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.

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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