Friday, June 26, 2015

Next Up: The Atlanta Braves

Earlier this week, I addressed concerns that the Pirates can't win against teams with a winning record. It's true that they have a losing record against teams playing .500 or better. But so do most teams. In fact, the Pirates are now sixth in the league in winning percentage against .500 or better teams. But here's another issue, as they enter play against the 35-38 Atlanta Braves: They haven't played a lot of games against good teams. The Cardinals have played 38 games against teams at .500 or better, 34 against teams with losing records. The Cubs have played 38 games against better teams, 33 against those with losing records. For the Pirates, the split is 30/42. I'll do a strength-of-schedule post sometime later, but the team is going to face some tougher competition as the season moves forward.

How Are They Doing Lately? Not great. They're 13-15 over the last 30 days. They've scored 4.1 runs per game, fifth in the league, and allowed 4.4 per game, the fifth most. So the problem's been pitching more than hitting. They lost two of three to the Pirates earlier this month, and the three games this weekend are the last time the two clubs will meet this season. 

What's Going Right? The Braves are batting .268, third in the league over the last 30 days, and they're second in on base percentage, .327. So they've been getting on base a lot. The starters have a good ERA, 3.54, fifth best in the league, but with the lowest strikeout rate and the seventh-highest walk rate. No team's starters have kept the ball in the strike zone more than the Braves (53% of pitches in the strike zone over the past 30 days), but they're not fooling batters with pitches outside the strike zone, as batters have swung at less than 29% of pitches outside the zone, second fewest in the league. 

What's Going Wrong? The team's slugging .367 over the last 30 days, third worst in the league. They've hit only 16 homers, tied for fewest in the league, and 43 doubles, tied for the fifth fewest. They lead the league in singles over the last 30 days, with 201, 19 more than the second-place Pirates. So the Braves have hit a lot of singles but lack power, and that's limited their ability to score. The bullpen's been a weakness all season, and the 4.44 relievers' ERA over the past 30 days is the third worst in the league.

Who's Hot? The Pirates won't face the Braves' best starter, Shelby Miller (2.65 ERA over the past 30 days), but the three they will face have been pretty good: Williams Perez (2.32 ERA, but walking nearly a batter every other inning), Julio Teheran (4.28 ERA but a gem in his last start, seven one-hit innings against the Mets) and Alex Wood (2.97 ERA). Closer and former Pirate Jason Grilli has a 0.75 ERA and seven saves over the last 30 days and reclamation project Jim Johnson (7.09 ERA last year with two teams) has a 2.77 ERA and two saves. Rookie second baseman Jace Peterson and center fielder Cameron Maybin have been a solid one-two punch at the top of the lineup, with on base percentages of .373 and .367, respectively. Shortstop and fielding wizard Andrelton Simmons has batted .320 with a .371 on base percentage over the past 30 days, albeit with only three extra-base hits.

Who's Not? Take away Grilli and Johnson and the Braves bullpen has a 5.76 ERA. The Braves' best hitter, Freddie Freeman, just hit the disabled list, and he accounted for seven of the club's sixteen homers over the past 30 days. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski has a .286 on base percentage over the last 30 days, and the team's had a sinkhole in left field all year. 

What's the Outlook? I said this the last time the teams met, and I'll say it again: The key for the Pirates will be to get to the Braves' starters early to get at the middle relief underbelly of the Braves' bullpen and keep the ball out of their former teammate Grilli's hand.

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