There Was No Doubt About It

A Pittsburgh Pirates Blog

Pirates at Mets: Locke Looks to Rebound

06.15.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Syndergaard, 7:10 PM

You never know which Jeff Locke you’re gonna get. For over five weeks, Locke was good or very good in nearly every start (the biggest exception coming against the Merciless Cubs). Then he got kicked around in Colorado, albeit because of a horrendous cross-country flight in the middle of a homestand, and because he was probably left in the game as a sort of sacrifice at the alter of bullpen preservation. That doesn’t explain why he was bad, just why he was allowed to be bad long enough to give up 11 (!) runs.

This time, he faces the Mets, and the Pirates have done an exceptional job of shutting down their offense this year. And that’s been good, because the Mets’ rotation has been about as good as billed; they’ve been losing despite getting quality starts from their starters nearly every game. The last time the Bucs faced Syndergaard (tonight’s starter for New York), they scored three runs (two earned) off of him in six innings, and that was nearly enough, as the bullpen blew a late lead and lost the game in extra innings. As modest as that result was, I think you’d have to seriously consider taking it again, if offered.

It seems weird to say we should beat up on the Mets before the going gets tough, because the Mets are pretty good. But that’s the situation the Pirates are in: it only gets harder from here. It’s entirely possible they could play fairly well and still be under .500 after the seven games against the Cubs and Giants that come after this series is over.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

The Start of Something Great: Pirates 4, Mets 0

06.15.16 Posted by

Okay, so it wasn’t Jameson Taillon’s first start. And it came against a struggling Mets offense. But it’s hard not to look at last night’s dominant performance (six no-hit innings, and just two hits in eight shutout innings) and think about the future. Pirates fans are already pretty forward-looking, not just because they had 20 years of practice, but because everything about this season suggests it’s an uphill climb for the team. But as frustrating as 2016 has been, that’s how bright things look in 2017, and Taillon is a big part of that.

Part of me actually dislikes this particular forward-looking feeling, because it’s pretty much the only thing that kept me watching the team for many years. In the middle of that epic losing streak, as often as not my eyes would scan the box score for individual players’ lines, barely noticing the score. Why bother? The score didn’t matter. The development of individual players did. It’s bittersweet to be back in that habit, though at least now it’s the exception, rather than the rule.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a long, productive career for Taillon. And, short-term, hopefully it’s the start of a nice hot streak, though given the quality of our upcoming opponents, that’s a pretty tall order.

All four Pirate runs came via the homer (a two-run laser from Kang, and a two-run bomb from Marte, and I’m just now noticing how many slang home run terms are just references to weapons).

As I mentioned the other day, Taillon’s start would’ve been more exciting if it were alongside Cole in the rotation, rather than replacing him, but if he throws well enough that they don’t really lose much for the time he’s gone, that’s still a pretty good recovery from what might have been the single worst player the Pirates could have lost to injury, given their rotation struggles.

Filed under: game recaps, Jameson Taillon

Pirates at Mets: Back Into the Gauntlet

06.14.16 Posted by

TBD vs. deGrom, 7:10 PM

Yesterday, the Pirates finally got a day off. It’ll be their last day off, barring a postponement, over the next 16 days. That isn’t too bad, except that a) the Pirates are pretty banged up and b) their opponents over that time period (and beyond) are pretty brutal.

Regarding point a), we still don’t know how hurt Gerrit Cole is, and thus, we still don’t have a starter announced for tonight’s game. Rumblings are it could be Taillon, and while that’s sort of exciting, the excitement of seeing Taillon this year was at least partially based in the idea that he’d replace Locke or Nicasio. If he’s replacing Gerrit Cole, that’s somewhat less exciting.

Whoever throws, they go up against Jacob deGrom. deGrom’s topline numbers are ace-esque, but his peripherals suggest he’s been Good But Not Great. We faced him in the last Mets’ series and scored three runs in six innings, though he racked up nine strikeouts, didn’t walk anyone, and didn’t allow a home run.

It’s been hard judging this team’s potential all year, and it’s even harder now with Cervelli out and Cole possibly following him shortly on the DL. If that happens, the Pirate offense is going to have to hit a new level to keep the ship afloat.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jameson Taillon

Cardinals Sweep Pirates

06.13.16 Posted by

Travel, softball, and other related things prevented me from writing normal recaps and previews of this series, and it’s just as well, because they probably would’ve been overwrought and laden with curses. The Pirates lost all three games to the Cardinals by a combined 15 runs. That’s really, really bad. Bad as a harbinger of their real skill level, and bad for the Wild Card race, specifically.

It was bad for a number of individual players, too: Francisco Cervelli, we learned, is out for over a month. Gerrit Cole left a game and we’re still waiting to hear the extent of his injury (a 15-day DL stint seems more likely than not based on the delays alone). And the players who performed badly were, by and large, the players whose skill level is probably subject to the highest variance, which is a pretty bad sign.

The biggest deficit of the three losses (six runs) somehow came in the game which wen into extra innings. The “somehow” there is Juan Nicasio, who was sorta-kinda working out of the bullpen. Naturally, the extra-inning game was the one where Cole left after two innings, though hats off to A.J. Schugel for throwing four perfect innings in relief against one of the league’s highest-scoring lineups. That’s a really exceptional outing, and yeah, small sample sizes and all that, but it makes you wonder if he could end up a key part of this bullpen by the end of the year.

That, however, was just about the only bright spot of the series. In the second game, Francisco Liriano put up better results than he has in weeks, but still didn’t look great beyond the basic box score. Still, any improvement is welcome at this point. Jon Niese got rocked in the final game, allowing eight runs in five innings. I’m no more ready to say this makes him bad than the previous handful of starts made him good, but it’s not a nice data point.

The Pirates managed 20 hits in the series, even though one of those games went into the 12th, which simply isn’t good enough even when the pitching staff is decent, which it surely wasn’t.

The Bucs have now lost five in a row. They’re just one game over .500, and their run differential is just +7. So far this year they’ve pretty much either been good or bad for a number of games in a row, oscillating back and forth between the two, and to this point, at the end (I hope) of this downswing, it has them a thoroughly average team. I think they’re probably better than this, but it’s a little harder to say that with confidence, and even if it’s true, it’s not clear how much better. Especially if Cole misses much time.

The Pirates get a much-needed day off today, and then The Gauntlet starts right back up, with six road games and another daunting Cubs series on the horizon.

Filed under: game recaps

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

Rocky Mountain Jet Lag: Rockies 11, Pirates 5

06.10.16 Posted by

I’m not going to say that the Pirates lost (and badly) yesterday just because they had to suddenly fly cross country in the middle of what otherwise would’ve been a nine-game homestand, but I did express worry about this exact thing in yesterday’s preview. And I’m worried about today’s game for the same reason.

Jeff Locke got rocked, no pun intended, not just because he pitched poorly but because the Bucs seemed to want him to sacrifice his ERA to eat up more innings than his performance dictated, more or less writing off the game to spare the bullpen. This kinda made sense when the Rockies jumped out to a 6-1 lead, but it made less sense when the Bucs cut the deficit to 6-5 in the third. But they kept trotting Locke out there and he allowed five more runs, putting the game out of reach.

It’s already hard to know what to think of a pitcher struggling in Coors Field, but throw in the schedule nonsense and it’s even harder. I think Locke’s recent stretch was good enough and long enough to think he’s going to be useful the rest of the year, but he’s still going to have blow-ups like this.

And that’s okay if they’re effectively concentrated, which they have been: Locke has given up 43 earned runs this year, and 44% of them have come in just two starts. We saw this same thing happen with Charlie Morton last year:

Some of you are now saying “well, okay, but lots of people’s stats look better if you take out their worst games.” True, but for a starting pitcher, how you give up your runs matters a great deal. Technically, a guy who throws ten shutouts and then gives up 90 earned runs without recording an out the next game has an ERA of 9.00, but he’s actually more valuable than someone with a 4.50 ERA who gives up a run every other inning consistently.

You can only lose each game once, so a guy that puts up a sub-3.00 ERA in nine starts and gives his team a chance to win each, but completely blows up in one other, is probably helping his team a lot more than his ERA would suggest.

As I pointed out on Twitter, Locke dropped his ERA almost 1.20 runs from mid-May to early-June, and yesterday he almost entirely wiped those gains out. But he did it in the best possible way: being very good for four or five starts and then horrendous for one. I don’t know if this is a repeatable skill or not, but it’s worth noting, because I would absolutely co-sign for a Jeff Locke who’s good for three weeks and then totally gives a game away by himself.

A brief note about the hitting last night: uhhh, the Bucs continue to hit. Seven hits is less than they usually manage, but they scored five runs and David Freese hit a big three-run homer. The Pirates are going to score 4-5 runs a lot, so a quality start is usually going to get the job done.

Filed under: game recaps, Jeff Locke

Pirates at Rockies: More Schedule Shenanigans

06.09.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Bettis, 5:10 PM

After an impromptu doubleheader that seems to have seriously affected the outcome of yesterday’s game, the Pirates now fly from Pittsburgh to Colorado for one makeup game, and then immediately back to Pittsburgh for another home series. This is, of course, absurd: the Pirates don’t play the Rockies again, so they can’t tack this on to an existing series, but you have to imagine they could’ve tacked it on to an existing road trip, rather than having two cross-country flights slicing up what would’ve otherwise been a nine-game homestand.

But fair or not, sensible or not, that’s how it’s going down.

Jeff Locke throws for the Pirates, and the dude’s just been flat-out good for the last few weeks. The Bucs have won his last four starts, and he’s gone into the 7th in all of them. He started to turn his season around against these very same Rockies, also Colorado, by throwing six shutout innings and striking out eight. This came immediately after his implosion in San Diego.

The Rockies counter with Chad Bettis, who’s been about as good as Locke, but pretty unlucky. He started opposite Locke in the turnaround game I mentioned above, too, and the Bucs got to him for four runs in six innings, even though he induced 16 ground balls.

Normally I’d like this matchup plenty, but that flight has me worried. First pitch is at 5:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Taillon Solid, Bullpen Not: Mets 6, Pirates 5

06.09.16 Posted by

I’ve been saying for awhile that whether Jameson Taillon was particularly good or not, whoever he ended up taking starts from probably wouldn’t have been any better. Taillon’s major league debut was a fine example of that: he threw the minimum required for a Quality Start: six innings, three earned runs. He only struck out three, and he walked two, allowing six hits (one a home run). It was perfectly average, but given how common it is to struggle when adjusting to the highest level, that’s a pretty encouraging beginning.

Also encouraging is that the Pirates fared reasonably well against Syndergaard, scoring three runs (two earned) in six innings, and feeling like they could’ve gotten more: they banged out seven hits and drew two walks against him in those innings, and only struck out five times.

But the Bucs blew leads of 2-0, 3-2, and 5-3 (in the 8th inning, no less). In all, four relievers threw four innings, allowing three runs, and that’s why they lost in 10 innings. Yesterday’s doubleheader came back to bite them, with Feliz presumably unavailable in the aforementioned 8th (or only available in desperate circumstances) after throwing an inning in each of yesterday’s games. The only reliever not to allow a run, Watson, struck out the side.

Offensively, it was a good game: of the 10 Pirate hits, six of them were doubles, and three of those were from Gregory Polanco. Polanco leads the league in doubles, and at this point I think the thing most likely to stop him from continuing to do so is the possibility that they start landing on the other side of the fence more often. One of last night’s doubles came shortly after a towering fly ball down the right field line that was just foul, but if fair (and if it hadn’t hit a sign) would’ve end up waterlogged.

What more can you say? When you ask players on this kind of run what they attribute it to, they love to say something like “I’m seeing the ball real good right now,” which is ballplayer for “I’m straight up murdering the baseball and then tracking down its family while its still in the air.”

Yesterday’s twin wins eases the frustration with this loss, but otherwise it’s a pretty bad one: three different leads blown, and its pretty easy to chalk this up as a loss that wouldn’t have happened if the Bucs were playing a relatively normal schedule. But they aren’t, so here we are. Still, a very good series win against a good Mets team. The Bucs played well enough to win all three, and get credit for two. This is the kind of skill they’ll need to show throughout June to come out of the other side still vying for a playoff spot, and it’s the kind of skill they hadn’t shown much in the handful of games beforehand. It’s a good start.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon

Pirates vs. Mets: Taillon Debuts

06.08.16 Posted by

Taillon vs. Syndergaard, 7:05 PM

It was three years and three days ago that Gerrit Cole made his major league debut. I was lucky enough to be at that game, and that morning I collected a bunch of comments from around the Internet about the man. At the time, I said this:

What’s particularly exciting about this is that Cole isn’t being asked to play the role of Bucco savior, the way Andrew McCutchen was when he came up. Cole’s joining a team that’s already ostensibly contending and might just be a piece or two away from being genuinely dangerous. He could be that piece.

The same is true of Taillon: he’s not being asked to save the team from futility, or even mediocrity. It’s already a pretty good team. He’s just being asked to round it out. Granted, he’s joining a much shakier pitching staff than Cole was, but that only means he doesn’t need to do nearly as much to contribute.

Taillon has missed two years with injury, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his numbers: his K rate in AAA is still just about a batter per inning, and his walk rate is microscopic: 0.88 per nine innings. That’s really good. To my mind, pinpoint control is to starters what base running and defense are to young outfielders: it’s the kind of thing that should translate pretty well, and should make them marginally useful even if little else is working. We saw this with Polanco last year, where even his so-so offensive production was enough to produce a 2.5 WAR. Similarly, if Taillon can throw strikes, the odds that he’s at least useful as a starter, even if not dominant, are probably pretty high.

The Bucs are moderate underdogs tonight, though, in large part because Taillon’s first mound opponent is a formidable one: Noah Syndergaard. Syndergaard does it all: he strikes out a ton of guys and induces a lot of ground balls, and he’s not really walking anyone, either. He misses bats and pitches to contact effectively. He doesn’t have a single bad start this year, and he’s only given up three runs once (in 6.2 innings). If you were wondering why the Mets are good after seeing their lineup during yesterday’s doubleheader, this is why: they have some really, really good pitchers.

The odds say Taillon will be a moderately useful guy. Maybe a strong #3 starter for years to come. That’d be a fine outcome. But there’s a chance he’s another Gerrit Cole. There’s a chance this is the beginning of a one-two punch that goes on to lead the Pirates to the promised land. The talent is there, and now, that talent is married to opportunity.

That opportunity starts tonight, at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jameson Taillon

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