Entering play on Monday evening, the Pittsburgh Pirates' 42-33 record was the fourth-best in baseball. They would be tied or leading three of the six divisions in the game, and no more than 2 1/2 games back in the AL Central or AL West. Instead, the Pirates have the misfortune of sharing a division with the St. Louis Cardinals, who are nine (!) games ahead of the Bucs with a 51-24 record.
The nine-game deficit matches a season-high for Pittsburgh, but is not indicative of how they have played lately. The last time the Pirates were nine games back was on May 20, when a loss to the Minnesota Twins dropped them to 18-22 on the season. Since then, the Pirates have gone 24-11, tied with the Cardinals for baseball's best record during that 40-day stretch. It would be even better, but the Pirates have lost six of their last nine games.
Regardless, the Tigers will have their hands full this week, particularly with the starters Pittsburgh sends to the mound. The Pirates' pitching staff has been the primary reason for their success this season, as their 2.91 ERA is second in all of baseball (to the Cardinals, of course). Their 3.22 FIP is third in the majors, and just 0.02 behind the Washington Nationals at the top. Pittsburgh's starting rotation boasts the fourth-best strikeout rate in the National League, and the lowest home run rate in baseball.
Their offense, on the other hand, has done just enough to get by. Their 92 wRC+ is below the major league average, but eighth in the National League. They have one of the lower walk rates in the league, resulting in a .313 on-base percentage that ranks 10th among NL teams. They have not done much in the power department either, hitting just 56 home runs in 75 games.
With their offensive struggles, one would think that the Pirates boast a great defensive unit to help out their pitching staff, right? Not necessarily. Advanced defensive metrics can be unreliable in small samples, but the Pirates' -13.6 UZR is the second-worst total in the National League, ahead of only the terribad San Diego Padres. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is a bit more forgiving, but the Pirates rank below average in that regard as well. One area where they have excelled is in making "out of zone" plays. Only the Diamondbacks and Rockies have made more plays outside their fielding zone than the Pirates this season.
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Game One: Tuesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Gerrit Cole (11-3, 2.16 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-1, 6.17 ERA)
Of all the starting pitchers the Tigers have faced this season, Gerrit Cole might be the very best. Sure, his 2.2 WAR pales in comparison to Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and Sonny Gray, but Cole has the edge in other statistical categories. His 2.16 ERA is the seventh-lowest among qualified MLB starters, besting Sale and Kluber. He has a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is higher than Gray's at 3.73. Cole has also been one of baseball's best at limiting home runs, allowing just six in 95 2/3 innings. Cole's 11 wins also lead the major leagues.
Cole held the Tigers to just one run on three hits on April 13, his first win of the season. He struck out eight Tigers batters while throwing just 94 pitches. Despite one of his lower pitch totals of the season, his Game Score of 68 was his fifth-best of the year. He has gone at least six innings or more in 12 of his 15 starts, and has only failed to make it through five innings one time: his last start, a 4 2/3 inning losing effort against the Cincinnati Reds. Cole has struck out eight or more batters on five occasions this year, and has at least seven punchouts in over half of his starts.
Game Two: Wednesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP A.J. Burnett (6-3, 2.01 ERA) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (7-4, 3.57 ERA)
After watching A.J. Burnett tussle with mediocrity last season as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, his performance this season proves that Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has some sort of magic elixir up his sleeve. Burnett has already been a full win better than last year, when he had a 4.59 ERA and 4.14 FIP in 213 2/3 innings with the Phillies. He has improved his strikeout rate, lowered his walk and home run rates, and is stranding more baserunners despite a 20-point jump in BABIP.
The secret? More two-seamers, which Burnett has been happy to bury low and to the glove side all season long. Burnett has worked to that side almost exclusively against both right and left-handed batters this season, resulting in some surprising reverse splits. Lefties, who tend to like the ball down-and-in, are batting just .213/.296/.284 against him this season, while righties are hitting .292/.322/.366. Of course, the discrepancy in BABIP (.254 for lefties, .392 for righties) may explain most of the difference here. Lefties are hitting just .207 off Burnett's curveball this season, a pitch he throws over 30 percent of the time.
Game Three: Thursday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Francisco Liriano (4-6, 3.21 ERA) vs. LHP Kyle Ryan (1-1, 4.56 ERA)
Francisco Liriano doesn't have the gaudy ERA that Cole and Burnett do, but his performance took a turn for the better right around the time the Pirates started winning more games. Since May 20, Liriano has a 2.27 ERA in 47 2/3 innings, and the Pirates have won four of his seven starts. He has gotten his walk issues under control -- though he only has one outing with more than three walks this season -- issuing just 10 base on balls in his last 47 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, he has 56 strikeouts during that stretch, a big reason why his 28.7 percent strikeout rate is the third-highest in the National League. He only trails some guys named Kershaw and Scherzer.
Liriano has opted for a more fastball-heavy approach this season, slightly eschewing his changeup in the process. He still throws the change-piece nearly 20 percent of the time (and 25 percent of the time to righties), but that is down from over 25 percent (over 31 percent against righties) from a year ago. It seems to be working, as righties are having trouble hitting his fastball and slider, resulting in a paltry .549 OPS in 291 plate appearances. A .241 BABIP is part of the reason for the stark improvement in Liriano's platoon splits, but he is also leaving fewer fastballs in the middle of the plate.
Hitter to fear: Andrew McCutchen (.294/.383/.487 in 311 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jordy Mercer (.240/.288/.323 in 236 plate appearances)
Per usual, Andrew McCutchen is the straw that stirs the drink when Pittsburgh is at the plate. His .294 batting average is second on the team to catcher Francisco Cervelli, while his on-base percentage and slugging average both lead the Pirates. His 2.7 WAR ranks a distant 14th in the National League among qualified players, while his 142 wRC+ is 10th. Like the Pirates, he has been red-hot since May 20, hitting .361/.441/.590 with 19 extra base hits in 143 plate appearances.
Elsewhere, the Pirates' lineup has been relatively average. Starling Marte is hitting well at .279/.327/.457 with a team-high 12 home runs and 46 RBI, but he and Cervelli are the only other Pirates with an OPS+ above 110. Shortstop Jung Ho Kang has hit well in limited opportunities, but light-hitting Jordy Mercer has more plate appearances. Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, and Gregory Polanco have all been somewhat disappointing as well. All three have below average offensive numbers, though Polanco has 17 stolen bases.
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