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Starting Nine: Pirates to focus on better lineup construction

| Saturday, March 19, 2016, 7:42 p.m.

Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.

1. Having shown a willingness to deviate from traditional defensive alignment (i.e. shifts), and traditional ideas on player rest (studying the Golden State Warriors), Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is turning his attention to lineup construction.

“Those guys that have done their homework and dug into lineup metrics (found) you try to put your best hitters one, four and two,” Hurdle said this week. “You start with on-base percentage. …We are looking at some different lineup configurations.”

Lineup construction, one area of inefficiency, is something the Pirates have not really explored the past three seasons, and it is prudent to take a look this spring.

2. Despite being a slow-footed former American League catcher and DH, John Jaso led off twice this week — where he most often hit for analytically leaning clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics — and Thursday, Hurdle batted Andrew McCutchen second.

3. While a No. 2 hitter receives about 20 more plate appearances per season than a No. 3 hitter, more important is that no batting order position comes to bat more often with two outs and no one on than a No. 3 hitter.

Consider that only Paul Goldschmidt (164) had more plate appearances with two outs and no one on last season than McCutchen (158).

McCutchen has not hit anywhere other than third since 2011.

“That two spot came up a lot for him this offseason,” Hurdle said. “It makes sense on a lot of different levels. The challenge for me is for 47 years the baddest dude in the league hits third. … I have to kind of re-arrange my thinking on it and what's best for our team. How do we maximize our run production.”

4. How to optimize a lineup? Consider the following thoughts on lineup optimization from the Hardball Times, which are similar to Hurdle's comments:

“In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate. Here is how the lineup spots rank in the importance of avoiding outs: #1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9.”

5. So what would a sabermetric-centric lineup look like this spring for the Pirates vs. RHP? Perhaps instead of batting second, McCutchen would bat fourth. A modest proposal: 1-Jaso, 1B; 2-Kang, 3B (When healthy); 3-Polanco, RF (To split up right-handed bats); 4-McCutchen, CF; 5-Marte, LF; 6-Cervelli, C; 7-Mercer, SS; 8-Pitcher spot; 9-Harrison, 2B.

6. While Hurdle notes that optimizing a lineup does not have a significant win-loss effect, there still is value there. Perhaps a win or two over the course of a season. And for a team looking for every edge at the margins, lineup construction is an area the Pirates have not optimized. It's an edge that doesn't cost a single dollar to add.

What role for Nicasio?

7. Juan Nicasio is having a solid spring and is pushing for a spot in the starting rotation. He has not allowed a run in 10 spring innings while striking out 16 against just three walks. Against the Orioles on Wednesday, Nicasio struck out 10 and allowed just one hit in four scoreless innings.

8. But does Nicasio best fit in the rotation? Nicasio had his best run as a reliever with the Dodgers last season after struggling as a starter with the Colorado Rockies. And Nicasio noted his velocity played better in the bullpen last season.

Nicasio's fastball has sat 92-95 mph this spring. But it ramped up to 96.4 in August when he escaped Colorado to finish the season pitching 58 innings with the Dodgers.

9. What is different about Nicasio this spring? Nicasio had focused on pitching on the outside part of the strike zone when he was with the Rockies, as noted by Fangraphs.com last week. Part of the Pirates' pitching philosophy is to pitch inside. Hurdle praised Nicasio for his ability to locate his fastball against the Orioles, including elevating the pitch. If he can better command his fastball, like Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano before him, then perhaps he can start and impact games.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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