What You’re Supposed To Do: Pirates 8, Braves 5

05.17.16 Posted by

I’m not going to spend too much time praising the Pirates for winning this game: you’re supposed to win this game. You’re supposed to win two of the next three, too. But we all know that sometimes even good teams blow games against terrible ones, so it’s still a number in the win column that wasn’t automatically going to show up.

There are lots of clichés in baseball (maybe more than in any other sport), and one is that good teams beat good teams, or something like that. Except it isn’t true; I wrote a post a few years ago called Who Good Teams Beat delving into the idea a little. One thing good teams do usually do is take care of business against weaker teams, though, so it’s nice to get a little piece of evidence here that the Pirates are probably still a pretty good team.

I’m not sure what to think of Jon Niese’s start here: on one hand, like the Pirates not losing to an inferior team, Niese not getting beat up by them isn’t so much a good sign as it is the absence of a very bad one. He threw a lot of strikes, had six Ks, and gave up just two runs, but walked two and allowed five hits. Not bad, except four of those hits went for extra bases. This has been the thing with Niese this year: he’s been giving up lots of home runs. And if you’re looking for whatever the opposite of a silver lining is, the Pirates just gave up two home runs to a team that had nine all year coming into this game. Five hits and two walks in six innings is fine if a few more of those are singles, but risky if most of them are hammered.

Alen Hanson made his first major league at-bat last night and struck out as a pinch hitter. He’ll be in and out of the lineup for a few days while Starling Marte is on paternity leave (he had a daughter, his second child). Congrats to the Martes, and good on the team for winning a game they should, even without Marte there.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Pirates vs. Braves: From First to Worst

05.16.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Perez, 7:05 PM

This series is schedule whiplash: the Pirates go from facing the best team in baseball (in wins and run differential) on the road to facing the worst team in baseball (again, in wins and run differential) at home.

A lot of people have pointed out that, if you take out the six games against the Cubs, the Bucs are on a stellar 97 win pace. This is kind of a fair point. It’s fair insofar as you regard Chicago as a ridiculous historical juggernaut that nobody else can really have planned for, but it’s worth noting that that doesn’t quite explain nearly getting swept twice, or losing most of those games by wide margins.

It does suggest, however, that the Bucs should still be able to take care of business against a team like the Braves. The Braves are really bad this year. Freddie Freeman’s pretty great, but he plays the same role on Atlanta relative to his teammates that Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez did in The Sandlot. Yeah yeah, they look pretty crappy.

I won’t argue with anyone who’s given up on the division, but it’s important to remember that you can’t really “settle” for a Wild Card berth yet, because the Pirates aren’t currently in a commanding position to grab one. If the season ended today, they’d miss it, though I’m pretty sure the Phillies and their -30 run differential are going to look down, Wile E. Coyote style, and see they’ve run straight off the cliff pretty soon. But even when that happens, the Cards have an identical winning percentage to the Bucs (and a much better run differential), and the Dodgers are right behind us. In other words: we still need to beat up on teams like the Braves. This is a four game series, and given how bad they are, you really can’t be happy with anything less than three wins.

Jon Niese throws first, which may complicate our evaluation of him, because it’ll be difficult to take a good start here seriously. On the flip side, if he gets kicked around again, that could be a really bad sign. The Braves, you see, have the fewest runs in all of baseball, and it’s not close: they’re fifteen behind Philadelphia (the second worst). They have fewer than half as many than the Red Sox. They have nine home runs all season, and the next-lowest team (again, Philly) has more than three times that many.

Their pitching is bad, though more “below average” than “mind-bendingly awful.” Tonight they start the man with two last names, Williams Perez. Perez is making his fifth start, and his game log is odd: he failed to last even five innings in any of his first three starts (at least once he was starting on three days rest), then was demoted to the minors, but came back and threw eight innings of one run ball against the afore/oft-mentioned Phillies.

Perez is striking out a better every other inning and has nearly as many walks as Ks. He seems to induce ground balls at a very high rate, though, which seems to minimize some of his flaws (his 4.73 xFIP is better than I would’ve guessed from the K/BB numbers, though still obviously not good).

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. That said, it’d be nice to have something to be excited about, so maybe this series is just what the team needs.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Scraping By: Reds 3, Pirates 2

05.10.16 Posted by

Yesterday, I talked about what a good start for Jon Niese might look like, and I said this:

The only way I’ll maintain much faith after a bad start tonight is if he gives up multiple fence-scrapers that wouldn’t have cleared the wall on a normal, grown-up sized ballpark.

Turns out, that’s exactly what happened: the Reds hit three home runs, all solo shots, with one particular being almost a literal fence-scraper. This was my only real concern, given the size of the ballpark and Niese’s inflated FB/HR rate so far this year. If you’d told me they’d all be solo shots, I’d have felt pretty good, too, because I’d have figured the Bucs would’ve put together more than five hits. They were okay against the starter, Straily, but managed just one hit over the last three innings, which is particularly surprising.

Still, it was a decent start for Niese, and those borderline HRs aren’t going to keep sneaking over the wall. Every fifth of sixth game the Pirates offense just sequences a little differently (or just Has A Bad Game, if you prefer that perspective), and you just hope it doesn’t happen in a game where it makes a difference. This time, it did.

Filed under: game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Pirates at Reds: Less Scary This Time

05.09.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Straily, 7:10 PM

The Bucs lost two of three to the Reds early in the season, their only win being a game they essentially stole on the strength of a Starling Marte grand slam. In their second meeting, it was the opposite: they won two of three, and just missed the sweep by losing in 11 innings. Intellectually, I think most of us understand that there’s nothing special about the Reds, but it was still nice to shake that nagging jinx-y feeling with a strong series win. One more of those, I expect, and we can stop half-joking about stolen signs and voodoo dolls.

Tonight’s game, however, figures to be the toughest of the three. Jonathan Niese is not yet a failed project, but he’s certainly fail[i]ing[/i]. His xFIP is more than a run better than his ERA, and he looked pretty decent through his first few outings, but in his last three he’s given up 15 runs in 15.1 innings. But let’s not forget that the first of those was in Chase Field, the second was in Coors, and the third was against the Cubs. And tonight’s game is in the Great American Bandbox. That said, this is a Reds team that’s 11th in the league in runs scored, so GAB or not, one would expect some improvement tonight. The only way I’ll maintain much faith after a bad start tonight is if he gives up multiple fence-scrapers that wouldn’t have cleared the wall on a normal, grown-up sized ballpark.

Nieses goes against Dan Straily, who moved into the rotation out of necessity and faced the Bucs just 10 days ago, giving up two runs in six innings. Unlike Niese, his xFIP is a full run [i]higher[/i] than his ERA, and he’s walking a lot of guys. His BABIP against is .197, which is nuts. I feel like this is a guy we should hit pretty well.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Predictable: Cubs 7, Pirates 1

05.04.16 Posted by

I’ll say very little about this game, in part because most of what I’d say you could have guessed 24 hours ago: Jake Arietta largely shut the Pirates down (he threw in an RBI single for good measure), Jon Niese struggled, and the Bucs were never in it.

Arietta walked the first two batters of the game, but nothing came of it. Walks appear to be the one weakness in his game right now (relatively speaking), but this Pirate team’s OBP has come more from its hits than its walks, and it didn’t help that we were running David Freese and Matt Joyce out with those two guys on, instead of Kang and Marte (who took the night off save for a pinch hitting appearance).

The Pirates had three hits. Without looking it up, I’m pretty sure that’s their lowest total of the year.

The Pirates’ came into this series hot, which is good, because it’s given them the margin to absorb these beat downs. It would’ve felt like something close to a split to lose two of three, but win Arietta’s start, but instead it’s May 4th and the Bucs are already five back.

Filed under: everybody freak out, game recaps, Jonathan Niese

Pirates vs. Cubs: Arietta Again

05.03.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Arietta, 7:05 PM

Obviously, last night’s game was particularly important because tonight’s game is started by Jake Arietta, which means the odds are good the Bucs will find themselves having to face Jon Lester tomorrow trying to avoid a sweep, and another huge division deficit in the first fifth of the season.

On the flip side, if you offered me a split in the first two games, and let me pick which pitcher we’d win against, I’d have chosen to beat Arietta. Insofar as you believe in things like morale boosts (even if only for us fans), a win tonight would be way, way up there.

Talking about Arietta is difficult, because his numbers are absurd, and it sounds almost silly to point out that they’re not sustainable. Nobody does this, and nobody can continue to do this, but his underlying numbers are still very good…just not superhumanly good. And it doesn’t feel very satisfying to proclaim that he’ll have to regress to merely very good, as opposed to very very very good. But he will.

And just from game to game, somebody’s going to knock him around eventually. Why not us? Why not one (if not the) best offenses in the league? For all the talk of his dominance last year, those who paid close attention know how unbelievably close we came to busting that game open. Two of the hardest hit balls hit off him all year, in the same inning, somehow resulted in three outs.

The safe bet is that he’ll be excellent tonight, though, and that even if he isn’t he just has to be better than Jonathan Niese. But weirder things have happened. And, admittedly, I’ll be pretty encouraged even in a loss if we manage to get to the guy on the mound.

There’s a pretty decent chance a couple of people are getting hit by pitches tonight, too, so watch out for that. First hit by pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Unnecessary Drama: Pirates 9, Rockies 8

04.28.16 Posted by

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had a few games that could serve, if necessary, as microcosms of this early season: Bucs jump out to a lead by knocking the starter around, our own starter gives up a couple here or there, the bullpen hands several back, and we never add on much to the early lead. Next thing you know it’s the 7th inning and we’re suddenly playing a baseball game again.

This example was worse than most, as the Pirates led 7-0 after 3.5 innings. But, ya’ know, Coors Field. The Rockies put up four to make it a game, then just kept chipping away. It finally ended when Polanco walked and Mercer doubled him home in the 12th.

Tony Watson gave up another home run. Feliz gave up two runs. Melancon threw a scoreless inning (but walked two). In other words, everything that’s gone well this year continued to go well, and everything that’s gone badly continued to go badly.

I’m tempted to withhold any judgment of Niese, who started off strong but ended up giving up five runs in as many innings. Colorado isn’t the best place to fix your pitching problems. But it’s getting to the point where the Bucs have to start realizing what they have with some of these guys, and make adjustments as necessary. A few more series’, I think, and it’ll be time to make some of these choices.

In the meantime, it’s nice that the offense is good enough to bail us out while the bullpen sieve keeps panning for black-and-gold.

The Pirates have won this four-game set, with a chance to sweep today. They’ve won four in a row for the first time since the first four games of the season, they’ve won 6 of 7, and they’re 13-9. They’ve scored at least six runs in all those six wins, and they’ve scored at least eight in five of them.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jonathan Niese, Jordy Mercer

Pirates at Rockies: Expect More Offense

04.27.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Gray, 8:40 PM

It’s interesting watching this team, because the combination of shaky pitching and relentless hitting means that it’s pretty hard to despair about any game in advance of it actually being played. The 2013 Pirates won largely with their pitching, but their offense was often anemic. This works just fine, but it does make it hard to watch a lot of the individual games/innings, knowing that being down 2-0 in the 6th or 7th probably means the game is already over.

This year, we have the opposite problem: being down doesn’t mean the game is over, but neither does being up. More exciting. More stressful, too.

There’s a decent chance we’ll see more offensive fireworks tonight: I mentioned in yesterday’s preview that the over-under for combined runs was 10, which is about as high as those ever get, and was more than a full run higher than any other game being played. Well, tonight, it’s 10.5, and again it’s a full run higher than the second-highest.

This is less remarkable with Jon Niese on the mound than it was with Gerrit Cole, but a word of caution: I will not be shocked if Colorado’s starter, Jon Gray, holds us in check. Gray struck out 10 batters in just five innings in his first start, which is probably more significant than the five runs he gave up. He did it mostly with a great slider, which is, unlike the curveball, a breaking pitch that shouldn’t fare too poorly in the thin air of Coors Field (his first start was on the road). He also gave up two home runs.

That previous start is Gray’s only of the year (and he’s only made a handful in his career), as an abdomen injury kept him out through the first few weeks. So even if he does manage to punch out a passel of Pirates, I like our chances if Niese can keep us close until we get into the bullpen again.

A win tonight would make four, and win the series. First pitch is at 8:40 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese

Wild West: Pirates 8, D-Backs 7

04.23.16 Posted by

So far this season, the offense has been tremendous and the rotation has been shaky (though more at the top than the bottom, at least relative to expectations), but the difference between our decent 9-8 start and a much stronger 11-6 is the under performance of the bullpen.

Last night, the relievers again failed to bring relief, but the offense was so good it didn’t matter. Jon Niese gave up ten hits and four runs, letting Arizona back into a game the Pirates led 5-1 in the third inning. But there was little doubt that the offense was going to score more runs: it was just a question of how many the bullpen would give back. It turns out, it gave back all but one, which is the minimum number you can give back without blowing it.

This time, it wasn’t some fringe reliever from the Throw Stuff Against the Wall routine we do each April, but Tony Watson. Watson gave up three runs (though just one earned), including a homer. That’s his second long ball given up in his last three appearances. His walk rate’s up, his K rate’s down, and this is all despite an abnormally low .182 BABIP against. I’m not particularly concerned right now, because relievers’ numbers can be ridiculously skewed based on a couple of bad outings even late in the year. But it’s easy to take for granted just how effortless and automatic Watson has been the last few seasons. That wasn’t, you know, normal.

The Bucs were actually outhit in this game, 15-13, and they drew just two walks. But that’s because everything was hittable. Seven of their 15 hits went for extra bases, including three monster home runs. Sean Rodriguez hit his second tape measure shot in his last six ABs, Gregory Polanco similarly murdered the ball on the very next pitch, and Jordy Mercer (!) somehow bested them both the next inning, with a home run that we were told was the longest hit by any player this year. Jordy Mercer.

Josh Harrison went 3-for-4 with two doubles, and looked very much like the Josh Harrison of 2014, legs churning around first, helmet flying off, and all the other expressions of manic energy that characterized his improbable All Star selection. His OPS has risen from .541 to .779 in the last eight games, six of which have been multi-hit games, including five of the last six. This is good. This is very good.

If the pitching gets even marginally better, this could be an extremely good baseball club. And it’s nice to see, over the last handful of games, that it could be a pretty good one even if it doesn’t.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jonathan Niese, Jordy Mercer

Pirates at D-Backs: Staying Out West

04.22.16 Posted by

Niese vs. Corbin, 9:40 PM

The Bucs are staying on the left half of the country this series, so I know a lot of us won’t be watching all of this game, or the next two. Which might be a shame, because something’s telling me it’s going to be a good series (he said, knowing full well that predicting an individual series is dumb).

Part of that something is that we’re going to avoid both Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller (though Miller is struggling mightily right now). Another part of it is that the offense continues to look tremendous. And a little part of it is that Jon Niese is starting tonight, and he’s literally gotten better with each start this year, throwing seven shutout innings his last time on the mound.

His opponent is Patrick Corbin, who’s probably the best of the three pitchers we’ll face in the series. Most outcomes where Arizona wins this involve them winning tonight’s game, I would think. Corbin’s got a good walk rate, which is, all by itself, enough to make him a pretty decent starter. It also makes him an interesting matchup for a patient Pirate team that leads the National League in OBP by an absurd 30 points. Worth noting, however, that despite this huge gap, they’re actually second in walks. They’ve largely gotten it done by racking up a ton of hits.

Oddly enough, this is only the second lefty the Pirates have faced all year: they went 14 games before facing Drew Pomeranz…and he struck them out ten times. That’ll be something to talk about if Corbin shuts them down tonight.

First pitch is at 9:40 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jonathan Niese