Kang Returns Tonight
05.06.16 Posted by Chris
Filed under: Jung Ho-Kang, Terrible Photoshops
It’s weird looking at a Pirates-Cardinals series and having it feel anti-climactic, but we’ve pretty seamlessly moved from one rival to the next in the Central. These games still matter, though, and after losing four in a row, they matter even more. The Cards may not be the threat they once were, and they may not be the biggest thing standing between us and a division title. But they’re still a decent-to-good team, at least for now, that we have to play a whole lot each year
It would’ve been awfully nice to be able to trot Liriano out against the Cubs along with Cole, but he draws a pretty big matchup here instead, against Carlos Martinez. Martinez was very good last year but had workload concerns last year. It’s not clear if they’ll be an issue this year, but they’re certainly not in May. And he’s off to a good start, albeit one not supported by his peripherals. K rate’s down, but so are the walks, and his BABIP against is way too low. The Bucs hit him pretty well last year in two of four starts, and they’re better this year.
Liriano’s unrealistically high HR/FB rate is always down 10% from his last start and should keep dropping. That ugly 5.5 BB/9 rate probably will, too, but is more of a cause for concern. I think Liriano is, at worst, still 90% of what he’s been the last few years, and a good start tonight would go a long way towards reassuring me that this rotation is merely a work in progress, rather than actively on fire.
This year, I’ll resign myself to playing for a Wild Card slot a lot earlier than last year. But not quite yet.
First pitch is at 8:15 PM.
In yesterday’s preview, I wrote this:
Coming into this series it was reasonable to wonder if the Bucs were on the same level as the Cubs. Now, I think we have to retreat to asking if they will be when the last few pieces are added.
That’s pretty much where I’m at now. The Pirates, as currently constituted, are probably not one of the game’s very best teams, and are certainly not in the same league as the Cubs (though it’s possible nobody has been).
Doesn’t mean we can’t be. Doesn’t mean we won’t be. Just means we aren’t.
This score, like the 7-2 score in the first game, makes the game look more lopsided than it was: the Pirates got 8 hits off of Jen Lester, who didn’t even complete the sixth, but they also loaded the bases with nobody out and failed to score. While it’s been clear from this series that the Cubs are the better team, the Pirates have also made the gap look wider than it is by failing to cash in on virtually every opportunity, while simultaneously finding new and creative ways to allow the inverse to happen with the Cubs at the plate.
The Bucs are 15-13. That hot streak gave them enough margin that they’re still at an 87-win pace (IE: right around what you’ll usually need for one of the Wild Card spots) even after getting swept. The Bucs may have another big division hole dug already, but in terms of wins and losses this team has started better than each of the last two years. Let’s just hope those additional pieces are here soon, and fit.
Losing two games in this series, but winning the matchup with Jake Arietta, would’ve felt like a moral split (which is one victory less than a moral victory, in case you were wondering). Instead, we’re trying for the next best thing: beating their second best pitcher, and ending the series on a high note.
Most people will tell you a loss is a loss, but early in the season, how you lose matters. Which is why, as infuriating as tough-luck losses are, the beat downs like the ones we’ve suffered in the first two games of this series are a lot worse. They count as losses and they don’t speak well of the team’s core talent level.
Things are only slightly easier this afternoon, with Jon Lester on the mound. Juan Nicasio throws opposite, and this will be an interesting test for him. His last start was his best of the year, but the Reds aren’t the Cubs. This is a pretty great opportunity for him to solidify his value in the rotation, though.
The following paragraph is not an intellectual conclusion, but purely an emotional description: it already feels like the Wild Card game is the most likely destination. It’s a long season, and I think this is already about a 90-win team even before the improvements we can expect over the next two months, but this might just be another year where Very Very Good is also Not Quite Good Enough. End emotional interlude.
Of course, if they come out today and kick Lester around, it’ll probably sweep away most of the doom (if not all of the gloom). And I think we’ve probably already seen this team’s low point, especially given the additional talent coming. Coming into this series it was reasonable to wonder if the Bucs were on the same level as the Cubs. Now, I think we have to retreat to asking if they will be when the last few pieces are added.
First pitch is at 12:35 PM.
I’ll say very little about this game, in part because most of what I’d say you could have guessed 24 hours ago: Jake Arietta largely shut the Pirates down (he threw in an RBI single for good measure), Jon Niese struggled, and the Bucs were never in it.
Arietta walked the first two batters of the game, but nothing came of it. Walks appear to be the one weakness in his game right now (relatively speaking), but this Pirate team’s OBP has come more from its hits than its walks, and it didn’t help that we were running David Freese and Matt Joyce out with those two guys on, instead of Kang and Marte (who took the night off save for a pinch hitting appearance).
The Pirates had three hits. Without looking it up, I’m pretty sure that’s their lowest total of the year.
The Pirates’ came into this series hot, which is good, because it’s given them the margin to absorb these beat downs. It would’ve felt like something close to a split to lose two of three, but win Arietta’s start, but instead it’s May 4th and the Bucs are already five back.
Obviously, last night’s game was particularly important because tonight’s game is started by Jake Arietta, which means the odds are good the Bucs will find themselves having to face Jon Lester tomorrow trying to avoid a sweep, and another huge division deficit in the first fifth of the season.
On the flip side, if you offered me a split in the first two games, and let me pick which pitcher we’d win against, I’d have chosen to beat Arietta. Insofar as you believe in things like morale boosts (even if only for us fans), a win tonight would be way, way up there.
Talking about Arietta is difficult, because his numbers are absurd, and it sounds almost silly to point out that they’re not sustainable. Nobody does this, and nobody can continue to do this, but his underlying numbers are still very good…just not superhumanly good. And it doesn’t feel very satisfying to proclaim that he’ll have to regress to merely very good, as opposed to very very very good. But he will.
And just from game to game, somebody’s going to knock him around eventually. Why not us? Why not one (if not the) best offenses in the league? For all the talk of his dominance last year, those who paid close attention know how unbelievably close we came to busting that game open. Two of the hardest hit balls hit off him all year, in the same inning, somehow resulted in three outs.
The safe bet is that he’ll be excellent tonight, though, and that even if he isn’t he just has to be better than Jonathan Niese. But weirder things have happened. And, admittedly, I’ll be pretty encouraged even in a loss if we manage to get to the guy on the mound.
There’s a pretty decent chance a couple of people are getting hit by pitches tonight, too, so watch out for that. First hit by pitch is at 7:05 PM.
I’m not usually the type to think much of psychological explanations for on-field performance. The overwhelming majority of the time, it’s just people trying to sculpt noise into narrative. But I do think there might be a little something to the idea that Gerrit Cole gets too amped up for his own good.
That certainly seemed to be the case last night, as he looked erratic, and apparently snapped at Francisco Cervelli a bit when he came to the mound to calm him down. All in all, you want your best starters to be fierce competitors, but this might be one thing that Cole needs to reign in to make full use of his considerable talents (though even the uneven version is among the best in the league).
Cole walked four last night, and combined with some rough calls in a particular important Rizzo at-bat, gave up five earned runs in 4.2 innings. It was one of those games where he never quite looked right, never settled down after a rocky first (which we’ve come to expect in both good starts and bad). Against a lesser team he’d probably have gutted out a quality start, but that’s not going to work against the Cubs.
Hammel was neither good nor bad: two runs in five innings, which is slightly better than average against a lineup like the Pirates’. The real issue is the four scoreless innings the bullpen threw, when just a run or two in the middle innings might’ve made this a game again.
The Pirates managed seven hits even in a low scoring affair, and had the lead briefly when Andrew McCutchen homered in in the first, but they’d only manage one more extra base hit the rest of the game. The game was closer than the score looked, and the Pirates weren’t bad in any one facet of the game…but they were below-average in basically all three, and against a good team, that’s gonna lead to a loss.
The Bucs now have to face Arietta and Lester on consecutive days, and already it feels like they need one to avoid digging themselves into a huge hole in the Central early in the year. Again.
Let me be clear: we shouldn’t throw dirt on the St. Louis Cardinals just yet. Not as a contender for the Wild Card, and certainly not as a possible spoiler to Pirate success in 2016 (there’s an impediment/sediment joke here I’m too lazy to workshop). They’re 12-13 and we swept them to open the season, but their run differential is actually better than ours, and they’ve actually scored a lot of runs.
That said, it’s hard to argue that their franchise is finally trending down, that their amazing run of success is probably ending, and that the Pirates and Cubs have brighter presents and futures. Insofar as one can be confident about anything like this, it seems likely that our bitter rivalry with the Cards is just going to sort of peter out this year, and that our ire is going to be directed a little further north, and a little east, of the place it’s been fixed like a laser for the last three seasons.
That place is Chicago, home of the Cubs. The Cubs are baseball’s best team, and that doesn’t have to be qualified: they have the most raw talent, the most wins, and the best run differential, and all this after being wildly heralded as the best team heading into this season. The Pirates, yet again, find themselves to be a very good ball club with the misfortune of being in a division with possibly the best team in the game. It’s almost funny to emerge from two decades of losing so strong, so competitive, only to find yourself Rorschach’d in a division like this, year after year, now with an entirely different team, without even an intervening year to make a run.
None of that should be taken to mean the Pirates can’t win this division: a lot of things have gone wrong in the early going, but the Bucs have a three game series against the Cubs, and they’re only three games back. Right now, the Cubs are the better team, but as the last few years have reminded us, the better team doesn’t always win. For once, that fact might prove useful.
I’ve written a few hundred words now without talking about the actual games we’re about to play, but here’s a general overview: everyone talks about the Cubs’ offense, and it’s very good (they’ve scored six more runs than we have). But they’re winning because their pitching has been absurd: they’ve given up 61 runs, the fewest in the majors. That’s 2.65 runs per game. And we’re going against their top two pitchers, Arietta and Lester, after tonight. They’ll face Niese and Nicasio, respectively.
The Cubs, on the other hand, are dodging Liriano. They face Cole tonight, opposite Jason Hammel. Cole looks more or less the same this year as last, albeit with a little more rust. Hammel has a sparkling 0.75 ERA, but it’s largely a mirage: his FIP is 2.48 and his xFIP is 3.95, so he’s pretty much exactly what he’s been the last few years: a decent middle-rotation guy. His K rate is down, his walk rate is up, and an insane 92% left on base rate is largely responsible for the discrepancy.
We don’t need to win this game, or this series, but it’s hard to imagine the Cubs giving us too many openings. Several of their pitchers are bound to regress, but they’re looking about as good as advertised. That means to catch them, we might have to over perform in our head-to-head matchups. That starts tonight.
This is far and away the best pitching matchup we have this series, so a series win almost certainly means winning tonight’s game. First pitch is at 7:05 PM.
I really wanted the Pirates to win this game, because if they had, I’d have gotten to use this image as the masthead:
More on that in a moment.
Instead, I have to use Chris Stewart letting the ball come loose at home, not because that was the most egregious mistake (though it was pretty bad), but as a dramatic representation of the half-dozen defensive miscues that gave this game away.
The Pirates pitched well (more on that in a moment, too) and hit well, but their defense was probably as bad as it’s been in every game this year. Or, as I put it on the Twitterwebs:
Pitching, hitting, defense. Pick two per game.
— No Doubt About It (@TWNDAI) May 1, 2016
And that’s kind of how it’s been: excelling in one or two facets of the game, per game.
Reality, wry minx that she is, underlined the defensive problems and their role in the loss in thick red marker by having the Pirates slightly misjudge two doubles that went just over the outfielders’ heads, then head the Pirates hit two of their own in the 9th, only to have the Reds’ left and right fielders just make the catch reaching over their heads. If they miss either, the Bucs probably win. If the Pirates catch either of theirs, the Bucs probably win.
Of course, the bright side is that things had to line up just right for the Reds to avoid being swept, and they still nearly lost. And the individual performances here were very encouraging: Polanco hit a bomb into the river to give the Bucs a 1-0 lead, and looks more intimidating by the game. His walk rate has almost doubled from last year, his K rate’s down 50%, and his isolated power is higher than at any point in his minor league career. This might be it, ladies and gentlemen.
Less encouraging long term (but nearly as valuable in the here and now) is that Jeff Locke was good. Really good. Again! That’s two very strong starts in a row for Locke, and again, he really only needs to be good occasionally to justify his existence at the end of the rotation.
Obviously, another sweep would’ve been nice. Obviously, seven wins in a row headed into the huh-ooge Cubs series would’ve been great. But the things that went right in this game are things that weren’t givens: Polanco continuing to break out, Locke being disconcertingly competent, the offense continuing to roll. The things that went wrong (defensive lapses) probably aren’t going to be a major long-term problem. Bad defensive play is infuriating precisely because it doesn’t usually happen this often, but the flip side of that is that it’s not necessarily indicative of a problem that needs fixing.
The Bucs are 15-10. This is a very good start to the season. The things that are working may plausibly keep working, and the things that aren’t appear at least moderately fixable. There’s work to be done, but this year, they can start doing it with a little margin.
I realize it’s a stretch to call the Rockies’ series a sweep, since we only played three of the four games. But hey, we won all three. And we have a chance to win all three against Cincinnati now. The Pirates have played eighteen innings against the Reds in this series and haven’t trailed in any of them. And now the Reds, still with a massive starting pitcher deficit, are trotting out another emergency stopgapper in Time Adleman.
Adleman has never thrown an inning in the major leagues. He’s not a top-tier talent thrust into an earlier debut by necessity, either: he’s 28 years old and was drafted in the 24th round. He threw well in AA last year (2.64 ERA, 3.42 FIP), but at his age that ought to be a given.
I don’t want to take this game for granted, because we’ve seen guys like this stymie big league lineups that have no book on them. It’s happened to the Pirates a number of times over the last few years, against these Reds in particular when they were struggling with rotation injuries last year. I’m tempted to say this Pirate lineup is too good for that to matter much, and my money’s definitely on us getting to him. But guys like this wave a big Cincinnati Red flag in the back of my mind.
Perhaps more relevant to our chances is that it’s Jeff Locke’s turn in the rotation. Two starts ago Locke looked as bad as most Pirates fans think he always is. Combined with Ryan Vogelsong’s strong (relative to expectations) start, this lead to a slew of “is this Jeff Locke’s last chance to stay in the rotation?” articles/tweets. He responded with six shutout innings…with eight strikeouts…in Coors Field.
I doubt we’ll need anything of this caliber today. I think we’d all take two runs in five innings, or three in six.
The Bucs are going for their seventh straight victory heading into their first series against the Cubs tomorrow. It’d be huge to go in white hot, and with the bullpen getting a fourth consecutive day without being leaned on heavily.
It’s rainy, so there’s a good chance this doesn’t happen at all, but people said that about last night, too. First pitch is, in theory, at 1:35 PM.