It's early, but St. Louis' three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates put the Cardinals in an early hole—and showed some potential problems.
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The Dodgers’ season-opening sweep of the Padres took on historic proportions, but 2016’s other first-week sweep will likely prove far more significant. The Pirates beat the Cardinals, 5–1, on Wednesday night to open up an early three-game gap between the two teams that finished with the best records in baseball last year—just two games apart atop the National League Central. Both teams have made the playoffs in each of the last three years, but with the Cubs as the favorite in the division, their battle to get back to the postseason is expected to be even tougher—and the Cardinals are now at an early and significant disadvantage. That makes it worth taking a closer look at that opening series to see what exactly contributed to the Pirates' first sweep of St. Louis in a series of any length since September 2008.
For the series, the Pirates can't point to any advantage in power (Pittsburgh hit no home runs, the Cardinals hit just two), and both teams showed good patience (the Pirates drew 14 walks to St. Louis' 10). Instead, the big difference on offense came down to the ability to make contact and square up the ball. The Cardinals struck out 37 times in these three games, second only to the Blue Jays to this point in the season, and of the balls they hit, just 18% were line drives, according to baseball-reference.com’s figures. That's the fourth-lowest mark in the majors. The Pirates, by comparison, struck out just 22 times, made contact with 80% of the pitches at which they swung—tied with the Rockies for third-best in the majors—and hit a whopping 37% of the pitches they put in play on a line, also third-best in the majors.
It’s too early to believe that those numbers are meaningful indications of future performance. Nonetheless, one of the risks of the Cardinals' increased reliance on young players like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty is the possibility of an increase in strikeouts. Grichuk, who struck out six times in the opening series, has whiffed in 30.9% of his major league plate appearances (compared to a league average of 20.4%) and made contact with just 68.5% of the pitches at which he has swung in the majors (compared to a league average of 77.2%). Piscotty’s career rates are much closer to those league averages but are still on the wrong side of them, and he has now struck out 60 times in 66 career games, including four times in the opening series. Matt Carpenter, who also struck out four times in that series, had a career-high 151 strikeouts last year and continues to trend away from his reputation as a contact hitter.
It also doesn't help that the Cardinals are at a disadvantage against lefthanders right now. On Sunday, they had to face one of baseball's toughest lefties in Francisco Liriano and lost righthanded platoon outfielder Tommy Pham to an oblique injury in the second inning of that game. Liriano dominated St. Louis, striking out 10 in six scoreless innings, and he combined with lefty reliever Tony Watson to hold the team’s lefthanded hitters (Carpenter, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong and rookie outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker) hitless in ten at bats. The Cardinals struggled against lefties last year and had planned to platoon Adams and Wong this season, but injuries—including those to shortstops Jhonny Peralta and Ruben Tejada, necessitating the use of Gyorko there rather than as Wong’s platoon partner at second base—undermined their ability to do so in the opener.
St. Louis responded to Pham’s injury by calling up righthanded-hitting shortstop Aledmys Diaz for the second game, putting him directly into the lineup against lefty Jonathon Niese and shifting Gyorko over to second. That worked, with Diaz singling and scoring in his first opportunity and Gyorko delivering a two-run homer in the next inning. But an error by Diaz was a factor in St. Louis blowing its 5–3 lead in the fifth after Michael Wacha's early exit. The Cardinals will match up far better against lefthanders once they get Pham and Tejada back from the disabled list, which could happen by the end of the April (Peralta won’t be back until June following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb). Until then, southpaws like Liriano and Niese will continue to present problems.
This series wasn't all about St. Louis' failings. Wednesday’s finale was a reminder of why we should never underestimate the Pirates, as Juan Nicasio, their latest pitching reclamation project, dominated the Cardinals for six innings, holding them to a run on two hits and striking out seven. Nicasio entered this season with a 5.06 ERA in 71 career starts, most of them for the Rockies, and seemed destined to spend the rest of his career pitching in relief, where he found more success with Colorado in late 2014 and with the Dodgers last year. The Pirates decided to stretch Nicasio back out this spring as a potential sixth starter, however, and he was so dominant (15 IP, 10 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 24 K) that they had no choice but to put him in the rotation to start the season, bumping fellow free-agent addition Ryan Vogelsong to the bullpen.
Normally I’d caution against an overly enthusiastic reaction to a single start by a pitcher with a long track record of sub-par work, but the Pirates now have an equally long track record of transforming disappointing veteran pitchers into front-line starters. Liriano is perhaps the greatest example, and given what the team and pitching coach Ray Searage have been able to do with A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez (now the ace of the defending world champions), J.A. Happ (for two months last year) and relievers such as Mark Melancon and Arquimedes Caminero, I’m not tempted to dismiss Nicasio’s outing as a fluke.
It’s worth noting here that the Pirates swept the Cardinals without even using their ace, Gerrit Cole, who got a late start to spring training after developing some inflammation in his side during a January workout. Cole will make his 2016 debut against the Reds on Saturday, and if Nicasio can be even a solid No. 3 behind Cole and Liriano—effectively replacing Burnett, who posted a 3.18 ERA in 164 innings last year but retired after the season—the Pirates will be a significantly better team than they appeared to be heading into the season. That could make it all the more difficult for the Cardinals to be overtake them from this point forward.