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.
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.
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.