The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a nice story this season, making a run at a winning record and having flirted with the playoffs for a longer stretch of time than anyone anticipated. The longshot bid for the postseason probably went by the boards for good with a crushing Friday night loss in Milwaukee. But at 64-66 coming into Sunday, the chase for a winning season is still very much in play. And more important, the franchise has been placed on strong footing going into next year. The biggest reason is the development of the pitching.
Jameson Taillon has already gone through a lot at the age of 26. He’s gone from can’t-miss prospect to having testicular cancer. With the cancer a couple years in the rearview mirror, Taillon appears healthy and ready to fulfill the optimistic hopes for his career. He’s got a 3.49 ERA in 26 starts.
Two other young arms have emerged to strengthen the rotation. Trevor Williams, age 25, has made twenty-five starts and posted a 3.44 ERA. Joe Musgrove, also 25, has gotten his shot in the rotation and made the most of it. He’s got a 3.56 ERA in his fifteen times to the post.
The emergence of Taillon, along with the development of Williams and Musgrove have allowed veteran Ian Nova to take his more natural place at the back end of a rotation where he’s a reliable cog. There’s also hope for another arms to emerge—Chad Kuhl is another good young arm who’s dealt with injuries this year. It’s possible he might make it back in September and a few good starts would be a nice way to go into the offseason.
Clint Hurdle has also remade the bullpen. He’s found his closer in lefty Felipe Vazquez and put together an array of quality arms in front of him. Edgar Santana, Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick are all young and all have ERAs in the mid-2s.
This alone would be enough to justify optimism on the banks of the Allegheny, but the Pirates made moves that were surprisingly aggressive at the trade deadline. They added Chris Archer from Tampa Bay, a quality starter in his prime. Pittsburgh strengthened the bullpen with Keone Kela, a live young arms whose ERA is 0.75 since coming to the Pirates.
A market like Pittsburgh isn’t easy to win consistently in and when the Pirates dealt Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen prior to this season, 2018 had the looks of a lost year. It’s been anything but. The Pirates at least gave their fans some playoff dreams until football season could take over. They may still win more than they lose, which would be extremely impressive. And they have every reason to feel good going into 2019, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.
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.
We should note that Morton is just back from the DL himself, and Gomez did a short stint. The Pirates’ rotation has not had it easy, but they keep getting the job done.
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.
It was pitching that put the Pittsburgh Pirates into playoff contention this season. It was pitching that the Pirates strengthened at the trade deadline when they acquired Wandy Rodriguez from the Houston Astros. And it’s pitching that’s now threatening to be the reason for the demise. The Pirates have been hit hard in the second half of the season, especially in the month of August and today in Milwaukee I saw it carry into September firsthand, as the Brewers hung twelve runs on the board and won a 12-8 slugfest. What’s going on here?
James McDonald, the starter that Milwaukee chased today, is a microcosm of the staff. He was All-Star caliber and a dark horse Cy Young candidate in the first half of the season. For his five starts in August he posted a 4.45 ERA and averaged less than six innings each time out. Each subpar number got worse this afternoon at Miller Park.
A.J. Burnett was supposed to be a veteran stabilizer, the one with postseason experience from having helped win a World Series in New York in 2009. But Burnett’s five August outings have produced a 5.18 ERA. Then we move to Rodriguez, who finally came up big earlier this week when he shut out St. Louis. But even with that gem as part of his August resume, the overall numbers still show a 4.05 ERA in five starts.
And Erik Bedard? The veteran who joined McDonald and Burnett in giving the Pirates a solid 1-2-3 trio at the top of the rotation has again seen his career come undone. After watching him hammered for a 5.91 ERA in four August starts, Pittsburgh cut him loose this last week and gave his job to Kevin Correia. The latter has a 4.01 ERA in August in three starts and three relief appearances.
The only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA over the last month is Jeff Karstens, and not by much. Karstens is at 3.90 in six times to the post.
These numbers get more discouraging in context. The Pirates’ starters ERA for August ranks 10th in the National League—and if the entire staff ranks 13th, that tells you something about how bad the bullpen has been. Furthermore, the NL Central is the division with woeful lineups like the Astros, Cubs and normally the Brewers shouldn’t be as difficult to deal with as the Pirates made them look this weekend. In spite of this, the ERAs still balloon.
There’s no getting around the fact that Pittsburgh’s in trouble. The 2.5 game margin they face in the wild-card race is certainly manageable. But the St. Louis Cardinals, who lead the race for the last playoff spot have a rotation that’s coming together. The Los Angeles Dodgers can fall back on Clayton Kershaw and Josh Beckett could join him. The Cards and Dodgers are unlikely to have significant losing streaks. We can’t say that about the Pirates and it’s going to take all of manager Clint Hurdle’s savvy to push this team into October.