The Pittsburgh Pirates started their 2016 campaign with a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday. While reading a lot into one baseball game is usually something that is not a good idea, there did appear to be some trends that we could see moving forward though. Here are five things I noticed from section 301, row R, seat 9.
Tony Watson Is Not Strictly The 8th Inning Man
In a smart move by Pirate manager Clint Hurdle he used setup man Tony Watson in the 7th inning instead of the 8th inning. In the 7th inning Watson faced pinch hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker, a right-handed hitter, and then a pair of lefties in Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams.
While Tony Watson is great against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, Carpenter and Adams, especially Adams, are much better against right-handed pitching than they are left-handed pitching. This allowed Neftali Feliz to face a trio of right-handed batters in Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty in the 8th inning.
On the Pirate post-game show on 93.7 The Fan host Dan Zangrilli mentioned how we could see more of this as the season progresses. In my opinion it is a smart move and the right move by Hurdle to not lock Watson into being strictly the 8th inning man.
If a team is going to trot two or three lefties, or the heart of their lineup, to the plate in the 7th inning then go to Watson then. That’s one of the perks of having Neftali Feliz down in the bullpen, it allows Hurdle to get creative and flexible with what is arguably the best bullpen in the National League making it an even bigger weapon for the Pirates than it already is.
The Days Of Sean Rodriguez At First Base Are Not Done
During the top of the 8th inning John Jaso was replaced at first base with Sean Rodriguez, and it may have paid off as Rodriguez made a very solid pick on a ground ball hit by Jedd Gyorko with two men on and no one out in the 9th inning. While Jaso’s transition to first base seems to be going a thousand times better than Pedro Alvarez’s did last season it appears that, to start the season at least, we will still see Rodriguez come into the game as a defensive replacement in the late innings if the Pirates have the lead.
Even though I’m sure many people will not like it, I do not blame Hurdle for doing this. Last season Rodriguez had a .997 fielding percentage at first base, to go along with a solid 4.4 UZR/150 and 2 defensive runs saved. So, at least until Jaso gets a little more acquainted with first base, I expect we will continue to see Sean Rod manning first base in the late innings.
This Pitching Staff Will Record A Lot Of Strikeouts
Francisco Liriano struck out 10 batters over 6 scoreless inning, Tony Watson fanned a pair in the 7th, and Neftali Feliz and Mark Melancon each recorded a strikeout. In total, Pirate pitchers recorded 14 strikeouts yesterday.
The Pirate pitching staff has a ton of pitchers with swing and miss stuff. Liriano, Watson, Feliz, Melancon, Gerrit Cole, Juan Nicasio, Arquimedes Caminero, and Cory Luebke all have the potential to put up 8+ K/9 this season. The emphasis the Pirates put on having groundball pitchers and strikeout pitchers is a big reason why the team has been so successful last season. If a batter strikes out, then any chance they have of doing damage with their bat is gone.
The Pirate Lineup Is Very Deep
Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte went a combined 0-for-6 with a walk yesterday, yet the Bucs still cranked out 4 runs on 9 hits on their way to victory. Josh Harrison, John Jaso, Francisco Liriano, and Jordy Mercer all collected RBIs. While David Freese, Francisco Cervelli, and Gregory Polanco each had a two hit performance.
This lineup is maybe the deepest that Clint Hurdle has had during his time in Pittsburgh. And the scary thing is it will only get deeper and more dangerous when Jung-Ho Kang returns in a few weeks. The Pirates have lineup that is capable of beating teams in many different ways and that should finish among the National League leaders in runs scored this season. In some past years if McCutchen and Marte went a combined 0-for-6
The St. Louis Cardinals Will Regress
Obviously, it is difficult to repeat a 100 win season. But I think the Cardinals are due for some major regression, regression the point that they will finish third in the NL Central this season and miss the postseason.
Their lineup is nowhere near what it once was. Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are starting to decline as hitters, and Holliday’s always adventurous defense should be even more of a mess at first base than it is out in left field. The Cardinals also have three guys in Kolten Wong, Brandon Moss, and Matt Adams who are totally hopeless vs left-handed pitching. Mix in Jhonny Peralta currently being injured, as well as his backup Ruben Tejada, and shortstop is a mess for them both offensively and defensively with Jedd Gyorko.
While Matt Carpenter, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty remain dangerous hitters, they do not have a lot of help around them in the Cardinal lineup. And none of those guys are the types of hitters you can center a lineup around either.
Also, in my opinion Adam Wainwright is about cooked. I had felt he would struggle after tearing his Achilles tendon last April, that’s a very tough injury to come back from period let alone at this age, and since returning he has.
Wainwright really struggled in Spring Training, and then got knocked around by the Pirates yesterday. In his 6 innings of work yesterday Wainwright allowed 3 runs, 6 hits, and walked 3 batters. Honestly he was lucky his line was not worse as an atom ball by Starling Marte in the first inning and a double play off Marte’s bat in the fifth inning derailed two other Pirate scoring threats.
The Cardinals rotation already has question marks with Lance Lynn out for the season, Jamie Garcia having never shown the ability to stay healthy for an entire season, and Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez both crashed and burned down the stretch last year. If Wainwright struggles, the Cards rotation could be in a lot of trouble.