How Johnny Cueto, Francisco Liriano Match Up Against NL Wild Card Game Offenses

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2013

The pieces are all in place for the National League Wild Card Game. The teams, the venue and the pitching matchup have been decided.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds were locked in as the Senior Circuit's two wild-card clubs the moment the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the NL Central with a win over the Chicago Cubs on Friday night.

And after using a six-home run barrage to notch a second straight win against the Reds on Saturday afternoon, the Pirates earned the right to host the play-in game at PNC Park on Tuesday.

As Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, on the mound for the Pirates is going to be Francisco Liriano. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer, meanwhile, reported on Saturday that Reds manager Dusty Baker has settled on Johnny Cueto, as Matt Latos has been dealing with a sore arm.

After taking a look at a few numbers, I can say the following: Tuesday's game should be a good one. There are things working in favor of both pitchers and both teams.

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 16:  Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds throws  in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on September 16, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first: Cueto has gotten the nod, but is he ready for it? He has, after all, been battling shoulder injuries for much of 2013 and has only made two starts since being activated off the disabled list.

The two starts Cueto's made are a bit of a mixed bag. He allowed only one earned run in 12 innings, sure, but he did so against the Houston Astros and New York Mets and wasn't totally overpowering. He collected only 10 strikeouts to four walks, with one home run allowed.

But while I hesitate to say "He's back!" based on his recent form, it is encouraging that Cueto's arm appears to be at full strength (or near enough to it). Per Brooks Baseball, here's how his fastball velocity in his last two starts compare to what he had in 2012.

There's a small velocity gap between what Cueto had in 2012 and what he's had in his last two starts, but that it's only a small gap is the good news. It's not as if Cueto is missing three, two or even one mile per hour off his prior velocity.

So despite the fact the 27-year-old Cueto doesn't have as many appearances under his belt as Liriano, I'd say we're looking at a fair fight. That's our go-ahead to dig a little deeper into a variety of super-interesting statistical stuffitude. 

You've probably heard it mentioned that Francisco Liriano has had a tendency to own at PNC Park. And this is very much true, as he has a 1.47 ERA at Pittsburgh's home park in 2013, holding hitters to a .474 OPS.

But hey, Cueto's been in his element at PNC Park, too. He has a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts in his career at PNC Park and has held hitters to a .544 OPS there. Per, his lowest ERA at parks in which he's made at least three starts.

And since he's not the one who's pitching in the NL Central for the first time in 2013, Cueto is, obviously, more experienced pitching against the Pirates than Liriano is pitching against the Reds. Cueto owns a 2.37 ERA in 21 career starts against the Bucs, which looks better than the 3.70 ERA Liriano has in four starts against the Reds this season.

But since Johnny Cueto has racked up his impressive ERA over several seasons against several different versions of the Pirates, let's narrow our focus a bit and see how he's done against the players he's likely to come up against on Tuesday:

It must be a welcome sight for Reds fans that Cueto has handled Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker so well, as Alvarez has killed the Reds the last two days and Walker blasted two homers in Saturday's game. He's also handled Clint Barmes, Russell Martin and Starling Marte well, albeit in limited matchups:

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06:  Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two RBI double in the third inning against the Miami Marlins during the game on August 6, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Ima
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Cueto will have to be careful with Andrew McCutchen and Marlon Byrd, but one wonders if he'll have to worry about facing Garrett Jones.

Justin Morneau has really taken over first base since coming over from Minnesota, while Jones has been left to waste away on the bench in the meantime. And Jones has only four hits in his last 31 at-bats, so Clint Hurdle might be sticking with Morneau on Tuesday.

If so, Cueto will be facing a lineup with only two hitters who have hurt him in the past. How about Liriano? Here's a look:

There's not a whole lot of history here, but it does bode well for Liriano, 29, that he's handled Shin-Soo Choo well in the past, which, of course, dates back to when they were both playing in the AL Central. It also bodes well that he's handled Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto so well. And since Choo, Bruce and Votto are lefty hitters, Liriano could be shutting them down again on Tuesday.

As for the three who have pummeled LirianoRyan Ludwick, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco—it's likely that Liriano will only have to deal with two of them in Tuesday's game. Ryan Hanigan has been the starting catcher in 10 of Cueto's 11 starts this season and also caught 32 of Cueto's 33 starts in 2012. Hanigan will probably be out there to catch him once again.

So what we have here is a push. In all likelihood, both Cueto and Liriano are going to be facing lineups that contain only two hitters who have hurt them in past matchups. And in the case of the Reds against Liriano, the numbers against him aren't entirely indicative of how the team has fared against lefty starters this season.

On the contrary, the Reds have actually done quite well against southpaws this season:

The Reds have been slightly less effective against southpaw starters, but only slightly. That .711 OPS they have isn't low relative to other teams either. Per, the Reds rank about middle of the pack in MLB in OPS against lefty starters.

As for the Pirates, I'll note that they only had a .698 OPS against righty starters heading into Saturday's game. Things aren't so bad after hitting five home runs against Bronson Arroyo over the weekend, but there's still quite a difference between their performances against lefty starters and righty starters.

The Bucs have done considerably worse this season against right-handed starters. It's also relevant to our discussion that they've done worse against righty starters than the Reds have against lefty starters. 

It's not much, but that will do for a point in the Reds' favor. From here, let's take pitching styles under consideration, shall we?

Francisco Liriano and Johnny Cueto are two different pitchers. With a strikeout rate in the neighborhood of 25 percent, Liriano is more of a power pitcher.

Cueto, on the other hand, is more of an average strikeout pitcher. What he's better at is racking up ground balls, as FanGraphs has his ground-ball percentages over the last three seasons right around 50 percent. That's easily above-average territory.

While the site's stats for ground balls differ slightly from those of FanGraphs, does track how teams do against certain types of pitchers. That means we can compare how the Reds have done against power pitchers this season to how the Pirates have done against ground-ball pitchers.

So let's do so:

It's a small advantage, granted, but the Reds have done better against power pitchers than the Pirates have done against ground-ball pitchers. That'll do for another point in favor of Cincinnati.

There's one last place we can look for a potential advantage, and that's in how Liriano and Cueto tend to go after hitters. To this end, there's something that they have in common.

Liriano doesn't have a tendency to throw pitch after pitch in the strike zone. According to Baseball Info Solutions data, by way of FanGraphs, Liriano actually ranks second to last among qualified starters for the percentage of pitches he throws inside the strike zone (Zone%).

However, Cueto doesn't live in the strike zone either. Both he and Liriano are pitchers who rely on getting hitters to expand the strike zone a bit more than the average starting pitcher, as the following table can show:

(Note: We're looking at Cueto's numbers spanning 2012 and 2013 because his 2013 numbers alone represent too small a sample size.)

Since both Liriano and Cueto both require hitters to be undisciplined to a certain degree, logic says that the team facing the more disciplined lineup on Tuesday will be in for a challenge. To this end, the numbers say that Cueto has the better matchup. With another assist from FanGraphs:

It's close, but Reds hitters have had a tendency to take fewer swings outside the strike zone. The gap is less small in the number of swings these two clubs have taken inside the strike zone, as the Reds have been more prolific in doing so.

It's absolutely worth noting that Liriano knows about Cincinnati's relative discipline from experience. He walked seven in 12.1 innings in his last two starts against the Reds. One of those was an excellent eight-inning performance in which he got away with some wildness. The other saw him leave after only logging 4.1 innings.

If you're a Pirates fan, you should still be optimistic about your team's chances for the NLDS. The Buccos will be going into the game with some momentum, and they'll have both the home field and a guy on the mound who has dominated on that home field. If the Reds aren't on their game, he could do so again.

But based on what we've looked at, Reds fans can be optimistic, too. Cueto's arm appears to be in solid shape. He has a good track record against the Pirates and at PNC Park, and he owns quality career numbers against some of Pittsburgh's top hitters. Also, the Pirates would appear to be less cut out for a matchup against him than the Reds are for a matchup against Liriano.

So, basically...who's ready for a good baseball game?


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