There Was No Doubt About It

A Pittsburgh Pirates Blog

Pirates vs. Cubs: Enter the Gauntlet

08.03.15 Posted by

Liriano vs. Lester, 7:10 PM

Play time’s over. After what should have been a brief respite in Cincinnati (IE: taking three of four from a flailing Reds team), the Bucs now play 12 games and four series’ against good-to-great NL competition. I mentioned back when the Reds series started that the next stretch had us playing four teams with a combined winning percentage just shy of .560. Since then, the Mets have won three in a row, the Dodgers four in a row, and the Cubs five in a row. Now the mark stands at .570.

Before moving onto anything approaching analysis, I’m going to link you to an entry I wrote back in 2013 called Who Good Teams Beat. I’m doing this in case you’re one of the people who thinks that good teams are supposed to win lots of games against other good teams, and that failing to do so in this stretch means the Pirates are not that good. It won’t mean that at all.

What it will mean, though, is that any faint hope of winning the division will probably be gone. I realize a handful of fans came to this conclusion months ago, but our ridiculous run leading up to the All-Star break was a shining example of why you shouldn’t make those kinds of predictions so early in the season.

Well, it ain’t early any more, and I feel pretty comfortable saying that, if at the end of the Cardinals series next week, we haven’t gotten that 5.5 game deficit now to something like 3.5, you can probably go ahead and reserve those Wild Card game tickets at PNC Park. Unless this stretch goes really badly, in which case you might need to pack a bag.

Tonight, it’s one of the Big Two (previously known as: the Big Three) in Francisco Liriano. He goes up against Jon Lester. Cole isn’t starting this series, and both Jeff Locke and J.A. Happ are, so this is a pretty important game, series-wise. And, if you care about this sort of thing, both the playoff implications and the high level pitching matchup has attracted the attention of something called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, which is broadcasting the game nationally.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: everybody freak out, Francisco Liriano, game preview

Brawl and Split: Pirates 3, Reds 0

08.03.15 Posted by

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the bean ball war this game devolved into, or the dubious utility of such things in general. I’ll simply point you to Pat Lackey’s thoughts on the matter, and say I agree with 95% of it, with the primary exception being that “standing up for your guy” is probably good for team morale. I don’t think this is a good reason to engage in the practice, but not doing it probably comes with some significant, hard-to-quantify downsides, too. When we see the kinds of things athletes use to psych themselves up, or how easily they feel slighted, one wonders if this kind of thing is really separable from the competitive drive we otherwise want in our athletes. That said, I still wish it would stop.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the picture at the top of this post. No, not the fact that Charlie Morton is making a really funny face (it’s both amusing and unfair how silly you can make any pitcher look by capturing them mid-pitch). The fact that Charlie Morton threw a great game, and he did it at a time when the news about A.J. Burnett is sounding more and more ominous. If we’re actually going to go without Burnett the rest of the way, then Morton is pretty clearly the fulcrum that can swing us anywhere from “Still an Excellent Rotation” to “Just North of Average.” Plenty will hinge on Jeff Locke and J.A. Happ, of course, but Morton’s the guy who has the raw ability to be the new Three in a Big Three.

There isn’t much else to say about this game, because the Pirates only need one run. They got three. Neil Walker homered and Starling Marte had a huge two-run single that was accompanied by some good, aggressive base running. I would’ve liked to have seen a bigger run total against Keyvius Sampson (and heck, pretty much every Reds starter this series), but a split isn’t a terrible outcome on the road.

Filed under: Charlie Morton, game recaps

Pirates at Reds: Another Reds Starter You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

08.02.15 Posted by

Morton vs. Sampson, 1:10 PM

Another day, another stopgap Reds starter that we’re all secretly expecting will inexplicably keep us in check. If my basic counting skills are accurate, this is the game Mike Leake would’ve started if the Reds hadn’t traded him. Insead, we’ll face Keyvius Sampson, who’s pitched a grand total of one game—nay, one inning—in the major leagues. Guess when it was? Three days ago, in the 15-5 blowout that opened the series.

Sampson seems to have some stuff; his strikeout numbers in the minors have been pretty good, but mainly because he dominated A ball. As he moved up they dipped, and he struck out just 7.6 per 9 innings in AAA. He’s also yet to post a sub-4.9 BB per 9 rate at AA or above.

To recap: we have an inexperienced pitcher who doesn’t throw many strikes, making an emergency start just three days after pitching in relief. You would think this would be the kind of game where you’d prolong a few at-bats and get into the bullpen early. You would think that.

This was a very promising series, both because the Reds have been bad and because they got worse before and during it, dealing away two of their scheduled starting pitchers. Instead, the Pirates find themselves fighting for a split, and missing a prime opportunity given that the Cardinals deigned to lose again last night.

First pitch is at 1:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview

Cole Somehow Loses to Cincy Again: Reds 4, Pirates 3

08.02.15 Posted by

For the third time in four tries against the Reds, Gerrit Cole gave up exactly three earned runs in exactly five innings.

Of course, by “three earned runs,” I mean “three runs that the official scorer ruled were earned.” The scoring in this game illustrated the two ways in which error assignment is ridiculous. First, because Andrew McCutchen badly misplayed a short fly and it was scored a triple simply because he didn’t touch it. This unwritten rule has always been silly, but at least it’s predictable. Compounding this absurdity, however, is the sharp grounder off of Pedro Alvarez’s glove that was also ruled a hit, even though he did touch it. And he didn’t touch it while outstretched or leaping. It was hit hard, but on the ground, and right at him.

In other words, the Pirates made two errors, neither was called an error, and so what was actually a good start (as the eight strikeouts attest to) goes in the books as another example of how Cincinnati sure seems to have Cole’s number, a mini-myth which will surely be repeated into next year.

The Bucs didn’t do a lot against Raisel Iglesias, which isn’t as shameful as his lack of name recognition suggests. Despite his ERA he seems to be a very talented pitcher. What is slightly shameful is how often they failed to make him pay for mistake pitches, and how often they swung at pitches out of the zone. The exception was Jung-Ho Kang, who homered, continuing his ridiculous hot streak.

Kang also had a long fly out against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth, and the ten feet he fell short ended up being very significant, as the Bucs plated one and left the bases loaded with yesterday’s hero, Starling Marte, striking out to end it. A valiant rally, but just short, much like Kang’s fly ball. Also of note was Gregory Polanco’s walk later in the inning, not only because it came off of a lefty, and not only because that lefty was Chapman, but because it was emblematic of how strong his approach has been over the last couple of months.

Joe Blanton made his Pirate debut and breezed through a scoreless inning, then surprisingly came back out for the eighth and surrendered a run that proved to be the difference. We can probably explain Hurdle’s refusal to use Soria by noting that he threw a season high 33 pitches the night before, and he was probably encouraged by Blanton’s easy inning. But it’s not clear why he would refuse to use Watson here. There were two power hitting righties due up, but Watson’s not the kind of guy you sit for platoon splits (and he’s been better against righties this year, anyway).

All you need to know about how weird baseball is on a granular level is that the Bucs are now 0-4 starting Gerrit Cole against Cincinnati this year, and 15-2 when he starts against anyone else.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Pirates at Reds: A Real Pitching Matchup

08.01.15 Posted by

Cole vs. Iglesias, 7:10 PM

I’ve already chosen images of the Reds relatively unknown starting pitchers for each of this series’ first two game previews, so I might as well just keep rolling with it.

This is the first game in the series where Cincinnati is throwing someone with some real stuff at us. Raisel Iglesias was signed out of Cuba for three years and $27 million, and though he’s given up lots of runs (his ERA is 5.53), he strikes out better than a batter per inning and seems to have solid control.

So why the struggles? A high .355 BABIP and low strand rate, for one, which suggests he may have been unlucky. But also a mere 35% ground ball rate, which is going to be a problem for someone who plays his home games in the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark. Accordingly, his FIP and xFIP have him better, but not great (still between 3.60 and 4.00, respectively). In other words, this isn’t a guy we’re necessarily supposed to score on, like the last two.

Thankfully, today is Gerrit Cole Day. It’s fortunate for the Bucs that the best pitcher the Reds are starting against us this series has to go against our ace.

It has to be said, however, that the Reds are literally the only team to give Gerrit Cole any trouble this year, and they’ve done it three times: three runs in five innings in his 2015 debut, the exact same totals a month later, and then five runs in 4.2 innings in June. No other team has scored more than three runs off of him.

The Pirates lost all three of those games, which means that the Bucs are 0-3 in Cole starts against Cincy this year, and 15-2 in his starts against everyone else. This is in line with the Bucs being the third-best team in baseball, but just 3-8 against the Reds. It’s random and weird, but so is baseball.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

The Starling Marte Show: Pirates 5, Reds 4

08.01.15 Posted by

The photo above is Starling Marte running to first after hitting the game-winning RBI. It was the third most impressive thing he did in this game.

Crazier still, the other two things came on consecutive batters: he threw out the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning with a laser beam, and then made a ridiculous diving catch on a sinking liner that would’ve probably won the game (and inarguably tied it). It was an incredible sequence that reminded us all just how good he is, defensively. Clint Hurdle’s postgame quip summed things up beautifully:

“He plays the position like he invented it.”

Marte’s gotten more attention this year for his quick offensive start and power surge (good rule of thumb: there’ll always be a major correlation between players who become more valuable in fantasy baseball and players who suddenly get more attention across the league), but it was nice to enjoy a thrilling reminder that he provides value in every phase of the game.

As for the rest of the game: two days ago I mentioned that we should be able to score plenty off of David Holmberg. We didn’t. So yesterday I joked that we should be able to score plenty off of Michael Lorenzen, but probably wouldn’t. We did. We got to him for five runs and he didn’t make it out of the sixth. Overshadowed slightly by Marte’s ridiculous night was Jung-Ho Kang, who doubled in each of his first three at-bats, the last off the wall and just a few feet shy of a home run (the other way, no less).

This was a big one; it keeps the series win in play, and it keeps the Bucs 5.5 back, with the Cardinals winning.

Filed under: game recaps, Starling Marte

Pirates at Reds: Another Starter We Should Theoretically Score On A Lot But Probably Won’t

07.31.15 Posted by

Here’s the steely paragon of intimidation who’ll inexplicably shut us down tonight

Locke vs. Lorenzen, 7:10 PM

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Reds are throwing a completely unremarkable young pitcher at us tonight. He has little big league experience and hasn’t been very good so far. He doesn’t strike guys out and he walks a ton of batters (even more than the guy we faced yesterday). In theory, we should score runs off of him. In practice, this never seems to happen. But sure, Lucy, hold the football right there and I’ll try to kick it one more time.

Jeff Locke goes for the Bucs. His last start was probably his worst in the last two months, but it followed a stretch where he lowered his ERA from 5.37 to 4.01 in seven starts.

A win here would go a long way towards washing the bad taste of last night’s game out of the fan bases’ collective mouths. And a strong Jeff Locke start would go a long way towards assuaging the fears about the rotation after Burnett’s implosion.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: another bad pitcher we won't be able to hit, game preview, Jeff Locke

Blowout: Reds 15, Pirates 5

07.31.15 Posted by

If you want the “tell me everything I need to know about this game in one sentence” summary, here it is: Jaff Decker was the only Pirates pitcher to throw at least an inning without giving up a run.

I’ll expound on that a little (and only a little, because I want to think about this game as little as possible) by talking about starting pitching. Pirates fans on Twitter have a long track record of overreacting to bad innings early. “He doesn’t have it today,” they’ll say as Charlie Morton gives up two in the first inning, only to throw five shutout frames afterwards. But this was the kind of game where everyone recognized immediately that Burnett wasn’t himself. His velocity was down and he was hammered from the start. People were all over this just three batters into the game.

Some people would have said something like that no matter what, just because he was getting hit, but the chorus was louder and broader this time, so however many of those fans were just being kneejerk pessimists, it’s clear that they weren’t the only ones. And it ended up being true.

I wasn’t actually convinced we’d lose the game at that point (down 6-1, for example), because as I detailed yesterday, David Holmberg is a guy we really ought to score some runs off of. And I guess we did, in the sense that two runs is technically enough to merit the plural in “some runs.” But yet again, the Pirates managed to be moderately baffled by someone with very little in the way of stuff or experience. I’m tempted to say the latter is the reason—that pitchers nobody’s seen are actually fairly hard to hit right out of the gate—but whatever the reason, they couldn’t get to him tonight. Not that it mattered even a little once Guerra came in and gave up another half-dozen.

But, as Gimli reminds us in cinematic and GIF forms, this still only counts as one. We’ve got three more games against Cincy, and we’ll probably be favored in all of them.

Filed under: A.J. Burnett, game recaps

Pirates at Reds: Calm Before the Storm

07.30.15 Posted by

Burnett vs. Holmberg, 7:10 PM

The Reds are nine games under .500, have the worst run differential in the division, and they just traded their ace. After this series we play 12 straight games against teams that sport a combined winning percentage just shy of .560. This is the kind of team you beat up so that you can afford to split most of the tougher matchups.

I say this, but matchup isn’t everything: the Cardinals just lost two games against these same Reds, and didn’t score at all in the final 22 innings of the series. They just traded for Brandon Moss, but based on the high price they paid and the proximity to Matt Holliday’s quad strain, we can probably conclude that they’re very pessimistic about the latter. Their offense is struggling. This is an opportunity.

The importance of team matchups may fluctuate a lot, but pitching matchups remain a pretty big deal. And instead of Johnny Cueto, the Bucs open the series against David Holmberg. David Holmberg has yet to pitch in the majors in 2015, has a 4.40 ERA in AAA, can’t strike people out (5.1 Ks per 9), and has just a 1.6 K/BB ratio. He’s starting against a red hot Pirate offense in the third-best ballpark for home runs in all of baseball. It’s not hard to see what this ought to add up to.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: A.J. Burnett, game preview

Offense Romps Again: Pirates 10, Twins 4

07.30.15 Posted by

Preseason, everyone felt pretty confident that:

  1. The offense would be very good again.

  2. The pitching was shaky

Through the first half of the season, this was totally backwards. Cutch had a small but crucial injury that led to a month-long slump, Harrison regressed harder than expected, and pretty much everyone other than Starling Marte underperformed. The rotation, on the other hand, was stellar.

Since the break, the Pirates have increasingly resembled the team we thought they’d be, both for good and for ill. Burnett’s been increasingly hittable, and the middle relief looks a little shaky. But the offense has surged: the Pirates have averaged just under five runs a game in their last 15, tossing up seven or more in four of six. And after tossing up eight on Tuesday, they scored another 10 yesterday.

Three of those 10 were driven in by Andrew McCutchen, who ripped a game-tying two-run homer down the line and hit a “little league home run” later in the game, sbusting things open. Kang homered again (after I gushed about him yesterday), and Minnesota gave away a couple of runs with defensive miscues.

Liriano struggled for the second time in as many starts against his former team, but never let things get out of hand. The only thing worth noting is that he didn’t beat himself this time: the Twins actually hit him pretty hard. For those that have been following Liriano’s starts the last few years, you know how odd this is. The guy has tremendous stuff, and when he struggles it’s almost always because he’s walking guys. The Twins, however, can hit lefties, so hopefully this is just a blip.

The Cardinals lost again (threatening the very integrity of the universe in the process). The Bucs have made up two games in two days and are 4.5 back.

Filed under: Cutch, Francisco Liriano, game recaps