Cardinals at Pirates series preview : May 9-11

Good hits to you - Scott Cunningham

The Cards (18-17) head back to Pittsburgh for their third series against the Pirates (14-20). Things will be very different when the rivals next play, just prior to the All-Star Break.

Schedule and Starters

Mise-en-scene

Last year, the Cardinals and Pirates were tied for the division lead as late as September 16th. The two teams appear less evenly matched this season, though only 3.5 games separate them in the standings. Comparing the early schedules of the teams and what their upcoming dockets look like should be concerning for Pirates fans.

Given pre-season expectations, the Cardinals' 18-17 start is something of a disappointment, but there are some real silver linings. The opening six weeks of the season have seen the Cardinals play 23 of their first 35 games on the road, and with an 11-12 away record, the team has acquitted itself just fine. In 2011-2013, when the Redbirds won a world series, made another, and were a game away from a third, St Louis' cumulative away record was a mere nine games over .500. These teams were successful by surviving on the road and winning at home. After this next series, the 2014 Cardinals get their chance to do just that, with the vast majority of games at Busch until the last week of June, and mostly against fairly soft competition. A winning record despite a tough opening slate buoyed by a +17 run differential and potential help on the way in the form of Oscar Taveras leaves plenty of room for optimism as early Spring turns into late Spring.

On the other hand, the Pirates have struggled in conditions nearly as sweet as the Cardinals experienced sour. Their 14-20 record with a -14 run differential has been earned while hosting 20 of 34 games at PNC park. After the Cardinals leave town, their home/away teeter-totter will head rapidly toward a balance, and their schedule is daunting: Between now and June 1, the Pirates' opponents are a combined 23 games over .500. The Cardinals' opponents are a combined 14 under.

If the two teams continue to generally play in the next month as they did in the last, 2013's dramatic season-long divisional battle between them will be nothing but a memory in 2014. By no means is this month certain to see the downfall of the 2014 Pirates, but it does contain that possibility. This series might give us a glimpse of what's ahead.

What to watch for

I'm really hoping to see Peter Bourjos get more starts in the wake of his excellent series against Atlanta. Tonight appears to be a likely spot against the lefty Liriano. 

Randal Grichuk was sent down this morning for Joey Butler. Butler is unlikely to be a long-term part of the major league squad, but for now he looks to be a bench-bat who can play the corner outfield spots. For more on him, read the pre-season profile we published here.

In his interview with Joe, Buster Olney said "The Pirates are clearly struggling offensively." Good guess, but wrong! Last year, the Pirates won a lot of games despite a middling offense thanks to a pitching staff and defense that allowed the second fewest runs in baseball. This year, their offense is once again mediocre (nearly identical, in fact: 3.94 R/G vs 3.91 last year, both marks just a hair under league average), but they've allowed the fourth most runs in the league. Jordy Mercer and the Jose Tabata/Travis Snider platoon have been terrible, and Pedro Alvarez is three-true-outcoming himself to a .202 BA, but everywhere else the Pirate postion players are doing ok to very well. So what's been wrong with the pitching? Well, just about all of it.

How to terrify your fans, by the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates
ERA FIP
2013 Francisco Liriano 3.02 2.92
2014 Francisco Liriano 4.54 3.94
2013 Gerrit Cole 3.22 2.91
2014 Gerrit Cole 3.64 4.04
2013 Charlie Morton 3.26 3.60
2014 Charlie Morton 3.45 4.26
2013 AJ Burnett 3.30 2.80
2014 Edinson Volquez 4.19 4.46
2013 Bullpen 2.89 3.35
2014 Bullpen 2.77 4.01
2013 Team 3.27 3.42
2014 Team 3.90 4.21

So, watch the pitching. Liriano's 2014 slider has exhibited less vertical movement and about 2 mph lower velocity than last year's. The league has seen enough of Cole to have some time to adjust, Charlie Morton is a fine pitcher, but given his profile, last season's breakout looks like it could be a career high-water mark, and the inimitable AJ Burnett is is in Philadelphia while Edinson Volquez is striking out fewer than 5 batters per 9. Cole still looks like a long-term ace and Morton should continue to be solid, but if Liriano is really slipping and Volquez' control-pitcher reinvention fails, this is a mediocre team.

By the way, enjoy watching that abjectly terrible Tabata/Snider platoon. Next time you see the Pirates play the Cardinals, it'll almost certainly be wunderkind Gregory Polanco out there in right.

Who the hell is that?

That's not Russell Martin! The marvelous Martin has been out for the last two weeks with a minor hamstring injury. Unlike Joe Kelly, he's expected back shortly, possibly as soon as Sunday. In the meantime, we'll be seeing Chris Stewart and/or Tony Sanchez. Like nearly all career backup catchers, Stewart has a good glove and might as well be holding a wet midweek small-town newspaper in his hands in the batter's box. He's been in the league since 2006 and managed to stick with his current team over an off-season just once.

A much younger player, Tony Sanchez has a good glove and while he hasn't showed anything with the bat yet in the majors, has had a little success in the minors (.872 OPS last year in AAA), and was the 4th overall pick back in 2009. The Pirates would like him to make a bid to earn the starting spot when Russell Martin's time is up, but he's probably not yet much better than Stewart. I'm hoping we see Sanchez because he has a magnificent gee-whiz smile and one of his walk-up songs is from Frozen.

Keys to the series

  • Have you been listening to Bernie and Goold's podcasts? You really ought to.
  • Are you feeling a little high-strung? Try tea instead of coffee!
  • Bury them now.
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