Series Preview #3: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

In the last two years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a record of 38-77 after the All-Star break.

I don't really know what I'm supposed to use that summary box for, but really, that factoid seemed important enough to put in fancy large print.

Every fan base deserves the sublime joy of watching a team contend when they aren't expected to. Every win feels like a middle finger to all the pundits that doubted your team, while every loss feels like the beginning of the long losing streak that pushes your team out of contention once and for all.

Millions of "Are they good, or just lucky?" articles get published, and everyone starts caring about things like Pythagorean W/L and Playoff Odds. It's terrifying and exhausting and wonderful. Orioles and A's fans know what I'm talking about.

The Pirates have almost gotten that two years in a row now. They've stayed in contention through the trade deadline for two straight seasons, which puts them in rarefied air over the past two decades in Pittsburgh. And then that record happened.

I'm not going to speak for Pirate fans, but I have a feeling that a slow start that depresses expectations, followed by one of those weird late season runs that the Padres always seem to have that gets everyone excited for the next season would be much easier on the soul.

But I guess on some level, it's a sign that the rebuild is finally taking effect for the Pirates. For 18 years, the narrative around has been that they're awful. Over the last two seasons, the narrative has been that they're awful starting around August. Progress!

What the Stats Say:


Arizona
(81-81)
Pittsburgh
(79-83)
Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 95 90
Arizona
Pitching (FIP-):
92 104
Arizona
Fielding (UZR):
-6.5 0.4

Pittsburgh

All stats from 2012

I'm deliberately fighting the urge to use stats from the first six games. Mostly I do this as a service to any lurking Pirate fans who read this, because the Pirates' offense has been awful so far. The Pirates currently have a slash line of .117/.185/.145, which would constitute a down year for Ian Kennedy at the plate.

I mean, it goes without saying that the Pirates are going to regress to the mean. And they've played half of their games at the graveyard for hitters known as Dodger Stadium, so that probably hasn't helped matters. But it does an early suggestion that a team that too often scraped for offense around Andrew McCutchen last year probably didn't take a major step forward this offseason.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks:

1. Gerardo Parra, RF
2. Martin Prado, 3B
3. Aaron Hill, 2B
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Jason Kubel, LF
7. AJ Pollock, CF
8. Cliff Pennington, SS

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Garrett Jones, RF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Gaby Sanchez, 1B
6. Neil Walker, 2B
7. Russell Martin, C
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Everything positive about this offense starts with Andrew McCutchen. He's traveled the road from "stud prospect" to "great young player" to "legitimate franchise cornerstone and MVP candidate" with nary a hiccup, which makes people like me, who constantly write about how difficult the journey of a young player can be in the MLB, look really dumb. It's not supposed to be as easy as McCutchen has made it look for four seasons now.

Luckily, there's Pedro Alvarez lurking underneath to provide a more realistic take on the young player motif. Alvarez was second pick in the 2008 MLB draft, which also happened to be current Pirates' GM Neal Huntington's first year on the job. So, fairly or not, Alvarez became the face of the new administration. He was rushed through the minors, which was semi-justifiable because he hit at every level, and landed in Pittsburgh in 2010, where he put up an OPS+ of 112.

Which was great, until he battled injuries and put numbers that would make Justin Smoak blush from the beginning of 2011 until about June 2012. And then he turned around and put an OPS of .916 the rest of the way. And now he's 26, and the Pirates have no idea whether they have a burgeoning star or an inconsistent-but-overall-kinda-okay Third Baseman.

The rest of the offense ranges from pretty decent to imminently forgettable. Neil Walker has started slow for the second straight year, but he finished 2012 with an OPS+ of 112 as a Second Baseman, which is pretty nice to have around. Russell Martin should provide a bit of an upgrade at the Catcher position after the Pirates outbid the Yankees for him. That last sentence is also the tagline of a dystopian novel penned by Bud Selig.

Clint Barmes is a poor man's Cliff Pennington, so take what you will from that description. It wasn't that long ago that Gaby Sanchez was a good enough young player in Miami to push a young prospect named Logan Morrison into the outfield, but he's 28 now, and put up a line of .217/.279/.341 last year. Clint Hurdle seems to still be figuring out what goes where in the outfield, but 24-year-old Starling Marte has gotten the first crack at Left Field.

Pitching Matchups

Monday: Wandy Rodriguez (1-0, 0.00) vs. Trevor Cahill (0-1, 4.76)

Insightful Commentary: Wandy Rodriguez played a role in the only Pirates' victory of the season so far, as he pitched 6.2 scoreless innings in a victory over the Cubs. His K-Rate has dropped a bit in the last couple of years, even as his velocity has generally held steady. He was able to compensate last year by cutting his Walk Rate, and his streak of having an ERA under four is currently at five seasons.

Trevor Cahill hit a bit of a wall (not literally) in the sixth inning of his last start, giving up a pair of runs before getting chased. Admittedly, those runs came after Matt Holliday hit a good pitch for a home run, because Matt Holliday is good at baseball. Still, pitching through the sixth inning has historically been a problem for Cahill, as opponents hit .300 off him in the sixth in his career. It's only one start, and it probably means nothing for this pattern. Unless it keeps up, and I'll retroactively pretend that I knew it meant everything.

Tuesday: James McDonald (0-1, 1.29) vs. Brandon McCarthy (0-0, 10.80)

Insightful Commentary: James McDonald became the Pirates' de facto ace in the first half of 2012, largely because someone had to do it. It probably isn't fair to blame the Pirates' entire collapse on him, but his ERA of 7.52 in the second half didn't help matters either. At 28, he probably isn't going to become the sort of pitcher who heads a rotation, but cheap pitchers who can consistently throw up ERAs in the low 4s have their uses as well.

With starts like McCarthy's first, it's generally best to just brush them under the rug and start fresh. As we've documented, the Cardinals are a good offensive team, and they're going to do what they did to Brandon McCarthy to plenty of pitchers this season. Now, if the same thing happens against the Pirates, who have five extra base hits in six games, I'll be a bit uneasy. Not nervous yet, but uneasy.

Wednesday: Jonathan Sanchez (0-1, 5.40) vs. Wade Miley (1-0, 1.50)

Insightful Commentary: The blurb on MLB.com's "Probable Pitchers" page contains this gem: "Including Spring Training and his first start, [Sanchez] has walked three in his last 15 2/3 innings -- the most in-control stretch of his career."

Now it's possible that MLB.com is being tongue-in-cheek here, showing a level of glibness I wouldn't have expected from them. But if not, holy hell. These are the lengths you're willing to go to make it look like Jonathan Sanchez is no longer the conniving walk-gremlin he has been for his entire career? Using a 15 inning sample size, half of which were not in a game that matters, to justify his improvement? And it's not even like he didn't walk anyone during that stretch, I mean, that's like a good month of walks from Cliff Lee. Did you really go through every 15-inning sample of Jonathan Sanchez's career without finding anything better than this one? Y'all are weird, MLB.com, and Jonathan Sanchez is amazingly prone to walks.

Five Pressing (?) Questions:

How's John McDonald doing with his new team? He's appeared in two games for the Pirates, both presumably as a defensive replacement, because he hasn't registered an At-Bat yet.

Does that mean we can have him back, seeing as they aren't even using him? No. That's not how baseball transactions work, dummy.

Is there a .gif in existence that sums up the first six games of the Pirates season? That's a lofty goal for any looped clip of baseball footage, but yes, there is.


Have the Pirates always been called the Pirates? Nope. They were the Pittsburgh Alleghenys until 1889, when they changed their name to the Pittsburgh Innocents for a season. Then they finally changed their name to the Pirates in 1891. I don't know what prompted this sudden flurry of name changes, but it's funnier if we assume that the whole team spend all of 1890 being embroiled in a court case before finally being found guilty of Piracy.

Wait, they were called the Pittsburgh Innocents? What was their mascot? Taylor Swift.

Pirates blog of record: Bucs Dugout.

(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Random Pirates historical digression via Wikipedia.)

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