First Pitch: The Pirates Have Returned to the Days Where They Can’t Beat Milwaukee

There were so many reasons that the Pittsburgh Pirates were winners last year. But one key aspect to their winning season was the fact that no one team dominated them. Their worst record against any team was 2-4, which happened against the Rockies and Dodgers.

In the years leading up to the 2013 season, there was one team that always dominated the Pirates: the Milwaukee Brewers. Whether it was at home, or in Miller Park, the Pirates could never beat Milwaukee. From 2007-2012, the Pirates combined for a 24-69 record against Milwaukee, posting a losing season every year during that stretch. But just like almost every other team last year, the Pirates managed to beat the Brewers.

That’s not the case this year. The Pirates are currently 2-8 against Milwaukee. Their season record is 17-23. A .500 record against the Brewers would have also resulted in a .500 record so far for the team this year. A performance like last year would have the Pirates above .500.

Last year the Pirates were a team that got the best of almost every other team. There was no team that dominated them. They were legitimate contenders and one of the best teams in the league. This year they’ve gone 2-8 against Milwaukee, and have also gone 2-5 against Cincinnati. Outside of their record against the Brewers, the Pirates are a .500 team this year. The Brewers are looking like legitimate contenders so far this year.

You don’t need me to tell you this, and you don’t need simple analysis of the record against the Brewers to tell you this either: the Pirates aren’t legitimate contenders this year. At best, they’re a team that could battle for a Wild Card spot — one of the next tier teams behind the true contenders.

If there’s any consolation to all of this, it’s that the Pirates have been .500 against the rest of the teams in the league. And while they’re 2-8 against Milwaukee, the losses haven’t been in the 20-0 variety of old. The eight losses against Milwaukee this year have been by a combined 14 runs. That’s an average of just under two runs per loss. Four of those losses have been one run games. So while the Brewers are the better team, the Pirates aren’t exactly getting blown away here.

But let’s say the Pirates are just struggling against the Brewers, and aren’t going to be as bad against every other team. They’ve still only got a .500 record against other teams this year. They now have 122 games remaining, including nine games against the Brewers. They still need to win at a .566 rate the rest of the season to get to 86 wins and try to sneak into the Wild Card game. The Pirates went 6-3 before this recent series against Milwaukee. They need two more similar runs to get to .500. Then they need two more of those runs, plus .500 ball the rest of the season, to get to 86 wins.

It’s not impossible, but it is improbable. The good thing is that they don’t see Milwaukee again for a few weeks, followed by a long stretch where they don’t see them until the middle of August. So can the Pirates up their game a bit against the other teams in the league? Or have the Brewers put them in a hole that is too deep to climb out of?

Links and Notes

**Minor League Schedule: Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham Lead Big Friday Night

**Prospect Watch: Alen Hanson and Josh Bell Homer, Six No-Hit Innings From Buddy Borden

**2014 Pirates Draft Prospects: Kyle Schwarber, Matt Imhof, Forrest Wall, Foster Griffin

**Keith Law’s First Mock Draft Has Pirates Taking Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede

**Pirates Activate Wandy Rodriguez, Option Jaff Decker

**Prospect Highlights: Strikeout From Casey Sadler, More From JaCoby Jones

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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  • tom from st pete florida

    Not even close to being the same team as last year.
    And yes, they are in too big of a hole, and to inconsistent with either the bats or the arms to make a run at even a wild card this year.
    When Nutting and Frankie are looking at a 1/4 filled PNC park in august and september, at least they will have an excuse to CUT payroll in 2015.

    Shame on this organization for going right back to the last 21 years, after 1 magical one.

    • Jared

      The Pirates, this season, have not done enough to improve the team and actually let the team regress from the talent it had at the end of the season. A small market team needs to always make decisions with payroll as a concern, or acknowledging the payroll difficulties, but it, honestly, seems this year that the Pirates are making the decisions that they are based on payroll. That is a completely different calculation…and one that has left this team with less talent than it should have coming off of a 94-win season.

      The fans in Pittsburgh are loyal and they are crazed…but one season (last year) will not be enough to have them flocking back to PNC if this team is playing like the team of the last 20-years. The Penguins are seeing decline in attendance/season-ticket-waiting-list because the fans are becoming disenfranchised…the Pirates certainly have not earned the clout that the Pens have and this season will, likely, set the Pirates back to where they were at the start of last season.

      • stickyweb

        Jared, admittedly the FO didn’t do much to improve the team in the offseason, but the 2 biggest causes of their decline this year are the bullpen and defense. Absolutely nobody was calling for changes in the bullpen after last year, in fact they had an embarrassment of riches resulting in the need to trade/cut a RP. And the only defense people worried about was Jordy and he’s been one of the few solid defenders (his offense is a whole other story).

        The offense overall is fine, they’re scoring the same as the other teams in the division, but they’re giving up basically an extra run a game. Ike (and Gaby’s improvement) have solidified 1B. Marte, Jordy, Pedro and the RFs got off to horrid starts but all have improved recently. The only things that still look terrible are bullpen and defense.

        • johndw28

          Aren’t bullpens pretty volatile. Did anyone expect a whole lot from Grilli and Melancon this year? I hope not. Melancon was awful from September to end of season last year, I was more suprised he got off to a decent start than the fact he is regressing now. Grilli has never been same since mid-summer injury. IF the thinking was these guys should be able to repeat or come close to repeating their peformance last year that was a mistake.

          • stickyweb

            Yes bullpens are pretty unpredictable, but it’s a big jump from that fact to shaking up one of the top 3 BPs of last year. So Melancon had a rough month last year (actually a rough few weeks since it started Sept. 18) and 5 1/2 months where he was one of the best RPs in baseball, and you’re surprised when he pitches well? He’s had 20 outings and given up runs 4 times, yesterday the only time he allowed more than 1 run. To use unarbitrary start/end points, his first 6 appearances were worse than his last 14.
            As for Grilli, he gave up runs in 3 of his first 4 appearances after the injury last year, then finished with 9 straight scoreless outings, including 4 in the playoffs. If you knew the 3 bad early showings were more indicative than the 9 to end the season, you are indeed a sooth sayer.
            Were these guys locks to be unhittable again this year? Of course not, and I think everyone expected some regression since they were SO good in 2013. But the frustration with the whole team is leading to being a little too critical of these 2 guys, especially MM who has still been pretty damn awesome.

  • Scott Kliesen

    The big difference between this team and last year’s team is ability to close out games. 5 games lost (3 to Brewers) when leading after 8 innings.

    The shark tank killer instinct just isn’t there so far this year. But there’s still time to right the ship and make another run to the postseason.

    • stickyweb

      Completely agree Scott. As you and many others having pointed out, they’ve blown 10 of 19 save chances. If they’d converted just 80% of those chances (which I assume is close to league average), they’d be 6 games over .500 instead of 6 games under, and a game and a half behind the Brewers. But actually they’d be ahead since some of those wins would have been against MIL.
      And that’s with the little league defense they’ve played and the offense taking the first month off. They don’t need huge adjustments to start winning, but they need to start very soon or the season will indeed be lost.

    • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

      Look at the loses to the Brewers:
      April 12th tied 2-2 into the bottom of the 8th. Brewers score 1 in the bottom of the 8th. 3-2 L
      April 19th leading 7-6 into the 9th and Brewers score 2 in the 9th. 8-7 L.
      April 20th leading 1-0 in the 8th and also leading 2-1 into the 9th. 3-2 L extra innings.
      May 15th leading 2-1 into the bottom of the 9th. 3-2 L.

      I think it is Ryan Bruan. He came up in 2007 and his miss over half the games last year. It is the only time we been able to beat them.

  • R Edwards

    I put yesterday’s loss on Hurdle as much as Melancon. Watson dominated in the 8th, yet Hurdle stubbornly has to have Melancon pitch the 9th – no matter what the circumstances. Its like he manages his bullpen on auto pilot, and doesn’t consider what is actually taking place in the game. Melancon is not a closer.

  • johndw28

    It’s not rocket science- the reality is we have some of the worst closers in National League this year. 5 blown saves between Grilli and Melancon- 3 vs Brewers alone- that’s a 500 record if those aren’t blown.

    Melancon has blown 6 of last 12 opportunities going back to last September. He strikes out a little more than 5 per 9. His strand rate of 82% isn’t sustainable so his WHIP isn’t a reliable indicator.

    He has value as a reliever. HE IS not a closer.

  • Jared

    And how many of the losses against the Brewers have been blown saves? At least three and possibly all four of the 1-run games where the Bucs lost were blown saves: the two saves blown by Grilli back-to-back and then last night by Melancon.

    The pitching isn’t good enough this year and there is no help on the horizon with the Taillon injury. Cumpton would be an upgrade to the 5th spot, however.

    You’re right Tim, the Pirates have put themselves in a fairly substantial hole (that is why the argument that what happens in April/May doesn’t really matter is idiotic)…if I have the numbers right, the Pirates would essentially have to win approximately 35 of the approximately 40/41 series left in the year to end up with 86 or 87 wins. That means the Bucs have to win, what, approximately 85% of series the rest of the season?

    • stickyweb

      There are 122 games left, so call it 41 series, even though I’m sure there are 2 and 4 game series in there somewhere. They need to go 16 games over to get to 86 wins. Unless I’m mistaken, that would be winning 29 of the 41 series. That’s 70%, which is still pretty daunting they way the defense and bullpen have looked. Just not quite as bad as 85%.

      • Jared

        I do not think that is correct man. Winning a series (if we’re calling a series 3 games like we are for our discussion) is winning 2 and losing 1. If you win 2 games in 29 series that means you have 58 wins. Add the wins the pirates already have and you arrive at a number closer to 74-76 games if you only win 29 series. The Pirates will have to win 70 more games to get to 86…that requires winning much more than 29 series.

        • stickyweb

          Amazingly this had me pretty stumped and I had to think way too much about it. But you’re leaving out the 12 Ws they should get by losing series 2-1, unless you’re figuring they’re gonna get swept in all of them?

          • Jared

            That’s exactly correct. My mistake by not including those victories. And my apologies to not replying to your lengthy response to my lengthy post about the Pirates problems (above). I am on my phone as I am out of the office and it’s incredibly difficult to author a lengthy, candid response worth your time to read on the phone. I’ll get to it later though I promise. Haha.

  • johndw28

    The defined closer is one of the dumbest things in baseball unless you truly have a dominant, elite closer(we don’t) I was SCREAMING to let Watson finish the game. Watson or Wilson have much better stuff than Melancon and the way Watson was pitching he should have had opportunity to get last 3 outs.

    Melancon pitched WAY over his head the first 4-5 months last year and is regressing to his career #s now. Shouldn’t be big surprise.

  • Monkshot

    True, I don’t like Melancon as the closer and I don’t understand why coaches need just one closer no matter what the scenario, but I’m still feeling good about our chances. Our starting pitching has been pretty bad this year, I think that will change. Martins not in the lineup, that will change. Grilli is coming back, and I think he will pitch better. Polanco will be coming up, and he should help solidify the the line-up. Pedro will hopefully be traded or at least dropped from the 4 hole. Yeah, sorry, I’ve had it with him, he’s a young Mark Reynolds if he’s lucky. Tangent time: how is he still batting 4th? Seriously, how many men does he need to leave on base? Why does Hurdle have to be so stubborn when it comes to him batting 4th? Drop him down, when he gets hot, hit him higher in the order. Hurdle acts like a line-up being shuffled throws the natural order of the world into disarray. Also, Pedro will be incredible this series against the Yankees, he always plays better in NY. Long story short, they will play better than this. Even as bad as they are playing, they have started to dig out of the hole.

    • Bob Ross

      Melancon is not a closer for me, he is not throwing as hard as last year, and teams have the “book” on him, hit his cutter to right field. You saw him start to get hit last year late, and he reminds me of Meek, a one year wonder. They should not have brought him back. They will go with Grilli again, but if he falters like before being “injured”, we really have no closer for the first time in a long while.

      I disagree with you in that I do not see the starters getting better. Like Melancon, lariano had a career year last year. I have no confidence that Rodriguez or Vasquez will be anything other than fifth starters. Morton is ok, but I think he is better in a very good rotation than the mediocre one we have now. Cole is the only good stater we have and now that Tallion is done for the year, there is no “cavalry” coming. All our AAA pitchers (even Cumpton) are not that great. They put Locke out there again and he got hit hard. Cumpton is good every once in a while, but I think if he pitches all the time, like Locke, he will be exposed.

      • Monkshot

        I’m not saying our pitchers are going to eclipse last years efforts, but I do think they will pitch better than they have. They have been one of the worst starting rotations in the National League and I personally think they are better than that. You are absolutely right about Melancon, smart teams take him the other way and that’s how you beat him. There is a reason Cumpton isn’t up here, and I’m guessing you’re right. It probably does has to do with the book getting written on him.

  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    The room for error for a small market team is talked about a lot. With that room for error is the ability get things done at the right time in games and some luck. This years team just doesn’t have either right now. No timely execution and no luck. Here is some stats around that. Last year’s team was good at a lot of things.

    *Last year’s team had 24% of the games were they held the opponents under 2 runs. This is 15% so far.

    *Last year the Pirates had 125 times they were behind going into the 8th or 9th inning. 10% of the time they came out ahead or tied. This year with 37 opportunities they are at 2.7%, or 1.

    *Last year, they had a .582 winning percentage in close games. This year .412 or 14-20. Using last year’s winning percentage they would have 6 more wins.

    *Last year the team was only behind after the first inning 21% of the time. This year 30%.

    This team is not putting themselves in good situations and when they have situations, they are not capitalizing of them like last year. Maybe last year the team over executed at the right time or their opponents didn’t more than normal? I mean, last year was not suppose to be the year they were building to. Most expert felt 2015 or 2016 was the point.

    • tom from st pete florida

      *Last year the Pirates had 125 times they were behind going into the 8th
      or 9th inning. 10% of the time they came out ahead or tied.

      That cannot be correct.!

      • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

        I doubled check and it is 125 times. The stat is based on situations at the beginning and end of each inning. It measures the opportunity a team has it changing the condition of the game, from lead to ties to being behind. So if the Pirates are trailing 2-1 going into the 8th and end up losing by that same score, that would be 2 times. So that 125 doesn’t represent 125 games, just 125 opportunities to change the condition.

      • stickyweb

        You’re right tom, that has to double count games where they were trailing heading into the 8th and still losing going to the 9th.

  • leadoff

    The Pirates are slow to adjust, (10) blown games from the pen comes with an asterisk. Some of it, they are going through a bad time and will get over it, some of it, blaming it on injuries, but one thing is for sure, Hurdle will not manage this team in the ninth inning. his closer is his closer. As Hurdle said in his press conference, Melancon is out there without a safety net, he wins it or he looses it. This situation alone is the difference between this team and last years team, without the 10 blown games where are they? This team has been good enough to get ahead and come from behind probably better than it did last year, but over the winter they saw no reason and nobody else saw a reason to make any changes to the pen, but the situation can be fixed, the Pirates just have to come to the conclusion this is a problem, to this point they have not addressed it as a problem.
    As far as the rest of the year is concerned the Pirates are a better team than the Brewers and in the end the cream will come to the top, simply put, the Pirates have depth, the Brewers don’t.
    From a technical standpoint, the loss in velocity from Melancon is concerning to me.

    • johndw28

      You are absolutely right- you nailed the crux of the issue. Pirates are fortunate to very possibly having legit closer options on their 25 man roster in Tony Watson and perhaps even Justin Wilson(control is concerning) but neither Melancon or Grilli should be pigeonholed for the role.

  • johndw28

    In April 8 loss to Brewers our odds of winning got as high as 85.4%

    April 19 were 92.8% in 9th inning we lose

    April 20 were 92.8% we lose

    May as high as 86.6% and we lose

    Most, but not all of that has been on bullpen. Also didn’t take chances to add on in some key situations offensively.

    • leadoff

      The Pirates have the resources to correct their problems, they are caught between waiting for improvement and just giving up on players. Boston gave up on Melancon and he was terrific for Pittsburgh. IMO, the Pirates are still suffering from letting go a guy like Bautista, they look to me like they don’t want to make changes and regret them later.

      • stickyweb

        I agree with a lot of what you’ve said leadoff, but who do you think they should give up on? Grilli? Certainly not Melancon? Maybe Gomez and get a guy with more upside/closer potential? Unfortunately I think they just need to keep running these guys out there until they show they’ve completely lost it. It might happen with Grilli sooner than anyone, but nobody’s been so bad that they should get cut right now. Especially if Grilli’s injury affected him the last 2 outings before the DL.

        • Bob Ross

          I agree, but that decision will have be be Littlefield’s I think to overrule Hurdle to impose a closer by committee until someone stands out. Hurdle obviously goes with the one guy, one closer rule.

  • piraddict

    The Brewers are due for a regression simply because they won’t be playing the Pirates. In addition to the woeful save percentage the club has given up 15 unearned runs. Morton has been particularly victimized. Who knows how many losses would be wins with better defense? They are capable of better defense, and I think they will be better in the second half. Polanco should upgrade RF. As Tim oints out Mercer should have a positive regression. So should Marte. Alvarez, I can’t figure out what ails him. Maybe he needs contacts.