I will be the first to admit that I have been fading my expectations for this team. That’s only natural after having witnessed 20 consecutive losing seasons and an epic 2012 collapse that saw the Pirates crumble from 16 games over .500 on August 8 to four games under .500 by the end of the year.
What Pittsburgh has done so far this season has made been impossible to ignore. Last night’s 10-3 shellacking of the Brewers marked the Pirates’ seventh straight win, gave them the outright lead in the National League Central race, and firmly established them as the best team in baseball, at least for now.
The Pirates aren’t just winning games. Their winning 62% of their games, better than any other club in the league. At 19 games over .500, they have the best record in baseball – and it’s already late June.
I’m officially off the fence and squarely on the bandwagon. I’ve become a believer that this is the year that the Pirates finally finish the season with a winning record. We very well could see the Pirates in the playoffs. The playoffs!
And they are doing it with acquisitions and moves that no one thought would pan out, especially not like this.
They’re most important transaction occurred on December 30, 2012.
After the Bucs traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, Jason Grilli became the team’s closer because there was no one else on the roster to step into that role. His success as a first timer has been nothing short of remarkable. He didn’t blow his first save until June 19th. He’s 26-for-27 in save opportunities with a 1.82 ERA and a 15.1 K/9 ratio, meaning he’s struck out MORE THAN HALF of the batters he has faced this season!
Relief pitcher Mark Melancon, who the Red Sox included in the Hanrahan deal as a throw-away player, has arguable been the best setup man in baseball as a member of the Pirates. His ERA is a ridiculous 0.96 so far, and he’s strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9 is nothing to sneeze at.
That one-two bullpen punch has effectively shortened the game for Pirates opponents to seven innings. Against this team, it’s either enter the eighth inning with a lead, or go ahead and start up the bus for the ride home.
Pittsburgh’s starting pitching has been just as good, if not better. The pitching staff has combined for an MLB-best 12 shutouts. Opponents are hitting an MLB-worst .227 against them. They boast the second lowest team ERA at 3.20 (behind only the Braves at 3.18).
They’re doing it with a ragtag bunch of castaways and prior disappointments.
Staff ace A.J. Burnett has been a pitcher who has never quite lived up to expectations. His talent and “stuff” has been marveled at by scouts since he came up with the Marlins in 1999, but he has never been a dominant number one pitcher. Not with the Marlins, not with the Blue Jays and not with the Yankees. When they signed him after the 2011 season, the Pirates may have been the last team to still believe in Burnett’s promise.
I guess it’s never too late. The 36-year-old won 16 games for the Pirates a season ago, firmly establishing himself as the alpha dog of the rotation. This season, he is posting a career-best 3.12 ERA and is on pace to set a career mark in strikeouts, despite already missing time on the disabled list.
The Buccos invested in a similar reclamation project this offseason, inking Francisco Liriano to a deal on July 21, 2013. Liriano had shown dominance in 2010 before showing outright futility in 2011 (5.09 ERA with 5.0 BB/9) and 2012 (5.34 ERA with 5.0 BB/9). The Pirates could have walked away from Liriano after he broke his non–throwing arm in the offseason, but they maintained faith. They’re being rewarded handsomely for it.
Liriano has not just returned to his 2010 form, he may be pitching better than at any other point in his career. He is currently 6-3 with a 2.70 ERA. He is striking out 10 batters per nine innings pitched, fifth best amount active starting pitchers in all of baseball. And he’s trimmed his walks per nine innings from 5.0 in 2010 and 2011 to just 3.6.
Then there’s homegrown product Jeff Locke. A prospect who just couldn’t get right in 2011 and 2012 has absolutely gotten right in 2013. Through 16 starts, the young lefty is 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA.
The pitching success has to be attributed, at least in part, to the new guy behind the dish who is calling the games.
On December 1, 2012, Pittsburgh signed Ruseell Martin to a 2-year deal – a sign that many thought to be a waste of precious salary resources. After all, last year he hit just .211 for the Yankees, barely above the Mendoza line, and at 30 he wasn’t getting any younger for a position that accelerates the aging process.
We were fooled again. Martin has been excellent at the catcher’s position, both offensively but more importantly defensively. He is the best in baseball at throwing out would-be base stealers, gunning runners down at a 46.2% clip. In case you’re wondering, yes that is better than perennial Gold Glover Yadier Molina. And that’s in addition to the value already provided by the way he has called games for this pitching staff.
Sure, there are still concerns surrounding this team, most significantly with its lineup. Andrew McCutcheon is a bona fide star, but he has little help around him. The team batting average is just .243 and Pittsburgh is in the lower half of the league in total runs scored.
But with good pitching, offensive flaws are not fatal. And the Pirates are more than capable of adding a big hitter or two at the trade deadline. One of the perks of 20-straight years of losing baseball is 20-straight years of good draft position. The Pirates’ farm system is overflowing with talent, so there are plenty of disposable spare parts to put a couple of packages together for big bopping bats.
Pirates fans are due for some meaningful fall baseball. Pittsburgh has not made the postseason since 1992. That was back when the club was managed by Jim Leyland. When knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was getting his start. When all-time great Barry Bond patrolled the outfield.
If that last playoff run seems like ancient history, it’s because it is. But it may finally be repeating itself in 2013.