The Pirates’ Way in the Era of Launch

BRADENTON, Fla. — The first pitch of the 2018 season was a home run. More and more hitters seem to have the intent to get the ball in the air. We’ve heard about more and more swing-change stories this spring. What can pitchers do to counteract the movement? I know many pitchers and coaches are thinking about that question.

I traveled to Pirates camp late this spring because in part because I am still familiar with a number of people within the club from my time on the beat in Pittsburgh, but also because so much has changed in the game — and in their clubhouse — since the last time I covered a Pirates’ game in September of 2016.

Pittsburgh, of course, made three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013 to -15. While those clubs featured a collection of talented players, the teams was also notable for its run-prevention plan. In each of those three seasons, the team led the majors in ground-ball rate, compiling a three-year mark of 51.5%. They allowed the fewest home runs (339) over that three-year period, as well.

The Pirates made a point either of acquiring pitchers with quality sinking fastballs or developing those sinkers internally. The club led baseball in sinker usage during that three-year span, targeting the lower part of the zone. The Pirates had built a philosophy around the pitch: to pound batters inside to create discomfort and weaker swings. The Pirates executed their philosophy well: they led baseball in hit batters (233), collateral damage from pitching inside.

Buc-ing the Trends
Season GB% HR ERA- HR/FB
2013 52.5% 101 91 8.9%
2014 50.5% 128 99 10.3%
2015 50.4% 110 84 9.4%
2016 46.9% 180 103 13.0%
2017 45.2% 182 99 12.9%

Of course, much has changed — and changed quickly — since that three-year window.

The 2017 campaign produced a record high for home runs. Batters are trying more than ever to elevate pitches. The ball might be juiced. Moreover, Jeff found last spring that the home-run rate on pitches in the bottom third of the zone had jumped considerably. That is precisely where the Pirates lived, and lived well, from 2013 to -15. To succeed in this launch-oriented environment, pitchers have typically moved up in the zone, to get over the top of lofted swing planes with high-spin four-seamers.

I was curious to learn if the Pirates still believe their ground-ball philosophy works? Or, alternatively, was a major makeover required?

The Pirates deviated a bit from their approach the last two seasons, both of which we were losing campaigns for a variety of reasons but in large part due to a decline in their run-prevention abilities.

After posting a 91 ERA- from 2013 to -15 (3.33 ERA), the Pirates posted a 103 mark in 2016 and 99 last season (a two-year, 4.23 ERA). Pittsburgh ranked eighth in ground-ball rate the last two seasons (46.1%) and allowed 362 home runs — or, 33 more than the three-year window of 2013-15.

At Pirates camp, I sought out pitching coach Ray Searage, who had earned a reputation as a “pitching healer” for the Pirates’ rehab jobs. He agreed to talk to me in a white cinder-block corridor of the club’s spring facility in Bradenton. His message? The Pirates’ Way still works — if it’s executed well off the mound.
“I’m aware of the changes,” said Searage on the trends in hitting philosophy and run-scoring. “But the core values we have — first-pitch strikes, being able to pitch in not just for strikes but for purpose, owning the bottom of the zone — those things are going to be constant. If you don’t take the indecisiveness away from the hitter, you let them attack you, then we’re not doing our job as pitchers.”

To Searage, those are timeless elements. He said, however, that some modifications are needed. “We are not going to be an organization that pitches up, but we have to use that as a weapon to change the eye level.” But Searage isn’t a believer that the fly-ball revolution as a movement is one that will be so easily taught or widespread as some believe.

“You don’t teach launch angle,” Searage said. “Launch angle is when the ball hits the bat. We’re hunting different things that have always been in the game, but now we are highlighting it by calling it ‘launch angle.’ You have hitters that are low-ball hitters and hitters that are high-ball hitters.”

Of course, there’s a growing number of hitters and instructors who believe that you can improve launch angle. Hitters produced even more home runs per batted ball this spring than in previous ones. As Jeff Sullivan noted yesterday, the launch angle in the early days of the 2018 regular season is also higher.

I asked Searage if it’s possible that a team philosophy can become too restrictive in an era when there is more information than ever to tailor approaches to the individual?

[Josh] Donaldson wants to backspin the ball? Fine. We have to counteract that. It’s a chess game,” Searage said. “[Pitchers are] aware these are our core values and now we are outside of that box if they are facing a different type of hitter.”

Searage said the problem with going up is missing up with an elevated four-seam fastball. The damage is greater. For instance, Gerrit Cole allowed 18 home runs off his fastball last season, many of them elevated.

Searage said it’s still easier to hit a home run on a middle or high location compared to low. While batters did do a better job of hammering the low pitch in 2016, batters were even better against middle and up pitches last season.

Last season, teams like Tampa Bay went up in the zone intentionally to get more swing and miss and pop ups at the top part of the zone, above swings. According to Baseball Savant’s “detailed” zone, pitchers threw 40,937 four-seam fastballs in 2016 that crossed the plate either in the upper-third of the zone or the 50-50 borderline area at the top of it. In 2017, that number increased to 46,193 — or, by roughly 5,000 pitches.

It didn’t work.

Even the Pirates departed, a bit, from the Pirates’ Way.

While the club still led baseball in sinker percentage (26.9%) last season, according to Pitch Info data, it marked a second year of decline from their league-leading rate in 2015 (34.5%). The Pirates ranked last in four-seam usage in 2015 (26.8%) and increased to 16th in the majors last season (36.1%).

Part of the Pirates’ move away from their 2016 plan was the product of a market that began valuing ground-ball arms to a greater degree; another part of it was trying to take advantage of swing and miss at the top of the zone. Moreover, the Pirates also brought their outfielders in to try and capture more of the weak fly balls their staff was generating — the Pirates led the majors in “soft” contract from 2013 to -15 (20.1%) — and reduce the extra bases taken on ground-ball hits. The execution wasn’t great off the mound, and it was exacerbated by outfield positioning.

“It was a hard sell in the beginning,” said Searage of pitching up more often in 2016. “[Pirates pitchers] have been told so long, including by myself, to own the bottom of the zone.

“I don’t care how hard you throw, you have to execute.”

Like most of baseball, the Pirates’ fastballs were hit harder in 2016 and 2017 than they were in 2015. Curiously, opponents’ effectiveness against the Pirates’ sinking fastballs located in the bottom third of the zone jumped in 2016 before falling again in 2017.

Perhaps part of the issue is that the Pirates threw their two-seamers, on average, a bit higher in 2016 — 2.32 feet above ground upon reaching the plate — compared to last season (2.23 feet), which ranked as the sixth-lowest average height upon reaching the plate. The club’s average two-seam height in 2015 was 2.33 feet.

Executing down could be a timeless strategy.

The other question about the Pirates’ Way is regarding fastball usage.

While the Pirates have traded some two-seamers in for four-seam fastballs, they have remained a dominant fastball team, leading the sport in fastball usage last season (62.3%) at a time when clubs like the Astros (49.6%), Indians (48.3%, 29th), and Yankees (44.9%, 30th) dipped under 50% fastball usage.

I asked Searage about Charlie Morton, who had success in pitching away from contact last season with the Astros after previously utilized more of a pitch-to-contact philosophy with the Pirates. Morton threw his curveball at a career-high rate (28.3%) in 2017 and began maxing out for velocity en route to becoming a Game Seven World Series winner.

Should the Pirates be searching for more spin?

Searage said Morton’s curveball command improved after he left the Pirates.

“The game taught him a lot of things,” Searage said. “I’m really happy for him… I like the curveball. I think the curveball is coming back into the game. It’s a hard pitch to hit.”

For Searage, pitching in with the fastball is perhaps even more important than pitching down. Since 2015, the Pirates rank third in volume of inside fastballs against righties (5,216) according to Savant’s detailed zones, and sixth against lefties (2,902).

But at what point does a team become too fastball dependent?

I sought out Jameson Taillon, since the emerging Pirates starting pitcher has one of the better curveballs in the game, a pitch upon which he could conceivably rely even more, having thrown it at rates of 26.2% and 26.1%, respectively in his first two seasons.

Taillon watched the postseason and World Series with great interest, fascinated by the bullpen and breaking-ball usage which became extreme in October.

“I’m at a crossroads where I still want to be a guy who can go seven innings and throw 90 pitches and get quick outs with fastballs,” Taillon said. “The whole philosophy used to be trade a run for an out. Now that’s kind of shifted. I’ve noticed I’ve started to throw a lot more curveballs in high-leverage spots. When [Lance] McCullers was throwing curveballs so much in the postseason, he was getting in so many deep counts… If you’re 3.1 scoreless that’s great in a World Series, but how does that play out [in regular season]? Even he’s going to want to get quick outs in [the regular season].
“As a general pitching philosophy, I am more open-minded to doing some different things. I’m not a guy who is not going to be so stubborn, who is only thinking ‘downhill [with two-seamers] all the time.’”

There’s a lot to consider for a young pitcher in today’s game when so much is changing, when it’s not even clear what kind of ball the league will be using in coming years. Will it be lively or less so? There’s a lot for the Pirates, for all teams to consider. There are elements of the Pirates’ run-prevention way that are timeless, like moving batters off the plate to reduce comfort level, like pitching down at the bottom of the zone to reduce lift. But in a game that is increasingly moving toward spin, perhaps there are other tactics that ought to be reconsidered.

What’s clear is that it’s harder to create a competitive advantage and retain it. The game will either counter it or copy it. And at the end of the day, the best plans still must be executed.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Justin Cmember
4 years ago

Great, great article. We need more of these at Fangraphs.