A week ago, this article would have been titled “Holy s**t, the Pirates are actually pretty good.” They were 11-4 at the time, and coming off road series wins over the Cubs and Marlins. They were hitting well and pitching well, and their decision to trade Andrew McCutchen looked brilliant after his slow start to the year (Gerrit Cole, not so much).
One week later, things have changed dramatically. The Pirates went 1-6 last week, including a series loss against the Rockies and a four-game sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. The offense hit a wall — they scored two runs or fewer in six of the seven games — and the pitching couldn’t hold them afloat. Meanwhile, Andrew McCutchen... continued to struggle out in San Francisco (hey, it wasn’t all bad).
But even after that awful week, I think the Pirates are ahead of where many expected them to be at this point. They have played a relatively soft schedule so far, with eight of their wins coming against teams that didn’t make the postseason last year. But they are just 1 1⁄2 games out of first place, and still ahead of the scuffling Cubs. Their offense has been pretty good, and among the most difficult units to strike out so far in 2018. Their starting pitching has been solid, and the bullpen is due for some serious positive regression if current trends hold.
That said, we’re still less than 15 percent of the way through the 2018 season. A lot will change over the next few weeks, let alone between now and October.
Detroit Tigers (9-11) at Pittsburgh Pirates (12-10)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., PNC Park
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 7.71 ERA) vs. RHP Chad Kuhl (2-1, 4.57 ERA)
Game 21 Pitching Matchup
The Tigers handled Chad Kuhl fairly well in their meeting earlier this year, scoring four runs in 5 2⁄3 innings. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, and tacked on a couple more runs later on thanks to eight hits, including a solo home run from Miguel Cabrera. But Kuhl still notched the win thanks to a great effort from his offense, which tagged rookie Ryan Carpenter and reliever Buck Farmer for eight runs in the first five innings of the game. The Pirates held on for an 8-6 win, completing their three-game sweep in Detroit to open the season.
Since then, Kuhl has been a bit up and down. He held the Reds and Rockies to three runs in 11 combined innings, but gave up five runs (four earned) on 11 hits against a surprisingly potent Marlins lineup. His peripherals aren’t much to write home about — he has 13 strikeouts to seven walks in that 16-inning stretch — but he is keeping hitters off balance enough to prevent home runs at an above-average rate. While his 2018 batted ball profile suggests this might change, Kuhl has been very good at preventing homers throughout his professional career. Opponents hit under a home run per nine innings against him last year, when dingers were flying out of ballparks left and right.
There haven’t been any major changes to Kuhl’s approach, but he is throwing his curveball more often than before. The low-80s bender wasn’t even part of his repertoire a couple years ago, but he is now using it roughly 12 percent of the time against both right- and left-handed hitters. This pitch has come at the expense of his slider, surprisingly, a pitch that generated whiffs nearly 22 percent of the time last season. As one might expect, Kuhl’s strikeout rate has taken a similar dive, though he is walking just 7.1 percent of batters so far (down from 10.6 percent last year). His bread and butter is still a mid-90s two-seam fastball that doesn’t quite generate as many grounders as one might expect.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. Kuhl’s home/road splits
It’s early, but Kuhl is sporting some pretty significant home/road splits so far this season. He has a 2.45 ERA in two home starts, but has been tagged for nine runs (eight earned) in 10 2⁄3 innings away from PNC Park. There is some bad BABIP luck involved in the latter figure, but opponents are also pulling the ball more and hitting it harder when Kuhl is pitching on the road so far. He was a bit better at PNC Park than on the road last year as well, mostly in terms of home run prevention (the ERAs were nearly identical).
Jordan Zimmermann is striking more hitters out and it might be sustainable
Zimmermann has managed a 10.8 swinging strike rate in four starts so far this year, the highest rate of his career. It is well above his career average of 8.6 percent, so we should probably take it with a grain of salt. However, Zimmermann is generating more swings on pitches outside the strike zone this year (34.5 percent, his highest since 2014), as well as a lower contact rate on said pitches outside the zone. His slider usage, up to nearly 34 percent this season (another career-high) is likely the reason why.
Unfortunately, hitters are still smoking the fastball. So long as he keeps missing his spots with that, he will continue giving up lots of runs. There just might be more strikeouts along the way.
Zimmermann struggles again and the Pirates take game one.