PNC PARK – Last night’s loss seemed soul crushing for the Pirates, blowing a late, golden opportunity to win the Million Dollar Arm Publicity Game. But big picture, the Pirates still finished their homestand with three series wins. It was a very good homestand (Jon Hamm even showed up). It could have been great.That’s progress.
The Pirates are relevant again as they head to Milwaukee. And if Pirates-Brewers was not a rivalry before the Easter Brawl of ’14, it is now.
The two teams meet up for the first time Tuesday since the brawl last month that resulted in a number of suspensions, a black eye for Travis Snider, and Russell Martin challenging Martin Maldonado to Pay-Per-Vew fight. So there figures to be some interesting drama unfolding over three days on the coast of Lake Michigan. But of course the more important question is can the Pirates or anyone else in the NL Central catch the Brewers?
Throwing out the first pitch in Milwaukee
I think we’re going to have a tight NL Central race this summer and the primary reason for such a belief begins with run differential. The Brewers are actually one run behind the Cardinals in run differential, but entered Sunday with a 5 1/2 game lead. The same is true for the Reds, similar run differential, 5 1/2 games back of the Brewers. So the Brewers have been fortunate to a degree already this season.
The Brewers bullpen isn’t going to be this good as season, neither is their starting pitching, and they need Ryan Braun to be right. Then there is the issue of the Brewers’ depth and that they’ve already had some injury issues arise with key players like Braun and Matt Garza. (Braun is expected to be back Tuesday and Garza returned to pitch Sunday).
NL CENTRAL STANDINGS (AND RUN DIFFERENTIAL)
Milwaukee 24-14 +13
St. Louis 19-19 +15
Cincinnati 17-19 +10
Pittsburgh 16-21 -12
Chicago 12-24 -16
Run differential is straightforward and I think it is a useful barometer. The Brewers are going to come back to pack. The Cardinals and Reds are going to play better baseball. But are the Pirates going to rise to meet the pack? Three straight series wins is a nice start.
I think Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen are each improved offensive players (yes, even McCutchen … more on that below). I think the bullpen is going to be better. The question for me is really about starting pitching.
The Pirates need Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton to being pitching like a 1, a 2 and a 3.
*If Liriano really was not healthy until his last several starts that is reason for optimism. He claims his groin strain lingered into the season. Liriano touched 95 mph on Friday for the first time in 2014. He topped out at 96.6 mph last season. His best velo to date had been 94.5 mph this season entering Friday.
*Cole threw eight mostly quality innings Thursday, that’s progress, but that curveball has gone from having a +3.6 run value last season to a negative -0.2 mark this season.
2013 whiff rate: 20.2 percent
2014 whiff rate: 14.2 percent
There’s that question again: Where are the strikeouts? *Just when you think Morton is getting on track, Ground Chuck’s sinker wasn’t sinking early against St. Louis. Morton’s groundball rate is down nearly 10 points from a year ago. Morton is averaging an inch more horizontal movement, but the pitch is down 1.5 mph from last season….And the changeup remains a work in progress. (And the Cardinals’ have Morton’s number.) Digging out begins with starting pitching, and really, it begins with the top of the rotation.
STARTING NINE THOUGHTS
9. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the reigning NL MVP has been even better this season. Crazy, right? McCutchen entered play Sunday with a .427 on-base percentage and a 15.9 percent walk rate, both which would mark career bests. He’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone and has not forced the issue much at all this season.
Here’s his triple slash line from a year ago: .317/.404/.508
Here’s his triple-slash line this season: .319/.427/.511
If the power shows up a little more, McCutchen could become a 1.000 OPS player. Even if this is who he is, he’s settled in as a .300/.400/.500 star, who plays a center-of-the-field position and is tied into a club-friendly deal through 2018. Don’t take this player for granted, Pittsburgh. Now, should he be batting second or cleanup instead of third?
8. I know Starling Marte has had some struggles but the Pirates don’t want to be without him for two weeks. Pirates GM Neal Huntington indicated he didn’t think Marte would need a DL stint, when speaking to reporters on Sunday, but he didn’t rule it out either. Marte’s baserunning and defense never goes into slumps. If Marte needs the DL, does that force the club to give Gregory Polanco a call? Probably not…but only because of Super 2.
7. Has Neil Walker become underrated, at least nationally? A back-luck BABIP has suppressed is average, which is hiding some real gamins that include trimming his strikeout rate by 5 points and a spike in power (career best 14.6 HR/FB) as he leads NL second basemen in home runs (7). He still pops up too often, but Walker has consistently produced quality at bats this season.
6. Wandy Rodriguez is slated to start Wednesday in Milwaukee. He has not pitched well there. He’s struggled in rehab. Is he really the Pirates’ best option at this point? Jeff Locke pitched well Sunday. Brandon Cumpton has had a leap in stuff. The leash should be very short with Rodriguez at this point, imo.
5. Ike Davis might be trying to do too much. Has to have a better at bat there vs. Rosenthal on Sunday night.
4. Bryan Morris has a big arm, big stuff and some big underlying stats – 70 GB % rate, 1.2 bb/9 and 13.4 swinging strike rate – but the results are lagging behind. I still believe.
3. I know it’s just 17 minor league innings, but even before the season some believe Tyler Glasnow’s future home would be in a major league bullpen – not the Pirates’ rotation. A 15-15, walk-to-strikeout ratio isn’t easing those concerns. With Jameson Taillon’s TJ setback, with Nick Kingham’s OK-but-not-great start and another slow start for Luis Heredia, the Pirates’ Pitch-22 philosophy hasn’t quite taken off like the club would hope in 2014.
2. I think I like Jaff Decker as a potential fourth outfielder. He has a strong, accurate throwing arm. He can play all three positions. He has OBP skills and he’s reportedly a good baserunner. He’s not a first-division starter but I think he can help a good team off the bench.
1. Jordy Mercer was having a good night Sunday ….until the ninth inning.
The good news? He is starting to drive the ball – he smashed his first homer of the season off Shelby Miller on Sunday, and also doubled, before ending the game with a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded. Regardless of how Mercer performs, I still think they should make a run at Stephen Drew after the draft. It’s unlikely but he still would be an upgrade at a position of need. I still like Mercer best as a super sub.
HE SAID IT
I like that Clint Hurdle is paying attention to splits. With two runners on and one out in the seventh inning of Saturday’s game, Hurdle explained why he went against conventional wisdom and let a left-handed pitcher, Justin Wilson, face right-handed Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday.
“I know people are going ‘You can’t do this.’ Well, yeah, you can,” Hurdle said. “if you look at (Holliday’s) splits, he’s 200 (batting average) points better against right-handed pitching. You look at him lifetime, he’s hit right-handers better than left-handers…. I’m sorry, but this is a better matchup than a right-on-right matchup. We did a lot of that (Saturday), some old school cutting it up and pasting.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: 29/28
McCutchen’s walk-to-strikeout ratio. NON- BASEBALL
RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK
If you like Big Data. Maybe you’ll like Big Data: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8b4xYbEugo
NON- BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK II Jon Hamm’s hair https://twitter.com/Sawchik_Trib/status/465603949438177280/photo/1 See ladies, if you play winning baseball even Mr. Hamm will show up to the park. - TS