The Braves' ten game win streak is over, but Atlanta still boasts the best record in baseball. The Braves travel to Pittsburgh today to put that 12-2 mark on the line against the Pirates. The Bucs had a wretched opening to their season, but have actually been playing some quality baseball over the past week, winning or splitting 3 series in a row against good competition; Pittsburgh is 6-2 over their last 8 games against Arizona, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.
In order to beat the Pirates, Braves pitchers will have to cool off the Pittsburgh bats. Over the past week, the once-anemic Pirates' offense has come to life, posting a slash line of .302/.370/.456. It's no coincidence that over that same span, the Pirates offense has averaged greater than 5 runs per game.
By now, most Braves fans know of Andrew McCutchen, the anchor of the Pirates lineup who is fast becoming one of the game's best all around players. McCutchen is one of baseball's true 5 tool players: an exceptional center field defender with a good arm, great speed on the base paths, and a potent bat. McCutchen hits for both power and average and slots in the 3 hole of the Bucs' order.
The hottest Pirate right now is not McCutchen, but sophomore left fielder and leadoff hitter Starling Marte. Marte, one of Pittsburgh's top prospects last year, is flourishing so far in his first full year in the big leagues. Marte currently owns a major-league-best 10 game hit streak that has seen him wreck havoc at the top of the Pirates' order. During his streak, Marte has hit a scorching 19-43 (.442) with 10 runs, 7 RBI, 2 steals, and a homer. Marte won't walk much (4.1% career BB rate) and does strike out in bunches (26.3% career K rate) so it will be interesting to see how the Braves pitch him. Keeping Marte off the bases will be key for Atlanta this weekend.
The Pirates' second baseman, Neil Walker, is also riding a hot streak coming into the series with Atlanta. Walker, Pittsburgh's 2nd baseman and 5 hole hitter is batting .444/.500/.611 over the last week. With Marte and McCutchen on base in front of him, Walker's driven in 5 runs over his last 6 games. Walker and former Brave Garrett Jones form an underrated yet formidable 4-5 punch for the Pirates. Shutting down the Bucs' run producers will also be key for Braves' pitching.
Series Pitching Matchups
Thursday, April 18, 7:05 PM
In a battle of former Braves' top pitching prospects, Jeff Locke will take on Julio Teheran tonight. Locke, as you may recall, was traded to Pittsburgh in the Nate McLouth deal. Locke is 1-1 so far on the young season with a 4.09 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. His stuff hasn't been particularly overpowering, as he sports a 3/5 K/BB ratio across 11 innings so far.
Locke is primarily a three pitch pitcher, sporting a four seam fastball that sits around 90 MPH, as well as a changeup and a curveball. Neither his curve nor his changup are particularly plus offerings, but they are both solid out pitches. Locke features his changeup primarily against righties, and it's his best offspeed offering, as he gets whiffs on 17% of all changes he throws.
Friday, April 19, 7:05 PM
Game two features a pair of veterans on the hill as Tim Hudson goes up against lefty Wandy Rodriguez. Hudson is already 2-0 on the year, and fresh off an impressive performance against the Nationals in which he allowed only 1 run on 4 hits across 7 innings. Rodriguez has been rock solid for the Pirates since being acquired from the Astros. On the year, he is 1-0 with an ERA of 1.00 and a WHIP of 0.58. That said, he has not pitched since April 8, when he came out of his start against the Diamondbacks with a hamstring cramp. Friday will be his third start on the year, and his first since the injury.
Rodriguez is a four pitch pitcher, featuring a four-seamer and a sinker that both sit around 90 MPH. He also throws a looping curve and a changeup. Wandy's best pitch is his curveball, and he knows it too, throwing it a staggering 31% of the time. He actually threw his curve more than he threw his four-seamer last year! His curve is a slow looping pitch with 11 to 5 break that he throws around 77 MPH. The curve is his best swing-and-miss offering, generating a whiff 16% percent of the time he throws it. When he's ahead in the count, Wandy goes to his curve almost 50% of the time. To say it's his bread and butter would be an understatement. Braves' hitters will have to jump on his fastball early in the count, or be willing to sit back on his curve.
Saturday, April 20, 7:05 PM
Saturday's game will pit Paul Maholm, the Braves' hottest pitcher, against a struggling James McDonald. Maholm is a perfect 3-0 on the year, having won each of his decisions so far. Even more impressively, Maholm still hasn't been scored on this year. He's coming off of 7+ shutout innings against the Nationals. The Pirates counter with James McDonald, who has struggled mightily so far this year. McDonald sports a 5.27 ERA through 3 starts to go along with a 1.61 WHIP. In his last outing against the Cardinals, McDonald was shellacked, allowing 8 runs (3 earned) in 1.2 innings.
McDonald is a five-pitch pitcher, throwing a four seam fastball, a sinking fastball, a slider, a changeup, and a curveball. McDonald has always been a power pitcher, throwing his four-seamer in close to 50% of his pitches. For his career, the four-seamer and sinker have sat around 93 MPH. This year, however, McDonald's fastballs are averaging only 90.5 MPH...a worrying sign for the Pirates, and something that could go a long way to explaining his early season struggles. McDonald relies on his curve as his primary out pitch, as he throws it close to 40% of the time when he's ahead in the count. Despite having both a changeup and a slider in his repertoire, McDonald rarely throws either, choosing instead to rely on his curve as his primary breaking ball. After throwing his slider in 17% of pitches last year, he has only thrown it in 4% of his offerings this year. The slider has long been a pitch believed to hasten arm injury, and McDonald's pattern of usage so far this year does not paint an encouraging picture for Pirate fans.
Sunday, April 21, 1:35 PM
Kris Medlen will take on Jonathan Sanchez on getaway day as the Braves and Pirates wrap up their four-game series. Through 3 starts, Medlen is 1-1 with a 1.42 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Medlen is coming off his best start of the year so far, having allowed 1 run on 6 hits in 7 innings against the Royals. Jonathan Sanchez will be starting for the Pirates, and he has been an unmitigated disaster so far this year. In two starts, Sanchez has allowed 12 runs in 8.1 innings - good for a 12.96 ERA and a 2.28 WHIP. Needless to say, Sanchez is 0-2 on the year.
Sanchez throws 4 pitches: a four seam fastball, a sinker, a curveball, and a splitter. Sanchez relies primarily on his fastball, throwing it more that 50% of the time. Sanchez has lost a few ticks on his fastball from a few years ago - it now sits around 90 MPH - but it still has decent movement on it. His curveball is his primary out pitch, as he goes to it 40% of the time when he has 2 strikes on the batter.
Bold Predictions: The Pirates have been hot lately, but the Braves should take 3 of 4. Julio Teheran notches his first win of the year tonight. B.J. Upton has a big series.