Pirates at Cubs: Taillon For the Save

06.19.16 Posted by

Taillon vs. Hendricks, 8:05 PM

I doubt I’m alone in saying this game, in and of itself, has little meaning for me. We can’t beat the Cubs, the division deficit is massive, and at this point we’re playing for another Wild Card game. The Wild Card game started the year (and last year, for that matter) as the frustrating fallback to our failure to win a division, and suddenly it’s something we have to aspire to again.

What today’s game does do, though, is give us a little look at what things might be like next year. At this point it seems fairly likely Jameson Taillon will stick in the majors, at least for a bit. And it’s easy to envision a 2017 where Cole and Taillon start tag-teaming opponents the way Arietta and Lester have this year. Throw in a little normal pitching regression, another year of maturity for Gregory Polanco, and it should be a different story. But that’s next year. This year, and today, we’re reduced to simply caring about how this young pitcher does, because we’ve already reached an unfortunate point in the season where the development of individual players (especially this one) matters more than the outcome of the game. It is a familiar feeling for any long-time Pirate fan.

Taillon draws Kyle Hendricks, the black sheep of the Cub rotation which his bloated 3.05 ERA. Like every Cubs starter he’s outpitching his peripherals. It’d be nice to get those numbers back in line, and for Taillon to do to the Cubs what Cole did to them the last time we finished a three-game set.

First pitch is at 8:15 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jameson Taillon

Pirates at Cubs: Inflection Points

06.18.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Lester, 8:15 PM

For the first month or two of the season, we tried to figure out how good or bad some of our new players were. We got pretty emphatic returns on John Jaso and most of the bench hitters, as well as offensive players who weren’t new, but had the potential to perform at a new level. We got good early returns on Juan Nicasio, then terrible ones, then okay ones…and now the dust seems to have settled mostly near “terrible” with the occasional step towards “okay.”

Jon Niese has been one of the harder players to pin down: struggled tremendously out of the gate, had a good run for six starts, then got rocked against St. Louis his last time on the mound. He was, of course, not as bad as those early starts suggested, nor as good as the ones that followed. All the data we have suggest he’s been average-ish, but seems worse because he’s giving up an unusually high number of home runs. He’s still getting lots of ground balls, though, and his K and BB numbers are both a little higher than last year. So far, on net, he’s about the same guy he was when he acquired him, which is kind of a disappointment given that most of us have a Searage Adjustment built into our expectations when any new pitcher is added to the team. That hasn’t materialized here.

When you’re having trouble giving up home runs, you don’t want to face the Cubs, and you don’t want to be in Wrigley. Niese has to contend with both. It might not be pretty. Especially given his mound opponent, Jon Lester, who’d be the talk of baseball if not constantly in the shadow of whatever sinister bargain Arietta’s still under warranty for.

The Pirates don’t need to beat the Cubs to make the playoffs, and they don’t need Jon Niese to be great, either. But they can’t get destroyed by the Cubs, and Niese can’t be terrible. We’re 41% of the way through this season: the underlying metrics matter less with each passing game as the reality of the results overtakes them. Both Niese and the team at large have to start converting if they want to be in the mix again, rather than spending the last couple of weeks in September looking towards next year, like we used to.

First pitch is at 8:15 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Pirates at Cubs: A Threat and a Chance

06.17.16 Posted by

Liriano vs. Arietta, 2:20 PM

The Bucs are getting raked over the coals by the nefarious schedule makers again, following up a recent one-day “series” in Colorado by playing an afternoon game in Chicago right after an evening game in New York. And to make matters worse, they face Jake Arietta to start things off.

The Pirates are huge underdogs in this game, and they should be. The one nice thing about this series, as poorly time as it is, is that if the Bucs win it (or, amazingly, sweep it), that’s a pretty emphatic statement. Insofar as you believing in “turning points,” this would potentially be one of them. I wouldn’t bet on either of those two things happening, and I’m not sure I’d ascribe a ton of importance to them if they did, but it’d be nice to know it’s still possible.

Arietta, at least, is looking a bit more human these days, allowing four, zero, three, and two runs in his last four starts. That’s a 3.38 ERA, but that’s what passes for a slump with this guy right now. Liriano, on the other hand, is still mostly flailing, though his last outing was a bit better (four runs but only one earned in six innings). The last time he faced the Cubs (which was also in Chicago), he allowed eight runs.

If the Bucs can just survive the upcoming schedule, I think they can make a run in the second half. And if they can play with the Cubs now, in the state they seem to be in, that could bode well for their ability to hold their own over the next few weeks.

First pitch is at 2:20 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Pirates at Mets: Series Win Up For Grabs

06.16.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Colon, 7:10 PM

Thanks to the Gerrit Cole injury, Juan Nicasio stays in the rotation for now. He gets the Mets, which is an easier lineup than most of those he’s faced, but he’s still been unpredictable, and even when good he hasn’t often gone deep into games, and the Pirates have so few reliable arms that no lead is safe in those middle innings.

The good news is that we’re not facing one of New York’s three best starters this time: instead, we square off against the ageless (and largely shapeless) Bartolo Colon, AKA The Ricky Henderson of Pitchers. Colon turned 43 less than a month ago, but somehow remains useful. Not as useful as his ERA suggests (his xFIP is a run higher), but useful nonetheless. The formula is clear: control. He walks fewer than two batters per nine, and it’s not that hard to be at least decent if you can do that, even if you, like Colon, have a K/9 rate under six.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Mets: Locke Looks to Rebound

06.15.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Syndergaard, 7:10 PM

You never know which Jeff Locke you’re gonna get. For over five weeks, Locke was good or very good in nearly every start (the biggest exception coming against the Merciless Cubs). Then he got kicked around in Colorado, albeit because of a horrendous cross-country flight in the middle of a homestand, and because he was probably left in the game as a sort of sacrifice at the alter of bullpen preservation. That doesn’t explain why he was bad, just why he was allowed to be bad long enough to give up 11 (!) runs.

This time, he faces the Mets, and the Pirates have done an exceptional job of shutting down their offense this year. And that’s been good, because the Mets’ rotation has been about as good as billed; they’ve been losing despite getting quality starts from their starters nearly every game. The last time the Bucs faced Syndergaard (tonight’s starter for New York), they scored three runs (two earned) off of him in six innings, and that was nearly enough, as the bullpen blew a late lead and lost the game in extra innings. As modest as that result was, I think you’d have to seriously consider taking it again, if offered.

It seems weird to say we should beat up on the Mets before the going gets tough, because the Mets are pretty good. But that’s the situation the Pirates are in: it only gets harder from here. It’s entirely possible they could play fairly well and still be under .500 after the seven games against the Cubs and Giants that come after this series is over.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Pirates at Mets: Back Into the Gauntlet

06.14.16 Posted by

TBD vs. deGrom, 7:10 PM

Yesterday, the Pirates finally got a day off. It’ll be their last day off, barring a postponement, over the next 16 days. That isn’t too bad, except that a) the Pirates are pretty banged up and b) their opponents over that time period (and beyond) are pretty brutal.

Regarding point a), we still don’t know how hurt Gerrit Cole is, and thus, we still don’t have a starter announced for tonight’s game. Rumblings are it could be Taillon, and while that’s sort of exciting, the excitement of seeing Taillon this year was at least partially based in the idea that he’d replace Locke or Nicasio. If he’s replacing Gerrit Cole, that’s somewhat less exciting.

Whoever throws, they go up against Jacob deGrom. deGrom’s topline numbers are ace-esque, but his peripherals suggest he’s been Good But Not Great. We faced him in the last Mets’ series and scored three runs in six innings, though he racked up nine strikeouts, didn’t walk anyone, and didn’t allow a home run.

It’s been hard judging this team’s potential all year, and it’s even harder now with Cervelli out and Cole possibly following him shortly on the DL. If that happens, the Pirate offense is going to have to hit a new level to keep the ship afloat.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jameson Taillon

Pirates vs. Cardinals: Two Teams, or Three?

06.10.16 Posted by

Cole vs. Wacha, 7:05 PM

The assumption going into this season was that the Cardinals, due to aging and some lost players, would start trending downwards, and that the Bucs were still (generally) trending upwards, and that this would the Central a two-team race. This sentiment was reinforced by the Pirates’ season-opening sweep of said Cardinals.

Since then, St. Louis has made up that ground, and today has the exact same record as the Pirates and a higher run differential. They are, somehow, the highest-scoring team in the National League. If you think this is weird and unsustainable, you’re probably right: their rookie shortshop has an .880 OPS and almost as many home runs this year as he had in twice as many games in AA. Carpenter, Adams, and Piscotty all seem to be doing the kinds of things within their normal range of expectations, but they all seem to be at the high end of it, too. It’s pretty safe to say this offense is better than expected, but I’m not entirely buying them as an offensive juggernaut.

Whatever you think of their underlying ability, they’ve kept themselves in the conversation. I’ve alluded to some of this earlier in the year, but the Cardinals, whatever their long-term trendline, are still a threat in the here and now. You have to like the Pirates more in some kind of improbable shock-the-Cubs comeback, but in terms of battling for yet another Wild Card, St. Louis is still a major hurdle.

However good their offense is, they draw Gerrit Cole in game one, who threw six innings and gave up two runs when he faced them earlier in St. Louis. I’d really like to see a big start out of him here: since the Cubs game, he’s gotten good results, but looked awfully shaky in the process. The Cubs may have supplanted the Cardinals in the Pirates’ mind as the Central target, but here’s hoping Cole still sees them for the threat they are, and is correspondingly amped. Remember, the Wild Card game isn’t a birthright we can fall back on once the division looks out of reach: one of these years we’re going to have to really fight for it, and if we do, the Cardinals may very well be the team we have to fight for it.

The Cardinals counter with Michael Wacha. Wacha’s faced the Bucs twice this year, and they’ve handled him well: eight earned runs in 10.1 innings. I think something like that should be plenty.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

Pirates at Rockies: More Schedule Shenanigans

06.09.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Bettis, 5:10 PM

After an impromptu doubleheader that seems to have seriously affected the outcome of yesterday’s game, the Pirates now fly from Pittsburgh to Colorado for one makeup game, and then immediately back to Pittsburgh for another home series. This is, of course, absurd: the Pirates don’t play the Rockies again, so they can’t tack this on to an existing series, but you have to imagine they could’ve tacked it on to an existing road trip, rather than having two cross-country flights slicing up what would’ve otherwise been a nine-game homestand.

But fair or not, sensible or not, that’s how it’s going down.

Jeff Locke throws for the Pirates, and the dude’s just been flat-out good for the last few weeks. The Bucs have won his last four starts, and he’s gone into the 7th in all of them. He started to turn his season around against these very same Rockies, also Colorado, by throwing six shutout innings and striking out eight. This came immediately after his implosion in San Diego.

The Rockies counter with Chad Bettis, who’s been about as good as Locke, but pretty unlucky. He started opposite Locke in the turnaround game I mentioned above, too, and the Bucs got to him for four runs in six innings, even though he induced 16 ground balls.

Normally I’d like this matchup plenty, but that flight has me worried. First pitch is at 5:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Pirates vs. Mets: Taillon Debuts

06.08.16 Posted by

Taillon vs. Syndergaard, 7:05 PM

It was three years and three days ago that Gerrit Cole made his major league debut. I was lucky enough to be at that game, and that morning I collected a bunch of comments from around the Internet about the man. At the time, I said this:

What’s particularly exciting about this is that Cole isn’t being asked to play the role of Bucco savior, the way Andrew McCutchen was when he came up. Cole’s joining a team that’s already ostensibly contending and might just be a piece or two away from being genuinely dangerous. He could be that piece.

The same is true of Taillon: he’s not being asked to save the team from futility, or even mediocrity. It’s already a pretty good team. He’s just being asked to round it out. Granted, he’s joining a much shakier pitching staff than Cole was, but that only means he doesn’t need to do nearly as much to contribute.

Taillon has missed two years with injury, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his numbers: his K rate in AAA is still just about a batter per inning, and his walk rate is microscopic: 0.88 per nine innings. That’s really good. To my mind, pinpoint control is to starters what base running and defense are to young outfielders: it’s the kind of thing that should translate pretty well, and should make them marginally useful even if little else is working. We saw this with Polanco last year, where even his so-so offensive production was enough to produce a 2.5 WAR. Similarly, if Taillon can throw strikes, the odds that he’s at least useful as a starter, even if not dominant, are probably pretty high.

The Bucs are moderate underdogs tonight, though, in large part because Taillon’s first mound opponent is a formidable one: Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard does it all: he strikes out a ton of guys and induces a lot of ground balls, and he’s not really walking anyone, either. He misses bats and pitches to contact effectively. He doesn’t have a single bad start this year, and he’s only given up three runs once (in 6.2 innings). If you were wondering why the Mets are good after seeing their lineup during yesterday’s doubleheader, this is why: they have some really, really good pitchers.

The odds say Taillon will be a moderately useful guy. Maybe a strong #3 starter for years to come. That’d be a fine outcome. But there’s a chance he’s another Gerrit Cole. There’s a chance this is the beginning of a one-two punch that goes on to lead the Pirates to the promised land. The talent is there, and now, that talent is married to opportunity.

That opportunity starts tonight, at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jameson Taillon

Pirates vs. Mets: It Begins

06.06.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Matz, 4:05 PM
Nicasio vs. deGrom, 7:05 PM

Tonight’s game is the beginning of The Gauntlet, a ridiculous stretch of games in terms of travel plans, the lack of off days, and the relentless quality of competition. We gets the Mets first, which isn’t too bad, because it looks like they’re about as good as we are: they have an identical +25 run differential.

The big story is the return of Neil Walker. Walker was a very well-liked player here, but came up big in postseason play and, far more importantly, kinda trashed the team after being traded simply because they didn’t want to give him a huge contract post-30 after
a 50% drop in WAR (and his second consecutive season with a lower WAR than the season before). There’s talk about whether or not he should be booed for cheered, which I don’t care a lot about. If I were at tonight’s game, I’d probably settle for a small, polite cheer.

Walker gave writers in New York and Pittsburgh a lot of editorial fodder by responding to the trade with nine home runs and a .962 OPS in his first season with the Mets, with the obvious angle being that he had a chip on his shoulder. But if so, the revengedrenaline (a word I just made up) seems to have worn off: his OPS in May was .753, twenty points below his career average.

The angle people aren’t talking about quite as much is that the man Walker was traded for, Jon Niese, starts tonight. So it’s not just Walker going against his old team (and his hometown team), and it’s not just Niese going against his old team: it’s two players in a straight-up, one-on-one Challenge Trade, going against each other). Niese’s performance has mirrored (in the sense of being reversed, that is) Walker’s: he struggled out of the gate, but he’s put together give good starts in a row, and has a 2.25 over his last four outings. His HR/FB rate is over 20%, and it’s easy to imagine that a dip there ends with him being a useful, sub-4.00 ERA guy in the middle of the rotation the rest of the way.

Niese has to throw against Steven Matz, a groundball specialist the same way Niese is, except he’s walking more than a better fewer per nine, and striking out nearly a batter an inning. His strand rate is a bit too high, but he’s pretty darn good.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

UPDATE: last night’s game was postponed, so the Bucs and Mets are playing a doubleheader today at 4:05 and 7:05 PM, respectively. The first game features the same pitching matchup as last night: Niese and Matz. The second game will be Nicasio and deGrom, it appears. This is a significant change, because Nicasio was going to have his start skipped in favor of Liriano, but the rain out gives them no choice but to toss him out there again, despite recent struggles.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese, Juan Nicasio, revengedrenaline