The Reds and Pirates are two evenly matched teams, but all the advantages are with the Pirates in this one-and-done wild-card game tonight at PNC Park.
That guarantees nothing. This is baseball. Never bet the house money on a single game. But the Pirates couldn't ask more.
The biggest advantages are well known. The Pirates are 50-31 at home this season, and starting pitcher Francisco Liriano is 8-1 with a 1.47 earned run average in his 11 starts on the North Side.
As if that weren't enough, Liriano is tailor-made for the Reds lineup. Three of their first four hitters -- Shin-Soo Choo, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce -- are left-handed, and Liriano tortures such batters. Left-handers are hitting .131 against Liriano in 130 at-bats, with only a .175 on-base average and .146 slugging percentage. He has given up only two extra-base hits to left-handers in 130 ABs, both doubles.
That on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of .321 against Liriano is the National League's lowest against left-handed batters. Next lowest belongs to the Pirates right-handed set-up man Mark Melancon (.148 AVG/.168 OBA/.189 SLG/.357 OPS). The Pirates left-handed relief specialists also have been spectacular against their same-handed brethren: Tony Watson (.206/.229/.255/.483) and Justin Wilson (.200/.266/.235/.501).
This is a staff designed to take on the Reds, whose leadoff hitter, Choo, is particularly troubled by left-handed pitchers, hitting.215/.347/.265/.612 with no home runs in 181at-bats.
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The unique nature of a wild-card game means the roster can be completely overhauled tomorrow, so there's no sense including a starting rotation. The Pirates should have Liriano and Gerrit Cole and as many as eight or nine relievers ready.
Many see the red-hot Cole as the go-to guy if Liriano falters early but, with all those arms in the bullpen, there might be a better way approach.
Dave Cameron of fangraphs.com offered some thoughts on this in a Sept. 26 column. He loves Liriano at the start of the game because he "turned left-handed batters into the offensive equivalent of a pitcher forced to hit." From there, though, he suggested an elaborate strategy.
Statistics show that Liriano, like most starting pitchers, becomes less effective as the hitters get a second and third look at him. (The batting average against him goes from .196 in the hitter's first plate appearance to .233 on his second look to .252 on the third. The on-base average and slugging average similarly increase.)
So, Cameron said, the Pirates should let Liriano go through the Reds lineup once, and then the left-handed bats at the top of the lineup a second time. Then, after facing only 13 or 14 batters, he could give way to a right-handed reliever to take on the right-handed bottom of the order. The Pirates could then employ a left-handed specialist against the left-handers at the top of the order, and keep going back and forth with left-handers and right-handers through the end of the game.
It's unlikely to happen that way. Can anyone see manager Clint Hurdle pulling Liriano if he has cruised through three or four innings? The home crowd would erupt in fury if, say, Kyle Farnsworth suddenly appeared in the fourth inning.
That said, the Reds lineup is unusually vulnerable to relief specialists, with mostly left-handers at the top of the order and right-handers at the bottom. If Liriano falters at all, it would make more sense to go to the traditional bullpen early and save Cole for long relief if the game goes into extra innings.
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No NL playoff team has been more dependent on its bullpen than the Pirates. The Pirates led the league in saves (55), tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for second in relief victories (30), and finished second in relief innings pitched. No team had a better save percentage than the Pirates' 79 percent, though the Atlanta Braves and Reds were close at 76 and 73 percent.
Even in September, when the Pirates bullpen suffered a handful of excruciating meltdowns, the Pirates needed to pick up saves in 12 of their 15 wins. None of the other four NL teams still standing had more than seven September saves.
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Both the Pirates and Reds are top defensive teams. Among the 30 major league teams, Baseball Prospectus ranks the Reds first and the Pirates fifth in Defensive Efficiency, essentially a calculation of how many balls in play are turned into outs.
The defensive edge may nonetheless go to the Pirates when they face each other.
In a recent Baseball Prospectus piece by Ben Lindbergh, he noticed that apart from Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, "the Reds are groundball hitters, with the highest grounder rate of any playoff club. The Pirates have baseball's best groundball staff."
About 50.5 percent of the balls in play against Liriano are groundballs. That's a high rate, but grounders have been frequent against Pirates relievers Melancon (60.3 percent), Bryan Morris (57.5 percent), Jared Hughes (56.3 percent), Jeanmar Gomez (55.4 percent), Wilson (53 percent) and Vin Mazzaro (52.2). The least likely reliever to throw a ground ball has been Jason Grilli, at 33 percent.
Given that, the Pirates may want to use the better defensive shortstop today, Clint Barmes over Jordy Mercer. Mercer's superior offensive numbers largely have come by crushing left-handed pitchers. The Reds starter, Johnny Cueto, is a right-hander.
Against right-handers, Mercer has the edge, but neither Mercer nor Barmes hits right-handers well. Mercer hits .247/.297/.357/.654 and Barmes .216/.257/.308/.565. Barmes seems more likely to have an impact with his glove than either one would with his bat.
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Most people are aware the Pirates earned run average (3.26) is right behind the Dodgers (3.25) and Braves (3.18), but the Pirates pitched even better at home (2.92), and that number may be deceptively high. The starting pitcher with the highest home ERA, Jeff Locke, 4.90, is not on the playoff roster. Six pitchers with a combined 222 IP each have a home ERA below 2.00 (Liriano, Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Grilli, Wilson and Mazzaro).
The Pirates also have had a big power advantage at home. At PNC Park this season, the Pirates have 69 home runs to opponents' 37.
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How much of this will turn out to be meaningless? We should know well before midnight.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com and 412-263-1947.