The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t open the season on the best of terms. A misplay in the outfield by Gregory Polanco put the finishing touches on a sweep in the opening series, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds. 0-3 doesn’t look or sound pretty, but it’s much better to start a season 0-3 in baseball than in any other sport. There are 159 games left to be played, and baseball is a game of streaks. A hot streak would put the Pirates right back where they’d like to be in the standings.
It’s important not to overreact to one series. Polanco shouldn’t be benched, and Radhames Liz isn’t a bad signing just yet. With that being said, there were still some important takeaways from the opening series that will be important to keep in mind as the season churns on.
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There is no cause for concern with the Pirate bullpen…yet
Each game so far this season had one element in common, and it wasn’t a good one: the bullpen gave up the game-winning runs in each game. Tony Watson, Radhames Liz, and Rob Scahill each registered losses, and the latter two both gave up walk-off winners. The three-run home run given up by Watson was particularly deflating, considering it followed a two-run home run by Andrew McCutchen in the top half of that inning.
But is there cause for concern? The reactionary answer is to say of course, three times in a row isn’t a coincidence. The opposite end of the spectrum would say it’s such a small sample size, so we will have to wait and see how the season plays out. While the bullpen did technically lose each game (the losses were all charged to the bullpen), both Watson and Scahill have shown signs of dominance in the early going. Watson has followed up his opening poor performance with two innings of no-hit, no-run ball and two strikeouts. Before giving up a walk-off hit in the series finale, Scahill pitched an inning with two strikeouts; Stephen Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes:
Yes, the bullpen hasn’t performed admirably so far this season. But it’s important to look at the silver linings too. Arquimedes Caminero is showing off his heater like never before, and even Scahill has shown the ability to touch the high 90s with his fastball. There shouldn’t be concern with the bullpen just yet: Watson is an all-star setup man, and Scahill and Liz haven’t logged much time in the majors to date. Given time, this group should rebound.
Billy Hamilton will torment the Pirates this season
Red’s center fielder Billy Hamilton tied for second in all of baseball last season with 56 stolen bases. He’s on pace for 264 this season. Of course that won’t happen, but Hamilton has tormented the Pirates on the base paths to open the year to the tune of six stolen bases. And he hasn’t been caught once. In the series finale, Hamilton took second base even when the Pirates pitched out. Every Pirates’ pitcher seems unable to stop him. He’s turned singles into extra bases almost every time he’s been on base. Will this become a pattern throughout the two teams’ meetings this season?
It’s hard to think it won’t be. While Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart aren’t dreadful at throwing runners out, neither is exceptionally good either. On a good day, either has the chance to throw out Hamilton. What truly turns the table in Hamilton’s favor is the delivery of the Pirates’ pitchers. A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Francisco Liriano have slower deliveries, and none of the other starters have particularly quick ones. This is a recipe for for Hamilton’s future base-stealing success against the Pirates this season.
It’s important not to overreact to one series. Polanco shouldn’t be benched, and Radhames Liz isn’t a bad signing just yet
The Pirates will continue to have problems batting with runners in scoring position
The Pirates have had their share of struggles batting with runners in scoring position the last two seasons. In 2013, the team batted a collective .230 with RISP, good for 27th in all of baseball. In 2014 they improved, but still didn’t fare well.The team batted .249, good for 18th in all of baseball. In the opening series this season, Pirates’ players are 4 for 24 with runners in scoring position, good for a .167 average. They’ve also stranded 23 men on base. This clearly isn’t a recipe for success, but will it continue?
Unfortunately, there’s a reason the Pirates haven’t had success with RISP in recent memory: out of the team’s Opening Day lineup, only Harrison and Cervelli are .300 hitters with RISP, while Polanco, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Jordy Mercer all have career averages under .250 with RISP. But this team should improve over last year’s team in this regard, even if it doesn’t become great with men on base. In terms of career batting with RISP, Harrison is an upgrade over Alvarez at third, Cervelli is an upgrade over Russell Martin at catcher; Polanco has similar career numbers to Travis Snider and Alvarez has similar career numbers to Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez with RISP.
It’s always reactionary to draw conclusions about an entire season based on a three game sample size. But these are noteworthy issues that the opening series might have just reaffirmed rather than created anew. It will be interesting to see the Pirates try to combat these problems moving forward.