When it comes to the standings on the first day of the second half, what you see is *mostly* what you get.
Last year, the Cardinals had the best record in baseball, 100-62. The Pirates were second best, 98-64. This year, at the All-Star break, the teams find themselves looking up—looking pretty far up, in fact; 7.0 games for St. Louis and 7.5 for Pittsburgh—at the Cubs. Worse, they’re currently fourth and fifth, respectively, in the race for the two National League Wild Card slots, 1.0 and 1.5 games, respectively, behind the Mets and Marlins for the last spot. It’s leading fans of the two teams to ask, Are the Cubs really this good? and Are we really this bad? Cubs fans, by contrast, are looking at a team that was a ridiculous 39-15 record after play on June 10 but 14-20—third worst in the National League, tied for seventh worst in the majors—ever since.
The Pirates' struggles this year might have more to do with the entire rest of the league than Pittsburgh's pitchers themselves.
Francisco Liriano has been a Pittsburgh Pirates success story. Signed as a free agent for $1 million after compiling a 5.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and 4.02 DRA in 156 2/3 innings split between the Twins and White Sox in 2012, he became a hero in Travis Sawchik’s book about the 2013 Pirates and their embrace of analytics, Big Data Baseball. In Liriano’s case, the approach was to junk his four-seam fastball, focus on his sinking two-seam fastball, and generate a lot of groundballs for shifted Pirates infielders to gobble up. The success of this strategy was evident through last year:
The Situation: The Pirates sit on the periphery of the playoff picture and 8.5 games out of the division but might be smelling fresh hope, as the Cubs stumble (a relative term, here). In recent days they’ve turned to Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and now to Bell to jump-start their rotation and lineup.
The Mets face the World Series champs again, but their starter gets knocked out by a line drive in the first. Meanwhile, Belt whiffs against a position player pitching, and an inside-the-parker that technically wasn't.
The Tuesday Takeaway
The very first plate appearance of Tuesday night’s World Series rematch didn’t bode well for the Mets. Whit Merrifield led off with a comebacker to the mound that struck Bartolo Colon’s thumb, and after just four pitches, New York’s starter was out for the night.
Zach Eflin and Jaimeson Taillon's stories began this month, and we all fill in the plots.
On Tuesday, June 14th, Phillies starter Zach Eflin made history. Well, history of a sort. Against the Toronto Blue Jays—an offense that, you may have heard, is pretty good—Eflin pitched 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs. He did strike out three, but also walked two, leading to a pretty rough first night. Here are some sparknotes to help historically contextualize Eflin’s very first start as a major leaguer:
It's time for another installment of Would This Work?, the game show that we just made up today.
The more we learn about the inner workings of baseball, the more apparent and prominent the roles of players’ habits and humanity become. We are slowly finding that the game is about talent and strategy, but that talent is maximized by comfort, and strategy is optimized by the ability to account for the adjustments and anticipations and learning curves of all the parties involved.
The teams that are doing things radically different than last year, and whether they mean anything.
Last week, Matt Trueblood wrote about the biggest changes to team Playoff Odds since the start of the season. The five teams with the widest swings: The White Sox, Red Sox, Astros, Mariners, and Yankees. You can guess why. Three of them have been surprisingly good, and two of them have been surprisingly bad. Those teamwide surprises have been underpinned by individual surprises, like Jackie Bradley Jr. (good) and Dallas Keuchel (not). Surprises all, but well-known surprises. If Donald Rumsfeld were writing for BP, he might call them known knowns. (He might call them that anyway. Or he might be too focused on getting you to play solitaire on your smartphone to care.)
I’m looking for unknown knowns. These are teams that’ve changed in less obvious ways—i.e., not the ones you see when you peruse the standings each day—but are nonetheless interesting. I looked for sharp changes from 2015 compared to the 2016 season to date that have probably eluded headlines and highlight shows.
Of course, there are two ways a team can change. They can import a bunch of new players with new characteristics, or their existing personnel can change. I found a little of both in this list.
The Pirates' fine season might get finer. Do two pitching phenoms make for a climactic Act III?
The Pirates have weathered the storm at the start of their season nicely. The team didn’t have Jung-ho Kang for the first 28 games. Gerrit Cole has been uneven, and Francisco Liriano has been wild. For the second consecutive year, Andrew McCutchen started slowly. Still, here they are, 27-19 through their first 46 games, on pace to win 95. Though the Cubs have stolen the headlines with their blazing start, the Pirates stood only four and a half games back at the start of play Friday.
That’s well within range, but it’s especially heartening because, in the view of many, the Pirates haven’t yet opened up the engine to see what they can really do. Behind Cole and Liriano, their rotation has been a mess, and the guys who make up that back half right now (Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, and Jon Niese) aren’t very good candidates to turn things around.
Is Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati turning into a turf war, on a global scale? We'd rather hear both sides of the tale.
Wednesday night, while Max Scherzer was striking out 20 Tigers, the Reds and Pirates were striking each other. There were six hit batters in the game, four Pirates and two Reds. Reds’ reliever Ross Ohlendorf was ejected after the last of them, when he hit David Freese with a runner on second after the Pirates had taken a 5-4 lead.
This is not something new for these teams. Since the start of the 2012 season, there have been 94 players hit in 56 games between the Reds and Pirates. (Across the majors, there are, on average, .66 batters hit per game—.33 per side.) The six hit batters Wednesday represents an apex, but the teams combined for five hit batters on June 2, 2013, four on April 8 this year, and three on seven other occasions. In fairness, some of this is probably personnel-related. When you employ batters for whom getting hit by pitches is part of their on-base toolkit, like Shin-Soo Choo (hit seven times in Reds-Pirates games in 2013 alone) and Starling Marte (hit 14 times in Reds-Pirates games dating back to August 2012), it’s reasonable to expect things to get plunky. And Pirates games, in particular, feature a lot of HBPs in the box score. Since the start of the 2012 season, Pirates batters have been hit 328 times, the most in the majors and 15 percent more than the second-place Cardinals. Pirates pitchers have hit 293 batters, also the most in the majors, and 9 percent more than the second place White Sox. (The Reds are third at hitting batters and 14th at getting hit.) But six in one game is an awful lot, as is 94 since the start of the 2012.
This has led to discussion of what might be done about this sort of thing. A hard ball, thrown at high speeds, can cause damage to the human body. Per Brooks Baseball, the pitches that hit the six batters on Wednesday night were thrown at 91.7 (Alfredo Simon in the fourth), 94.8 (Juan Nicasio in the fourth), 80.9 (Simon in the sixth), 86.4 (Steve Delabar in the seventh), 92.5 (Jared Hughes in the seventh), and 95.0 (Ohlendorf in the ninth) miles per hour. Nobody appeared to get hurt in the game, but of course, batters aren’t always that lucky. So what can be done?
That’s the reality to which many big-league GMs woke up Tuesday morning, now that Strasburg appears to have agreed to a seven-year deal worth $175 million (or more) with the Nationals. For those among that group who hadn’t gotten their free-agent pitching spending out of the way by now, this is very bad news. Billy Eppler, Brian Cashman, Dan Duquette, Dayton Moore, Neal Huntington, A.J. Preller, and Jerry Dipoto all would have liked the chance to bid on Strasburg this winter, even if most of them run teams unable to realistically meet the asking price he would have been able to set on the open market. Now, they face the unpleasant prospect of improving their pitching staffs for 2017 without having a single ace to chase. It’s perfectly possible that Rich Hill will get the biggest free-agent deal handed out to any starting pitcher in the coming winter.