Tapped Out: Cubs 10, Pirates 5

06.20.16 Posted by

The Cubs have swept the Pirates. The Pirates are three games under .500. Their schedule from now until the All-Star Break is still difficult. It’s going to take another strong second half merely to get back to that infuriating Wild Card game.

I’ve been writing recaps and previews of virtually every game (with a couple post facto or smashed together over travel concerns and random softball scheduling stuff), but at this point, there’s very little to say about this team on a game-to-game basis. The problems are clear. The Pirates have obvious strengths and obvious weaknesses, and they’re quite obviously somewhere from “Above Average” to “Good,” and they’re not going to get beyond that range until those obvious weaknesses are dealt with.

For now, we can enjoy the development of Gregory Polanco and hope Jameson Taillon figures things out quickly. Beyond that, the Bucs have to survive this stretch, play better in the second half, and hope to win that one game that has eluded them the last two seasons. And at that point, anything can happen. Hopefully the Pirate team that has to confront those challenges will be better than the one we have today.

Filed under: game recaps, Jameson Taillon

Better, But Still Bad: Cubs 4, Pirates 3

06.19.16 Posted by

There’s something really off-putting about a game like this. Obviously, losing 6-0 and never really being in it is worse, both for morale and for any forward-looking analysis of the team’s underlying skill level. But to lose a different way the very next day creates a weird sort of frustration, too.

The Pirates did not get kicked around yesterday: they jumped out to a 3-1 lead on the strength of a homer, an RBI single, and a HBP with the bases loaded. Getting only three runs out of the three things I just described is fairly remarkable. And that mattered, because the Cubs scored just enough to win: four runs, three of which came on solo home runs. Niese, like Liriano, continues to be dogged by a bizarrely high HR/FB rate, though he’s done well enough apart from that that most of them are solo shots. But when you give up three, that’s not much consolation. Especially when one of those is from David Ross, who’s pretty mediocre against almost every other team he plays, but has a 1.400 OPS against the Bucs in 13 games.

All you really need to know about the Cubs this year is that they lost their young catcher, replaced him with a 39-year-old, and that replacement is already two-thirds of the way to his career high in WAR. Like I said: good and lucky.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Below the Waterline: Cubs 6, Pirates 0

06.18.16 Posted by

I’ve said this a few times, but basically no pitcher is good enough to put up the kinds of results Jake Arietta’s been putting up, with the possible exception of Clayton Kershaw. You get to these results by being both good and lucky. And yesterday’s game was a perfect example of that.

Was Arietta good? Yes. He struck out 11 in six innings and gave up no runs. Was he lucky? Absolutely. He allowed multiple base runners twice, including loading the bases with one out, and got out of it both times. His strand rate last year was 80%, and this year it’s even higher, and the splits don’t seem to indicate that he gets appreciably better at striking people out with runners on, either. Maybe Arietta has discovered some new way to pitch from the stretch that renders him immune to typical strand rate regression, but that seems unlikely. And it sounds goofy to say any of this, because it sounds like I’m saying he’s good because he’s lucky, when I’m really saying he’s both.

On the other side, Liriano gave up two runs on two pitches (which is, in case you were wondering, the maximum number of runs you can allow on that many pitches)…and then settled down for several innings. He left with some runners on in the 6th, so his line ended up looking pretty bad, but considering the opponent and the first two pitches he threw, it had the makings of something a lot worse. At this point I’m convinced Liriano is unlikely to round into shape enough to get his overall numbers roughly in line with the last few years, but I’m also unconvinced he can’t be a productive starter in the second half. Others have made a convincing case that what looks like several different problems may actually be one with multiple ripple effects, and I just can’t believe (not yet, at least) that he’s suddenly twice as susceptible to the long ball.

The Bucs managed just three hits yesterday. Since his three double game against Colorado, Gregory Polanco has just one extra base hit (a double) in eight games.

The Pirates are below .500 for just the second time this season, and the first time in two months. They’ve lost eight of nine and they haven’t beaten the Cubs in any game where Gerrit Cole wasn’t wearing a cape.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps, Gregory Polanco

Little and Late: Mets 6, Pirates 4

06.17.16 Posted by

One of the more disheartening things about the Pirates’ losses recently is how they feel over so quickly. A few times I’ve turned the game on an inning or two late, and nearly every time it seems like the Bucs are already losing by a few runs. Often they’ll scrape back into the game, like they did last night by scoring four runs in the final two innings, but that’s not going to get it down when you spot the other team a 6-0 lead.

There’s not much to analyze here: Nicassio gave up six runs in 4.1 innings largely because he allowed three home runs. The Bucs didn’t do anything against Colon until the 7th, and that’s the more disconcerting part, as this vaunted offense has been…well, whatever the opposite of vaunted is over the last few weeks. The Pirates’ team OPS was .826 in April, .755 in May, and it’s .655 so far in June. In terms of National League ranks, that’s 3rd, 6th, and now 14th. They have the second worst team OPS in June.

A lot of things about this team make me think a second half run is possible…maybe even likely. It’s easy to imagine things going a lot smoother if and when Nicassio moves to the bullpen (and adapts to it reasonably well), Liriano improves (I still think he’ll be better, if not good), and Cole and Taillon eating up half of the remaining starts. The offense is probably closer to the lineup we saw in April and May than June, too. But given the way they’re playing right now (they’re at exactly .500 right now), and how tough the upcoming schedule is, it seems like a second-half surge is going to be necessary just to earn the right to make it to a fourth consecutive Three Hour Coin Flip.

What’s that they say? You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?

Filed under: everything is terrible, game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Not Even Close: Mets 11, Pirates 2

06.16.16 Posted by

There was no point at which the Pirates felt like they were in this game. The Mets took a 3-0 lead in the first and it only got worse from there. They led 11-0 going into the ninth when the Bucs finally scraped together a couple of runs. Locke failed to go even five innings again, and has now given up 18 runs in his last 9.2 frames. And Syndergaard nearly shut them out, allowing five hits, no walks, and 11 Ks through 8.1 innings.

There’s virtually nothing to like in this game. Caminero was the only Pirate pitcher not to allow a run, and he allowed a walk and two hits instead. John Jaso went 3 for 4, but only one other starter had even one hit.

It’s an awful game, at a pretty bad time, and it really feels like the Bucs are hurtling towards a stretch of very tough opponents at a time when they’d probably struggle against mediocre ones. If they come out the other end of this over .500, it’ll be very pleasantly surprising.

Speaking of .500, the Bucs are on pace to win 82 games. Remember when that was a thing?

Filed under: Arquimedes Caminero, game recaps, Jeff Locke

The Start of Something Great: Pirates 4, Mets 0

06.15.16 Posted by

Okay, so it wasn’t Jameson Taillon’s first start. And it came against a struggling Mets offense. But it’s hard not to look at last night’s dominant performance (six no-hit innings, and just two hits in eight shutout innings) and think about the future. Pirates fans are already pretty forward-looking, not just because they had 20 years of practice, but because everything about this season suggests it’s an uphill climb for the team. But as frustrating as 2016 has been, that’s how bright things look in 2017, and Taillon is a big part of that.

Part of me actually dislikes this particular forward-looking feeling, because it’s pretty much the only thing that kept me watching the team for many years. In the middle of that epic losing streak, as often as not my eyes would scan the box score for individual players’ lines, barely noticing the score. Why bother? The score didn’t matter. The development of individual players did. It’s bittersweet to be back in that habit, though at least now it’s the exception, rather than the rule.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a long, productive career for Taillon. And, short-term, hopefully it’s the start of a nice hot streak, though given the quality of our upcoming opponents, that’s a pretty tall order.

All four Pirate runs came via the homer (a two-run laser from Kang, and a two-run bomb from Marte, and I’m just now noticing how many slang home run terms are just references to weapons).

As I mentioned the other day, Taillon’s start would’ve been more exciting if it were alongside Cole in the rotation, rather than replacing him, but if he throws well enough that they don’t really lose much for the time he’s gone, that’s still a pretty good recovery from what might have been the single worst player the Pirates could have lost to injury, given their rotation struggles.

Filed under: game recaps, Jameson Taillon

Cardinals Sweep Pirates

06.13.16 Posted by

Travel, softball, and other related things prevented me from writing normal recaps and previews of this series, and it’s just as well, because they probably would’ve been overwrought and laden with curses. The Pirates lost all three games to the Cardinals by a combined 15 runs. That’s really, really bad. Bad as a harbinger of their real skill level, and bad for the Wild Card race, specifically.

It was bad for a number of individual players, too: Francisco Cervelli, we learned, is out for over a month. Gerrit Cole left a game and we’re still waiting to hear the extent of his injury (a 15-day DL stint seems more likely than not based on the delays alone). And the players who performed badly were, by and large, the players whose skill level is probably subject to the highest variance, which is a pretty bad sign.

The biggest deficit of the three losses (six runs) somehow came in the game which wen into extra innings. The “somehow” there is Juan Nicasio, who was sorta-kinda working out of the bullpen. Naturally, the extra-inning game was the one where Cole left after two innings, though hats off to A.J. Schugel for throwing four perfect innings in relief against one of the league’s highest-scoring lineups. That’s a really exceptional outing, and yeah, small sample sizes and all that, but it makes you wonder if he could end up a key part of this bullpen by the end of the year.

That, however, was just about the only bright spot of the series. In the second game, Francisco Liriano put up better results than he has in weeks, but still didn’t look great beyond the basic box score. Still, any improvement is welcome at this point. Jon Niese got rocked in the final game, allowing eight runs in five innings. I’m no more ready to say this makes him bad than the previous handful of starts made him good, but it’s not a nice data point.

The Pirates managed 20 hits in the series, even though one of those games went into the 12th, which simply isn’t good enough even when the pitching staff is decent, which it surely wasn’t.

The Bucs have now lost five in a row. They’re just one game over .500, and their run differential is just +7. So far this year they’ve pretty much either been good or bad for a number of games in a row, oscillating back and forth between the two, and to this point, at the end (I hope) of this downswing, it has them a thoroughly average team. I think they’re probably better than this, but it’s a little harder to say that with confidence, and even if it’s true, it’s not clear how much better. Especially if Cole misses much time.

The Pirates get a much-needed day off today, and then The Gauntlet starts right back up, with six road games and another daunting Cubs series on the horizon.

Filed under: game recaps

Rocky Mountain Jet Lag: Rockies 11, Pirates 5

06.10.16 Posted by

I’m not going to say that the Pirates lost (and badly) yesterday just because they had to suddenly fly cross country in the middle of what otherwise would’ve been a nine-game homestand, but I did express worry about this exact thing in yesterday’s preview. And I’m worried about today’s game for the same reason.

Jeff Locke got rocked, no pun intended, not just because he pitched poorly but because the Bucs seemed to want him to sacrifice his ERA to eat up more innings than his performance dictated, more or less writing off the game to spare the bullpen. This kinda made sense when the Rockies jumped out to a 6-1 lead, but it made less sense when the Bucs cut the deficit to 6-5 in the third. But they kept trotting Locke out there and he allowed five more runs, putting the game out of reach.

It’s already hard to know what to think of a pitcher struggling in Coors Field, but throw in the schedule nonsense and it’s even harder. I think Locke’s recent stretch was good enough and long enough to think he’s going to be useful the rest of the year, but he’s still going to have blow-ups like this.

And that’s okay if they’re effectively concentrated, which they have been: Locke has given up 43 earned runs this year, and 44% of them have come in just two starts. We saw this same thing happen with Charlie Morton last year:

Some of you are now saying “well, okay, but lots of people’s stats look better if you take out their worst games.” True, but for a starting pitcher, how you give up your runs matters a great deal. Technically, a guy who throws ten shutouts and then gives up 90 earned runs without recording an out the next game has an ERA of 9.00, but he’s actually more valuable than someone with a 4.50 ERA who gives up a run every other inning consistently.

You can only lose each game once, so a guy that puts up a sub-3.00 ERA in nine starts and gives his team a chance to win each, but completely blows up in one other, is probably helping his team a lot more than his ERA would suggest.

As I pointed out on Twitter, Locke dropped his ERA almost 1.20 runs from mid-May to early-June, and yesterday he almost entirely wiped those gains out. But he did it in the best possible way: being very good for four or five starts and then horrendous for one. I don’t know if this is a repeatable skill or not, but it’s worth noting, because I would absolutely co-sign for a Jeff Locke who’s good for three weeks and then totally gives a game away by himself.

A brief note about the hitting last night: uhhh, the Bucs continue to hit. Seven hits is less than they usually manage, but they scored five runs and David Freese hit a big three-run homer. The Pirates are going to score 4-5 runs a lot, so a quality start is usually going to get the job done.

Filed under: game recaps, Jeff Locke

Taillon Solid, Bullpen Not: Mets 6, Pirates 5

06.09.16 Posted by

I’ve been saying for awhile that whether Jameson Taillon was particularly good or not, whoever he ended up taking starts from probably wouldn’t have been any better. Taillon’s major league debut was a fine example of that: he threw the minimum required for a Quality Start: six innings, three earned runs. He only struck out three, and he walked two, allowing six hits (one a home run). It was perfectly average, but given how common it is to struggle when adjusting to the highest level, that’s a pretty encouraging beginning.

Also encouraging is that the Pirates fared reasonably well against Syndergaard, scoring three runs (two earned) in six innings, and feeling like they could’ve gotten more: they banged out seven hits and drew two walks against him in those innings, and only struck out five times.

But the Bucs blew leads of 2-0, 3-2, and 5-3 (in the 8th inning, no less). In all, four relievers threw four innings, allowing three runs, and that’s why they lost in 10 innings. Yesterday’s doubleheader came back to bite them, with Feliz presumably unavailable in the aforementioned 8th (or only available in desperate circumstances) after throwing an inning in each of yesterday’s games. The only reliever not to allow a run, Watson, struck out the side.

Offensively, it was a good game: of the 10 Pirate hits, six of them were doubles, and three of those were from Gregory Polanco. Polanco leads the league in doubles, and at this point I think the thing most likely to stop him from continuing to do so is the possibility that they start landing on the other side of the fence more often. One of last night’s doubles came shortly after a towering fly ball down the right field line that was just foul, but if fair (and if it hadn’t hit a sign) would’ve end up waterlogged.

What more can you say? When you ask players on this kind of run what they attribute it to, they love to say something like “I’m seeing the ball real good right now,” which is ballplayer for “I’m straight up murdering the baseball and then tracking down its family while its still in the air.”

Yesterday’s twin wins eases the frustration with this loss, but otherwise it’s a pretty bad one: three different leads blown, and its pretty easy to chalk this up as a loss that wouldn’t have happened if the Bucs were playing a relatively normal schedule. But they aren’t, so here we are. Still, a very good series win against a good Mets team. The Bucs played well enough to win all three, and get credit for two. This is the kind of skill they’ll need to show throughout June to come out of the other side still vying for a playoff spot, and it’s the kind of skill they hadn’t shown much in the handful of games beforehand. It’s a good start.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon

Two Games, One Score: Pirates 3, Mets 1

06.08.16 Posted by

When the Pirates play a day game, ROOT Sports (the channel that carries Pirate games here in Pittsburgh) will often just run the game again shortly afterwards. You could be forgiven for thinking that this had happened yesterday, because the Bucs won both games of a doubleheader in very similar ways: both featured 3-1 scores, exactly 10 hits for the Bucs, nearly as many for the Mets (4 and 5, respectively), and they held a 2-0 lead around the middle of both of them, too. Mark Melancon threw a perfect ninth both games, too, picking up two saves in one day.

This is good above and beyond the mere fact of winning: we have ample evidence to suggest the Pirate lineup is good, and very little to suggest the pitching is. There’s still a chance the pitching could be good, or merely decent, but it could just as easily be terrible. So right now, low-scoring wins probably bode better for the team’s future than high-scoring ones, if you ignore the whole beggar/chooser thing.

In game one, Jon Niese completely shut the Mets down with seven shutout innings. That’s basically six strong starts in a row for Niese (the worst of which was six innings and three runs), driving his ERA down two full runs. Feliz gave up a solo homer to Granderson in the 8th, but that was basically it for the Mets.

In game two, Juan Nicasio pitched very much like someone who either a) had nothing to lose or b) knew their job was on the line. I’m pretty sure a) is correct, but whatever the reason, he had his best start since late April, striking out four of the first six batters he faced and seven in five innings, allowing one run. He was pulled at the very first sign of trouble in the 6th (he merely walked the lead off man), a refreshingly aggressive move by Hurdle that was almost certainly enabled by the fact that the Pirates only had to use three pitchers in the first game. So give Niese a partial credit for the second win, too. The Pirates’ bullpen threw four shutout frames in relief of Nicasio, and both Feliz and Melancon struck out the side.

The Pirates’ play recently meant that they sort of needed a day like this just to keep pace. And it has to be noted that the Mets are the 3rd-lowest scoring team in the NL. But even being able to shut down a bad offensive team isn’t something this pitching staff has always been capable of, so this is a nice data point in favor of it being, at least, not awful. And we might get another big data point on that front today.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese, Juan Nicasio, Mark Melancon