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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: appreciating 94, looking ahead to Tuesday’s match-ups and perhaps to Jose Abreu

SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Buckle up Pittsburgh. Since pitchers and catchers reported to spring training some 230 days have elapsed in the Pirates’ best year since 1992. And now the life and death of that season comes down to one game.

 

I get why Major League Baseball opted for the second wild card: it makes the division races more meaningful, it keeps more teams in the races, thereby keeping more fans interested in buying tickets and $8 beer, and it’s also created two great made-for-TV events. I actually like it as a fan of the game. There’s nothing like elimination-game baseball. But I understand why the No. 4 seed does not and likely never will.

 

The 2013 NL No. 4 seed, the Pirates, finished the season four games better than the Reds but now must win a fourth straight game against Reds on Tuesday to advance to the NLDS. Fairness is not part of the second wild card equation.

 

The Pirates I spoke with in Cincy were not big on the relatively new playoff format, and no No. 4 seed will likely ever be.

 

“It’s crazy because we play so many games,” first baseman Justin Morneau said. “There’s not any point during the year where we play a one-game series against anybody. Anybody can beat anybody in one game.  It doesn’t ensure the best team advances.”

 

Baseball is a process sport. It’s played over a marathon of a season when small-sample flukes tend to evaporate, when bad calls tend to even out, when the best teams typically rise to the top. But anything can happen in one game. Even the 1927 Yankees could lose in a one-game playoff. On Tuesday a process sport becomes solely dependent on one outcome which is alien to the nature of the game.

 

It’s great television. It’s great theater. But it’s also completely arbitrary.

 

So brace yourself Pittsburgh, this fun ride could come to an abrupt, cold ending Tuesday. I think that’s why context is important. Regardless of what happens, 94 wins is a monumental achievement for this franchise and should not be forgotten or dismissed regardless of what happens in a one-game play-in. 2013 could end in heartbreaking fashion but it cannot be defined in any term other than success.

 

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS

 

9. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates align their postseason roster. It does not have to be released until Tuesday.

 

My lineup expectation vs. Reds RHP Johnny Cueto:

 

LF Starling Marte: A healthy Marte brings much needed speed to the lineup. He stole three bases Wednesday in Chicago after Pirates entered with four steals in Sept.

2B Neil Walker (S): Walker has been much better against RHP, with all 16 of his home runs coming vs. RHP

CF Andrew McCutchen: The NL MVP favorite has three home runs in 39 career at bats vs. Cueto.

1B Justin Morneau (L): Morneau’s bat has cooled since joining the Pirates but he’s batting .282 with 15 HRs against RHP

RF Marlon Byrd: While Byrd hits for a higher average vs. lefties, he’s hit 16 of his 24 homers vs. RHP

3B Pedro Alvarez (L): Of Alvarez’s 36 home runs, 33 are vs. RHP

C Russell Martin: Martin’s bat has cooled in the second half but he remains a well-above average defensive catcher

SS Clint Barmes: The team’s best defensive shortstop.

LHP Francisco Liriano

Bench: Josh Harrison, Garrett Jones (L), Jordy Mercer, John Buck, Tony Sanchez, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider (L)

Bullpen: Justin Wilson (L), Tony Watson (L), Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Vin Mazarro, Gerrit Cole, Kyle Farnsworth, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez

 

That’s mine show me yours.

 

8. You might loathe the wild card playoff game this year beacuse the Pirates are the  No. 4 seed but you couldn’t ask for a better matchup: Liriano’s line in two home games vs. Reds this season: 14Ip, 7H, 3R, 4BB, 18K

 

Liriano has posted a single-season, all-time best opponent OPS against LHH (.321). That’s right, best in major league history for a pitcher. The Reds’ three best bats – Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce – are all left-handed and are each significantly worse against left-handed pitching.

 

liriano930

One other key: Liriano has a 1.47 home ERA vs. a 4.32 road ERA this season 

 

Moreover, the Pirates also have two of the games best lefty specialists in Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, and Mark Melancon has actually been better against left-handed pitching.  The Reds’ lefty-heavy lineup should be severely handicapped.

 

I think it’s also a big deal that Gerrit Cole didn’t have to pitch Sunday. That means the Pirates can have a 100-mph throwing right-handed pitcher to match up with Tuesday. The bullpen was a key strength in the first half of the season and it should be again Tuesday.

 

7.  Oh, and the Pirates are also on their home-field, which is significant if you read my piece on home-field advantage from Friday

 

home-sweet-home

 

 

6. Don’t sleep on Johnny Cueto. His stuff has looked very good in his two starts in returning from injury. He’s touched 95 mph with his fastball and has had plenty of success against the Pirates in the past, holding current Pirates to a collective .209 batting average.

 

5. A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton will not be on the wild cards game roster, but they could be the first two starters in the NLDS should the Pirates advance. Burnett would start Game 1 of the NLDS.

 

One player you won’t see in the postseason is Jeff Locke. GM Neal Huntington announced Sunday Locke is shut down for the rest of the season. What a fall: from first-half All-Star to Double-A demotion in August and left off the postseason roster.

 

4. I like Travis Snider and Garrett Jones as bench options Tuesday. Snider has three pinch-hit homers this season. Jones homered Sunday.

 

3. I thought Hurdle was wise to field a lineup that looked like something of a split-squad spring training game Sunday. The Pirates and Reds had entered with a MLB series high 27 hit batters and no sense in risking injury.

 

2. Can Pedro Alvarez become the next Chris Davis? Davis was an all-or-nothing slugger in 2012 and made the leap to MVP candidate in 2013. He did it by cutting Ks and increasing BB rate while keeping his HR/FB rate elite. Alvarez has a similar HR/FB rate but he must cut down on his number of empty at bats. He’s yet to prove he can … but Davis is evidence of a player who did make unexpected improvement.

 

1 . Looking ahead to the offseason, the Pirates will be in need of a first baseman and Baseball America’s excellent prospect writer Ben Badler believes the Pirates will be one of five contenders for Cuba’s Jose Abrue, a mighty slugger with hole in his swing.

 

Wrote Badler:

 

Typically the Pirates aren’t a team that springs for big-name free agents, but that might make Abreu an even more appealing option since clubs view Abreu as a riskier bet compared to a player with major league experience. With a potential bump in revenue coming from a postseason berth and their first winning season in 20 years, the Pirates could have more financial flexibility to pursue free agents in the offseason.

 

The increased risk around Abrue, gives the Pirates a chance in the bidding as Badler notes. As the Oakland A’s proved, the international market can be a market inefficiency to be taken advantage of if you have the scouting right.


HE SAID IT

“When people ask me a number, 95 is the number I throw out there, and people go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of-’ and I go, ‘Yeah, you’re right it’s a lot of games!’ I get it, but you know what? If we win 95, we’re going to be in a good place. So how do you win 95? Where do you go recreate 16 games? That’s kind of the mentality we’ve used.”

- Clint Hurdle on Feb. 28

 

HE SAID IT II

Andrew McCuthcen’s final triple slash line  .317/.404/.508 and NL-best WAR (8.1) is MVP worthy.

Said teammate Neil Walker:

“He’s among what I like to call the ‘One Percenters’ in Major League Baseball. And I have a front-row seat.”

 

HE TWEETED IT 

 

STAT OF THE WEEK 

From David Golebiewski ….

Gerrit Cole ranks among top rookie September K artists (min. 30 IP)

Pitcher Year K/9

Dwight Gooden 1984 13.3

Bob Feller 1936 11.3

Gerrit Cole 2013 11.0

Cole Hamels 2005 10.9

Bobby Witt 1986 10.9

…. Pretty darn impressive

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK 

Breaking Bad. Wow. If you haven’t watched this series start from the beginning via DVD and thank me later.

 

- TS

Comments

  1. NMR says:

    -Lineup:
    .
    Unfortunately, a healthy Marte hasn’t translated to a productive Marte. He’s struck out in 37% of his at-bats, walked zero times, and has been the beneficiary of a .400 BABIP since returning. Just using the ol eye test, has he squared up a single ball outside of his homerun in Chicago? Would I bet against Marte? Heck no. But Tabata is the safer, and more productive, choice to lead off.
    .
    Absolutely no reason Justin Morneau should be in the middle of any contending team’s batting order. That has to be crystal clear at this point. All but one of Neil Walker’s six recent homeruns have been of the solo variety, of which the blame rests on Marte’s inability to get on base and Morneau taking up a spot in the middle of the batting order. Putting Morneau in the 2-hole and Byrd-Walker-Alvarez 4-5-6 absolutely maximizes this teams chances of scoring runs.
    .
    -Alvarez: Travis wrote a blog earlier this season asking whether or not Pedro is actually improving. I’d love to see an updated entry taking his entire year into account.
    .
    -Abreau: Big difference, IMO, between Cespedes in Oakland / Puig in LA and what Abreau might bring to the table. Both of those other players contribute in the outfield and on the base paths, as well as at the plate. Even optomistic reports of Abreua claim he’s all bat. If the Pirates are going to spend $10m/yr on a player, I think they have to get more than a POTENTIALLY one-tool first baseman.

  2. Skip says:

    I agree that a Major League Baseball season is a process where over the long haul, the truly best teams emerge. So it’s not just the one-game elimination series between the wild card teams that turns that process on its head. The very notion of ANY wildcard teams goes against that process.

    In fact, the only way to truly honor the season-long process would be to eliminate all wild cards. Two division winners, or the two teams in each League with the best record in an LCS, and then the World Series. That’s it.

    Or do it like the old days – best regular-season record in each league wins the pennant, and those two play in the World Series.

    Somehow I don’t think that would be too popular.

  3. Pitts Burgher says:

    Skip is right! A one-game playoff is a coin-flip no doubt, and the 1927 Yankees could have lost a single-elimination game, but the Yanks won the league and a first place team, such as the Yanks, would not then or now be exposed to a one-game playoff.

    Sure it would be nice to see the Bucs go straight to the NLDS, but no one other than the team with the best record in the NL or AL can complain about the playoff format. They are all lucky to have chance to get the World Series — Bucs included.

    Bill Cowher talked about the Steelers putting themselves in a position to achieve their goals. The Pirates have done that. They are in a position to advance — a very good one with home field advantage and Liriano pitching on regular rest. But in a game where the best team wins about six out of ten games and the worst teams win four out of ten, anything can happen when two good teams and two good starting pitchers face each other.

    This season has been a huge success for the Pirates no matter what happens on Tuesday night.

    Beat ‘em Bucs!

  4. Brendan says:

    Good points all.

    – You could certainly argue that Tabata may be the better option at that plate right now. If we agree that he is the question then becomes does Marte’s great value on the bases and in the field narrow that gap? I’m not sure but worth considering.

    – Since arriving in Pittsburgh Morneau has shown little extra power but has fairly reliable managed to get on base. He has 13 BB’s to 12 K’s. One could argue that he’s due. But if we assume that’s likely to be his skill set–tomorrow and going forward in the playoffs–then it seems fair to suggest that’s skill set more suited to the second spot in the lineup. Moving Walker down in the lineup, particularly against RHP might make sense as well.

    – Interestingly the tangible improvement Alvarez has made at least based on the numbers, is in the field. Last year his UZR was -9 this year it’s -0.3 per Fangraphs. There’s plenty of room to argue that defensive metrics are still far from completely reliable particularly in a single year. But I feel like that verifies what I’ve seen via the eye-test.

    His K% has remained more or less consistent. 30.3% this year versus 30.7% last year and a 30.6% career average. His walk rate dropped a bit this year 7.8% versus 9.7% last year and a 9.0% career average.

    His ISO was up .240 versus .223 last year and a .207 career average.

    His BABIP was down to .276 versus .308 last year and a .299 career average. That’s despite having a career high LD% of 20.5 and the lowest GB% of his career. The line drive and GB% are encouraging and suggest that he may be improving somewhat and simply was a little bit less lucky this year than years past.

    Perhaps less encouraging is that he swung at more pitches inside and outside the zone and made less contact than in 2012 (he contact percentage was 70.9% in 2012 and 66% this year). His swinging strike percentage was also the highest of his career at 16.4% versus 13.6 % last year and a 14.3% career average).

    So essentially it seems like his defensive is relatively better and that’s hitting the ball with more authority when he makes contact (perhaps to a degree slightly greater than reflected by his triple slash line) but is swinging and missing more often, etc.

    If you dig into Davis’s numbers prior to this year there are some parallel’s you might notice but no patterns that explicitly suggest Pedro will enjoy a similar career trajectory. Davis has had an equal and often greater amount of swing and miss in his game over this career. But the quality of his contact has been consistently better than Pedro’s. Take a looks at their LD% by seasons:

    Pedro

    2010 – 14.8
    2011 – 19.5
    2012 – 18.7
    2013 – 20.5

    Davis

    2008 – 25.5
    2009 – 20.6
    2010 – 22.2
    2011 – 25.0
    2012 – 23.2
    2013 – 21.9

    The percent of their fly balls that are home runs over the past two years are similar 25% and 26.3% for Pedro and 25.2% and 29.6% for Davis.

    However the big difference for Davis this year was increasing the number of fly balls he hit 45.7% versus 37.5 last year and compared to 34.5 and 36.4% for Pedro.

    The difference then is not really in how often they strike out or walk but what they do when they make contact. Davis is hitting many more line drives and fly balls than Pedro.

  5. NMR says:

    Thank you very much for the thoughtful response, Brendan.
    .
    -I would absolutely agree the Marte’s value on the bases closes the gap between him and Tabata, except that Marte has shown an inability to get on base by means other than hits. If he can’t hit, he can’t get on base.
    .
    -Excellent work on Alvarez. I found the part where his contact rate dropped yet K rate stayed the same especially interesting. Meaningless, or a sign of decreasing contact skills that could lead to more k’s next year?
    .
    Couple other bits I found…
    Pedro pulled the ball in the air far more in 2013 than 2012. I’d post the link, but it’ll sit in moderation until tomorrow. Go to brooksbaseball.net and check out his spray charts.
    .
    Pedro also hit fastballs much better, while fairing much worse on breaking balls changeups, in 2013 compared to 2012. His average dropped from .223 to .141 on breaking stuff and from .222 to .158 on changeups. Chris Davis, comparatively, hit .290 and .325 on breaking balls and changeups.
    .
    Now I’ll never claim to know enough about these stats to make even an informed opinion, but it outwardly appears as though Pedro has started selling out on the fastball instead of attempting to become a more well-rounded hitter. I’ll be honest, I’m a lot less optomistic about him next year than I was before this conversation.

  6. Chuck H says:

    I like the posted lineup with 2 exceptions- Tabata to lead off and play left field, and Mercer
    at short with Barmes to come in later for defense. GO,BUCS!!!

  7. Brendan says:

    Had Davis previously hit breaking balls and change ups at a similar rate, or was that large step forward.

    My feeling at this point is that the Pedro we’ve seen the past two years is probably more or less the player he’ll be over his remaining years in Pittsburgh, for better or worse.

    Although the numbers you cited against breaking balls and change-ups certainly gives me pause. I’d be curious if he saw more of those pitches over the course of year and if that perhaps explains his performance in aug/sept?

  8. Jim B says:

    Travis, I am so excited about the Buccos year and hope it doesn’t end Tues. I even wrote and posted a little sing along song with some not so subtle references to the last 20 years. If you want to hear it seach Utube for Raise the Jolly Roger 2013. Let me know if you like it.

  9. NMR says:

    It appears as though Davis has always been pretty good at hitting changeups, but saw a big jump in success against breaking pitches this year. As well as huge jumps in power across the board.
    .
    The site I use does have month-by-month pitch type breakdowns for Pedro, but only in aggregate form and not percentage. If I have a moment, I’ll do the math.

  10. Bas says:

    Marte has to start–especially in PNC Park–because his outfield coverage (in conjunction w/ Cutch) has been a critical factor in the pitchers’ success this year. But Tabata played well this year–finally–which gives late game flexibility.
    Barnes starts first game to help carry Francisco: defense, defense!
    And statistically, anyone have the numbers re: Martin v Sanchez w/ Frankie pitching? (Even though in this playoff game Martin has to start.)

  11. Travis Sawchik says:

    Good analysis, Brendan and NMR

    Comps are often rough approximations, and Chris Davis and Pedro don’t have exactly the same profiles …but Davis made real, unexpected improvement and the Pirates have to hope Pedro can do the same.

    The one area of improvement that we see from Alvarez is he has improved his GB/FB rate the last three years. That’s meaningful for a guy with a Davis-like HR/FB rate.

    I think his bat-to-ball issues will persist, what the club really needs him to do is become more selective and more often swing at what he can hit.

    Davis became a much-better off-speed hitter this season. Can Alvarez do the same? How often have we seen Alvarez chase at soft stuff below the strike zone? He must improve pitch recognition.

  12. Travis Sawchik says:

    NMR,
    The Tabata/Marte decision is probably one of the more difficult ones for Hurdle. But I would personally give the edge to Marte due to his range in the OF and impact speed on the basepaths. Having a plus defender in left field at PNC Park is a big deal.

  13. Travis Sawchik says:

    Just for the record, this is not my personal lineup preference, it’s projected upon what I think Hurdle will do. Hurdle has been consistent with leading off Marte, despite inaction, and keeping Morneau in the No. 4 spot. I think he leans with veteran and defense in Barmes. We’ll see

  14. Travis Sawchik says:

    That wouldn’t be popular. And every team and front office knows the rules in advance, so whining is not attractive.

    I think the only thing you can second guess is if the Pirates should have made a pre-July 31 trade, for, say Morneau (The Pirates would have had to pay a higher price)

    What if he had his August – 9 HRs, 21 RBI – for the Pirates? Would the Pirates be NL Central champs?

  15. Travis Sawchik says:

    Jim, I might have to check this out

  16. Chuck H says:

    First of all-Pirates need to score runs and score early. Barmes couldn’t hit the water if he
    fell out of a boat. Statistically the first team to score usually wins, not always, but mostly.
    And Liriano tends to tire about the 6th or 7th inning, but if the Bucs are leading at that
    time, they are in pretty good shape with relievers for the rest of the game. GO,BUCS!!!

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