Notes from the Dog Days

August 21, 2013



It’s funny how perception changes over the course of a season. Back in March, many people felt that the Pirates were on the right track toward becoming a playoff team but two seasons of disastrous second halves in 2011 and 2012 made them hesitant to anoint them among the elites in the game. Now, as they climb closer to a .600 winning percentage and are only a few wins away from their first winning record in 20 years, it seems obvious that this team was going to be very good: they had the starting pitching, some very solid bullpen pieces, an MVP candidate in Andrew McCutcheon and some solid young everyday players. I mean, how obvious could it be? This was not your father’s Pirates. Actually, your father’s Pirates had some pretty great teams so maybe I should say these are not your older brother’s Pirates… but I digress… My point is that there were enough signs in the spring that fewer people should be surprised how things have turned out. 


There has been a lot written about how “fluky” Francisco Liriano’s solid season has been. After all, he’s got a career ERA of 4.17 and WHIP of 1.33. Yeah, this is not a fluke nor is this year some kind of career season. Anyone who has watched him pitch already understands that he has and has always had some of the best stuff of any left-handed pitcher in the majors and is certainly worthy of being considered true ace material. What’s held him back were injuries and flawed coaching. But when he has been healthy and comfortable with his pitching instruction – i.e. not being told to pitch to contact - he has blown away opposing pitchers. During his first two seasons in Minnesota he compiled 144.2 innings with an ERA of 2.74 and struck out 177 batters while walking only 39. That alone should have alerted people that he was capable of what he is doing now. But again in 2010 when he was healthy he again posted superb numbers: 191.2 innings, 3.62 ERA, 201 Ks against 58 walks. So why is anyone surprised that moving to the National League into a pitcher’s park would combine with good health to yield another excellent season? If anything, he should be doing better as his strikeout rate is down and his walk rate is up from his career healthy norms.


Rick Porcello has been a bit of a revelation this season… well, not exactly a revelation but a pleasant mild surprise for many. The good news is that he’s been a lot better than his overall numbers indicate. I’m not sure if Alex Avila is simply an excellent receiver and game caller, or whether he has a special repoire with Porcello in particular, but with Avila behind the plate in all but eight of his starts the 24-year old right-hander has been especially good: 92.2 innings, 3.59 ERA, 1.089 WHIP and 6.99 K/9. In the spring I wrote that Porcello could become the second coming of Doc Halladay. When Avila is catching, he is. Let me put it one other way: Porcello has made 23 starts this season and in 7 of them he’s allowed 1 runs or less… all of those starts were caught by Avila and in only one other start caught by someone other than Avila did he allow less than 3.


I also wrote about Justin Smoak suggesting that he might be like a lot of young hitters who need about 1500 major league at bats to figure things out. He came into this season with about 1250 and sure enough he began to emerge a couple months into the season. Since June, when he returned from an injury, he’s hitting .286 with an on base around .365 and a slugging over .500 with 11 home runs. Silly me, I dropped him after he got injured because I needed a roster spot and figured no one would pick him up while he was on the DL. Now he’s on someone else’s roster. Lesson learned.


Speaking of bad moves I made in the spring, Alberto Callaspo didn’t work out so well for me but the guy I replaced him with might be a player to keep an eye on next year: Luis Valbuena. His numbers might not look like much because he has such a low batting average but he has a good eye at the plate – walking almost as much as striking out – and he possesses good power for a third baseman. True, the Cubs have a couple of very good third base prospects on the way in Mike Olt and Kris Bryant, but Olt is struggling in Triple-A and Bryant has only just begun his professional career so is at least two years away. That gives Valbuena at least one more season to establish himself as an everyday corner player.