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Pitching and defense give Pirates a real shot at postseason

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Fancy glovework from players like Starling Marte has helped turn the Pirates into one of baseball's best teams.

Baseball hits the halfway mark of the season this weekend and the Pittsburgh Pirates are tied with St. Louis for the best record in baseball. Nothing else -- not Yasiel Puig, not the lack of no-hitters, not the futility of Josh Hamilton and the Angels, not the emergence of Matt Harvey -- is more shocking after a half season than the Pirates holding the best record in baseball.

After two straight second-half collapses, the question everyone wants answered is, can the Pirates hold up this time? The answer is yes, at least as it concerns competing for a playoff spot in September, because Pittsburgh has been the best defensive team in the National League, a trait that should last.

Starters Gerrit Cole, 22, Jeff Locke, 25, and Jeanmar Gomez, 25, are a combined 12-1, though none of the young pitchers ever have pitched a game that mattered down the stretch. We'll see how they do pitching under pressure and into a sixth month, but for now, check out how Pittsburgh's starting pitching compares to what it had last year:

YearBAABABIPERAK/9K/BB
2012.256.2934.217.02.43
2013.230.2723.327.62.23

Only St. Louis has a better ERA from its rotation than Pittsburgh. But the Pirates' strikeout-to-walk rate is an unimpressive 13th in the league -- and worse than the 2012 Pirates' staff. So what's the difference between this year and last year? Check out the batting average on balls in play. The Pirates have improved tremendously in that area.

Here's another way to measure the improved Pittsburgh defense: defensive efficiency, a measurement of how often a team turns batted balls into outs. In 2012, the Pirates had a .697 mark that ranked 11th in the majors. This year, they're at .715 and have upgraded to being the best team in baseball at turning batted balls into outs. No wonder their pitching looks so good.

Much of the improvement defensively comes from a full season of Starling Marte, a centerfielder playing leftfield, and veteran Russell Martin behind the plate, who replaced Rod Barajas. Shortstop Clint Barmes and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen are premier defenders having even better seasons.

You have to go back 21 years to remember a pennant race in Pittsburgh. Now an entire generation of fans there could be looking at their first one.

LEMIRE: Pirates swipe top spot in Power Rankings from Cardinals

2. Manny is the Man

Mike Trout, 21, is still the best player in baseball, the one you should pick if you started a franchise from scratch today. Bryce Harper, 20, is younger than Trout and is an impact player on so many levels (when healthy). And Puig, 22, is the most exciting player in baseball now because we have yet to see him slump. But recently a veteran manager made this observation to me that I found fascinating, if not shocking: "The guy I would take over all of them is Manny Machado."

Whoa. Machado, the Baltimore third baseman, is a superior defender and a rare long-armed hitter who has tremendous skill at hitting pitches anywhere near the strike zone. He just might break the 82-year-old record for doubles (67). But, as I said out loud to the manager in response to his choice, "Better than Trout?"

"Here's what I see," he replied. "I think over the next seven to 10 years the way Machado plays and the body type that he has will allow him to hold up better. He's just a pure baseball player. I don't think you worry over the long term as much about how he will hold up as you might with the other guys."

It makes you think about how the game has changed: a manager preferring the lean, athletic type over the more heavily muscled ones.

3. Holliday doubling his displeasure

While we track the pursuit by Machado of the doubles record set by Earl Webb, we also should be tracking a more inglorious "doubles" chase: the single season record for grounding into double plays. Matt Holliday of St. Louis already has 20 GIDPs this season -- as many as the final league leader from last year (Ryan Zimmerman).

The National League record is 32, set by Miguel Tejada with the 2008 Astros. The major league record is 36, set by Jim Rice with the 1984 Red Sox. (Rice also ranks second on the all-time list with 35 in 1985.)

Holliday, like Rice, fits the template of a guy who can set the record: a righthanded slugger without much speed who hits with plenty of runners on base. Holliday has come to the plate 74 times with a possible GIDP in order. He has 19 hits and 20 GIDPs in those spots.

But before you downgrade the guy for often making two outs with one swing, you should know he has been a superb clutch hitter for St. Louis this year. Holliday is hitting .203 with the bases empty, but he is hitting .341 with runners on, .361 with runners in scoring position and .375 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

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