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April 21, 2010

Game Story

Brewers at Pirates

by Christina Kahrl

April being April, the Pirates were in second place at the start of tonight's action, while the Brewers sat below .500. The AL Central might get all the pub for personifying parity, but with the Cardinals out front and the Astros in the cellar, the Pirates can take some satisfaction in ranking atop the muddled middle in the division two weeks into the action. This early on, it would be silly to credit this with too much significance. At 5-7, the Brewers came into town with their own issues, but here again, two weeks is barely a blink in baseball time.

However, with Charlie Morton on the mound looking to get his season going, and with Jeff Clement struggling at the plate, tonight was an opportunity for the Bucs to get some of their ready-as-they'll-ever-be talents. To complicate matters, John Russell was dealing with a short bench, as both Andy LaRoche and Bobby Crosby were out with nagging hurts, pressing Delwyn Young into the lineup at third base. That left him with outfield reserve Ryan Church, his backup catcher, Jason Jaramillo, and the club's Rule 5 pick, John Raynor. That's not a bad group to choose from, but the shortage of infielders limited their potential applications, since there wasn't anyone to plug in should they wish to pinch-hit for shortstop Ronny Cedeno, for example.

So, as I head back to Chicago to settle back into my preferred perches in Wrigley and the Cell, road-trip theater got its third venue in as many games. Three is a number with all sorts of significance in baseball, of course: three strikes, three outs, etc. Three is the root of the Celtic triskelion, the symbolic trinity of spirals that some optimistic neopagans associate with personal growth, spiritual development, and development. In a game that got silly early, it made sense to remember that three shalt be the number thou shalt count, no more, no less.

Now, say what you will for the Pirates tasking the indignity-inured individuals still stuck on the Bucs in the Steel City in the name of personal growth and spiritual development, but tonight's exercise in three-D only mounded up additional agony for these unhappy few. Morton made the game ugly early by achieving a rare quartet of threes in his first dozen batters faced: three outs, three doubles, three singles, and three walks. Maybe that's a great hand in some sort of card game, but it's a grim combination when your suit's diamonds or clubs. The Brewers even got into the spirit of the thing by splitting their scoring evenly, three in the first, three in the second. They even left three of Morton's baserunners on base. Morton may throw 95, but nights like tonight will send him to the boneyard or the bullpen faster than you can say Ian Snell. (Or Kip Wells. Or Kris Benson. Or Paul Wagner.)

Nights such as this lead to a challenge: watching for the things you otherwise might never see. You can watch with a clinical curiosity, to see if the blowout blooms into a rare "runs scored in every inning" contest. Nope, mop-up man Brian Burres managed a scoreless fourth, so that was off the table. Halfway into a blowout, you can start to wonder about shots at the cycle, but as the temperature dropped after sundown, it seemed as if there'd been no massive stat-pad drive tonight.

How about a David Bush shutout, on a night when his fastball wasn't going to touch 88, let alone 90? Denied again—he got hooked after seven shutout frames and 96 pitches. Bush caught a couple of breaks, loading the bases in the first with a pair of two-out walks to Garrett Jones and Ryan Doumit, but squeaking by after a loud out fly to center by Jeff Clement. Bush's biggest break came in the fifth when, with Akinori Iwamura and Andrew McCutchen aboard with one out, Lastings Milledge laced what seemed like a sure base hit—only to see the liner swiftly snagged by Jim Edmonds, who threw into second to easily double up Iwamura.

After that, it was really just up to the Bucs to avoid the shutout, which they did in the eighth off Chris Narveson with back-to-back doubles by McCutchen and Milledge. Although McCutchen made a first-inning error on Casey McGehee's RBI single, he managed a trio of hits and a pair of doubles, providing yet another game to make the case that he's the somebody on the club people should and perhaps will wind up paying to see.

In an 8-1 loss in the series opener, McCutchen's game was one of the very few happy takeaways from an otherwise miserable night. However, losing a game by six points towards an interesting statistical blip in the early going: going into tonight's game, whether you use simple Pythagorean or third-order wins, the Pirates were three games ahead of where you'd expect. Again, it's April, silly-stat season, so it's worth not getting too wound up about it one way or another, but tonight's game was an indication of one of the reasons why you should only take these things only so far. After Morton's triune disasterpiece, tonight's game was the Bucs' sixth loss of the season by six or more runs—that's all six of their losses. Part of that's the product of a staff stocked with non-established starters and more than a few filler flingers. Guys like Morton and Daniel McCutchen are going to have these sorts of days, but measuring the greatness of Hayden Penn or Brian Burres in mop-up roles in lost causes can help generate this sort of outsized split. So, the other way to look at it is that this was a loss whether the Pirates lost by six runs or 16; blowout losses will happen with this kind of talent, but the degree of how bad those losses are could overstate the club's weakness via interpretive metrics.

Notes:

  • On a tactical level, it's interesting to see two very different ways of using the eighth slot in a lineup in play. The Pirates have been batting the pitcher eighth all season, and are probably a team that really should, given that the rotation boasts few ponies, let alone horses, and OBP sinkhole Ronny Cedeno is their everyday shortstop. Even without a full bench, it's worthwhile as a way to slightly increase the possibility that you put a key at-bat in the hands of a Ryan Church or a Delwyn Young—and not give those at-bats to Ronny Cedeno. In contrast, having a free-swinging contact hitter with line-drive power like Alcides Escobar batting eighth provides opposing managers with a tough choice—Escobar's somebody you can get out, so maybe you take the intentional walk off the table, but then again, his high rate of contact will put pressure on a defense. Macha's planting him in the eighth slot gives the Brewers a hitter who can convert RBI opportunities more than many mired that low in the order.

  • Clement stepped in with the bags juiced in the first, an opportunity to make a nascent blowout into a barn-burner; he had to settle for flying out to the edge of the warning track in center. If he's going to graduate from being a perennial Ken Phelps All-Star, it can't be to Billy Jo Robidoux. His ninth-inning single broke an 0-for-20 stretch... so he's 1-for-21. Fanny Brice said, "Men always fall for frigid women because they put on the best show," and maybe that's where Clement's college and minor-league career comes into the picture. Mulling Clement's failures with John Perrotto during the game, he mused that there wasn't a single source he spoke to at the Winter Meetings who felt that Clement was going to turn into a good player. My response was that maybe he could eventually turn in a creditable career, like Phil Nevin, another big-time college star, but one who eventually got his career going, in his age-28 season. But the odds are getting longer with each month that Clement doesn't live up to his billing. My enthusiasm was suitably muted at the deadline last year, but PECOTA's still willing to see the upside: even with a median projection of a .271 TAv, an 18-point swing between just his 40 and 60 percent marks (.255 and .273 TAv, respectively) highlights the extent to which he was already balanced between near-uselessness and utility. As much as the Pirates can afford to be patient, they won't have to be indefinitely, with Pedro Alvarez perhaps only waiting until he's safely beyond achieving super-two arbitration rights after 2012.

  • Some pleasures have been too long delayed, but a visit to PNC was long overdue, and swinging through the park as I head back to Chicago made for a great way to complete a "new view" triptych, joining my visits to Citi Field and Yankee Stadium in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, the good people of Pittsburgh have been jaded to the experience, their enthusiasm obviously curdled long since, on the 146th anniversary of the invention of pasteurization, 9,386 fans were credited with being in attendance on a gorgeous night. That's paid attendance, of course, and actual attendance was nowhere close to that. (Plus, the Penguins were on the telly.) There were almost as many customer service people as fans milling around outside the park 90 minutes before game time. To some extent, this was a flashback to my earliest days in Old Comiskey in 1986 or 1987—just worse, much worse. The venue's gorgeous, boasts a great view of the skyline, and it's empty. The amusing thing is that the experience is the same in the press box—despite the minor inconvenience of being tucked up under the eaves, it's a box as big and as nice as the park itself, and just as empty. Admittedly, this is the Pirates, not the largest market, and a sad-sack team.

  • Tonight's blowout loss creates the possibility of moving Morton up to Saturday's start; he'd be working on three days' rest, but after just 58 pitches, he might be up for it. Since the club won't have its next day off until May 3, they're in a position where every slot has to get at least two turns between now and then, and while Ross Ohlendorf threw long-toss today, the Pirates haven't committed to a timetable that reactivates him when he's first eligible, on April 27, so a non-Ohlendorf start is an unavoidable fact in the near future. Notional fifth wheel Burres came in for four innings of mop-up tonight, throwing 64 pitches.

  • Young didn't look disastrous at third base, but as much as you can say anything about anybody after witnessing one game, he's just not a good infielder. It hasn't been for lack of effort, by Young or by the Pirates. He can put some mustard on the ball now and again, but his harder throws seemed to sail. In a first-and-third situation in the second, he had to eat a ground-ball RBI single hit his way by Rickie Weeks, having failed to charge it soon enough. He's a utility player in the sense of the word that he'll play where you put him, and hit more than the Miguel Cairo types; add in some power and his ability to switch-hit, and he's useful, up to a point.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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