First Pitch: Could the Pirates be 31-23 at the End of May?

We heard at the start of the season how the Pittsburgh Pirates had one of the toughest early season schedules in the game. Despite that schedule, the Pirates are 17-14, in second place in the NL Central, and sitting with the fifth highest winning percentage in the National League. They swept the Reds, took three of five against the Cardinals, and took three of four each against the Braves and Phillies.

Now the team is set up for a much easier schedule through the month of May. Their next few opponents, and their current records:

**2 games vs Seattle (15-18)

**4 games at Mets (12-16)

**4 games vs Milwaukee (14-16)

**3 games vs Houston (8-24)

**3 games vs Cubs (12-20)

**3 games vs Milwaukee (14-16)

**2 games at Detroit (19-11)

**2 games vs Detroit (19-11)

The next time the Pirates play a team that currently has a winning record will be May 27th against the Detroit Tigers. On paper, the schedule looks pretty easy, and looks like the Pirates could pad the win column. It doesn’t always play out that way though. For example, Milwaukee is a losing team right now, but Milwaukee. And Miller Park. Those two things have never screamed “winning” for the Pirates.

Then there’s the fact that the Pirates have been in this situation before. Last August, actually. They were contending at the end of July, and looking to add some easy wins down the stretch against the easiest schedule in the league. Instead they lost way too many games to the Padres and the Cubs down the stretch, as well as every other team they played.

I am encouraged by the current team, and feel the upcoming stretch has a lot of potential. There are three key reasons why I’m encouraged by the current team and see this potential:

Andrew McCutchen's bat is already heating up, which will help out a surging offense. Photo credit: David Hague

Andrew McCutchen’s bat is already heating up, which will help out a surging offense. Photo credit: David Hague

1. The offense has been great, and really hasn’t seen a lot from the expected top performers like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. As James Santelli wrote today, both of those guys have been slow starters in their careers in April. There’s a chance that you could see Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Travis Snider, and/or the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon continue hitting, while adding McCutchen and Alvarez to the mix. That would only add to an offense that has been on fire since about the third week of the season.

2. The pitching hasn’t been great. Sure, the bullpen has been lights out, but the rotation hasn’t been that strong. It would be hard for the starters to do worse in May, especially since they’d have to do that against lesser teams. Plus, Francisco Liriano will be returning, which should give the rotation a boost. April had four starts from Jonathan Sanchez. May will replace those starts with Liriano, who has looked great during his rehab work.

3. Even though the Pirates lost two of three against Milwaukee, they didn’t look horrible doing it. The first game was one of those helpless losses against Milwaukee that we seem to see every series. But they didn’t give up in the second or third games, and kept battling back. The second game was almost a fluke. If they score eight runs with Wandy Rodriguez on the mound ten different times, I would say they’re going to win nine of those games. As I wrote after the Brewers series, the road to contending will go through Milwaukee. The Pirates have seven games this month against the Brewers. The rest of the schedule looks easy, but they’re going to have to post some winning numbers against Milwaukee if they want to contend this year.

Looking at the schedule, I think it would be very easy for the Pirates to be 31-23 at the end of the month. That would be going 3-4 against Milwaukee, splitting with Detroit, and winning every other series. They could pad those wins with sweeps against the Cubs, Mariners, Mets, and the Astros (oh, how we’ve missed you Houston). I did project a 9-3 record in those games, so if they lose more of those games than expected, it would have to be made up against Milwaukee or Detroit. Considering the schedule is getting easier, and both the offense and the rotation should be getting a boost, there’s little reason to think that the month of May won’t be very successful for the Pirates.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**Be sure to check out the new podcast: P3 Episode 2: The Returning Pitchers, The Hot Start, and a Robby Rowland Interview.

**Pirates Notebook: Five Things We Have Learned About Pirates Hitters.

**Prospect Watch: Polanco Homers to Continue Hot Streak; Sadler and Oliver Dominant.

**Top Performers: Stetson Allie Continued His Hot Hitting Last Week.

**Top Performers: Three International Left-Handers Making Some Noise.

**Orlando Castro Named the SAL Player of the Week.

**Minor Moves: Matt Curry to the DL, More Altoona Moves.

**Phil Irwin Goes on the Indianapolis DL.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Twelve Recap, One Month Until Draft.

**Minor League Schedule: 5/7/13.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    “Looking at the schedule, I think it would be very easy for the Pirates to be 31-23 at the end of the month.”

    Tim, that about made me laugh out load this morning. Nothing is ever “very easy” for this franchise. As you mentioned they had an even more favorable schedule last fall and found ways to lose just as easily as they had been finding ways to win in the summer. I appreciate your confidence, but your argument is based on everything that is going well continuing to go well while the current issues improve. I’m optimistic too, but “very easy” :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      I agree….didn’t we have an easy schedule last year during our collapse?

      Weren’t the Cubs supposed to be ‘easy’ this year?

      We get King Felix and Harvey this week. Is THAT gonna be ‘easy’.

      Nothing more scary than ‘easy schedule’ articles.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

        sorry Tim…missed YOUR comment about our easy August last year. I was laughing too hard.

        Articles about easy skeds are one of the peeves I keep as a pet.

        :) :) :)

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I knew this would be a guaranteed response when I wrote that. The key here is this:

      “Nothing is ever “very easy” for this franchise.”

      I don’t really consider this kind of stuff when I write. I look at the Pirates as I would any other team, and remove any personal bias. That includes the thought that even if I think this is a good team, everything will go wrong just because the team is cursed somehow.

      My analysis of the team usually leaves out the “glass is probably empty and we don’t know it” view that Pirates fans have. And Pirates fans have definitely earned that view. Some of the bad luck that has happened makes it hard to look at an optimistic situation with optimism. So I’ll throw in a few disclaimers for the skeptical crowd, but in the end I’m just going to write based on how I view the team’s talent level, while leaving out all of the other stuff.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        Tim, I’m an optimistic Pirate fan too, I predicted a winning season this spring and follow this organization as fervently as you do (for even longer). I’m an eternal optimist regarding our prospect development.

        That said comments like “very easy” seem misinformed on reality. The team has exactly two quality SP right now by any predictive measure. Their current best hitter has a babip of .400. You can’t just say we are 3 games over and these three guys are going to do better and conclude we are going to take off. At the same time that Cutch, Walker, and Pedro will hit better, Marte and Martin will hit worse. Advanced statistics suggest we should be a game or two worse than we are right now and that sums it up, we are a .500 level team. Assuming that we will beat teams easily that are very similar to ours in talent (all these teams except Houston) isn’t glass half full thinking, its glass full blind faith.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          I think that McCutchen, Alvarez, and Walker will go up more than Marte and Martin will come down. Marte’s BABIP is high, but he’ll probably settle in around .350-.360. Possibly higher than that if he keeps making strong contact and uses his speed to beat out infield singles.

          Also, you’re referencing the pythagorean record. I don’t pay attention to that, especially early in the season. It can be too influenced by a big loss that only counts as one loss, or a big win that only counts as one win. Right now the pythagorean record is 15-16. If they go out and win 10-0 tonight, the record goes to 17-15. It’s way too volatile early in the season. Plus it doesn’t consider strength of schedule. It’s just a simple “Runs Scored vs Runs Allowed” calculation.

          Also, I don’t view my thinking as glass half full, and I definitely don’t have blind faith. I take a realistic view on things. I look at the team, and good or bad, I judge what I see. I really don’t care about any baseball team to do more than that.

          • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

            I hope you’re right about Pedro. He is K’ing a bit less, but is still sucking incredibly.

            .

            • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

              He seems to be doing his best Adam LaRoche impersonation.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            I don’t mean to criticize your overall approach Tim, just this specific instance.

            I was referring to Baseball Prospectus 2nd and 3rd order wins which currently has the Pirates in last place in the central. That and our team FG WAR wins which do not mach up with our record well. I am well aware that pythagorean record is overly simplistic.

            • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

              I’m just giving some background on the approach.

              It seems like if someone from the outside, like Buster Olney, said something like this, the view would be different. If a Pirates writer says “the team could have a good month”, it’s viewed with skepticism because it comes from within. If someone on the outside says it, then it seems to remove that “everything will go wrong” mentality.

              I try to look at things as people on the outside would. So when I’m writing something, it’s just analyzing what I see from the team, while removing the hometown bias.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            You also have to concede that Grilli, Melancon, and Wilson will be giving up more runs in the future. AJ and Wandy too are outperforming there peripherals.

            This is really neither here nor there, we both want the team to win in bunches and we both expect them to surprise the “experts”.

            • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

              I talked about pet peeves yesterday with Lee. My biggest one is “experts” (putting quotes around the word experts).

              • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

                LOL, yeah some of those doubting the Pirates are actual experts in one way or another. Most of the people writing/talking in town are “experts”.

      • Ecbucs

        It should be easy part of schedule and Bucs should come out ahead in the standings. As others have said, it is never easy for Bucs.

        I think one of things that happen is that every team the Bucs play still looks at them as a team they can beat (not just a game here or there but win the series). that isn’t going to change unless the team is able to go on a roll and keep it up for a season. This team has more potential than I thought it would in spring training and I’m glad to see that. Its had a good start and now needs to keep winning.

  • http://www.ashevilleroadbowling.com hunter

    1. Easiest part of the schedule last year was June and July when the Pirates padded their record.

    2. You can’t always just look at the other team’s record. It’s as much about how they are playing at that particular time.

    Last year the Padres were the hottest team in the NL (I believe best record since the All Star break) when the Pirates played them. The wins aren’t guaranteed but this idea that the Pirates always lose to bad pitchers, etc. just isn’t historically true. Their record last year vs. teams with losing records was better than the record vs. teams with winning records. For whatever reason that type of thing goes ignored.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      ‘easy’ skeds also depend on who we’re facing. Seattle might be termed ‘easy’, but then we draw King Felix.
      .

      • jg941

        Yeah, it may be too far out with too many variables, but it would interesting to try to project the rest of May by doing two things:

        Try to project ahead (kinda like Tim does with all of the Pirates org teams) as to who is the likely opposing pitcher we would face, and then look at those teams’ records when that pitcher is pitching (I.e. the King Felix factor).

        Obviously you can’t rely on every pitcher hitting the spot you projected over 25 days – just would be an interesting exercise to see how often you might actually cross paths with the ace(s) on a substandard team

        And, no, I’m not volunteering to do that :-)

      • jg941

        I’d also add, oh, BTW, our projected pitchers too.

        I might like our chances against the Mariners with Harang pitching, but maybe not so much if our guy is JMac.

        And I like King Felix’s chances slightly less if he’s going against AJ.

        Who knows – maybe just stick with Tim’s approach, forget about possible matchups and enjoy our 8 games over .500 on June 1st. :-)

  • kelso

    Has the offense really been great? I thought they were about average for the NL thus far.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I’ve seen a few stats that they’ve had the most homers and the best offense since about the middle of April. That’s why I mentioned after the first few weeks of the season.

  • leadoff

    I don’t think the schedule means a hill of beans, who is pitching, who is umpiring, who is playing, who is hurt, how the manager manages the games and a lot of other reasons will determine how the Pirates do in the near future. There were players playing for the Nats that on paper the Pirates should have handled easily, but they did not.
    The beauty of baseball is yesterday means nothing, today means nothing until the first pitch, I could not pick a winner before a game, much less a series of games, unless a pro team played a high school team.
    In pro baseball, there is no such thing as a bad team, they all are capable of beating anyone, any day. I could see the Pirates going under 500 against these teams and I can see them going over 500 against them. If the Pirates are hot, they will beat them and anyone else, if they are cold, they won’t beat any of them.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      “I could see the Pirates going under 500 against these teams and I can see them going over 500 against them. If the Pirates are hot, they will beat them and anyone else, if they are cold, they won’t beat any of them.”

      If I wrote that, it would be a pretty uninteresting article, now wouldn’t it? :)

      • leadoff

        I am a simple person and just cut to the chase. Still I like the column because the radio and TV people in Pittsburgh live and die by whether the next opponent stinks or is great when making comments about who the pro teams in Pittsburgh should beat or lose to. I always get a chuckle out of it. The 71 Pirates had no chance against the Birds with the Birds sporting all those 20 game winners, how did that turn out?