The Cincinnati Reds (87-66) stand one game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates (88-65) with nine to go.

Tonight’s titanic struggle begins one of the most anticipated stretches of the regular season — six games out of nine with the Pirates in what has seemed like a season-long battle for second place in the NL Central Division. The Reds are two games behind the Cardinals for first place.

Explaining the Pirates’ Breakthrough

Depending on how one views Game 163, the Pirates are on the verge of reaching the postseason for the first time since 1992, which is also the last time they put together a winning season. Only the hapless Kansas City Royals have a longer run (27 seasons) of postseason futility. Not surprisingly, the Pirates success in 2013 has generated excitement and a boost in home attendance.

It’s worth asking the question, what factors have caused their sudden revival?

One interesting explanation is a new, aggressive two-pronged strategy of run prevention. Ordered directly by general manager Neal Huntington last fall, the two tactical components are a greater use of defensive alignment shifts and pitchers throwing more two-seamed fastballs.

First, Huntington instructed all the teams in the Pirates’ organization, including the big league club, to begin paying attention to data collected by the Pirates newly strengthened analytics department tracking the location of thousands of balls that have been put in play. The result is that the Pirates are now one of the growing number of teams that markedly shift their defensive alignment based on the hitter. Remember all the times in the Milwaukee series recently when the Reds hit the ball hard back up the middle only to find Scooter Gennett there? That’s this stuff. It’ll be Neil Walker waiting there this weekend and next.

The second part of the Pirates’ run prevention strategy is the ground war — or rather the ground ball war. Huntington ordered Pirates’ pitchers, from A.J. Burnett on down, to learn two-seam fastballs as a way to generate more ground balls. The impact of Huntington’s policy has been profound. The Pirates’ ground ball percentage has jumped from 46.6% to 52.4% in one season. The NL league average is 45.6%. Pirate starters lead baseball in ground-ball rate by five percent. While it’s true that ground balls become hits and errors at higher rates than fly balls, they also generally don’t become doubles, triples or home runs.

[While I’m solidly skeptical of the evidence offered to prove the bottom line claims of this new strategy (for example, the defensive efficiency improvements look less impressive if you use 2009 as the baseline instead of the all-time worst 2010 Pirate team), what’s undeniable from reading those linked articles is the impressive way that the organization has adopted next-generation Moneyball and sabermetric strategies and changed its culture from top-to-bottom, including their old-school manager. It shows the profound difference a general manager can make in how a major league baseball team approaches the game.]

In addition to new-fangled run prevention, Huntington also pulled off some old-timey run addition by trading for good hitters at the deadline. Unlike the Reds, Pittsburgh didn’t choose to do nothing, so there will be new Pirates playing key roles in this series. Huntington acquired left-handed first baseman Justin Morneau from the Twins and outfielder Marlon Byrd from the Mets.

Also, Huntington has apparently insisted that back-up catchers dive into dugouts to make plays.

But whatever the cause of the Pirates newly winning ways, here we are. One game behind with nine to go.

The Pirates’ Offense

An explanation for the Pirates renaissance that can definitely be ruled out is their offense. They rank tied for eleventh in runs scored in the NL (Reds are 2nd) ahead of only the Cubs, Padres and Marlins. Their OBP is 10th in the NL (Reds 3rd).

(Did you know that the LA Dodgers are only 8th in the NL in runs scored over the past 30 days?)

Here is the likely Pirates’ starting lineup.

Player Bats Pos Age BB% OBP ISO wRC+ SB oWAR dWAR
Starling Marte (R) LF 24 4.6  .342 .159 120 36 2.8 1.9
Neil Walker (S) 2B 27 9.0  .333 .137 103 9 2.1 0.8
Andrew McCutchen (R) CF 26 11.1  .408 .196 160 27 7.4 1.0
Justin Morneau (L) 1B 32 10.3  .362 .039 94 0 0.0 0.0
Marlon Byrd (R) RF 35 3.8  .338 .184 131 0 0.4 0.1
Pedro Alvarez (L) 3B 26 7.9  .290 .236 106 2 2.5 0.1
Russell Martin (R) C 30 11.5  .330 .152 103 9 2.7 2.5
Jordy Mercer (R) SS 26 6.1  .328 .130 104 3 1.7 0.4

[Key: BB% = walk-rate – Votto 18%, Heisey 3.9%%; ISO = isolated power – Bruce .225, Leake .063, Izturis .048; wRC+ = weighted runs created, 100=average – Choo 152, Phillips 92, Izturis 27]

Jose Tabata has been playing LF a lot lately, with Starling Marte injured, and Jordy Mercer shares time with Clint Barmes at shortstop. Marte is back, although he missed Thursday’s game to be with his wife who was giving birth. Other than MVP-favorite Andrew McCutchen, what you can say positive about the Pirates’ lineup is balance and depth.

Starting Pitching Match-ups

The Pirates’ starting pitching has been outstanding this season and it’s lined-up well to face the Reds this weekend. Their team ERA for starters is fourth in the NL (Reds are second) and their FIP is second (Reds sixth). Friday and Saturday’s games feature four of the league’s top ten pitchers.

[Key: SwStr% is the percentage of their pitches when the batter swings and misses. Long post explaining ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA hereGB% is the percentage of balls in play that are ground balls. The blue and red numbers indicate the pitcher is one of the best 12 (blue) or worst 12 (red) starters in the National League in that category. Minimum innings assumed was 100. Sixty-four pitchers in the NL met that innings criteria.]

Fri 7:05 Age IP K/9 BB/9 SwStr% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA GB%
Mat Latos (R) 25 197.2 8.15 2.76 10.7 3.14 2.97 3.50 3.62 44.8
Francisco Liriano (L) 29 148 9.00 3.59 12.9 2.92 2.86 3.17 3.55 50.6

Francisco Liriano is being mentioned as a candidate for NL Comeback Player of the Year (an award he won in the AL in 2010). He’s among league leaders in strikeout-rate, FIP and xFIP and leads the league in swinging strike percentage. So he misses bats. Liriano has pitched better at PNC Park this year than on the road and he’s been tough on the Reds’ left-handed hitters so far. The Reds have won all three of his starts in 2013, but in two of those games Liriano was the victim of poor run support. Overall, he’s pitched pretty well against the Reds.

Mat Latos is coming off one of his most frustrating starts of the season. Against the Brewers, he gave up five runs, all on bloop singles. He hasn’t pitched all that well in his previous four starts against the Pirates. Twice he only lasted five innings.

Sat 7:05 Age IP K/9 BB/9 SwStr% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA GB%
Homer Bailey (R) 27 198.1 8.76 2.09 10.9 3.40 3.10 3.21 3.26 45.8
A.J. Burnett (R) 36 176 9.77 3.22 10.2 3.43 2.77 2.97 3.15 56.6

A.J. Burnett has the highest K/9 for any starting pitcher in the National League with more than 100 innings pitched. He’s been Homer Bailey’s equal or better by most measures. Burnett has faced the Reds twice this season, neither time throwing all that great.

Let’s see … Homer Bailey pitching in Pittsburgh late in September against A.J. Burnett …

That’s right, as if you need another reason to watch this game instead of college football, Homer will take the mound one week to the day before the anniversary of his first no-hitter at PNC. Burnett, who faced Bailey last Sept. 28, nearly matched the lion slayer that night, giving up only one run in the Reds 1-0 victory.

Bailey has only pitched against Pittsburgh twice this season, a no-decision in June and a loss in July. He threw well in both games, however, recording 20 strikeouts and 1 walk in 12.1 innings. Bailey (11-10) hasn’t suffered a loss in his last nine starts dating back to July. In Homer’s ten losses this season, the Reds scored a total of 11 runs. With seven strikeouts on Saturday, he’ll pass the milestone of 200 Ks.

Sun 1:35 Age IP K/9 BB/9 SwStr% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA GB%
Bronson Arroyo (R) 36 192.1 5.57 1.45 6.0 3.56 4.08 3.89 4.09 44.5
Jeff Locke (L) 25 165 6.75 4.46 8.3 3.27 3.93 4.17 4.52 53.1

Bronson Arroyo keeps plugging along, having an excellent season. If he goes 7.2 innings he’ll reach the 200 IP mark for the the eighth time in the last nine seasons. The one year he missed (2011) he had 199 IP. Arroyo’s one start against the Pirates this year was a no decision in June when he gave up one earned run in 7 innings.

Jeff Locke is living, breathing proof why you shouldn’t fully trust ERA as a measure of pitcher performance. He has a low strike-out rate and one of the league’s worst walk rates. The gap between his ERA and advanced metrics is enormous. According to his xFIP and SIERA (4.52!) he’s been one of the worst starters in the NL. Back in June, I wrote that Locke’s peripherals didn’t support his glittering ERA of 2.19. He eventually struggled to the point where the Pirates demoting him to AA in late August. My guess is he’s making this start because he’s a lefty.

The Pirates’ Bullpen

The eighth and ninth innings were a strength for the Pirates for much of the season. But an injury to closer Jason Grilli, has shortened their pen by an inning. Grilli was sidelined on July 22 with a right forearm strain (yikes). He has been largely ineffective in his five appearances since returning from the DL. Mark Melancon, who was their eighth-inning specialist extraordinaire until Grilli’s injury, moved into the closer’s role and overall has done well. He’s converted 14 of 16 saves chances. Tony Watson and Justin Wilson remain the lefty-on-lefty specialists, both enjoying a solid season.

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

Join the conversation! 40 Comments

  1. Nice summary, Steve.

    They made some nice moves recently to add Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd to the middle of their lineup. (And I think you have just their Pirates stats, not full-year.) I was going to comment how much stronger that makes their lineup, but at least through 18 September games so far, the Pirates have actually scored fewer runs per game with this duo than in any other month this season. Perhaps the loss of Marte as the table setter has offset the players added?

    PIT R/G by month
    April 4.1
    May 3.54
    June 4.3
    July 3.8
    August 4.0
    September 3.50

    • @Greg Dafler: Yep, they’ve been in a team-wide slump for about two weeks (notwithstanding the 10 runs they scored yesterday). But it really isn’t the fault of the two trade targets.

      Byrd: .296/.329/.469
      Morneau: .286/.365/.339

      Morneau hasn’t hit for any power, but he’s been getting on base. Byrd has been excellent for the Buccos.

  2. I also think the Parrots made the best move by obtaining Russell Martin to replace Barrajas.

    I take exception to a degree on the Reds not moving at the deadline. I think they gambled that Marshall, Broxton and Ludwick would come back strong. There was merit to that belief.

    Had the Reds moved on a corner outfielder, they would have had an issue after Ludwick returned.

    As for the Marshall-Broxton fiasco, I don’t see that there were good ways to fix that. Middle relievers are a dime a dozen.

    Obviously, Morneau wasn’t necessary, though I will concede, I think getting a decent bench bat to replace … um … yeah … would have needed to be an infielder, not another left fielder.

    • @Johnu1: Lack of movement at the trade deadline could be attributable to many things. Perhaps they didn’t have the financial resources to swing any additional deals. That could be a tradeoff for the big offseason deals that Jocketty has pleasantly surprised us with the past couple of offseasons in acquiring Latos and Choo (and Rolen and Chapman before that.) Of course we can’t ignore the Ludwick’s and Broxton’s that have a potential to hamstring this team’s payroll into next year also.

      Perhaps they analyzed these low cost moves (like Byrd) and didn’t think that they would improve the club over what they already had. Byrd was having a nice year in New York, but there nothing else in his recent career that screams he is a must have over Ludwick or Heisey over the final 30 games of the season.

      • @Greg Dafler: The cost of Byrd would have been worth keeping him away from the Pirates. The Reds erred when they did not make a waiver claim on him, thus letting him fall to the Pirates

        • @OhioJim: The gamble would have been whether he was going to help the Pirates. At the time, I think many just saw him as a fill-in until Marte got back. There was no evidence he’d be better than Ludwick.

  3. I hope I don’t jinx him, but Jay Bruce has to be in the main conversation for NL MVP. These six games might just decide that award winner too. If Bruce carries the Reds to 4 wins out of the 6 games, then he should be the NL MVP. The Brave’s Freeman and the Dodger’s AGonz and Kershaw will garner some votes, but it is between McCutcheon and Bruce. Let it be decided on the field. Bruce could bring in some nice hardware this winter, NL MVP, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger award, and dare I say it, a World Series Championship ring.
    Hope the rain holds off and they get all 3 games in. Don’t need a double-header on Sunday or a makeup game next Thursday.

    • @WVRedlegs: On the subject of Gold Gloves, Todd Frazier anyone?

      • @Johnu1: I don’t think so on Frazier for GG. Kudos to him for putting in the work and becoming among the most reliable 3B around; however, at this point he doesn’t make the kind of outstanding plays a GG guy should make with some regularity.

        I saw several examples of this just in the Houston series. For intance, contrast the sliding catch Bruce made in foul territory versus the one Frazier did not make in foul ground and in fact nearly nearly pulled a Conseco on. To me that epitomizes the difference between a GG player and solid reliable player who is not quite in the same echelon.

        • @OhioJim: All right, Jim, but who in the NL is better than Frazer and should win the GG at 3rd ?

          • @pinson343: Bingo. If this was about hitting, no … but Darwin Barney also won a GG. In the NL, the pickin’s are slim. Pablo Sandoval maybe. Zimmerman? Perhaps.

    • @WVRedlegs: I agree that Bruce should at the least be in an MVP discussion. Does anyone here listen to Jim Bowden and Casey Stern on mlbnetwork. I do sometimes because I often drive in the afternoon. It’s amazing how, especially in the case of Stern, I never hear about the Reds except for an occasional negative comment.

      This year for them it’s only about the Cardinals and the Pirates in the NL Central, the Reds don’t exist. They discussed NL MVP yesterday, and started walking thru contending teams. They skipped the Reds, it seems they’re not a contending team. No Reds player was mentioned in a discussion that included players like Pedro Alvarez. Stern had 3 Cardinals in the top 6.

      BTW Stern has said the Reds have an “iffy” starting rotation that won’t cut it in the playoffs.

  4. Props to the Reds fans this year and the increase in attendance. Look at where the Rays, A’s, and Indians are in the standings, and then look at their attendance figures. The owners of those franchises have been vocal in their displeasure recently regarding attendance.
    Reds fans still have some work to do, as evidenced by alot of empty seats during that last weekday series with the Cards. But overall, kudos to the Reds fans for supporting the team, be it in attendance, listening on the radio, or watching on FSO.

    • @WVRedlegs: Had it been a weekend, the ballpark would have been full, since the Cardinals fans would have traveled better.

  5. So these games should be tight, low scoring games where good managerial decision-making is at a premium.

    Oh, crap.

    But seriously, I have to think the team’s recent playoff experiences, painful though they may have been, will start to pay dividends aginst a team lacking in them. Go Reds!

    • RC: But seriously, I have to think the team’s recent playoff experiences, painful though they may have been, will start to pay dividends aginst a team lacking in them.Go Reds!

      I had the same thought. Let’s hope so.

  6. My main concern about the upcoming series is that both Liriano and Burnett pitch MUCH better at home than on the road. I’m confident that the Reds can beat them at home but that might be too late.

  7. The Pirates bullpen is still deep and good but is more vulnerable than before. Grilli has not pitched well since coming off the DL. Melancon has been more hittable over his last 10 or so appearences. His blowing a save to the Padres was not a fluke.

    • @pinson343:
      Do not know if anybody follwed the blown save game. 3 straight slash hits by some journeymen Right handed hitters to right field with 2 out.

      It was like they scouted and knew what he was throwing, went up with a strategy, and executed it. Hopefully someone on the Reds are taking notes

  8. Speaking of bullpens, I’ve been checking some numbers. Parra has not declined recently vs. LHed hitters. It’s RHed hitters who are hitting him again. His season numbers afainst RHed hitters are awful. Dusty has to stop using him vs. righties in critical situations, to the point of being careful as to who might PH for a LHed hitter when Parra is brought in.

    Duke is OK (not as good) as a LOOGY but also a major risk vs. RHed hitters. He should be the number 3 lefty and not on the playoff roster. Dusty said Marshall is number 3 for now. That “for now” needs to change soon. If healthy Marshall is by far the best option for LHed relief.

    • @pinson343:
      would like to see if Cigrani could be useful in this role

      • @vicferrari: He could definitely be useful in this role (that’s an understatement, he was a closer at Rice), but I’m afraid we won’t be seeing him again this year. Back problems can be stubborn.

  9. I haven’t seen this mentioned on any of the threads: Matt Carpenter–a legit MVP candidate–fell for the hidden ball trick in the first inning in Colorado yesterday. (Beltran was batting, with a 3-1 count.)

    Maybe we should give Joey Votto some slack for forgetting how many outs there were. For that matter, maybe we should give the Reds some slack for their performance in Colorado–against much better pitching than the Cardinals faced in going 2-2. (And for the record, in their last offensive half-inning yesterday, the Cardinals failed to score even though they had the bases loaded and only one out.). Baseball is hard.

    But let’s sweep the Bucs! Go Reds!

    • @Eric the Red: The Rockies are tough to beat in Coors Field, pretty much every year. This year they have a good and deep lineup and a decent bullpen and a couple of decent starting pitchers. I mentioned in a different thread how impressive their lineup was yesterday considering that they’d lost 5 starters to injuries, including 3 of them earlier in the series.

      The Rockies road record is horrible, if the Reds can be faulted, it’s for losing a series to the Rcokies at home earlier this year. But at that time the Rockies lineup was fully loaded – with a red hot Cargo – and they were a dangerous team.

    • @Eric the Red: The Cardinals have an excellent fundamental approach to hitting, but otherwise anyone who thinks they’re a superior team at fundamentals just hasn’t watched them that much.

      They’re a below average base running team. Their defense, other than Molina, is shoddy, especially their OF.

      They hit smart and well and they have Wainwright and a lot of great young arms. That’s enough to win a lot of games.

      • @pinson343: Clearly, they aren’t miles ahead of the Reds or Parrots. Actually, just a couple of games. I think part of their success is their astonishing resiliency in post-season. It’s almost un-worldy. The elimination game last year against the Nationals was eerie.

        • @Johnu1: I agree about their recent other-worldly success in the post season. The comebacks against the Rangers and the Nationals were historic. But last year when they had 3 chances to win 1 game against the Giants and advance to the WS, they did no better than the Reds.

          Some would say it doesn’t matter, but they actually played a lot worse in their 3 losses than the Reds did in theirs. The Giants outscored them 20-1 and they made about as many errors as they had hits. I said after that if the Reds “choked” then the Cardinals self-asphyxiated.

    • @Eric the Red: Here’s the video of Helton’s hidden ball trick against Matt Carpenter.

  10. anybody see the Rockies game yesterday?, if the Reds come back and win the division that game will be a huge factor. The only way the Reds have a chance is if the Cards slip and yesterday was an indication that they may start.
    It was an exciting game, if you filter through some of the slow 10th through 14th, Cards coming back from down 4-0, blowing leads in the 8th and 9th, guys scoring from first on base hits, winning run dodging tags

    • @vicferrari: I heard and then saw most of the game, it was fun to watch and might turn out to be huge for the Reds. Made comments about it just above and in the “Commenting guidelines” thread. Wow, was the home plate umpire getting it from the fans and the Rockies dugout.

  11. The remarkable thing about the Rockies-Cardinal series is that the Rockies, without De La Rosa, had to go with a rookie with an ERA of 10.80 in 5+ innings in the first game and Oswalt (0-6 and 7.71 ERA going in) for the 4th game. They had regular starters, pretty good ones, pitching Games 2 and 3. So which games do the Rockies win ?

    You just never know in baseball.

    • @pinson343: And I am among the most grimacing when the Reds end up rowing in a circle against pitchers who have ERA’s just short of the national debt.

  12. I saw some talk on one of the other (off day) threads about negativity in regards to whether the Reds still have a realistic shot at the Division.

    I’ll go on record as saying I believe they do; and, whether they win the division will be decided by the Reds and not by the Cards closing them out by winning say 7 or more games.

    I’ll agree when that typically there is a 3 team race that 2 games over 9 remaining is a lot for the 3rd place team to make up. However the Reds have a decent shot because they can take out one of the two teams themselves.

    If the Reds can win 7 of 9 (yes, I did watch ST Enterprize), the Cards need 5 wins to tie and 6 to eliminate the Reds. Yes, the math is tight and the road tough; but much longer odds have come through in the last week of a season.

    • @OhioJim: And we’re in a very possible scenario of a 1st place tie for the division. That would mean that everyone in the division would be required to play at least one 1-game series heading into the playoffs. The two teams tied for the division lead would play a 163rd game of the regular season on Monday. The loser would play the 1-game wild card round playoff game on Tuesday.

    • @OhioJim:
      essentially the Reds magic number is 12 and the Cards magic number is 8, if the pirates are factor I am certain the Red’s will not be

  13. I type this as I wait for my flight to London to take off. Glad I won’t be missing the most important series of the year so far or anything.

    Excellent preview and I’d root for the Pirates to rep the NL if the Reds weren’t in it. Long-suffering fans deserve a break, except for Cubs fans.

    I will stop over in Cincy on the way home and see just my 2nd and 3rd games at GABP. Beyond excited.

    To everyone who will get to watch these games play out in real time, I hope the Reds will go like we’ve hoped for them to go all year. I hope the recap threads say nothing of bunts and that Milton will be far, far away!

  14. Very nice write up, Steve. Comprehensive, as usual.

Comments are closed.

About Steve Mancuso

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.


2013 Reds, Reds - General, Series Preview


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