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The St. Louis Cardinals should respectfully defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates

A wholesome preview

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Tuesday, May 18 at 6:45 pm CT through Wednesday, May 19 at 6:45 pm CT the St. Louis Cardinals will host the Pittsburgh Pirates for a two-game set. After winning or tying six series in a row, the Cardinals were dealt their first series sweep of the season at the hands of the San Diego Padres. Even then, though, the Cardinals are still two games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Brewers to lead the National League Central. At the bottom of the NL Central lies the Cardinals’ opponent this series: the Pirates. The Pirates at 17-23 are having a rough go of it this season, especially of late, going 5-10 during the month of May. The Cardinals hope to take their recent frustrations out on the struggling Pirates, but with a NL Central rivalry, the Pirates are sure to give their all. Should be fun!

The Past

The Cardinals and Pirates have faced off already this season in a three-game series where the Cardinals swept the Pirates and outscored them 22 runs to 8. John Gant, Jack Faherty, and Carlos Martínez took the mound for the Cardinals against JT Brubaker, Trevor Cahill, and Will Crowe. Gant struggled mightily with control, walking five batters in five innings. The Cardinals pitchers walked nine batters total that game, but managed to allow only three runs while the offense put up seven off home runs from Tyler O’Neill and Matt Carpenter. Flaherty was very good in his start, giving up three runs in six innings pitched, but struck out nine while only walking two. The Cardinals poured it on in the ninth inning, scoring five runs to win 12-5. The final game of the series was the best start of the year so far for Carlos Martínez. Martínez went eight innings allowing no runs on five hits, two walks, and three strikeouts. Alex Reyes preserved the shutout and the three-run homerun from Harrison Bader held up for a 3-0 Cardinals win.

The Good

Jack Flaherty

Jack Flaherty is already in his fourth season as a full-time starter for the Cardinals and in that time has earned a reputation as one of the more reliable members of the rotation. In his big league career he has 3.27 ERA and a 3.68 FIP with a 28.8% K% and 8.3% BB%. 2021 is on pace to be the best season of his career. While his K% is lower than seasons past at 25.7%, his walk rate is also lower at 7%. His ERA at 2.47 is only slightly out-preforming his FIP of 2.97 and he has only given up three home runs so far this season. These marks put him among the elite major league pitchers and at 7-0 in leads the league in wins.

Flaherty has done all this while throwing a 4-seam fastball almost 50% of the time and pairing it with a very well-located slider 30% of time. The fastball clocks in at around 93.7 mph and has a .145 batting average against it. Per run value, Flaherty’s 4-seamer is tied for the 22nd most valuable 4-seamer in baseball.

Bryan Reynolds

The Pirates most valuable position player has been outfielder Bryan Reynolds. The 26-year-old has played all the outfield positions at some point in his career, but has mostly been in center this season (though he is splitting time between there and left field pretty evenly). His defense in center ranges below average to fine, but it is with the bat where he has really excelled. He leads the Pirates with a 141 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR and 1.6 bWAR.

Reynolds has seen most of his success come against the fastball, particularly the 4-seamer. In 2021 he is batting .372 against the pitch with a .651 slugging percentage. Reynolds only has three home runs this season and all three have come against fastballs. He is a switch hitter and hits about evenly from each side for his career, though in the limited 2021 sample he is has been a little better on the right. The Cardinals will likely see him bat from the left side most often this series where his career slash line is .287/.365/.469. A common baseball saying is that most lefties prefer the pitch down and in, but from his heat maps Reynolds seems to have the most power up and away.

JT Brubaker

The Cardinals face the Pirates best pitcher in 2021 in JT Brubaker on Tuesday, at least according to Baseball Reference. Fangraphs has the most valuable pitcher for the Pirates as Tyler Anderson, who would be worth discussing if the Cardinals were set to face him in this two-game set, but they are not. Brubaker leads the Pirates starters in ERA at 2.58, pretty heavily out-performing his FIP of 4.12. He is accomplishing that by leaving 93.4% of runners on base. He walks the least batters among the Pirate starters with a 5.6% BB% and strikes out the most with a 25.5% K%.

Brubaker’s arsenal consists of five pitches: a slider, sinker, 4-seamer, curveball, and changeup. What is interesting about him is he throws the slider the most at 35%. The sinker and 4-seamer are thrown about the same amount at 26% and 23%, respectively. He will pepper in a curve and change less than 10% of the time. Brubaker throws his slider virtually in any count, maybe a tick more when he is ahead. In 2021 he has thrown it around 40% of the time in 0-2 counts, which to be clear only accounts for eight instances. In those eight instances of 0-2 sliders, though, batters have struck out six times.

The Not-As-Good

The Pirates Offense

By wRC+ the Pirates have one of the least good offenses in baseball with a team wRC+ of 83. The most glaring weakness has been the lack of power. They are last in the league in 2021 in home runs with 26 (for comparison the Cardinals have 53). They are second to last in ISO at .119, just above the Mets at .116 (the Cardinals are ranked 10 at .168). The Pirates are last in slugging at .347 (the Cardinals are 12th at .399). They have four hitters with a wRC+ over 100 (though Colin Moran is on the Injured List), but among those four, none have hit more than four home runs.

The Cardinals walks allowed

This has already been mentioned in a previous preview and now in a Hunt and Peck, so I won’t go too much into it, but the Cardinals have the highest walk rate in the league and it is costing them games. On the bright side, the Cardinals pitchers do not give in to batters. They are tied with the Mets for the lowest HR/9 at 0.7. So that is at least something.

Tyler O’Neill’s injury luck

Aww booooo.

The Matchups

It is only a two-game series so it is hard to predict what will happen, but on paper, this should be a good series for the Cardinals to get back on track. The Cardinals have struggled with issuing too many walks, the Pirates do not hit many home runs, and the Cardinals do not give up many home runs. This is a matchup that should go in the Cardinals favor. My matchup to watch is Jack Flaherty versus Bryan Reynolds. Flaherty has a good 4-seam fastball, but Reynolds is pretty good at hitting those. Let’s see how the righty navigates that matchup.

Game 1 - May 18, 6:45 PM CT - JT Brubaker vs. John Gant

Game 2 - May 19, 6:45 PM CT -Trevor Cahill vs. Jack Flaherty

Series preview: Pirates visit St. Louis for two games | Bucs Dugout