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.
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.
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.