The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the story of the first half of the season. Andrew McCutchen is putting up numbers worthy of an MVP, James McDonald is evolving in to a number one starter, and A.J. Burnett has put up an impressive season away from New York. But just like last year, the talk is the same: Can the Pirates sustain the first half success?
In 2011, the Pirates entered the All-Star break at 47-43 — third place in the National League Central. This season, they’ve been even better. The club is a season-high 11 games over .500 at 48-37 and sit alone on top of their division.
Will Pittsburgh see another collapse in the second half of the season again this year? Players say it feels different. So does their skipper Clint Hurdle. But this year really is different. The reasons? It’s a better club, there’s more experience, and they have better depth.
“We’re a better team,” Hurdle said. “We’re just built better. We have better rotation depth. We haven’t even tapped into guys that we could have available at Indianapolis. We’ve got a strong bullpen. We’ve got other arms that are capable there. We’re again in a buying mode, looking to buy around the deadline versus moving people out. And there’s one really exciting player in Indy [Starling Marte] that could find his way up here still that could provide a lot of excitement.”
The Pirates pitching staff is ranked No. 5 in the Majors entering the break, that’s in part to a strong first half from their starters and their dominant bullpen – whose 2.63 ERA is the best in all of baseball.
McDonald and Burnett posted first half numbers that many believed snubbed them from the All-Star game. The bullpen saw strong outings from rookie Jared Hughes, whose mentality on and off the mound resemble Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde, veteran Jason Grilli, who was a strikeout machine, and the emergence of Brad Lincoln in relief flashing closer stuff.
And Pittsburgh hasn’t even tapped into their pitching in Triple-A Indianapolis. Left-handers Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson are all putting up strong numbers, and all three look major league ready.
Locke currently has a 2.92 ERA in 95.2 innings, with a 7.9 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9 ratio. He added a new turn to his windup in Spring Training, which has given him more command of his pitches.
Owens has regained the command that led him to become the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 and 2010. He’s got a 2.89 ERA in 106 innings, with a 6.5 K/9 and a 1.7 BB/9 ratio.
Wilson might be one of the most impressive stories. On the season he has a 3.44 ERA in 96.2 innings, along with a 9.2 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9 ratio. Wilson has some of the best stuff in the organization, but control has always been an issue. He started the year with a 5.6 BB/9 ratio in his first four starts, along with an 8.7 K/9, a 1.19 HR/9, and a 1.41 WHIP, all leading to a 3.97 ERA. Wilson made a slight adjustment, moving to more of an overhead arm slot to get more control of his pitches. Since making the switch he’s seen some big changes. His walk rate with the new slot is 3.8 BB/8. His strikeouts are up to a 9.4 K/9. His home runs were almost cut in half, with a 0.61 HR/9 ratio. His WHIP is 1.07, which is partly due to the walks, but also due to the fact that he’s only allowed 48 hits in 74 innings. All of this leads to a 3.28 ERA since making the switch.
There hasn’t been a spot ready for any of these guys. Brad Lincoln stepped in to the rotation when the team needed a starter earlier in the year. The Pirates have stuck with Kevin Correia, despite advanced metrics predicting a regression. They’ve stuck with Erik Bedard, despite struggles since an injury in early May. If the Pirates need to move on from one of those two pitchers, they could easily turn to one of the Indianapolis left-handers.
Just like the starting staff, the Pirates bullpen doesn’t have much of an opening either. Waiting in the wings are Bryan Morris, Evan Meek and Duke Welker. All three are hard throwing right-handers with back of the bullpen stuff. But it would probably take an injury in the major league bullpen to clear a spot for one of these three, otherwise they could be waiting for a September call-up.
The pitching carried the Pirates offense early in the year. The offense started off slow, scoring just 147 runs combined in the months of April and May. In June, things started to click on all cylinders and they saw their offense plate 146 runs in June alone while hitting 39 home runs.
“The way the bats sparked in the month of June, I don’t think anybody was happier for the guys then the pitchers,” Clint Hurdle said. “And not because it was runs for them, just because they were watching them. Nobody likes to stink. It’s hard. And when you’re watching your fellow teammate or a bunch of them go through tough times, it’s hard. When they started doing well, it wasn’t like, oh my god, can you believe this? I never thought we’d be this good.”
“We didn’t expect to be as bad as we were, and we weren’t surprised when we went out and did what we were able to in the month of June. We expect to win games. We got to go play them. We expect to win the game every night. And it doesn’t matter who’s pitching. We just expect to win.”
This all happened without making any major changes to the roster. Added was utility man Drew Sutton and gone was Jose Tabata, who was demoted to Triple-A to get back on track.
Like with the pitching staff, the club has several players awaiting the call on offense. First baseman Jeff Clement is hitting for a .299/.364/.543 line in 278 at-bats in Triple-A. He has launched 13 long balls and ripped 25 doubles after finally getting over the knee injury that has impacted his performance the last two years. Matt Hague and Jordy Mercer are currently in the majors, and could take on bigger roles if needed.
The most exciting young player, however, is Starling Marte, whose defense and speed is even more exciting than Andrew McCutchen. Marte had a .754 OPS on June 22nd. Since then he has posted an incredible .394/.442/.718 line with four homers in 71 at-bats over his last 16 games. The hot streak has fans asking: when is it time to free Starling Marte? Manager Clint Hurdle noted that Marte could come up in the second half, in the middle of a pennant race.
Perhaps the most important key to this seasons success has been the experience. McCutchen admits he was attempting to swing for the fences in every at-bat in the second-half of the season as he saw the lead slowly dwindle. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have also gained a lot of experience from the first four months, and the rough final two.
“There’s more experience than was here last year,” Hurdle said. “They’ve gone through the four months of ups, the two months of downs, lessons learned. Lessons learned when it was good, lessons learned with it was hard. We brought in some stabilizing experience. I think that has helped dramatically. I think the youthful enthusiasm with some of our second, third year players has helped the senior leadership. I think the way the team was able to hold together through the first two months when we were really, really struggling dramatically on offense has helped the whole process.”
The first half success was largely because of the strong pitching. James McDonald and A.J. Burnett should continue to shine in the second half. If any of the other starters struggle, the Pirates have major-league ready replacements in Triple-A. Andrew McCutchen has been leading the offense, although recent surges by Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, and Neil Walker have led to the breakout over the last two months. If the pitching continues to perform well, the offense doesn’t need every single player hot at the same time. The addition of someone like Starling Marte should help boost the offense in the second half, and a trade could also upgrade that area. The Pirates also have one of the easiest schedules in the National League in the second half, which combined with the above should help them sustain their first half success through the end of the year.