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Pittsburgh Pirates Rivals Report – Pirates as surprising division leaders

Brett Barnett

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There are still plenty of games still to be played, but early into the 2018 campaign, the Pittsburgh Pirates are off to a hot start, leading the National League Central.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates have shot out of the gate, going 9-4, the other clubs in the division have sauntered out. Here’s what’s going on throughout the National League Central.

Pittsburgh Pirates (9-4)

The Pirates are off to one of the best starts in baseball, and if not for some mismanaging of the bullpen in the 6th inning, they might remain -wait for it- undefeated. Sure, it wouldn’t technically mean much, because it’s nearly impossible to sustain that. I’m not sure of the actual odds, but I imagine they’re astronomical, and that’s good enough to assume it won’t happen.

What’s going right:

As it currently stands, Gregory Polanco is leading the charge offensively for the Pirates, accumulating early season stats such as a 189 wRC+, a .452 wOBA, a SLG% of .714, and ISO of .413, he’s launched 5 home runs, and has a BB% of 17% (he also has the most RBI’s in baseball, with 15). All of those numbers are tops for Pirates players (except for David Freese, but he, of course, has significantly fewer plate appearances), and the top 10 in the National League among batters with at least 40 plate appearances. It shouldn’t be expected that Polanco will keep these numbers up, but it is the kind of start to a season Pirates fans were hoping for in what needs to be a breakout year for the right fielder.

On the pitching side, it’s Jameson Taillon getting the job done. The Pirates ace is coming off a complete game one-hit shutout of the Reds, in which he had no hit stuff (only allowing a single up the middle to pitcher Tyler Mahle). Through his first two starts, the right hander has a K/9 rate of 10.05, a WHIP of 0.49, a FIP of 2.33, and a FIP- of 63. It should also be noted that in an era in baseball where hitters are trying to lift the ball more, Taillon manages to get nearly half of his outs via the ground ball, at 48.4%. Should Taillon stay healthy, the Pirates should expect more big performances to come as he begins to really find his way as the best pitcher on the roster.

What’s going wrong:

The middle of the bullpen. Manager Clint Hurdle continues to struggle with bullpen usage, putting relievers like Dovydas Neverauskas and Josh Smoker into the game during the highest leverage situations (spoiler alert: it hasn’t worked out). In the case of Neverauskas, he has entered the game with a pLI of 2.0 or greater twice. Using FanGraphs MD (Meltdown) tool, Neverauskas has an MD total of 3, meaning he’s significantly reduced his team’s chance of winning three different times by way of melting down. Smoker is put into high leverage situations, too, with the highest being a pLI of 3.17 on Opening Day in Detroit. At that point, Hurdle had been running low on options, but Glasnow, even then before we knew what we would get from him this season, seemed like the better choice. I understand he was thinking longevity in the game if he put in Glasnow, but he might as well have implemented that longevity earlier.

Note: Since this was written, Smoker has been optioned to Triple-A Indy in order to recall Kyle Crick.

Disabled List: Joe Musgrove, A.J. Schugel

Other notables:

Corey Dickerson, who’s off to a productive start at the plate, with an OPS of .996, a wRC+ of 171, and eight extra base hits (six doubles, like this one, one triple, and one home run). If there’s a negative about Dickerson, it’s that he still hasn’t managed to shake his free swinging philosophy, as he’s only drawn two walks through 44 plate appearances.

Josh Bell is off to a hot start, as well. As we wait for his power numbers to pick back up, his OPS is .824, he has a wRC+ of 132, and a wOBA of .366.

Out of the bullpen, Tyler Glasnow has looked much improved from his time as a starter last year, and from his appearances in Spring Training. Through his 6.2 innings of work, he has a FIP of 2.28 and a FIP- of 60. It’s still important that he continues to limit walks, as he’s allowed five free passes to ten punch outs. But his curveball is breaking the obscene amount we expected it to, and in part, making hitters look silly.

Lastly, Felipe Rivero (Vazquez) has seemingly returned to form since he struggled on Opening Day, allowing four runs in that back and forth tilt. Through six innings, Nightmare has struck out eight batters, amounting to an impressive 12 K/9 mark, and a FIP- of 63.

If the Pirates can continue the success they’ve had in the batter’s box, then the they’ll be primed to far outperform the preseason predictions.

Milwaukee Brewers (7-7)

The Brewers made a splash after sending a prospect package to Miami to pick up outfielder Christian Yelich, and then signing another outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, to a long term deal that they hope will be worth it on the front end. With the addition of both of those players, the Brewers have a pretty solid lineup, and could be a contributing factor should this team be in a position to make a run for one of the Wild Card spots in the National League. For the Crew, it will be the pitching that could keep the team from fully contending.

What’s going right:

Prior to landing on the disabled list, Christian Yelich got off to the start the Brewers hoped he would. Through 27 plate appearances, Yelich had a .984 OPS, a wRC+ of 173, and a wOBA of .432. He was making hard contact 55% of the time, and hitting the ball well to center field.

The bullpen has been strong where the starters have faltered. The Brewers have six relief pitchers with at least four appearances thus far with a FIP at or under 3.00.

Out of the bullpen, more specifically, has been Josh Hader. He’s been one of the Brewers most reliable options thus far. Through 7.2 innings, Hader has a FIP of 1.46, and a FIP- of 37. Those numbers are very low through limited time on the mound this far, and it might not be sustainable, but he’s only surrendered two hits to this point in the season. Hader also has an O-Swing% of 27.4%, and manages to get hitters to swing through the ball a little over 1/5 of the time, with a SwStr% of 21.3%. He’s shown the ability to paint the corners and miss bats.

What’s going wrong:

Apart from the new additions of Yelich and Cain, most of the Brewers offense has struggled to get things going. Domingo Santana, who had a productive 2017 season, has come out of the gates producing ineffective results. For the Brewers to have success, it’s important that Santana supplements the numbers that other bats are putting up, like Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw, like this go ahead homer from the lefty. But to this point, Santana’s OPS is .684 with a wRC+ of 97, and a wOBA of .318. All of those numbers are lower than last year’s full season of production. The sample size is small, and it will be interesting to see whether or not this is just a slow April start.

The starting rotation is another issue. It was known that Milwaukee was going to need a lot of productive innings from its young arms, but the problem hasn’t been so much with the young arms as it has been with the guys that do have experience, like Jhoulys Chacin and Chase Anderson. The former has posted a 6.61 FIP, a WHIP of 1.90, and a FIP- of 172 through three starts and 13.2 innings. The latter, who had a solid 2017, is yet to figure it out in 2018. Anderson isn’t performing much better than Chacin, posting a 5.97 FIP, with a FIP- of 151 through three starts and 16 innings.

More than that, the Brewers have experienced a multitude of injuries, including newly minted outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, as well as starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson.

Disabled List: Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Corey Knebel, Boone Logan, Jimmy Nelson, Stephen Vogt

Other notables: 

Zach Davies, now in his third season, suffered minor setbacks in his sophomore season, but to this point, he’s nearly matching his rookie campaign’s output line by line. He’s posted a 3.89 FIP through two starts and 11.2 innings pitched. He’s got a WHIP of 1.29 and a FIP- of 101, which puts him right at average by that measurement.

By FIP, Brent Suter has been the best starter on Milwaukee’s staff (3.62), besides Junior Guerra, who’s only made one start. His WHIP is higher than what is preferable, though, at 1.43, but he’s logged a FIP- of 92.

A few things need to break right in order for the Brewers to have a successful season: Zach Davies and Brent Suter will have to have big years, Chase Anderson will need straighten out, Jimmy Nelson will have to perform well when he returns, Domingo Santana will need to find his stroke, and they’ll have to limit injuries. Otherwise, it could be a 4th place finish for the Brew Crew.

 St. Louis Cardinals (7-7)

The perennially competitive Cardinals came into the 2018 season with hopes of returning to the playoffs. An average start to the year shouldn’t dampen those thoughts. St. Louis remains the choice to finish 2nd in the division, and considered one of the contenders for a Wild Card spot.

What’s going right:

Firstly, Luke Weaver. The 24 year old is playing in his first full season, and it’s off to a great start. Weaver has made two starts and thrown 11.1 innings. During his appearances, he’s registered a 2.32 FIP, a 1.06 WHIP, and a FIP- of 63. Perhaps some concern may arise because he hasn’t missed as many bats as you might hope from a starting pitcher. He’s only been able to get batters to swing at pitches out of the zone 16.7% of the time. Moreover, when swinging, batters make contact with pitches in the zone 88.3% of the time. This all contributes to a relatively low K/9 rate of 7.94. But his stuff can be electrifying, like this strikeout of Paul Goldschmidt.

Paul DeJong, who signed a 6-year extension in the offseason, has made that contract payoff to this point. Early into 2018, DeJong’s OPS is .878, a wRC+ of 144, and a .383 wOBA. The infielder has also shown some power, already blasting four home runs. There is a concern about DeJong’s plate discipline, though; for example, his BB/K is 0.10, which comes out to a BB% of 3.8%, and a K% of 40.4%.

Another strength of 2018’s incarnation of the Cardinals are the power totals. Through the first 10 games of the season, St. Louis comes in third in all of baseball with 19 home runs. In today’s baseball climate, that’s a good way to win baseball games. Of those 19, a combined eight have come off the bats of Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina.

What’s going wrong:

There are a few key players that have gotten off to slow starts, and in order for the Cardinals to contend in the division and for a playoff spot, they’ll need to get their acts together. That includes Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Michael Wacha. Carpenter has an OPS of .684, a wRC+ of 96, and a wOBA of .311. He’s also striking out a little over a quarter of the time, at 28.1%. Fowler was an effective piece for the Cardinals in 2017, but is yet to find that stroke this season. Through 59 plate appearances, his OPS is .546, a poor wRC+ of 58, and a wOBA of .253. From the pitching perspective, Michael Wacha looked poised to take the reigns as perhaps the best pitcher on the Cardinals staff, but it hasn’t panned out so far this year. A FIP of 5.42, a WHIP of 1.64, and a FIP- of 143 have put Wacha behind the eight ball early.

Disabled List: Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Jedd Gyorko, Jose Martinez, Alex Reyes, Ryan Sherriff

Other notables: 

Carlos Martinez has been average to effective at times early, compiling a 3.78 FIP through three starts and 18.2 innings pitched, along with a WHIP of 1.29, a K/9 of 9.16, and a FIP- of 100. This has been both fairly positive and a little disappointing for Cardinals fans, as Martinez has become the ace of this staff after Adam Wainwright relinquished the position. For me, I was interested in seeing whether or not Wacha could take over, but it looks like it’ll be Martinez’s. With that said, there are others on the horizon poised to take over, like Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty.

Matthew Bowman, in his third Cardinals season, is off to a good start. To this point, his WHIP far exceeds that of the last two year’s, at 1.89, while his FIP is at 3.03 and a FIP- of 80. Additionally, should Jack Flaherty reemerge this season, he’ll likely be a major contributor for the Cardinals down the stretch. Flaherty is a strong prospect who pitched well in his one and only start so far this season before being sent back down to Triple-A Memphis, going five strong and only surrendering one run.

The Cardinals will get things straightened out. I expect them to hover around .500 for a couple months before beginning to cement themselves into a contention spot in the division before tailing off and competing for a Wild Card spot.

Chicago Cubs (6-7)

The Cubs got off to somewhat of a shaky start, splitting the series in Miami, then dropping the extra-shortened one game series to the Reds (because of postponement), before winning its first series of the season, taking two out of three from the Brewers. This average Cubs team that we’ve seen through the first two weeks is not what we should expect to get from them for the rest of the season. Still the odds on favorite in the Central, the Cubs will look to get things going soon.

What’s going right:

Kris Bryant is off to a hot start at the plate. The 26 year old has two home runs, an OPS of 1.071, a wRC+ of 190, and a wOBA of .456. Eight of his 16 hits have been for extra bases so far, and the Cubs star looks to be in mid-season form already. His BB% and K% are similar, though, at 15.0% and 13.3%, respectively. Even on a stacked roster like Chicago’s, it’s going to be key that Bryant keeps up his level of production, cementing himself as the cornerstone for this team.

Jon Lester is beginning the season strong. Many thought the lefty would be one of the lesser performers in the Cubs newly constructed rotation, which was expected to be spearheaded by Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana, but on and off Lester has looked poised to control the rotation with veteran presence. The lefty met some resistance in his first start in Miami, only going 3.1 innings and giving up three runs before being pulled. In his next start, he was able to find his groove at Miller Park in Milwaukee, throwing six innings, allowing no runs, on three scattered hits, and only one walk. There are issues to address, like his WHIP being at 1.67, which is high. Moreover, his FIP rose to a 4.08 after his start against the Pirates, and a FIP- of 106.

With that said, Quintana did start looking up by turning in a good start at Milwaukee, in which he went six strong, surrendering only three hits and no runs. There have been flashes of major contributions from the Cubs rotation, but they’re yet to find any consistency from anyone.

The bullpen: With the starters struggling, the Cubs bullpen has been an undeniable bright spot. Eddie Butler, Carl Edwards Jr., and Pedro Strop leading the way. In Butler’s 11 innings of work, he’s amassed a WHIP of 0.55, a FIP of 3.03, and a FIP- of 79. These numbers are slightly up from where they were only a few innings ago, showing how sharply numbers can rise early in the season. Edwards has been a force out of the bullpen, as well, racking up a K/9 of 16.50, with a FIP of 0.86, and a superb FIP- of 22. Lastly, the veteran Strop has been effective. Strop enters with a 1.44 FIP and a 37 FIP-.

What’s going wrong:

The starting rotation. The Cubs were expected to have a strong rotation coming into the season, and I expect that they’ll pick it up as the season progresses, but right now, all of the starters are having a tough time finding consistency. Yu Darvish, perhaps the second biggest offseason signing by any team (Stanton to the Yankees), has gotten off to a rough start. Through 10.1 innings, Darvish has a FIP of 4.48, and a FIP- of 116. One of the big problems is how often he’s giving up hard contact, which comes in at an alarming rate of 37.5%. He’s also giving up medium contact as the largest percentage of contact against him at 45.8%. There are other numbers that suggest he’ll start to experience more success, like his 11.32 K/9 and his WHIP of 0.97. Similarly to Quintana, Darvish performed well in his Milwaukee start, going 5.1 innings and only giving up one run. It’s hard to tell whether or not Quintana and Darvish performed well due to the lack of production, as well as list of injuries, from the Brewers, or if the talent will translate to what Cubs fans expected.

On the offensive side, Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs slugging first baseman got off to a dreadfully slow start at the plate. Through six games, Rizzo had a lousy OPS of .433 and a wRC+ of 28. He also only drew one walk through 32 plate appearances. To make matters worse, Rizzo was placed on the 10-day disabled list due to a back injury. Perhaps that injury was a contributing factor to some of his struggles at the plate, but that remains to be seen.

Disabled List: Anthony Rizzo, Drew Smyly

Other notables:

Ben Zobrist, in his age 36 season, is off to a respectable start. The switch hitting Zobrist is on-base at a .349 clip, with an OPS of .733, and a wRC+ of 107. The second baseman is another example of numbers tailing off dramatically due to a few appearances, as his numbers fell sharply throughout the Pirates series. Zobrist has also been tough to strikeout, going down on strikes only 9.3% to this point in the season.

Cubs fans shouldn’t be worried yet. There’s been enough to like, and a few pieces need to come along, like Darvish and Rizzo, but this team will be back in contention for the division.

Cincinnati Reds (2-11)

The Reds are still in rebuild mode, and perhaps on the cusp of putting together a formidable club. As is stands now, though, Cincinnati is still just trying to get young players reps and avoid injuries.

What’s going right:

Prior to being put on the 10-day DL, Eugenio Suarez got off to a good start. With an OPS of 1.054, 188 wRC+, a wOBA of .453, and a pair of long balls has the third baseman on the right foot. What’s better for the Reds, he’s only 26, meaning his best years may well be ahead of him. Once he returns, he’ll look to continue his impressive start by posting similar numbers throughout the rest of the year, using his productive 2017 as a springboard into the future.

The young arms. They aren’t performing like studs yet, but the Reds have a ton of young pitchers, some of which will undoubtedly turn into quality major leaguers, like Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle. While they aren’t posting the greatest numbers to this point, they are getting reps, and that’s important for an organization that’s looking to begin competing again in the next two to three years.

Joey Votto. The great personality that is the Cincinnati Reds first baseman is always “going right.” Although Votto isn’t performing to the level we’re used to yet on the field, his antics are in full swing. I can’t help but think he has the kind of personality that younger players gravitate towards. Of course, given his seemingly cold disposition, it could be the exact opposite. Regardless, he’s an experienced guy that the younger fellas could learn something from, even if he’s not actively trying to teach them.

What’s going wrong:

It’s hard to say anything is truly going wrong right now. They aren’t winning many games, but they weren’t really expected to. There’s a case to be made that Billy Hamilton still can’t get on base, essentially rendering his speed useless. He’s very effective when he gets on base – he just can’t seem to get there, with an OBP of .286. Homer Bailey probably won’t be much better than average and is essentially just playing out his contract. That means the Reds will continue to pay him to just push through innings to fill space.

Perhaps what’s going most wrong in an organization that’s still behind all of its divisional opponents are the injuries. The Reds have accumulated a rather extensive list of injuries that impact the big league club. By my count, there are roughly 10 or so players on the disabled list that could be making appearances in Cincinnati, some of whom expect to figure into the future of the team, and others who are just roster fillers.

Disabled List: Rookie Davis, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, David Hernandez, Dilson Herrera, Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, Scott Schebler, Kevin Shackelford, Eugenio Suarez

Other notables: 

Amir Garrett has performed well in his five appearances and 6.2 innings, posting a 1.08 FIP, a 0.90 WHIP, and a FIP- of 27.

Tucker Barnhart is off to a good start, as well. The gold glover has an .865 OPS, a wRC+ of 145, and a wOBA of .389, and has shown some power, hoping to build off last year’s home run total of seven.

Regardless of the Reds injury situation, the expectations surrounding them in regard to winning games shouldn’t change much when those guys return. There’s no other way to cut it besides saying this is a rebuilding year, and Reds fans will need to bear with it at the very least through this season, and likely the next.

One final thing:

As I mentioned at the top and throughout, the season is still young, and this division should prove to be interesting as the year progresses. At this point, it seems like the only thing that is most probable to occur is the Reds finishing in 5th place. Although the Cubs are struggling early, having difficulty maintaining a .500 record, they still seem to be the odds to win the division. The middle of the pack race should be the most compelling, though, with the Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates fighting for position there. Lastly, as it’s been seen, all these numbers mentioned can change quickly, and this analysis is based solely on how players and teams are performing early. It’s almost a guarantee that some of the players mentioned will tail off, while others will get it straightened out.

 

 

I am from Columbus, OH, and am a fan of Ohio State. I attended East Tennessee State University and majored in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a concentration in Marketing and Journalism. I run a Pirates website called Pirates Review. I am also a reporter at The Cardinal Nation, covering the Rookie affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Johnson City Cardinals. I also work on providing players analysis at The Collegiate Baseball Network. I am a lifelong Pirates fan, and make the six hour drive to Pittsburgh as often as I can.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Interview: Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Joe Block

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Today I had the pleasure of talking to Joe Block for the latest Locked on Pirates podcast.

The Pittsburgh Pirates found a good one when they brought in Joe Block to their announce team prior to the 2016 season. He graciously granted me some time for the Locked on Pirates podcast today while the club is in San Francisco. It was a lively talk that was very eye-opening in many ways. Here ya go:

 

 

Hear Joe’s thoughts on:

  • The role of analytics and advanced stats in his broadcast.
  • The maturation of Gregory Polanco
  • The “creaminess” of the current Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen,
  • And much more!

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

LOP’s Jason Rollison on ESPN Radio’s Adam Crowley show

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Locked on Pirates host Jason Rollison joined Adam Crowley of ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh to talk all things trade deadline. Listen in as they both try to process how the hell the Pittsburgh Pirates got Chris Archer

 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

The Corey Dickerson Dilemma

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The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is LIVE. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ nine-game winning streak has re-fueled a few hot topics going around in Pirates circles.

The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is here:

 

 

Today we talk:

  • The Corey Dickerson Dilemma
  • GM Speak and why it is sometimes necessary
  • Left-handed relievers that could be available

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

Continue Reading

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