When I previewed the Pirates and Brewers heading into the 2014 season, I complained that their early season match-ups might not mean that much. Here we are, not even 10 games into the season, and the first match-up between the Pirates and Brewers features two hot clubs that are playing winning baseball. It’s tough to think of the Brewers’ current 7-2 advantage — compared to the Pirates’ 5-3 record — as something the Brewers could build on during their upcoming series against Pittsburgh. Even after seven games against Pittsburgh in April, the Pirates will have 147 games to undue that damage. Statistics like this make it difficult to take it seriously that each and every baseball game is created equally, but there is some sense that these upcoming games are extremely important. The Brewers just beat up on the defending World Series Champions before cleaning up in Philadelphia, while the Pirates flexed their muscles against St. Louis and Chicago. Pittsburgh has a chance to show that they may dominate the NL Central this year, while the Brewers have their first chance to show that their early success can extend to the Central. All this, and it’s not even Tax Day!
By the way, I look forward to making this “Series Preview” a regular column of sorts. There are thousands of tiny questions to be answered throughout a season, such as which pitchers are receiving good bullpen support, who is throwing what (and when), and how umpires are calling strike zones. Beyond all that, there are many different ways that intradivisional series produce match-ups, and the Brewers are already earning an advantage against the Pirates: although the Brewers face the Pirates seven times in April, only one of those match-ups potentially includes Gerrit Cole, the Pirates’ ace. This might seem like small potatoes, and yet, if one had to choose a pitcher to sit out during a Pirates series, Cole would be that pitcher. Meanwhile, the Brewers should get to send their best starter, Kyle Lohse, to the mound twice during these April meetings. It may not be a significant arrangement, but then again, Division races rest on these details. Hopefully these previews can lend some narrative to this patchwork of small details that comprise 162.
Pirates: 34 runs scored, 28 runs allowed
Brewers:46 runs scored, 24 runs allowed
Pirates: Series Victory in Chicago.
Brewers: Series Sweep in Philadelphia.
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)
Francisco Liriano (0-1, 12 IP, 4 R in 2014; 161 IP, 14 runs prevented in 2013) @ Wily Peralta (0-0, 5 IP, 5 R in 2014; 183.3 IP, -21 runs prevented in 2013)
Liriano is a prominent slider-first pitcher, but his 2013 success hinged in part on increased use of his change up. Thus far in 2014, that trend is extending for Liriano, as he continually selects his change up more frequently. While the change up is not yet approaching the slider as Liriano’s favored pitch, it adds another off-speed weapon to the southpaw’s arsenal. Against right-handed batters, the change up works on the same plane as Liriano’s sinker. This effectively gives batters the same look as the sinking fastball, but at the surprisingly slow speed of 85 MPH. Liriano does not need a whole lot of room between his pitches; everything batters see will sit between approximately 84 and 92 MPH. Yet, with a sinker/change plane, and a slider plane, Liriano can work batters at different levels with a small range of stuff.
In Boston, Brewers’ youngster Wily Peralta laid on the heat, and did not stray from it. His primary and secondary fastballs were working above 96 MPH, and Peralta allegedly favored his primary fastball more than his sinking option. Although the change up and slider were there to keep Red Sox batters honest, there is a sense that hammering that fastball into batters and commanding the strike zone will be Peralta’s recipe to success. Peralta’s slider was one of the Brewers’ very best pitches in 2013, but his fastball was not nearly as good; one gets the sense that if Peralta can continually keep the feel of slider and improve his fastball command, that will be the recipe for success. Of course, it’s always easier to write that than to execute that plan.
Edinson Volquez (0-0, 7.7 IP, 1 R in 2014; 170.3 IP, -44 runs prevented in 2013)
@ Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 12.7 IP, 0 R in 2014; 180.7 IP, -7 runs prevented in 2013)
Volquez will make his 13th career start against Milwaukee. He is 5-3 versus the Brewers, despite allowing 41 runs in 71.3 innings. In 179 plate appearances at Miller Park, the Brewers hit .255/.363/.510 against Volquez, slugging 12 homers in 39 hits. Volquez has a strong start to 2014 for the Pirates, in stunning contrast to his below-replacement 2013 campaign. While Volquez’s 2012 campaign was not terrible — in fact, his seven runs below average performance perfectly matches last year’s effort by Gallardo — the hard throwing junkballer is 72 runs below average over the last three seasons. This lead me to ask, “How does a replacement-level starter distribute their starts?”
Key: Quality Starts; “Long Quality Starts” (7 IP+, <3 R); “Short But Good Starts” (5 IP, 3 R starts
|Volquez||QS||7 IP <3 R||5 IP <3 R||>3 R|
*One 4 IP, 2 R start in 2012, One 4 IP, 3 R start in 2011, eight 5 IP, 3 R starts in 2011-2013
|Gallardo||QS||7 IP <3 R||5 IP <3 R||>3 R|
#Three starts with 3 runs, but 3-to-5.7 IP in 2013.
Over the last three years, it is worth noting that Volquez has pitched nearly as many 4-to-5 IP, 3 R starts as he has pitched deep quality starts. This is a tough place to be in for a starting pitcher; allowing three runs in five innings is not exactly dreadful, but it is below average. Add those starts to 33 starts with four or more runs allowed, and the replacement picture becomes clearer. One gets the feeling that as long as Volquez is a threat to put together between 12-and-16 quality starts in a season, he will remain a back rotation starter.
Yovani Gallardo is on a tear to begin the 2014 season, and, notably, the velocity vultures have not arrived yet. Gallardo is throwing both his primary and secondary fastballs between 91-and-92 MPH. His slider is increasingly his favorite “off-speed” option, coming into the zone between 87 and 88 MPH. It is worth noting that Gallardo is currently throwing his sinker much more frequently than in 2013, while his slider still receives nearly a quarter of his selections. This means that Gallardo’s curve and change are suffering; his change is basically non-existent at this point, and his curve is falling behind his slider in favor.
If you’re ever wondering about Gallardo’s performance amidst falling velocity concerns over the last few years (and increasing slider usage), viewing his set of starts against Volquez’s demonstrates Gallardo’s value in the Brewers’ rotation. While Gallardo is not one of the few elite aces in the NL, he has the profile of a consistently reliable starter in the NL.
Charlie Morton (0-0, 12 IP, 5 R in 2014; 116 IP, -1 run prevented in 2013) @ Kyle Lohse (1-1, 12 IP, 6 R in 2014; 198.7 IP, 16 runs prevented)
Charlie Morton is an interesting pitcher for the Pirates. He flies under the radar of the rotation’s marquee names, but he’s been a rather serviceable member of the Pirates’ staff when healthy. Unfortunately for Morton, his injuries have impacted his ability to succeed in 2012 and 2013, although Morton’s campaign last year looked notably better than his extremely brief 2012 season. Thus far, it’s all sinker and curveball for the righty, as 84% of his offerings shift between a low-90s moving fastball and a high-70s bender. After the Pirates failed to offer A.J. Burnett a contract, many have questioned the state of the Pirates’ rotation. While banking on a healthy Morton might seem suspect, he is an arm that could bridge the gap between Burnett’s loss and the next top Pirates pitching prospect to hit the big leagues.
For the second straight series, Lohse is drawing the opposing club’s resident sinkerball artist. Hopefully, Lohse’s command — and strike zone — is better on Sunday than it was in Philadelphia. This isn’t simply hometown complaining, either; Phillies’ starter Kyle Kendrick threw 40 called pitches on Tuesday night, with six for the wrong outcome, while Lohse threw 61 called pitches with seven for the wrong outcome. Focusing on pitches in the strike zone (and borderline pitches) that were called balls, 10 of 40 pitches received the wrong call. That strike zone belonged to Larry Vanover, and it will be interesting to follow his other strike zones throughout the year to see if he is a consistent small-zone caller (it should not be surprising that a game with 10 questionable ball calls allowed both teams to combine for 14 runs).
During Tuesday night’s WTMJ broadcast, Joe Block and Bob Uecker provided an extremely interesting note about Lohse. Apparently, Lohse suggested that Brewers’ pitchers watch bullpen sessions together, a trademark he learned when he played in the capitol of upholding class and tradition. Now, Brewers’ starters — and, some relievers, apparently — all learn from one another during bullpen sessions, and watch each others’ approaches (Brewers Radio Network). It’s a novel idea, and one that is not surprising from a veteran like Lohse. It is worth noting stories like this when analysts like myself question surrendering draft picks for veterans like Lohse; you cannot necessarily draft leadership.
BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Brewers Radio Network. WTMJ 620. WTMJ / Journal Broadcasting Gorup, 2014.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2014.