The Pittsburgh Pirates went into full-scale rebuilding mode this offseason when they traded Andrew McCutcheon to San Francisco and Gerrit Cole to Houston. But the Pirates have done an admirable job in the early part of this baseball season. Their 19-16 record has them amidst a four-team logjam in the NL Central with expected contenders in the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs. Here’s a look at what has keyed Pittsburgh’s early winning ways and what needs to happen for it to continue…
The Pirates are swinging the bats well. They’re the second-best offense in the National League and the biggest reason for that is consistent power. They rank second in slugging percentage and the primary reason is that they do it the old-fashioned way—simply getting hits, with the #2 batting average in the league. Pittsburgh is also top four in both doubles and home runs.
Corey Dickerson has been the team’s best offensive player. The 28-year-old left fielder has posted a stat line of .356 on-base percentage/.532 slugging percentage, has driven in 24 runs and ripped ten doubles. Dickerson has yet to post numbers like these for a full season, but at the same time, they do fit a pattern of improvement that showed during his past two years in Tampa Bay.
Francisco Cervelli has given the Pirates a .391/.559 stat line. At age 32, he’s a known commodity and is not going to hit for this kind of power over the long haul. But Cervelli has become pretty consistent at delivering good on-base percentages and as a catcher, provides offensive pop at a position not known for it.
Starling Marte joins Dickerson in the outfield, and Marte’s numbers are .349/.471. That’s better than his career norms, but not out of the question for him to put up if 2018 is going to be a career-best season.
These three players have lifted an offense that has carried a subpar pitching staff. Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the National League in ERA and there is no individual pitcher delivering any kind of signature performance this year.
It’s for that reason that the smart money in Vegas is right to stay very cautious with this team. The Pirates are still priced at a healthy 8-1 simply to win the NL Central. By contrast, the Brewers are 4-1, the Cardinals are 7 -2 and the Cubs are the 1-2 betting favorite.
But there is a seam of hope in the starting rotation. Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl both have ERAs in the low 4s and both are in their third big-league seasons. It’s not like either one is getting rocked right now and both are at a point in their careers where a breakout is possible. If the rotation gets stable, the task of manager Clint Hurdle in piecing together a bullpen becomes much easier. If that happens, Pittsburgh can at least stay in the mix of the playoff race until August or so when the city turns its attention to the Steelers.
I wouldn’t bet on it happening. But as one who lived in Pittsburgh for nine years and has fond memories of summer nights and Sunday afternoons at PNC Park, I hope they can get the place hopping again soon.