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Series Preview: Pirates vs. Cubs

Coming off of a fruitless trip to San Diego, the Pirates travel to clash with the Cubbies, who have to be pleased with the opportunity to pad a perilously thin lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet another Ghost of Pirates Past awaits in the windy city, with Aramis Ramirez tearing the cover off the ball lately (.294/.392/.603 in September). Chicago’s pitching staff has been the key to the team’s success, however. The Cubs rank 4th in baseball with a 1.14 RA+ (Park and league normalized Run Average.) Chicago is hitting a particularly cushy portion of the schedule, facing the Marlins and Reds after clashing with the Bucs.

Tale of the Tape

Pittsburgh Pirates
Record: 66-87

Chicago Cubs
Record: 80-7

Probable Starters

Friday

LHP Paul Maholm (94 ERA+) vs. RHP Jason Marquis (111 ERA+)

Saturday

LHP Zach Duke (78 ERA+) vs. LHP Rich Hill (113 ERA+)

Sunday

LHP Tom Gorzelanny (126 ERA+) vs. RHP Carlos Zambrano (108 ERA+)

Series Notes

- On Saturday, Zach Duke will make his first start since June 28th. Duke has endured a nightmarish season, getting pasted (5.70 ERA, 13.45 H/9) while posting an alarmingly low strikeout rate (3.08 K/9). Duke’s elbow troubles likely contributed to his issues, but pitchers of Duke’s ilk (low-K totals, extreme reliance on groundballs and control) will see a lot of variance in performance; the more balls put in play, the more negative outcomes than can occur.
Duke’s .374 BABIP is abnormally high, but there is still serious concern about his long-term future, between the elbow problem and the unacceptably low strikeout rate. Pitchers simply can’t be successful whiffing 3 per 9 innings. In his September 15th relief stint against the Houston Astros, Duke’s fastball sat at 87-88 MPH (according to the Houston broadcast) with sinking action, and he also mixed in a decent sweeping curveball. A few changeups Duke threw registered between 83 and 84 MPH, with similar movement to his fastball. I can’t see that pitch being of much help the rest of the way. There’s essentially no difference in speed.

- Matt Bandi has already touched on Jason Bay’s alarming decline, but I’ll chime in with my two cents by examining Bay’s batted ball data and strikeout rate to see if there have been any significant changes.

Remember- as a general rule for hitters, the formula for BABIP (Batting Average in Balls In Play) is Line Drive Percentage (LD%) + .120. Expected Line Drive Percentage (eBABIP) is simply what we would expect Bay’s BABIP to be, based on the LD% + .120 formula.

FB% GB% LD% BABIP eBABIP K%

’05 36% 36.9 20.9 .355 .329 20.1

’06 37.4 41.4 15.8 .338 .278 22.7

’07 34.4 38.2 18.5 .305 .305 22.5

Call it hindsight bias, but Bay did have some negative statistical trends creep up in 2006, namely an increased groundball rate, a slightly increased strikeout rate and a good deal of luck in ball put in play (Bay’s 2006 BABIP was 60 points higher than what was expected, given his line drive rate.)

Taking a look at Bay’s batted ball chart, it’s clear that Bay is pulling the ball to left (no surprise there.) (credit to FirstInning.com for the chart):


Also of note when considering Bay is a 4-year decline in Isolated Power (ISO):
’04: .268
’05: .253
’06: .246
’07: .171
Going forward, it’s difficult to know what to expect from Bay. 29 seems awfully young for a player to begin such a sharp dropoff. While Bay is entering the typical decline phase for a hitter, few drop off a cliff at 29 or 30.
An injury is another possible explanation for such a precipitous drop. Bay has dealt with shoulder problems in the past (Bay underwent offseason surgery in 2004 that caused him to miss a portion of the season) and had his left knee scoped in the offseason. Bay has also missed time in September with right knee tendinitis.
Perhaps this is just a stubborn Pirate fan talking here, but I would tend to believe that Bay will bounce back at least somewhat in 2008, provided his body does not start to fail him. 2004-2006 may have been Bay’s peak, but I have a hard time believing that he won’t top .253/.330/.424 in 2008. Random gut-feeling prediction for 2008? .275/.360/.490

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Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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