high quality results in his third year with the Pirates. As Fagerstrom notes, though, the decrease of pitches in the strike zone is not confined to Liriano’s left arm but is rather a league-wide phenomenon. And, despite the rapidly decreasing number of pitches thrown in the zone, hitters are failing to adjust and continuing to chase. While it’s not the case with Liriano specifically, Fagerstrom hypothesizes that the record levels of velocity throughout the game mean hitters must be more geared up for velocity than ever before, thereby limiting their ability to recognize and lay off breaking pitches out of the zone. Additionally, he speculates that the fact that umpires are continuing to expand the strike zone creates a greater urgency within hitters to protect themselves at the plate. It’s an interesting analysis that’s well worth reading in its entirety. (Additionally, while his column doesn’t state this, Fagerstrom’s analysis reminds how strong Liriano’s work was in the first season of a three-year, $39MM investment that right now looks to be an excellent move for the club.)
Onto some other items pertaining more closely to the Pirates and their division…
- The Pirates will face a challenge in replacing Francisco Cervelli, who hits free agency next winter, writes Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The Pirates have picked up a trio of excellent pitch-framers in Cervelli, Russell Martin and Chris Stewart in recent years, but the Martin contract shows what a premium the market now places on catcher defense, Sawchik notes, thus making it seem unlikely that they’ll re-sign Cervelli, who could end up as the market’s most valuable catcher. Sawchik sees no chance that the two sides will hammer out an extension, and he points out that while top prospect Reese McGuire draws strong praise for his glovework, he can’t be expected to be a contributor before 2018.
- Later in that same piece, Sawchik notes that the Pirates’ front office has taken a number of significant hits this winter — the most recent of which is the loss of Tyrone Brooks to the Commissioner’s Office. Brooks, the former director of player personnel, oversaw the team’s international and pro scouting efforts and played a large role in the acquisition of Jung Ho Kang. The Pirates have also lost special assistants Jim Benedict (who was renowned for his work with the team’s pitchers) and Marc DelPiano — both of whom left the organization to take positions with the Marlins.
- There’s been little in the way of trade talk surrounding Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun, Jon Heyman tweeted recently. Milwaukee has made more of an effort with catcher Jonathan Lucroy to this point, per Heyman, perhaps due to the club’s recognition of what would be a limited market for Braun. The asking price on Lucroy is said to be high, though Lucroy himself is open to a deal. As for Braun, his five-year, $105MM extension begins this season, but his value has been tarnished by a PED suspension as well as offseason back surgery and a nerve issue in his thumb that twice required a cryotherapy treatment last year. Braun did enjoy a nice season at the plate, however, hitting .285/.356/.498 with 25 homers and 24 steals.
- Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s second-half decline may have been part of the impetus to trade for Jedd Gyorko, writes Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. While Peralta himself said this past weekend that he doesn’t feel he wore down late in the year and always wants to play in as many games as possible, the 33-year-old batted just .247/.313/.305 over the season’s final two months. Hummel writes that Gyorko could be used to spell Peralta at third base despite a suspect glove at the position. Moreover, he notes that Aledmys Diaz, fresh off a monster second half and Arizona Fall League showing, could soon knock on the door to the Majors. “We’re excited where he is,” said GM John Mozeliak of Diaz. “I think you’ll probably see (Diaz) playing in the big leagues at some point this year, I wouldn’t rule that out at all and I welcome that.” Peralta expressed comfort with moving anywhere on the diamond, should the need arise, citing previous experience at third base and even at first base and in the outfield.
- “Tanking” has become a popular buzzword due to the number of rebuilding clubs in the National League, but Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron rejects the idea that any of the so-called tanking teams is actually trying to lose as many games as possible. The Brewers have held onto the likes of Lucroy and Will Smith thus far despite favorable contracts that appeal to other clubs, and they haven’t paid down a significant portion of Braun’s deal to move his bat, either — a reasonable expectation for a club gunning for the No. 1 pick. The Reds have prioritized proximity to the Majors over long-term upside in trades of veterans and haven’t made an effort to move their best player, Joey Votto, Cameron writes. The Braves have signed Nick Markakis and targeted MLB-ready help like Shelby Miller, Ender Inciarte and Hector Olivera in trades over the past 15 months, to say nothing of their Nick Markakis signing (and, I might add, the complementary signings of A.J. Pierzynski, Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson and others). The Phillies are the only team that could reasonably fit the definition of “tanking” we see in the NBA, writes Cameron, but the best players in baseball can’t influence a team in the same manner they can in basketball. And, he rhetorically asks, would baseball truly be better off if the Phillies followed the path the Rockies have for the past several years — staunchly refusing to trade veterans (prior to this summer’s Troy Tulowitzki deal) and remaining in a noncompetitive state as opposed to “bottoming out in the hopes of bouncing back to high levels?”