SOUTH HILLS – Greetings, folks. I’m back after an All-Star Break respite and recharged for the second half. To begin? Let’s make some predictions.
There were some accurate pre-season predictions made in this e-space like Neil Walker being in line for a break-out offensive season , Jason Grilli and Francisco Liriano being regression candidates, and Gregory Polanco being ready to arrive as an impact player in June. There were some not so great predictions like Pedro Alvarez becoming 2013 Chris Davis.
So with more information at our disposal, I’ll take a stab at what I think we’ll see transpire in the season’s second half. …
THE BULLPEN WILL BE MUCH BETTER
The 15 blown saves have come as most blown saves do: they’ve been dramatic, soul crushing and attention getting.
Yes, the team misses the 2013 version of Grilli. Yes, the Pirates’ pen ranks 11th in the NL in OPS allowed (.696) after ranking 2nd in OPS (.621) last season. Yes, Mark Melancon isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago.
All that said, the Pirates have not pitched as poorly as their blown save total suggests. Melancon is still very good. Tony Watson has gone from very good to excellent (Forget about that hiccup in Cincy). Justin Wilson can still shove 98 mph fastballs. Jared Hughes has been much better. And while you understandably might not be very confident in Ernesto Frieri at the moment, while you might have lost faith in xFIP, I still think he warrants some low-leverage opportunities to get back on track because this is still an arm striking out 11 per nine.
I’m confident the bullpen can be better because A) It can’t be any worse and B) it was fluky bad in critical late-game situations.
FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE, PEDRO STARTS PULLING THE BALL AGAIN
Alvarez has been remarkably consistent with his approach in the first half of the season. He’s increased his balls hit to the opposite field by nearly 50 percent from his 2012-2013 levels. He’s cut his strikoutes and upped his walks. His July walk rate was 11.1 percent. His first-half walk rate was 11.1 percent. His July strikeout rates is 24.4 percent. His season strikeout rate 23.8 percent.
But I think at some point, Alvarez will become frustrated with the number of deep fly outs he has hit to left field at PNC Park. While the all-fields approach is great in theory, I think we’re seeing it depress Alvarez’s home run totals and power at PNC Park. And at the end of the day, Pedro, and the Pirates, want him to put the ball over the fence.
He might do that, but it might come as being a platoon partner with Josh Harrison who is for real.
LIRIANO WINS MORE THAN ONE GAME
The best thing that can happen for the Pirates is for Liriano to become the pitcher he was last season. I think he’s going to have a better second half, I think he’s going to win more than one game, I think he’s healthier. I think he gets back on track and has a solid second half. The velocity and swing-and-miss off-speed pitches are just there. He just has to get back to throwing strike one. He should be highly motivated to do so as he’ll be a free agent after the season.
THE REAL JEFF LOCKE EMERGES
I don’t think Locke is going to fall off the planet like he did in the second half last season. That was in part tied to a back injury and too much nibbling. But it’s hard for me to completely buy into these substantial control gains after he led baseball in walks and posted a poor walk rate in Indy earlier this season. Sample size, people. I think Locke settles in as a quality back-of-the rotation piece (that’s still really valuable) and whether he remains there depends on the health of the rotation.
GERRIT COLE HAS ANOTHER SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER
I believe at some point Gerrit Cole is going to get healthy and get back the breaking ball that led him to a breakout last Sept. Cole and Liriano are the second half keys for the Pirates. If they’re both good or better, Pirates could be back in the postseason.
THE 1B PLATOON REMAINS … BLAH
Gaby Sanchez used to kill lefties. Not so much this year. Ike Davis used to hit for power. Not so much this year (too much opposite-field focus?). I think 1B could be a position the Pirates are forced to address again this offseason and Josh Bell could perhaps be in line for a position change if he continues to rake. The Pirates need more here.
All in all, I think there are more positive indicators and more regression arrows pointing up then down. And in a tight, banged-up NL Central, that’s good news for the Pirates.
I pegged the Pirates as an 84-win team in the presason and I think they now have a good shot at beating that mark by a few games, putting themselves in position to make a run at a wild card if not the division.