Back in 2009 when I started my sports writing exodus I wrote about the Pittsburgh Pirates after another purge of their team to figure out the blueprint they wanted to follow. At the time I thought it was interesting how many names were leaving Pittsburgh because they were legitimate names, then. Jose Bautista, Xavier Nady, Nate McClouth, Jason Bay, and on and on and on left Pittsburgh as it started to become confusing.
Now don’t misunderstand my point, those guys (with the exception of Bautista) weren’t long-term options, but the goal then, as it still is now, was to finish with a .500 or better winning percentage. I think they’ve figured some semblance of a formula out, and it has them (in July!) with the best record in Major League Baseball.
We all know about the bad, right? Below .500 since 1992, six managers (two of which have been to the playoffs since leaving Pittsburgh) since 1992, and despite a beautiful new stadium along the Allegheny river they’ve ranked last or second to last since 2004.
So how did Pittsburgh get to 51-30 and the best record in the National League? That, as I love to point out, is a matter of pitching and perspective.
First the pitching: they lead the world in ERA, saves, fewest earned runs allowed, and are second in WHIP. Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, A.J. Burnett, and Wandy Rodriguez have combined to form a solid top of the rotation for the Pirates. They recently brought up top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole who has rewarded their patience with a 4-0, 3.70 ERA start to his career. I’m a disciple of the school of baseball that still believes heavily in pitching; and it is no surprise that as the ERA of the Pirates has gone down their record has improved every season. When they hand it off to that bullpen, it is about as automatic as it comes in late-game situations. The Pirates are 10-1 (current nine-game winning streak) in the last 14 days, 16-7 the last month, and you need a magnifying glass to see their team ERA.
In other words, they’re really, really, good on the mound.
At the plate they’re no slouches either. I think I’ve made my feelings about Andrew McCutchen pretty clear, but a player who has impressed me is Starling Marte (.288, 8 HR, 22 SB, .360 OBP) who has become a nice piece to pair with the dynamic McCutchen in the outfield. Those two can’t be understated when you have a staff that isn’t giving up many runs because not much is getting by them in the outfield. Pedro Alvarez has hit 20 home runs, but his strikeout rate has always bothered me (94 in 2013), and he doesn’t get on base enough to warrant the below-average defense he’s shown at third base. Despite all of that, the Pirates are doing enough to give them a two game cushion in the National League Central.
Now the perspective.
I don’t want to rain on the Pirates’ parade, but they are doing things in a way that isn’t sustainable and it needs to be addressed soon. they’re not very good against above average/power pitchers, with most of their damage coming against finesse guys they can hammer. I credit the skew to their inability to lay off a fastball and make consistent contact (they currently rank near the bottom of major league baseball in average and on-base percentage). They should be concerned that they are the only current contender in baseball that is near the bottom in those categories.
This is a cause for concern because, like the Indians before them, if the bats don’t improve their discipline in a division with the Cardinals and Reds rotations a year stronger following their October experience, they could be in for a hard fall. They will also have stiff competition in the Wild Card races from the Diamondbacks, Giants, Nationals, and Dodgers.
The Pirates will also need another power bat in their lineup. Pedro Alvarez being the lone player capable of putting the ball over the fence consistently doesn’t bode well for them. McCutchen’s game is tailored to hit third and drive in runs, Marte is their leadoff guy and does his job admirably, but Alvarez isn’t making enough contact to make things difficult on pitchers when they get to his spot in the order and that is a problem. There are options on the trading block, but few are worth any of the important pieces the Pirates would have to give up as buyers in return. Travis Snider isn’t cutting it in right field, and if they can swing a trade for Giancarlos Stanton to boost that position (which they are currently last in production in) then Huntington should pull the trigger.
Still, there is no denying this team has the potential to win the division as-is and end their streak of futility. Every team has their issues, and if the Pirates tighten theirs up they might be right there in the thick of it when all is said and done.