Pirates Beat Braves 4-2 to Complete Successful Homestand

Pedro Alvarez scoring

Pedro Alvarez scored the first of four Pirates’ runs in the victory. Photo credit: David Hague

The Pittsburgh Pirates getting out to a 10-8 record to start 2013 would be far less impressive if half of those games were against, say, the Marlins, Padres and Astros. Strength of schedule plays a larger part in early-season stats and records than many of us want to recognize. Yes, the Texas Rangers are 12-6, but they have played 12 games against the Mariners, Cubs and Astros.

So the Pirates capping off a 7-2 homestand is made even more impressive by the fact that they did it against three of the NL’s best teams. They swept the Cincinnati Reds, split a two-gamer with the St. Louis Cardinals (and went up 4-2 on them Tuesday before the rain washed it away) and took three of four from the Atlanta Braves. If you include Tuesday’s postponed game, that’s a +17 run differential on three potential playoff teams.

On Sunday, the Bucs won with the help of two Clint Barmes RBI singles (including career hit No. 800), the hot Russell Martin and Travis Snider both notching a pair of hits and a run apiece and six shutout innings from the overworked bullpen.

The Pirates and Braves were tied 2-2 through five, but Neil Walker led off the 6th with a single to right off starter Kris Medlen. He moved to second after Justin Upton’s leaping catch at the warning track, to third on a Martin groundout, then scored the go-ahead run on Barmes’ infield single up the middle.

The Bucs threatened again in the 7th, started by Starling Marte and Snider’s back-to-back singles. Both runners advanced on Andrew McCutchen’s fly ball to left, but then Marte was thrown out trying to get home on Garrett Jones’ sharp grounder to third. Snider scored two batters later on a wild pitch by Atlanta reliever Luis Avilan.

We Need to Talk About Jonathan Sanchez

The Pirates starter went only three innings Sunday, giving up both his runs in the 2nd inning by allowing four straight singles. Sanchez racked up 74 pitches, with just 41 strikes. He walked three batters but struck out five, proving that he was indeed Jonathan Sanchez and not some impostor.

Jonathan Sanchez

Jonathan Sanchez got into trouble Sunday, but used five strikeouts to survive. Photo credit: David Hague

Through three starts, Sanchez’s stats are tough to look at: 14 earned runs in 11.1 innings (11.12 ERA), 11 strikeouts, 9 walks, .360 opponents’ batting average and a 2.29 WHIP. If you want to include Tuesday’s rainout game, Sanchez has allowed 16 earned runs in 13.1 innings.

So.

The overall numbers are bad enough, but made worse by the fact that his starts require an already tired Pirates bullpen to go several innings. One possible scenario is Sanchez makes two more starts, then is replaced in the rotation by Francisco Liriano, whose rehab starts are only separated by one day. Liriano couldn’t get out of the third inning in Altoona on Saturday, but will likely get two starts in Indianapolis to get his affairs in order.

Liriano and Sanchez are not too different in their styles, pitches and struggles with command. Good news is, Liriano is better. And at least based on Sanchez’s results so far, he could not be worse.

Relievers Shut it Down, But for How Long?

The six shutout innings from the Pirates’ bullpen brought their season ERA down to 2.02, second-best in the National League behind the Braves. The relievers have played a tremendous part in the team’s early success.

But here be sea monsters:

  • The Bucs’ bullpen threw 17.1 innings in the last five days, with the team set to play 10 straight days on the road. They have now pitched the most innings of any NL bullpen.
  • Pirates’ relievers have allowed 32 walks in 66.2 innings (4.3 BB/9) this season. Their 12.2% walk rate is the highest in the NL.
  • The classic stat to use for regression is Fielding Independent Pitching, and the ‘pen has a 3.81 FIP through Sunday. That is 9th in the NL and tells us that we should expect Pirates’ relievers to be about league average, not world-beating, going forward.

There are always ways to push back against regression, though, even with Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez and Justin Wilson solid candidates for a downturn in results. The return of Liriano may push Jonathan Sanchez into a bullpen role that may suit him better, and Vic Black and Bryan Morris are both lingering in Indianapolis with the ability to come up as reinforcement.

Martin and Snider Ride the Wave

There were plenty of positives for the Pirates on the 7-2 homestand, including Travis Snider extending his hitting streak to eight games, and Russell Martin getting his streak to six games Sunday. After slow starts, both hitters steered their bats in the right direction on the homestand:

  • Travis Snider: 12-for-28 (.429), 6 doubles, 1.160 OPS
  • Russell Martin: 10-for-28 (.357), 3 doubles, homer, 1.030 OPS

I tweeted this earlier: if Travis Snider’s fan-interfered double last Sunday had been ruled a home run, Snider would have a season OPS over 1.000 and be in the NL’s Top 10 in that category. Snider is getting a large amount of luck on balls in play (as is Starling Marte), but the Pirates have to be encouraged with seeing their right fielder hit so many drives into the gaps.

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    But, had just ONE of those groundballs in the 2nd been at a fielder, Sanchez throws 3 scoreless innings.

    Not ONE ball was hit hard against him that I saw.

    Foo

    .

    • James Santelli

      If one of those groundballs had, yes, it would have been a better outing for Sanchez. But how much better? Does he go four innings instead of three? Even your what-if scenario doesn’t inspire much confidence in the guy.
      Fact is, I’m willing to give pitchers such “what-if” benefits of the doubt if they are pitching well. Sanchez is not. He is giving up walk after walk, hit after hit. He really has to show something more these next couple weeks to keep a rotation spot.

  • westonian420

    Did he not give up the double that marte dropped? Not sure how that was ruled a hit tho, definitely an error. And another rough day for marte running the bases. He’s so bad its almost comical

    • James Santelli

      Are you talking about a Braves double to the Notch? That happened Saturday and it was given up by James McDonald. I also agree with that play being ruled a double, since at least 4 out of every 5 left fielders don’t even get a glove on that ball.

    • leadoff

      I watch every game, I don’t see anything comical about Marte running bases, I like it, he is fast and he needs to be aggressive, sometimes the TV people make comments about bad base running that is not bad base running. It is not comical when Marte goes from first to third and nobody else on the team does it, it is not comical when Marte takes three instead of settling for the easy two and he knows if it does not work, he is going to get his butt chewed out, the Pirates will slow him down eventually.

  • westonian420

    Haha my bad, wrong day. So just because he’s faster and covers more ground it shouldn’t be ruled an error? He alligator arms it and it still hits the glove. That’s an error in LL let alone MLB.

    • James Santelli

      It’s kind of two-part. One: I don’t pay much mind to outfield errors, as overall numbers aren’t really representative of an outfielder’s abilities. Just looking at the Marte play, it was a hard-hit ball to the gap as opposed to a Texas Leaguer (a point in the hitter’s favor) and while Marte closed on it quickly, it hit right off the top edge of his glove, not, say, the hand. So basically, yes, in part it should not be an error because of Marte’s speed. Most guys don’t even get to it, and the actual play on the ball was not error-worthy in my book.

      • leadoff

        I was not too far away from that play, Marte looked at the fence which he was heading for and missed the ball, something just about every player has done, simple as that.
        Watching Marte play outfield, I don’t think he judges fly balls that well yet, his starts are sometimes a little late, he overruns fly balls at times, but major league ballparks are tough for some guys to adjust to with different backgrounds and different fences. These are problems that he will overcome with experience IMO.

    • leadoff

      You would alligator it too if you were headed to a collision with the fence, I don’t think he has had a lot of experience running down fly balls up against the notch fence, not many players get that far to make that catch.
      If you use the theory that anytime you get a glove on the ball you should catch it, then it is an error, if you use the theory that circumstances dictate whether it is an error or not, then it was not.
      I am old school and I think if you get the glove on it anywhere you should catch it, when you are trying to catch a ball an unconventional way (reaching for a ball that is over your head) sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.smalley.35 Andrew Smalley

    While I agree w/ you, James, that Sanchez cannot continue to make a start every 5th day if he can’t give us enough innings, I would be remiss not to say that he was getting squeezed. Not only did the Ump have a very tight strikezone, he also had the inability to judge that the pitch was indeed a strike regardless if Sanchez didn’t throw where Martin had set up. In other words, the ump was bad.

    However, Jonathan still doesn’t know where the ball is going too often. And, fwiw, I don’t think that would change by a simple move to the bullpen. If Liri/Karstens/Morton prove they’re healthy, I see Sanchez being DFA’d, not demoted to pen.

    Good article, though, James.

    • leadoff

      I agree that he got squeezed and also that a couple of ground balls caused him some grief, but what I see is an improving pitcher, his arm strength is starting to build up, his fastball is crisper and I would not be surprised to see him continue to improve if he gets the chance to start a couple more games.
      He can get major league hitters out, good hitters I am talking about, IMO, giving him a couple more starts might be a good idea.