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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: the Coors hangover and previewing the Cardinals series

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SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – In previewing the Pirates-Rockies series last week I wrote that it was going to be interesting to see how the Pirates’ run-prevention ability translated to the thin air of Coors Field, where humidor or no humidor, it’s still an environment that promotes offense.

 

The Pirates’ brand of low-scoring baseball not translate well.

 

Francisco Liriano had never pitched in Coors Field and I doubt he has any interest in returning soon. A.J. Burnett was also rocked in the high altitude and Jeff Locke continue to walk batters at too high of a rate, again testing his magical ability to strand runners at an MLB-best rate.

Yes, it was a small sample size, but it was a reminder that park factors matter. The Pirates are built for PNC Park and spacious parks like it. A strong finish is important for a myriad of reasons, including the ability to avoid playing, say, a one-game play-in game on the road and a hitters’ paradise like, say, Great American Ballpark.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano works against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning of a baseball game in Denver on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(I think we can cross Coors Field off of Liriano’s free agent destinations in 2015)

 

Home-field matters. It’s an important element to play for going forward.

 

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS

 

9. Locke’s second-half walk rate has climbed to 5.79 BB per 9. His first half rate wasn’t great either at 3.88. That is a disturbing trend. That’s simply not a sustainable way to make a living as a major league starting pitcher, especially one that lacks elite velocity and breaking stuff.

 

8. I asked Clint Hurdle about Locke’s increased walk rate earlier this month and Hurdle brushed off any concerns saying it might just be the league adjusting to a pitcher with relatively little experience. He said there’s more concern out the organization than within. Yes, hitters and pitchers make constant adjustments, but there’s no substitute for fastball command.

 

It’s no longer a question of if Locke will regress, he is regressing. The question is how deep and painful will the regression be? His FIP is 3.75 which is equal to his second-half ERA.

 

7. The Pirates combined for eight runs in three games at Coors Field. It’s another anecdotal piece of evidence of how anemic this offense is. Free Andrew Lambo? Mark Reynolds, anyone? Are there any answers?

 

6. Yes, Liriano’s ERA ticked up by nearly an entire run after a career-worst start Friday. Because it was just one start at Coors Field, I don’t think there’s reason to be concerned. Liriano’s improvement is for real. His fastball command is improved, combined with elite velocity for a lefty, allows for his offspeed stuff to really play up. He’s had it more often than not. Unless he starts playing half his games at Coors Field, I’m not concerned and still waving the banner.

 

5. Hey, at least Gerrit Cole wasn’t psychologically damaged by pitching at Coors this weekend.

 

4. Speaking of Cole, he is having his next start skipped – which would have come Wednesday in St. Louis – ostensibly to keep his workload totals down. It makes sense to save Cole’s bullets for September and October. The Pirates haven’t said what his workload limit is in 2013, but he has a limit. And I think it’s probably around 190 innings, which is a 25 percent increase over his 2012 innings totals. He was on pace to throw 190 inning this season between Triple-A and the majors.

 

 

Also, by skipping Cole’s start you get Liriano (Wed vs. Shelby Miller) and Burnett (Thu. vs. Lance Lynn) to both pitch in the St. Louis series. Charlie Morton matches up with Adam Wainwright on Tuesday. The decision to ease off on Cole tells me the club is also seeing him as a postseason option for the rotation.

 

3. Morton has struggled with consistency but he’s coming off arguably his best start since his return from Tommy John. Morton posted a 13-to-1, groundball-to-flyball ratio against the Marlins in his last start. He’ll need similar command of his sinker against a tough Cardinals lineup that roughed him up in his last outing. Tuesday will be tough as the Pirates and Morton face the Cardinals ace in his home park.

 

2. The Pirates are facing the Cardinals at a good time as Yadier Molina is still out. The Cardinals pitching staff has missed the game’s best defensive catcher, and without Molina’s arm behind the plate the Pirates would be well served to take advantage of their greatest advantage over the Cardinals: team speed.

 

1. The recipe to win at Coors is still to out-slug teams. The Pirates aren’t built for that baseball. So keep an eye on the Reds, who are now just two games behind the Cardinals and five back of the Pirates. The Reds hope to get Johnny Cueto back at some point in the second half and could call up a pinch-running, game-changer in Billy Hamilton in September. The Reds also have the best player in the division in Joey Votto. Don’t sleep on them, it’s still a three-horse race. And Cincinnati is not where the Pirates want to be playing postseason games this October.

 

STAT THAT MIGHT ONLY INTEREST ME: .942

First-round pick Austin Meadows‘ OPS in rookie  ball, a 100 points higher than No. 5 overall pick Clint Frazier, who hails from the same town.

 

Meadows, and fellow first-rounder, Reese McGuire, each have a chance to go down as first-round steals. Only a so-so senior campaign kept Meadows out of the top 5, but then again how many high school arms were going to challenge Meadows who was regarded as the best prep player in the country entering the spring?

 

HE SAID IT:

“I didn’t exactly volunteer, but it was mentioned to me (in the dugout), and I said I could do it. When Clint met me on the mound, he said, ‘I never thought I’d have to have this talk with you on the mound.’ I just wanted to get out of there as quick as possible. I wasn’t worried about giving up a home run.” – Josh Harrison on becoming the first Pirates’ position player to pitch in a game since 2004

 

MODEST PROPOSAL:

Skip two more Cole starts before the third week of September.

If you take away 300/18 innings pitches between now and October, that’s three postseason starts he could make before reaching 190 innings. And that might also keep Cole fresher October.

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION:

If you’re not watching Breaking Bad it’s time to start making some Netflix requests and catch up. It’s the best television drama of the 21st century, imo, beating out The Wire and Sopranos.

 

-TS

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Comments

  1. BostonsCommon says:

    8. …”It’s no longer a question of if Locke will regress, he is regressing. The question is how deep and painful will the regression be? His FIP is 3.75 which is equal to his second-half ERA.”

    If Locke can pitch to 3.75 ERA over his remaining starts, the Pirates should win their share of them. That’s not the elite line he was putting up early in the season with a 2.xx ERA, but its still well below league average, and still good enough to win games.

    4. …”The decision to ease off on Cole tells me the club is also seeing him as a postseason option for the rotation”

    This is a wise decision. Weather it’s out of the pen, or in the rotation (which I prefer), Cole needs to be available this post season. NH and Hurdle clearly understand that success isn’t guaranteed every season, and they need to take advantage of this year. Although you can give an assist to the Nationals for nailing that point home with with their treatment of Strasburg last year, and their follow up performance this year.

  2. BostonsCommon says:

    While this three game set with the Cards carries big time importance, with a chance to stretch the division lead to 6 games, or come out deadlocked, don’t sleep on the 3 games following at PNC Park against the Dbacks.
    .
    The Pirates currently have a 10.5 game lead over the Dbacks (who are the closest threat for the wild card). Depending on what happens over the next few days, a sweep of the Dbacks could give the Pirates a 13.5 game lead, with only 39 left to play. That’s a pretty steep mountain to climb to knock the Pirates from the wild card.

  3. BostonsCommon says:

    “1. …”"Don’t sleep on them, it’s still a three-horse race.”"
    .
    You’re absolutely correct. But if the Pirates take care of business in the division (by having a winning record the rest of the way), they are the team to beat.
    .
    Remaining schedule:
    .
    @ Cardinals- 3
    Vs Dbacks- 3
    @ Padres- 3
    @ Giants- 4
    Vs Brewers- 3
    Vs Cardinals- 3
    @ Brewers- 3
    @ Cardinals- 3
    @Rangers- 3
    Vs Cubs- 4
    Vs. Padres- 4
    Vs Reds – 3
    @ Cubs – 3
    @ Reds – 3
    .
    That’s 28 of 45 against the division, including 9 more with the Cards and 6 of the last 9 against the Reds. A 15-13 record against the division would give the Pirates 85 wins, and put them in good shape to challenge for the division.
    .
    Dominating the Cubs and Brewers (10-3 or 9-4), which is what good teams do, would also give the Bucs some wiggle room, and put them in position to challenge for the Divison.
    .
    Some exciting times in the coming weeks on the North Shore, and it has nothing to do with the Steelers. What a breath of fresh air…

  4. NMR says:

    “That’s simply not a sustainable way to make a living as a major league starting pitcher, especially one that lacks elite velocity and breaking stuff.”
    .
    Ist half K/BB ratio: 1.55
    2nd half K/BB ratio: 1.56
    .
    If you’re going to point out his increased walks, how bout acknowledging his equal increase in strikeouts? That matters, obviously.
    .
    Furthermore, count me as one who absolutely does not want Locke to all the sudden worry about strikes. Right now, he’s missing off the plate. That’s a hell of a lot better than missing over the heart of the plate.
    .
    Locke would be in much more trouble if his homerun rate increased than if his walk rate increased.

  5. Chuck H says:

    It’s not fair to the Pirate starting pitchers to be pitching every game without much run support. They have to be afraid a little bit to throw a strike to even a below average hitter.
    One swing could lose the game for them. Is it too much to ask the Pirate so-called hitters
    to raise their effort to hit with RISP? This recent series with the Rockies showed just how
    bad this team is in that category. Either they strike out or hit into a DP. We have too many
    hitters who absolutely won’t swing at the first pitch, which is usually right down the middle.
    We’re just lucky that while we were losing, the Cardinals were losing too, but don’t count
    the Reds out-they have a team of good hitters and they could win it all. The Bucs have to
    improve on their hitting or they are out of the race. It’s that simple!!!

  6. BostonsCommon says:

    “The Bucs have to improve on their hitting or they are out of the race. It’s that simple!!!”…
    .
    That’s just not true. The Pirates have been a poor hitting team for over 72% of the season, 19th in MLB in team OPS at .702. They are awful, dead last in all of baseball in fact, at hitting with RISP with a .640 OPS.
    .
    Despite these warts, they have a +48 scoring differential. That’s not great, but it’s incredible given the ineptitude of the bats, and speaks volumes about the quality of this pitching staff and the defense. Furthermore, they have a 3 game lead in the division, and 10.5 for the second wild card…
    .
    They are NOT out of the race, nor will they be out of the race, despite what the bats do. Even if the Pirates regress from their current .598 winning %, to a .500 team the rest of the way (which is well BELOW what the numbers suggest they should be), that is still a 94 win team, and one that will probably win the division.

  7. I care ZERO about the Wild Card . . . especially the 2nd Wild Card playing 1-game on the road.
    .
    I only care about winning the Division!!!!!
    .
    (If the pretty girl turns me down for the Prom, THEN I’ll come up with someone else to ask)

  8. Excellent analysis!!
    .
    More strikeouts/more walks/less contact on pitches = more movement?
    .
    If Locke is regressing, so is Liriano!! Liriano’s ERA is higher for the season than Locke.

  9. “The decision to ease off on Cole tells me the club is also seeing him as a postseason option for the rotation.”
    .
    Ironic! The decision to ease off Cole tells ME that Pirates/Hurdle consider Morton, Liriano, Burnett, Locke, and Wandy when he comes back as better options before Cole against Cardinals and other playoff-caliber teams!!

  10. Travis Sawchik says:

    Re: Locke

    The Pirates would gladly take a 3.75 ERA the rest of the way from Locke, but I wonder of his regression is going to grow deeper if he can’t get those walks under control

    Re: Cole

    I think the Nationals showed the industry how NOT to handle a young arm and innings limits last season. The Pirates are smart to not make Cole’s innings limit public — they haven’t even told Cole — and it’s a wiser use of bullets to save them in Sept. and Oct/

  11. Travis Sawchik says:

    Locke has seen a strikeout bump in the second half. But a strikeout bump combined with a walk bump makes for a more inefficient pitcher. Locke has pitched beyond the sixth inning just once since July 1

  12. NMR says:

    There was that little thing where Strasburg was coming back from getting a new ligament in his elbow, but why bother with all the facts?
    .
    Clearly the same situation as Cole.

  13. Travis Sawchik says:

    The Nats could have managed Strasburg’s innings differently last season. This isn’t second guessing, this is first guessing. If the Nats felt 160 IP was the magic number, those innings could have been allocated differently.

    Chris Sale was moved to the bullpen last season to conserve his arm.

    It also made little sense for the Nationals to tell everyone what Strasburg’s innings limit was. Most notably, they probably got in his head, as he began pitch-count and innings watching.

  14. NMR says:

    Locke pitched past the 6th inning once in April, once in May, three times in June, and twice in July.
    .
    What’s that again about inefficiency?
    .
    Bill James cries a little bit every time somebody tries to use sabermetrics on a one month sample size for a starting pitcher. Ugh.

  15. NMR says:

    So a team coming off an 80-win season was supposed to save their top pitcher for the post season?
    .
    Oh yeah, no hindsight there at all…

  16. Travis Sawchik says:

    Locke pitched seven innings in a start five times in the first half, none to date in the second. Pretty straight forward.

    The sample is smallish, but not insignificant. A 5.7 walk rate over six weeks is quite glaring and tells a story about something: either a guy losing mechanics or a guy pitching too much away from contact

  17. NMR says:

    1st half average IP/start: 6
    2nd half average IP/start: 5.2

    We’re talking one out per start, Travis.

    Locke went out and held the team that just beat up the Pirates two best pitchers in the hitting environment you describe above to one run and three hits and you’re still using wonky stats out of context to push your story.

    Anybody that follows baseball knows that walks aren’t good. We don’t need small sample sabermetrics to justify some belief that Locke is going to regress over some imaginary number.

  18. Nate83 says:

    100% agree with NRM on this one. The Nationals at the time were not a perennial powerhouse that was gaurenteed 85-95 wins in a season (they still are not). Imagine if they don’t have him pitch until the beginning of June and they miss the playoffs by 2 or 3 games. Also he had the 3rd or 4th best ERA on the team last year. It’s not like he was head and shoulders above the other pitchers for the Nationals.

 
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