First Pitch: Here is Why the Pirates Have Been Contending All Year

Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano has stopped two of the four, four game losing streaks this season. If the current streak reaches him, it will be the first time the Pirates have lost five games in a row this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Today the Pirates lost 9-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals, getting swept in the weekend series, and falling out of first place by 1.5 games. In the process they also did something that has only happened four times this season: lost four in a row.

The Pirates have yet to lose more than four in a row this season, which is a streak that will be put to the test tomorrow against the Texas Rangers and Yu Darvish. They have previously lost four in a row in early April, early July, and from August 9th to August 13th. The last game of that losing streak was the opener against the Cardinals on the road, and they dropped two of three in that series.

All of the wins and losses count the same, but this weekend’s series might have been more important. It was the last time the Pirates will play the Cardinals during the regular season, and the three game sweep took them from a 1.5 game lead in the NL Central, to being 1.5 games back and tied with the Cincinnati Reds.

That said, I wouldn’t necessarily say the season is over. Back on July 14th I pointed out how the Pirates were preventing the long losing stretches. At the time, they didn’t have a single ten game span worse than 4-6. In fact, of 83 possible ten game stretches at the time, they only had five losing stretches.

The Pirates have since added six more losing stretches in the second half, with most of those happening right after the All-Star break. Tonight the Pirates moved to 4-6 in their last ten games, which makes this the 11th time this season the Pirates have had a losing ten game stretch. They have fallen below the 4-6 mark, but never lower than 3-7, and that only happened twice.

To put that in perspective, the Pirates have 133 possible ten game stretches this season. To have a losing record in only 11 of those stretches is amazing. To only go worse than 4-6 in just two of those stretches is unbelievable.

That has been the biggest thing for the Pirates this year. They have avoided the long losing streaks, and they’ve avoided the big slumps. This weekend’s series hurts because it’s against the Cardinals, and it dropped the Pirates out of first place, and we’re in the final weeks of the season. But the Pirates aren’t exactly slumping. Well, they are, but only by their standards. Everyone has been waiting for The Collapse all season, but this doesn’t look like a team that will collapse. They’ve gone 142 games where they’ve rarely seen a really bad losing stretch. They are in their fourth four game losing streak right now, but before that started they had won four out of five last week, including two of three against St. Louis.

The series against Texas will be difficult. They’ve got some tough pitchers to face, a contending team, and they will be wrapping up a nine game road trip. On the bright side, they have two of their best pitchers in Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett pitching (granted, neither pitched well in their last starts). Then they’ve got eight games at home against the Padres and Cubs, which should help them pad the standings.

Are they going to collapse? Still no. Will they win the division? That’s up in the air. And that’s not unusual, or a sign that the Pirates have no shot. It’s just a sign that this is going to be a very tight race down the stretch. That’s what makes those losses against the Cardinals so difficult. It’s also what will make the games against the Reds at the end of the month so important. As long as the Pirates can avoid frequent losing stretches, they will stay in this race, and will still have a shot at the division. It’s just not going to be comfortable to watch.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    All I know is this, if the pitching staff doesn’t gain back its consistency, then the last 20 games are going to be rough. The whole starting pitching staff seems to be pitching in an all or nothing outing with nothing pulling ahead recently. They have an 8 game lead over the Nats with 20 to go for the second wild card, so unless they continue to play the way they did against the Cards they should at least make that. You can talk about the Pirates record over 10 game stretches has been this or that, but that is yesterday’s news and at no time during the course of the season has the starting pitching been as consistently poor as it is right now. I’m hoping they are not limping into the playoffs when they come and have somebody they can count on to take the mound, not just somebody they hope has their good stuff that day.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I am calling a 10-11 finish at this point for a 91 win season. I’m calling that will put us 1 game ahead of the Reds who I put at 90 wins and 4 games behind the Cardinals who i’m suggesting will win 94 games.

      Three issues: 1. I don’t think we can beat the Reds in a 1 game playoff. If we can, it’ll be because of a dominant performance from Liriano. Only a lefty will give us a good chance, because we don’t hit the Red’s top pitchers very well 2. Morton should not be pitching against the Cardinals, period. Ever. 3. We didn’t just lose, we got kicked in the face. Everyone played poorly, it was embarassing

  • CalipariFan506

    The Collapse is happening now. From 70-44 to 81-61 is 11-17 in the past month or so. That’s not as bad as the past two seasons but the way the last four games have gone we could be spiraling in that direction. I’d be pretty surprised to see this team win more than 87-88 games. The starting pitching has fallen off a cliff.

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

      as usual, you’re just a ray of sunshine!

      Foo

    • https://www.facebook.com/swbilltull Bill Tull

      so you’d be pretty surprised if they go 8-12 the rest of the season? I’d be pretty surprised if they won 87 or 88 games as well. Get out of the past and understand that this organization has taken a number of and may I say many correct steps to right the ship. It’s a shame there are so many negative Pirates fans that you can’t enjoy the fact that they aren’t where the Cubs and Brewers are, which is where they usually are.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Just wondering why you went with 11-17, leaving off the 5 game winning streak before that stretch?

      • CalipariFan506

        Just because it’s when the high water mark of the season was.

  • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

    Frustrating series. This could’ve been Morton’s coming-out party as a true top-of-rotation guy/stopper, but instead of his pitches sinking, he did.

    Can Sabremetrics explain how/why Cards are continually amazing in September? The most glaring thing to me is how the Cards can adapt batting approaches (fisted hits, going oppo) while Bucs continue to flail and take 3rd strikes. Who’d have thunk Bucs pitching would be a tonic for Jay and Kozma?

    If it’s a “collapse” it’s at least not a bad enough collapse to keep Bucs out of play-in game. Bucs magic number for playoffs is 12 I believe. I don’t see Nats or DBacks going 16-4 or better in final 20 games.

    FWIW, Texas is hitting worse than Bucs in Sept. And not pitching considerably better either. If Cole gives up his usual two 1st inning runs then settles down, Bucs have a chance to beat Darvish.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

      Your comments about the Cardinals in September are dead on. We are a good team no doubt but this weekend is proof that we are not at the Cardinals level yet. Our Starting pitching was as good as theirs until now. It was kind of a smoke screen. Our rotation doesn’t match the quality and depth of theirs yet and when it comes to offense Your right they know how to make adjustments. They are smart unselfish hitters that shorten up their swings when necessary to but the ball in play the take what the pitcher gives them and they hit the ball where it is pitched, They have a lineup of smarter more advanced hitters . Most of the Pirate hitter have the same approach every AB every pitch. You cannot swing out of your shoes on a 1-2 pitch. Allen Craig is a perfect example of an advanced hitter who takes what the pitchers give him. We have no Allen Craig,or Carpenter type hitters .

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

    It all comes down to pitching. All of our starters are currently in slumps. Some are one game slumps and some are longer. If the pitching rights itself, we’ll be okay. If it doesn’t, we’ll still get a wild card slot.
    .
    Last year’s collapse was fueled by the starting pitching faltering. Each year, a young starter came out of nowhere and faded badly in the 2nd half. Losing Wandy really, really hurt us.
    .
    The difference this year, is that we have Liriano and Morton pitching well, so we’ll be okay, just not a division winner.
    .
    jmho
    .
    Foo

  • https://profiles.google.com/110709561392331201235 Vicente Barletta

    It might not be as dramatic (yet) as the last two years, but for a third straight time the Pirates are running out of steam in August and September, while the Reds and Cardinals are getting stronger.
    And what makes it worst is that all the players are part of it. No one steps ups. These games at Texas will tell a lot from Liriano and AJ (actually I would make my decision on bringing back Burnett next year depending on this game)
    I know they have been great all year, but this is the time that separates great teams from ordinary ones.
    What worries me is not only that the other teams are playing better, but that the Pirates players seem out of focus, they get desperate. We all know they have the capability to beat teams like the Cardinals.
    And I don’t think they can blame it on chemistry this time, because they were playing good baseball after the trades.
    I am actually expecting another sweep at Texas, in hopes they can have like a 10-1, or 9-2 home stand the next two weeks, then go 2-1 in Chicago, so they can finish the season in 1-2 in Cincinnati.
    That would give them like 94 wins, maybe enough to at least finish in the first wild card.

  • leadoff

    Each loss has it’s own reasons, each win has it’s reasons. There is no one reason why the Pirates win or why they lose. One would have to go into depth to figure it out, something the Pirates I am sure did last year and will do again this year, but their conclusions apparently never deal with the current core or managerial style, because that is about the only thing they have not adjusted.
    My thoughts are simple on what is wrong with the Pirates and fading is a problem.
    1. I do not believe Hurdle is the right guy for this team for numerous reasons, one big one being that he tries to manage this team like it was April or May and does not manage like it is September, the other contenders managers are managing like it is September. Example: Cards up by 9, pitcher gives up 1 run, next thing you know he ends up with 3 pitchers trying to prevent the Pirates from scoring any runs, he not saving pitchers for December. Ludwick gets on for Reds, immediately pinch ran for, no matter how good Ludwick is or was, he is coming out of the game, has anyone seen Pedro ran for, Marte could have been taken of the disabled list earlier and used as a pinch runner has anyone seen him pinch run?
    2. The Pirate defense has slowly been deteriorating, one or two big errors a game, not to mention two or three botched plays that are not called errors, example double plays that should be made, hitters beating out ground balls that should be outs. This shows up big time when someone like Locke pitches, anyone looking at the detail of the actual game instead of looking at the box score should see this. Errors and botched plays are big time problems for pitchers that pitch to contact.
    They could have brought in Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and this team would look the same, Byrd and Morneau now look like the rest of the Pirates after about a week.

    • buster09

      Another good example of that style of managing is what occurred in the second game of the Reds/Dodgers series last week leadoff. The Reds are up by a run in the 8th,and who does Baker have up for the 9th ? Chapman,who had just closed the previous THREE nights against the Cardinals and the Dodgers. Baker wanted every one of those games,and did what you have to do,which is run his absolute best guy out there.

  • vanderbilt

    Relax people! The Sports Illustrated jinx will be over in one week!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    Bunch of Chicken Littles in here.

    All three teams in the Central have crapped the bed for extended periods in the second half. Cincinnati just went 3-6 on its last road trip. St. Louis went through two extended streaks where they couldn’t hit for squat (coinciding with the 2 home series in late July and early September). They lost 7 in a row to the Braves and Bucs, and went 4-13 overall during the streak. Then lost 5 of 6 just before the Pirates series. Now it’s the Pirates’ turn. Hurdle can’t manage for September (so who was that guy at the helm of the ’07 Rockies when they went on an incredible late season tear to get to the WS?). That one might be my favorite.

    The Bucs will go as far as their pitching takes them, plain and simple. One bad turn through the rotation is a little premature.

    • CalipariFan506

      Stephen Brooks, until the Pirates finish a season we aren’t premature. In fact I think you are on the irrational side suggesting everything will be okay.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

        CalipariFan:

        For the record, I didn’t say everything will be ok (I said one bad turn through the rotation is a little soon to call the apocalypse), but if you want to pin that on me I’ll bite. I’m saying 90 wins – a 9-11 finish – would be the bare minimum of “OK” and that 92 wins is what I expect. You’re already on record at 87-88 wins. We’ll check back in 3 weeks to see which of us was the irrational one.

    • leadoff

      If you don’t know the difference between managing in Sept. vs April, I can’t help you. Hurdle could manage the 27 Yankees in Sept. there are teams he could manage, this is not one of them.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

        Go look up the manager of the ’07 Rockies who led that team through a 13-1 finish in the regular season and a World Series appearance.

        Now look at the roster. Not exactly the ’27 Yankees.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

    I’ll tell you why this team won’t win the Central. The Cardinals are on another level. Yes we have been neck and neck with them all year, but it’s September. The cream is going to rise. We are just as good if not better than the Reds. But the Cardinals are the cream of the division. This is why. We matched their starting pitching all year but They are starting to show they have the better starting staff. Wainwright, Kelly,Wacha ,Miller and Lynn with Westbrook coming back is a better starting staff than Liriano,Burnett,Morton,Locke and Cole and always will be. Everybody begged and pleaded for a bat at the deadline and we did need Marlon Byrd,John Buck and Justin Morneau no doubt, but I said it back then we need starting pitching, It didn’t seem like it then but like last year our staff is breaking down . Not saying he could have landed anything but it should have been most important. Sometimes look totally different on the outside.This team’s identity is pitch near flawlessly and score just enough, and it always will be that way with the way NH builds his teams and the way this offense is built . We are a lineup full of mistake hitters. less advanced and instinctive than the Cardinals offense, which is full of smart disciplined ,instinctive two strike two out clutch hitters. The later in the season you get the more evident it is. There is nothing wrong with us having guys like Pedro and Jones in the lineup but we need some more guys that pride themselves on high batting avg and OBP more than HR and RBI. Guys that know how to make an adjustment and figure out ways to stay alive in a pitchers count. We do have a few guys who work counts and taqke what the pitchers give them like Martin and Mercer. Walker does a pretty good job but pretty much everybody in the Cards lineup from 1-8 is a smarter hitter than the Pirates But we have a lot of talented but over aggressive hitters like Alvarez ,Marte,Jones. and even McCutchen gets way too swing happy sometimes. His numbers are very good but he isn’t the best at making adjustments in high pressure situations. We can win with an offense like this but we need great starting pitching which we are not getting anymore. The Cardinals have an offense that can bail out their pitching from time to time. The Pirates pitchers having to be near perfect all year has taken it’s toll no doubt. I think the Cards got this division . It’s pretty easy to see who is the better more experienced team. It’s ok we are still in rebuild mode, we are getting closer and it will be fun to get into the playoffs. Maybe we get hot . We are in desperate need of a couple starting pitchers finding their groove and holding this team together. Locke looked a little better the other night, hopefully he and Cole will start to pitch great again. Liriano is going to be solid, Burnett needs to step up as the leader. We need him now more than ever. Hopefully Morton is fine if not I’d look to Pimentel or maybe they get Wandy back in the rotation at some point. It’s all about SP . if it’s good we are definitely a threat, it can’t be mediocre Thanks

    • leadoff

      The Cards are not much different than the Pirates when it comes to hitting good pitching, they can’t! But they will hit bad pitching, something the Pirates might or might not do. Witness what happened to the Cards vaunted offense in their last series with the Reds.
      The Pirate pitching staff is build on their defense, Huntington has brought in a staff of contact GB pitchers, if they catch the ball and throw the ball they usually win, but their poor defense in the 2nd half of the year is very evident to me.

    • buster09

      I would agree with much of what you sat Chris,BUT with these differences : I think
      the Cardinals are somewhere between the way they played in the Reds and the Pirate series. If you get them matched up with 2 left handed starters that pitch well,they have problems. And if you get them down a couple of runs early,they have problems. Adams,Kozma,Brock Peterson,and Jay most of the time,have a lot of problems with decent pitching. I personally don’t think they are stronger than the Reds with all factors figured. And the Pirates,for all of their flaws,won 10 out of the 18 games with them. As far as the Pirates hitters are concerned,I have been saying all along,they are what they are,and no matter who was added to the mix,the core hitters here aren’t going to go from the out house to the pent house. It just doesn’t work that way.

      • leadoff

        The Cards have other problems also, they are very slow in the outfield, SS is a not hit position, 3rd is a no power position as is most of the Card hitters. The young pitchers they have are all 2 pitch pitchers, guys like Lynn get caught up to by the league. I have seen them many times this year and when a team plays well against them they have their problems.
        IMO, the Reds will win the division.

  • CalipariFan506

    I also think the Reds are the best team. Homer Bailey is possibly the most dominant pitcher in abseball over the last few weeks and I don’t see that changing. The Dodgers made some good adjustments on him last night and started swinging at the first pitcha nd they scratched out a few runs.

    But Bailey and Leake in particular are horrible match ups for the Pirates. They throw get me over first pitch strikes as a strategy and the Pirates for the most part take the first pitch. Once ahead in the count, they’re diffuclt to hit, like most good pitchers.

    I actually think the Cardinals are going to struggle next week at Colorado and Milwaukee. Their starting pitching is not what it was earlier in the season. lynn and Miller especially are struggling and Joe Kelly (even though I hate this term) is due to regress a lot in the near future.

    • Andrew

      @CalipariFan506
      Not to single you out, but I am interested in your argument. I generally, agree with your assessment of the Reds and Cardinals pitching. You have avoided the recency bias and availability heurstic of comparing the Cards and Pirates after a three game series. (Where the
      Pirates were summarily crushed.)

      However, what I cannot follow is the argument that the Pirates pitching is going to fall apart, or already has fallen apart. Outside of Jeff Locke, all four of the other starters are under performing or at their defense independent stats. No one has an absurd LOB% or BABIP. Sighting the last two years starters performance is fraught with fallacy, there is little congruency between the samples.

      Obviously the Pirates were not going to win a .614 (70-44) pace, when you have the best record your an outlier, and outliers regress to the mean (up or down). Even if they continue at this .392 rate that would give them 8 wins. You predict worse, because of starting pitching, I do not understand it. I not saying its wrong, but what is the evidence for the argument.

  • http://allmyforeparents.blogspot.com Israel P.

    Never lost more than four in a row in 1960 either. Was that a good year or what?