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

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

Big Test, Big Fail: Angels 9, Pirates 2

06.04.16 Posted by

I said yesterday that this was a “big test” for Liriano, not because the Angels are particularly formidable, but specifically because they’re not: even if he’s not quite his former self, you’d expect him to keep a lineup like this in check. Instead, he let them run free: the first five batters of the game walked or singled, Liriano gave up three runs before recording an out, and allowed runs in all four innings he was allowed to start, letting up seven in all.

The Pirates offense, meanwhile, didn’t do nearly enough against Jered Weaver. After a weird first inning that most Pirate fans on Twitter attributed to Weaver’s atypically low velocity, Marte and Kang both homered to lead off the 2nd…and that was it. The Pirates put runners on most innings, and had them in scoring position several times, but didn’t punch any more through. And the deficit Liriano put them in means it wouldn’t have mattered much if they did, though it’s still a little disconcerting not to get to Weaver after nearly being no-hit in the two previous games against less-than-stellar opposing starters.

The Bucs built up enough of a margin before this stretch that they’re still 29-25 and still in the thick of things, but they’ve given a lot of that progress back in a very short period of time: they’ve lost four in a row and six of seven. And while that’s concerning, far more worrisome is that Liriano seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps

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

Start Worrying: Rangers 6, Pirates 2

05.30.16 Posted by

“Start worrying” refers not to the team as a whole, but to yesterday’s starter: I suspect I’m going to see more than a few blog entries across the tubewebs ringing the alarm on Francisco Liriano after this start. He’s had 10 starts, and his ERA is nearly a run and a half higher than it’s been in any of his years as a Pirate, and his xFIP is only slightly lower. He’s not being killed by an inflated BABIP or a low strand rate: he’s being killed by a big jump in walks (entirely within his control) and a doubling of his HR/FB% (maybe probably mostly not within his control).

August Fagerstrom makes a pretty compelling case over at FanGraphs that Liriano’s struggles are due in part to the league as a whole swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone. Pirates fans know well that Liriano’s entire deal revolves around getting people to chase that nasty slider of his, so if they’re not doing that, the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly.

He started fine yesterday: three scoreless innings, just two hits. He gave up two homers in the 4th, however, including a three-run shot to Mitch Moreland (both base runners had walked). He gave up six hits and struck out six, so it was really about those four walks, and the timing of that home run. I’m still not panicked, but at this point it looks very plausible that this is a real problem, and not something that will just regress away.

It’s not really clear if the walks are leading to situations where he’s forced to throw pitches hitters can square up, so maybe the increased walk rate is partially responsible for the HR/FB%. In other words, there might only be one problem here. But it’s a big one, and it’s one that’s dogged Liriano his entire career. The game of pitcher whack-a-mole continues: Locke and Niese seem to get everything together, and Nicasio and Liriano promptly take their place as punching bags.

Still, six runs is hardly insurmountable, so you have to partially blame the Pirate lineup for managing only two runs off of Martin Perez. Particularly damning is that they drew only one walk off of a guy who’d allowed multiple BBs in every other start this season and is walking 4.21 batters per nine for the season. The Bucs did have their changes, though, but for the second straight game they failed to cash them in.

The Rangers bullpen came into this series with the worst ERA in the American League, and yet the Bucs scored just one run in seven innings against them over the last two games.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps

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 12, Diamondbacks 1

05.25.16 Posted by

I’m going to keep this recap short, because I have a lot of stuff I want to say about Gregory Polanco. He’s still hitting pitches on the screws, he’s hitting bombs and line drives alike, and the Pirate offense remains formidable: not so much in its peaks, but from its lack of valleys. It doesn’t let up.

Liriano put together a decent start without his best stuff (I continue to think this is an underrated skill), and the game was never close. Caminero hit two batters, but anyone who’s been watching him this year knows neither was intentional (not that this’ll necessarily stop a Pirate from getting plunked today). The Pirates were supposed to kick around Shelby Miller, and they did, and then they kicked around the next two guys on the mound just for fun.

The Cubs similarly whooped the Cardinals, so the Pirates are still five back. They’re on a 92-win pace, and they seem to have mostly stopped the bleeding in the pitching staff. It’s far from good, but it’s not actively destroying huge leads and/or giving away games much these days. That’s not a terribly exciting thing to say, but it’s a necessary intermediary between being awful and being good again.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game recaps

Pirates vs. Diamondbacks: Don’t You Dare Make Me Care

05.24.16 Posted by

Liriano vs. Miller, 7:05 PM

In 2013, the Pirates finally had a winning season. It was a fun, wild ride, and I don’t recall anyone being too upset that we didn’t manage to catch the Cardinals that year, especially when we won the Wild Card game anyway.

In 2014, the Bucs started slow, but came roaring back, and I think most fans were, again, just grateful that they forced their way back into the playoff picture.

Last year was the first season since this run began where a Wild Card berth wasn’t going to be enough. Not after two in a row. Not after seeing what can happen if the other team has a start pitcher and enough wiggle room in their Wild Card lead that they can align their rotation just so. And somehow, the Pirates rose the occasion, won a ridiculous 98 games…and still fell just short. And all that year, fans like me had a decision: how much do I care about the division? Not “how much do I want them to win it?” More like “how soon should I resign myself to them losing it?”

After losing the first five games to the Cubs this year, and looking at the historic margins they were racking up, that decision seemed a bit easier. Then, Gerrit Cole shut the Cubs lineup down. Since the start of that game, the Pirates are 6-2 and the Cubs are 2-6, and have now lost three in a row. The Bucs are five back. It needs to be noted that those six Cub losses are by a combined nine runs, so they’re still really good. They’re just not good and lucky, at least not over the last week.

The problem with nine game deficits in May (which is where we are heading into that Cole start) isn’t that you can’t get it close again, it’s that a lot of stuff has to line up right just to get you close…and then a few more things have to go your way again to actually take the lead, nevermind hold it. So I’m not letting this last week convince me that the Bucs have pulled themselves right back into the race, because it’s entirely plausible this represents one of the lower points in the season for the Cubs.

I’m not convinced, however, that it represents the highest point for the Pirates. And I know if they get that margin down to three or four, especially by the next face-off on June 17th, I’ll probably get sucked back into the expectation vortex. The best part about “hope springs eternal” is the first word. The worst part is the third.

Hey, how about an actual game preview, now that we’ve examined our feelings? The Pirates play three against Arizona, with both Liriano and Cole throwing and no Greinke. The Pirates can and should win their third consecutive series.

Liriano goes tonight against Shelby Miller, who’s been an absolute punching bag this year. Miller’s ERA is 6.64, and it’s not because he had one blowup start, or hasn’t thrown that many innings: he’s made nine starts, and he’s yet to give up fewer than two runs in any of them. That may not sound bad (two runs allowed is pretty good in most starts), but the consistency is what’s remarkable. He has, however, been more mediocre than terrible lately: in his last three starts he’s averaged about six innings and about three earned runs allowed. But he’s still sporting a walk rate that’s barely lower than his K rate, which is amazing, because nearly every major league pitcher who does such a thing stops being allowed to be a major league pitcher. His ground ball rate is under 40%, too. And while his xFIP is a run lower than his ERA, it’s still 5.58.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview

Both Better and Worse: Braves 3, Pirates 1

05.19.16 Posted by

In yesterday’s preview I said this:

So what I’d like to see tonight is not just a win, but a certain kind of win: the kind of win a decent pitching staff should still be able to muster against baseball’s worst offense.

We got the kind of game I wanted, but not the outcome: the Pirates did curtail the <sarcasm>offensive juggernaut</sarcasm> that is the Atlanta Braves, but didn’t score much themselves. Francisco Liriano gave up two runs in seven innings (though the seven hits are higher than you’d have hoped/expected), and Caminero gave up another, and the Bucs didn’t score until the 9th, when Kang hit a solo shot.

Give the game ball to Julio Teherán, who shut down the Pirate offense for seven innings. He only struck out three, but he walked none. He’s the one Braves pitcher you don’t have to feel too bad about getting beat by.

Kang’s HR, by the way, was his fifth in 10 games (and just 32 official PAs). He’s slugging .813. And though he’s hitting .281, his BABIP in the early going is a paltry .182. He’s still taking off every third game, but the way he’s hitting, it might not be long until it’s every fourth, or every fifth.

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

Pirates vs. Braves: Style Points?

05.18.16 Posted by

Liriano vs. Teherán, 7:05 PM

We’re at the point in the season where I start caring less about how we win and more about whether we do. But I’m not quite there yet, especially not against an impotent Braves lineup that I’d held out hope we could still dominate. I know our pitching staff isn’t good right now, but I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s bad or merely mediocre. A mediocre staff should be able to mostly shut a team like Atlanta down. That hasn’t happened.

Now, building up a 9-0 lead and throwing your reliever chaff out there has a little something to do with this (Vogelsong gave up three runs last night), but it’s not the whole explanation.

So what I’d like to see tonight is not just a win, but a certain kind of win: the kind of win a decent pitching staff should still be able to muster against baseball’s worst offense.

That should be easier with Francisco Liriano on the mound than it was with Niese or Nicasio, at least. Liriano seemed to have found his footing in late April and early May, before getting knocked around against the Cubs. But hey, again: it was against the Cubs. And all the runs he allowed, if I recall correctly, came off of three homers. He’d given up none in the previous two starts. Liriano’s had three bad starts this year, but one was against Chicago and the other was in Arizona, so I’m inclined to think he probably hasn’t changed too much. If he fails to blow through this Atlanta lineup, though, I’m probably going to start to worry. Especially if they take him deep a couple of times.

The Braves start Julio Teherán, IE: probably the only guy in their rotation you’ve heard of. He’s a pretty decent pitcher, but I don’t think “pretty decent” gets it done against this lineup right now.

Oh, and just to drive you mad with false hope: the Cubs have lost two in a row. The Bucs are 6.5 back. This is good news, but it also makes those losses last week all the more frustrating.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: Francisco Liriano, game preview