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The Strike Zone

Buc bats strengthening Pittsburgh's playoff bid

Starling Marte has given the Pirates a big boost since his arrival in the majors two weeks ago. (Getty Images)

Through April and May, nobody took the Pirates for contenders. They maintained a level 25-25 record through the season's first two months largely on the strength of their pitching and despite being outscored by 29 runs (176-147). During that time, their offense eked out a major league-worst 2.94 runs per game. Their lineup could have been aptly described as Andrew McCutchen and the Seven Dwarves; while the centerfielder hit a stellar .331/.389/.541, the rest of the team batted a combined .204/.257/.322, with no other regular contributing an OPS higher than Garrett Jones' .696 (on a .232/.250/.446 line), and second baseman Neil Walker (who hit .254/.312/.335 during that span) the only regular with an on-base percentage above .300. During that span, they scored more than five runs just four times.

The arrival of June apparently flipped a switch on the dormant offense, turning the Bucs into the new Pittsburgh Lumber Company. Since then, the team has scored a league-leading 5.15 runs per game while hitting a combined .270/.327/.461. They've topped five runs 24 times in those 60 games en route to an NL-best 38-22 record. McCutchen has emerged as an MVP candidate by putting up video game numbers — .400/.461/.689 with 15 homers over a span of 254 PA — with five other regulars and part-time catcher Michael McKenry contributing and OPS of at least .746 (the league average is .720). Walker (.321/.390/.548 with 11 homers), Jones (.301/.337/.546 with 11 homers) and Pedro Alvarez (.249/.332/.497 with 13 homers) have been particularly productive, with McKenry contributing a .333/.382/.689 line with eight homers in 102 PA.

Their recent upgrades have helped. As the July 31 trading deadline approached, the team's most glaring needs were at the outfield corners, where even with surges from Alex Presley and Jones, the team's production remained in the dumps. Instead of surrendering top prospects to secure two-month rentals of name-brand players, general manager Neal Huntington called up Starling Marte from the team's Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate, and traded setup reliever Brad Lincoln to the Blue Jays for Travis Snider. Thus far, the moves have paid off; Marte homered in his first major league plate appearance, and now has four in 57 PA, including one in Wednesday night's win over the Diamondbacks. The sample size since Marte's July 26 debut isn't very big, but the combined effect of the new arrivals has been significant:

Through July 25PAHRBAOBASlug%
Leftfield4297.196.242.317
Rightfield40812.258.298.437
Combined83719.226.269.375
Since July 26HRBAOBASlug%
Leftfield604.268.300.554
Rightfield574.302.333.547
Combined1178.284.316.550

The cornermen have been light in the on-base department, but that's been offset by their power, which has come from Marte and Jones, who has been alternating between rightfield and first base, where another deadline acquisition, Gaby Sanchez, is off to a slower start.

Overall, the Pirates have scored 4.15 runs per game, which ranks 10th in the league, 0.08 runs below average. Their most glaring weakness is a lack of plate discipline; their .303 on-base percentage and 6.2 percent unintentional walk rate both rank second-to-last in the league. Their punch makes up for their lack of patience, as their 126 homers rank third in the league, their .163 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) fourth, their .410 slugging percentage seventh. They've led the NL homers in June and July, with 39 apiece, and they're tied for the August lead with 10.

Individually, McCutchen is making a strong bid for Most Valuable Player honors. The 25-year-old is hitting .370/.430/.625, with his batting average and slugging percentage both leading the league, while his on-base percentage is second, and his 23 homers tied for third. His 5.4 Wins Above Replacement Player is a whisker ahead of the NL pack:

RkNAMETeamPAHRAVGOBPSLGTrue AvgWARP
1Andrew McCutchenPirates44723.370.430.625.3615.4
2Melky CabreraGiants47511.355.399.532.3385.3
3David WrightMets46816.325.419.537.3355.1
4Ryan BraunBrewers45229.304.385.585.3314.6
5Carlos RuizPhillies35314.335.399.559.3384.4
6Buster PoseyGiants41418.329.399.541.3434.4
7Joey VottoReds37014.342.465.604.3504.1
8Yadier MolinaCardinals39516.316.364.505.3053.7
9Jason HeywardBraves44318.269.344.477.2943.7
10Matt HollidayCardinals47421.321.403.547.3343.4

McCutchen is further ahead of the pack according to Baseball Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement, with 6.1 WAR compared to Wright's 5.6 and Cabrera's 4.9, with the difference mainly owing to defensive metrics. Particularly if Pittsburgh remains in contention, he's got an excellent shot at bringing home the hardware, which of course would make him the first Pirate to win MVP honors since Barry Bonds in 1992 — not coincidentally the Bucs' last winning season.

Though they're now 2 1/2 games behind the Reds at 63-47, the Pirates have a 3 1/2 game cushion in the Wild Card race, and according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, they have a 60.9 percent chance at reaching the postseason. Their success thus far still owes more to their run prevention,which ranks fourth in the league at 3.83 runs per game allowed, but with their offense now pulling its weight, it's a whole lot easier to believe in their chances.
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