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

Given Away: Angels 5, Pirates 4

06.06.16 Posted by

I said in yesterday’s preview that this is the kind of game the Bucs should win: a below-average team up against their best starter. For most of the game, it played out as expected: Cole held the Angels in check, and the Pirates wore Santiago down, scoring on a bases loaded walk (from Polanco) and then a bases loaded HBP (from Kang, who amusingly fist-bumped someone afterwards. Way to take one for the team!).

The Bucs carried a 4-1 lead into the 7th, when Cole ran out of gas around 100 pitches and gave up an infield single and consecutive doubles. Feliz came in to preserve the lead, but Watson took over in the 8th and gave up a single and a home run (to Pujols). 5-4 Angels, and that was that. The Bucs threatened in the ninth with runners on second and third and one out, but couldn’t get the tying run across: Marte was intentionally walked and Sean Rodriguez grounded into a game-ending double play on the first pitch. As has often been the case lately, it seemed like this lineup was one hit (or one more inning) away from breaking the game open.

The Bucs have lost three consecutive series’ and seven of nine overall, and things are about to get a lot harder.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

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

Outdueled: Marlins 3, Pirates 1

06.01.16 Posted by

For six innings, this was a real pitcher’s duel: neither team had scored, and at one point both Cole and Fernandez set down the entire order consecutively. Fernandez went on to stretch that to 12, though, and Cole went on to give up three runs in the 7th.

Actually following the game, Fernandez was significantly better: Cole found himself in several huge jams (2nd and 3rd with no outs, bases loaded with one out) in which he didn’t allow a run. And the Pirates had a great chance in the 9th when they loaded the bases with nobody out and Polanco/Kang/Marte coming up. Polanco hit a sac fly (a deep one to center that, if angled a little more to right, would’ve been his second grand slam in as many days), Kang struck out after getting called strikes on two borderline inside pitches, and Marte flied out to end the game. But the Bucs very nearly stole this one.

Otherwise, not too much to be concerned about: they were mostly shut down by a great pitcher, but made noise against the bullpen and fell a hit short of capitalizing. The only thing remotely worrying is how often Gerrit Cole finds himself dancing through the raindrops. In his last 18.1 innings he’s given up 26 hits, six walks, and struck out just nine, even though the actual run totals have ranged from great (one in the previous two starts) to okay (three last night).

The Bucs are 29-22 and have split the first two games against Miami, but they just fired their best shot and still just barely won, so the potential for a very strong series is still there.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

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 8, Cole 3, DBacks 3

05.27.16 Posted by

Gerrit Cole looked sub-dominant again yesterday, but he hit a three-run homer and a double and the Pirates pulled away in the late innings.

Cole didn’t get some kind of wind-carried, Wrigley-aided pop fly: his homer was over 400 feet, deep into the Pirate bullpen. His double, similarly, wasn’t some quick grounder down the line that just barely stayed fair: it was a drive to the wall. There’s a running gag on Twitter about how Cole ripping an RBI single in his first ever start has given people (thanks to whatever the opposite of recency bias is) the idea that he’s a very good hitting pitcher. I think it has more to do with the fact that, unlike many pitchers, he doesn’t swing like he was thrust into a charity softball game and forced to bat from the wrong side to even things up. Whatever the reason, expect those jokes to continue for another two or three years now.

The Pirates had 12 hits on the day, and actually got out-hit by Arizona (who had 13!), but only three of theirs went for extra bases, and they were all doubles. The Pirates had half of theirs go for more than one. Polanco wasn’t allotted his mandatory double, so I assume he’ll hit two today or something.

The Bucs have won nine of 11 and are on a 95-win pace.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole

Pirates vs. DBacks: Pun About Sweeping Cole

05.26.16 Posted by

After Gerrit Cole’s tremendous start against the Cubs, I said this:

If the Pirates beat the Braves up, it’ll be tempting to start thinking of Gerrit Cole’s amazing start yesterday as the beginning of some kind of turning point. Let’s tamp that down prematurely, considering the opponent here.

The Pirates did indeed “beat the Braves up,” and I tried to read little into it. But then they took two of three from the Rockies, who aren’t good, but also aren’t doormats. Now they’ve taken the first two against the similarly below average (but not pushover-able) Diamondbacks, with a chance to sweep. It’s still not the cream of the crop, but steamrolling over sub-par teams is what good seasons are largely made of, and a few weeks ago even mediocre competition seemed daunting.

Cole vs. Corbin, 12:35 PM

Gerrit Cole starts for the Pirates; he was actually a little rough in his last outing, striking out none for the first time in his career (and presumably back to, I dunno, Little League, probably). But his ability to turn in decent (or even good) starts without his best stuff is one of the things that makes him so formidable, and the defense came up big for him.

Cole throws against Patrick Corbin, whose wrong-handedness means that Jaso’s taking a seat, and Freese is replacing him at first. Rodriguez is playing for Harrison again, too, presumably because the Bucs have to fly to Texas after the game and play the Rangers on the road tomorrow night. Freese is hitting third, and Polanco, weirdly enough, is batting seventh.

The degenerate gamblers in Vegas say the Pirates are big favorites today. Let’s hope the Bucs make those shady folks some money.

First pitch is at 12:35 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

Defense Lifts Cole: Pirates 2, Rockies 1

05.21.16 Posted by

If you looked at the score of this game, you’d assume it went as planned: Gerrit Cole shut the Rockies down. If you looked at the box score of the game, you’d see otherwise. Cole gave up 10 hits (tying a career high) and struck out none (a career low). He worked out of a based loaded jam and the defense of John Jaso took two extra base hits away from Colorado.

The biggest play, however, was Starling Marte’s rocket from left field to throw out Dustin Garneau with two outs. Garneau was trying to score from second, running on contact and with a big lead, so throwing him out took…well, it took the kind of throw Marte makes on a disconcertingly regular basis. The only Rockies’ run came on a Nolan Arrenado homer. Mark Melancon’s 14th save was the same way many of them have been: too eventful, but ultimately still effective.

The Pirates have won five of six since the Cubs’ series and are 23-18.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte

Pirates vs. Rockies: Home Sweet Home

05.20.16 Posted by

Cole vs. Butler, 7:05 PM

The series against the Rockies a few weeks ago went well: the Bucs won all three games (the fourth was rained out), two easily, and scored 6, 9, and 9 runs respectively in them. It wasn’t as great for player evaluation: everyone was trying to figure out how good (or bad) the pitching was, but it wasn’t clear how much useful data on that question we were getting out of games played at Coors Field.

This time, the Rockies come to Pittsburgh, and though they get to have Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio in games two and three, they have to face Gerrit Cole tonight. Cole’s last start was that ridiculous gem against the Cubs, which ended up being the highest Game Score of his career. He faces a less daunting lineup here, though not one overly reliant on their home field: they’re 3rd in runs in the NL, and 6th in road games. I would very much like to look back on that Cubs start as a turning point for the team, Cole himself, or both. And that means we want another firebreather of a start out of him tonight.

His opponent is Eddie Butler. Butler threw a couple of innings against the Bucs in relief earlier this year, but has moved to the rotation since. He was once a highly regarded prospect, but his raw stuff seems sub-stellar. Here’s a good deep dive on his minor league strikeout numbers from the inimitable FanGraphs.

If I had to bet one way or the other, I think the Cole Train left the station in Chicago and keeps barreling forward tonight. First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Gerrit Cole

Gerrit. Cole. (Pirates 2, Cubs 1)

05.16.16 Posted by

The first half of yesterday’s game, on the offensive side, was a worst-case scenario come to life. The Pirates had faced the Cubs five times, and here were their run totals: 2, 1, 2, 4, 2. And through six and a third innings, Jon Lester hadn’t given up a single hit to a team that has more per game than anyone else in the league that doesn’t play in impossibly thin air.

Armed with only this knowledge, you’d have expected to look at the other half of the box score and see, I dunno, Miguel Montero with a three-run homer and Kris Bryant with an RBI double and the Cubs with a comfortable, larger-than-necessary lead. Instead, you saw zeroes. One after another. Zeroes on both sides, like bulging eyes that couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

And then, their eye blinked first.

One of the more frustrating things that can happen to a pitcher on your team (your fantasy team, in particular) is when they lose it all in an inning: there goes the perfect game…and then the no-hitter…and then the shutout…and then the game itself. Lester didn’t run the full gamut, but he hit a couple of those marks. Starling Marte broke up the no-hit bid with a single, stole second, and then was doubled home by Jung Ho Kang. Kang came up in the top of the 9th and hit a solo shot off of Hector Rondon (the first he’s allowed this year).

The Pirates filed a claim on that insurance run immediately by pinch hitting for Cole, installing Mark Melancon on the mound, and then sweating out a tumultuous ninth where the Cubs came within a hit of tying the game. Cole was under 100 pitches, and the majority of Pirate fans on Twitter (that I follow, at least) favored keeping him in, and I did, too. I’m not sure how much I believe in momentum or morale (at this level of skill, at least), but if either exist at all, and maybe even if your players think they do, you have to leave him in. You’re down nine games and you’ve lost five straight to this team. You’re playing to change the game as much as win it. You’re playing for moral victories, not actual ones. And leaving him in may have been playing for the actual one, anyway.

Let me be clear: Cole wasn’t dancing through the rain drops or working his way out of jams. He gave up three hits and zero walks in eight innings. He struck out seven. I assumed he put up his highest Game Score of the year (and probably a good chunk of last year), but when I checked, I found this was the highest Game Score of his entire career. And it came against what might be the best baseball team in a generation.

After the game, Cole ruffled a few feathers (wait, crap, Cubs don’t have feathers. I wonder if chasing the Cardinals got me overly comfortable with that cliché…) by saying the Cubs were not the best team in baseball. As far as I know, professional athletes are constantly insisting nobody’s better than them no matter how obviously wrong they may be, so this really shouldn’t shock anyone, though it led to at least one defensive, salty editorial trying to rebuff with logic and numbers a statement that was clearly based in something else entirely. Read that link and marvel at how ridiculously fast the Cubs have gone from lovable underdogs to the Yankees of the Senior Circuit, by the way.

If this recap weren’t already getting long, I’d probably wax poetic about Kang for a couple hundred words, because he and Cole won this game almost entirely by themselves. I think we were all ready to grant him a few weeks of flailing at the plate given a) the severity of the injury, b) the huge amounts of time off it led to, and c) his slow start last year. Instead, he’s picked up exactly where he left off, and it was particularly satisfying to see him knock the crap out of the ball against the same team that took him out and then joked about it (were there any catty Chicago Tribune editorials about that?). There are few things that would please me more than the ghost of Jung Ho’s leg haunting the Cubs for the next few years.

This was a big game from a big pitcher. It was, if there are such things, a statement game. That statement probably isn’t “we can win the Central.” But maybe it’s “we’re not going to be your whipping boy all year.” And maybe it’s not even that. We won’t find out for another month. But it’s a start; the best start of Gerrit Cole’s young, impressive career.

Filed under: game recaps, Gerrit Cole, Jung Ho Kang