Thursday, August 6, 2015

Next Up: The Los Angeles Dodgers

The Pirates have 23 games remaining in August. Only three--a three-game series in St. Louis starting Tuesday--are against National League Central opponents, but 13 are against the National League West, starting with a three-game series beginning Friday against the Dodgers. I'm going to be off the grid most of the weekend, so I'm going to hit it up now. The Pirates have a better record than the Dodgers (62-44 vs. 61-46) but while the Pirates trail the Cardinals by 5.5 games in the tough National League Central, the Dodgers have a two game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. The series in Pittsburgh begins with a marquee matchup of Gerrit Cole vs. Clayton Kershaw Friday night. The Pirates face two pitchers the Dodgers acquired at the trade deadline, Mat Latos and Alex Wood, on Saturday and Sunday.

Remember when nobody cared about the Pirates? The entire Dodgers series will be nationally televised. Friday's game will be on ESPN, Saturday afternoon's on Fox Sports 1, and Sunday evening's is the ESPN Game of the Week.

How Are They Doing Lately? At 14-9, the Dodgers are tied with the Phillies for the third-best record in the National League over the past 30 days. (The Pirates are half a game behind at 14-108) The Dodgers have scored only 3.8 runs per game, fifth fewest in the league over that span, while giving up 3.6, the fourth fewest. That run differential is more typical of a team that goes 12-11 over 23 games, not 14-9, so the Dodgers have been a little lucky to have that record. On the other hand, the Pirates have been outscored (106 scored, 115 allowed) over the past 30 days, so maybe both teams have had some fortune on their side.

What's Going Right? Dodgers starters, led by Kershaw and Zack Greinke, have a 2.43 ERA over the past 30 days, the best in the league. They have the second-highest strikeout rate, the third-lowest walk rate, the highest rate of ground balls and soft contact allowed and the lowest rate of hard contact allowed. They've allowed just five home runs over the past 30 days; no other team's allowed fewer than ten.  starting pitchers have a 2.99 ERA over the last 30 days, fourth best in the league, with the highest strikeout rate and sixth-lowest walk rate. They've induced the highest rate of ground balls and the second lowest rate of hard contact in the league. On offense, the Dodgers have been OK (sixth in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage over the past 30 days). Nothing really stands out other than the lack of larceny, with only five stolen bases over the past 30 days, fewest in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The relievers have been as bad as the starters have been good. The bullpen ERA over the past 30 days is 5.83, more than 1.2 runs worse than the next-worse team. They've struck out a lot of batters and they don't walk an excessive number, but they've given up more homers than any other bullpen (13, eight more than the starters in about 60% fewer innings), they don't induce grounders (lowest ground ball rate in the league), and while they can pitch to the strike zone (third-highest pitched strike rate in the league), they're not fooling batters, who've swung at only 29% of their pitches outside the strike zone, the third-lowest rate in the league.

Who's Hot? The Dodgers offense has been led by two hitters over the past 30 days: First baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.305/.387/.537 slash line) and catcher Yasmani Grandal (.382/.460/.527). Over the last 30 days, Kershaw has given up no runs, one walk, and 16 hits over 34 innings while striking out 45. A bunch of starters that the Pirates won't face (Greinke, Brett Anderson, and the recently-demoted Mike Bolsinger) have also done well over the last 30 days. Of the starters they'll face, Latos, who pitched well in his first start for the Dodgers, has a 1.89 ERA over the past 30 days. Wood, who had a rocky first start, is at 4.85. He had a 3.17 ERA through the end of June, 5.06 since. In the bullpen, Pedro Baez has a 1.86 ERA over the last 30 days. 

Who's Not? The team's two most-watched young batters are right fielder Yasiel Puig and All-Star rookie center fielder Joc Pederson. Both have slumped over the last 30 days, with Puig hitting .200/.244/.400 and Pederson, who's struck out in a third of his plate appearances, .177/.286/.266. I noted Baez's nice relief ERA; he's the only Dodgers reliever with more than two innings pitched over the past 30 days with an ERA below 4.26. Closer Kenley Jansen has six saves in nine appearances and 16 strikeouts in just eight innings, but he's also given up three homers--that's as many as the three starters the Pirates will face have given up combined over the same period--and has a 5.63 ERA. 

What's the Outlook? Well, it's pretty obvious: To beat the Dodgers, you have to get to their bullpen. The problem is, to do that, you have to get by their starters. That's always going to be a challenge when Kershaw's on the mound. The Pirates' outlook improves after tomorrow night's game.

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