The Pittsburgh Pirates return to PNC Park and may get a bit of a break as they welcome the last place Atlanta Braves for a 4 game series. Read on for a preview of the series:
Braves Record: 9-27 (5th in NL East)
Last Series Result: Lost 2 of 3 to the Kansas City Royals
Probable Pitching Matchups
Game 1 – May 16, 7:05 P.M. ET
Game 2 – May 17, 7:05 P.M. ET
Game 3 – May 18, 7:05 P.M. ET
Game 4 – May 19, 7:05 P.M. ET
The Braves were expected by many to be the worst team in the National League this season, which given the current state of close to half of the teams in the NL says a lot about how poorly they were projected to play. So far, the Braves have lived down to these expectations to the tune of a 9-27 record, worst in baseball. The Braves began the season with 9 straight losses, but responded by sweeping the Miami Marlins as part of a 4 game winning streak. Other than that though, the Braves have been dreadful and have yet to win back-to-back games outside of that streak.
The biggest issue preventing the Braves from winning games is their lack of offense. As a team, the Braves are slashing .229/.293/.297 (29th/27th/30th in MLB) and have an OPS of .590, which is last in all of baseball by .062. As can be inferred by their league-lowest slugging percentage and OPS, the Braves are lacking in the power department. So far, they have only hit 9 home runs this year, with the next lowest in baseball currently having 29 (Philadelphia Phillies). Additionally, they are one of two teams with only one triple on the season (Milwaukee Brewers), with no teams having no triples. Not surprisingly, their 61 extra base hits are last in baseball by 24.
The Braves only really have two players that are producing above average from the plate, first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Nick Markakis. Freeman is currently slashing .278/.381/.468 and his six home runs account for two-thirds of the team’s output. In fact, he is the only Brave that has multiple home runs this season.
Markakis is currently slashing .266/.373/.352 and leads the team with 11 doubles. Unfortunately for the Braves, there is little to get excited about beyond them. Shortstop Erick Aybar, the only other player on the team that has appeared in at least 30 games, is currently slashing .182/.211/.215.
The primary catcher for the Braves is veteran A.J. Pierzynski who, if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even realize was still playing until I began research for this. The 39-year-old Pierzynski is currently slashing .220/.261/.268.
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Though the Braves pitching is not as abysmal as their hitting, it is still not very good. The staff has a 4.44 ERA as a whole (21st in MLB) and a 1.37 WHIP (18th in MLB). Braves pitchers have only 271 strikeouts on the season (24th in MLB), but their 131 walks are 10th in baseball.
The staff’s 38 home runs is around the average in baseball (tied for 16th). However, their 19 wild pitches are among the most in the league (tied for 4th). The starters that the Pirates will face off against are among the best on the staff, although Julio Teheran is the only one that has more than four starts on the season.
Despite being without a win, Teheran is probably the best starter in the rotation as well, with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. Williams Perez and Mike Foltynewicz also have low WHIP’s in their four and three starts respectively, with Perez at 1.13 and Foltynewicz at 1.18. Also of note, is prominent member of the Braves bullpen, former Pirate closer Jason Grilli. Though Grilli has a WHIP of nearly 2 (1.89) he is striking out batters at a rate of 11.57 per 9 innings.
This will be the first meeting this season between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. Last season they played each other six times over two series, all in the month of June. The Pirates won the season series 4-2, taking 2 out of 3 in both meetings. Overall, the Pirates outscored the Braves 29-21. The teams met the first time in Atlanta in early June with the Braves’ win coming in walk-off fashion. The second meeting in Pittsburgh came late in the month, with the Pirates getting a walk-off of their own in ten innings in the series opener.
Braves Player to Watch: Jeff Francoeur
Veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur has had an up and down career and has been a journeyman for the past several seasons. For 2016, Francoeur returned to the Atlanta Braves, the team with which he got his start after spending 2015 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Francoeur burst on to the scene in an abbreviated rookie season in 2005, slashing .300/.336/.549 with 14 home runs and contributing 3.0 WAR in only 274 plate appearances. This was good enough for him to finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting despite only playing in 70 games.
The next couple seasons saw Francoeur as an average to above average batter before he fell off in 2008, in which he was a negative WAR player (-1.1). During the 2009 season he was traded to the New York Mets and has jumped around since then, also playing for the Rangers, Royals, Giants, Padres, and Phillies. Though he had 20 home runs and contributed a 2.6 WAR in 2011 with the Royals, he has not hit over .300 since his rookie season and has been a negative WAR player every year excepting 2011.
Last season, Francoeur slashed .258/.286/.433 with the Phillies and his 13 home runs were the most he had hit since 2012 when he hit 16 with the Royals. So far this season with the Braves, Francoeur has been unable to replicate the meager results he had with the Phillies in 2015, slashing .246/.284/.275 with no home runs yet.
Francoeur is also striking out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances (24.3%), which is much higher than his career average (18.7%), but has been typical of him for the past few seasons. Despite this, Francoeur is still a power threat, or about as much as one can get on the Braves. I would not be surprised to see him launch his first of the season at some point in the series. Perhaps in the opener as Jon Niese, who has had issues giving up home runs this season, takes the mound for the Pirates.
Pirates Keys to Victory
Keep Freeman in Check
Freddie Freeman is easily the best player for the Atlanta Braves right now. If Pittsburgh Pirates pitching can keep him in check, the Braves will have a difficult time scoring runs and having much of a chance to beat the Pirates. This is particularly the case if they can keep Freeman from hitting it out of the park, as he is currently the Braves only significant home run threat having hit six of Atlanta’s nine home runs this season.
Non-Aces Step Up
The Pirates will be sending out a lot of the back-end of their rotation in this series, with Francisco Liriano the only “ace” taking the mound over the four games. Despite the Braves lack of firepower, Niese, Nicasio, and Locke have all had issues with consistency and have had complete disasters of a start at some point. These “non-aces” need to step up, or at the very least not completely fall apart.
No Batting Slumps
The Pirates should have no problem getting runs in this series with their high overall team OBP, the power that’s been infused into the lineup with the return of Jung Ho Kang, and the mediocre pitching of the Braves. That being said, the Pirates will be without Starling Marte for at least part of this series as he is on the paternity list. Marte is a big part of the Pirates’ offense so they cannot afford another of their regulars to have a slump right now.
I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. The Braves are a very bad team. I would not be surprised to see the Pirates get the four game sweep. However, the Pirates will also be sending out all three of the non-ace starting pitchers. As mentioned earlier, all have had disastrous starts at some point this season and I would not be surprised to see another this week. I believe the Pirates will win this series, but they will likely lose at some point.
Prediction: Pirates 3-1
*Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, mlb.com, and espn.com