Pirates vs. Angels: After This It Gets Harder

06.05.16 Posted by

Cole vs. Santiago, 1:35 PM

I’m posting this late, but I haven’t actually looked at the score, so I’ll keep it quick: Cole’s still the guy you want on the mound when you’re trying to win a series. Hector Santiago gets few ground balls, walks more guys than you’d like, and has an unsustainably low BABIP. The Pirates stand a decent chance of scoring a bit off of him, and they stand a better chance of not needing to with Cole throwing for them.

The schedule gets hysterically rough after this and doesn’t really let up until the All-Star break. Wins could very well be scarce, particularly with Liriano adrift. At minimum, the Bucs need to wins the game they’re supposed to, and a game against sub-.500 teams going up against Gerrit Cole is definitely a game they’re supposed to win.

First pitch was at 1:35 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

Pirates vs. Angels: I’m Actually Excited Jeff Locke Is Pitching

06.04.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Chacin, 4:05 PM

It’s weird to dread a Francisco Liriano start and look forward a Jeff Locke start, but here we are. @cantpredictball.

I’ve been talking about Jeff Locke’s performance improvement in pretty much every preview of his starts for the past month, and somehow, in his last start, he was even better. He threw a three-hit shutout, the best game of his entire career.

Unfortunately, whereas a few weeks ago a decent Locke (nevermind a good one) felt like gravy. Now, with Liriano falling apart and the offense stymied the last four games, it seems more like a necessity. And while using Locke to play with house money is fun, having to actually rely on him to keep your season afloat is terrifying.

Locke throws against Jhoulys Chacin, who’s also coming off a complete game: he gave up just one run and struck out 10 against Detroit on May 30th. Chacin’s been pretty good this year: okay K rate, decent BB rate…and that’s about it. None of his peripherals stand out much in either direction. The only encouraging thing I see is that, to complete that game against the Tigers, he had to throw 114 pitches, which is the most he’s thrown since 2011. Unless the Bucs let Chacin cruise through these innings, they should get three or more cracks at a pretty average Angel bullpen.

I like the Pirates’ chances to right the ship today. They could really use a couple of wins headed into the difficult stretch of schedule in front of them.

First pitch is at 4:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Pirates vs. Angels: Big Test for Liriano

06.03.16 Posted by

Liriano vs. Weaver, 7:05 PM

Normally when I say a pitcher has a “big test,” it means they’ve been doing okay but are about to face tougher competition. Not so with Francisco Liriano. In this case, he’s been struggling mightily (this is probably the single-worst ten start stretch of his tenure with the Pirates), and he needs to show he can still turn in a strong performance against a bad-to-mediocre offense. The Angels are 9th in the AL in runs scored, and 13th against lefties. If Liriano can’t put together a decent start here, it’s really time to worry. I mean, ya’ know, more than we’re all already worried.

Niese and Locke were quite good through most of May, and Nicasio figures to be replaced by Taillon in the next week or two. So while I wouldn’t bet on it, if Liriano gets his stuff together, it seems plausible that by mid-June the Pirates might not have a bad starter in the rotation, just a few weeks after having three or four. A lot has to go right, but half of it already has. Liriano is one of the biggest pieces of that other half.

The Bucs looked pretty bad against the Marlins’ pitchers over the last three games, and there’s good reason to believe Jered Weaver is the kind of starter they can take out those frustrations on. Weaver flirted with ace status in 2011 and 2012, posting sub-3.00 ERAs both years. But he majorly outperformed his xFIP both years. This year, it’s at a career high 5.37. He’s also got career highs in ERA, fly ball rate, HR/FB rate, and his K rate sits at 5.40 per nine (only last year’s 5.09 was worse). He’s given up a home run in every start but one this year, and he’s allowed seven in his last four.

After this series, I’ll definitely be writing one of those “Gauntlet” posts that happen a couple of times each year, where we take a look at how formidable the upcoming schedule is. This series is a short reprieve before that gauntlet, and it’s well-timed, because the Bucs need wins, and they need wins that allow them to rest their day-to-day players.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Pirates at Marlins: Tougher Opponents, Fewer Wins

06.02.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Chen, 7:10 PM

I don’t want to extrapolate too much from the last few weeks, but it sure seems to be giving us some clear indications about what to expect from this team: we got whooped by the Cubs, steamrolled crappy teams, and now we’re roughly holding our own against good-to-decent ones. If we win today’s game, we’ll have split with the roughly average Marlins and lost to the above-average Rangers. In other words, taken as a whole, the last 15-20 games seem to suggest this is a pretty good Pirates team, but maybe not currently a very good one. More 2014 than 2015, perhaps.

That’s for now, at least: who knows what this team is like if and when Cutch hits a little better, Taillon joins the rotation, Nicasio (probably) helps shore up the bullpen, or whatever Glasnow-and-Kuhl-related moves might follow. But right now it feels pretty much exactly what its win pace tells you it is: a roughly 90-win team that should be in a good position to win another Wild Card spot.

Speaking of Nicasio, he’s making what could be his last (or, more likely, penultimate) start. By most accounts the Super Two deadline is likely to be safely in the rear view in a week or two, and it’s hard to imagine him staying over Locke given their respective performances lately, and the A-to-B way his skillset seems to point pretty definitively towards (relative) success in the bullpen.

Nicasio’s mound opponent is Wei-Yin Chen, who’s been pretty solid this year. Doesn’t walk too many, hasn’t really gotten particularly lucky or unlucky. The only thing that stands out about him is how consistently he’s merely okay: in his last start he gave up one run in five innings, but in every start before that he gave up at least two. He is rarely dominant, and only occasionally bad. That’s the kind of guy we can beat, so long as Nicasio turns in a decent performance.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Marlins: Is Jon Niese Good Now?

06.01.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Conley, 7:10 PM

On the morning of May 4th, Jon Niese had a 5.94 ERA. The Pirates had somehow managed to win all of his starts by the one the night before, but always by putting up crooked numbers on the opposing team: 6, 7, 5, 8, and 9. Niese got a lot of run support, and so his early-season struggles managed not to hurt the team much, except indirectly by leaning on the bullpen a bit more than the team would have liked.

Since then, Niese has dropped his ERA a run and a half over four consecutive quality starts. He gave up two runs of fewer in three, and just one run in each of the last two. One of these was against the lowly Braves, but he proceeded to shut down Colorado and Texas, the latter on the road. He’s given up 20 fly balls and 40 ground balls in the last three starts. This, in other words, is the guy the Pirates thought they might be getting when they traded for him.

For awhile, this looked like pure upside: a rotation where Niese is good (or even decent!) is far more stable than one where he isn’t. But with Liriano being a getting-shelled-of-his-former-self, Niese performing isn’t gravy any more: it’s a necessity.

Niese throws against Adam Conley, who made a promising debut last season. As is almost always the case with rookies who throw a dozen good starts, there’s been some adjustment issues in the following season: his K rate is up, but his walk rate is up more (over four BBs per nine). He also has an unsustainably low HR/FB rate. It all adds up to a 4.52 xFIP. This, in other words, ain’t Jose Fernandez. But he’s not Justin Nicolino, either: despite the control issues he’s striking out nearly a batter per inning.

Even if they don’t do much against Conley, that walk rate figures to keep him from going too deep in the game. He’s averaged just five innings over his last five starts.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Pirates at Marlins: Cole v. Fernandez

05.31.16 Posted by

Cole vs. Fernandez, 7:10 PM

Question: how are the Pirates underdogs in a game against the Marlins started by Gerrit cole?

Answer: Jose Fernandez.

Since Cole’s huge start against the Cubs, he’s a) posted two very good starts and b) not thrown particularly well in either of them. In the first, he allowed ten hits and struck out none (and allowed 21 fly balls against just six grounders), but allowed just one run in seven frames. In the second, he lasted just five innings and gave up one unearned run, allowing seven hits. He struck out five that game, but walked three.

Jose Fernandez’s last handful of starts need no peripheral-related qualification: he’s allowed three runs in his last four starts, and in those starts he’s struck out 11, 11, 9, and 12. He’s posting a career-high 13.3 K’s per nine and his xFIP is even lower than his 2.82 ERA. There are a couple of small weak spots in his tremendous numbers, though: he’s posting a career-high 3.71 walk rate, his LOB% is a pretty high 80.4%, and fewer than 40% of his outs are coming on ground balls. For a Pirates team that’s been leaving the ballpark a lot lately, that could be good, especially if exploited in conjunction with those walk numbers.

The Bucs got mixed results facing Texas’ stellar starters: they got to Hamels, but were shut down by Darvish. I’d expect more of the latter than the former tonight, but with Cole on the mound there’s always a chance they might not need much, and showing they can hit an arm like Fernandez his would be a real shot in the arm.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

Pirates at Marlins: Welcome to Miami

05.30.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Nicolino, 7:05 PM

I was pretty surprised when I glanced at Jeff Locke’s stats while writing this and saw that he has a 5.08 ERA. Obviously, he was getting shelled early on, but over the last month he’s been much better. One thing I’ve learned writing these previews, though, is that “good” starts do a lot less to improve a starter’s overall numbers than really good ones. It’s those seven scoreless innings that really drag that number down: 6 innings and three runs looks great in isolation, but it’s a 4.50 ERA.

Miami shouldn’t represent a huge challenge, in that they’re 10th in the NL in runs scored and might be without Giancarlo Stanton for the first game or two (he’ll take batting practice before the game, so it’s possible he plays the whole time). They’ve hit lefties pretty well, though (nearly an .800 OPS so far).

Locke’s opponent is Justin Nicolino, who had a decent, abbreviated rookie season last year, but has been slightly worse this year. His K rate is a whatever-the-opposite-of-eye-popping-is 3.09 per 9, which is closer to the kind of K rate you’d see in slow pitch softball than the majors. His BB rate is…an identical 3.09. Needless to say, after failing to do much with Martin Perez yesterday, it’ll be particularly frustrating if we can’t hit this guy early and often.

Miami’s above .500 right now and their run differential is just barely negative. They’re decent. A split would be a reasonable expectation, but after the disappointment of the last two games, I’d really like to see the Bucs come out and take three of four, with a couple of those wins of the convincing variety. The gangbusters home stand against mediocre competition showed us that this Pirates team is still a good one: if they can win the majority of their games the next two weeks against better teams, we can start thinking about whether or not they’re a very good one again.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview

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

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

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