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October 1, 2013
NL Wild Card Game Preview
With a weekend sweep in Cincinnati, the Pirates laid claim to home field advantage in Tuesday's NL Wild Card game, guaranteeing that playoff-starved Pittsburgh fans will see postseason baseball at PNC Park. In our comprehensive Wild Card preview, we'll do our best to divine whether the Pirates' surprise season will survive another rematch with the Reds. (Note: Neither team's Wild Card roster is set, so we'll update the article when the names are officially announced.)
LF-R Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441/.285)
The Pirates have a .256 team TAv, which is the worst among playoff teams. But that number is somewhat deceptive, as their lineup has added a few new faces since the start of the season. Pittsburgh acquired Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd in late-season trades, and Jordy Mercer has been a big offensive upgrade over Clint Barmes at short. The end result is that while the Pirates have little star power aside from Andrew McCutchen (who might be the NL’s best hitter), they don’t really have any glaring holes. Pittsburgh’s hitters have struck out more often than any playoff team but the Braves, and they haven’t hit well in September. But on the season, everyone in the lineup has been at least a league-average hitter except Martin, who’s been above average for a backstop.
Another note: only the Twins, Marlins, and Padres have hit worse than the Pirates with runners in scoring position, so they’ve probably underperformed as a unit relative to their true talent. They have a good mix of lefties and righties in the lineup and on the bench, so they’re not one of the easier teams to neutralize with a situational reliever.
CF-L Shin-Soo Choo (.286/.424/.464/.312)
The Reds easily outscored the Pirates this season, but much of the difference was due to sequencing: unlike Pittsburgh, Cincinnati hit with runners in scoring position. Fundamentally, the two lineups are of roughly the same strength, but the Reds have more of an unbalanced, stars-and-scrubs approach to scoring. Their top of the lineup is intimidating, with the NL’s top two on-base threats batting first and third, but the talent tails off quickly once opposing pitchers get past the cleanup slot. The Reds are also more vulnerable to bullpen platoon tactics, since their three best hitters are lefties who hit close together, while the bottom of the lineup hits right-handed. That’s not good news in the Wild Card game, when rosters can be stacked with relievers. The Reds' left-handed batters are by far their best hitters, which isn’t a great thing given a tough southpaw opponent. Choo in particular is a shadow of his usual versus lefties, against whom he has a .243/.340/.341 career line (.199/.318/.286 this season).
Another factor in Pittsburgh’s favor: aside from Bruce and Ludwick, the Reds are groundball hitters, with the highest grounder rate of any playoff club. The Pirates have baseball’s best groundball staff. That works in Pittsburgh’s favor, since same-type tendencies always benefit the man on the mound. Groundball pitchers are more effective against groundball hitters, though the effect isn’t as large as the platoon advantage a pitcher gets versus same-sided bats.
One edge for the Reds: they were one of baseball’s best baserunning teams, even before the arrival of Billy Hamilton. They aren’t effective thieves; even including Hamilton’s 13-for-14, the Reds have the NL’s second-lowest stolen base success rate. But only the Phillies and Brewers were better at advancing on groundballs.
The Pirates have the better extra-base bench bats. Gaby Sanchez provides Pittsburgh with a good pinch-hit option against a lefty, and Tabata represents another who can also play outfield. Jones is the power bat from the other side. Pie would give the Pirates a poor man’s Hamilton for pinch-running, and substituting Barmes for Mercer with a late-game lead would make Pittsburgh’s infield defense even better.
Cincinnati’s bench has plenty of plus defensive replacements, but Hamilton is easily the most exciting offensive option. For his legs to play a pivotal role, the Reds will have to keep the score close.
Francisco Liriano (161.0, 3.02, 2.90)
Doug Thorburn profiled Liriano last month. After a couple of lost seasons, mechanical tweaks, improved command, and an uptick in sinker usage (combined with Pittsburgh’s infield defense) have turned Liriano back into one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Pirates’ poor timing on offense hasn’t carried over to their pitching performance; Pittsburgh’s hurlers have been the best in baseball in high-leverage spots. But Liriano’s success isn’t a product of sequencing—his ERA has been backed up by his peripherals.
Liriano is especially tough on lefties: among the 300-plus pitchers who faced at least 100 left-handed hitters this season, only Koji Uehara held them to a lower TAv than Liriano’s .120. To give you a sense of how good that is, NL pitchers as a group have posted a .142 TAv. With no need to hold back in the bullpen, the Pirates don’t have to go long with Liriano, but he’s among the best bets in baseball to take a couple trips through the left-handed heart of the Reds’ lineup unscathed.
Liriano has a huge home/road split this season (1.47 ERA vs. 4.33 ERA), based mostly on a big BABIP gap. That’s a small sample, but he does have a career ERA almost a run and a half higher on the road. It’s unlikely that Liriano is really a 4.00-plus ERA pitcher on the road, but it can’t hurt that he’s making this start at PNC Park.
Johnny Cueto (60.7, 2.82, 3.78)
With Mat Latos’ arm “barking” with bone chips in his elbow (in addition to his long-lasting abdominal strain), Cueto gets the surprise start. The right-hander missed most of the season with a series of DL stints for a lat strain, an injury that had previously sidelined him in 2011. He returned in time for two September starts, allowing one earned run in 12 innings; the starts came against the Astros and Mets, so they weren’t the toughest tests, but Cueto’s stuff seemed intact. A healthy Cueto does it all: gets grounders, limits walks, and misses enough bats to be among baseball’s elite. After hurting himself eight pitches into his NLDS Game One start in 2012, he’ll be anxious to get another crack at the Division Series this season.
Bullpen (IP, ERA, FIP)
The Pirates had the NL’s second-best bullpen ERA. Grilli has been pressed back into closer service since his September return from a right forearm strain, but his velo has been down a couple ticks and his results haven’t been quite so absurd. Melancon is a monster, and Watson and Wilson give Pittsburgh a lethal left-handed combo.
The Reds have the best bullpen weapon on either team, and Sean Marshall’s comeback gives them another left-handed option to pair with Chapman and Parra. Hoover/LeCure can’t equal Grilli/Melancon, but if Grilli isn’t 100 percent, Pittsburgh’s pen advantage might not be as significant as it seems. In a single game, greater depth doesn’t matter as much as it does over the course of a season. Cincinnati will likely carry a couple extra starters in case Cueto breaks down.
The Reds probably have more physically gifted fielders, while the Pirates have compensated for any skill-based disadvantages by being smarter about positioning their players. But the end result is essentially the same. This is a contest between two teams that can catch the ball.
Hurdle’s best attribute might be his willingness to welcome the input of Pittsburgh’s front office. While another manager might have bridled at the thought of having his players’ strings pulled by statheads, Hurdle was an enthusiastic partner in implementing the front office’s beliefs about defensive positioning. He was also aggressive when it came to relief usage. The Pirates were the only team in baseball whose starters had an average pitch count below 90, so he was quite willing to go to his bullpen early. That quality should serve him well in the Wild Card game, since with swollen relief corps it would be a mistake to let Liriano face the top of Cincy’s order more than once or twice.
Neither manager issues many intentional walks, and both are popular among players.