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

Pirates at Cubs: Inflection Points

06.18.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Lester, 8:15 PM

For the first month or two of the season, we tried to figure out how good or bad some of our new players were. We got pretty emphatic returns on John Jaso and most of the bench hitters, as well as offensive players who weren’t new, but had the potential to perform at a new level. We got good early returns on Juan Nicasio, then terrible ones, then okay ones…and now the dust seems to have settled mostly near “terrible” with the occasional step towards “okay.”

Jon Niese has been one of the harder players to pin down: struggled tremendously out of the gate, had a good run for six starts, then got rocked against St. Louis his last time on the mound. He was, of course, not as bad as those early starts suggested, nor as good as the ones that followed. All the data we have suggest he’s been average-ish, but seems worse because he’s giving up an unusually high number of home runs. He’s still getting lots of ground balls, though, and his K and BB numbers are both a little higher than last year. So far, on net, he’s about the same guy he was when he acquired him, which is kind of a disappointment given that most of us have a Searage Adjustment built into our expectations when any new pitcher is added to the team. That hasn’t materialized here.

When you’re having trouble giving up home runs, you don’t want to face the Cubs, and you don’t want to be in Wrigley. Niese has to contend with both. It might not be pretty. Especially given his mound opponent, Jon Lester, who’d be the talk of baseball if not constantly in the shadow of whatever sinister bargain Arietta’s still under warranty for.

The Pirates don’t need to beat the Cubs to make the playoffs, and they don’t need Jon Niese to be great, either. But they can’t get destroyed by the Cubs, and Niese can’t be terrible. We’re 41% of the way through this season: the underlying metrics matter less with each passing game as the reality of the results overtakes them. Both Niese and the team at large have to start converting if they want to be in the mix again, rather than spending the last couple of weeks in September looking towards next year, like we used to.

First pitch is at 8:15 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

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

Pirates vs. Mets: It Begins

06.06.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Matz, 4:05 PM
Nicasio vs. deGrom, 7:05 PM

Tonight’s game is the beginning of The Gauntlet, a ridiculous stretch of games in terms of travel plans, the lack of off days, and the relentless quality of competition. We gets the Mets first, which isn’t too bad, because it looks like they’re about as good as we are: they have an identical +25 run differential.

The big story is the return of Neil Walker. Walker was a very well-liked player here, but came up big in postseason play and, far more importantly, kinda trashed the team after being traded simply because they didn’t want to give him a huge contract post-30 after
a 50% drop in WAR (and his second consecutive season with a lower WAR than the season before). There’s talk about whether or not he should be booed for cheered, which I don’t care a lot about. If I were at tonight’s game, I’d probably settle for a small, polite cheer.

Walker gave writers in New York and Pittsburgh a lot of editorial fodder by responding to the trade with nine home runs and a .962 OPS in his first season with the Mets, with the obvious angle being that he had a chip on his shoulder. But if so, the revengedrenaline (a word I just made up) seems to have worn off: his OPS in May was .753, twenty points below his career average.

The angle people aren’t talking about quite as much is that the man Walker was traded for, Jon Niese, starts tonight. So it’s not just Walker going against his old team (and his hometown team), and it’s not just Niese going against his old team: it’s two players in a straight-up, one-on-one Challenge Trade, going against each other). Niese’s performance has mirrored (in the sense of being reversed, that is) Walker’s: he struggled out of the gate, but he’s put together give good starts in a row, and has a 2.25 over his last four outings. His HR/FB rate is over 20%, and it’s easy to imagine that a dip there ends with him being a useful, sub-4.00 ERA guy in the middle of the rotation the rest of the way.

Niese has to throw against Steven Matz, a groundball specialist the same way Niese is, except he’s walking more than a better fewer per nine, and striking out nearly a batter an inning. His strand rate is a bit too high, but he’s pretty darn good.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

UPDATE: last night’s game was postponed, so the Bucs and Mets are playing a doubleheader today at 4:05 and 7:05 PM, respectively. The first game features the same pitching matchup as last night: Niese and Matz. The second game will be Nicasio and deGrom, it appears. This is a significant change, because Nicasio was going to have his start skipped in favor of Liriano, but the rain out gives them no choice but to toss him out there again, despite recent struggles.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese, Juan Nicasio, revengedrenaline

New Day, Same Loss: Marlins 3, Pirates 2

06.02.16 Posted by

For the second consecutive day, the Pirates struggled mightily against the Marlin starter, their own starter matched them (but was shakier most of the way) most innings, but eventually relented in a multi-run inning. And in both games the Pirates put guys on base and had bad-to-moderate success at driving them in.

The one exception re: base runners was Matt Joyce’s two-run single to tie the game in the seventh. At that point, I was pretty confident the Pirates were going to win the game, largely because the tail end of our bullpen (if not the middle of it) is probably still better than theirs. But that ended up being the weak point: Tony Watson gave up a run, which is not a very Tony Watson thing to do.

It’s not terrible that the Bucs didn’t score off of Adam Conley, but it’s pretty bad that they didn’t manage a hit off of him until the 6th. Conley has that kind of stuff, but it’s still a disappointing start for an offense like this against almost anyone, and in this case the difference between being shut down by Conley and scratching out a run against him in the first half of the game was enough to swing the outcome.

Niese was solid, giving up two runs in five innings, striking out six. He’s been awfully steady lately, and the start he put together tonight is good enough for this offense to carry the day on most games. It just wasn’t this time.

The Bucs have lost two in a row, albeit the two games in the series they were most likely to lose. The Cubs won, so the Bucs are 7.5 games back again.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese

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

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

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

Messy: Rockies 5, Pirates 1

05.22.16 Posted by

I’m never sure whether to be more or less encouraged when the Pirates “beat themselves” with bad plays, like they did yesterday. On one hand, it’s doubly frustrating to know they’d have won if they’d executed routine plays. On the other hand, executing routine plays is fixable: getting thoroughly outplayed usually isn’t.

Tied 1-1 heading into the ninth, Clint Hurdle decided not to mess around and brought in Mark Melancon. Melancon looked sharp, striking out the first two batters looking, and would’ve put the side down in order except for a bizarre Francisco Cervelli throwing error. Normally, this kind of thing is nerve-wracking but doesn’t change the outcome. This time, it did: the next batter walked, both moved up on a wild pitch, and then a ball hit first base (charged as an error to Jaso who couldn’t quite handle it afterwards) and two runners scored. The Rockies scored two runs without the ball leaving the infield. Then, the ball left the outfield, Hughes replaced Melancon and something called Cristhian Adames hit his first career home run. The Bucs got a couple men on in the bottom of the inning, which would’ve been briefly thrilling if not for the home run.

My general rule on the more encouraged/less encouraged thing mentioned above is that I’m more encouraged if the mistakes are weird, flukey defensive miscues, because most of the time those don’t occur with any regularity. This assumes that the team isn’t horrendous on defense, but I’m fairly confident they aren’t.

There are actually quite a few noteworthy things from this game that I haven’t even touched on yet:

  • As seen in the picture above, Jung Ho Kang slid aggressively into home and seemed to injure his left hand. X-rays came back negative, thank goodness, and he’s day-to-day. He was already getting every 3rd or 4th game off, though, so I suspect he’ll take a seat tonight.
  • Jon Niese was excellent. I mentioned in this game’s preview that I wasn’t sure if his start against Atlanta was a turning point for him, or just the kind of start even a struggling pitcher can put together against Atlanta. But he was even better yesterday, allowing just one run on four hits in seven innings. That’s three decent-to-good starts in a row (he gave up three homers in Cincinnati, but all were solo). His xFIP is getting close to 4.00. One more good start and I’ll be officially encouraged.
  • As mentioned above, Mark Melancon looked pretty sharp early on, though the baseball gods have apparently decreed that no inning of his can go smoothly ever again, whoever’s fault the tumult may be. His stuff still isn’t what it was two years ago, but last year he had an abnormal peripheral increase in things like velocity later in that year than you usually see, so maybe this is the start of something similar. Let’s hope.
  • The Bucs outhit the Rockies 9-6, but seven of those were singles. This is how the losses go now: very rarely do the Pirates get shut down. They just don’t string their hits together well, or they get too many singles and two few extra base hits.

The Bucs are still at about a 90-win pace, but there are signs of the rotation stabilizing a little bit. And by “stabilizing” I mean “being unreliable rather than abjectly horrible half the time.” I think we’ll continue on a pretty solid pace for the next few weeks, and then the rotation starts changing. The nice thing is, the offense seems good enough that even a mediocre pitching staff should be enough to keep us in the thick of things.

Filed under: Francisco Cervelli, game recaps, Jonathan Niese, Mark Melancon

Pirates vs. Rockies vs. Rain

05.21.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Chatwood, 4:05 PM

It’s not clear if this afternoon’s game is going to take place, because it’s been raining all day, albeit the kind of soft rain that major league teams usually play through. Early word is they’re going to give it a go.

If they do, the Pirates will run Jonathan Niese out there. Niese finally put together a strong start his last time out, but it was against Atlanta. The Rockies are a considerably tougher lineup, though the upside is that if he’s strong again today, it bodes pretty well for the prospect of a turnaround. And with Locke actually pitching well and Nicasio decent, and only a few turns of the rotation left until reinforcements likely arrive, even a decent Jon Niese would go a long way to keeping things afloat.

Niese squares off against Tyler Chatwood. The Bucs missed him in the rotation last time, who’s put up good numbers this year. He’s gotten a crazy high number of ground balls (57.4%, sixth in all of baseball) and he’s left over 80% of base runners stranded. The latter is unsustainable and the former…might be (he put up similar GB% rates in 2012 and 2013, though was at just 45% in 2014).

Andrew McCutchen is getting the day off. Marte will play center (which is going to frustrate most of us who realize he should be doing that every day, though I suppose he’ll get fewer chances to throw out runners at the plate there), Polanco slides over to left, and Matt Joyce is in right.

First pitch is at 4:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese