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Analysis: First Pirates’ Game of the Season

Brett Barnett

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

On a hot night in St. Louis, Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball returned. On Friday, I took my place on my couch with scorecard in hand. There was excitement in the air, certainly, but it undoubtedly didn’t feel like a true Opening Day. How could it? It was July 24 and there was no fanfare at the ballpark.

But we saw Joe Musgrove and Jack Flaherty begin the season for their respective teams. Flaherty was good – really good. But the Cardinals aren’t the focus of this piece. I wanted to dig into the Pirates and what we saw from them a little bit more.

Firstly, let’s not beat around the bush: We know what this season is. In the city of bridges, this is a bridge season. Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton are trying to fill out a roster that they think can compete and that can take some time. This is a season where the front office is trying to raise the value of players in the trade market, as well as get reps for players that should figure into the equation in the future. Many players’ short-term outlook is up in the air with this team: Adam Frazier, Josh Bell, and Keone Kela, among others.

So, while it’s nice to win baseball games, that shouldn’t be the expectation this season. In what I keep hearing called a “sprint” of a season – mathematically, it’s more of a 15k – every team is alleged to have the ability to capture a postseason spot – and maybe more – especially with an increased playoff field of 16. While the majority of the league will be in the playoffs, 14 won’t; and of those 14, at least a few won’t even be close, likely including Pittsburgh.

Now, for the game itself: Musgrove is coming off a decent enough season. A year ago, he started 31 games for the Bucs, while carrying a 4.44 ERA, but perhaps more indicative of his actual output was his 3.82 FIP. This discrepancy in numbers is why the Pirates’ front office have decided to upgrade the defense so that the pitchers will have better numbers and thus become more valuable on the market.

There are some numbers from Musgrove’s night that are worth considering, even though they’re the definition of a small sample size. Of course, small sample sizes are really all we’ll have to pull from this season. The average exit velocity against Musgrove last night was 82.6, while the xBA was only .167. Unsurprisingly, those numbers are lower than what he’s put up in the past. We don’t need these additional metrics to know Musgrove pitched well last night, and if he continues to do exactly what he did last night, he’ll be an effective pitcher – but it does help paint a fuller picture when looking at additional data. Finally, the hard hit percentage against Musgrove was 23.1 percent last night.

Of Musgrove’s six pitches, he threw the four-seam fastball and slider the most. Regarding the slider, he maintained a horizontal break of 4.8 inches over the average, with his general sideways break at 13 inches. As for the fastball, we know Musgrove doesn’t throw particularly hard, and according to Baseball Savant, it was thrown at an average of 91.9 mph last night. But clearly, the fastball was playing bigger than its velocity. I wondered why that might be. It turns out, Musgrove has fairly good spin rate on his fastball, clocking in at the 81st percentile of pitchers in the majors in 2019. This may have the effect of appearing faster to the hitters. A ball which is better at fighting the forces of gravity tend to have a “rising” effect in the eyes of the batter, meaning a hitter thinks the ball is bound to drop off a bit, but it never really does. This phenomenon is really good at drawing swings and misses.

Last night, we saw five balls which were “hard hit” by Pirates’ batters, according to Baseball Savant, with most of that damage coming middle of the order, hitters three through six (plus Guillermo Heredia). One thing that was conspicuously missing was power from the Pirates. That’s been a problem in years past, and we knew it was likely to hurt them this season, as well. The only extra base hit the team managed was a Colin Moran double. Moran and Jose Osuna were the only two hitters with multiple hits. Their average exit velocities were 95.6 and 93.3, respectively.

We know the Pirates added Jarrod Dyson because of his ability in centerfield. Over his career, he has an 88 DRS as an outfielder. On the broadcast, John Wehner and Greg Brown speculated he might be a more effective outfielder than Starling Marte was, citing his ability to easily glide to balls. The only example we had of Dyson having to run down a ball was the Kolten Wong triple which landed just in between Dyson and Heredia. It’ll be interesting to see how Dyson shakes out over the rest of the season.

Clay Holmes threw 13 of his big curveballs, four of which generated swings and misses and four of which were taken for strikes. Of his 22 pitches, it was the hook that was hit the hardest, but which was also most effective. The curve resulted in an average exit velocity of 84.4 mph. If Holmes is going to be effective – something he failed to be in 2019 – his success will largely be predicated on effective use of that curveball.

Then Richard Rodriguez came in… As I noted in my recap, before the Paul DeJong at bat, I turned to my wife and said, “The Cardinals are going to score this inning.” Shortly after that prescient proclamation, DeJong jumped a fastball, belt-high and on the inner third of the zone, and launched it into the bleachers to make the game 5-2. Incredibly, Rodriguez settled down after that, inducing a groundout, lineout, and then picked up a strikeout. Maybe he just needed to get that first gopher ball out of the way before settling in – but maybe he’s going to give up many, many more.

To conclude, there were things to like about the first game of the season, but there were things to dislike. Musgrove was really good, but the bullpen was shaky, something we knew would be a problem going into this season. The hitting was fine, all things considered, managing eight hits and four runs in a game that saw them go up against a future Cy Young award winner. While there was a deficiency in the power department in game one, the situational hitting was acceptable (aside from Stallings’ game-ending double play). There’s still kind of a lot of baseball to be played over the next couple months. Hopefully the team can make strides going forward, especially regarding players that will be part of the future plans, and perhaps the team will give us some interesting and entertaining baseball along the way.