One of the difficult things about the early part of the baseball season is that it’s relatively easy to swap causes and effects with each other and end up tumbling down a rabbit hole of overthinking that can drive a fan crazy. Let’s start with a simple statement: the Pirates are 7-8, and they have not played very well at any point in this young season. You could twist that statement to say this: the Pirates are 7-8, which is a pretty good result for a team that hasn’t played up to its full potential yet. You could twist the it opposite way, too: the Pirates are 7-8, but that record is really masking how terribly they’ve played so far.
You could apply the same standard to Francisco Liriano’s start this afternoon. It didn’t look bad on its face (7 innings, 7 strikeouts, 3, walks, 6 hits, 3 runs — one from an inning in which a ball wasn’t put into play and two on the fluke occasion of a lefty hitting a home run off of him) and that might seem encouraging after some frustrating early outings, but there were a few things about the start that worried me. The PitchFX system at Great American was acting up for part of the game and so there’s no data for Liriano in the third or fourth innings, but with the pitches that did register his fastball didn’t top 94 and it averaged 92, which is still below last year’s numbers. He also seemed almost terrified to throw his fastball to right-handed hitters by the end of the game. On the whole against righties he threw 36 sliders and changeups (15 + 21, respectively) and only 20 fastballs. This was his second straight start in which he threw more changeups than any other pitch to righties, which is something that only happened twice last year (once in the regular season). As I said, Liriano wasn’t exactly bad today and it’s early and there’s time for a course correction, but what I’m trying to say is that Francisco Liriano doesn’t look like the same pitcher that he did last year, and that even though it’s only four starts it’s now beginning to concern me.
Of course, the offense did Liriano no favors. They made Johnny Cueto, who is not a strikeout pitcher by any means, look like Pedro Martinez in his prime this afternoon. Cueto only needed 107 pitches to twirl a complete-game, 12 strikeout, 0 walk, 3 hit masterpiece. Cueto was obviously good and from what I could tell the home plate ump did the Pirates no favors, but there’s very little excuse to strike out 12 times against a pitcher that hasn’t struck out more than nine in a game since 2011.
Anyway, it’s early and this has been a frustrating week of Pirate baseball. The Bucs’ first road trip was more or less a disaster. The Pirates now have seven more games against the two teams that just beat them five teams in six games, only these seven will be at PNC Park. Hopefully those seven games will go better than these six did.