The Pirates have seen mixed results from their offense this year. At times, the group will look like one of the best offenses in the league. Other times, they will look closer to the worst offense in the league. And overall they’ve trended a bit closer to the latter, with a .305 wOBA that ranks 19th in baseball, and a 95 wRC+ that ranks 18th overall.
There have been a few players whose struggles have led to this issue. Gregory Polanco hasn’t seen his bat make the transition to MLB pitching. Jordy Mercer struggled at the start of the year, but turned things around over the last month. Pedro Alvarez is hitting home runs, but overall his bat is closer to league average.
Then there’s Neil Walker, who was the offensive hero of last night’s game against the Cardinals. Walker went 3-for-4 with a home run, helping lead the Pirates to a 5-2 victory to even the series.
On the season, Walker’s numbers don’t look bad. But a big reason for that has been his production over the last few weeks. On June 25th, he had a .688 OPS on the season, which was a big downgrade from his offensive production last year. Since that point he has been on fire. He’s hitting for a .404/.460/.632 line in 63 plate appearances over his last 14 games. That has brought his season OPS up to .765.
Looking at the advanced metrics, Walker had a .303 wOBA and a 94 wRC+ on June 25th. He’s now up to a .335 and 116, respectively, thanks to a massive .471 wOBA and a 210 wRC+ during his hot stretch.
The Pirates aren’t going to get this version of Walker for the rest of the season, although this production is showing up at a perfect time, and the hope is that it will carry over for at least two more games. Walker’s performance has been a microcosm of the Pirates’ offense overall this year. He’s gone on some hot streaks that make him look like one of the best in the game, but overall his numbers are down because he’s struggled a lot. For the rest of the year, the Pirates will need him to see more consistent production, as his bat when it’s on is a huge boost from the second base position.
Saturday Night – 7:15 PM start
John Lackey (7-5, 3.09 ERA) vs. AJ Burnett (7-3, 1.99 ERA)
John Lackey is ahead of his career averages so far this year, coming into the year with a career 4.03 ERA. He has not had an ERA under 3.50 since 2007 with the Angels, when he went 19-9 while posting a 3.01 ERA. He is also posting his best HR/9 rate since 2007, but at 0.7 HR/9. His 3.36 FIP this year hasn’t been this good since 2006 with the Angels (3.35 FIP). Not surprisingly, the Cardinals are getting the best John Lackey they possibly could.
On June 8th against Colorado, Lackey was lit up for eight earned runs in four innings, an outing that skews his numbers tremendously. He did not have a great April, but he has been very good outside of that outing. He has gone at least seven innings in each of his last five starts, posting a 1.75 ERA and 70% strike efficiency.
Lackey throws five pitches — four-seam, two-seam, cutter, curveball, and changeup. He does not throw many changeups, so don’t expect to see much of that pitch. The four-seam fastball averages 91.5 MPH, and the two-seamer sits at 91 MPH, so there is a lot of deception in the two different fastballs on how they will move.
Lackey likes to work low and away to left-handed batters, not coming into the inner half of the plate very often. He is similar against right-handed batters, working mid-to-low and away. He will try to throw the ball low and way outside the zone to righties with two strikes.
A.J. Burnett is having the best half season of his career so far, as you all know. His 1.99 ERA is second in the NL only to Zack Greinke, he is third in WAR for pitchers (3.5), first in HR/9 innings at 0.239, and third in FIP at 2.60. This performance led him to be selected to his first All-Star Game.
In his last outing, Burnett went 7.2 innings (in the infamous false strikeout inning) and only allowed one run in the game. The one run against San Diego was the result of two walks and a sacrifice fly in the second inning, and Burnett was able to tighten it down the rest of the way.
Burnett continues to rely heavy on his slider while also mixing in a fastball, curveball, and changeup.
The Pirates have been getting strong results from the trio of Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, and Francisco Liriano this season. Cole gave them a win last night, and Liriano goes tomorrow. On May 1st against the Cardinals, Burnett went six innings without giving up a run. Burnett can give the Pirates a big boost with another strong performance tonight. – Sean McCool