Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wow, Tough Loss. Now, Please Don't Bounce Back. Give Up.

The Pirates lost to the Cardinals, 3-0, yesterday. It was a tough, tough, loss, as the Pirates had multiple scoring opportunities--they loaded the bases in four different innings--but were unable to push a run across the plate. In all, they left 16 runners on base. That's the most in a nine-inning game in the majors this season, and the most in the majors since the Pirates stranded 16 in a 10-3 win against the Padres in June last year. For Pirates fans, it was reminiscent of the team's early struggles, when it got runners on base but failed to score. 

The National League Central standings are now:

Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis  99 58 .631  --
Pittsburgh 95 62 .605   4
Chicago    91 65 .583 7.5

The Cardinals and Pirates have five more games to play. The Cubs have six.

  • If the Cardinals win two of their last five games--they finish their season this weekend in Atlanta, playing the team with the second-worst record in the majors--they'll clinch the division, regardless of what the Pirates do. 
  • If the Cards win just one of their next five, the Pirates will have to win every game remaining this year (two against St. Louis, three against Cincinnati) in order to play a one-game playoff on Monday to determine the division champion. The loser of that game will host the Cubs next Wednesday for the wild card play-in.
  • If the Cards go 0-5 for the rest of the season and Pirates win every remaining game, the Pirates will win the Central and skip the Wild Card game. If the Cardinals go 0-5 and the Pirates go 4-1, the teams will tie and play on Monday.
Put another way: For the Pirates to win the division outright, they'll have to go 5-0 and the Cardinals 0-5 the rest of the season. That means the Pirates will have to win the next two days against St. Louis and sweep the season-ending series at home against the Reds, who are 10-6 against Pittsburgh this year. It means the Cardinals will have to drop both games against the Pirates and lose three straight on the road against an Atlanta team that hasn't won three straight against a team with a winning record since June and has easily the worst record in the majors since the All-Star Break. For the Pirates to host the Cardinals Monday to determine the championship, they still have to win both of the remaining St. Louis games, and they can lose one game to the Reds or the Cardinals can win one game against the Braves. They go 5-0 and the Cardinals 1-4, or they go 4-1 and the Cardinals 0-5.

Anything is possible. But the scenarios I described are highly, highly unlikely. They're sufficiently unlikely that we can safely say they're not going to happen.

How about the Cubs, though? Are the Pirates at risk of losing home field advantage in the wild card game next Wednesday? The Cubs will be the home field team if they finish with a better overall record than the Pirates or if the teams are tied, as the first tiebreaker for determining home field advantage is head-to-head record. The Cubs won the season series against Pittsburgh, 11-8. So in order for the Pirates to play the wild card game at home, they need to finish ahead of the Cubs. The Cubs start a three-game series against the Reds tonight and have a three-game set against the Brewers this weekend, all on the road.
  • If the Cubs sweep both series, the Pirates will still finish ahead of them in the standings if they go 3-2.
  • If the Cubs go 5-1, the Pirates will need to go 2-3.
  • If the Cubs go 4-2, the Pirates will need to win just one game.
  • If the Cubs don't win four of their remaining six, the Pirates will host the wild card game regardless of what they do in their remaining games. 
Both the Brewers and Reds have been playing pretty bad ball of late. Over the past couple weeks, the Reds have the worst record in baseball, 3-10, and the Brewers are tied for the third worst, 4-9. The Cubs have beaten up on both teams this year, going 11-5 against Milwaukee and 10-6 against Cincinnati. Still, winning all six games is going to be hard, particularly since only one will be started by the unstoppable Jake Arrieta. So let's say the Cubs go 5-1. If the Pirates lose tonight, the Cardinals will clinch the division. It's not hard to see the Pirates winning Wednesday's Gerrit Cole-Tyler Lyons mismatch against a hung over Cardinals team. Then they have to take just one of three over the weekend, against a Reds team that's playing out the string, in order to stay ahead of the Cubs. 

So my hope for the Pirates is that, since winning the division is now effectively out of reach, they lose tonight and start giving players days off. They've played 29 games in the last 30 days. Neil Walker's had one day off. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte have had two. Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco have missed only four. Francisco Cervelli has caught all but six games. Five relievers have appeared in twelve or more games. Give them some time off. Let the bruises heal and sore muscles recover. Let them sleep in and sharpen their mental edge. Accept the inevitability of losing the division title and accept the likelihood of hosting the wild card game. The Cubs will start Arrieta. The Pirates will need all the advantage they can get.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Get It In Gear, McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen's batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, 2012-2015:

2012  157 593 107 194 29 6 31 96 20 12 70 132 .327 .400 .553
2013  157 583 97 185 38 5 21 84 27 10 78 101 .317 .404 .508
2014  146 548 89 172 38 6 25 83 18 3 84 115 .314 .410 .542
2015  151 544 88 159 36 3 22 95 10 5 95 126 .292 .403 .491
Generated 9/28/2015.

He's batted .300 or better, with an on base percentage of .400 or better, and a slugging percentage of .500 or better, for three straight seasons. That puts him in pretty select company. Here are the members of the .300/.400/.500 club in each of the past four seasons:

McCutchen is the only player to have finished more than one season above .300/.400./.500, though Goldschmidt is a lock to do it this year. If McCutchen can do it again this year, he'll join very select company:

Four or More Straight Years: .300/.400/.500 BA/OBP/SLG
Every player with an asterisk after his name is in the Hall of Fame. .300/.400/.500, four years in a row, that's really something!

If McCutchen plays each of the the Pirates' remaining six games, he'll probably get something like 26 plate appearances. He'll probably walk at least three times. That leaves 23 at bats, which will give him 567 for the season. To bat .300, he needs 170 hits. To slug .500, he needs 284 total bases. That means that in his final 23 at bats, he needs 11 hits and 17 total bases. Nine singles and a couple homers would do it. Going 11-for-23, that's not easy. But he needs to start now!


Next Up: Last Chance to Win the National League Central

Top of the National League Central, morning of September 28, one week left in the season:

Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis  98 58 .628  --
Pittsburgh 95 61 .609   3
Chicago    90 65 .581 7.5

I think we can be fairly confident in saying two things:
  1. By taking two of three against the Cubs over the weekend, the Pirates have probably wrapped up home field for the wild card play-in.
  2. If the Pirates are going to catch the Cardinals--who finish their season against the execrable Atlanta Braves, while the Pirates play the almost-as-execrable Cincinnati Reds who nonethless have a 10-6 record against Pittsburgh--they need to sweep the next three games at home against St. Louis.
I'd forgotten about this, but do you know how the baseball tiebreaker rules could hose the Cardinals and Pirates? In the NFL, there are all sorts of convoluted measures (won-lost within the division and conference, point differential, net touchdowns, among others) that determine the seeding if two teams finish with identical records. In baseball, they just play another game. Let's say the Pirates sweep St. Louis and then each team wins two of three this weekend. They'd be tied for first with identical 100-62 records. They would then be required to play a game in Pittsburgh next Monday to determine the division champion, with the loser hosting the Cubs on Wednesday for the wild card game. That would put the losing team, which would be the team that currently has the best or second-best record in baseball, at a significant disadvantage, as they would be playing full-bore baseball, not resting regular hitters or pitchers, for seven straight games. The Cubs could rest regulars and would have a day off on Monday.

(One thing a tie wouldn't do is mess up the teams' rotations as it did last year, when the Pirates burned Gerrit Cole in the last game of the season in a vain attempt to catch the Cardinals, leaving Edinson Volquez to get lit up in the wild card game (five runs allowed in five innings) against 2014 postseason force of nature Madison Bumgarner. This year, if the teams are tied and they have to play a game Monday, it looks to me as if the Pirates would go with Cole (18-8, 2.60 ERA) on Monday and Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.27 ERA), if necessary, against the Cubs Wednesday. The Cardinals would go with Michael Wacha (17-6, 3.15 ERA) on Monday and Jaime Garcia (10-5, 2.36 ERA), if necessary, against the Cubs. All four are better options than Volquez was, in my opinion.) 

Speaking of the Cubs, last night's game emphasized the risk of facing Chicago for a one-game play-in. Here are a couple tables.

Jake Arrieta 2015 14 0.80 11 1 14 2 2 101.1 53 12 9 2 23 106 0.750 .422 16
Kris Medlen 2012 19 0.94 9 0 12 2 1 95.1 64 12 10 5 14 95 0.818 .484 34
Roger Clemens 1990 12 0.97 9 2 12 5 4 92.2 79 12 10 0 19 89 1.058 .562 61
Tom Seaver 1971 16 1.10 10 4 16 12 2 139.1 83 20 17 6 30 143 0.811 .478 42
Spud Chandler 1943 14 1.12 10 2 14 11 2 121.0 90 23 15 1 20 65 0.909 .476 46
Bob Gibson 1968 16 1.19 11 4 16 14 7 144.0 97 25 19 6 27 150 0.861 .480 50
Johan Santana 2004 15 1.21 13 0 15 0 0 104.1 55 16 14 6 23 129 0.748 .443 18
Larry Gura 1981 11 1.25 7 3 11 7 1 86.2 59 17 12 3 17 27 0.877 .507 48
Dean Chance 1964 23 1.29 15 4 20 12 8 167.0 112 28 24 4 50 123 0.970 .490 44
Gary Peters 1966 12 1.29 7 3 12 7 2 97.2 67 16 14 4 13 58 0.819 .500 46
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/28/2015.
(OPS+ is OPS adjusted for park and season, with an average value of 100. Arrieta's OPS+ of 16 means that hitters have fared 84% worse than average against him.)

Jake Arrieta 2015 14 .422 11 1 0.80 14 2 2 101.1 53 12 9 2 23 106 0.750 16
Hoyt Wilhelm 1965 35 .442 6 2 1.33 0 0 0 81.0 41 15 12 5 17 62 0.716 31
Johan Santana 2004 15 .443 13 0 1.21 15 0 0 104.1 55 16 14 6 23 129 0.748 18
Nolan Ryan 1986 13 .444 6 2 2.27 13 0 0 83.1 40 23 21 4 34 100 0.888 26
Clayton Kershaw 2015 13 .453 9 1 1.48 13 2 1 97.0 61 17 16 4 14 121 0.773 24
Joe Horlen 1964 18 .456 7 4 1.56 17 6 1 126.2 71 28 22 5 40 89 0.876 34
Pedro Martinez 2000 15 .458 9 3 2.03 15 4 2 111.0 66 25 25 8 12 144 0.703 19
Sandy Koufax 1965 22 .459 11 5 1.94 20 13 6 166.2 92 39 36 12 37 187 0.774 36
Don Wilson 1971 15 .466 10 4 1.43 15 11 1 126.0 72 27 20 7 35 88 0.849 39
Nolan Ryan 1972 17 .468 8 8 1.41 17 10 4 140.2 74 29 22 2 75 173 1.059 43
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/28/2015.

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta, who will undoubtedly pitch in the wild card game, is basically having the best second half in baseball history, at least since the All-Star game began in 1933.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Cardinals are 16-12 over the past 30 days, tying them with the Dodgers for the fifth best record in the league, a half game behind the 17-12 Pirates and a game behind the 17-11 Cubs. They've scored 4.3 runs per game during the period, the fifth fewest in the league (the Pirates, at 4.7, are seventh in scoring) and they've given up 4.4 per game, the seventh fewest (the Pirates are second at 4.0). Yes, that means the Cardinals have managed to maintain the fifth-best record in the National League over the past 30 days despite being outscored, 122-120. Lucky? Yeah, a little, though the Dodgers, with an identical 16-12 record, have scored only one more run than they've allowed.

When the Pirates last played the Cardinals, at the beginning of the month, I wrote:
Their 2.67 ERA to date is the lowest in a non-strike-shortened year since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, and they're on pace to win 105 games, which would be the most in the majors since the same franchise won 105 in 2004.
They've slowed down some. The team ERA is now 2.91, now "only" second in a non-strike post-1968 season, trailing the 1969 Orioles (2.83) and barely ahead of the 1988 Mets (2.908; the Cards are at 2.907). And they're on pace to win 102, not 105. They're a little banged up, with starting catcher Yadier Molina out with a thumb injury and starting pitcher Carlos Martinez done for the season with shoulder stiffness, but they've gotten other injured players (left fielder Matt Holliday, first baseman Matt Adams, center fielder Randal Grichuk) back from the disabled list this month.

What's Going Right? Cardinals starters have an ERA of 3.86 over the past 30 days, fifth lowest in the league. Only by the standards of the team's full-year performance can that be considered a disappointment, and they've led the league in inducing ground balls. The Cardinals hitters have been middle-of-the-pack over the past 30 days in terms of batting average (.264, eighth in the league) and slugging percentage .425, sixth), but they're third in on base percentage (.339), with the fifth highest walk rate in the league. They have 32 infield hits over the past month, easily the most in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The Cardinals batters strike out a lot (fourth highest rate in the league over the past 30 days) and they've been pretty inept basestealers (seven stolen, six caught stealing). They've hit 26 homers, tied with the Pirates for the sixth fewest. The bullpen's had a 4.63 ERA over the past 30 days, fifth highest in the league, though it's 3.97 without yesterday's ninth inning, when Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness allowed seven runs to the Brewers, coughing up a 3-1 lead and ending the team's home season on a sour note. The relievers have struck out 28% of the batters they've faced over the past 30 days, the most in the league, but they've allowed homers on 16% of fly balls, second highest in the league and given up the lowest rate of soft contact in the league. 

Who's Hot? The loss of Martinez stings, as he'd pitched better than his 3.60 ERA over the past 30 days would indicate, with the second-highest strikeout rate on the team. With him out, the Cardinals' top two starters of late have been Jaime Garcia  and John Lackey, both of whom the Pirates will miss. The offense has been carried by three players. Third baseman Matt Carpenter is leading the club over the past 30 days with a .304 batting average, .643 slugging percentage (fifth in the league) and eight home runs (tied for sixth); he's also compiled an excellent .376 on base percentage, resulting in a 1.019 OPS (fifth). Right fielder Jason Heyward's .405 on base percentage is twelfth in the league over the past 30 days and he's batting .303 with a .424 slugging percentage. Rookie Stephen Piscotty has played first, left, and right while generating a .302/.378/.462 slash line. In more limited play, another rookie, Tommy Pham, has hit .317/.364/.650, primarily in center but also in left.

Who's Not? None of the three starters the Pirates will face have fared very well over the past 30 days. Tonight's starter, Lance Lynn, has a 4.38 ERA and has walked as many batters as he's struck out, and Tuesday's starter, Michael Wacha, has a 6.75 ERA with 14 walks and five homers allowed over his last 20 innings. Wednesday's start goes to lefty Tyler Lyons, making his first start since September 2. He was a spot starter in three stints with the club prior to the All-Star break, compiling a 5.02 ERA. Since returning to St. Louis for a couple weeks August and when rosters expanded in September, he's got a 2.53 ERA in 21.1 innings, with a good 18:3 strikeout:walk ratio and a not-so-good five home runs allowed. On offense, the team's gotten little production over the past 30 days from shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.244 batting average, .313 on base percentage, .302 slugging percentage--by contrast, Jordy Mercer, having a tough year with the bat, is hitting .262/.323/.369 over the past 30 days) and none from catcher, where Molina and Tony Cruz have combined for a .206/.268/.265 slash line. 

What's the Outlook? In a way, if the Pirates don't sweep the Cardinals, I hope they drop two of three. As long as the Cubs don't play out of their minds, that would cement the home field wild card game for Pittsburgh--no chance of catching the Cards, no chance of getting caught by the Cubs--and allow them to give a lot of players some rest. But sweeping the Cardinals, yeah, that'd be fun. Series sweeps are pretty unlikely, and I don't think we'll see one here, but this is not the invulnerable Cardinals team we saw earlier in the season. There are chinks in their armor.