It’s been a gruesome start to the season for the Pirates. To this point they have played nine different teams (they’ve played the Cardinals in two different occasions), and as of right now those nine teams have a combined record of 150-130. That’s good for a .536 winning percentage, a percentage that an 87 win team would have over a full season.
The good news is that we are finally getting a break this weekend. The Houston Astros are in town, which marks just the second time the Pirates will start a 2012 series with a team that has a losing record. The Arizona Diamondbacks had a 3-4 record when we started that series.
But hold on, the Astros aren’t as big of a pushover as you might think. For the season they have scored 138 runs and allowed just 129. That’s good for a Pythagorean Win-Loss record of 16=15. What’s gotten them there you ask? Let’s find out.
The ‘Stros started the season off struggling a bit and got off to 5-8 record after four series with the Rockies, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals. They then proceeded to lose two of three games to the Dodgers, Brewers, and Reds to put their record at 8-14.
That’s when things turned around. The Astros rattled off five straight wins, sweeping the Mets and taking two of three from the Cardinals. They scored 31 runs in those games and allowed just 13. That’ll help the old Pythagorean Win Percentage a lot. Earlier this week they played the Mets again and lost two of three, scoring just six runs in the three games.
Their offense has been better than most people expected. They are hitting .255 as a team, which is 13th in the Majors. They have hit 22 home runs, which is near the bottom of the league, but they have stolen 23 bases, which is the 8th best mark in the league. They are a small ball team that can put together some hits. They aren’t going to wow you with power, but they’re an offense that you can’t take too lightly.
The Astros may have over performed on the other side of the ball as well. They have a team ERA of 3.76, which is right in the middle of the pack. A lot of that comes from their bullpen. The starting five they are rolling with right now has a combined ERA of 4.27, which shows you just how good the bullpen has been. Brett Myers, the closer, has a 0.84 ERA in 10.2 innings. Wilton Lopez and Brad Lyon both have ERA’s under 2.50, and Wesley Wright and Fernando Rodriguez have been holding their own as well with ERA’s of 3.86 and 3.46 respectively.
All that good stuff said, there’s little doubt that this is the worst team the Pirates have seen so far this year. Let’s look at the pitching match ups for the series.
Friday: Bud Norris (2-1, 4.58) vs. James McDonald (2-1, 2.70)
Norris a strikeout pitcher, and the Pirates have trouble with strikeout pitchers. However, when he isn’t striking guys out, he’s giving up hits, and a lot of them. He’s averaged more than a hit allowed per inning, and hasn’t been making up for it with runners on base – hitters are hitting .260/.301/.468 with men on. Lefties feast on Norris, hitting .309/.390/.368 this year, although the righties hit for more power (.446 slugging). That is probably just a testament to the teams he has faced and where the power has come from on those teams. For his career he’s been closer to even against righties and lefties, so there isn’t a huge platoon split here. Norris is a hittable pitcher and when compared to Stephen Strasburg last night, the Pirates should be excited to face him.
The Pirates counter with a guy who has arguably been their best pitcher this year. James McDonald has made three great starts in a row. In those three starts he’s thrown 21 innings and given up just five runs (a 2.14 ERA). He has 25 strikeouts in those 21 innings with just seven walks. That’s against three decent offenses too, the Rockies, Braves, and Reds. Righties have done basically nothing all year against J-Mac, hitting just .169/.269/.322 in 59 at-bats. Lefties are at .250/.307/.368, which is better but still not good. McDonald gives the Pirates a great chance to win anytime he toes the rubber, and it’ll be fun to watch what he can do against the Astros.
Saturday: J.A. Happ (2-2, 5.24) vs. Charlie Morton (1-3, 4.61)
J.A. Happ has had a frustrating career. He was a part of the Roy Oswalt trade and the Astros thought they were getting a future stud pitcher. However, he’s struggled since moving to Texas with a 5.35 ERA last year and a 5.24 ERA so far this year. The lefty has pitched into the 7th inning just once this year, and he only got one out when he got there. He gave up five earned runs in five innings last start against the Cardinals. He’s faced some tough offenses this year, including the Braves, Dodgers, and those Cardinals, but there’s no reason to really sweat over facing him. Righties are beating him up this year hitting .300/.391/.538 with four home runs in 80 at-bats. Lefties aren’t hiding in the corner either hitting .265/.306/.382. Happ is a hittable pitcher, it’s plain and simple.
The problem here is that Charlie Morton has been bad this year. He’s giving up 10.5 hits per nine inning and batters are hitting .288/.344/.477 against him. His domination of righties didn’t show up this year, they are hitting .340/.379/.623 off him. He’s still getting ground balls (61.1% of the time on batted balls), but they are finding holes more often. They have been hit hard and not turned into outs often. Morton’s .311 BABIP this year is actually below his career average, so there isn’t a huge reason to believe he’ll improve too fast. There’s no other way to say it – hitters have figured out Morton and don’t have much trouble hitting him. He’ll have to make some changes.
Sunday: Wandy Rodriguez (3-3, 2.14) vs. A.J. Burnett (1-2, 6.08)By far the best pitching matchup of this series. Wandy Rodriguez has been a rare bright spot for the Astros for the last few years. The highest ERA he’s posted since 2008 was a 3.60 that he put up in 2010. Last year the mark was 3.49 and he’s been better than that this year at 2.14 in seven starts. He’s getting less strikeouts than usual, which could suggest that he’s been a bit lucky with batted balls. You look at the numbers and that seems even more true. His BABIP is .241 compared to a career average of .298, so eventually you’d expect some of the balls that have been going for outs to go as hits. Maybe the Pirates can capitalize on some karma and knock in some runs.
A.J. Burnett did a great job of silencing some doubters with his last start rebounding from that 12 earned run display against the Cardinals. If you take away that ugly start, Burnett has a 1.71 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts per nine. His control has been good this year with just seven walks in his 23.2 innings. Burnett gives the Pirates a good chance to win, and he should benefit from a right handed weak Houston lineup.
It’s hard to sweep a three game series no matter who you are playing, but you’d like to say that the Pirates have a chance to do it here. They played good baseball in the Nationals series and have two very good starters going in this series. If Morton can improve even a little bit the Pirates have a good chance to win this one. The Astros lineup is right-handed heavy and the Pirates are throwing three righties at them. Right now we’re sitting on a 3-3 home stand. For a good team, a 5-4 home stand would be basically automatic. The Pirates can get that with a series win here, but a 6-3 mark would look a lot better.
The Pirates finally get to play a team that is worse than them on paper, enjoy it Pittsburgh.