The Battle of Pennsylvania Comes to PNC Park this Weekend
The Pittsburgh Pirates take on their cross-state rivals for the first time this season when the Philadelphia Phillies come to town. Read on for a preview of the series.
Phillies Record: 44-53 (4th in NL East)
Last Series Result: Lost three of four to the Miami Marlins
Probable Pitching Matchups
Game 1 – July 22, 7:05 P.M. EDT
Gerrit Cole (R) (5-5) vs. Zach Eflin (R) (2-3)
Game 2 – July 23, 4:05 P.M. EDT
Tyler Glasnow (R) (0-1) vs. Aaron Nola (R) (5-8)
Game 3 – July 24, 1:35 P.M. EDT
Jameson Taillon (R) (2-1) vs. Vincent Velasquez (R) (8-2)
The Philadelphia Phillies had a surprisingly good start to the season, reaching their best mark on May 18. On that day the Phillies had a record of 24-17 and sat only half a game out of first place in the National League East. Since then though, the Phillies have performed as expected and now find themselves firmly out of the playoff race. Doing them in was an especially brutal stretch that saw them go 6-24 from May 27 through June 26 that included losing streaks of seven and nine games.
Despite having a pitching staff that is overall pretty average (4.25 ERA for 13th in MLB and 1.30 WHIP for 11th in MLB), the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in the bottom half of the National League. Logic would probably tell you that the main culprit for this would be lackluster hitting. In this case your logic would be correct. The Phillies are absolutely dreadful from the plate. The team is slashing .240/.293/.387 as a whole (28th/30th/29th in MLB) with an OPS of .680 (29th).
The Phillies 221 walks is the second fewest in the Major Leagues, while their 763 strikeouts are only 17th in the Majors. The Phillies don’t even really have any power to fall back on like a lot of teams with suspect offenses can still have. Their 93 Home Runs are 23rd in the league and their 257 total extra base hits are 26th in baseball.
The main bright spots from the plate for the Phillies, few as they are, come from Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco. Herrera is by far the best hitter on the team, and there will be more on him below. Franco is the primary source of power for the Phillies with 18 home runs on the season and a .461 slugging percentage. Former great Ryan Howard does have 13 home runs in limited playing time this season, but he has a .157 batting average and .217 on-base percentage in 231 plate appearances.
Rookie first baseman Tommy Joseph does show some promise this season with 13 home runs in only 177 plate appearances over 50 games. If Joseph can decrease his strikeouts (currently 24.9 percent strikeout rate) he could prove to be a dangerous player for the Phillies over the next few years.
As stated above, the Philadelphia Phillies actually have decent pitching that has bailed out their anemic offense to some degree keeping the team out of the basement. The Pittsburgh Pirates will be facing a trio of young right-handed pitchers this weekend. The pitchers have similar WHIPs, with all falling between 1.21 and 1.25, but have gotten fairly different results from there.
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Second year player Aaron Nola is probably the best of the three, though the traditional stats point to it being Velasquez. Nola is only 5-8 with a 4.41 ERA, but he is striking out 9.79 batters per nine innings and owns a 3.10 FIP and 2.94 xFIP. Meanwhile, though Velasquez does own a record of 8-2 with a 3.15 ERA, his FIP and xFIP are still good but above his ERA and Nola’s numbers at 3.46 and 3.66 respectively.
Either way, both pitchers have the potential to shut down Pirates’ batters and steal a win for their offense. The third pitcher, Zach Eflin, is the rookie in this group of young players. Though he only has 7 starts on the season, they’ve been a little rocky. His 4.14 ERA, already on the high end, is not necessarily completely indicative of his performance as his FIP and xFIP are both higher (4.65 and 5.07 respectively). Additionally, he has a low ground ball rate of 37.9 percent and has allowed 1.31 home runs per 9 innings.
The Pittsburgh Pirates got the better of the Philadelphia Phillies last season, going 5-2 against them and outscoring them 21-15. The two teams split four games in Philadelphia in May, with the Phillies winning the first two and the Pirates winning the latter two to salvage a split. The Pittsburgh Pirates lost one game in particularly painful fashion, when it appeared that Jordy Mercer had hit a game-tying sacrifice foul fly ball with Steve Lombardozzi on third base with one out. However, Right Fielder Jeff Francoeur was able to throw the perfect strike to the plate to complete a game-ending double play.
The Pirates were able to exact revenge on the Phillies by sweeping them when they came to Pittsburgh in June. There was more excitement between these two teams during this series. This is because the Pittsburgh Pirates won two of the three in extra-inning walkoff fashion.
Phillies Player to Watch: Odubel Herrera
Second year center fielder Odubel Herrera has been the exception to the Phillies otherwise putrid offense. The 24 year old was just named to his first All-Star Game earlier this month, but was somewhat unsurprisingly the only selection from Philadelphia. Herrera is slashing a respectable .284/.368/.415 with a .783 OPS and .340 wOBA. These numbers are generally not a significant improvement on his rookie campaign, though his ten home runs are already more than what he had in 2015.
What is so encouraging though for the Philadelphia Phillies though has to be that his walks are way up and strikeouts way down from last season. For 2016, his walk rate is 11.4 percent and his strikeout rate is 18.7 percent. Improvements on 5.2 percent and 24.0 percent respectively that he had as a rookie. The Phillies likely consider Herrera an important component for their team for quite a few years. He has already taken a major leap this season and, given his age, likely still has more improvement to come.
Pirates Keys to Victory
Odubel Herrera is by far the Philadelphia Phillies biggest threat from the plate. If the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching can limit his production, it will be all the harder for the Phillies to score runs.
Don’t Let Phillies Pitchers Dominate
Though Phillies pitching is only average, the Pirates will be facing a few good young pitchers and are coming off two series where the offense has looked less than stellar. As I said above, Nola and Velasquez do have the ability to dominate a game, especially if Pittsburgh Pirates hitters are not on their game.
Bullpen Does Their Job
Given what I said above about the Philadelphia Phillies decent pitchers and the Pittsburgh Pirates recent relative struggles from the plate, combined with the Phillies severely below average offense, there could be some low scoring games here. It’s likely that the Pirates will find themselves with slim leads in the later innings of these games and it’s important that the bullpen do their job and shutdown the Phillies hitters.
Next: Pirates Scouring Jeanmar Gomez
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. Though the Pittsburgh Pirates may seem to be the superior team by a large degree here, the Phillies pitching can keep them in games. I expect the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the series, but I also expect the Phillies pitchers to steal a win. Saturday night seems like a likely night for this to happen with likely starter Tyler Glasnow only making his second career start and Aaron Nola taking the hill for the Philadelphia Phillies. But of course this is baseball, so who knows.
Prediction: Pirates win 2-1
*Information and stats courtesy of pirates.com, espn.com, fangraphs, and baseball reference