Series Preview

Payback starts now

The Pittsburgh Pirates (6-6) drop anchor on the banks of the Ohio River today for a three-game series against the Reds (4-8).

Surely the hometown boys have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to begin repaying the Pirates for the way last year ended. The Choo Season offered Reds’ fans ample reason to hope for pennants and other nice things in 2013. But that heady optimism was deep-sixed in the extremely inhospitable October waters of PNC Park, as the Reds suffered a humiliating defeat in the National League wild card play-in game. Let’s not forget that the Pirates also won 11 of 19 regular season matches against the Reds, including a three-game sweep in Cincinnati on the season’s final weekend. Pittsburgh outscored the Reds 22-8 over the final four games.

Redleg Nation doesn’t need to be reminded that Pittsburgh enjoyed a breakthrough in 2013, snapping a 20-year streak of losing seasons and winning 94 regular season games. The Pirates then pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the limit in the NLDS. Clint Hurdle was named NL Manager of the Year and Andrew McCutchen won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

Yet, even in comparison to the Reds, the Pirates had a dreadfully inactive off-season. Key pieces of their post-season drive, like Marlon Bryd and A.J. Burnett were allowed to leave. Pittsburgh’s only notable acquisition may turn out to be a self-inflicted wound, the signing of SP Edinson Volquez, which conjures the possibility of subtraction by addition. They instead are relying on a core of young players, headlined by McCutchen and a strong pitching staff.

Hurdle’s ship arrives to the Queen City taking on water and with the Jolly Roger in tatters. The Buccos are coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers. Expect the Pirates to be highly motivated to get past that series and to prove that last year’s success wasn’t a fluke.

[Pirates’ Baseball Reference page, Pirates’ FanGraphs depth chart]

Run Scoring

The Pirates finished ninth in the NL in runs scored in 2013. To boost their offense late in the year, they signed Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, both of whom have moved on to other teams. The Pirates were fifth in wRC+ and eighth in on base percentage.

Projected Lineup

1.  Starling Marte (R) LF
2.  Travis Snider (L) RF
3.  Andrew McCutchen (R) CF
4.  Pedro Alvarez (L) 3B
5.  Russell Martin (R) C
6.  Neil Walker (S) 2B
7.  Travis Ishikawa (L) 1B
8.  Jordy Mercer (R) SS
9

Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508) finished his 2013 season with 21 homers and 27 stolen bases. The fact that McCutchen produced only 84 RBI didn’t seem to bother Pirates fans or MVP voters. He finished fourth in wRC+ in the NL, behind only Jayson Werth, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

LF Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441) stole 41 bases and hit twelve home runs last season, despite missing three weeks with a sprained wrist. Marte also excelled at getting hit by pitches, recording 24 HBP, which helped compensate for a low walk-rate, to keep his OBP suitable for a lead-off hitters. Only Shin-Soo Choo (26) was hit more often.

Pedro Alvarez (.233/.296/.473) demonstrated ample power last  year, slugging 36 home runs, but his low OBP limits his ceiling as a clean-up hitter. Alvarez channels Adam Dunn in strikeouts, too, with a K-rate above 30%. Only Atlanta Braves’ 2B Dan Uggla struck out at a higher rate in the NL.

The Pirates have real weak spots at 1B and RF. First baseman Gaby Sanchez has been a platoon hitter at best, but despite rumors that the Pirates have been looking around for another 1B bat, they seem ready to start the season with Sanchez playing both ways. Jose Tabata is little more than a placeholder until super prospect Gregory Polanco can be called up in June without risking Super Two arbitration status.

Run Prevention

The Pirates starting rotation finished in the top four in the NL in ERA, FIP and xFIP in 2013. They gambled on signing A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano based on non-ERA statistics and were rewarded as both pitchers were outstanding. Burnett has moved on, signing a one-year contract with the Phillies, but Liriano will headline their starting staff.

The Pirates attribute much of their success at preventing runs in 2013 to their pro-active use of defensive shifting and instructing their pitchers to induce ground balls. They were extremely successful at the latter. Pirates’ starters led the NL with a 53% ground ball rate. That was farther ahead of the second place team (48%) than the second place team was ahead of the fourteenth place team. The Pirates bullpen also led the NL in inducing late-inning ground balls.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Monday (7:10 p.m.) – Wandy Rodriguez (LH, 35) vs. Homer Bailey

Rodriguez, with whom the Reds are familiar dating back to his days pitching for the Astros, missed the last four months of 2013 with forearm/elbow issues. He picked up the $13 million option on his 2014 contract. His health remains an issue as Rodriguez opted against surgery last fall. This will be Rodriguez’s third start of the season. His first two were both shaky and both against the Cubs.

Tuesday (7:10 p.m.) – Gerrit Cole (RH, 23) vs. Mike Leake

Cole is legitimate ace material and may reach that level as early as this year. He was dominant for the Pirates down the stretch last fall. He started two games of the NLDS, giving up 5 hits and two walks against ten strikeouts in eleven innings against the Cardinals. He has had two successful starts so this year, striking out 13 batters in 13 innings against the Cardinals and Cubs.

Wednesday (12:35 p.m.) – Francisco Liriano (LH, 30) vs. Johnny Cueto

Liriano experienced a rebirth of sorts in 2013, returning to his previous form with the Minnesota Twins. Liriano had an ERA of 3.02 an FIP of 2.92 and xFIP of 3.12. He was particularly brutal on Reds star lefties, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo. The Pirates will need for Liriano to repeat that performance in 2014. This will be his fourth start in 2014 and Liriano is still looking for a win. He’s pitched six innings in each of his three previous starts.

Bullpen

The Pirates bullpen ranked in the top four in ERA, FIP and xFIP in the National League last season. For most of the year, the Pirates enjoyed an unparalleled 1-2 bullpen punch, with Jason Grilli closing and Mark Melancon pitching the eighth inning. Melancon took over as closer in August when Grilli was sidelined with a right forearm strain. When Grilli returned in early September, Melancon kept the closer role.

But the 37-year old Grilli returns in 2014 as the Pirates’ ninth-inning specialist. He’s converted three out of four save opportunities so far. The Pirates also have two outstanding left-handed relievers, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, who had excellent seasons in 2013.

  • Closer: Jason Grilli (37)
  • Set-up: Mark Melancon (28)
  • Lefty specialists: Tony Watson (28), Justin Wilson (26)

14 thoughts on “Payback starts now

  1. We’re going to lose the series if these guys don’t figure out how to hit again (yesterday’s outlier game notwithstanding).

  2. Grilli is way past his expiration date. Going back to last season, his peripherals are not good. Smoke and mirrors. Of course, you can say that about their whole team–winning more than their Pythag record.

    Let’s not forget about the beanball war, either. I would think with so many guys getting plunked on both sides, there’s going to be retribution at some point this season.

    • In the Pirates’ second game of this season, against the Cubs, there were several HBPs, to the point where warnings were issued early in the game. I have not heard whether it has resurfaced in subsequent games for the Pirates, but I don’t wanna lose a player or two that way.

  3. I think tonight’s game will set an important tone for the rest of the series/week. After yesterday’s feel-good blowout, the Reds laying an egg against the worst pitcher they’ll face in the series could have an extremely negative effect on their psyche regarding the Pirates for the rest of the year.

  4. We all know to be wary of a decent team coming into town after getting swept in its previous series, and Wandy may be the worst Pirates pitcher the Reds will face in this series, but hasn’t he generally had our number? And, Steve: I understand that you can’t resist twisting the knife of disdain for people who pay attention to rbi, and I understand your valid reasons for not holding that stat in high regard, but the fact is, every time (I think) a run scores, it is a run for somebody and an rbi for somebody. Runs are what win games. I wouldn’t be upset that McCutcheon “only” had 84 as long as there were other guys in lineup who drove him in. I feel the same way about Joey. Cutch’s mvp was probably awarded for a number of reasons: excellent defense at a premier position, heart and soul of a surprisingly over-achieving team, etc.

    • Every time a runs scores it IS a run for somebody, but it is not necessarily an RBI for somebody, usually, but not always.

  5. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, but perhaps a couple of plunks wouldn’t be a bad idea to change the emotional state of things. I’m probably part of the old school minority, but I don’t see anything wrong with pitching in off the plate to take command of the batters box.

  6. Just because you are on third base doesn’t mean you run as soon as the ball is hit. This early in the season and I have seen three runners on third with less than 2 outs run on weak grounders to the right of the infield and get thrown out by HUGE margins.

    Yesterday, two guys thrown out at home on the same play. I have never seen a baseball team at any level run the bases as badly as do the Reds.

    • How much impact does a third base coach have on preventing gaffes like these? I wonder if Berry’s absence has contributed to this.

      I might also add that you don’t get caught stealing third base when Jay Bruce is in the batters’ box. One, he’s a left-handed hitter and 2 Jay Bruce is at bat. I think Phillips needs to brush up on base-running basics, as do the rest of the brethren in the clubhouse.

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