Little and Late: Mets 6, Pirates 4

06.17.16 Posted by

One of the more disheartening things about the Pirates’ losses recently is how they feel over so quickly. A few times I’ve turned the game on an inning or two late, and nearly every time it seems like the Bucs are already losing by a few runs. Often they’ll scrape back into the game, like they did last night by scoring four runs in the final two innings, but that’s not going to get it down when you spot the other team a 6-0 lead.

There’s not much to analyze here: Nicassio gave up six runs in 4.1 innings largely because he allowed three home runs. The Bucs didn’t do anything against Colon until the 7th, and that’s the more disconcerting part, as this vaunted offense has been…well, whatever the opposite of vaunted is over the last few weeks. The Pirates’ team OPS was .826 in April, .755 in May, and it’s .655 so far in June. In terms of National League ranks, that’s 3rd, 6th, and now 14th. They have the second worst team OPS in June.

A lot of things about this team make me think a second half run is possible…maybe even likely. It’s easy to imagine things going a lot smoother if and when Nicassio moves to the bullpen (and adapts to it reasonably well), Liriano improves (I still think he’ll be better, if not good), and Cole and Taillon eating up half of the remaining starts. The offense is probably closer to the lineup we saw in April and May than June, too. But given the way they’re playing right now (they’re at exactly .500 right now), and how tough the upcoming schedule is, it seems like a second-half surge is going to be necessary just to earn the right to make it to a fourth consecutive Three Hour Coin Flip.

What’s that they say? You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?

Filed under: everything is terrible, game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Mets: Series Win Up For Grabs

06.16.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Colon, 7:10 PM

Thanks to the Gerrit Cole injury, Juan Nicasio stays in the rotation for now. He gets the Mets, which is an easier lineup than most of those he’s faced, but he’s still been unpredictable, and even when good he hasn’t often gone deep into games, and the Pirates have so few reliable arms that no lead is safe in those middle innings.

The good news is that we’re not facing one of New York’s three best starters this time: instead, we square off against the ageless (and largely shapeless) Bartolo Colon, AKA The Ricky Henderson of Pitchers. Colon turned 43 less than a month ago, but somehow remains useful. Not as useful as his ERA suggests (his xFIP is a run higher), but useful nonetheless. The formula is clear: control. He walks fewer than two batters per nine, and it’s not that hard to be at least decent if you can do that, even if you, like Colon, have a K/9 rate under six.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

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

Bucs Get Beat, Banged Up: Marlins 4, Pirates 3

06.03.16 Posted by

The Bucs lost in 12 innings last night, and that’s bad. But worse is that four Pirates left the game with injuries: Cutch, Cervelli, Mercer, and Freese. At first glance it sounds like these are all injuries of the day-to-day variety, but when you have that many of them it puts you in a pretty tough spot. This is a team going into a very tough stretch of baseball after this Angels series, and it figures to be relentlessly challenged even at full strength.

One bit of good news is that Gregory Polanco, though he did not start for the second consecutive game, was healthy enough to pinch hit. Seems like a good chance he starts today against The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California or whatever they’re called now. Seriously, Los Angeles Angels? “The City of Angels Angels”? But I digress: Polanco should be back tonight, especially with the team probably looking to rest a couple of the guys who had to leave last night.

As for this particular game, the Bucs managed to get no-hit for a good portion of the proceedings for the second consecutive night, and this time it wasn’t against someone with the kind of stuff that usually lends itself to no-hitters, Wei-Yin Chen. They busted through in the 7th when Matt Joyce, for the second night in a row, made a game of it with a timely hit, and they tied it in the 9th with a John Jaso RBI single. A.J. Schugel was solid in relief, going two scoreless innings in extras before surrendering a run in the 12th.

Juan Nicasio was fine: three runs in six innings. If you’d told me that before, I’d have thought we’d won, but Chen stymied us. I would not have expected that, and as good as this offense is, I’m just a tiny bit worried at how it’s made these Marlins pitchers look the last few games. The Fernandez game was easy to brush off for obvious reasons. Conley less so, but he took a no-hitter deep into the game earlier this year, too. Chen, on the other hand, is the kind of guy you’re basically allotted a couple of runs against. I expect the Bucs will get right back on the proverbial horse, but their inability to break through in any of these last few games (particularly after the 10-0 drubbing in the series opener) is disconcerting.

Filed under: game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Marlins: Tougher Opponents, Fewer Wins

06.02.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Chen, 7:10 PM

I don’t want to extrapolate too much from the last few weeks, but it sure seems to be giving us some clear indications about what to expect from this team: we got whooped by the Cubs, steamrolled crappy teams, and now we’re roughly holding our own against good-to-decent ones. If we win today’s game, we’ll have split with the roughly average Marlins and lost to the above-average Rangers. In other words, taken as a whole, the last 15-20 games seem to suggest this is a pretty good Pirates team, but maybe not currently a very good one. More 2014 than 2015, perhaps.

That’s for now, at least: who knows what this team is like if and when Cutch hits a little better, Taillon joins the rotation, Nicasio (probably) helps shore up the bullpen, or whatever Glasnow-and-Kuhl-related moves might follow. But right now it feels pretty much exactly what its win pace tells you it is: a roughly 90-win team that should be in a good position to win another Wild Card spot.

Speaking of Nicasio, he’s making what could be his last (or, more likely, penultimate) start. By most accounts the Super Two deadline is likely to be safely in the rear view in a week or two, and it’s hard to imagine him staying over Locke given their respective performances lately, and the A-to-B way his skillset seems to point pretty definitively towards (relative) success in the bullpen.

Nicasio’s mound opponent is Wei-Yin Chen, who’s been pretty solid this year. Doesn’t walk too many, hasn’t really gotten particularly lucky or unlucky. The only thing that stands out about him is how consistently he’s merely okay: in his last start he gave up one run in five innings, but in every start before that he gave up at least two. He is rarely dominant, and only occasionally bad. That’s the kind of guy we can beat, so long as Nicasio turns in a decent performance.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

Whirling Darvish: Rangers 5, Pirates 2

05.29.16 Posted by

The first half of this game didn’t actually go that badly: Nicasio allowing three runs in the first inning is pretty bad, and Darvish handled the Bucs’ lineup easily (three hits, one run, seven Ks), but I think most versions of this game—even the ones where the Pirates win—involve them falling behind in the first half. They got one off of Darvish and got four cracks at the bullpen, which has been terrible this year. If you’d told me that, and told me the Rangers would top out at five runs, I would’ve liked our chances.

The Bucs had lots of chances to make a game of it after Darvish was out: two men in scoring position for Marte in the 6th, the first two batters singling in the 8th (with Polanco up, no less), and a Joyce triple in the 9th, but only that last one resulted in another run.

Darvish looked great, hitting 98 MPH. No big shame in this one. They knew they’d probably have to score a few times off of the Ranger bullpen, they threatened big innings twice, and just didn’t quite get that last hit.

Nicasio, meanwhile, probably wasn’t as bad as his line suggests (four runs in 4.2 innings), but it seems awfully likely at this point that Jameson Taillon will be filling into a Nicasio-shaped outline in that rotation, and I’m actually pretty excited to see what this guy can do in the bullpen.

Filed under: game recaps, Juan Nicasio

Pirates at Rangers: Here’s Lookin’ at Yu

05.28.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Darvish, 7:15 PM

When Juan Nicasio came out of his April 29th start after seven shutout innings, his ERA stood at 3.33. At that point he was either the second or third-best Pirate starter, depending on how you chose to assess Liriano’s struggles.

Since then, that ERA’s jumped to 4.46 in just three starts. Since then, Jeff Locke and Jon Niese have each put together two or three strong outings. Suddenly, Nicasio is clearly the weakest link in the chain, and may have made the front office’s decision about who to replace when James Taillon arrives that much easier. Nicasio can make that decision a little harder for them with a good start tonight.

This game has the distinction of being Yu Darvish’s first start back from Tommy Johns surgery. Darvish strikes guys out a lot, but what’s noteworthy is that his command’s gotten better each year he’s been in the bigs: from 4.19 BB per 9 in 2012 to 3.06 in 2014. He’s looked strong in his rehab starts, too. Thankfully, he’ll be on a fairly strict pitch count 85-90 from the sound of things), so if the Bucs can extend some of these at-bats, they can get into that Ranger bullpen, which, as I mentioned yesterday, is dead last in the American League in ERA.

Can’t say I have a great feeling about this game: I think Nicasio is likely to continue struggling, and I think if we win it’ll have to be a high scoring game where we kick their bullpen around a lot. Regardless, the Pirates have a chance at a fourth straight series win, and a sixth straight win overall, with a victory tonight. First pitch is at 7:15 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio

Pirates vs. Rockies: Defensive Rubber Match

05.22.16 Posted by

Nicasio vs. Bettis, 1:35 PM

On Friday, the defense was excellent. Yesterday it was not. I think I’d settle for something inbetween today.

Andrew McCutchen got yesterday off, and Kang’s getting tonight off after hurting his hand yesterday. Sounds like he’ll be fine, but they’re playing it safe. Juan Nicasio starts for the Bucs, and he’s been shaky the last few times out. There’s a legitimate debate going on about whether or not Nicasio or Locke will lose their spot in the rotation when the first of Taillon/Glasnow comes up. Locke’s made a pretty strong case for staying over his last few starts, and Nicasio…has done the opposite. And what’s more, he’s struggled in a way that buttresses the central argument (that Nicasio may be better, but he’d also be more useful in the bullpen): he’s often started strong and faded after a few innings. At this exact moment, I’d bet on him being the odd man out, but the Pirates get a few more data points, like today’s start, to make that decision.

The Rockies throw Chad Bettis at us. The Pirates scored four runs off of him in six innings the last time they met. A win today takes the series, and with Cole and Liriano both throwing against Arizona next, you’d have to like our chances at making it three series’ in a row.

First pitch is at 1:35 PM.

UPDATE: they played an inning and the game was postponed with the Pirates down 1-0. Jordan Lyles and Ryan Vogelsong will spot start on Monday at 12:35 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Juan Nicasio, Ryan Vogelsong

Ugly, But Effective: Pirates 12, Braves 9

05.18.16 Posted by

Insert joke about how “ugly, but effective” was so-and-so’s nickname in high school.

In the series’ first game, the Pirates scored a bunch of runs, which masked the fact that they’d given up five runs to the worst team in baseball, and two home runs to a team that had only nine all season beforehand. Last night’s game was both of those things turned up higher: the Pirates scored even more runs (seven in the first inning and then two more in the second), ran up a 9-0 lead, and then piddled most of it away. In the top of the 7th the game was 11-9, which, mercifully, is as close as it would get.

The Bucs gave up another two home runs to Mallex Smith, who had one this year coming into the game, and four other extra base hits. Juan Nicasio started strong but gave up five runs (three earned) in five innings. I mentioned yesterday that this seemed like a good matchup for Nicasio, with the exception of the lefties the Braves could throw at him. Smith, of course, is a lefty, though his second home run came off of Caminero.

The offense was tremendous, even more than you’d expect against a team like the Braves or a starter like Aaron Blair. 21 hits, six for extra bases, and three doubles from Gregory Polanco. At this point I’m one more scorcher in the gap away from dreamily doodling Polanco’s name in notebooks. The early season success hasn’t just continued, it’s ramped up: he hit .302/.404/.500 in April, and he’s hitting .314/.417/.549 in May. He has almost as many walks as strikeouts. He’s on pace to be nearly a 5 WAR player, and we’re nearly a fourth of the way through the season. Everything about Polanco says that he’s Figured It Out. And more than that, it all fits the normal power trajectory: this year, it’s doubles. Next year, more of those start clearing the fence.

Speaking of next year, the Pirates no longer have to worry about who’ll be catching for them: Francisco Cervelli signed a three-year extension that’ll pay him a bit over $10 million per year. This is a tenfold increase on his ridiculously low salary, but still less than what he’d have garnered on the open market based on his performance here. I like the move: the Pirates’ internal catching options weren’t panning out as well or as quickly as they’d hoped, and we have some reason to believe he’ll age pretty gracefully for the next few year. And I have to point out that his OBP this year is nearly as high as Russell Martin’s OPS, though I’m convinced Martin will bounce back before long. Still, yet more evidence that this team is both prudent about who to let walk, but not mindlessly letting everyone walk. They’re locking up the guys they know they need.

Cervelli, by the way, celebrated by knocking in a run in each of his first two at bats and going three for five.

Hard to swallow the Braves putting up this many runs, and harder to think of last night as a fluke. Maybe the pitching is even worse than I’d thought. I’ll feel a lot better if we can win with some more baseball-looking scores the next couple of games.

Filed under: Francisco Cervelli, game recaps, John Jaso, Juan Nicasio