Series Preview: Brewers @ Pirates | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The Pirates find themselves in a strange position entering June: their batters are producing runs at a solid level, but their pitching is simply not along for the ride. Currently, Pirates pitchers are approximately 22 runs below average entering the series against our Milwaukee Nine. Pittsburgh starting pitchers bear the bulk of the blame, given that not one of their six starters (and one emergency starter) are better than average at preventing runs in 2014.

These Pirates pitchers are wasting solid offensive output from a rather deep set of bats. Certainly, Andrew McCutchen is performing at his typically elite level, but he is joined by Russell Martin, Ike Davis, and Neil Walker. Even though Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte are not at their best, they’re still producing in areas that help the club. Alvarez is batting .228, but his 11 home runs and 25 walks push his OPS above .710. Marte’s OPS does not look good, but despite a .235 AVG, he’s still getting on base at a .306 clip. In the rather depressed environment of PNC Park and the 2014 NL, that’s not bad. Add in a couple of solid replacement / bench bats, and the Pirates have a well-rounded offensive attack.

If you’re ready to count out the Pirates because of their pitching issues and losing run differential (and record), it’s too early to jump aboard that train of thought. After a three-game losing streak to the Brewers and Yankees in the middle of May, the Pirates are 11-6. Of course, seven one- or two-run victories are included in that group of games, which shows that the Pirates are once again up to their old close-game ways. Their run differential over that 11-6 stretch? 66 RS / 69 RA.

Playing in PNC with two struggling pitching staffs gives this series an interesting look. Both the Pirates and Brewers offenses can score just enough runs to win, which means that these clubs could potentially face a rare set of slugfests. More likely, all these trends will probably boil down to three typically tense games between suddenly seething rivals. Since we’re rooting for Milwaukee, we can only hope that the Pirates do not continue their secretly successful run this weekend.

2014:
Brewers (61 G): 262 RS / 235 RA
Pirates (59 G): 228 RS / 251 RA

Currently, the Brewers bats are approximately 12 runs above average, and their pitching is approximately 16 runs better than average. While it is a common refrain to hear about the pitchers carrying the offense through their hot start, the Brewers bats have done more than their fair share recently. So, I thought I’d ask, “How many games have the pitchers won?,” and “How many games have the bats won?”

To keep this quick and easy, any win that REQUIRED five or more runs counts for the bats (seeing as that level of production is more than 15% above average). A pitching win is a game that required three or fewer runs to win:

Team Wins 36
Batting Wins 11
Middle Ground 8
Pitching Wins 17

This gives the impression that the pitchers are indeed carrying the club, for the Brewers win rather frequently when they allow fewer than two runs. But, if the pitchers are indeed carrying the club, we might find that the batters lose a higher ratio of games when they fail to score at least three runs (versus games lost when the pitchers allow four or more runs). This is not the case:

Team Losses 25
Batting Losses 3
Middle Ground 2
Pitching Losses 20

So, when three runs would win the game, the Brewers are 17-3; when four would win the game, they’re 8-2; and, when five wins the game, they’re 11-20. The pitchers are not unduly carrying the club’s winning record, for as much as the Brewers win when they allow two-or-fewer runs, they also hardly lose in those games, too. Of course, the pitchers also allow five runs rather frequently. This is one of the benefits of having a balanced, above average club — if the Brewers keep up this pace, they will be +32 RS / -42 RA for the season. Few clubs exhibit that sort of balance, so let’s hold our breath and hope this trend continues.

Last Series:
Brewers: Series Tie vs. Twins (four game home-and-home)
Pirates: Series Victory @ San Diego

Aramis Ramirez returned during the Brewers’ mini-series in Minneapolis, and he immediately made his presence felt in the batting order. The Official Site featured an article about the flexibility of the Brewers batting order, and they were not lying: even with Ramirez out for more than a month, the Brewers used the flexibility of their bats to produce at a serviceable level. In fact, for the year, the Brewers have an average production level in games featuring at least one replacement player:

Brewers Batting Order G R Last Occurrence (Result) W-L R/G
w/ Gomez Braun Ramirez 23 G 98 R June 5* (8-5 W) 16-7 4.26
Replacement Games 38 G 156 R June 3 (4-6 L) 20-18 4.11
w/ Gomez Ramirez 12 G 40 R May 10 (5-4 W) 5-7 3.33
w/ Gomez Braun 15 G 76 R June 3 (4-6 L) 9-6 5.07
w/ Gomez 5 G 25 R May 23 (9-5 W) 4-1 5.00
w/ Braun 5 G 11 R May 22 (4-5 L) 1-4 2.20
w/o Gomez Braun Ramirez 1 G 4 R May 16 (4-3 W) 1-0 4.00
*April 27 through June 3 No Ramirez          

Previous Performances:
2013 Pirates: 94-68 (634 RS / 577 RA)
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)

2011-2013 Pirates: 245-241 (1895 RS / 1963 RA)
2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)

Kyle Lohse (3-0, 36.7 IP, 11 R (23 K / 1 BB / 4 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Brandon Cumpton (0-2, 22.3 IP, 19 R in four starts thus far in 2014)

On a whim, I attended Sunday’s Cubs game at Miller Park, and was treated to one of the best baseball games we’ve ever seen. First and foremost, the game marked one of the first Brewers wins I’ve seen in person since about 2007 or 2008. There is nothing better than beating a personal losing streak at the ballpark.

Furthermore, the combination of offense, pitching, and pace of game made Kyle Lohse’s victory that much sweeter. How frequently does one see a 9-0 ballgame played in just over two hours? Certainly, that game was probably the first complete game shutout I’ve ever witnesses from the stands. Even in the ballpark, it was easy to see that Lohse was consistently working off-speed, and he was always right around the plate. This helped him to carve up Cubs bats. Shifting from anecdote to statistics, Lohse selected his sinker and offspeed pitches in perfect harmony (46 apiece), and of course, his slider was his favorite slow offering (he chose his hard breaking ball 25 times).

I always wonder if pitchers throw bullpen sessions after outings like Lohse’s Sunday effort. The righty hardly threw six innings worth of pitches. It would be very interesting to know if a brief, crisp complete game helps a pitcher with his endurance, balance, and approach, or if he needs more work after the game. I can envision the victorious Lohse heading to the bullpen to throw another inning after his stress-free outing.

MLB.com has a solid feature on Brandon Cumpton, noting that the righty doesn’t measure up in the Pirates Prospect Hype Department, but fits in the organization’s plans. If Cumpton is the type of “bulldog” that doesn’t necessarily have overpowering stuff, but indeed works off mound presence and playing both sides of the plate, he has a good tutor pitching from the other side in the series opening game.

Isn’t it funny when articles suggest that a pitcher doesn’t have overpowering stuff, and yet, the pitcher has a 92 MPH sinker? For Cumpton’s career, he throws a 92-93 MPH sinker nearly two-thirds of his offerings. If you guessed that a slider would be his secondary pitch, you guessed correctly — 90% of Cumpton’s pitches will fall between 88 and 93 MPH. The righty is currently in an “unofficial” rotational battle of sorts — the judicious Pirates PR department has club management noting both Jeff Locke and Cumpton are in their plans (alongside other depth arms like Vance Worley). Yet, there is no doubt Cumpton can earn an official spot if he helps bring the Pirates back into the contending mix.

Matt Garza (1-1, 31.3 IP, 16 R (29 K / 12 BB / 3 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Edinson Volquez (2-1, 27 IP, 13 R (23 K / 12 BB / 6 HR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS)

It took 12 starts, but Garza worked his first scoreless outing of the season to open the home-and-home series against the Twins. For the most part, Garza’s pitch selection perfectly matched his season averages, save for his primary fastball and curve. Perhaps the best element of Garza’s victory against the Twins is that he worked his full arsenal into the game. Given that he simplified his approach to fastball / slider in some of his recent outings, perhaps his 44 off-speed pitch effort is a sign that he has the feel for each of his pitches.

I happened to catch a portion of a Pirates broadcast on MLBNetwork, and someone mentioned that the Pirates need Edinson Volquez to produce at a better level. While this may be a technically true statement, I still found the comment odd: do these broadcasters not know of Volquez’s track record?

Certainly, Volquez has served as a reliable arm over the last few years, but his reliability comes in innings pitched, rather than runs prevented. He’s currently four runs below average, and if he keeps up this pace, a season total of -12 runs prevented would be one of his most valuable seasons in recent memory. I wonder if broadcasters are simply instructed to not discuss low rotation trends on the air, or to tiptoe around the reality of replacement starters. But, when a league requires eight starters per team to finish a season, some pitchers are simply going to have some rough years. If anything, that broadcaster should have noted that Volquez was producing a solid low rotation effort for the Pirates. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Yovani Gallardo (1-3, 27 IP, 20 R (26 K / 14 BB / 8 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Charlie Morton (2-3, 29 IP, 14 R (26 K / 13 BB / 1 HR), 0 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Yovani Gallardo has been plagued by home runs at precisely the wrong time. Four of his last eight home runs occurred with runners on base, and each of those multi-run homers occurred in a tie game or close game:

Player HR Game Situation (Inning)
Yangervis Solarte 3 R 0-0 tie (4th)
Tony Sanchez 2 R 1-0 lead (5th)
Josh Willingham 3 R 1-1 tie (3rd)
Brian Dozier 2 R 2-4 deficit (5th)

These types of home runs change games, and make it difficult for the offense to scratch back. While it is tough enough to see a 1-1 game turn into a 1-4 game, allowing a two-run homer while facing a two-run deficit is simply back-breaking. Gallardo has been bit by the home run bug, which means that a trip to PNC could hopefully help him right ship.

Don’t be fooled by Charlie Morton’s ERA+ — the starter has already allowed 10 unearned runs in 2014. While his ERA of 3.31 looks solid, the righty has allowed six more runs than an average pitcher for 2014 NL / PNC Park. This, of course, tugs at several stathead sensibilities, including a sense that a pitcher ought to be judged separately, away from his fielders. If we abstract Morton’s K / BB / HR, we can see that he’s having quite a solid year, especially for a pitcher expected to be a middle-rotation guy.

It may seem unfair to judge a pitcher by runs allowed, but runs are the #1 metric that appear on MLB scoreboards. Perhaps in another century, humans will have evolved enough to determine baseball outcomes by FIP. Until then, runs will be important, even when they’re unearned. Three of Morton’s unearned runs occurred in his May 11 start against St. Louis. After a one out HBP, a throwing error against Pedro Alvarez resulted in two men on base. Morton promptly allowed two line drive singles and a deep flyout, which resulted in three runs scored. These scenarios show the deep connection between a pitcher and his fielders, as well as the questionable nature of unearned runs; while errors are detrimental to a pitcher’s performance, line drives are also detrimental. In combination, the two can result in big innings with lots of runs allowed.

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