There Was No Doubt About It

A Pittsburgh Pirates Blog

Smacked by Hand: Marlins 5, Pirates 2

08.26.15 Posted by

I’m traveling tomorrow, so I’ll probably have to skip the next 5-6 games, and I’ll have to keep this recap short: once again, the Bucs banged out a bunch of hits. But this time, the sequencing was off, and they never strung together enough at one time to break through. Brad Hand didn’t shut us down, but he did manage to get out of trouble several times. You’ve really gotta give him a…round of applause.

The sheer number of hits the Pirates have been getting means that they only end up with low run totals when sequencing luck goes sideways, though. It’s a good place to be, offensively, even if it didn’t work out last night. But get 8-10 hits every night, and you’re going to find you win a lot of games.

After two, the series is tied 1-1. Locke goes tonight (it’s already 1-1 as I write this) and Cole goes tomorrow. I feel pretty safe saying that a win in this next game probably presages a second consecutive 3-out-of-4 series.

Filed under: Charlie Morton, game recaps

Pirates at Marlins: Bite the Hand

08.25.15 Posted by

Morton vs. Hand, 7:10 PM

Brad Hand is a bit of an exception to the run of starters the Pirates have faced lately: his peripheral stats are actually significantly better than this topline numbers. He sports a 4.46 ERA, and while there’s a big divergence between FIP (3.09) and xFIP (3.79), both say he’s actually been pretty good. The discrepancy (if I’m remembering my sabermetrics correctly) is that xFIP corrects for fly ball-to-home-run ratio, and Hand gives up disconcertingly low number of home runs relative to the fly balls he allows. He also induces a decent number of ground balls. Doesn’t strike many guys out, though, which is something I’ve been saying a lot.

All this means that, if we score much, it won’t be like it was the last two nights, where Ryan Vogelsong walked in a run and Marlins pitchers had such poor control that one of them got thrown out for what I’m nearly certain was an unintentional HBP. The Bucs’ll have to swing a bit more tonight, and something tells me they won’t take much convincing on that front.

Hand goes up against Charlie Morton, who’s been very good in three of his last four starts and is inexplicably striking people out. If he manages a K per inning tonight, for the fifth straight start, and against a hard-to-strike-out Marlin team, we’ll have to consider the possibility that something has legitimately changed with him.

The Pirates are pretty big favorites again tonight. The Cardinals are only slight favorites against Arizona. First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: Charlie Morton, game preview

Happ Sharp Again: Pirates 5, Marlins 2

08.25.15 Posted by

Five days ago I joked, after J.A. Happ’s brilliant start against Arizona, that it was ““way too early for talk of Ray Searage’s Pitching Elixir.” I think we can maybe start talking about it now.

Happ threw six shutout innings for the second consecutive start, this time striking out six against a Miami team that’s been the third-hardest to strike out in the NL this year. Happ’s now given up one run in his last 17.1 IP. We’ve been told that Searage and the coaching staff made a small mechanical tweak having to do with Happ’s stride. I’m not sure how seriously to take this as an explanation, because one would expect any new coaching staff to have some suggestions, and we probably talk about the successes a lot more than the failures. Though it bears mentioning that pitching reclamation projects don’t have to have a very high success rate in order to be a net contributor.

Whatever Happ-ens going forward with J.A., he’s pretty much filled in as well as we could’ve hoped, and there’s only one more turn through the rotation before September. As a stopgap, he’s been an unmitigated success. The only question is whether or not we’re going to get even more out of him.

The offense was solid again, scoring 5 runs and banging out 8 hits. On multiple occasions batters hit balls that seem like they would’ve been gone almost anywhere else, but were contained by Miami’s spacious outfield. Cutch’s bomb to center, in particular, was accompanied by his usual “I got that” swagger, and fell just three feet short of the giant 418 foot mark in center field. Five runs figures to be plenty in most games against a weakened Miami lineup, but even so, the Pirates had many more opportunities to blow the game open, ultimately leaving 13 men on base.

The Cardinals won, but they continue to look very human, and the Bucs just keep on winning. This team is on pace to win 99 games. And while the Cardinals are on pace to win a couple more, I think that would get it done.

Filed under: game recaps, J.A. Happ, Ray Searage's Pitching Elixir

Pirates at Marlins: Haymakers

08.24.15 Posted by

Happ vs. Koehler, 7:10 PM

“Make hay while the sun shines” is a well-worn cliché. What I like about it, apart from the pastoral theme that slides comfortably into the context of a sport like baseball, is that it compliments the term “haymaker,” meaning “a punch delivered with great force.” This stretch of games, starting in Miami, is both: it’s a good opportunity to make up ground, and it’s a good opportunity to strike a blow against that division deficit. You can pick the pleasant, positive cliché, or the violent one, but they amount to the same thing: keep winning. Close the gap. Catch and cage the Cards.

Normally, having just thrown Cole and Liriano, we’d be preparing ourselves for a letdown and wondering whether or not we could manage two wins in the games started by Happ, Morton, and Locke. But the last couple of turns through the rotation have changed the mood around these three from fearful to hopeful. Well, with the first two, at least; in their last starts, Happ and Morton combined to give up just a single run to two of the best offenses in the National League.

Happ struggled in his first Pirate start and has been very good in the two since. It’s not clear who the odd man might be when A.J. Burnett returns, or even if he’ll return at all, but while everyone assumed it would be Happ, he’s doing his best to muddy that decision. And the odds are good we’ll see more of the same today: he takes on a Marlins team that’s second-to-last in runs scored in the National League, and that’s with the half-season they got from Giancarlo Stanton, who’s still injured. They don’t strike out much, though, so the defense will probably need to be better than it was last night.

Unless the Bucs get to Tom Koehler, which seems fairly probable. Koehler’s FIP and xFIP are in the mid-4s this year. Stop me if you’ve heard this, but he doesn’t strike a lot of guys out and his walk rate’s a little high. I can’t tell if the Bucs have been facing an inordinate number of mediocre starters the last few weeks, or if most starters are like this and I never noticed until I started looking closely at them. Whatever the reason, this is a hittable pitcher, and this is a winnable game. First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, J.A. Happ

More Errors, More Winning: Pirates 5, Giants 2

08.24.15 Posted by

Technically, all you really want out of any game is a win. But fans who watch each game know that there are a hundred different types of wins. Last night’s game was a win, but it was among the less-encouraging varieties of win. I’m nitpicking, of course, but when you’re writing about a team on a 98-win pace who’s just won 13 of 17 games again playoff (and borderline playoff) teams, nitpicking is all you can do.

The biggest nit to pick is the fielding: it’s been pretty bad, and it really boiled over last night. Pedro Alvarez made two errors; a sharp liner right through his legs that directly led to a run, and a low throw that he simply dropped (it wasn’t in the dirt, just a little low). He also made two other mistakes that weren’t scored as such: he chased after a flare in right that he missed, but Walker caught behind him (a much tougher play than it had to be, with Pedro right in front of him), and he was one of three Pirates running down a popup in shallow right that apparently nobody called, as it dropped equidistant between them. Of course, Pedro decided to turn the entire game into a microcosm of his career by homering to the opposite field later on.

This game might be a turning point for Alvarez. He’s hitting well, but so is the team as a whole. And if you can replace him a certain way, you swing the entire defense with just a couple of moves. Jordy Mercer’s back, and while he seemed like the odd man out a couple of weeks ago, a rash of defensive mistakes may have changed that. If he plays at SS most days, that moves Kang to 3B. That means Ramirez is either an overqualified pinch hitter/offensive replacement, or he gives 1B a try. Playing Ramirez at 1B simultaneously removes Pedro from the field and makes room for our two best defensive options on the left side of the infield. Throw in Harrison platooning with Walker, and you’re probably turning a lot more of those grounders (the ones you’ve based your entire pitching staff around) into outs.

I don’t want to sound cavalier about this, because Ramirez has never played first. But it’s hard to imagine he won’t be a significant defensive upgrade over Alvarez anyway, and there’s a chance he might not be a major offensive downgrade, too, which is the trade off you face when you keep running Sean Rodriguez out there. In a vacuum the move feels shaky, but when you consider the way it lets so many other things fall into place, it looks like it might be worth trying.

Meanwhile, the offensive continues to mash: though they’ve scored a pedestrian eight runs the last two games, they’ve done it with five homers, and they had 11 hits last night. Liriano was a little shaky, but as I just mentioned, he didn’t have a lot of defensive help, and he managed to escape unscathed often enough that the Pirates never trailed. Liriano and Cole both continue to have excellent seasons by a) being incredibly good and b) putting up decent numbers even when they’re not being incredibly good. Liriano’s start was an example of the latter, but it got the job done.

The Pirates are winning a ton of games right now, and they just finished a difficult part of the schedule. The next 10 games are against poor competition, and the team’s nearly at full strength. Get ready.

Filed under: Cutch, Francisco Liriano, game recaps, Pedro Alvarez

Pirates vs. Giants: It’s A Race

08.23.15 Posted by

Liriano vs. Vogelsong, 8:00 PM

It never fails: the moment I decide to stop following the division race, stop checking the odds, stop checking the score of the Cardinals’ game and start checking the Cubs instead…every time I do that, the Pirates…well, you know:

The Pirates are just 3.5 games back in the Central. The Cardinals have lost two in a row and are 4-4 in their last eight games. They’ve scored just nine runs in their last five. The Bucs still have six games against them, and after tonight’s game, they play 10 games against three opponents who are a combined 64 games under .500. This is it. If the Bucs want to actually be in range of the Cardinals by their September 4-6 series in St. Louis (as opposed to technically alive, where they would need to win nearly all of the remaining games against them), this is the part of the schedule where they have the best chance to do it. The opponents are weak, players are coming back from injury, and the offense is banging out 9 hits a night with regularity. The pins are just sitting there at the end of the alley. Time to knock them down.

Before we get to the Marlins, Rockies and Brewers, though, we’ve got one more game against the Giants. We’ve already ensured a split this series, and a win today gives us a 9 game lead over these selfsame San Franciscans. Realistically, a win today wraps up at least the second Wild Card. Where that game might be played is still up in the air, however, with the pesky Cubs an uncomfortable 3 games back. But it’s worth noting that that deficit is only slightly smaller than the one above us: we’re almost as likely to win the division as we are to lose home field on October 7th.

Enough setup, here’s the matchup: Francisco Liriano goes against former Pirate Ryan Vogelsong. Liriano had a decent start the last time out, and has been helping himself out with the bat lately. It’s been hilarious and thrilling to watch. We all joke about how he can really hit and just doesn’t try, but that seems a little less implausible now. The thought is both exciting and kind of maddening.

Vogelsong is nothing special either way. His K rate is up over 7, at least (we’ve faced a lot of soft-tossing starters in the 6s lately), but his walks are up, too. His ERA says he’s having a slightly above-average year, but his FIP and xFIP say it’s more like significantly below-average. He’s been very good his last two starts, giving up just one run in 11 innings (including six shutout frames against the Cardinals last time out; thanks, Ryan!). But before August he was still a relief pitcher, and he’s thrown 4, 5, and 6 innings in his three starts since being thrown back into the rotation. He got up over 100 pitches the last time out, so he might be back to normal. Or he might still need to come out early and give the Bucs a crack at the Giant bullpen.

This is yet another nationally televised game. And I’m still not used to that. But I’m getting there.

First pitch is at 8:00 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Gerrit Cole Day! Pirates 3, Giants 2

08.23.15 Posted by

The title of this post is a little misleading: I wanted to emphasize that yesterday’s game marked a possible return of the holiday-esque atmosphere surrounding Gerrit Cole’s starts earlier in the year. And the possibility of Gerrit Cole throwing at an elite level again (he went 7 innings and gave up one run, unearned, striking out 8, against one of the NL’s best-hitting teams) is bigger news going forward than the game’s other heroics.

There were quite a lot of other heroics, however. While Cole’s contribution was huge, he’s one of three players who can be said to have won this game for the Bucs. One of the others being Jung-Ho Kang, who hit two solo home runs. The third being Starling Marte, who hit a walk off solo home run with two outs in the ninth that stopped the Pirates from playing yet another extra inning game.

But while Cole gets the title (and Marte deserves plenty of praise, especially for robbing Brandon Crawford of a home run earlier in the game, making him worth a net of two home runs on the day), Kang gets the picture at the top of the post. And it’s a decision Marte would agree with; when asked about Kang after the game, Marte was impressively modest:

“HE win the game.”

For a guy still on a rush from having hit a walk off home run, that’s quite a statement. So I can’t resist using this one, too:

And this game was quite a statement. Someone on Twitter said they’d really like to see us win a game 2-1 instead of 5-4, and that’s basically what happened. We broke away from the boilerplate Pirate game (as effective as it’s been the last few weeks) and won a first-half Pirate game: strong starting pitching and a few runs. It’s nice to know we can do that, especially because any possible Wild Card game seems pretty likely to be low-scoring, given most of our likely opponents and the guys they’d probably end up throwing against us.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost their second game in a row for the first time in over three weeks (and before that, you have to go back to the Pirates’ consecutive walk offs to end the first half). The Central deficit is down to 3.5 games. Maybe, just maybe…

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole, Jung Ho-Kang, Starling Marte

Pirates vs. Giants: Gerrit Cole Day?

08.22.15 Posted by

Cole vs. Leake, 4:05 PM

A couple months into the season, Pirate fans on Twitter started calling days on which Gerrit Cole starts “Gerrit Cole Day,” the implication being that he was throwing so well that they looked forward to every start like it was a holiday. But like most holidays, it doesn’t take much aggravation for it to become a chore. I could throw a lot of sabermetric stuff at you, but it distills to this: Cole had a 2.30 ERA in the first half and has a 3.55 ERA in the second. Nobody’s shocked that his ERA is higher, but most of us are probably surprised it’s been this much higher.

Obviously, when you have a pitch for whom a 3.55 ERA over a little more than a month is disappointing, you’re in a pretty good position. But barring a late run at the division, this is a guy who’s going to hold the season in his hands on October 7th, so it’s more important that he throw well at the end of the year than it is at the beginning.

Today he takes on a Giants team that hits righties pretty well, and Mike Leake, who we thought we avoided in the Cincinnati series when he was traded, but are merely facing later in the year. If you look up “okay” in the dictionary, you’ll find…well, you’ll find a definition of the word “okay.” But if dictionaries had lots of pictures of nouns that fit them particularly well, you’d eventually find Mike Leake’s face in there. He’s been okay his entire career, and he’s okay again this year. Past Pirate teams would’ve hoped to scratch out a couple against him. This Pirate team—which keeps banging out 8-10 hits a night and hit the top end of that range even against Bumgarner last night—should tack a couple more on. In theory, at least.

First pitch is at 4:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

One Way or Another: Giants 6, Pirates 4

08.22.15 Posted by

The script for this game seemed simple enough: Bumgarner shuts down the Pirates, Locke gives up a few, you tip your cap and you move on. Instead, Locke blew up early (and then settled down, which is part of the boilerplate Pirate game I outlined a few days ago), the Pirates did a reasonable job against Bumgarner…but he beat them with his bat instead of his arm, slugging a two-run homer.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds: Bumgarner is a notoriously good hitter for a pitcher (and even sort of an okay one for, say, a middle infielder). But Locke still grooved him a low-90s fastball that was either a really poorly executed pitch, or else a massive scouting failure. I’ll assume the former.

The Bucs scraped back into the game after falling behind 5-1, but they failed to score in very promising situations late in the game. In the 7th inning, Starling Marte grounded into an inning-ending double play with two men on, and in the 9th, Gregory Polanco grounded into one after the leadoff man (Neil Walker) reached. It’s rare to see either of these players ground into a double play, but to see both in the same game, just two innings apart…that’s pretty unusual. And that was pretty much the difference. If either of those guys gets a hit, or even just beats out the throw to first, it’s a different ballgame.

Still, a good effort against a great pitcher. Hard to feel too bad about this one, especially given that the series is even, the Cardinals lost, and Cole and Liriano go next.

Filed under: game recaps

Pirates vs. Giants: Bumgarner Returns

08.21.15 Posted by

Locke vs. Bumgarner, 7:05 PM

The last time Madison Bumgarner started against the Pirates, he threw a complete game shutout, striking out 10 and ending the Pirates’ 2014 season. The two teams played three games in early June, but the rotation aligned just right and we missed him (we swept the series). So this’ll be the first time since that depressing night we’ve seen him, and it’ll be at the scene of the crime: PNC Park.

Bumgarner had a very rocky start to the year, and I think most of us can be forgiven for wondering whether or not his inning count (almost 270 thanks to a lengthy playoff run) had hurt his performance. He’s come roaring back since then, and his season numbers are even better than last year’s. He’s been especially good in his last three starts, going 25.1 innings and allowing just 2 ER. His last two starts have been insane: both complete games, one of them a shutout, with 26 Ks and just one walk.

The last time we faced a pitcher this good, this hot, it was Clayton Kershaw, and we got to him for four runs. And in that game’s preview, I said that the last time we faced a pitcher this good, this hot, we didn’t record a hit. Take from that what you will.

Bumgarner goes against Jeff Locke. Given the last turn through the rotation, you could make a pretty good case that Locke is currently our worst starter. Normally I’d say something about how rotations line up and talk about whether or not it’s good or bad that our worst starter is throwing against their best. But the last time I did that, Locke and the Pirates beat Matt Harvey and the Mets, so I’ll just say that Locke had a good (if brief) start last time out, the bullpen’s throwing well, and Hurdle hasn’t been shy about leaning on them. If Locke can dance through the rain drops twice through the order, this could be a winnable game (Vegas agrees: the Pirates are very modest underdogs). Assuming, of course, that Bumgarner decides to be human tonight.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke