Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pitching "winter" may sabotage rest of season

Christmas in July was last week, but that's not why the hashtag #WinterIsComing has been popular among Pirates fans and bloggers on Twitter in recent days.

No, the cryptic phrase refers to the fact that Pittsburgh's pitch-to-contact starting staff drastically outperformed almost all relevant advanced metrics during the season's first half. A paucity of strikeouts, a low home run-to-fly ball ratio and a high strand rate for most of the Bucs' rotation suggested that their surprising run prevention acumen was about to dry up.

If a cruel winter is indeed on the way for the staggering Pirates, now losers of five in a row and seven of eight to fall to 54-54, Tuesday night was the equivalent of a freak November blizzard. Starter Kevin Correia, who rode tremendous run support on the road to an All-Star Game appearance, surrendered four prodigious home runs to the fifth-place Chicago Cubs in the Pirates' 11-6 loss at PNC Park.

Correia was yanked in the fourth inning after giving up eight runs, leaving sabermetrically-inclined Pirates fans to hope that the veteran's regression to the mean occurred in the span of little more than an hour on the North Shore. While Correia is nowhere near as feeble as he looked Tuesday, he's still not likely to replicate a first half in which he helped lead a rotation that had little to no positive expectations entering the season.

Following three-plus months of unforeseen competence, it seems the only way to go for Correia, Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald and Charlie Morton to go is down, although that's no reason not to try to extend the likely aberration for a few more weeks.

Morton, who was lit up by Philadelphia in his previous start and will pitch Wednesday, has already been a poster child for the threatening winter this season. Until early June, Morton was showing the potential to be the staff ace with his newfound two-seam fastball that reminded many of Roy Halladay's repertoire.

Charlie's mechanics (and perhaps his early-season good fortune) went sour as the summer heated up, however. He has still yet to rediscover the control of that electric sinker that had National League hitters perplexed in April and May.

To be fair, Morton likely also rode some luck to his promising start; his opponents' batting average on balls in play was unsustainably low and could simply be evening out at this point.

(For a more thorough exploration of advanced metrics as they relate to the Pirates, check out fellow City of Champions staff writer Mike Shaeffer's future work on this same site and on Twitter.)

Ironically, after the pitching staff carried the Pirates to first place in the NL Central at various points last month, the offense has actually come alive during the last three losses, plating 14 runs and hitting six homers while Bucco hurlers have gotten shelled.

The hope was that the offense, augmented by trade acquisitions Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick and the pending return of injured regulars Ryan Doumit and Alex Presley, would awaken as the run prevention regressed in August and September.

But if the coming winter for Bucco pitchers turns out to be drastic, even a Lumber Company-caliber attack might not be enough to keep the Pirates on track for a winning season and exciting September baseball.

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Matt Gajtka hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.