SOUTH HILLS – Remember when Miller Park was a house of horrors for the Pirates? (It wasn’t that long ago). Well, it is again as the Pirates head to Cincinnati today fresh off of being swept by the upstart Brewers, this after the Pirates won their first three series of the season.
I wouldn’t make too much of the series. The Brewers are hot, the Pirates weren’t at the top of their game, and it’s April 14th. But that got me to thinking: what can we take from early April and small samples? Should we then not be making too much of Pedro Alvarez’s new found plate discipline and opposite-field focus? Are the Brewers really a force? What do we take from April? What do we dismiss?
There’s no doubting reactions to early-season performances are exaggerated because it’s the first meaningful baseball we’ve witnessed since October. There’s no doubting that it’s foolish to rush to judgments after 12 games. (Fantasy players this is a great time to buy low on Chris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion, and Prince Fielder).
Still, that doesn’t mean there is no meaning to what happens early in the season. What I try to draw from early-season happenings is not results, necessarily, but rather changes in process. I think the subjective scouting eye can be more important than data-driven analysis at this time of year because of the nature of small samples.
For example, is there a meaningful change in approach with a player or a team that could lead to big things? Does a pitcher have a new pitch a new delivery (Francisco Liriano last year) that is making an impact? I think that is worth exploring. I think such developments might be meaningful this time of year. That’s why I think what we’ve seen from Alvarez early this season, and some of the other Pirates’ hitters, matters. Is Yovani Gallardo learning to better pitch without velocity? Has he made an adjustment? That might matter.
I don’t think the Pirates’ are suddenly precluded from winning at Miller Park again even though that’s an easy narrative – but if the Brewers’ pitching stays healthy they’re going to be a tough out and a 90-winish team because their center-of-the-diamond talent rivals that of any team in the National League.
While it’s too early to panic off of results it’s not too early to study what’s leading to them.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. Speaking of process over results in April, I expected Charlie Morton to take a step forward in 2014. I still believe he will, or at least provide a semblance of what he did last season. Morton had a rough week, allowing seven earned runs in 13 innings over two starts but I thought there was one encouraging sign Sunday: Morton threw his changeup.
8. Morton threw his split-changeup 11 times on Sunday. He generated two swings and misses with the pitch – Carlos Gomez in the seventh and Scooter Gennett in the fourth. No Brewer drew a walk or hit off the pitch. Progress? I think so. I believe that’s the most Morton has thrown the pitch in a start.
7. I still think Liriano is going to be a quality stater in 2014 and put together two consecutive above-average seasons in his career … but I also don’t think he’s repeating 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA. That’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to ask the slider to be that historically good again and it’s a lot to expect the fastball command to be that consistent again. We’ll see.
6. Jordy Mercer was part of a really poor defensive showing.
5. I had my doubts about Jose Abreu because so many scouting reports questioned his batspeed and Cuba is apparently a land of off-speed/junk-ball pitchers. But in a short sample we see that Abreu is a very strong man and might very well be another bargain from the island.
Baseball America had the Pirates as one of the top five fits for Abreu this offseason because of need and what some thought would be some more available dollars for GM Neal Huntington and company. As of today, Abreu would look pretty good in the No. 5 spot in the Pirates’ lineup. I’ve seen Abreu crush off-speed mistakes as he was expected to be able to do but I’ve also seen him square up 95 mph velocity. He looks very much like a strong, professional hitter and perhaps more agile around the bag than many expected.
4. Travis Snider with two home runs in the week that was. Just saying.
3. And Snider is also likely aware of what’s in the rear-view mirror. Gregory Polanco is abusing Triple-A pitching.
2. While I believe the primary reason the Pirates traded for Chris Stewart this offseason was for his elite pitch framing skills, Tony Sanchez‘s 2013 throwing issues might have also been in the front office’s thought process. Sanchez had a key throwing error Sunday that allowed two earned runs to score. It appeared Sanchez did not set his feet after blocking a Morton in-the-dirt-strikeout and the throw sailed into right field. Sanchez has eased concerns about his bat. But is going to have to be more consistent in the throwing game to emerge as a possible starting catching option in 2015. This is something to watch with Russell Martin‘s impending free agency.
1. Thoughts around the NL Central ….
*I don’t think the Brewers are going to win a 110 games. That said, I would not be surprised at all if they are in the thick of things in the second half (provided they enjoy good health). I’m not sure they can weather much pitching attrition but Tyler Thornburg could be another rotation piece.
*Through two weeks my prediction of big things for Billy Hamilton? Sad trombone.
*Michael Wacha might soon be the ace of the Cardinals staff – and that’ saying a lot with Adam Wainwright‘s presence. Wacha is mixing in a cutter and a sharper breaking ball early this season and the fastball that touches 97 mph and the wipeout changeup are still in play all come from a rare, exaggerated, over-the-top arm slot.
*Cubs? See you in 2016 but Kris Bryant already looks to have the hang of Double-A.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 11.4
Pedro Alvarez’s swinging strike rate entering Sunday which is down five percentage points from his MLB-worst 16 percentage mark last season. I know it’s a small sample, I know it’s April, but that doesn’t mean what we’ve witnessed is not meaningful.
HE SAID IT
Andrew McCutchen on his grumpy ankle:
“It’s like when you wake up one day and it’s like, ‘Aw, my back is hurting,’ and then you wake up the next and your back’s not hurting. It’s just one of those things. It’s not going to hinder me at all. I’m going to do everything I normally do.”
It doesn’t sound like a big deal and McCutchen swiped a couple bags in Milwaukee.
NON-BASEBALL SUGGESTION OF THE WEEK
I assume many of you know of or about Mad Mex. If you do not, educate yourself.