Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Next Up: The Detroit Tigers

The Pirates wrap up their interleague series with the Detroit Tigers with three games in Detroit, starting tonight. They still have three games in Kansas City, two in Minnesota, and three at PNC Park against the Indians before they're done with interleague play this year. The Pirates dropped two of three to Detroit in mid-April, as they stumbled out the gate to a 3-6 record. They face a Tigers team that's shaping up as one of the American League's more disappointing clubs: Picked by most (including me) to win the Central division, they're in third, 6.5 behind the Royals and one behind the Twins. They trail Yankees, Twins, and Blue Jays in the race for the second wild card.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Tigers are 11-13, the fifth worst record in the American League. They've scored 4.8 runs per game, fifth most in the league, but allowed 5.0, the most in the league. The bullpen, a perennial Detroit issue, has saved only two games, fewest in the league, and been charged with five blown saves, the most. But let's not blame just the pitchers: while the Tigers are tied with the Orioles for the fewest errors in the league this season, 35, they rate only in the middle of the pack in advanced metrics over the last 30 days, indicating that while they're sure-handed, they're not getting to tons of balls.

What's Going Right? As the runs-per-game numbers indicate, the offense has been pretty good. Over the last 30 days, they're third in the league in batting at .276; sixth in on base percentage at .325, and sixth in slugging at .430. When you see a team that's doing better at batting than on base percentage and slugging, the conclusion is that they don't walk a lot and they don't hit for a lot of power. That's the Tigers: They've walked in just 6.3% of their plate appearances, third-lowest in the league, and they're tied for the sixth-fewest home runs. They don't exactly burn on the basepaths, either. They've grounded into the fifth-most double plays over the last 30 days, and they've been worthless as base stealers: eight steals (fifth fewest in the league), eight caught stealings (tied for third most). But overall, the offense isn't why they're struggling.

What's Going Wrong? The starting pitchers haven't been that bad--ERA of 4.12 over the past 30 days, seventh worst in the league--but man, that bullpen. Their 5.24 reliever ERA over the past 30 days is the worst in the American League by almost 0.8 runs. They've struck out only 17% of the batters they've faced (the AL average for relievers is over 22%), worse than all but the strikeout-phobic Twins, and while the .341 batting average they've allowed on balls in pay is suggestive of some bad luck--an unusually large number of batted balls falling in for hits rather than into fielders' gloves--they've allowed the most home runs per nine innings pitched, 1.5, in the league. 

Who's Hot? The Tigers have had two reliable starters over the past 30 days: David Price (3-1, 2.08 ERA) and Anibal Sanchez (3-1, 2.63 ERA). Fortunately for the Pirates, they won't face either. And the Tigers have had three pretty good middle relievers (Al Albuquerque, Blaine Hardy, and and Alex Wilson) who've combined for a 1.60 ERA over 31 appearances. 

But most of the hot players for the Tigers swing a bat. Over the last 30 days, first baseman Miguel Cabrera leads the American League in batting (.386) and on base percentage (.485) and is sixth in slugging (.602). He's been the star, but there's been an ample supporting cast. Right fielder J.D. Martinez has ten homers and a .644 slugging percentage. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes has a .323 batting average, and slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias is batting .316. 

Who's Not? In lieu of Price and Sanchez, the Bucs will go against Justin Verlander, Alfredo Simon, and Kyle Ryan, who've combined for a 5.37 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 12 home runs and only 37 strikeouts over 57 innings. As for the bullpen, put it this way: The Tigers' closer, Joakim Soria, has allowed two more home runs over the past 30 days (five) than any Pirates reliever has all season. The weakest points in the lineup over the past 30 days have been speedy rookie center fielder Anthony Gose (.157/.213/.171 slash line; he's been losing playing time to the better-hitting Rajai Davis), third baseman Nick Castellanos (.214/.267/.286), and catcher James McCann (.203/.246/.344).

What's the Outlook? Well, the Pirates' strategy is pretty obvious. Score runs against the Tigers pitching. The problem is, over the last 30 days, the Pirates have scored the third-fewest runs in the National League, with the fewest home runs and the lowest slugging percentage. It's time for the Pirates to start hitting.

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