SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – So I’m new around here, but as I understand it this might be the most important series in, oh, about 20 years or so at the confluence of the Three Rivers.
The Pirates did what they needed to on their 10-game road trip: they split. Now they have five games in four days against the first-place Cardinals. They have a chance to take over the division lead entering August. That’s big time.
I’m curious, as I’m sure you are, how the Pirates handle this.
Clint Hurdle noted before Sunday’s games that there’s not enough focus on the human element in baseball these days, it’s too stats driven, too analytical. And even being a person who likes messing around the numbers, I agree. There remains a significant portion of the game that is psychologically driven, that can’t be measured – at least not measured yet. Not everything is in the book.
And we’ll learn something that can’t be measured to date about these Pirates this week: are they ready for high-stakes baseball?
Sure, Russell Martin has been there, A.J. Burnett and a few others. But most of the Pirates have not played much meaningful baseball. Not like this.
Will A.J. Burnett and the Pirates quiet the Cardinals? The Pirates need a big start from their veteran on Tuesday.
Are the Pirates for real? The pitching staff is. The defense is. The offense, not so much. But one thing that can threaten all the success to date is the internal psychological regression, a late-season skid when players begin putting too much pressure on themselves, start doing too much, start feeling the pressure squeeze. This series will have a postseason-feel to it. The Cardinals have played in plenty of big games over the last decade. The Pirates have not. How will they respond? It’s going to be fascinating to watch.
9. I still think more meaningful than any trade the Pirates can make is simply getting several bats to hit at their career-average levels. That’s why I think one of the more encouraging things I saw during the Miami series was the way Neil Walker squared up the ball. Walker hit balls on the screws five times on Saturday night , and make some loud contact in the Washington series.
Walker said he’s staying within himself, and he’s healthy. Yes, you know that right field and first base have been production voids, but the Pirates are also 13th in the NL in OPS at second bae.
8. Some good news entering the series? The Pirates are going to miss Shelby Miller, who is their most talented arm.
7. So you want to be the Cardinals? Well, draft really well. As we examined earlier this year, no team has drafted better than the Cardinals in baseball. Just think Matt Carpenter, Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Adams were all drafted after the 20th round in the 2009 draft. Oh, the Cardinals also got Miller and Lance Lynn in the top three rounds of those drafts.
The draft, that’s where consistent performance begins and ends for mid- to small-market clubs. The Pirates have taken a better approach to the draft in recent years, spending more, and finding some steals like Justin Wilson and Tyler Glasnow. But they haven’t been the Cardinals. No one has.
6. Jose Fernandez is a very special arm. I wouldn’t read too much into Sunday’s loss, and the 13Ks, because not many major league clubs would have had success against the 20-year-old Cuban defector.
Consider this first inning sequence to Jose Tabata: 99 mph fastball, 99 mph fastball, 99 mph fastball.
Then consider this fifth inning sequence to Tabata: five straight Whiffle-ball like curves.
Yeah, that’s fair.
5. The Cardinals have a much deeper and more consistent lineup than the Pirates. That’s the biggest thing working against the Pirates. But the biggest thing working in their favor is this: defense. The Pirates rank first in baseball in defensive efficiency, which is quite simply, turning batted balls into outs.
The Cardinals rank 19th. The Pirates have speed in the outfield and lead baseball in use of infield shifts.
4. Russell Martin is nearly as valuable to the Pirates as Yadier Molina is to the Cardinals. Martin doubled and stole a base Sunday. I think the knee is OK.
3. With Travis Snider allegedly suffering through left big toe pain, Jose Tabata has become the Pirates’ mostly every day left fielder, I suppose, unless Garrett Jones moves out there to platoon. Or unless a trade is made. Our own Rob Biertempfel reports that the Pirates are interested in Hunter Pence, but I’m not even sure Pence is an impact guy. I wonder if the Pirates missed an opportunity with Alfonso Soriano, that seemed to be a great deal for the Yankees. There just aren’t many impact bats out there.
2. I’m wondering if the Pirates offered their entire Altoona Curve roster for Giancarlo Stanton after that series. What a talent.
1. Lost in the shadow of Fernandez’s awesome performance Sunday is how good, Gerrit Cole was: Seven innings, six baserunners, career-best eight strikeouts. His slider was awesome. He threw it a season-high 22 times. Combine the slider with the fastball and you’re seeing why Cole will eventually rack up the strikeouts and why he’s still a evolving pitcher.
Who would you rather have over the next decade? Cole or Fernandez. I’ll take Fernandez over any pitcher in baseball. Really. But Cole is in the top 10 of U25 arms.
MODEST PROPOSAL: Start Luis Heredia in Game 2 of Tuesday’s doubleheader.
For real now, move Andrew McCutchen up to No. 2 in the batting order. Hurdle has been in search of ways to jumpstart his offense and there’s been some studies that show the most efficient use of your best hitter is to place him in the No.2 spot in the batting order. It maximizes plate appearances while also allowing for some RBI opportunities….and how about putting the Pirates’ two fastest players back-to-back in the lineup and utilizing their speed more often?
REGRESSION MATCH-UP THAT MIGHT ONLY INTEREST ME:
Allen Craig is batting .485 with runners in scoring position.
Jeff Locke’s MLB best percentage of base runners stranded (83.2 percent). They meet Wednesday.
Hurdle said Locke’s heartbeat slows down with runners on base, he’s able to really execute pitches and focus. Sabermaticians say Locke is in for a market correction. Of course, the sabermaticians have been saying that for a while now.
Maybe Craig and Locke both have magic powers we can’t measure. I don’t know.
What I do know is this, something pointed out by @BurghFan99 on Twitter: the Pirates don’t have the market cornered on regression. The Cardinals have an incredible RISP average.
STAT OF THE WEEK THAT:
The Pirates couldn’t have hoped for a better debut from first-round pick Austin Meadows.
In his first 17 pro games he’s .292 with two homers and a .956 OPS.
HE SAID IT
“I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen Dwight Gooden.”
– Hurdle on Jose Fernandez
Nice job by the folks in control of sound prior to Sunday’s game in Miami: this was played during pregame. I applaud.