Pirates off to strong start, but will Bucs' futility stop here?
The Pirates have spent the last two seasons teasing the baseball world, playing above .500 until late in the season before collapsing in epic fashion and maintaining the franchise's streak of losing teams, which is now at 20. This year's squad, though, is on an 11-2 tear and enters the weekend 29-18, tied for the second-best record in the National League. Is the end of their futility at hand?
Before delving deeper into that question, it's worth noting that Pittsburgh's hot streak has come against some of the game's biggest patsies: the Mets (currently 17-27), Brewers (18-27), Astros 14-33) and Cubs (18-28). Overall, the Pirates' +23 run differential is sixth in the National League, still respectable but less indicative of a powerhouse. Their Pythagorean winning percentage of .558 is 59 points below their actual winning percentage of .617, the equivalent of roughly three wins at this stage of the season. Thus, it's fair to suggest that they're playing a bit over their heads.
That said, Pittsburgh is 12-6 against teams over .500, having taken series from the Braves, Cubs, Reds and Cardinals. Along with the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Reds, the Bucs are one of just four NL teams with winning records at home (18-9) and on the road (11-9). This is a very competitive team.
The Pirates' strengths thus far have been pitching and defense. They're second in the league at 3.47 runs per game allowed, a whisker behind the Cardinals' 3.46, and they're first in strikeout rate (8.3 per nine) and defensive efficiency (.714, in a virtual tie with the Braves) — an effective combination. The rotation's overall performance (3.61 ERA, 45 percent quality start rate) is just middle of the pack, but take away the departed Jonathan Sanchez and the injured James McDonald and the rest of the unit has been much better, with all five remaining starters — A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez — currently carrying ERAs of 3.40 or below, though all but Burnett are significantly outpitching their peripherals. Burnett (2.57 ERA, 11.3 strikeouts per nine) is showing last year's escape from New York was no fluke, and Liriano (1.00 ERA and 12.5 strikeouts per nine in three starts) is looking as dominant as he has in years since his return from a fractured humerus.
Meanwhile, the bullpen has been stellar, with a 2.74 ERA and 17 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score, both league bests. Closer Jason Grilli, a 36-year-old who had just five career saves coming into the year, is 19-for-19 with a 1.25 ERA and 14.1 strikeouts per nine, continuing a a late-carer breakout. Righty Mark Melancon and lefty Justin Wilson have provided strong support as well.
The offense has been decidedly more mediocre, scoring just 3.96 runs per game, 10th in the league, and it has its share of holes. Neil Walker (.228/.338/.298) has struggled overall, and has been even worse since returning from a spike-induced laceration on his right hand. Pedro Alvarez (.189/.248/.364 with eight homers) remains a frustrating player, powerful but all too pull-happy, though at least his defense does appear to have improved. Clint Barmes (.229/.272/.314) remains an offensive sinkhole, though his glovework is legit.
More happily, Andrew McCutchen is heating up; following a slow April, his May performance (.347/.410/.547) is approaching last year's breakout (.327/.400/.553). Twenty-four-year-old Starling Marte (.310/.377/.462) has impressed during his first full season, shoring up a position that was getting a .195/.239/.319 line before his callup in late July; that said, his 46/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio — on top of last year's 50/8 ratio — suggests that pitchers will take advantage of his undisciplined approach sooner or later. The Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon at first base has produced a very respectable .268/.345/.470 line — only three NL teams have a higher OPS at the position — and while Travis Snider (.267/.331/.414) has yet to deliver the power suggested by his track record, his overall work has been positive.
Perhaps the biggest improvement over last year has been at catcher, where Russell Martin -- whom the Pirates snatched away from the Yankees with a two-year, $17 million deal -- replaced Rod Barajas. Martin has hit .262/.353/.492 with six homers, tied for second on the team, and while his .255 batting average on balls in play is still 30 points shy of his career average, it's also 30 points better than last year's mark, which disguised his combination of pop and patience and may have caused him to be undervalued.
Martin has been a far better hitter than Barajas (.206/.283/.343 last year), but his defense behind the plate has been at least as important, if not more so, as the team replaced a well-below-average pitch-framer with one of the game's best. In an interview with Martin at Grantland last week, Ben Lindbergh illustrated that the area in which Pittsburgh's pitchers were getting called strikes is significantly larger than in years past, particularly at the top and bottom of the strike zone. Lindbergh summarized Martin's skills:
From 2008 to present, Martin’s rate of getting strikes on called pitches below the zone by two inches or less has been 13 percent above average. He’s been 19 percent above average at getting strikes on called pitches above the zone by two inches or less, and 24 percent above average at getting strikes on called pitches off the edges by two inches or less.
Beyond the framing, Martin has thrown out 50 percent of opposing stolen base attempts compared to Barajas' impossible-to-fathom six percent.
To remain in contention, the Pirates will have to avoid the late-season swoons that have undercut their climb toward respectability. In 2011, they were 53-47 as of July 25, tied for first place in the NL Central but they went an NL-worst 19-43 the rest of the way. In 2012, they were 67-54, clinging to the second wild-card spot as late as Aug. 19, but they finished a league-worst 12-29. Both skids came under current manager Clint Hurdle, who apparently couldn't turn a deep enough shade of magenta to change the team's fate. If this squad starts to go into a similar tailspin, general manager Neal Huntington should consider making a change if only to ensure that the team can at least bring home a winning record, which would greatly enhance its credibility.
Huntington showed last year that he wasn't afraid to make bold moves to bolster the team at the trading deadline, and while the acquisitions of Rodriguez, Snider and Sanchez didn't all pan out as intended, they've gotten better returns on those players — who were more than just short-term stopgaps — this year. One additional move they can look forward to is a possible late-season call-up of 2011 number one pick Gerrit Cole, a 6-foot-4, 22-year-old righty who is holding his own but hardly dominating at Triple-A Indianapolis. Armed with a mid-90s fastball that can touch 98 and an outstanding slider, he has the tools to be a number one or number two starter given time. Baseball Prospectus' Mark Anderson scouted a recent outing and wrote:
"At his best, one of the most impressive and dominating pitchers I have seen; fastball and slider can stand on their own and dominate; third pitch is just gravy… command lagged in stretch; never looked completely comfortable with runners on; intensity fluctuated during start; has to maintain focus/desire/intensity; when he does, stuff is crisp and nearly unhittable…"In short, Cole has stuff to dream on, but he's not yet all the way there, and to some extent, the same could be said for the Pirates, who will be a more rounded club if hitters like Walker and Alvarez can approach their 2012 performances. That said, the current unit is a better one than in years past. While they'll have to battle recent division champions like the Cardinals and Reds as well as other contenders to return to the postseason, it’s reasonable for their fans to hope that the Bucs’ two decades of futility stops here.