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Entries in Pittsburgh Pirates (35)

Friday
Aug302013

Miller, Liriano Dominate Different Parts of the Zone

The most consequential series for the Pirates since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw to home plate in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS opens tonight, as the Cardinals (78-55) take a one-game lead in the NL Central standings to PNC Park to take on Pittsburgh (77-56). A pair of power arms kick off the series on Friday with Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller (9.7 K/9, 126 ERA+) facing Francisco Liriano (9.3 K/9, 130 ERA+), a scrapheap free agent find who could become the first pitcher in big league history to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award twice.

While Miller and Liriano are both dealing, they're doing so in far different ways. Miller is firing letter-high pitches. Liriano, by contrast, is pounding the bottom of the strike zone. The common thread? Lots of whiffs, weak contact and long walks back to the dugout for opposing batters.

Shelby Miller

Miller has located 36.2% of his pitches in the upper third of the strike zone this season -- only Baltimore's Chris Tillman (39.2%) and New York's Matt Harvey (36.3%) have climbed the ladder more frequently among qualified starting pitchers. When it comes to getting swings and misses on high pitches, Miller is the best in the game:

Highest miss pct. on upper-third pitches among starters, 2013

The 22-year-old right-hander especially likes to challenge hitters with high heat, throwing 41.4% of his fastballs up in the zone. Miller has racked up an NL-leading 60 strikeouts on high fastballs.

Batters aren't doing much against Miller's high stuff when they manage to make contact, slugging .189 and collecting a whopping four extra-base hits. Miller's opponent slugging percentage against high pitches is more than 200 points lower than the MLB average (.393), and trails only Cincinnati's Homer Bailey (.179) among starters.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano, unlike Miller, lives low in the zone. The 29-year-old lefty has tossed 57.3% of his pitches to the lower third of the zone, third-highest among starters. He also ranks in the top 10 among starters in lower-zone whiffs:

Highest miss percentage on lower-third pitches among starters, 2013

Liriano's go-to offering low in the strike zone is his changeup, which he has buried two-thirds of the time this year.

Batters are slugging a mere .247 versus Liriano's low pitches, which is nearly 80 points below the MLB average (.325) and ranks in the top 15 among starters. Liriano has surrendered just one home run on a low pitch this year -- a slider that Cincinnati's Chris Heisey deposited into the seats on July 19.

Sunday
Jul282013

Cole, Fernandez Getting Outs, if not Whiffs, with Blazing Fastballs

Catchers on both clubs will ice sore hands this afternoon, as Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole squares off against Miami's Jose Fernandez. Cole is tied with the Mets' Matt Harvey for the highest average fastball velocity (95.4 MPH) among starting pitchers, while Fernandez (94.6 MPH) also ranks in the top 10. You might think such premium gas would lead to lots of swings and misses, but you'd be wrong. Both hard-throwing rookies are attacking hitters with their fastballs, posting modest whiff totals with the pitch but beating batters nonetheless.

Cole (14.5% fastball miss rate) and Fernandez (14.4%) have nearly identical fastball whiff rates that are below the major league average for starters (15.1%). Yet, Cole and Fernandez sit near the top of the charts when it comes to limiting hard fastball contact.

Lowest opponent fastball slugging percentage among starting pitchers, 2013 (Min. 500 fastballs thrown)

How have Cole and Fernandez been so successful with their fastballs despite such modest whiff rates? They're pumping fastballs over the plate, challenging hitters to take their best shot against their high-speed heaters.

Cole's fastball location, 2013

Fernandez's fastball location, 2013

Cole has located 57% of his fastballs within the strike zone, tied with Clayton Kershaw for fifth-highest among National League starters and well north of the 53% MLB average in 2013. Fernandez has been similarly aggressive, throwing 56% of his fastballs in the strike zone. With heat like this, why nibble?

The battle between batter and pitcher can be a complex game of percentages, but sometimes, it's brutally simple. Cole and Fernandez don't think anyone can touch their searing fastballs. So far, they're right.

Monday
Jul082013

The Inside Story on Jeff Locke

Jeff Locke has made the leap from fifth starter to Pirates ace in a few short months, anchoring the NL Central leader's starting rotation while A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez heal. The lefty takes the mound tonight against the Oakland A's with a 2.12 ERA, trailing only Clayton Kershaw among qualified starters. Locke has been better at preventing runs than Stephen Strasburg. Better than Matt Harvey. Better than Adam Wainwright. Not bad for a guy battered for a 5.82 ERA in short stints during the 2011-12 seasons and dubbed "The Intern" by manager Clint Hurdle during spring training.

Whether Locke's success continues, however, is much less clear. His ERA is sparkling, but he doesn't induce a lot of strikeouts (6.1 per nine innings pitched) or limit free passes (3.9 BB/9). His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) -- what you'd expect his ERA to be based on Ks, walks and home runs allowed -- is 3.86.

The disconnect between Locke's expected and actual results is most pronounced when he throws inside -- supposedly a cardinal sin for soft-tossers. Few do it more often -- or with more success.

Locke looks like the stereotypical "crafty lefty" who avoids confrontation at all costs. He's on the small side, standing six feet and weighing 185 pounds, and he only tops 90 MPH with a gust of wind at his back. Despite his so-so velocity, the Pirates lefty has thrown more inside fastballs (47% of his total heaters) than any National League starting pitcher this side of Scott Feldman (48%), now in the AL with Baltimore. Among AL starters, only Derek Holland (55%) challenges hitters inside more often. Locke's thriving on the inner third, too:

Locke's opponent slugging percentage on fastballs vs. left-handed hitters

Locke's opponent slugging percentage on fastballs vs. right-handed hitters

Locke has limited hitters to a .186 slugging percentage when he tries to jam them with a fastball. That ties him with Cliff Lee for the third-lowest mark in the majors, trailing just flame-throwers Harvey and Jose Fernandez.

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on inside fastballs among SP (min. 50 PA throwing inside)

Locke's success in busting batters inside with his fastball is baffling for several reasons:

  • Locke has the lowest average fastball velocity (90.1 MPH) among pitchers on the list above, and Lee (90.7 MPH) and Alex Cobb (90.4 MPH) are the only other guys who throw under 92 MPH. Pitchers with Locke's fastball velocity tend to get spanked when they go inside. Pitchers throwing 89-91 MPH fastballs inside have a collective .464 opponent slugging percentage this year, compared to .475 for those throwing 92+ MPH heat.
  • Locke hardly ever gets hitters to whiff against inside fastballs. Hitters are swinging and missing just 8.6% of the time, well below the 12.4% MLB average. Even fellow soft-tossers Lee (16.3% miss rate) and Cobb (11.9%) induce more swings and misses on inside fastballs.
  • He doesn't back off even when he falls behind in the count, throwing his fastball inside 42% of the time when the hitter has the advantage. The MLB average, by contrast, is 26%. His opponent slugging percentage in such situations is .400, compared to the .585 MLB average.

Can Locke keep thumbing his nose at conventional pitching wisdom, beating hitters inside with not-so-fast fastballs? Or will he get his head handed to him in the second half? Stay tuned as we learn The Intern's ultimate fate.

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