There Was No Doubt About It

A Pittsburgh Pirates Blog

Pirates at Rangers: Start Another

05.29.16 Posted by

Liriano vs. Perez, 3:05 PM

I like it when the Pirates win a lot of games in a row, but I like it almost as much when they break a winning streak and immediately start another. There’s something reassuring about seeing their ability to lose and shrug it off immediately.

The Bucs have a chance to do that this afternoon: last night’s loss was to a very good pitcher, and they had several chances to make a game of it, so it’s hard to be too worked up about. Especially because they rode a five-game winning streak into it. Today, they try to secure their fourth consecutive series win, and they’ve got a pretty good pitching matchup for it.

Liriano’s been battling an inflated (yes, even for him) walk rate and a weird propensity for giving up home runs (which may or may not be mostly random noise). He’s put up good results (though not necessarily great peripherals) his last two outings, though, and a good start here could dip his ERA back below 4.00. He faced Martin Perez, who as I mentioned in the series preview, has nearly as many walks as strikeouts.

Not sure what to expect out of Liriano, but I still lean towards thinking he’s gotten a bit unlucky and could do well. I have more confidence, however, in saying that the Pirates should be able to score at least a few off of Perez. This is a good team, but we threw our two best starters at them. This would be a very solid series win.

First pitch is at 3:05 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Whirling Darvish: Rangers 5, Pirates 2

05.29.16 Posted by

The first half of this game didn’t actually go that badly: Nicasio allowing three runs in the first inning is pretty bad, and Darvish handled the Bucs’ lineup easily (three hits, one run, seven Ks), but I think most versions of this game—even the ones where the Pirates win—involve them falling behind in the first half. They got one off of Darvish and got four cracks at the bullpen, which has been terrible this year. If you’d told me that, and told me the Rangers would top out at five runs, I would’ve liked our chances.

The Bucs had lots of chances to make a game of it after Darvish was out: two men in scoring position for Marte in the 6th, the first two batters singling in the 8th (with Polanco up, no less), and a Joyce triple in the 9th, but only that last one resulted in another run.

Darvish looked great, hitting 98 MPH. No big shame in this one. They knew they’d probably have to score a few times off of the Ranger bullpen, they threatened big innings twice, and just didn’t quite get that last hit.

Nicasio, meanwhile, probably wasn’t as bad as his line suggests (four runs in 4.2 innings), but it seems awfully likely at this point that Jameson Taillon will be filling into a Nicasio-shaped outline in that rotation, and I’m actually pretty excited to see what this guy can do in the bullpen.

Filed under: game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Rangers: Here’s Lookin’ at Yu

05.28.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Darvish, 7:15 PM

When Juan Nicasio came out of his April 29th start after seven shutout innings, his ERA stood at 3.33. At that point he was either the second or third-best Pirate starter, depending on how you chose to assess Liriano’s struggles.

Since then, that ERA’s jumped to 4.46 in just three starts. Since then, Jeff Locke and Jon Niese have each put together two or three strong outings. Suddenly, Nicasio is clearly the weakest link in the chain, and may have made the front office’s decision about who to replace when James Taillon arrives that much easier. Nicasio can make that decision a little harder for them with a good start tonight.

This game has the distinction of being Yu Darvish’s first start back from Tommy Johns surgery. Darvish strikes guys out a lot, but what’s noteworthy is that his command’s gotten better each year he’s been in the bigs: from 4.19 BB per 9 in 2012 to 3.06 in 2014. He’s looked strong in his rehab starts, too. Thankfully, he’ll be on a fairly strict pitch count 85-90 from the sound of things), so if the Bucs can extend some of these at-bats, they can get into that Ranger bullpen, which, as I mentioned yesterday, is dead last in the American League in ERA.

Can’t say I have a great feeling about this game: I think Nicasio is likely to continue struggling, and I think if we win it’ll have to be a high scoring game where we kick their bullpen around a lot. Regardless, the Pirates have a chance at a fourth straight series win, and a sixth straight win overall, with a victory tonight. First pitch is at 7:15 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

Bucs Get to Hamels: Pirates 9, Rangers 1

05.28.16 Posted by

Maybe I should be surprised that the Pirates scored five runs off of Cole Hamels, but I’m not.

This looked like a weirdly low-scoring affair for the first half of the game, with the Pirates up 1-0 (a Starling Marte homer) through four. Then, the Pirates exploded for five in the fifth, all with no outs: a walk, a throwing error, two singles, and then a three-run opposite field homer for Kang. McCutchen added a solo shot an inning later, and Polanco hit a two-run homer in the 9th.

The talk early this year was about how many runs the Pirates were scoring without the help of the long ball. Turns out, that’s not really a thing: they’re 9th in the NL in homers now, which is just below league average.

More exciting, however, is Jon Niese putting together his third strong outing in a row, and his second against a solid lineup: Colorado was 4th in the NL in runs scored, and Texas was 3rd in the AL. He only struck out two, but he also walked just one, and he got 10 ground ball outs. He gave up a long solo homer to Adrian Beltre (he’s had a knack for giving up bombs this year, for whatever reason), but that was it. Obviously, the offense is what drives this team, but it’s winning games at the rate it is because that offense has been paired with decent-to-good starts from Niese and Locke.

The Bucs have won 10 of 12 and are at almost exactly the same win pace as last year.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Jonathan Niese, Jung Ho Kang

Pirates at Rangers: Some Better Pitchers

05.27.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Hamels, 8:05 PM

Since the Cubs’ series the Pirates haven’t just played weaker teams (one awful one and two not-awful-but-below-average ones), they’ve faced weaker pitchers almost exclusively. In that ten game homestand, there were maybe two starters that the Pirates shouldn’t have necessarily beat up on (and one of them, they didn’t, accounting for one of their two losses). That changes tonight.

The Pirates fly to Texas, and there to greet them is Cole Hamels. Hamels is sporting a career high 9.73 Ks per nine rate this year, but a career high 3.30 BB per nine rate to go with it. He’s got an impossibly high, Liriano-esque HR/FB rate, too, but an impossibly high LOB% as well. In other words, some metrics say he’s better than this, and some say he’s worse, and when xFIP tries to sort it all out it comes up with 3.30. In other words: very good.

After Hamels, the Bucs have to face Yu Darvish, with the only mercy being that tomorrow will be his first start of the season after undergoing Tommy John’s fickle knife last year. Their game three starter, Martin Perez, has a 3.13 ERA, though it’s probably a mirage, as he’s walked almost as many as he’s struck out.

The point is, these are better starters than the Pirates have faced recently, and this is a pretty good Rangers team. One potentially useful wrinkle, however, is that the pitching staff is a little lopsided: Texas is #1 in the American League in starter ERA…and dead last in reliever ERA. That’s the kind of pitching staff the Pirates can have some fun with if they play their game.

How many runs they’ll need is a tough question: with Jeff Locke’s recent run, Jonathan Niese stands as the worst starter in the rotation. He does, however, have two strong starts in a row, and though the Atlanta one comes with a big asterisk, those seven innings against Colorado do not. Even something in the Quality Start range tonight would be very encouraging.

First pitch is at 8:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Pirates 8, Cole 3, DBacks 3

05.27.16 Posted by

Gerrit Cole looked sub-dominant again yesterday, but he hit a three-run homer and a double and the Pirates pulled away in the late innings.

Cole didn’t get some kind of wind-carried, Wrigley-aided pop fly: his homer was over 400 feet, deep into the Pirate bullpen. His double, similarly, wasn’t some quick grounder down the line that just barely stayed fair: it was a drive to the wall. There’s a running gag on Twitter about how Cole ripping an RBI single in his first ever start has given people (thanks to whatever the opposite of recency bias is) the idea that he’s a very good hitting pitcher. I think it has more to do with the fact that, unlike many pitchers, he doesn’t swing like he was thrust into a charity softball game and forced to bat from the wrong side to even things up. Whatever the reason, expect those jokes to continue for another two or three years now.

The Pirates had 12 hits on the day, and actually got out-hit by Arizona (who had 13!), but only three of theirs went for extra bases, and they were all doubles. The Pirates had half of theirs go for more than one. Polanco wasn’t allotted his mandatory double, so I assume he’ll hit two today or something.

The Bucs have won nine of 11 and are on a 95-win pace.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Pirates vs. DBacks: Pun About Sweeping Cole

05.26.16 Posted by

After Gerrit Cole’s tremendous start against the Cubs, I said this:

If the Pirates beat the Braves up, it’ll be tempting to start thinking of Gerrit Cole’s amazing start yesterday as the beginning of some kind of turning point. Let’s tamp that down prematurely, considering the opponent here.

The Pirates did indeed “beat the Braves up,” and I tried to read little into it. But then they took two of three from the Rockies, who aren’t good, but also aren’t doormats. Now they’ve taken the first two against the similarly below average (but not pushover-able) Diamondbacks, with a chance to sweep. It’s still not the cream of the crop, but steamrolling over sub-par teams is what good seasons are largely made of, and a few weeks ago even mediocre competition seemed daunting.

Cole vs. Corbin, 12:35 PM

Gerrit Cole starts for the Pirates; he was actually a little rough in his last outing, striking out none for the first time in his career (and presumably back to, I dunno, Little League, probably). But his ability to turn in decent (or even good) starts without his best stuff is one of the things that makes him so formidable, and the defense came up big for him.

Cole throws against Patrick Corbin, whose wrong-handedness means that Jaso’s taking a seat, and Freese is replacing him at first. Rodriguez is playing for Harrison again, too, presumably because the Bucs have to fly to Texas after the game and play the Rangers on the road tomorrow night. Freese is hitting third, and Polanco, weirdly enough, is batting seventh.

The degenerate gamblers in Vegas say the Pirates are big favorites today. Let’s hope the Bucs make those shady folks some money.

First pitch is at 12:35 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

All At Once: Pirates 5, Diamondbacks 4

05.26.16 Posted by

The thing you hear most about this lineup from its fans is that it “just keeps coming.” It’s relentless. There are some exceptional hitters here, to be sure, but the Pirates have had exceptional hitters before: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, and Andrew McCutchen. They still didn’t win, because they surrounded those guys with mediocre players, and most games were trotting out one or more offensive black holes. What’s different about this lineup is that it’s deep, both top to bottom (Jorder Mercer hits eight and is OPSing over .750), and back to front (it hasn’t been a huge downgrade when Freese or Rodriguez spell a starter).

Case in point: Jung Ho Kang and Josh Harrison took a seat last night, and both of their replacements—Freese and Rodriguez—hit home runs. Rodriguez’s was a solo shot, and Freese’s was a two-run bomb to center. That’s what made this win a little more interesting than most: it didn’t come from wearing the starter down and getting into the bullpen, or by steadily accumulating runs throughout the game. The Pirates scored all of their runs in two consecutive innings, and four of them in fifth.

Preceding Freese’s homer was another Polanco double (it seems like he’s basically allocated a double per game), which was preceded by a scorching McCutchen single. All of the starter, De La Rosa, who handled the Pirates so effectively the last time they met.

Jeff Locke was shaky, giving up four runs in 6.1 innings, but this is exactly the kind of start you’re usually expecting from someone in his position. If he can work through six, and even a little past it, while keeping the game close, that’ll be plenty most nights. That extra inning means the Pirates can bridge the gap to the end of the game without cycling in some of their less reliable relievers, though Tony Watson was on paternity leave tonight, so Hughes had to get a couple of outs (which he did without incident). I wouldn’t call this is a “good” start for Locke, but it was an acceptable one, and he’s been acceptable or better every time but once since that blowup in San Diego.

This is the third straight series the Pirates have won, and they’ll be heavy favorites to sweep this afternoon with Cole on the mound.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke

On the Formation of Stars

05.25.16 Posted by

I have a weird relationship with the movie Bruce Almighty. Bear with me, because I promise I’m actually going somewhere with this.

When I was younger I started a movie website. It had news, reviews…all the stuff you’d expect a movie website to have. It’s still running to this day. One day I posted a casting update for Bruce Almighty; Morgan Freeman had been cast as God. Seemed like a good/fun choice. A year or two later, the film came out, and it was surreal. Not the movie itself, but seeing on the screen something that I remembered posting news about so early in the process. It was the first film I can remember following from the start, and then seeing made into reality.

This never seemed to happen with Pirates. I remember reading about Chad Hermansen, Ron Wright (that epic minor league power hitter we got in the Denny Neagle deal), J.J. Davis, and John Van Benschoten. I remember thinking “wow, when these guys all come up, we’ll be good again!” And somehow it never happened. It was like watching epic trailers for movies that never got released.

That changed with Andrew McCutchen.

Andrew McCutchen is the first star I saw form. The first whose entire career arc was visible across the sky. The day he was drafted, the interviews, the scouts talking dreamily about him. All the stuff I’d heard before and learned to distrust. But then the minor league reports came rolling in. He was performing at all levels, rising steadily, sometimes performing better the next level up than he did before. He was charting a trajectory so steep it had no choice but to break the orbit of the bigs.

And then he’s there, in a Pirates uniform, and he’s good right away. But even that doesn’t break through the pessimistic defenses I’ve constructed. It takes until 2012, when he leaves the galaxy entirely and becomes one of the best players in baseball, and the flinch is gone completely in 2013 when the league formally recognizes him as such.

This has happened again since, though it’s still rare. I remember Gerrit Cole being drafted. I remember him rising through the minors. I was there for his first start, and I’ve seen him flip that switch and become one of the best in the world at the game he plays.

And now it’s happening again.

I’ve written almost 400 words and I’ve yet to mention the name of the player this post is actually about: Gregory Polanco.

I don’t actually remember the day we signed Polanco, because he wasn’t drafted. He was signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $75,000. For the first couple of years, he was all potential: he hit .202 in the Gulf League in 2010, and it wasn’t until 2012 that he started getting people’s attention, hitting .325 in single-A West Virginia. Before that, he was exactly the kind of prospect Moneyball warned you about: all projection. All scouts’ dreams about how he might grow into his body, or how good he’d be if all his skills reached their ceilings. But that’s exactly what started to happen.

By 2013, Baseball America had named him the 12th best prospect in baseball. He kept forcing the Pirates’ hand: in 2013 he played in A+, AA, and AAA, and just wouldn’t stop hitting. He was hitting .347 in AAA when they called him up nearly two years ago.

Unlike McCutchen, Polanco wasn’t good with the bat right away: he was able to stay on the field thanks to his defense and base running, and played an underwhelming 89 games in 2014. Nobody was worried, because nearly every star player has a forgettable half-season at the start of their career. Many predicted a breakout in 2015. But that didn’t happen: he had a .653 OPS in the first half, and there were rumblings of a benching, or a demotion to work things out. There was talk of trading for outfield depth.

By the end of the season, everyone had made the same quip: Polanco had improved so much in the second half that their best trade deadline move was not trading for anyone to replace him. He OPS’d .749 after the break, and had a penchant for putting together long, memorable at bats against some of the best pitchers in the league.

This season, it’s hit another level. In less than a year, he’s gone from borderline startable to hitting third. The results are tremendous: I could list all the things he’s doing better (line drive percentage, fly ball to ground ball ratio), but it’d be a waste of time, because all you need to know is that all of them are better. And it’s not just the results: he looks good. He’s hitting balls hard. As the picture way back at the top of this post shows, sometimes he’s basically swinging out of his shoes. He’s in the top ten in National League WAR, tied with Bryce Harper. He’s 24 years old, and if he finished as a better player than Andrew McCutchen this year, I honestly won’t be surprised.

Brighter stars than Gregory Polanco’s have burned out. Players get hurt, pitchers adjust. Stuff happens. But I’ve seen a couple of stars form over the last decade, and this feels the same. It may be that Polanco ends up a phenom who has a short peak in the majors. I don’t know what his floor is, but I’m not convinced his career has a ceiling. It’s a career that can leave the solar system, and float off into the heavens, where there’s another Pirate right fielder who seized all of his potential.

Filed under: Cutch, Gregory Polanco

Pirates vs. Diamondbacks: “Will the Real Jeff Locke” Etc.

05.25.16 Posted by

Locke vs. De La Rosa, 7:05 PM

Jeff Locke has been good (or very good) in four of his last five starts, and the fifth was against the Cubs, in Chicago. We still don’t know who’s getting bumped from the rotation in a couple of weeks, but Locke’s recent improvement combined with Nicasio going the other direction the last few starts makes for a pretty good case that it should be the latter. The bullpen has stabilized a bit, which weakens one of the best arguments for keeping Locke (that Nicasio’s profile looks like it would translate well to the bullpen), but the flip side of that is that the Pirates might be one good reliever away from having a—gasp—good bullpen again.

A month ago, I felt strongly Locke should be the odd man out. I’ve started to change my mind, at least to the point where neither decision would cause me much consternation. It’s close enough, at least in my head, that I’m glad we get a few more starts from each to make the decision.

Locke’s opponent us Rubby De La Rosa, who shut the Bucs down for six innings a month ago. He gave up just one run, but more notably, he allowed only three hits. He’s been excellent in three of his four starts since then, too, and his numbers are artificially inflated by a terrible start to open the season (which, echoing the above caveat about Locke, was against the Cubs). Remove that, and he’s sporting a 2.48 ERA. He’s got an unsustainably low BABIP, but he’s striking out more than a batter per inning. He’s a good pitcher, in other words, and paired against Locke this represents Arizona’s most favorable matchup of the series.

The pitching still looks shaky overall, but both the bullpen and the rotation have managed to be decent far more often than not, and as we saw last night, that’s usually enough for this offense.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke