After twenty years of losing baseball and a September collapse last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have their share of doubters. One of them has been TheSportsNotebook. I’ve resisted and resisted acknowledging this team, especially on my Monday podcasts with Pirate believer Greg DePalma, but here we are on the final day of June and coming into today’s games it’s the Pirates who have the best record in all of baseball.
My stubbornness over accepting the Pirates as a legit playoff contender is not about hostility—I lived in Pittsburgh for nine years, have great memories of it, and particularly love the idea of beautiful PNC Park being in the national spotlight. When I sat out at a mostly empty ballpark in the summer of the early ‘00s, I would think how fantastic this little gem on the Allegheny would be on a crisp October night with playoff baseball in town.
But sentiment can’t override analysis, and the Pirates earned the skepticism our MLB coverage has given them, particularly with their anemic offense last year that was unable to give any help to an embattled Andrew McCutchen down the stretch. This season though, Pittsburgh has put together a 50-30 record—an astonishing 101-win pace—through phenomenal pitching and an offense that’s improved just enough to keep scraping out wins.
SUPPORT FOR THE STAR
I don’t want to make it out like Pittsburgh is an offensive juggernaut—they’re still 10th in the National League in runs scored, but they’re piecing together enough help for McCutchen to at least get by. We can start with hot-hitting Pedro Alvarez at third base. Over the last month, Alvarez has hit 10 of his 20 home runs and also batted .330. His season-long on-base percentage is still pretty bad, and there are questions about how much he can contribute when the long balls hit a drought, but he’s become a big-time power bat in the middle of the lineup.
Neil Walker is the other end of the spectrum. The second baseman doesn’t have much power, but what he does do is consistently get on base—a .357 OBP and has a career track record that suggests he can sustain this for the balance of the season. Simply getting runners on base ahead of McCutchen will ease the burden the star felt last September, when he resembled Kevin Durant in the second round of this year’s NBA playoffs—someone who was giving his all, but was finally crushed under the weight of having to do it all.
Key supporting roles are played by veteran catcher Russell Martin and young left fielder Starling Marte, who each get on base consistently and provide a little bit of pop. Martin’s experience in handling pitchers, and also being in a clubhouse with expectations—the Yankees the past couple years—bring added intangibles to this roster.
The wild-card is young shortstop Jordy Mercier, who has replaced the offensively inept
Jordy Mercier Clint Barmes. With a stat line of .326 on-base percentage/.451 slugging percentage, Mercier has made an instant impact on the lineup.
Oh, and McCutchen? He might not be putting up MVP numbers like this time last year, but at .358/.465 he’s enjoying another solid season and doing it a sustainable rate. Think of what might happen if he goes on a month-long offensive binge.
TOP-TO-BOTTOM PITCHING DOMINANCE
If I’d told you that when July began, the Pirates would have A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald all on the disabled list, you’d have thought it would be a good time for the city to turn the page and get ready for football season. Not only is not the case, but Pittsburgh’s pitching is the best in the National League.
It starts with the Double L combo of Locke and Liriano. Jeff Locke has been a revelation, with a 2.06 ERA in 16 starts. Francisco Liriano has had a comeback year, with a 2.23 ERA in 10 starts. The club called up highly touted Gerrit Cole, and with a 3.74 ERA in his four trips to the post, Cole looks ready to be an immediate contributor to the rotation and the potential for even more. Jeanmar Gomez has pitched effectively, as has Charlie Morton.
And if you’re trailing the Pirates after five or six innings, you might as well shut it down. The bullpen is deep, with a balance of consistent pitchers and those who’ve been nothing less than outstanding. Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson are all having good years. Mark Melancon, with an 0.92 ERA has been the best setup man in the league. And Jason Grilli, closing 27 of 28 save chances with a 1.77 ERA, needs to be in the MVP discussion.
The concerns would be this—Wilson, after a blazing start, has a 4.38 ERA in the last month and needs to settle back down. And then there are the injured arms. McDonald is going for a second opinion on his shoulder this week. We don’t know what the first opinion was, but if the pitcher is looking for another one, is it unreasonable to think he got some bad news? At this point, I don’t know if I count on having an effective McDonald back this year.
Rodriguez had pitched well in his 12 starts, but he had to be shut down again Saturday, continuing what’s been a troubled several weeks for him. We haven’t heard a report suggesting any long-term problems, but given the difficulty he’s had getting off the DL, and the fact he’s 34-years-old, I’d be a little nervous here. There’s not as much concern about Burnett. He’s recovering from a torn calf and will throw a simulated game this week. The team’s strong play has given them a cushion to avoid rushing the 36-year-old back into the rotation, but I think he holds the key to their ultimate postseason success.
WHERE IS THIS ALL GOING?
Did I say “ultimate postseason success” with the Pittsburgh Pirates? The implication being that there will finally be playoff baseball in the Steel City for the first time since 1992? Look, when a team is on a 100-win pace at the halfway point, I think basic respect requires you say they can advance into a 10-team bracket for a 30-team league. I still feel cold feet personally, but it would require a pretty substantial collapse to not at least pick up a wild-card.
It’s getting an NL Central title—and the assurance of a complete playoff series—that’s a bigger question. St. Louis won’t go anywhere quietly and is only a game back. Cincinnati is facing some obstacles, but Dusty Baker finds a way to get his teams in contention.
Pittsburgh probably still needs another bat—with Travis Snider having a lousy year in right field, that would be a good spot to add someone. But the foundation is much stronger this year than it was when they were looking to make moves last July. We can further add that after their home city watched the Penguins flame out in the NHL playoffs because they were all about flashy offense and not able to score, they might appreciate a team that’s good at preventing scoring.
I’m not ready to pick Pittsburgh over St. Louis in the NL Central, but yes, it’s time for us doubters to buy into the Pirates as a playoff team.
AROUND THE NL CENTRAL
St. Louis (49-31): On a pace close to 100 wins themselves, the Cards still have the league’s best offense and are close to the top in pitching.
Cincinnati (46-35): The problems with Johnny Cueto persist. He was sent to the disabled list for the third time this season with a lat injury sustained on Friday.
Chicago Cubs (34-45): Think if the Cubs actually had a bullpen. They’ve blown nearly half of their 33 save chances.
Milwaukee (32-47): Unsurprisingly, the injury to Ryan Braun, has hurt the Brewer offense, which is down to 11th in the league. And the pitching is still the NL’s worst.