Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates return to PNC to face improved D-Backs


After passing another test against a first-place team, the Pittsburgh Pirates (69-46) return to PNC Park to face the much-improved Arizona Diamondbacks (57-59).

No longer an also-ran, the Diamondbacks come in with a would-be MVP candidate in Paul Goldschmidt as well as talented youngsters Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollock. Their pitching staff is also approaching major-league capable, with names such as Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray showing great promise. Their bullpen has a good closer in Brad Ziegler, whose submarine delivery can cause problems. The D-Backs come in ranked fourth in the National League in .OPS at .734 while their pitching staff overall carries a 4.03 ERA, good for 10th in the 15-team league.

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The Pirates are set up well to come back for some home cooking, having just swept the New York Mets and flexing some considerable offensive muscle. Aramis Ramirez has woken up – going 6-for-16 in his last four games, collecting at least one RBI in each. Pedro Alvarez continues to show considerable power and focus in recent days. Gregory Polanco is putting together an August to remember. Sporting a .386/.453/.614 slash for the month to go along with three home runs and seven RBI, Polanco gives the Pirates a dynamic force at the top of the lineup.

Having gotten good outings from J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Locke in the previous series, the Pirates will feature Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to start the series, with Happ presumably to follow. Cole comes in going through an uncharacteristically rough August, with a 0-2 record in three starts accompanied by a 4.41 ERA. Cole has labored in two of those three starts highlighted by needing 106 pitches to get through only 5.1 innings in his most recent start. Liriano has similarly struggled in August – at least on the mound – giving up six walks against only nine strikeouts. Stemming mostly from his abbreviated three inning outing back on August 8th, many eyes will be focused on Frankie as he tries to continue to right his ship.

Now let’s look at the expected pitching matchups for the three game set with the Mets:

Monday, 8/17, 7:05 PM  RHP Jeremy Hellickson (8-8, 4.73 ERA) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (14-6, 2.48 ERA)

Tuesday, 8/18, 7:05 PM RHP Chase Anderson (5-5, 4.31 ERA) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (8-6, 3.19 ERA)

Wednesday, 8/19, 7:05 PM LHP Robbie Ray (3-8, 3.29 ERA) vs. LHP J.A. Happ (0-1, 4.66 ERA)

Analysis of pitching matchups

The Pirates will trot out two lefties in the series, but that is hardly an advantage against he Diamondbacks. The team has nearly identical splits against rights and lefts, even down to walk and strikeout rates, as you’ll see below.

vs RHP115353231834208451702779394269738.265.324.410.734
vs LHP809838711052293172510286208.263.331.401.732

The Pirates will avoid Arizona’s de-facto ace in De La Rosa, but despite inflated ERAs, the starters the Bucs will see have some characteristics to watch for. All carry decent SO/W ratios of 2.5 or better. Hellickson and Ray carry K/9 ratings of 7 or better, so there is some strikeout capability there. Fortunately for the Pirates, they also are prone to the home run, with Hellickson and Anderson each giving up at least 1 HR per nine innings, with Hellickson giving up 1.3 per nine innings.

Back in late April, Cole and Liriano both appeared against the Diamondbacks and dominated them to the tune of only one earned run allowed between them.

Here’s how the Pirates batters have done against the expected D-Backs starters:

Jeremy Hellickson

Mike Morse552001101.400.4001.0001.400
Chris Stewart440000000.
Starling Marte330000003.
Andrew McCutchen3110000201.0001.0001.0002.000
Gregory Polanco332000000.667.667.6671.333
Aramis Ramirez331000000.333.333.333.667
Neil Walker332100200.667.6671.0001.667
Pedro Alvarez221000201.500.500.5001.000
Francisco Cervelli220000002.
Pedro Florimon221001200.500.5002.0002.500

Chase Anderson

Andrew McCutchen642000021.500.667.5001.167
Gregory Polanco652101210.400.5001.2001.700
Pedro Alvarez551000002.
Aramis Ramirez442100100.500.500.7501.250
Starling Marte330000101.
Mike Morse220000000.
Neil Walker221000000.500.500.5001.000

Robbie Ray

(Robbie Ray has only faced Marte, Morse, and Polanco. None have collected a hit off of Ray to this point)

Hitter to avoid- Paul Goldschmidt

Perhaps I should change my byline for this piece to Captain Obvious based purely on this section of the preview, but it’s obvious for a reason. Goldschmidt has been locked in all year. An MVP candidate if he was on a winning team, “Goldy” leads the NL in average and RBI, while putting up 22 home runs. He can be susceptible to strikeout, with a 25.2% K rate. With the swing and miss capability of Cole and Liriano, one would think that Goldschimidt’s capabilities could be dampened if only slightly.

Here are Goldschmidt’s career numbers against current Pirates pitchers:

Jeff Locke1095000012.556.600.5561.156
Charlie Morton1093100012.333.400.444.844
Gerrit Cole751000020.200.429.200.629
Jared Hughes430000012.
Francisco Liriano310000020.000.667.000.667
Mark Melancon331001201.333.3331.3331.667
Antonio Bastardo2110000101.0001.0001.0002.000
Tony Watson220000000.
Arquimedes Caminero110000000.

Series prediction

Although the Arizona Diamondbacks are much-improved with a better record than the underachieving San Diego Padres, the Pittsburgh Pirates are returning home to PNC Park, where they enjoy at 39-18 record. Despite the threatening presence of Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks do not have enough offense to keep up with the Pirates. On paper at least. As we all know, the Pirates offense is prone to disappearing at times, but I don’t believe this will be one of those times. With a clear edge in the pitching matchups, I feel comfortable predicting a sweep. The Pirates will take all three games and improve their record to 72-46.

Next: Pirates must force pitchers to throw more fastballs