The Bucs Stop Here
A friend has been asking me to write something about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ surprising success this year, so here goes.
As I’m sure you all well know, the Pirates have the best record in baseball more than half way through the season, which hasn’t happened since at least 1992. However, the Pirates lost today and the Cardinals won, so both teams are now tied with a .609 winning percentage, best in the majors.
The Bucs’ success this year looks to be built mostly on pitching, defense and good, old fashioned luck. The Pirates have enjoyed a break-out year from 25 year old left-handed starter Jeff Locke, whose 2.12 ERA is currently second best in the senior circuit, and the best seasons from veterans A. J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano in years. The Bucs have also been extremely resilient in finding pitchers to step in for injured starters James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez and Jeanmar Gomez.
The strongest part of the Pirates’ pitching staff, however, has been the bullpen. Closer Jason Grilli‘s 2.15 ERA is only third best on the team, and set-up man Mark Melancon has been nearly unhittable. Five Bucs’ relievers have ERA’s better than 3.00, and the sixth man Tony Watson has pitched better than his still none-too-shabby 3.48 ERA. The bullpen has allowed the Pirates the luxury of pulling its starters the moment they start to get into trouble.
At the positions, the Pirates have used their many high first round picks to build a core of talent (CF Andrew McCutchen, 3B Pedro Alvarez and 2B Neil Walker, plus young, home-grown left fielder Starling Marte), and last offseason’s Russell Martin signing looks brilliant.
All of that said, the Cardinals still look like the team to beat in the NL Central by a fairly wide margin. The Cardinals have scored 122 more runs than they’ve allowed so far this year, compared to only +42 for the Pirates.
In short, the Pirates have to continue to win all the close games to stay even with the Cardinals, which is going to be a lot to ask of what is still a very young team in the heat of a pennant race. I’m not yet sold on Jeff Locke, whose ratios aren’t as good as his ERA; and with Francisco Liriano, one is always waiting for the other shoe (the injury bug) to drop.
The Pirates really need for Wandy Rodriguez to come back some time before the middle of August and pitch the way he did in his first eleven starts of the season. Either that, or trade for a 1Bman who actually hits like a 1Bman. Unfortunately, the players available don’t look a whole lot better than the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon the Bucs are using now.