Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Next Up: The Cincinnati Reds

After an off day, the Pirates will try to get back on track after the weekend's shellacking on the hands of the Washington Nationals (three losses by a combined score of 19-3). They open a three game series tonight against the Reds, against whom they're only 1-5 so far this year.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Reds are 14-12 over the past 30 days, which isn't fabulous, but it ties them with the Cubs for the third-best record in the National League during the period, trailing only the 19-8 Pirates and 18-8 Cardinals. Yes, the four best teams in the National League over the past 30 days are all in the Central division. They've scored 4.5 runs per game over the past 30 games, second in the league, and allowed 3.8 per game, fourth fewest. So they've been pretty good. Fortunately for the Pirates, they won't face their longtime nemesis, Johnny Cueto, whose elbow is bothering him. He was scheduled to start tonight's game but he'll rest until Friday. The Pirates will instead face Josh Smith, in his first major league start. That might sound promising, but the Pirates faced the Milwaukee's Taylor Jungmann in the Brewer's first start, and lost 4-1, as the rookie allowed one run over seven innings.

What's Going Right? Well, when you're second in runs scored and fourth in runs prevented, a lot of stuff's going right. They're only ninth in batting over the past 30 days but sixth in on base percentage and second in slugging. They've hit the second most homers and drawn the fifth most walks. They have the sixth-best starters' ERA and the sixth-best relievers' ERA over the span. 

What's Going Wrong? The bullpen's blown five saves, the second-most in the National League over the past 30 days. And the Cueto injury is worrisome. He's the team's best pitcher and most valuable trade chip--more on that in a sec--but he started only 24 games in 2011 and 11 in 2013 due to health issues. The Reds are hoping he holds up in this odd-numbered year.

The Reds also face a fish-or-cut-bait issue. They're 32-36, fourth in the Central, 12.5 games behind the Cardinals and 6 behind the Cubs for the second wild card, tied with the Padres, with four other teams between them and Chicago. One of their best starters, Homer Bailey, is out until sometime next season with Tommy John surgery. Do they keep pushing for the postseason this year, or do they see what they can get for Cueto in a trade? Do they try to trade closer Aroldis Chapman, who's arbitration eligible next year? These questions won't get answered in the three games with the Pirates, but they hang over the club.

Who's Hot? Third baseman Todd Frazier's been on fire: .339/.368/.761 slash line over the last 30 days, first in runs scored, second in homers, tied for second in RBI. First baseman Joey Votto's been really good too, at .308/.427/.637. Frazier's first in the league in slugging, Votto's fourth in on base percentage. Center fielder Billy Hamilton has struggled to get on base (.289 on base percentage in the past 30 days), but he's put pressure on pitchers when he gets on, leading the majors with 14 steals. Every starter--Cueto, Mike Leake, Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen--has been OK, though the latter two get an unusually small number of strikeouts. In the bullpen, Chapman's out on paternity leave, so the closer role will shift to J.J. Hoover. Chapman, as usual, has struck out a ridiculous number of batters--43% of the batters he's faced over the past 30 days. compared to a league average of 22%--while Hoover, who's allowed no runs in his last 13.1 innings, has struck out a below-average 14% of batters.

Who's Not? Second baseman Brandon Phillips (.226/.258/.298 over the past 30 days) is showing his age, but the only other Reds batters with poor results of late are part-timers. He's neither hot nor cold at the major league level, but tonight's starter, Smith, is a 27-year-old rookie, and 27 is pretty old to be breaking into the majors. 

What's the Outlook? The Pirates are facing a Reds team that's played well lately. The big question, to me, will be whether the Pirates pitchers can cool off the Reds' hot bats, especially Frazier's (four homers in six games against Pittsburgh). 

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