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Series Preview #50: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

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I'll admit it: when the Pirates were in a dogfight for first place back in July, I was a little uncomfortable with the whole thing.  I've admitted to having a soft spot for the Pirates in this space before, and I think it would have been a good story if the team was able to pull it off.  But still, seeing it happen up close and personal...just felt weird.  This is a team that hasn't had a winning record since 1992, and seeing them on their way to one in 2011 felt about as bizarre as hearing a brand new Nirvana single.  Some things are just best left in the early 90's. 

Lucky, these Pirates were courteous enough to rescue me from my discomfort, by going 15-37 since July 25, the last day they were tied for first in the NL Central.  They were clearly playing over their heads at that point, so the drop-off wasn't totally unexpected, but it's still astonishing to see how quickly this season morphed from one of incredible optimism in Pittsburgh back to the status quo.

The good news is that the Pirates' core is young and talented, and likely to get even younger and more talented as more and more prospects begin to rise through the farm system.  A number of well-regarded pitching prospects, highlighted by first round draft picks Jameson Tallion and Gerrit Cole, are on their way to complement a developing core of positional talent.  In a way, it might end up being a good thing that the Pirates gave the baseball world a scare this year, since it will prepare us for when the Pirates actually are ready to compete in a year or two.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 95 84
Pitching (FIP-):
100 109
Fielding (UZR):
57.6 -7.8


It's been a struggle both in the field and at the plate for the Pirates.  The offense has struggled with the strikeout, as their K% is second-worst in baseball.  That, combined with a shortage of walks and minimal power, leads to a shortage of runs, and the Pirates rank 25th in Runs Scored. 

It was a pretty good bet that their pitching, which looked promising for the first couple of months, wasn't going to continue to defy the odds, or the FIP gods, for much longer, and once their staff began to regress, it essentially torpedoed their playoff hopes.  Their team ERA has jumped from 3.46 in the first half of the season, to 4.61 since then.  However, it's still an improvement from 2010, when their team ERA was an even 5.00. 

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Gerardo Parra, LF
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Miguel Montero, C
5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
6. Chris Young, CF
7. Ryan Roberts, 3B
8. John McDonald, SS

Pittsburgh Pirates

1. Alex Presley, LF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Derrek Lee, 1B
5. Ryan Ludwick, RF
6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Ronny Cedeno, SS
8. Michael McKenry, C

Alex Presley has been a nice surprise for Pittsburgh, as he has put up an OPS+ of 124 in 189 PAs.  He's 25, and was not considered much of a prospect going into the season, but has probably played himself into a role next season, even if his .355 BABIP is ripe for regression.  Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen represent the Pirates' hope for the immediate future, as both are 25 or younger, and have put up very nice seasons this year.  Walker has fallen off a bit in the second half, but he has an OPS+ of 104, which you'll take from your young, cost-controlled second baseman any day of the year.

Andrew McCutchen has been a revelation for a franchise that has seen plenty of high draft picks try and fail over the years.  He's been remarkably consistent over his young career, putting up an OPS between .814 and .836 in all three of his seasons in the majors.  However, he's shown signs of becoming a more polished player this year, raising his Line Drive Rate and his ISO% on offense, and improving his outfield defense (according to Fangraphs UZR).  This has all resulted in a sharp uptick in fWAR, from 3.7 last year to 5.4 this year.  In a season where the Pirates are counting organizational positives over wins, McCutchen's ascent to stardom might be the best thing about this season for Pirate fans.

The rest of the lineup does not inspire for the Pirates.  Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick both acquired in deadline deals with the Pirates still squarely in the race, in the hopes of pushing the team over the edge.  While what has happened since is obviously not their faults, they probably aren't all that popular in the Pirate dugout right about now.  And they haven't helped much individually either, as Ludwick has an OPS of .671 Lee has only appeared 19 games for the Pirates.  Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be an important piece to the Pirates' future, but has been unequivocally awful in his first season in the majors, with an OPS+ of 55.  Ronnie Cedeno gone from being replacement-level to merely being a below-average regular in 2011, which amounts to a career year for him.  Michael McKenry has an OPS+ of 65 as a 26-year-old rookie.

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Ian Kennedy (19-4, 2.99) vs. Charlie Morton (9-10, 3.81)

Insightful Commentary: Kennedy gets a second, and possibly final, chance at a twenty win season on Monday.  He pitched perfectly well after the first inning, but that first inning was enough as he yielded four runs before he recorded three outs.  On the other hand, his ability to bounce back and give the team six innings despite clearly not having his best stuff shows just how far he's come even this season from starts like this.  We've watched Ian Kennedy mature into an ace right before our eyes this year, and it's been genuinely inspiring to see.  If you can think of a more satisfying season of pitching in Diamondback history, I'd like to hear about it in the comments.

I never fully understood the "Charlie Morton is the Next Roy Halladay" hype.  They have similar windups and deliveries, and both had very bad seasons early in their careers, but is that really enough to base career comparisons off of?  Morton's ERA is less than half of what it was last year, and his FIP suggests he's more or less where he should be.  Thing is, his K/9 has dropped since 2010 and his BB/9 has risen.  His secret has been cutting his HR-rate, as his HR/9 is a tiny 0.34 in 2011.

Tuesday: Daniel Hudson (16-10, 3.39) vs. Ross Ohlendorf (1-2, 6.82)

Insightful Commentary: So here's a question: if you were starting a baseball team right now, would you rather have Ian Kennedy or Daniel Hudson?  Kennedy has the better ERA and W/L record, and is more established as a pitcher, but Hudson's younger, has better raw potential, and has been slightly better this year according to FIP.  Let me know in the comments.  Or don't, see if I care. 

As for Ohlendorf, the former Diamondback farmhand has struggled in the majors, particularly in 2011.  He's only pitched seven games this year, as injuries and poor play have kept him out of the majors.  He's 29, but the Pirates seem to think that he can file in as a back-of-the-rotation starter for them.  Personally, I tend to agree, if he can overcome the injuries that plagued him this year.

Wednesday: Wade Miley (3-2, 4.24) vs. Jeff Locke (0-2, 6.75)

Insightful Commentary: It's weird to think, but Miley, 1.68 WHIP and all, has probably been the Diamondbacks' most effective fifth starter this season.  His K:BB would make Joe Saunders blush, but a 4.24 ERA out of a fifth starter is not a problem, and even his 4.75 FIP is tolerable.  While Trevor Bauer would have been the sexy call-up after Marquis got injured, it's becoming increasingly clear that Miley was the right one.  An underrated good move by Towers.

I'm told that Jeff Locke is one the Pirates' top pitching prospects.  This, of course, means that blue bulldog will comment saying that Locke is terrible, and then I won't know what to think.  So far, he's given up six runs in eight innings in his first two major-league starts, with a K:BB ratio of 1:6.  That's not a typo.  He had decent strikeout totals in the minor, but he lacks a dominant pitch, so he'll have to cut his walks and refine his approach if he hopes to stick at this level. 

Final Verdict: The romantic thing would be for the Diamondbacks to take two out of three here, and clinch the division against the Giants, the team that has plagued them all year.  I hate romance.  I root for the iceberg whenever I watch TitanicAnd I would like a nice, calm series against the Giants with the division already in hand following a non-romantic clinching over the Pirates. 

For that to happen, the Diamondbacks will probably have to sweep the Pirates.  And they actually have a pretty good shot to do just that, since they are the better team, and have a clear pitching advantage in every game.  I'm prepared to regret this, but for now I'll say Diamondbacks sweep the Pirates.

Visit Bucs Dugout for the Pirates' perspective.

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.