Thursday, July 23, 2015

Next Up: The Washington Nationals

The Pirates will hope for improvement over their first series against the Nationals in mid-June, in which they were, well, annihilated. They lost three games in Washington by the aggregate score of 19-3 and were outhit 34-14, including Max Scherzer's near-perfect no-hitter

How Are They Doing Lately? The Nationals are 14-9 over the last 30 days, the second-best record in the National League. They've scored 3.5 runs per game, the sixth fewest in the league, and allowed 2.9 per game, the second fewest. A 14-9 record is about what you'd expect from a team with that run differential. They've opened up a three game lead over the Mets in the National League East, though their overall record of 51-42 is the poorest of any division leader, and is 2.5 games worse than the Pirates' 54-40.

What's Going Right? The Nationals' starters have a 2.96 ERA over the past 30 days, fifth best in the league. They've been by far the stingiest starters at issuing walks, just 3.5% of batters faced (the league average is more than twice as high), and although they've allowed a lot of fly balls (38% of balls put in play, second highest in the league), 11% of them have been infield flies (fourth most) and only 8% have gone over the fence (fourth fewest). They're No. 1 at pitching in the strike zone and No. 2 at inducing swings outside the zone. The relievers have followed a similar pattern over the past 30 days: Fourth-lowest ERA at 2.56, second lowest walk rate, third highest percentage of fly balls staying in the infield, fourth highest percentage of pitches in the zone, and third highest rate of swings outside the strike zone.

Who's Hot? You've probably heard this before, but right fielder Bryce Harper is having a great year. Over the last 30 days, though he's cooled off a bit, he's still been the team's best hitter, with a .294/.435/.529 slash line and three homers. Clint Robinson, pressed into action by injuries to left fielder Jayson Werth and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, has a solid .369 on base percentage over the past 30 days. 

The Pirates will face Doug Fister, who has a 3.38 ERA over the past 30 days, tonight, then the same three pitchers they faced in June: Scherzer (3.03 ERA, one walk and 28 hits over his last 35.2 innings), Gio Gonazlez (1.89 ERA in three starts over the last 30 days), and Joe Ross who's posted 2.70 in four starts for the Nationals as he's split time between Washington, AA Harrisburg, and AAA Syracuse. Closer Drew Storen's had a hot hand, with a 0.87 ERA and nine saves over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? You've probably heard this before, but shortstop Ian Desmond is having a terrible year. Over the last 30 days, he has a .181/.238/.333 slash line. (The league average is .253/.315/.397.) Rookie Michael Taylor, pressed into action action by injury to center fielder Denard Span, has been barely better: .230/.264/.310. \

It's hard to find a Nationals pitcher who hasn't been at least average, but over the last 30 days, Tanner Roark has had a 7.71 ERA in five relief appearances and, in one start, allowed eight runs in 3.1 innings.

What's the Outlook? The Nationals, while pretty clearly the class of their division, continue to underperform, hurt by injuries to Werth, Zimmerman, Span, starter Stephen Strasburg, and third baseman Anthony Rendon. When everybody's healthy, they're a formidable club. But not everybody's healthy. This is a chance for the Pirates to get back on the winning track, having started play after the All-Star break 1-5, in front of the home fans at PNC Park.

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