Series Preview: Pirates @ Brewers | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Pirates Prospects recently featured an extensive analysis of the Pirates’ current issues. If you’re inclined to dismiss the Pirates as contenders, consider the Brewers’ own rough patches this season. While the Brewers arguably encountered (and arguably overcame) their worst injury issues early in the season (knock on real wood), it is still worth using the Brewers’ experiences with roster upheaval and shorthanded situations to spin the Pirates’ current fate. The Brewers’ roster issues hardly eliminated them from contending; for example, once the Brewers were full-strength after their May issues, they promptly played some of their best baseball in JUne.

The Pirates have struggled with relatively below average pitching (relative to PNC Park) throughout the season, but their August roster difficulties are accompanied by arguably their worst pitching performance of the season. While their 88 August runs allowed are basically equal to their pitching staff’s May performance, these 88 runs allowed have particularly impacted the Pirates’ ability to win one-run games. The August Pirates have already lost five one-run games, including four walk-offs; they are 2-5 in one-run games in August (compared to 23-17 entering August, and 8-5 during their rough-pitching May). One-run games (and close games in general) might be the most important types of games for the Pirates, for their strong bullpen and speedy offense are built for situational play. As I’ve noted before, Clint Hurdle’s Pirates are absolutely the best in the NL Central at converting poor run differentials into wins, due largely to his clubs’ abilities to win when the games are close.

Like the Brewers, no one ought to dismiss the Pirates during their rough stretch. The Pirates have a powerful offense, arguably the best in the National League (based on their park, and their balance between power and speed). Despite playing in a run environment that averages around 3.90 RS / G for 2014, the Pirates offense has scored fewer than 100 runs in only one month (April). Otherwise, the Pirates bats have consistently averaged around 4.30 RS/G, which would mean a pace that is 60 runs better than average in 162 games. These Pirates bats, and their bullpen, have generally held the club’s losing to a minimum, even when their starting pitchers struggle. Lately, this is not the case, but that does not make the Pirates pushovers.

Pirates (127 G): 532 RS / 537 RA
Brewers (127 G): 550 RS / 505 RA

Parks can severely impact the value of a team’s run production. Although it appears that the Brewers are nearly 20 runs better than the Pirates this season, the environment of Miller Park (compared to PNC Park) equalizes both clubs; the Brewers and Pirates have rather similar offensive value in terms of runs scored. Notably, both clubs are in the Top Five for PwrSpd Number in the NL: the Brewers’ balance of HR and SB gives them a 101.4 PwrSpd#, while the Pirates are at 97.9. Both clubs have at least 80 stolen bases and 100 home runs, a claim also made by the Dodgers, Reds, and Phillies. On the other side of the diamond, the Brewers hurlers are approximately 50 runs better than the Pirates pitchers, thanks to that same run environment.

In this series, the Brewers will have a very clear task: even if their general pitching performance gives the home nine the advantage, they will need to neutralize a powerful, speedy offense.

Pirates (65 W): 25-10, .714, +8 beyond current pace, +8 beyond Pythagorean Pace, +10 beyond 162 G RS/RA
Brewers (71 W): 19-16, .543, -1 behind current pace, EVEN with Pythagorean Pace, +3 beyond 162 G RS/RA

This is a difficult time to judge the Pirates against their run differential and chance to win 90 games; just 20 games ago, Pittsburgh’s pace was approximately 86 wins. Needless to say, this difficult stretch of games has knocked them off that track. Yet, the general National League standings provide a clearer picture of the Pirates playoff chances:

NL East 93-69 (Nationals) 96-66 (Nationals) 94
NL Central 91-71 (Brewers) 87-75 (Brewers) 89
NL West 90-72 (Dodgers) 89-73 (Dodgers) 89.5
Wild Card Home 89-73 (Cardinals) 86-76 (Giants) 87.5
Wild Card Road 86-76 (Giants) 83-79 (Tie–Atl & Cin) 84.5
Spot #6 84-78 (Braves) 83-79 (Tie–Atl & Cin) 83.5
Spot #7 83-79 (Pirates) 81-81 (Cardinals) 82
Spot #8 81-81 (Marlins) 80-82 (Pirates) 80.5
Spot #9 78-84 (Reds) 79-83 (Padres) 78.5
Spot #10 76-86 (Padres) 77-85 (Marlins) 76.5

The Pirates are basically a trio of games behind the Giants, and a handful of games out of the first spot. Notably, several “underperforming” and “overperforming” define the NL playoff race. If Pythagorean W-L, or “run differential,” defined the playoff race, the Giants, Braves, and Reds would be fighting for the two Wild Card spots. By contrast, the Cardinals would fall short of the playoffs by a couple of games. Instead, St. Louis’s recent surge gives them a solid grip on homefield for the Wild Card game (as well as a realistic chance at the NL Central crown). This “overperformance” by the Cardinals effectively raises the win total of both Wild Card spots by three wins.

This exercise should showcase the mediocrity of the 2014 Senior Circuit. In this environment, where playoff spots could be realistically grabbed with approximately 83-through-89 wins, every Brewers win is a crucial step toward the playoffs. If the Cardinals beat their remaining schedule and dethrone Milwaukee, the Brewers must keep winning to hold their advantage to host the Wild Card home game. If you’re questioning the Cardinals’ recent performance, you ought to praise the Cardinals: since they surged at precisely the time other clubs are faltering, they raised the bar for playoff spots that now gives the Brewers a better chance at the Wild Card and Division. Even though the NL Central did not look great this season, the Central clubs are once against defining the playoff chase for the second consecutive year.

Last Series:
Pirates: Series Loss vs. Braves
Brewers: Series Tie vs. Blue Jays [two game series] and MLB PressPass Probable Starters
[Rematch] Jeff Locke (2-2, 29.7 IP, 19 R (25 K / 11 BB / 6 HR), 1 quality start in last 5 GS) @ Yovani Gallardo (3-1, 33.7 IP, 6 R (26 K / 6 BB / 0 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Judging pitching advantages becomes more difficult as the season develops. Early in the year, it’s fairly simple: one can use a pitcher’s previous track record to judge a team’s potential advantage. Now, the Brewers are deep enough into the year that specific improvements and changes in performance have stuck: Gallardo presents a particularly tough challenge, for he is in the midst of a 17-run swing between 2013 (-7 runs prevented) and 2014 (currently, Gallardo has prevented approximately 10 runs). On the other hand, Jeff Locke’s development is much less extreme: in 2013, Locke was basically average (1 run prevented) in 166.3 innings, and he’s also “basically” average this year, too (-4 runs prevented, 91.7 IP). If Gallardo’s development is more volatile, Locke’s development might be less intriguing.

It’s difficult to determine whether each pitcher’s track record matters; Locke has basically served as a replacement / injured starter for the Pirates during three of four seasons from 2011-2014, while Gallardo has served as one of the most dependable starters in the NL. Certainly, Locke’s 51 replacement innings in 2011-2012, at -10 runs prevented, do not necessarily give him a disadvantage against Gallardo’s 411.3 IP of 22 runs prevented pitching during the same time. Both pitchers are working on completely different wavelengths this year. So, for all these issues, I’m calling this a draw on my “Mismatches / Advantages / Even” pitching match-ups chart:

Month Mismatches Advantages Even Replacement
March/April 10-2 10-4 0-2 n/a
May 4-6 6-4 2-5 1-0
June 2-3 13-5 3-2 n/a
July 4-5 2-5 3-6 0-1
August 4-1 3-4 4-2  

Notice that I have picked more “even” starts as the season wears on, while the number of “mismatches” has also declined significantly. “Advantages” appear to be much more tied to the schedule, as June gave the Brewers a series of below average or replacement starters (hence their 13-5 record in advantageous match-ups). My favorite stat of the season (or one of them) is the 10-2 performance in mismatches during April, which simply shows how much Brewers pitchers immediately changed their respective performances compared to 2013. When I was judging pitchers solely by 2013 performance, the Brewers had their largest set of mismatches; their performances in these starts helps to explain why the Brewers were able to turn around their ballclub. Since April, the pitching staff has been painted in a completely different light than in 2013, even during their rough stretches.

Edinson Volquez (2-0, 29.3 IP, 14 R (24 K / 13 BB / 3 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Wily Peralta (4-1, 31.3 IP, 8 R (22 K / 13 BB / 3 HR), 4 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Junkball Volquez is long gone: the rejuvenation of Edinson Volquez has come not from his change up, but from his curveball. As late as 2012, Volquez was likely to select his change up more than any other pitch, although his general balance between fastball / sinker / curve / change was basically 25% for each pitch. Now, Volquez’s arsenal revolves around his sinker and curve, which have come to the forefront of his selection plan. His sinker is a bit crisper, and slightly faster in 2014, and his curve is also harder. As a result, nearly 7 in 10 offerings from Volquez will be a sinker or curve, which places his change up on the back burner. It’s still available in a pinch, but Volquez clearly has re-evaluated his approach after a few rough seasons. One thing is certain: if he maintains his current performance level, it will be difficult to find a more-improved pitcher in the 2014 National League.

Speaking of improvements, Wily Peralta is arguably Volquez’s toughest competition for “most improved pitcher” (or, one of the the toughest candidates). After a couple of hiccups throughout 2014, Peralta has consistently shown an ability to recapture his strength and recover on the mound. Now, he’s beginning to shine for the Brewers, changing the key question from “Can Peralta serve as an average starting pitcher?” to “Will Peralta be able to build on his improvement and become a top rotation starter?” Make no mistake: if Peralta stays in the range of slightly-below-average-to-slightly-above-average starter, he will have a solid career in Milwaukee. Yet, his flashes of brilliance, and general stuff, lead one to hope that he uses his improvements in 2014 to take the next step.

Vance Worley (2-2, 33.3 IP, 13 R (24 K / 6 BB / 4 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ MIke Fiers (3-0, 21 IP, 2 R (25 K / 3 BB / 1 HR), 3 quality starts since August recall)

If these pitching match-ups remain the same throughout this series, Vance Worley and Mike Fiers will comprise the Brewers’ third “true replacement” game, and their first with Fiers. The Brewers split their earlier replacement games in 2014:

Full Replacement Games Brewers Opponent Result
May 25 Jimmy Nelson Randy Wolf 7-1 W
July 27 Jimmy Nelson Jacob deGrom 0-2 L
August 24 Mike Fiers Vance Worley  

Vance Worley bounced around a bit after his successful work in Philadelphia, but now he’s once again found success in a big league rotation. Worley is one of the keys to the current Pirates rotation, a stopgap that has actually outperformed some of the Pirates regulars. A fastball / slider guy from day-one, Worley’s success in 2014 comes from an “exaggerated” version of his fastball / slider approach: the recipe is simply more sinkers, more sliders.

It’s always fun to isolate pitchers’ pitch f/x readings during hot streaks or rough stretches. Obviously, pitch f/x data must be taken with a grain of salt in small doses, for park effects and other data errors can impact the proper interpretation of those pitches. Yet, during his current rough stretch, Worley’s fastball velocity is down a tick, and his pitches aren’t breaking as much (again, by a mere inch in some case, but with big league hitters that could make all the difference). It may not be a true trend, but it will be worth watching the break on Worley’s slider, or the bite on his fastballs. If Worley has his sharp spinner, look for him to carve up Brewers bats with even more exaggerated slider selections (could he throw 30% sliders? Stay tuned!).

You might have noticed Fastballer Mike Fiers lighting up the radar gun on your television. As skeptical as I am of radar gun readings for TV, this development appears legitimate: pitch f/x is also tracking Fiers’s fastball at a relatively hard velocity of 90-to-91 MPH in August. This is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the gap between Fiers’s primary fastball and cutter: not only has the velocity gap between Fiers’s cutter and fastball has actually closed in August (compared to his 88 / 85 balance during the 2012 season), but the “movement” gaps are closing, too. Currently, a cutter from Fiers will be harder and move less than a 2012 version of his pitch. I wonder if Fiers’s cutter was more of a “slider” before, at slower velocities, and is now becoming more of a “fastball.” Anyway, this could simply be meaningless pitch f/x stuff — it doesn’t necessarily matter how hard Fiers’s fastball is, or how much his cutter breaks, if he’s an effective pitcher. Still, is his effectiveness due to these shifts in movement?

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Venture, 1996-2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP, 2014.

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