Heading into the season, the NL Central was expected to be a one horse race. The Chicago Cubs were projected to win 96 games, nine games better than the second-place-projected Cardinals. The Cardinals, for their part, were projected seven games better than the Brewers (79 wins) and eleven better than the Pirates (76 wins).
Fast forward to this writing and the NL Central mix is much cloudier. The Brewers sit atop the division at 37-24. If we only knew about the projections, they’d be the biggest surprise in the division. However, we do know more about the Brewers than the projections, such as the fact that they won 86 games in 2017 before adding very good players in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The projection algorithms didn’t buy the Brewers as a threat, but I’d bet most people did.
The Pirates, on the other hand, won only 75 games last year. Then they got rid of staff ace Gerrit Cole and best-player Andrew McCutchen. They didn’t sign a single major league free agent. The only established major league player they acquired was Corey Dickerson after he was DFA’ed by the Rays following a dismal second half of 2017. Frankly, the Pirates were supposed to suck. Instead, their playoff odds have thus far peaked at 30% and currently sit at 11%. The Pirates were the NL Central’s biggest early surprise before a recent cold spell.
During their 2013 to 2015 run as one of the NL’s best teams, the Pirates ranked fourth in the majors by ERA- while giving up the third fewest total runs. This time around, the Pirates staff is basically OK, with a slightly better-than-average FIP- and a below average ERA-.
Instead, the Pirates are riding an offense (excluding pitchers) that ranks eighth in the MLB by wRC+. Not unrelated, here is the Pirates ground ball rate by year since 2013:
That’s a drop-off-a-cliff drop. In 2017, the Pirates had the fifth-highest ground ball rate in the Majors. In 2018, they have the second-lowest. The Pirates have a chance to hit more fly balls than ground balls, which they’ve never done this century. It was a trend that Alex Stumpf noted a month ago for the Point of Pittsburgh and revisited again last month. For a team whose manager told his players that their OPS is in the air, the Pirates were late to the fly ball revolution. And yet, here they are.
At risk of oversimplifying Alex’s findings, nearly everyone on the Pirates is hitting less grounders, and nearly everyone on the Pirates is putting more of their hard contact in the air. Hard hit balls in the air are good. Trying to lift the ball more often is a tradeoff that can lead to more strikeouts, but the Pirates are doing it without striking out more than before. The Pirates have a recipe for success.
The change in approach hasn’t benefitted anyone more than Francisco Cervelli. Looking at the 240 players with at least 100 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018, Cervelli has the second largest decrease in ground ball rate, down to 31.3% from 52.3%, and he’s also decreased his strikeout rate by several points. The Pittsburgh catcher owns a 152 wRC+, which represents a 59 point increase over last year, the eighth largest gain, and more than doubled his isolated slugging. And he’s doing it with a .308 BABIP, which is both perfectly normal and below his .333 career BABIP.
Francisco Cervelli is driving the ball in the air, and he’s doing it without making less contact. There isn’t one right way to accomplish that goal, and Cervelli’s success is probably a combination of several factors. Alex suggested to me that Cervelli appears to have lowered his hands, and it does look like he starts them lower in 2018 than he did in 2017. Lower hands often puts a hitter in a better position to drive the ball in the air, and Cervelli has gained 3.2 mph of exit velocity on line drives and fly balls – the 11th biggest gain in baseball (min. 50 LD/FB in 2017 and 2018).
Cervelli has improved his plate discipline, too. According to Pitch Info, Cervelli’s chase rate of 24.9% last season was his highest since 2013. This year, he’s lowered it to a career low 19.2% while continuing to swing at strikes at approximately his career rate.
While it’s good to know Cervelli is swinging at the same rate of strikes, we also know all strikes aren’t created equal. It’s just as important, and perhaps more so, to know what kind of strikes a player is swinging at. Here, we see significant change through late May:
Last year, Cervelli’s swing core is toward the low-outside corner. This year, he’s swinging at pitches up and over the heart of the plate. According to Statcast, the vertical pitch location when Cervelli swings is up from 2.20 feet to 2.40 feet – that’s the largest height increase among 226 players with 200+ swings in 2017 and 2018. Jason Heyward is second at an increase of 0.19 feet, and Alex Bregman is third at 0.13 feet. Cervelli is identifying better pitches to hit and he’s now driving them with authority.
Francisco Cervelli spent most of his career behind the dish as an unspectacular, solid hitting catcher. By reinventing himself in his age-32 season, he’s become a force at the dish for the surprise Pirates.
A big thank you to Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant for the data used in this post.