Friday, September 4, 2015

Next Up: The St. Louis Cardinals

Two absolutely crazy frustrating items, presented without comment after getting swept again in Miller Park:

National League Central
Intradivision Won-Lost
Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis  32 18 .640  --
Chicago    30 24 .556   5
Cincinnati 25 29 .463   9
Milwaukee  23 29 .442  10
Pittsburgh 21 31 .403  12

Pittsburgh Pirates
Record against NL Central Teams
Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis   6  7 .462  --
Milwaukee   6  8 .429 0.5
Chicago     5  7 .417 0.5
Cincinnati  4  9 .308   2

The relevance is that if the current standings hold--New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles winning their divisions, Pittsburgh and Chicago as wild cards--the Pirates will have to go 4-2, at worst, against National League Central teams in order to reach the League Championship Series. On a brighter note, I suppose, at least they won't have to play the Brewers or Reds!

Anyway, with Milwaukee in their rear view mirror, the Pirates begin a three game series in St. Louis tonight.

How Are They Doing Lately? Hey, here's something new: The Cardinals are good! They're 19-8 over the last 30 days, the best record in the National League, a game better than the Pirates and a game and a half better than the Mets. The offense has been middling--4.6 runs per game, ninth in the league--but they've given up just 3.3 runs per game, the fewest in the league by a wide margin. The Pirates are Giants are tied for second at 3.9. This has been the story all year for St. Louis. 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.

What's Going Right? The starters' ERA over the past 30 days, 2.79, is over six tenths of a run better than any other National League team. The 2.40 bullpen ERA is second only to the Pirates over the period. How've they been doing it? Over the past 30 days, they're middle of the pack in strikeout and walk rates and getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, but they're among the leaders in ground ball rate, inducing soft contact, and preventing hard contact. They've also allowed the lowest percentage of fly balls to go over the fence and stranded the most baserunners--both measures that often reflect some luck, but they've been doing it so long, there's no reason to expect a sudden sharp reversion to the mean.

What's Going Wrong? They've had their fair share of injuries, but even so, the Cardinals' offense has been nothing special over the past 30 days. Their .257 batting average is ninth in the league, their .323 on base percentage eighth, and their .410 slugging percentage tenth. They've hit 26 homers, tying them with the Dodgers for the fourth fewest after the significantly power-challenged Braves, Giants, and Marlins. They're tied for the fourth fewest stolen bases, 12, and their 60% success rate on steal attempts, second lowest in the league, suggests that they shouldn't have tried any at all. (The same could be said of the Pirates, with a league-worst 14-11 record in stolen bases.)

Who's Hot? The only Cardinals starting pitcher with an ERA over 3.00 over the past 30 days is tonight's starter, Carlos Martinez, and you could make a good case that he's pitched a lot better (29 strikeouts, six walks, one home run in 30.1 innings) than his 4.15 ERA would suggest. Saturday and Sunday the Pirates will face Jaime Garcia, who hasn't struck out a lot of batters, and John Lackey, who's walked quite a few, but their ERAs over the last 30 days are 2.12 and 2.97, respectively. Closer Trevor Rosenthal has 11 saves over the past 30 days to go with a 0.75 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 12 innings. Two relievers acquired at the trade deadline, Steve Cishek and Jonathan Broxton, have combined for a 1.35 ERA and 21 strikeouts over 20 innings, though Broxton's issued a lot of walks (eight in eleven innings).

On offense, the Cardinals are without arguably their best hitter, Matt Holliday, as well as first baseman Matt Adams and Rookie of the Year candidate Randal Grichuk, all out with injuries. Their top performers over the past 30 days have been stalwart third baseman Matt Carpenter (six homers, 20 runs scored, both best on the club, .350 on base percentage, .490 slugging percentage), pending free agent right fielder Jason Heyward (.304/.373/.457 slash line), trade deadline pickup first baseman Brandon Moss (.281/.414/.579), and might-not-be-playing-but-for-all-the-injuries outfielder Stephen Piscotty (.333/.360/.571).

Who's Not? Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is batting .255 over his last 30 days with a .318 on base percentage--not bad numbers for a shortstop, but below his career averages--and he's had almost no power, with three doubles and no other extra-base hits among his 25 hits. Second baseman Kolten Wong's hitting .240 with a .291 on base percentage that's moved him away from the top of the Cardinals' lineup. About the only pitcher who hasn't shone over the past 30 days is setup reliever Kevin Siegrist, who's allowed a 5.25 ERA, 10.80 since August 9.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates are facing the best team in baseball, at its home park, coming off three straight losses against one of the worst teams in baseball (only six teams have a worse record than the Brewers, only three outside of the woeful National League East). So this wouldn't seem to be shaping up as a good series for the Pirates, who enter play 6.5 games behind St. Louis. But as I pointed out at the top of this post, Pittsburgh's had more success against St. Louis than any other team in its division. The key is to try to scratch out three or so runs against the Cardinals pitchers and hope the depleted Redbird offense can't respond. (This probably guarantees that all three games will be decided by 9-7 scores.)

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