I went to the Pirates-Cubs game last Friday, which the Pirates won on the back of yet another strong pitching performance -- this one coming from Francisco Liriano. In what's becoming a regular occurrence for the Pirates, their starter dominated as Liriano tossed a complete game, allowing just two runs while striking out seven.
I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating that the Pirates are just a half-game behind the Cardinals for first in the NL Central despite having the least runs scored in the division. They've also allowed the fewest runs in the division, though the Cardinals have surrendered just 10 more. While the Cardinals lead the NL in runs scored, the Pirates are hitting just .243/.310/.392 as a team. Make no mistake, the Buccos are where they are because of pitching and defense. And that's why the feel-good story of the first half will come crashing down after the All-Star break.
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Before we get to that, let's look at why the Cardinals' 54-34 record is a whole lot more believable than the Pirates' 53-34. It's not just because of the offense; though you could talk about all the ways the Cardinals' bats are better than the Pirates' while crossing the Mississippi River, and still not have run out of topics by the time you hit the Monongahela. No, the fact of the matter is that despite what some glamorous surface stats might say, St. Louis also features a far superior pitching staff.
First, let's get this pesky fact out of the way: the Pirates' 3.16 ERA leads the majors. We know from our advanced stats series, however, that ERA is influenced by a lot of factors that pitchers do not control. Part of that is defense, and there's no doubt the Pirates have had one of the best defenses in the league to this point. But some of that also has to do with sheer luck, and that's where things start adding up.
The Pirates have the lowest pitcher BABIP in the majors at .267, while the Cardinals' is .292, right in the meaty middle at 14th in the league. Pittsburgh's strand rate of 77.4 percent is also the league's best; St. Louis' is 73.9 percent, which has them tied for 10th. When we slide over to FIP, guess who leads the NL? That's right, it's the Cardinals at 3.24, trailing only the Tigers in the entire majors. The Pirates are sixth in the league, but that's only good enough for third in the NL Central; the Reds, too, are ahead of them, besting the Bucs 3.66 to 3.75.
Pittsburgh also walks 3.26 batters per nine innings, the fourth-highest rate in the league. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are the stingiest team in the majors when it comes to free passes, issuing 2.41 per nine innings. They rank second in the league in K/BB ratio. Pittsburgh ranks 21st.
Let's drill down to the individual level, using the Pirates' Jeff Locke. By all accounts, he has been one of the season's brightest surprises, sitting at 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA. Unfortunately, he seems to be doing it with pixie dust. He has a .233 BABIP, 84.2-percent strand rate and 69 strikeouts against 44 non-intentional walks. The only Pirates starter who has been in the rotation all year also has the second worst ERA minus FIP at -1.74. He's a microcosm for this rotation as a whole.
The Cardinals may not cruise to a division crown this year, but if anyone's nipping at their heels, it will be the Reds, not the Pirates.
Starting pitcher barometer
• Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins -- The rookie was named to the All-Star team over the weekend, and though he likely got in as the Marlins' default representative, he still deserved the invite. In his most recent start, against the Cardinals, he allowed three runs for the first time since May, but he still managed to go six innings and surrender just four hits. He did walk four batters, however, as issuing free passes has led him into trouble this season. His .245 BABIP is bound to come up in the second half, but he remains a strikeout-an-inning machine. Do keep your eye out for sell opportunities, though. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Marlins cap his innings this year.
• John Lackey, Boston Red Sox -- We recently talked about Lackey, but after two great starts last week, he has earned another mention. In outings against the Padres and Angels, Lackey combined to allow three runs -- all on solo homers -- in 15 innings, striking out 15 and walking just two. This on the heels of three consecutive outings in which he allowed two runs in seven innings against the Orioles, Tigers and Rockies, three of the best offenses in the majors. At 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, he's fanning more batters in a full game than he has in any season since 2005.
• Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox -- Peavy is slated to throw a simulated game Tuesday to test his injured rib cage, and if he makes it through that without incident, he's expected to make a rehab start Sunday. That's good news. What could be even better news is that once he shows he's healthy, he'll be one of the most attractive pitchers on the trade market. With a number of National League teams interested in starters, Peavy could find himself on the move to the Senior Circuit. Every starter gets a natural bump going to the NL from the AL, and Peavy wouldn't be any different. You may be able to buy him cheap now while he's still on the DL, though make sure he makes it through that simulated game first.
• Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners -- Iwakuma was one of the best pitchers in the majors for the first eight weeks of the season, but it was hard to imagine it lasting so long as he kept throwing up such pedestrian strikeout numbers. Well, the regression has begun, as Iwakuma has allowed four runs in each of his last four starts. He did manage to gut through eight innings in one of those outings, but he's 0-3 in the stretch, allowing 25 hits in 26 innings.
• Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox -- At some point you have to downgrade the guy, no matter how nice his strikeout rate is. Dempster may be striking out nearly a batter an inning, but his 10.6-percent walk rate and 16-percent HR/FB ratio have his ERA up to 4.94 and his FIP pushing 5.00. What's more, his strikeout rate has steadily declined all season. It was 35.3 percent in April, plummeted to 18.8 percent in May and dipped again to 15.2 percent in June. He has made just one start in July, striking out just four batters in 6.1 innings. He has also been fortunate this year with a .274 BABIP and 78.6-percent strand rate. The wheels could come off if he doesn't start striking guys out again.
• James Shields, Kansas City Royals -- Think of Shields as the lighter version of the Dempster downgrade. He was better than him to begin with and not nearly as dependent on strikeouts to be an effective fantasy starter, but he has experienced the same issues since the beginning of June. When Shields K-rate was 23.6 percent in April and 23.3 percent in May, he was one of the best fantasy starters out there. When it slipped to 18.8 percent in June, he came back to earth a bit. He's still very good because he can go deep into games, but it would be nice to see the Ks come back.
What a relief
• As it stands right now, there's only one closer who appears almost certain to get traded, and that's Kevin Gregg of the Cubs. Despite his strong season, it's hard to imagine a team trading for the mercurial Gregg and making him their closer. If you can, onsider dealing him now, even if you feel you're not getting good value for him. If the Cubs move him, he'll likely only have value in deep leagues or leagues that use holds as its own category or part of the saves category.
• However, a Gregg trade would open up a ninth-inning vacancy for the Cubs, and it's looking more and more like Blake Parker would get the first shot at the job. The 28-year-old has been with the organization since 2007, and finally cracked the majors last year, though just for seven appearances. In 13 games covering 14.2 innings this season, he has 16 strikeouts and five walks. Pedro Strop could be in the mix, too, but the Cubs likely want to see if Parker can contribute as they continue to work their way back to relevance. He's my bet to take over in the event of a Gregg trade.