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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pirates Series Preview

Francisco Cervelli has been outstanding behind the dish for the Pirates
Photo Credit: Mark Kortum
Having deftly delivered a (minor) setback to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Reds head home to welcome the second-best team in the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates are having an excellent season and are hanging tough with the Cardinals near the top of the NL Central.  Their record is probably a tad better than they've played, but to my eye they have some upside among their hitters that has gone untapped thus far.

A lot has been made of the influence that the Pirates' front office has had in improving the team.  On my reading list is Big Data Baseball, which reportedly tells the tale of, among other things, how the Pirates have used infield shifts and an emphasis on ground ball rates to improve their run prevention.  It shows: the Pirates lead the majors in ground ball rate thanks to a rotation in which every single one of their starters has a 50%-plus ground ball rate.  That's amazing.  By contrast, the Reds currently have one starter with better than a 50% ground ball rate, Mike Leake, who is unlikely to be a Red in less than 48 hours.  At the same time, while I can't find a link right now, the Pirates are typically among the team leaders in the number of infield shifts, as well as runs saved by the shift.  It's a straightforward strategy, but one that seems to have a lot of merit.

I live in Central PA, and have for 8 years now.  Their AA affiliate is pretty close to my house, so we go to a good number of those games per year.  I've watched the Pirates transition from laughing stock to one of the better-run organizations in baseball, and got a chance to meet Neil Huntington and stat-guy Dan Fox.  Fox is a guy I've followed on this blog for years before he was hired by the Pirates.  As such, I have a pretty strong fondness for the Pirates.  I'll always be a Reds fan, but it's exciting for me to see this team doing well.

Position Players

The success of Francisco Cervelli really should be one of the biggest stories about the team this year.  Russell Martin was a revelation for this team over the past two years, but when he left via free agency the Pirates had a huge hole to fill.  They contacted the Yankees and acquired long-time backup catcher (who is still just 29!) Francisco Cervelli.  He has been outstanding.  He's a terrific pitch framer, which I think the Pirates knew before they got him.  They have to be surprised, however, with his offense.  His batting line looks a bit BABIP-y (0.372 BABIP), so he might decline a bit moving forward.  That said, he has at least one feature that speaks well to his ability to maintain an above-average BABIP: like Joey Votto, he's an opposite-field hitter:
As a right-handed hitter, his ground balls tend to go to left field.  But when he gets it in the air, most of the time, he's hitting to center field and right.  He probably doesn't have a lot of home run power (certainly nothing like Votto has), but if he can continue to use that right-center field alley he may be in for good doubles production for the foreseeable future.

The Pirates have a lot of other interesting players.  Andrew McCutcheon, of course, and he might be better in the second half.  The Jung-ho Kang signing was met with a lot of raised eyebrows this offseason, but he's been fantastic as a super-utility guy.  With Jordy Mercer out thanks to a take-out slide, Kang is their starting shortstop for the foreseeable future.  Against lefties, which the Reds now feature, former Ray and lefty-pounder Sean Rodriguez often gets the start over Pedro Alvarez.  Aramis Ramirez seems like a nice, low-cost pickup to supplement the loss of Josh Harrison.  Gregory Polanco still has a lot of promise, and the Pirates are hoping he comes into his own in the second half.

Reds note: Jay Bruce is still hitting, and now has his WAR over 2.0 for the season.  His miserable start and last season's struggles seem almost a distant memory.  They happened, but he's looking really strong.  And that's really fun, because I love Jay Bruce.


Probable Starters


David Holmberg's start today is the start of the post-Cueto era, because this is Cueto's turn in the rotation.  It's sad.  But it was a good trade for the Reds, and hopefully will improve them as early as next season.

Holmberg profiles as a soft-tossing lefty, with velocity sitting in the upper 80's.  He hasn't historically gotten a lot of strikeouts, and has been an extreme fly ball pitcher in the majors (career 35% FB%, albeit in just 33 innings).  Control seems to be a big factor in his relative success success: early last year, he was walking batters left and right, and suffered as a result.  Late in the year, when he was getting good results, he was doing a much better job of throwing strikes.  This year in AAA, his peripherals aren't very inspiring: 5 k/9 vs. 3 bb/9.  Meh.

Referring back to my intro above, check out the Pirates' ground ball rates!  Ground balls have long been Charlie Morton's main skill.  That's looking like about all he can do.  But it's something.  Really good at everything: Gerrit Cole.


Bullpen


The Pirates have consistently had a good bullpen over the past several years.  That's not an accident: while they never break the bank to do so, they consistently are bringing in new arms to replenish their stores.  Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are draftees, and Mark Melancon has been in Pittsburgh since 2012.  The other five, however, have all joined the team in the past two seasons.  The Reds haven't exactly been sitting on their pen either (Mattheus and Badenhop are new this year, Adcock and Axelrod were replacement-type pickups over the past year), but the Pirates have been more active...and better at it...than the Reds.

As a fan, my ideal World Series this year (and MLB's worst nightmare) would be a Pirates-Royals match-up.  This Pirates team is most likely going to have to fight through a wild card playoff game to get into the proper playoffs, but if they can align their rotation properly they have as good a shot as any other team.