First Pitch: This Year Actually is Different, For Real This Time, Seriously

The pitching depth has been a huge reason why this year is different than the last two years. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The pitching depth has been a huge reason why this year is different than the last two years. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

It’s time for the annual “The Pirates are for real this year” post. Two years ago the Pirates were in first place in mid-July. They were “contending” up until the end of July. Then they suffered a collapse and finished with a losing record. Last year the team was contending and in first place in mid-July. Then they suffered a bigger collapse and finished with a losing record.

In short, no matter how good the Pirates look this year, Pirates fans will be waiting for The Collapse Part 3. The only similarities between this season and previous seasons are that the Pirates weren’t expected to contend, and now we enter July and they’re contending. But if you look at this year, and compare it to previous years, you’ll see that this year looks much more legit than those previous years.

First of all, the Pirates just won their 51st game of the season, right before the calendar turns to July. When the Jerry Meals game happened (which many felt was the downfall of the 2011 season), the Pirates had 53 wins. That was at the end of July. Last year at the end of July the Pirates had 59 wins. With the way the Pirates have been playing lately, they could reach 59 wins before the All-Star break.

Then there’s the idea of contending. At the end of July 2011, the Pirates were 4.5 games back in the NL Central, and in third place. However, they were in a three-way tie for the 13th best record in baseball. In short, they were an average team, and not one of the best in the league. At the end of July 2012, the Pirates were three games back, and in second place in the NL Central. They were tied for the fifth best record in the league at the time. So it was a better team than the 2011 version. The Pirates currently have the best record in baseball, and they lead the NL Central. By those standards, you could argue that this is easily the best team of the group.

The problem is that we saw that 2012 team collapse, even though they looked like legit contenders. So what’s the difference between 2012 and 2013? The answer is depth.

In 2012, the Pirates had used seven starting pitchers before making the Wandy Rodriguez trade. They had to use an extra starter until A.J. Burnett was healthy after missing the first two weeks of the season. They went to Brad Lincoln for a spot start, then gave him a few starts in June before going with him out of the bullpen full-time. And that was it. They used seven starters for the first four months of the year.

This year the Pirates have used 11 starting pitchers in the first three months of the season. With the exception of Jonathan Sanchez, everyone has performed well. This isn’t a team that has been performing because their starting pitching has stayed relatively healthy. It’s the exact opposite. The starting rotation hasn’t been healthy at all, yet the starting pitching depth has kept the team winning.

It’s not just the starting pitching. People have stepped up all over the roster. The bullpen came through with 12 shutout innings today, and that’s not the first time the bullpen has combined to shut down opponents over a long period of time. It’s almost expected at this point. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have been dominant, but the rest of the bullpen has been great too, even when you get to unexpected guys like Vin Mazzaro.

Last year the offense was mostly fueled by Andrew McCutchen’s career year. This year McCutchen’s numbers are down, but Starling Marte, Russell Martin, and the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon have stepped up. The offense has also seen depth options stepping in, such as Jordy Mercer emerging as the starting shortstop. This hasn’t been an offense fueled by one person. It has been an offense where everyone has stepped up at different times. The offense is an area where the team could see some improvements, but there aren’t as many holes to fill this year compared to last year.

Let’s also take a look at how the Pirates are winning with the following charts:

Runs Scored 2012 Winning % 2013 Winning %
0-3 .234 .378
4 .522 .600
5 .762 .923
6+ .805 .900
Runs Allowed 2012 Winning % 2013 Winning %
0-3 .764 .792
4 .444 .700
5 .238 .286
6+ .167 .200

In each category the Pirates are better in 2013 than they were in 2012. The most impressive thing is that they had ten shutouts all year last year, and this year they already have 12 in just half a season. All of these numbers point to the “Battling Buccos” trend. They’ve been doing what they need to win. If they’re only scoring 3 runs or less, the pitching is doing their part to keep the score lower. If the pitching struggles and gives up runs, the offense steps up. A key number is the four runs allowed section. Last year the Pirates won at a .444 rate when they gave up four runs, and they had a losing record with anything after three runs allowed. This year they’re dominating when they give up four runs, and the losing doesn’t start until five runs. Even at five and beyond, they’ve improved over last year. Once again, the offense is stepping up when needed, and you don’t have to see these charts to know that is going on. Just watch the games and realize that the team is still in it, even when they’re trailing late in the game.

Oh, and then there’s the big thing. The Pirates are currently 9-4 against the Milwaukee Brewers this year. That’s more wins than the team had against the Brewers in the last two years combined. In fact, there’s only three teams the Pirates have faced this year where they have a winning percentage below .600. There’s no more getting destroyed by one team. They’re not padding the win column with tons of games against the Astros. They’re beating pretty much everyone they face, no matter how good the teams are. And that includes their competition, the Cardinals and Reds (combined 9-6).

Basically, if this team collapses, I’m not writing about the 2014 team until October 2014.

Links and Notes

**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 11: Second Half Sleepers and When Can Tony Sanchez Help?

**If you missed it earlier this week, be sure to check out Pirates Roundtable – Episode 1. This week we had Pat Lackey (WHYGAVS), Brian McElhinny (Raise the Jolly Roger), Jim Rosati (North Side Notch), Cory Weibel (Three Rivers Burgh Blog), plus our own James Santelli and Tom Bragg.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**Pirates’ Bullpen Pitches 12 Shutout Innings for Sweep of Brewers.

**Pirates Notebook: “New” Rotation Key to 8-Game Win Streak.

**Prospect Watch: Dickerson and Garcia Finish Strong Months With Homers.

**West Virginia Scores Three In Ninth To Win Series Finale 5-4 Over Lakewood.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Drop Yankees, Lose Tough One To Cubs.

**Minor League Schedule: Kingham Starts In Binghamton Tonight.

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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  • westonian420

    No Pedro love? Why am I not surprised.

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

      I didn’t mention everyone. The three guys I mentioned on offense were guys who are providing an upgrade this year. Martin and Marte weren’t around the entire year last year. Jones was, but he didn’t have a good platoon partner.

      Alvarez is consistent with last year.

      • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

        Russell Martin has been a Godsend. Unbelievable how much that position has improved offensively and defensively over Barajas from last year. Martin is the number one reason I think they will not collapse. Even if his batting numbers fall off, he’s still not going to allow a team to openly mock him while stealing 6 bases in a single game.

  • https://profiles.google.com/117072260031604417798 PikeBishop65

    Brewers? Yuck. Add in the Padres and there is the late season collapse last year. 2-16 against those two teams down the stretch! Did you get that? 2 and 16!!!!! If they even play .400 against those Bete noirs they finish with 86 wins!

  • hatchburrito

    I think you forgot to mention James McDonald as a pitcher other than J. Sanchez who totally sucked this year.

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

      McDonald’s numbers are similar to what any team would have if they went through 11 starters. Not everyone will have an ERA under 5 or 4. His numbers are bad, but not horrible.

      Sanchez has an ERA in the double digits. Totally different situation.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Great article. Biggest differences in 2013 from before IMO, Russell Martin, Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer.

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

    About this year….I am cautiously optimistically reticent.
    .
    Other than that, I am fine. :)

  • Bucs21

    One big difference between this year and previous years that does not get mentioned enough is the defense behind the plate. Last year, runners were stealing at will. This year, Russell Martin has completely shut that down.

  • maguro

    “Basically, if this team collapses, I’m not writing about the 2014 team until October 2014.”

    Wow, that’s a bold statement. How do you define collapse? Under .500?

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

      I define that as sarcasm.

      • maguro

        More like hyperbole. But I get it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.j.stein.3 Jeremy J Stein

    You hit the nail on the head Tim.
    .
    For me, a key difference this year is the depth of starting pitching. Last year, once JMac and Bedard fell apart, it was like A.J. and Wandy were the only starters left who would give the Bucs a chance to win.
    .
    This year; Liriano, Locke, Cole and Gomez have been great. Locke is probably due for a slight regression in the second half (Gomez a bigger regression, so hopefully A.J. is back soon). Morton is improved and should be a good #5 option. Let’s just hope the Bucs don’t see even more injuries in the second half.

  • jdelsignore

    It will all come down to whether the bullpen can stay effective through the strain they have been put under. I appears as if the bullpen is being managed quite well and I believe Hurdle and NH learned from years past.

    Melancon and Grilli will blow away their career highs in appearances and others are being used quite a bit. If they all stay effective, then the sky’s the limit.

  • leadoff

    Here is a fast reason that would cause a downfall. ( I refuse to use the “C” Word.
    Martin, if Martin goes down they do not have a catcher in the system that can replace him. McHenry is a receiver, Sanchez because he lacks experience is a receiver, Paulino is a receiver, none of these guys are catchers.
    I would not be shocked if the Pirates don’t find a solid veteran backup catcher sometime before now and the trade deadline. Many may not know this, but the Pirates were looking for a solid backup catcher during ST.
    Big difference between a catcher and a receiver.
    Here is another nugget to chew on.
    St.Louis has no replacement for Yaddy, if he goes down for the rest of the year, St.Lou is in big trouble. The Reds are in much better shape.

    • buccotime57

      Yeah remember when Votto got hurt last year we thought we had them right where we wanted

      • leadoff

        Martin’s value to the Pirates is not the same as any player on any other team.
        Top catchers are much rarer than top position players.
        As LaRusso once said Yaddy would be my starting catcher if he did not get a hit. Most people have no idea how important a top catcher is, forget their batting averages, getting some hitting is a good thing, but controlling the game is much more important.

        • emjayinTN

          leadoff: John B. Foster, 1921, “How to Catch” referred to Catchers as “the most important man on the field and the Brain Center of the team.” IMO, the Catcher is the Quarterback of a baseball team, and a thorough watching of Bull Durham is in order for everyone to understand he also has to be a gifted psychiatrist to get the most out of pitchers.

  • Monkshot

    We have been better about this lately, but I wish the starters would go deeper into games. In 2011 we were last, in 2012 10th worst and this year so far we tied for third worst in starting pitchers innings pitched. I feel the bullpen gets overtaxed and can’t compete as needed. It’s pretty clear this team relies on the bullpen to win games, and if they start to struggle, I feel the team will struggle (especially when the offense is scuffling).

    • smurph

      I agree monkshot. I think we can say reliably that the starting rotation will be fine because of the depth. It is highly unlikely the bullpen can maintain their incredible run, and that is the real question mark for this team, as they are only an average team offensively. Wouldn’t it be great to have this bullpen as it is currently pitching, in the playoffs.

    • leadoff

      It is not the innings, it is the pitches thrown that they are looking at. You can wear out the starting pitching also.
      It is highly unlikely that they would want their starting pitchers pitching more than 7 innings anyway.
      The Pirate strategy is to shorten the game and they do that better than any team in baseball.
      Case in Point. Locke threw 75 pitches or there abouts and he was taken out after 7 innings and he had given up 3 hits.

  • rburgh

    Six reasons the Bucs won’t collapse.

    1. Baseball Prospectus ranks them as the team most likely to make the playoffs. I seriously doubt they were ever in the top 5 in either of the two previous seasons.

    2. SP depth.

    3. Bullpen depth.

    4. Offense does not really depend on one guy any more.

    5. Pieces to trade in the minors. Also don’t forget that, although Travis Snider is not playing well, he still has trade value because he is cheap.

    6. Solid attendance numbers should allow the FO to be willing to judiciously add salary.

    • meatygettingsaucy

      I will disagree on Points #5 and 6.
      #4: I don’t see Snider getting traded. He’s young and plays good defense. Yes the bat isn’t what we’ve hoped but, when platooned with Tabata, he is a very nice player to bat against righties. In addition, I think he is one of the guys the Pirates have talked about that helps with chemistry and I don’t think the Bucs would want to disrupt that.
      #6: Attendance only gave an uptick about a month ago. While attendance will stay high as long as the Bucs continue winning, I don’t think it means the Pirates will turn to high priced players for help. I will agree, any move they make will involve sound judgement: is the player worth the money, how does he affect team chemistry, etc.

  • michaelbro8

    Proof that this year’s team is much deeper than the previous year’s: The Bucs may have the best record in baseball at the all-star break; and have only one representative in that game.

  • piratemike

    What worries me is the offense. We have seen how quickly you can lose a whole rotation, if the something happens with a few starters it is lights out. Of course you can say that with most teams but the Bucs are really thin in that area.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    The rise or decline of the Pirates will be based 100% on pitching and how they hold up. The offense is what it is, below average. Are Locke and Liriano really 2.00 era guys? Will Burnett be better than average in the second half this season, he wasn’t the last 2. Will Wandy come back strong? Can the bullpen hold on throwing so many innings? If the Pirates were a weather forecast I would probably predict a 90% chance of heavy rain, but I will continue to enjoy the sunny weather while it’s here and hope the weather man is wrong.