NLDS Cardinals-Pirates Game 3 preview: Kelly vs. Liriano

Game 3 in Pittsburgh pits Joe Kelly (left) against Francisco Liriano. (USATSI)
Game 3 in Pittsburgh pits Joe Kelly (left) against Francisco Liriano. (USATSI)

MORE: Pirates-Cardinals: Who's got the edge?

Game 3 of the NLDS between the Cardinals and Pirates will go down in what's sure to be a raucous PNC Park. First pitch is scheduled for 4:37 pm ET, and the visiting Cards will pit 25-year-old right-hander Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA, 135 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP, 1.80 K/BB) against lefty Pirates ace Francisco Liriano (16-8, 3.02 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 2.59 K/BB). 

Let's see how this one breaks down ... 

Kelly vs. Pirates

This season, just 15 of Kelly's 38 appearances have been starts. He's made 31 total starts across two major-league seasons, and here are his combined numbers as a member of the St. Louis rotation: 178 1/3 IP, 3.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 1.59 K/BB. That's a nice ERA, but there's some cause for concern. First, Kelly as a starter has given up unearned runs at a high rate (13 in those 31 starts), and pitchers of course do bear some responsibility for unearned runs. As well, his command as a starter is at times lacking, as evinced by that low K/BB ratio.

With that said, Kelly induces ground balls at a high rate (his groundball/fly-ball rate of 1.81 would rank 11th in the majors this season if he'd logged a qualifying number of innings), and he does so thanks to a sinker that he leans on heavily. Given that kind of profile, you can be a bit more forgiving if the underlying peripheral numbers aren't that strong. 

In 2013, Kelly has faced the Pirates on six occasions (three starts, three relief appearances) and yielded the following numbers: 21 1/3 IP, 2.53 ERA, 16 K, 10 BB (all unintentional), 1 HR. Hitters presently on the Pittsburgh roster have combined to hit a fairly productive .284/.376/.376 against Kelly, albeit across a total sample of just 125 plate appearances. 

One other thing worth noting: The Pirates' offense has the seventh-highest groundball percentage in MLB this season, so that, from the Cardinals' perspective, might dovetail nicely with Kelly's worm-burning tendencies. 

Liriano vs. Cardinals

In 2013, Liriano has made three starts against the Cardinals, all in the second half of the season. Over those combined 24 innings, he posted an ERA of 0.75 to go with 20 strikeouts and five unintentional walks. So he's fared well, to say the least. Current Cardinal hitters have teamed up to face Liriano just 74 times, and they've struggled (.159/.216/.217) across that limited sample. 

Other trends of note ... Liriano this season has sparkling 1.47 ERA in 11 home starts. The Cardinals, meantime, rank second in the NL this season in weight runs created+ (wRC+) on the road. However, they rank just 10th in the 15-team NL in wRC+ against lefties. 

On the latter point, Liriano does show substantial platoon splits, both in 2013 and across his career. While the Cardinals have a number of imposing right-handed bats, the absence of Allen Craig forces the left-handed-hitting Matt Adams into the lineup. As well, Pete Kozma can't hit either side, and manager Mike Matheny seems disinclined to platoon Jon Jay with, say, Shane Robinson on regular basis (and, to be fair, Robinson is not a productive hitter even in platoon-advantaged situations). In other words, the Cardinals, despite having one of the best offenses in baseball, may be poorly equipped to get to Liriano. 

With that said, keep your eyes peeled when Liriano faces Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. Those two opposite-side mashers have handled sliders very well over their careers, and Liriano has been gradually increasing his use of the slide-piece in recent weeks. He may be forced to adjust his pitch selection if either of those two come up in a key spot. 

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