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Entries in Pittsburgh Pirates (35)

Wednesday
Oct022013

Bucs, Cards Thrive Low in the Zone

The Pirates and Cardinals will square off in the National League Division Series, thanks in large part to pitching staffs boasting top-five ERAs during the regular season. Pittsburgh and St. Louis are mirror images on the mound, and that comparison extends beyond possessing a vets with wicked curveballs (Game 1 starters A.J. Burnett and Adam Wainwright), hot-shot rookies (Gerrit Cole, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha, among others) and where-did-he-come-from closers once again facing doubters (Jason Grilli and Edward Mujica). These clubs are equipped for deep October runs because their pitchers pound hitters at the knees, generate grounders and keep the ball in the park at historic levels. It doesn't hurt that their backstops skillfully steal strikes on borderline pitches, either.

Waging a Ground War

Collectively, the Pirates have thrown an MLB-high 47.6 percent of their pitches to the lower third of the strike zone. The Cardinals also live low in the zone, locating there at the eighth-highest clip (43.3 percent) in the majors. Pittsburgh and St. Louis' "keep it low" philosophy has produced ground balls by the bushel -- the Pirates have the highest single-season team ground ball rate (52.5 percent) in the majors over the past decade, while the Cardinals (48.5 percent) come in eighth.

Charlie Morton (64.6 percent) is the game's top worm-burner among starting pitchers, with Burnett (58.2 percent)  also ranking in the top 10. Francisco Liriano (52.4 percent), Joe Kelly (51.5 percent), Cole (51 percent) and Wainwright (50.1 percent) are among the grounder-centric starters who figure to make a difference in this series (sorry, Jeff Locke and Jake Westbrook).

Seth Maness (70.7 percent) is the most difficult reliever to loft this side of Brad Ziegler, and lefty hit man Randy Choate (68.4 percent) isn't far behind. Mark Melancon (62.2 percent), Carlos Martinez (56.5 percent) and Justin Wilson (53.5 percent) could also alter a game with a late-inning double play.

The Pirates complement their scorched-earth policy by frequently shifting their infielders, a strategy that has paid off in the form of the fifth-lowest opponent average on ground balls hit (.230) in 2013. The Cardinals (.248) are right around the MLB average (.248). 

Historic Homer Prevention

By waging a ground war, the Pirates (0.62 home runs allowed per nine innings) and Cardinals (0.69 HR/9) have surrendered the fewest homers among all MLB clubs. Once you adjust for year-to-year variations in league wide home run levels, the '13 Bucs and Cards are both enjoying one of the ten best homer prevention seasons in club history during the Live Ball Era (1920-present).

This year's Bucs team ranks fourth in franchise history during the Live Ball Era in HR+, or a team's home run rate as a percentage of the National League average during that season. They have surrendered 30 percent fewer homers than the NL average.

Lowest HR+ for Bucs during Live-Ball Era

St. Louis, meanwhile, has given up 22 percent fewer big flies than the NL average this year. That's tied for ninth-best in franchise history during the Live Ball Era.

Lowest HR+ for Cardinals during Live-Ball Era

Stealing Strikes

Aside from inducing ground balls and preventing home runs, there's another added benefit for Pirates and Cardinals pitchers who keep the ball down -- their catchers do a great job of framing low pitches. Yadier Molina and Russell Martin both get more called strikes on low pitches thrown in the strike zone (In-Zone ClStr%) than most catchers, with Molina ranking third among all backstops receiving at least 2,000 pitches and Martin ranking sixth. Molina also gets an above-average number of calls on low pitches that are located off the plate (Out-Zone ClStr%), placing sixth in the majors. Martin is around league average in that regard.

Molina and Martin's called strike rates on low pitches, 2013

With their pitchers getting so many grounders and Martin influencing calls on stuff located at the knees, the Pirates have limited batters to an MLB-low .248 slugging percentage on low pitches this season. The Cardinals' combo of ground ball pitchers and a strike-stealing catcher in Molina has yielded a .308 opponent slugging percentage on low stuff, tied for eighth-lowest in the game. Every pitching coach stresses the need to pound hitters are the knees. But the Bucs or Cards could just ride that platitude to postseason glory.

Tuesday
Oct012013

The Bucs Need July Liriano, Not September Lirano

At first glance, picking Francisco Liriano over the Reds tonight is a no-brainer.

Take a second glance.

Will the Pirates see the early season Liriano or the late season Liriano?

It is indeed a fair question to ask: How much does Francisco Liriano have left in the tank?

This is a legitimate question for the Pirates even if they do get by tonight's Wild Card play-in, because clearly the Liriano of August and September is nowhere near the quality Liriano from earlier in the season.
SplitWLW-L%ERAGSIPHRERHRBBSOWHIP
May31.7502.35423.0226608281.304
June42.6672.15637.23399215391.274
July41.8002.06535.01988214330.943
August42.6673.62637.1331515114351.259
Sept/Oct12.3335.14528.0271616412281.393
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/1/2013.

Comparing the July Liriano and the September Liriano

For much of the data, Liriano's numbers look similar, but the results are dramatically different.
Liriano July/September 2013
GIPPP/PAVelMxVelZone%Miss%Chas%AVGHRK/9WHIPERA
July Liriano535.05113.8189.096.644.8%32.2%29.8%.16128.490.9432.06
Sept Liriano528.04693.9189.896.144.1%28.7%32.1%.25049.001.3935.14

The differences in overall velocity and pitches in the zone is negligible.

One significant difference can be seen in a drop of 3.5% in batters swinging and missing and while that seems to be compensated by an increase in the chase rate, obviously batters are more confident in going after Liriano's pitches because of a better rate of success.

Liriano's signature slider

I don't know whether there is some arm soreness or simply fatigue, but in September we saw a significant drop in Liriano's use of his slider from July.

The speed of the pitch was the same, but its efficacy was not the same. Clearly still effective, batters were able to key in on the pitch and make significantly better contact.
Liriano's Slider July/September 2013
GPP/PAVelMxVelZone%Miss%Chas%AVGHRBABIPLine#
July Slider52144.2386.990.949.1%43.9%40.4%.0981.1673
Sept Slider51744.3887.690.844.3%42.0%36.1%.1490.2809


When Liriano Does NOT Throw the Slider

No pitcher not named Mariano Rivera can rely on one pitch and that is certainly true with Francisco Lirano.

When Liriano is not using his slider, he has become a very hittable pitcher.

Liriano uses both a fastball and change-up to compliment his slider. While his numbers have not been significantly different for his slider, when we compare July and Septembers fastball and change, and then take those two pitches together, we see a very vulnerable pitcher.
Liriano's Other Pitches July/September 2013
GPP/PAVelMxVelZone%Miss%Chas%AVGHRBABIPLine#
July Fastball51803.3093.196.645.6%12.5%12.2%.1841.1717
Sept Fastball51903.5593.396.144.7%13.6%20.0%.2734.2006
July Change51173.6986.789.035.9%32.2%37.3%.2410.2923
Sept Change51053.6187.089.242.9%27.4%46.7%.3930.4234
July F & C52973.4690.596.641.8%22.0%23.1%.2091.22010
Sept F & C52953.5791.196.144.1%20.3%29.7%.3284.31410


Look how Liriano's fastball and change have drifted up in the zone:


Liriano is not the same pitcher he was in July

It's one thing to not have the same stuff in October that you have earlier in the season, but Liriano's numbers in September are more indicative of the Liriano of 2011-12 who had a 5.23 ERA for the Twins and White Sox.

If the Pirates are to move beyond tonight and then deeper into the postseason, Liriano is going to have be the pitcher he was during the May-June-July not the August-September struggling pitcher.
Monday
Sep302013

Will Cueto Keep Challenging McCutchen?

The outcome of Tuesday night's win-or-go-home Wild Card clash between the Reds and Pirates may well come down to whether Johnny Cueto can silence NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen's bat. Historically, that has been a tough task: McCutchen has taken Cueto deep three times in 39 at-bats, and his .513 slugging percentage is third-highest among all hitters with at least 30 ABs against Cincinnati's ace (Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano are first and second, respectively). Is it time for Cueto to tweak his approach against McCutchen?

Cueto has typically gone mano-a-mano against 'Cutch, pumping the strike zone with fastballs and challenging the quickest wrists this side of Gary Sheffield to turn on a pitch. Cueto has thrown a fastball about 65 percent of the time versus McCutchen during his career, way above his overall 58 percent average from 2008-13. Cueto is less fastball-centric now than he was earlier in his MLB tenure (he has thrown 53 percent fastballs in 2012-13), but he's still going after McCutchen, firing fastballs slightly more than 65 percent of the time over the past two years.

The majority of those fastballs are over the plate, too -- Cueto has thrown McCutchen an in-zone heater 51 percent of the time during his career, above his overall 47 percent average. Age hasn't changed Cueto much here either, as he's still throwing 'Cutch more in-zone fastballs than he does to other hitters.

To this point, Cueto's fastball has been no match for McCutchen's bat speed. The Pirates' franchise player has belted all three of his homers against Cueto on fastballs, slugging .621 against the pitch. McCutchen is one of the game's elite fastball hitters, slugging .580 this season and .555 during his MLB career. That's why so few pitchers feed him fastballs. He has seen a heater just 42 percent of the time this season, sixth-lowest among qualified hitters.

Lowest percentage of fastballs seen, 2013

Cueto has evolved as a pitcher over the course of his six seasons in the majors, relying more upon his secondary stuff, generating ground balls and keeping the ball in the park. Against McCutchen, though, he reverts back into the 22-year-old who preferred to blow hitters away -- and pay the price when he couldn't. Perhaps it's time to slow 'Cutch down with more breaking and off-speed stuff.