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Entries in Pittsburgh Pirates (35)


Jose Tabata: Better Eye, Bigger Bank Account

Outfielder Jose Tabata just turned 23 earlier this month, but he could potentially be in a Pirates uniform until his early thirties after agreeing to a long-term contract extension. The Tribune-Review's Rob Biertempfel has the details:

Tabata, 23, has agreed to a six-year contract worth at least $14.75 million, the sources said. The deal has three team options that would make it worth $22.5 million.

The contract reworks Tabata's salary for this season, giving him a $72,000 raise to $500,000 and a $1 million signing bonus. He would make $750,000 in 2012, $1 million in 2013, $3 million in 2014, $4 million in 2015 and $4.5 million in 2016.

Tabata, acquired by Pittsburgh along with Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf from the Yankees in July of 2008 in exchange for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, earned the extension in part by showing marked improvement in his strike-zone judgment this season.

As a rookie, Tabata chased about 29 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (close to the league average) and walked in slightly more than six percent of his plate appearances. This year, he's venturing out of the zone a little more than 20 percent of the time, drawing ball four in 11 percent of his plate appearances.

In particular, Tabata's eye has gotten much better when pitchers throw him something "soft" -- that is, a curveball, slider or a changeup. First, here's the league average out-of-zone swing rate against breaking balls and changeups:

Overall, hitters chase a little over 32 percent of curves, sliders and changeups thrown off the plate.

Now, look at Tabata's outside swing rate against soft stuff in 2010, compared to this season:

Tabata's outside swing rate by pitch location vs. breaking balls and changeups, 2010

Tabata's outside swing rate by pitch location vs. breaking balls and changeups, 2011Tabata's chase rate versus soft stuff has dropped from over 38 percent in 2010 to just 23 percent this year.

It remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-11, 220 pound Tabata adds power to his more patient approach, but his contract extension looks like a winner for the Pirates. At worst, the club has a plus base runner with a good eye and solid defensive skills under contract for what figure to be the peak seasons of his career. And if Tabata does start to turn on some pitches, this deal could be an absolute steal.


"Ground Chuck" Getting Pounded

In April and May, Charlie "Ground Chuck" Morton used a sinker-centric approach to induce weak chopper after weak chopper. Opponents hit a collective .252, got on base at a .329 clip and slugged just .315 against Morton.

Since the calendar flipped to June, however, hitters have put Ground Chuck through the meat grinder. Morton has turned every hitter into Dustin Pedroia out there, allowing a .335/.410/.473 triple-slash over the past two months.

There doesn't seem to be much difference in the location of Morton's sinker:

 Morton's sinker location, April-May 2011

Morton's sinker location, June-July 2011

But hitters are making louder contact:

In-play opponent slugging percentage vs. Morton's sinker, April-May 2011

In-play opponent slugging percentage vs. Morton's sinker, June-July 2011

To be sure, some of the drastic change in Morton's performance is due to poor luck -- he had a .286 batting average in April and May, but his BABIP since is .382. But it's also true that batters are doing more extra-base damage.

Opponents had a paltry .063 Isolated Power (slugging minus batting average) over the first two months, and a .138 ISO in June and July. That June-July ISO is right around the league average, which is a problem considering that Morton doesn't strike out many hitters and has so-so control. He needs to limit doubles, triples and homers to make up for his other shortcomings.

Perhaps with ample video and advance scouting reports on Morton's new delivery and pitching approach now available, batters have simply become more accustomed to the fact that he throws sinkers so often. Seven or eight times out of ten, a batter is going to guess right if he thinks he's going to get a low-90s pitch that tails to Morton's arm side.

Morton's best hope at turning his season around and doing something to avoid being a bunching bag to left-handed hitters (they have a .380/.458/.542 triple-slash in 2011) might be a little more variety. In particular, he has shown a promising high-70s curveball with plenty of break. Curveballs tend to have less of a platoon split than other pitches (sinkers have the largest split), and if thrown more often, the breaking ball would keep hitters from waiting for a sinker in that one spot.

Check out the pitch break and velocity of Morton's curve (blue), compared to his sinker (orange):

 Release velocity and pitch break of Morton's curveball and sinker

Hitters aren't just passive zombies at the plate -- they make adjustments based on the information at hand. The word has gotten out on Morton's sinker. Now, it's time for him to make an adjustment of his own by being less predictable on the mound.


Derrek Lee: Dangerous Inside, But Elsewhere..

Growing tired of Lyle Overbay's punchless hitting, the Pirates picked up Derrek Lee from the Orioles on Saturday for minor league first baseman Aaron Baker. While Lee is in the midst of his worst offensive season since he was in his early twenties (.246/.302/.404), he's still an upgrade on Overbay (.227/.300/.349) and ZiPS, a major league projection system, suggests that Lee could improve the Pirates' offense by three to five runs the rest of the way. It's hardly a division-altering move, but the price was low and every little bit of offensive improvement helps.

One reason that Lee has struggled in 2011 is that he's flailing at the plate unless he gets something thrown inside. First, look at where pitchers are spotting their stuff versus Lee:

Opponent pitch frequency by location vs. Lee, 2011

Pitches have thrown to the outside corner about 45 percent of the time against Lee, and about 26 percent down the middle. Now, look at Lee's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location:

Lee's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011

He's killing inside pitches, but he's ice-cold for the most part on middle and away stuff. Lee's Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) versus inside pitches is .416, way above the .339 league average. But his wOBA on middle pitches is .241 (.337 average), and he's got a .278 wOBA against pitches on the outer third (.286 average).

If the expectation is that Lee will be better than Overbay, then the Pirates won't be disappointed. But to make a real difference, the soon-to-be-36-year-old needs to start making pitchers pay when they leave a cookie over the plate or throw outside.