3 Things to Watch for Against the Pirates

Written by Sean Addis, Rachael McDaniel, and Gideon Turk

Rowley to the Rescue

In the middle game of the three game series against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, the Toronto Blue Jays will use their 12th different starting pitcher of the 2017 season. Right-hander Chris Rowley will be given the ball on Saturday afternoon. The 26-year-old may not be familiar name for many Blue Jays fans. This could be due to the fact he did not pitch in the team’s minor league system during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Many would assume the lack of baseball activity was due to injury, however, that wasn’t the case for Rowley. He had graduated from the US Academy at West Point and had to fulfill his service commitment (owed Army time) after his graduation. As a result, many teams passer on spending a pick on him. On the other hand, the Blue Jays took a flier on him and invited had him pitch for the Gulf Coast League prior to his deployment to Europe. You can read all about his unusual journey in this profile by Tammy Rainey from June

In his second full minor league season since his return, Rowley split his time with Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo.  In 27 games (11 starts) he has posted impressive numbers:  2.29 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 1.016 WHIP and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.75.

Rowley’s fastball tops out at 91-92 mph, but he has been able to effectively mix his other assortment of pitches (slider, sinker and changeup). His success can be attributed to keeping the ball down in the zone due to his high ground ball rate (47 %), and keeping hitters off balance with a 16-19% line drive rate, as well as only surrendering six home runs over 106.1 innings.

Unlike other spot starters Rowley brings more potential and a higher ceiling. As much as the Blue Jays hope he helps a depleted rotation in the present, they can also view this as an audition to be an option to slot into a rotation for next season.

Felipe Rivero, Legitimate Relief Ace

In 2016, Felipe Rivero was a mediocre lefty reliever with one fantastically good pitch. Rivero’s changeup in 2016 was in the top ten of all relievers (min. 200 pitches) in velocity and horizontal and vertical break. It lead all relievers in whiffs per swing, which the pitch generated at a 58.3 percent clip. But in spite of this elite pitch, Rivero ended the year with pedestrian numbers.

This season has seen Rivero become nothing short of a revelation for the Pirates. He currently sports a 1.75 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, and has been worth 1.9 WARP out of the Pirates bullpen. (Rivero’s stats likely haunt the dreams of the Washington Nationals front office, who last season traded him away for two months of Mark Melancon.)

What has changed for Rivero this season? First of all, he’s throwing harder.

All of Rivero’s pitches have seen an uptick in velocity over the past year. Most significant has been the fourseam fastball, which has gone from averaging 96.8 miles per hour in July 2016 to 99.3 in July 2017. Rivero’s fourseamer has often hit triple digits this year, making it a formidable complement to his changeup.

A large part of Rivero’s overall unremarkable performance in 2016 was due to an extreme reverse platoon split. While he held right-handed batters to a .203/.290/.337 batting line and a 31.7-percent strikeout rate, largely due to the effectiveness of his changeup, lefties put up an unpleasant .286/.387/.378 batting line. In 2017, the platoon split has un-reversed itself. Out of 74 left-handed batters Rivero has faced so far this season, only 11 have reached base – five hits, three walks, and three hit batters. Lefties are batting .073/.149/.088 against Rivero in 2017. What gives?

Rivero seldom throws the changeup to left-handed batters. He instead opts to use his fourseam fastball in combination with his slider. Unfortunately for Rivero, left-handed batters were all over the fourseamer in 2016. Not only did the pitch lack the velocity that it now has, but Rivero didn’t locate it effectively. Here is where Rivero’s fourseamers ended up against lefties in 2016:

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And here’s where they’ve been in 2017:

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Rather than scattering the fastball across the zone to lefties, as he did in 2016, Rivero has more consistently located his fastballs, primarily up and in the inner half of the strike zone, pairing up with his sweeping down-and-away slider. Add this improved location to the improved velocity and you get a pitch that lefties have hit a clean .000 against since the beginning of May. And just to add to the fun, Rivero has begun to mix in a curveball more frequently in 2017 with a release point is almost identical to the slider’s. So he’s now dominating lefties – without using his best pitch.

Used as a setup man for the first part of the season, Rivero fairly recently moved into the closer’s role for the Pirates after Tony Watson proved himself unequal to the task and was subsequently traded. This means that the best course of action for the Jays is to avoid the bottom of the ninth altogether. We’ve seen quite a few dramatic late comebacks over the past several weeks, but with Rivero on the mound, I wouldn’t put my money on another one.

Andrew McCutchen Didn’t Stay Down for Long

Remember in the off-season, when rumours were swirling about the Blue Jays’ supposed trade interest in Andrew McCutchen? People at the time were opposed to giving up a big package for the Pirates centrefielder because of his performance in 2016, which was far from his career numbers. He suffered drops in power, speed, and plate discipline, all telltale signs that maybe he was starting to enter the decline phase of his career.

That was not the case. McCutchen has stormed back in 2017, putting up numbers that would look plenty normal if you stuck them in with his earlier career peak. He is striking out at his lowest rate since 2013 and putting up his best power season ever according to ISO. His 2016 decline has not showed up in 2017.

However, this doesn’t mean the Blue Jays have no way of getting him out. His greatest weakness this year has been the slider, with just a .664 OPS against it and 25 strikeouts in 77 at-bats. But there is a very fine line that Blue Jays pitchers need to draw if they are to attack McCutchen with sliders. Although in the aggregate he hasn’t had success against it, he has still hit three home runs on pitches that were left up. If Blue Jays pitchers can set him up with hard stuff inside and then bury sliders in the dirt, they should be able to manage against McCutchen. If they can’t control it and miss with their spots, that’s when he’ll be able to do what he does best and make them pay.

Lead Photo: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

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