Pirates fans have every right to be skeptical. Over the last 20 years they’ve seen the perfect combination of poor management, bad luck, and an unfavorable situation in baseball which has led them to prove Murphy’s Law correct. Anything that can go wrong usually does go wrong for the Pirates.
We saw an example of that last July. The Pirates were in first place in July, something we hadn’t seen in a while. They were getting good results from their pitching staff, and the offense was coming through. They made two deals to try and boost the offense, adding Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. People were skeptical that the team was legit, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted what happened next. Jerry Meals said it was safe, Derrek Lee tried to catch a pitch that was about to hit him and went out for a month, the pitching regressed big time, and the Pirates went from a first place team in July to a 90 loss team at the end of the year.
The Pirates moved in to a tie for first place tonight with the Cincinnati Reds after the Bucs beat the Astros 8-7 and the Reds lost to the Dodgers 3-1. They also moved to eight games above .500 for the first time since 1992. But after seeing the epic collapse last year (the Pirates were seven games above .500 in mid-July), all Pirates fans have to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But what if it doesn’t? What if this team is legit? They’re certainly playing like contenders. In the past, when the Pirates give up two runs in the first inning, they were done. When they gave up a late lead, they blew a precious win. There were no games where they were down 5-2 and ended up winning 14-5.
Last year the Pirates were contenders because of their pitching. That pitching was a mirage. Almost every starter in the rotation was due for a big regression. Probably not as big as the regression we saw in August and September, but they weren’t expected to maintain their pace from the first four months of the year. This year that’s not the case. There are some regression candidates, but not to the extent of last year. Take a look at the current ERA/xFIP for each starter.
James McDonald: 2.45 ERA / 3.78 xFIP
A.J. Burnett: 3.74 ERA / 3.48 xFIP
Erik Bedard: 4.57 ERA / 4.08 xFIP
Jeff Karstens: 5.25 ERA / 4.16 xFIP
Kevin Correia: 4.32 ERA / 4.72 xFIP
McDonald and Correia are both due for regressions. McDonald would still be good, even if he regressed. Burnett, Karstens, and Bedard are all better than their current numbers, with Burnett’s numbers impacted by tonight’s start.
The difference between this year and last year for the pitching is the depth. The Pirates have three guys in Triple-A who are major league ready. Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, and Jeff Locke are all pitching well, and the Pirates could turn to any one of them for help if needed. There’s also Brad Lincoln available as a starting option, although with the Indianapolis left-handers, the Pirates have the luxury of keeping Lincoln in the bullpen, where he’s thrived this year.
The big issue this year has been the offense. In April and May, the Pirates were on pace for a historically bad season in terms of runs. Things changed in June, and that success has carried over to July. The Pirates aren’t as good as they’ve shown right now, but they’re also not as bad as they were the first two months of the year.
Leading the group is Andrew McCutchen, who looks like a legitimate star. McCutchen is not only the best hitter on the team, but he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball this year. Pedro Alvarez has also come on strong lately, and now has 15 home runs on the year, while putting up a Mark Reynolds/Carlos Pena style season at the plate.
The big thing the Pirates have seen lately is power. Garrett Jones has put his power on display, hitting his 12th homer tonight. Casey McGehee has been hot since the start of June, a month in which he hit five homers. Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry have combined for 13 home runs from the catcher’s spot. Last year the Pirates had 13 home runs in the entire season from the catcher’s spot.
The team could use some help. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley haven’t been playing well in the corner outfield spots. Neil Walker hasn’t been excelling, although he’s ahead of Tabata and Presley. The team could afford to address their offense, whether that’s via trade, or bringing up Starling Marte when he’s ready. For now they’ve been turning to bench bats when they’re hot, with guys like Michael McKenry, Drew Sutton, and Josh Harrison stepping up to keep the offense going.
Last year the Pirates were in a similar situation record wise. However, their pitching was over-performing, they didn’t have any depth in Triple-A, and they didn’t have any top hitting prospects close to making the jump to the majors. This year their pitching looks like the real deal. If needed, they’ve got a lot of depth in Triple-A. Their offense needs help, but they’ve got their top hitting prospect tearing it up in Triple-A, and enough depth to swing a deal for a bat without sacrificing the future.
This team is much stronger than the team we saw last year. The Pirates may have been in first place last year, and they may have been seven games over .500 in July, but they weren’t a contender. This team has the look and feel of a contender, and a good chance of getting stronger over the next month. It’s time to start believing.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates beat the Astros 8-7.
**Pirates Notebook: Perhaps This Year IS Different.
**Prospect Watch: Alen Hanson Hits 14th Homer, Grossman Continues Hot Streak.