As a primer for a full slate of games this weekend let's take a look at what I consider to be the most intriguing matchup - the three game tilt between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers - has in store for us.
Since 1961, when the Texas Rangers franchise was founded, these two teams have met just 15 times - with Texas taking nine more wins after capturing the first meeting in 2002. Those early meetings have little bearing on this weekend's matchup, but the most recent matchup carried a heft that might still weigh on the familiar players on each roster. Early September 2013, both teams were in the midst of heated playoff races. The Pirates were tied with the Reds, a game and a half behind the eventual NL Champion Cardinals for the NL Central crown. Similarly, the Rangers were a game and a half back of Oakland in the AL West, with a comfortable five game cushion in the wild card. The fortunes of each team shifted after this series. Pittsburgh swept the Rangers and vaulted themselves into the playoffs as the top wild card. For Texas, the sweep would mark the beginning of a ten losses in 13 games stretch that put them in a tiebreaker game 163 versus Tampa Bay for the last wild card seed, which they would lose at the hand of the Red Sox new two hundred million dollar man, David Price. While the history between the two may be brief, the recent significance cannot be lost on the remaining members of each dugout.
The Texas Rangers come into the series with a 27-20 record, sitting 1.5 games behind Seattle in the AL West. Weakened by injuries to outfielders Shin Soo Choo and Drew Stubbs along with the commencement of 2B Rougned Odor's now seven game suspension, Texas has high expectations for the returning Yu Darvish and top prospect Joey Gallo. The Pittsburgh Pirates enter Friday with a 26-19 record, five games behind Chicago in the NL Central. Fresh off a three game sweep of Arizona in which they outscored the DBacks 25-8, the Bucs look to be at full strength entering the hitter friendly ballpark in Arlington. Each team has won two more games than you would expect based on run differential, therefore this series could serve to align predictions with reality for these two playoff hopefuls.
The Probable Pitching Matchups
Friday, 8:05 PM ET - Jonathon Niese (4-2, 4.75, L) vs Cole Hamels (5-0, 2.83, L)
Saturday, 7:15 PM ET - Juan Nicasio (4-3, 4.46, R) vs Yu Darvish (0-0, 0.00, R)
Sunday, 3:05 PM ET - Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.30, L) vs Martin Perez (2-4, 3.13, L)
The Return of Yu Darvish
Japanese hurler Yu Darvish is set to make his long anticipated return to the mound from Tommy John surgery on Saturday, hoping to regain his touch for racking up K's and making hitters look foolish in the process. In attendance for his second career major league start, I had never witnessed a pitcher with such a wide disparity in velocity - dishing out cheese in the mid 90's sprinkled with twisting curves in the 60's. His return promises to boost a Rangers pitching staff relying heavily on stingy defense and trying to avoid using its shaky bullpen.
A surface analysis of the Rangers starting pitching does not suggest a need for reinforcements from Darvish. After all, they hold the lowest ERA on the third most innings pitched by starters in the American League. However, using FIP, which factors out the impact of defense, to isolate the pitching performance we see cracks in the shield - Texas starters fall to 8th in the AL. Combined with a strikeout rate well below league average - 13th in the AL - it is evident that Rangers starters are leaning hard on the greatness behind them. If Darvish can match his career strikeout rate upon his return, which would rank 9th in the majors this season, the Rangers starting rotation will be better positioned to legitimize its strong start by reducing its dependence on its stellar defense.
A return to form for Darvish would also further minimize the role of the Rangers bullpen, which has the highest ERA and FIP in the American League by over half a run in each case. Currently, Rangers starters are averaging 5.9 innings per start. For his career, Darvish has averaged approximately 6.6 innings per start - his extraordinary strikeout rate inflates his pitch count, preventing him from tossing even more innings. He is rumored to have an 85-90 pitch count limit on Saturday, so, given his average of roughly 16 pitches per inning, we shouldn't expect him to make it a full six innings. It won't be until the pitch limit is lifted that the Rangers relievers will receive the relief they desperately need.
The Red Hot Chili Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates offense is on fire. They are third in the National League in runs scored, first in OBP, fourth in SLG, and first in wRC+, which measures the value of all hitting outcomes. While offensive success may be surprising from the likes of John Jaso and Jordy Mercer, this potent run scoring comes as no surprise to a franchise that has sailed aboard top five NL offenses into the playoffs over the past two seasons. The manner in which the Pirates offense has exploded this season is worth further exploration.
Historically speaking, the league average BABIP hovers near .300 - it's at .296 so far this season. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a BABIP of .337, the best in the NL. Unlike pitchers, hitters exert a modicum of control over their BABIP, a skill exhibited by several Pirates. In fact, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and David Freese have career BABIP of .357, .340, and .335, respectively. Even guys without such historical acumen like Jaso and Matt Joyce have boosted their BABIP by tilting their batted ball distribution in favor of ground balls, which have a higher in-play average than fly balls. However, several players are sporting a BABIP above .360, which is probably unsustainable for a full season, so the league leading team number will likely fall. In the meantime, the Pirates have used the second lowest K % in the NL to capitalize on their good fortune on balls in-play. A majority of the regulars have posted K % below their career average - Jaso, Mercer and Joyce have posted career lows. It will be interesting to see how the BABIP fortune holds up for Pittsburgh against the stout defense of the Rangers this weekend.