The NL Central is the nexus of competitive baseball in the National League. Two of the Central's heavyweights, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, will match up against each other over the weekend. With nine games left in the season, the Pirates trail the first-place Cardinals by a game and the Reds trail by two, so this series has a litany of postseason implications.
If the Reds, who have been stuck in third place since late June, should happen to sweep the Pirates, could they also jump ahead of the Cardinals? If the Pirates sweep the Reds, could they finish in first place for the first time since 1992? To quote Terrell Owens, "Get your popcorn ready." As you prepare for a fun weekend of pennant-race baseball, here are some keys you should be paying attention to in the Reds-Pirates series.
1. Billy Hamilton. The 23-year-old speedster has made waves throughout his minor league career, racking up 395 stolen bases in 479 attempts since 2009. Between Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola last year, Hamilton hit .311 with a .410 on-base percentage. Those numbers dropped this year in his first stint with Triple-A Louisville, but that didn't prevent the Reds from giving him a taste of the big leagues, calling him up at the beginning of September. He made his first start on Wednesday against the Astros, going 3-for-4 with a double, two walks and four stolen bases. Otherwise, the Reds have mostly been using him as a pinch runner. Hamilton is a 9-for-9 stealing bases overall. Hamilton's speed could make the difference in a close game. Pirates catchers have thrown out runners at the third-highest rate in the National League this year at 33 percent, trailing only the Cardinals and Dodgers.
2. Andrew McCutchen. He has a strong case for the National League MVP award, sitting on a .325/.408/.520 line with 27 stolen bases and plus defense in center field. Players like Starling Marte and Russell Martin have been huge for the Pirates, but the Bucs have gone as McCutchen has gone. It will be up to Reds manager Dusty Baker and his pitching staff to neutralize the 26-year-old throughout the series.
3. The Reds' on-base machines. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo have on-base percentages north of .425, which would make them the first teammates to accomplish the feat since Todd Helton and Larry Walker in 2001. Votto, at .433, has had an MVP-caliber season, leading the league in walks and OBP while hitting .307 with 23 home runs. As much as people have lauded Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce for the Reds' success, the primary credit should go to Votto and Choo. If the Reds are able to score a bunch of runs against the Pirates, it will be because Votto and Choo continue to get on base. The Pirates will attempt to neutralize them by starting lefties Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke in the series. Votto hits .262 against left-handers, while Choo is hitting .207 with no home runs.
4. Pirates' defensive shifts. Recently, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published a fantastic article detailing the ways in which the Pirates have succeeded since adopting a more modern view of defense. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus alum Dan Fox and his use of historical batted-ball data, the Pirates changed their approach to defense and began repositioning their players based on a number of factors. According to Sawchik, the Pirates have shifted their infield well over 400 times this season compared to 105 last year and 87 times in 2011. Will it matter against the Reds, who lead the league in walks but rank eighth in batting average?
5. Homer Bailey. Last month, Chad Dotson wrote about how Bailey has turned into an ace for the Reds. The right-hander has had two no-hitters within the span of one year (September 2012 and July this year). Dotson pointed out that Bailey has added velocity to his fastball, which has improved his strikeout rate, and has mastered a split-fingered fastball that has improved his ground ball rate. Bailey is slated to go up against Pirates veteran A.J. Burnett on Saturday.
6. Francisco Liriano. Liriano has been a great find for the Pirates, rebounding from an ERA north of 5.00 in each of the past two seasons to 2.92 this year. As good as he has been, though, he is prone to a blow-up every now and then. On Sept. 4, he allowed seven runs in three innings against the lowly Brewers. On Aug. 24, the Giants tagged him for four runs in four innings. At Coors Field on Aug. 9, Liriano was charged with 10 runs while recording just seven outs. Overall, Liriano has averaged exactly a strikeout per inning pitched while drastically lowering his walk rate. If the Pirates get the good Liriano on Friday night against Mat Latos, they will be in good shape.
Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.