Bucs Get to Hamels: Pirates 9, Rangers 1

05.28.16 Posted by

Maybe I should be surprised that the Pirates scored five runs off of Cole Hamels, but I’m not.

This looked like a weirdly low-scoring affair for the first half of the game, with the Pirates up 1-0 (a Starling Marte homer) through four. Then, the Pirates exploded for five in the fifth, all with no outs: a walk, a throwing error, two singles, and then a three-run opposite field homer for Kang. McCutchen added a solo shot an inning later, and Polanco hit a two-run homer in the 9th.

The talk early this year was about how many runs the Pirates were scoring without the help of the long ball. Turns out, that’s not really a thing: they’re 9th in the NL in homers now, which is just below league average.

More exciting, however, is Jon Niese putting together his third strong outing in a row, and his second against a solid lineup: Colorado was 4th in the NL in runs scored, and Texas was 3rd in the AL. He only struck out two, but he also walked just one, and he got 10 ground ball outs. He gave up a long solo homer to Adrian Beltre (he’s had a knack for giving up bombs this year, for whatever reason), but that was it. Obviously, the offense is what drives this team, but it’s winning games at the rate it is because that offense has been paired with decent-to-good starts from Niese and Locke.

The Bucs have won 10 of 12 and are at almost exactly the same win pace as last year.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Jonathan Niese, Jung Ho Kang

On the Formation of Stars

05.25.16 Posted by

I have a weird relationship with the movie Bruce Almighty. Bear with me, because I promise I’m actually going somewhere with this.

When I was younger I started a movie website. It had news, reviews…all the stuff you’d expect a movie website to have. It’s still running to this day. One day I posted a casting update for Bruce Almighty; Morgan Freeman had been cast as God. Seemed like a good/fun choice. A year or two later, the film came out, and it was surreal. Not the movie itself, but seeing on the screen something that I remembered posting news about so early in the process. It was the first film I can remember following from the start, and then seeing made into reality.

This never seemed to happen with Pirates. I remember reading about Chad Hermansen, Ron Wright (that epic minor league power hitter we got in the Denny Neagle deal), J.J. Davis, and John Van Benschoten. I remember thinking “wow, when these guys all come up, we’ll be good again!” And somehow it never happened. It was like watching epic trailers for movies that never got released.

That changed with Andrew McCutchen.

Andrew McCutchen is the first star I saw form. The first whose entire career arc was visible across the sky. The day he was drafted, the interviews, the scouts talking dreamily about him. All the stuff I’d heard before and learned to distrust. But then the minor league reports came rolling in. He was performing at all levels, rising steadily, sometimes performing better the next level up than he did before. He was charting a trajectory so steep it had no choice but to break the orbit of the bigs.

And then he’s there, in a Pirates uniform, and he’s good right away. But even that doesn’t break through the pessimistic defenses I’ve constructed. It takes until 2012, when he leaves the galaxy entirely and becomes one of the best players in baseball, and the flinch is gone completely in 2013 when the league formally recognizes him as such.

This has happened again since, though it’s still rare. I remember Gerrit Cole being drafted. I remember him rising through the minors. I was there for his first start, and I’ve seen him flip that switch and become one of the best in the world at the game he plays.

And now it’s happening again.

I’ve written almost 400 words and I’ve yet to mention the name of the player this post is actually about: Gregory Polanco.

I don’t actually remember the day we signed Polanco, because he wasn’t drafted. He was signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $75,000. For the first couple of years, he was all potential: he hit .202 in the Gulf League in 2010, and it wasn’t until 2012 that he started getting people’s attention, hitting .325 in single-A West Virginia. Before that, he was exactly the kind of prospect Moneyball warned you about: all projection. All scouts’ dreams about how he might grow into his body, or how good he’d be if all his skills reached their ceilings. But that’s exactly what started to happen.

By 2013, Baseball America had named him the 12th best prospect in baseball. He kept forcing the Pirates’ hand: in 2013 he played in A+, AA, and AAA, and just wouldn’t stop hitting. He was hitting .347 in AAA when they called him up nearly two years ago.

Unlike McCutchen, Polanco wasn’t good with the bat right away: he was able to stay on the field thanks to his defense and base running, and played an underwhelming 89 games in 2014. Nobody was worried, because nearly every star player has a forgettable half-season at the start of their career. Many predicted a breakout in 2015. But that didn’t happen: he had a .653 OPS in the first half, and there were rumblings of a benching, or a demotion to work things out. There was talk of trading for outfield depth.

By the end of the season, everyone had made the same quip: Polanco had improved so much in the second half that their best trade deadline move was not trading for anyone to replace him. He OPS’d .749 after the break, and had a penchant for putting together long, memorable at bats against some of the best pitchers in the league.

This season, it’s hit another level. In less than a year, he’s gone from borderline startable to hitting third. The results are tremendous: I could list all the things he’s doing better (line drive percentage, fly ball to ground ball ratio), but it’d be a waste of time, because all you need to know is that all of them are better. And it’s not just the results: he looks good. He’s hitting balls hard. As the picture way back at the top of this post shows, sometimes he’s basically swinging out of his shoes. He’s in the top ten in National League WAR, tied with Bryce Harper. He’s 24 years old, and if he finished as a better player than Andrew McCutchen this year, I honestly won’t be surprised.

Brighter stars than Gregory Polanco’s have burned out. Players get hurt, pitchers adjust. Stuff happens. But I’ve seen a couple of stars form over the last decade, and this feels the same. It may be that Polanco ends up a phenom who has a short peak in the majors. I don’t know what his floor is, but I’m not convinced his career has a ceiling. It’s a career that can leave the solar system, and float off into the heavens, where there’s another Pirate right fielder who seized all of his potential.

Filed under: Cutch, Gregory Polanco

Same (Stuff), Different Game: Cubs 9, Pirates 4

05.14.16 Posted by

In yesterday’s preview I said this:

I can fathom us getting to a couple of these guys, but just as likely is getting a couple runs, getting them out of the game early, and then slapping a few on the bullpen. That’s probably the path of least resistance.

That’s pretty much exactly what happened: two runs off of Hammel (though we didn’t get him out of the game until he was an out away from finishing the 7th), then two more off the bullpen. That’s a pretty good result against the Cubs right now, and it might have been enough except for the three home runs Francisco Liriano allowed.

All three homers came with men on base, and two of them were three-run homers hit by players who don’t usually hit home runs (Addison Russell and David Ross). That followed three scoreless innings for Liriano, who struck out seven in fewer than five innings and walked four. The home runs really were just about the only thing that stood out. Liriano struggled earlier this season and had a ridiculous 30%+ HR/FB rate, which I suggested would come down. It did, to 18.5% before this start (still high), and after this start it’s up to 23.5% again.

Someone more familiar with the intricacies of the stat can correct me, but from what I recall, HR/FB rate is just a good at-a-glance guide. Which is to say, it’s probably not a skill, or at least not usually a skill, so an inflated HR/FB rate is probably going to come down, but some pitchers are going to be a little more susceptible to the long ball than others. And if that’s true, I suppose there’s a nonzero chance that Liriano is now one of those pitchers. Still, the current rate is twice his career average, so my money’s on it coming down in the end.

The Bucs actually matched the Cubs in hits, but the Cubs’ have three homers knocking in eight runs, and the Bucs had one (Cutch, still flashing a lot of power early on) knocking in two. That’s pretty much your ballgame. It sounds silly to say, again, that the performance between the two teams was closer than the score lets on, but it probably was, for whatever meager comfort that provides.

Other news in meager comfort: Cutch also doubled, and Polanco hit two two-baggers himself. He continues to look fantastic, and the offense continues to crank out hits. Even the bullpen looks moderately steady. But the rotation is shaky even when Cole and Liriano are at their best, and right now, neither is.

Filed under: Cutch, Francisco Liriano, game recaps

Cubs 7, Pirates 2

05.03.16 Posted by

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.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Release the ‘Cutchen: Pirates 9, Rockies 4

04.27.16 Posted by

Last year, Andrew McCutchen started the season in a slump. Given that he was at or around most hitters’ peaks, and that Pirate fans are still preconditioned to things they can’t have nice things, a lot of people wondered if he was still the same player. To their credit, most didn’t doubt that he was still, ya’ know, good at baseball, but the fear was that the decline had started and he might merely be a useful cog in the baseballing machine, as opposed to the engine driving us to a championship.

You know the rest: Cutch made any doubters (and we probably all doubted a little) look silly, hitting over .330 in May and June. A little microcosm of this happened last night: he’s slumped most of this young season, but had himself a decent week last night, launching three home runs and driving in more runs on his own (five) than were needed to beat the entire Rockies’ lineup.

Gerrit Cole’s start was about what you’d expect: not up to his usual standards, but hey, Coors Field. He was fine under those circumstances, and the bullpen threw three shutout innings, albeit with some drama (four walks, including two from Caminero). The Bucs managed to give both Watson and Melancon a second consecutive night off, which is both a) really good and b) really surprising after two games in Colorado, one of which was started by Jeff Locke.

The Bucs had 12 total hits, including homers from Marte and Freese (Freese’s came right after Cutch’s first). It was obvious early on this team was built to win with a barrage of hits, rather than a lot of homers, but I think their unusually low power numbers early on were still a bit of anomaly. They’re not going to lead the league, but they’ll hit their share. And it looks like a lot of them are going to come with men on base.

The Bucs have their first winning streak since they started the season 4-0. They’ve won five of six. It’s getting to the point where I’m surprised when they don’t score at least 4-5 runs. And Jung Ho Kang just hit his first homer in rehab. The lineup is lining up.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Gerrit Cole

“Complete” Game Victory: Pirates 5, Brewers 0

04.17.16 Posted by

In my preview for this game yesterday I wrote this:

Generally speaking, you want to see the starter go deep into a game, but at this point I might be more encouraged if he goes five and the bullpen closes things out … The offense, on the other hand, seems like it’s almost certainly good again. So let’s see if we can get both facets of the game working at the same time, something which basically hasn’t happened since the Verlander game.

Obviously, I’d have taken even an ugly win, but instead we got exactly what I was hoping for: a complete game. Not in the sense that Jonathan Niese threw all nine innings, but in the sense that the Pirates played well in all facets of the game, and never trailed.

I gave Cutch the banner treatment above because he hit his first home run of the year (and because I, ya’ know, really really like him), but the star of the game was Niese. His first start was a little rough, but looking beyond the run total you could see promising signs. Those signs manifested themselves more tangibly in his second start, and they were undeniable tonight: Niese threw seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits (and three walks). Two-thirds of this 21 outs came on ground balls.

Granted, it was against the Brewers, but given that Niese really only has to be Pretty Good to significantly stabilize our rotation, that’s an encouraging sign. You expect good starters to dominate bad lineups…but that’s the whole point: it’s evidence that he may well be a good starter. A month ago, that wasn’t a given. It isn’t a given now, either, but after three starts it looks a lot more likely. The odds are looking good that we’re not going to have to cross our fingers three out of every five days.

The Bucs’ lineup was solid again, banging out eight hits and walking six times, with every starter but David Freese reaching base. They made no errors. Mark Melancon struck out the side to end the game. It was exactly the sort of clean, decisive win we’ve been waiting for.

Filed under: Cutch, game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Pirates 7, Reds 3; Cubs 8, Cardinals 5

09.09.15 Posted by

Pretty much every time I say I’m giving up (psychologically) on the division, the Pirates and Cardinals conspire to immediately make me eat my words.

Last night, the Pirates unloaded on the Reds, scoring seven runs and hitting two homers, each impressive in their own way. The first was a 3-run bomb from Cutch that gave the Bucs a 5-0 lead and pretty much instantly put the game on cruise control. The other was a solo shot from Jung-Ho Kang in the 8th that didn’t matter much, but was absolutely destroyed. In fact, it was the 19th-farthest ball hit this year, and the farthest by any Pirate.

Francisco Liriano was dominant, striking out 10 over six shutout innings. This is a nice start for him, because he’d been below-average for the last month or so, and it’s particularly good that he only walked one batter. Coupled with Cole’s gem against St. Louis, J.A. Happ’s performance, and Burnett’s return tomorrow, and it appears plausible the Pirates may have survived the worst of the rotation issues.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals lost their second straight game to the Cubs (both at home!), their third straight overall, and five of their last six (the Jaime Garcia start about the Pirates being the only win in that stretch). Their NL Central lead is down to 4.5 games. If that’s under 4.0 by the time the Pirates play them in PNC Park at the end of the month…

Filed under: Cutch, Francisco Liriano, game recaps, Jung Ho Kang

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

Bats and Brooms: Pirates 13, Dodgers 6

08.10.15 Posted by

When the Pirates were down 4-1 (and even 5-1), a handful of people I follow on Twitter said some variation of “this offense has been good enough that I don’t think this game is over.” And the Pirate offense rewarded this faith, scoring a ridiculous nine runs in 7th inning and 13 in all.

These kinds of statements were basically unthinkable even a month ago. But with the emergence of Kang as a genuinely dangerous hitter, Polanco OPSing .180 points higher in the second half than he did in the first, and fringe players ceding at-bats to some of the newer acquisitions, it’s not crazy to expect this offense to bail out starters when they struggle now. In the first half, it wasn’t like this: a bad day from the starter all but guaranteed a loss. This is a team that’s winning in a completely different way than it was before the break.

Someone else on Twitter (sorry, I forget who) basically said that, with the bullpen looking strong (Soria/Watson/Melancon can really shorten a game when the Bucs have a lead) and the offense clicking, we’re in a position where we’ll almost always win if the starter manages a quality start. And I think that’s right. I also think it’s right that quality starts are going to be harder come by than they were a couple of months ago, but the decline of the rotation (due to injury as much as regression, really) has been offset by the steadiness of the bullpen and the emergence of the offense.

There was too much offense to recap it, so I’ll just say that Cervelli hit a moon shot, Kang hit a three-run homer (after being plunked earlier in the same inning!), and ten Pirates had hits (five of them had multiple hits). It was a conga line of offense.

Morton went five and gave up as many. He struck out six, but gave up ten hits. He continues to do just enough to be a serviceable #4 or #5 starter, and not a lot more. Flashes of brilliance, very hittable every third or fourth start, and so-so in-between. Though it has to be said he was facing a particularly good lineup.

More notable was Caminero, who threw two scoreless frames for the second consecutive appearance. On July 25th he came in to face the Nationals in the 8th and promptly gave up a walk and a home run. Since then, he’s thrown 8.2 scoreless innings, striking out 11. I continue to think he’s a couple tweaks (and maybe one more decent pitch) away from being a dangerous reliever, but whether you think much of his “blow it by everyone” philosophy, those extra few miles per hour are worth a bit of a leash, and with Soria in the mix Caminero’s probably the fifth guy out of the pen. That’s ain’t bad.

Last night’s win completes the sweep of a very good Dodgers team, and pulls the Bucs within 5 of the Cardinals. Plenty to say about that tomorrow, but for now, just enjoy these:

Filed under: Charlie Morton, Cutch, game recaps, Jung Ho Kang

Bucs’ Bats Boffo: Pirates 7, Cubs 5

08.06.15 Posted by

A few people observed, after the Soria deal, that one substitute for adding a starter was adding a reliever: that it could be almost as effective to improve the bullpen so it can handle 3-4 innings most nights, as oppose to trying to elongate starts so that they don’t have to. Similarly, there’s another way you can cope with a shakier rotation: hitting the stuffing out of the ball.

Just one night after being shut down by Jake Arrieta, the Bucs cranked out 12 hits, including a triple and two homers (courtesy of Gregory Polanco, to lead off the game, and some dude named Andrew…McCutcheon? McCutchen? Something like that). They say the best defense is a good offense; maybe the best rotation is scoring enough runs that it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound. Pat Lackey put it thusly:

And there are certainly reasons to think the offense will be quite good going forward. The bench is significantly deeper than it was just a couple of weeks ago (whatever else you think of them, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Morse have the virtue and distinction of not being Brent Morel or Sean Rodriguez), both Harrison and Mercer are coming back (the former fairly soon, it sounds like), and Polanco really seems to have figured something out the last few weeks. And, as I and a whole bunch of other people have said a dozen times each: a Pirate lineup where Gregory Polanco is hitting is pretty scary.

I said at the start of the series that the Liriano-Lester matchup would probably be the de facto rubber match, and I guess that was right, given that we split the other two games after that one was postponed. Oh well. The Bucs split two games with a very good team using what’re probably their two worst starters.

Now, they get a day off before Friday’s Cole-Kershaw matchup, opening a three-game series with the Dodgers, the last series before they travel to St. Louis. The end of that series is probably the first time I’m going to feel remotely confident predicting whether or not the Cardinals are catchable.

Filed under: Cutch, everybody calm down, game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke