PNC Park and Johnny Cueto: What did sweeping the Reds get the Pirates?

When the Pirates started their weekend series with the Reds last Friday, it was clear that home field advantage was on the line. What we didn't know at the time was that by clinching home field advantage a day early with easy wins on Friday and Saturday, the Pirates also changed their mound opponent tonight from Mat Latos to Johnny Cueto (the Reds say that the reason they scratched Latos was bone chips in his elbow, but it's unclear whether Cueto would've started Sunday or not if Sunday's game was meaningful). So what effect will the Pirates' weekend sweep have on tonight's playoff game? 

The PNC effect is both straightforward and incredibly difficult to quantify. A lot of Pirate fans had identified home field advantage as important because of Francisco Liriano's home/road splits, but I thought Charlie's post at Bucs Dugout about Liriano's splits was dead on. It's not so much that Liriano pitches better at PNC than he does elsewhere, it's that Liriano is flat-out deadly against lefties and PNC saps the power from right-handed hitters, which creates a lethal combination for the Pirates when Liriano is on the mound. Put simply, no Pirate starter has a better chance of neutralizing Choo, Votto, and Bruce than Liriano does, and having the game at PNC instead of Great American minimizes the chances that some lesser righty in the Reds' line up will do something improbable to beat the Pirates. None of these things are assured, of course. Even with Liriano on the mound, Joey Votto is terrifying. Even at PNC Park, the chance of a role player doing something that tilts the scale is magnified in a one-game series. Still, you want every possible advantage you can possibly have in a one game playoff, so having the game at PNC shouldn't be sneezed at. 

Swapping Latos out in favor of Cueto is something that I think is tougher to quantify but potentially much more significant. Cueto, of course, has owned the Pirates in recent years. He made two starts against them this year (both at PNC Park), and he held the Pirates to three hits and one run in 12 1/3 innings of work. Careerwise, he's made 21 starts against the Pirates and he has a 2.37 ERA. He's been even better at PNC, with a 1.90 ERA in 85 innings. 

The rub here, of course, is that Cueto's career started in 2008 and the Pirates were terrible in 2008, 2009, 2010, and not all that great in 2011 or 2012. These 2013 Pirates are a very different team (and the Marlon Byrd Pirates are a different team than the one that Cueto pitched against earlier this year) than the Pirates of the past, and Cueto didn't pitch much against these Pirates. That's because of the biggest X-factor here; Cueto made three different trips to the disabled list with a strained shoulder muscle and the most recent trip caused him to miss a huge chunk of this season (June 29th to September 16th). He's only started twice since coming off of the DL, and while he was decent in both starts, they were against the Astros and the Mets. He hasn't thrown more than 100 pitches in a start since his start at PNC on May 31st. 

The point is simply this: Cueto has been fantastic against the Pirates, but Cueto's shoulder means that he's not necessarily the Cueto that's dominated the Pirates over the past years and the Pirates are certainly not the Pirates that Cueto has built his great career stats against. Still, it turns out that winning that series over the weekend against the Reds was an interesting gambit for the Pirates from a strategic standpoint; I'm really, really happy that the game will be at PNC Park, but I'm still not sure what to make of Cueto and his injury and I'm much more worried facing him than I would be facing Latos. 

Of course, it may turn out that the most significant effect of the Pirates' sweep this weekend turns out to be that Gerrit Cole will be available in the bullpen tomorrow. Or it may turn out that none of this matters at all. It's a one game playoff. Everything's on the table, whether we talk about it ahead of time or not.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.