Bob Smizik's commentaries have moved. They can be found at:
He’s been mostly a tower of strength, on the field and off it, since joining the Pirates before the start of last season, but today, as the Pirates find themselves in a classic dog-days-of-August pennant race, there are concerns about the pitching ability of A.J. Burnett. The one-time staff leader all of a sudden has become a questionable No. 2.
Based on just two poor starts -- 10 innings, 16 hits, 10 earned run -- on Aug. 10 and 15, that’s a harsh judgment. But the judgment is based more on Burnett’s history of awful Augusts than it is on his two most recent starts.
From 2009 through this month, Burnett has a 7.03 ERA in August. The rest of the time over those almost five seasons he ERA is 3.77.
There’s no accounting, other than history, for Burnett’s abrupt decline this month. In the three starts prior to his last two -- one of them in August -- he had a 1.17 ERA. Going back six starts, his ERA was 1.88. Based on common baseball sense there’s every reason to believe Burnett can pitch effectively the rest of the season. Based on his recent Augusts, maybe not.
For the season, Burnett is 5-8 with a 3.18 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. He leads National League starters with a 9.93 K/9. This is the line to Burnett’s stats against San Diego batters.
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Marte scratched: Outfielder Starling Marte was in the original lineup but was scratched due to issues with his right ring finger. He should be ready to play tomorrow.
MVP-MVP-MVP: If performance in the heat of a pennant race is a factor in MVP voting -- and it certainly should be -- Andrew McCutchen is making an impressive case for himself. This is McCutchen’s August batting line: .431/.542/.603 -- 1.145. He is second in batting average, first in on-base percentage and fifth in OPS. This is his batting line since the All-Star Game: .363/.447/.619 -- .1066. He is fourth in batting, third in on-base percentage, fifth in slugging and third in OPS. I’m hearing people complain about McCutchen. I see nothing to complain about.
Short bench: With neither Alex Presley nor Andrew Lambo eligible for recall -- they have to spend 10 days in the minors -- it looks like the Pirates will go with a short bench tonight despite the fact the bullpen is in a more rested state. Russ Canzler, Chase d'Arnaud and Jerry Sands are the options available on the 40-man roster. Their respective batting averages at Indianapolis are .255, .234, .211.
Mixed bag: Pedro Alvarez leads the National League in home runs but he is not providing the Pirates the kind of offensive consistency they need from a No. 4 hitter. He has four home runs in the past 10 games, but during that stretch he’s batting .196 (9-for-46). For August, he’s batting .194 with a .664 OPS. Since the All-Star Game he’s batting .195 with a .652 OPS.
How’s the bullpen holding up? Fans have been concerned all season about how well the bullpen would hold up under the frequent but judicious use of Clint Hurdle: Here are their ERA-WHIP-BAA comparisons from the first half to the second. Pre-All Star/Post-All-Star: Mark Melancon: 0.81/0.79/.189 -- 1.29/0.93/.196; Justin Wilson: 1.64/1.09/.172 -- 2.31/1.20/.227; Vin Mazzaro: 2.70/1.15/.253 -- 1.84/1.30/.218; Tony Watson: 3.35/0.94/.202 -- 1.26/0.91/.204; Bryan Morris: 2.72/1.11//193 -- 4.40/1.53/.316.
Opposing pitcher: Right-hander Tyson Ross, 3-5, 2.62 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, opened the season as a starter, was shifted to the bullpen at the end of April and rejoined the rotation in late July. As a starter, he’s 3-2 with a 2.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Since returning to the rotation, his ERA is 1.29 -- five earned runs and 17 hits in 34 innings. His BAA for the season is .218. Ross, who pitched for Oakland from 2010-12, has never faced the Pirates.
Pirates lineup, 10:10 game time:
1. Tabata, LF
2. Walker, 2B
3. McCutchen, CF
4. Alvarez, 3B
5. Martin, C
6. Jones, RF
7. Sanchez, 1B
8. Mercer, SS
9. Burnett, P
My commentary will take on a new look and a new address beginning tomorrow morning, although it should not affect readers much, if at all.
If you have been using a Post-Gazette link to get to the blog, you will automatically be redirected to the new site/address.
For those who want the new address, it is: www.post-gazette.com/smizikonsports/
My articles no longer will be found in Community Voices, but on the homepage of post-gazette.com, about a third of the way down the page.
One thing that will be fewer linked national articles.
As you can gather from the link above, it will no longer be Bob Smizik’s Blog, but Smizik on Sports. That is a subtle change, but a change nevertheless.
One thing that won’t change is my interaction with readers in the comment section. It’s one of the things I like best about my post-retirement ‘career.’
No contender wants to play in the best-of-one wild-card game. Winning the division is extremely important. But if the Pirates find themselves in a wild-card status, and there’s a good chance they will, Francisco Liriano is a good man to have on the mound.
By Scott Miller, CBSSports.com
SAN DIEGO – He's been an All-Star, thrown a no-hitter and learned at the feet of the great master, Johan Santana, during Santana's 2006 Cy Young season.
But never has Francisco Liriano been this money over an entire season.
In equaling a career-high with his 14th victory with Monday night's 3-1 win over the Padres, Liriano lowered his ERA to 2.53, fifth in the NL.
And maybe most impressively as the Pirates charge toward what they hope will be their first division title since 1992, there's this: In his past four outings following a Pirates' loss, Liriano now has thrown a combined 30 innings while allowing only two runs.
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Steelers fans are not going to like this. They perceive themselves as the best in the world. Research done by the Emory University business school, based on a complicated formula, has come up with findings that show the Steelers fans are not even the best in the NFL. In fact, they’re not the best in the AFC North. For what it’s worth.
By Mike Lewis and Manish Tripathi, Emory University
The NFL is America’s favorite professional sports league, but which of its teams has the most loyal and supportive fan base? This is not a straightforward question. A ranking based on attendance would be skewed toward teams that play in more populated metropolitan areas, and a ranking based on profitability or revenues would be biased in favor of teams that are currently enjoying more on-field success.
In our series of fan base analyses across leagues, we adjust for these complicating factors using a revenue premium model of fan equity. The key idea is that we look at team box office revenues relative to team on-field success, market population, stadium capacity, median income and other factors.
The first step in our procedure involves the creation of a statistical model that predicts box office revenue as a function of the aforementioned variables. We then compare actual revenues to the revenues predicted by the model. Teams with relatively stronger fan support will have revenues that exceed the predicted values, and teams that under perform have relatively less supportive fan bases. We provide more details on the methodhere andhere.
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Nobody asked me, but . . .
* Another spectacular performance by Francisco Liriano last night against San Diego -- seven innings no runs, four hits, two walks, 13 strikeouts. Liriano won't win the Cy Young because of the otherworldly season of Clayton Kershaw. But he'll get some votes and at the same time he has to be in the talk, unusual for a pitcher, as Pirates MVP.
* The one thing you absolutely and positively do not want to see in the first quarter of an exhibition game: Ben Roethlisberger being tackled -- twice.
* Jon Gruden has a bad word to say about almost no one. So when he spent some time badmouthing the play of Maurkice Pouncey last night it kind of makes you take notice. The well-regarded ProFootballFocus.com has long held Pouncey in much lower esteem than other sources.
* Imagine the uproar is this happened in MLB. The Washington Redskins have had eight drug suspensions since 2011. If that happened in baseball, it would be leading SportsCenter every hour. When it happens in the NFL, it barely gets mentioned.
* Liriano had a pitcher’s dream come true in the fourth inning last night and I’m not talking about getting nine of the first 11 outs on strikeouts. I’m talking about bases loaded, two out and Ronny Cedeno coming to the plate.
* If Le’Veon Bell doesn’t watch himself, he’s going to have a new first name: Injury-Prone Le’Veon Bell. He left the game last night with his third injury in two weeks. This time it is mid-foot.
* When I first saw Starling Marte was out of the lineup last night, I figured he was injured. But I was kinda hoping he was being disciplined for the outrageously stupid decision to try to steal third base against Arizona Sunday.
* ESPN is counting down the top 100 players -- offense and defense -- in the NFL. The rankings thus far are 91-100 and two Steelers are mentioned on offense -- Heath Miller, 91, and Antonio Brown, 95. No. 99 on defense is the Cincinnati Bengals James Harrison.
* Pat Bostick, the former Pitt quarterback and now Pitt color analyst, should know better. He said on The Fan yesterday that Pitt’s close games with Notre Dame and Louisville should be taken into consideration when viewing the Panthers’ 6-7 record last year. As should Pitt’s loss to Youngstown State. 6-7 is 6-7.
* I hear a ton of criticism about third-base coaches in general and Nick Leyva in particular. Question: Of the 1,129 runs scored in the past two seasons by the Pirates, how many times has anyone been heard to utter, `Nice job by the third-base coach?’
* WAR should not be an issue in the American League MVP race this season, although I see it being raised in some circles. Yes, Mike Trout is the best player in the AL. But he certainly is not the most valuable. To paraphrase Branch Rickey, the Angels could be 16 games out of first place without Trout. The Detroit Tigers would not seven games in first place without Miguel Cabrera.
* What a tremendously athletic play by Washington’s linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to leap and catch, while he was rushing the passer, a ball thrown by Roethlisberger and rumble in for a touchdown.
* The performance of Pirates top prospect Gregory Polanco, 21, at Class AA is highly encouraging. After struggling just a bit, which was to be expected, Polanco is batting .286 with an OPS over .800. I was dubious about Polanco being able to help the Pirates next season, but it’s not out of the question.
* How does MLB put itself into the position where umpires have to approve any changes in the replay rule?
* Jonathan Dwyer ran like a running back trying to make the team, which he is, against the Redskins last night. The slimmed-down Dwyer looked nimble and roster-worthy, but I’m guessing Mike Tomlin didn’t like that second-quarter fumble.
* In addition to a power bat at right field or first base, the Pirates also could use a right-handed hitting utility infielder, preferably one with a bit of power -- what Brandon Inge was supposed to be -- who could spell Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker.
* Interesting bit of information from Jay Jaffe at SI.com. Noting the batting average of balls in play for the Pirates pitching staff has gone from .277 to .334 since the All-Star game, he wrote, ``that has something to do with the offense/defense tradeoff of playing Jordy Mercer (.277/.331/.402, −1 Defensive Runs Saved) instead of Clint Barmes (.226/.269/.318, +9 DRS) at shortstop.’’
There’s been a lot of talk, and some managerial action, about not playing Neil Walker against left-handed pitching. Walker has a slowly climbing batting average against lefties, which today is at .221. But he is without and extra-base hit in 68 at bats.
Almost nothing has been said about not playing Pedro Alvarez against left-handed pitching. The case can be made that he, too, should sit at least against some lefties.
This is Alvarez’s batting line against lefties this season: .196/.268/.314 -- .582. He is striking out 45 percent of the time when facing a lefty and hitting a home run every 34 at bats. What’s concerning about those numbers is they are all down from last year.
His batting line vs. lefties last year: .207.270/.379 -- .649. He struck out 41 percent of the time and homered every 23 at bats.
The only player on the roster that might give Alvarez a night off is the light-hitting Josh Harrison, who in 22 at bats vs. lefties this season is hitting .409 with an 1.182 OPS. Prior to this season, in 148 at bats vs. lefties those numbers were .209 and .558.
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Roster move: Ryan Reid, who had a 1.64 ERA in seven games, 11 innings, earlier in the season, has been added to the roster as the Pirates continue to go with 13 pitchers and a short bench. Kris Johnson, as expected, was optioned back to Indianapolis. Johnson certainly earned a Sept. 1 callup, if not something sooner, with his performance Sunday.
Bye-bye JMac: James McDonald started and lasted 2/3 of an inning today for the Pirates entry in the Gulf Coast League game. He allowed two runs on two hits and a walk. Most of the players on the other team, the Yankees, were teenagers. After scoring two against McDonald, the Yankees did not score another run the remainder of the nine-inning game.
Whiff-King Jr.: Much is made about the strikeout total of Alvarez, whose 150 leads the National League. Almost nothing is made about the strikeout total of Starling Marte, which at 125 is fifth in the league. Not only does Marte not produce the home runs that Alvarez does but he bats in a position where getting on base is a primary function. He has 30 more strikeouts than any NL leadoff hitter, although, in fairness, he has the most at bats. Norichika Aoki, second to Marte in ABs (410 to 477) has struck out only 26 times.
About the Padres: The Padres are 56-68 overall and 33-29 at home. They are in fourth place in the NL West, 16 1/2 games out of first. They’ve won their past two games, against the Mets, but lost the three before that. They are ninth in runs scored, right in front of the Pirates, and 13th in OPS. Their pitching staff is 13th in ERA and BAA and 14th in WHIP. They do not have a player with more than 50 RBIs.
In good hands: The Pirates are in need of a stop and they send their stopper to the mound tonight. Francisco Liriano, 13-5, 2.68 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, has stopped losing streaks of two, three and four games this season. The current streak is two but the Pirates are in big-time need of a win, having lost seven of their past nine. Liriano bounced back from a terrible -- 2 1/3 innings, 12 hits, 10 runs -- performance on Aug. 9 by pitching a superb complete-game win over St. Louis five days later. Left-handers are batting .148 (13-for-88) with two extra-base hits against Liriano. This is the link to Liriano’s stats against San Diego hitters.
Opposing pitcher: Right-hander Andrew Cashner, 8-7, 3.87 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, is as steady as they come: In seven of his past eight starts, he has pitched five to seven innings and allowed two or three runs. This is the link to Cashner’s stats against Pirates hitters.
Pirates lineup, 10:10 p.m.game time:
1. Harrison, RF
2. Walker, 2B
3. McCutchen, CF
4. Alvarez, 3B
5. Jones, 1B
6. Mercer, SS
7. Tabata, LF
8. Sanchez, C
9. Liriano, P
A lot of people are expecting the Steelers to bounce back from their disappointing 8-8 season because, well, they are the Steelers. Jeffri Chadiha doesn’t think that’s good enough to do the trick any longer. Are the Steelers doomed to a run of mediocrity?
By Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN.com
There are a few reasons to believe the Pittsburgh Steelers will bounce back from a mediocre 8-8 season in 2012: history, determination, pride. Then there is the reality: None of that will to help this team this coming fall.
The closer we get to this regular season, the more the Steelers look like they could be even less competitive than when they finished 8-8 last year. It's simply their time to struggle through the same stretch of futility that hits every organization eventually.
Optimists like to point to how Pittsburgh historically has played after missing the postseason -- the Steelers have made the playoffs in the season that followed their past three years without a postseason appearance. But it's hard to see the positives in this bunch. The offense has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a ton of questions. The defense is old and missing key performers from a unit that led the league in total yards allowed in 2012. Head coach Mike Tomlin remains among the best in the business, but even he doesn't have the ability to create miracles.
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David Schoenfield breaks down the three contenders in the NL Central -- schedule, starting pitching, relief pitching, hitting -- and comes away with the Reds as the team to beat.
By David Schoenfield, ESPN.com
The wild-card game is, of course, a bit mad. Or maybe completely mad. Telling teams they have to play 162 games to get into the playoffs and then one game to stay alive is akin to telling two NFL teams they've made the playoffs after 16 regular-season games and then get six minutes to determine who moves on to the next round.
That's my new name for the wild-card game: Six minutes of hell.
The one positive aspect of the wild-card game is one of its intended results: Winning your division is, of course, paramount. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon explained it succinctly the other day, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I want us to win the division, period … and avoid that madness."
Madness. That's kind of what we have going on in the NL Central right now, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are now separated by just 2½ games.
Read the rest of the story.
The notion that another collapse is underway, as hard as that is to believe, must be taken seriously in light of the Pirates recent play. I did not embrace what I considered ridiculously premature talk as long as a week ago. I’m still not fully on board with the belief there's going to be a repeat of a repeat. But the evidence at hand certainly makes what just a few weeks ago seemed impossible very much worth investigating.
The fact the budding Collapse III began on the same day as Collapse II lends a touch of eeriness and authenticity to what is taking place before our very eyes.
* On Aug. 8, 2012, the Pirates won to go 63-47. They they proceeded to lose 36 of their remaining 52 games to miss a winning season and become a punchline.
* On Aug, 8, 2013, the Pirates won to go 70-44. They have proceeded to lose seven of their next nine. Doing the math, last year’s slide produced a .308 winning percentage This year’s is weighing in at .222.
What’s gone wrong? Not as much as you might think, but, obviously, too much.
Andrew McCutchen continues to play at an MVP level. Neil Walker Starling Marte, Jose Tabata and Russell Martin are performing from well to very good. Pedro Alvarez continues to lead the NL in home runs. Francisco Liriano remains a horse, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have been good. The bullpen has faltered a bit, but remains a strength.
So where are the problems?
The largest and the one that does not look to have a happy ending is at first base. It’s mid-August and Garrett Jones is still not hitting. His slugging percentage is down 92 points, his OPS down 108. More than any player, Jones has most shortchanged the offense.
There have been repeated defenses of Gaby Sanchez on the blog but no more. He was hitless in three at bats against a lefty yesterday with two strikeouts. His absence of power is troubling. He’s having a better season than Jones -- higher OPS, more RBIs/AB -- but despite that and his positive stats against left-handers, he’s having a keenly disappointing season.
The power outage at first base means that the recent revival of Jose Tabata doesn’t mean much. The Pirates are not getting power from two key power positions: right field and first base. It’s tough to win with that combination, especially when there’s little power coming from left field.
What’s particularly alarming is there is no obvious solution to the weakness at first base, short of a trade and none of the players available are anything close to a guarantee.
On the starting pitching front, the recent performances of A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke have not been good. Although GM Neal Huntington laughed off Locke’s travails on his radio show today, there has to be genuine concern. This is not to suggest he’s in the midst of a James McDonald meltdown -- although there are similarities -- but he’s not the same pitcher he was in the first half of the season. His BAA is up from .202 to .325 and his WHIP from 1.13 to 2.02. Some of that -- but not all -- is due to his horrific performance Saturday. But there is reason to believe that not only will Locke not be as good as he was in the first half, he’ll go from an asset to a liabllity.
There’s a lot of panic about Burnett and that is buttressed by what has become an annual and substantial August decline. Two games -- that’s all it is this year -- does not make a trend, not even with Burnett’s history. It is way, way too early to be condeming a guy who’s been a pillar of strength for the better part of two seasons. But his next start deserves close scrutiny.
With Wandy Rodriguez looking like a real possibility for September, the team is in far greater need of a hitter than a pitcher.
Hopefully, when Huntington was laughing off the Pirates problems yesterday on the radio, he knew in his head that this team needs help. Because it does.
Kris Johnson, in a memorable MLB debut at age 28, deserved better. So did Charley Morton, who made another strong start. The same can't be said for the Pirates offense, which had a particularly inept day. Two runs and nine hits in 15 innings. Two hits after the eighth inning. It wasn't bad, it was outrageously bad.
The 4-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks cut the Pirates lead in the NL Central to one game over St. Louis and 2 1/2 over Cincinnati, both of which won. The Pirates have lost seven of their past nine games.
The Associated Press
Adam Eaton's bloop double in the 16th inning drove in two runs, and the Arizona Diamondbacks outlasted the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-2 on Sunday.
Eaton's career-high fourth hit came during his seventh at-bat, with A.J. Pollock and Didi Gregorius on and two outs. Eaton fought off a 1-0 pitch from Kris Johnson and dunked the ball into shallow left-center. A sprinting Andrew McCutchen failed in his attempt at a diving catch.
Arizona remained five games behind Cincinnati in the race for the second NL wild-card spot. Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central dwindled to one game over St. Louis.
The Pirates dropped two of three to Arizona, losing their third consecutive series.
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