Liriano looks to return Tuesday
The Pirates received some good news this afternoon, as Francisco Liriano reported that his bullpen session went well and that he plans to pitch Tuesday in San Diego.
"I'm ready to go," Liriano said. "I'll try to go as deep [into the game] as I can."
Clint Hurdle wasn't ready to confirm anything, saying he had yet to talk to Liriano or Ray Searage.
It is worth considering whether Liriano's return could prompt the Pirates to adjust their starting rotation. With the front end of the bullpen struggling, returning Juan Nicasio to a long reliever role may prove tempting. The move could help the Pirates address an emerging weakness, but it would also mean reversing rotation plans that they made less than a month ago. Nicasio's start on Sunday might go some ways to forcing the Pirates' hand one way or the other. Within the next few weeks we'll find out how worried they are about their long relief and how committed they are to making Nicasio a fixture in the rotation.
Lack of grounders
One of the trademarks of the Pirates' run prevention plan is inducing ground balls into a precisely and optimally positioned infield. While they are shifting as much as ever, the grounders are lacking. The Pirates' 42.1 percent ground ball rate ranks 23rd in the league. Relievers are even worse off, causing grounders at a 36.4 percent clip, which ranks 26th.
What's going on? Or, is it far too early to even discuss this?
Hurdle said there are a lot of variables that explain the early lack of grounders. One is the natural ebb and flow of the season. But, and perhaps most importantly, Hurdle pointed to the fact that some of the pitchers on the staff simply are not ground ball pitchers.
"Sometimes you bring in individuals that don't have those skill sets," Hurdle said. "In those cases you're not going to try take away strengths and create something that's not there."
Hurdle pointed to Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio, specifically, as pitchers who don't profile as ground ball pitchers (35.9 and 44.3 career GB%, respectively).
"I think you're going to stick close to your philosophy where it fits and makes sense," Hurdle said.
Hurdle added that there is going to be a period of transition for pitchers joining the staff. It takes some time to properly execute a new pitching philosophy, so results may lag behind effort in the early going.
"We can push [the ground ball rate] up," Hurdle said. "But there becomes a time where they plateau and you try to find different ways to attack, as well."
Home runs allowed
The Pirates have lost six of their last seven games. Over this stretch, they've allowed a league leading 11 home runs. Hurdle often blames homers on balls thrown up in the zone. This afternoon, however, he revised his assessment of the problem. After watching video from the first two weeks of the season, he said, the problem isn't so much that pitchers are getting up in the zone; rather, they are simply missing their spots and letting pitches sail into hitters' power zones.
"We're running balls into some really hot zones," Hurdle said. "Normally the zones are marked red and blue, and when they are purple those are the ones you really want to stay out of. We've found some purple here over the first 11 games of the season."