Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates won because of their pitching. The pitching staff as a whole combined for a 3.58 xFIP, which tied the Atlanta Braves for third in the majors, and second in the NL. The offense was middle of the pack, by advanced metrics, with the Pirates ranking 13th in baseball with a 98 wRC+. The actual results under-performed the advanced metrics, leading to the Pirates finishing in the bottom third in runs scored.
This year we’re seeing the opposite. The offense for the Pirates has been doing well, especially in the last month. The Pirates rank 7th on the season in wRC+, and second in the NL. In the last month, they rank second in all of baseball in wRC+, and rank tenth overall in actual runs.
“We’ve been in a good place as far as getting in the box and making pitchers work for a while now,” Clint Hurdle said after tonight’s game. “Every guy has stepped up his game to some degree. We’re looking for the ball in spots early, and when it’s not there, we’re taking. We’ve been more confident to hit with two strikes.”
This doesn’t seem like it’s just a hot streak that will eventually fade. If you look at how the Pirates are getting these results, you’ll see a trend that could easily continue. This trend was on display tonight in their 8-1 victory over the Rays.
It starts with Andrew McCutchen, who went 3-for-5 with two runs knocked in. McCutchen has been playing like an MVP lately, with a .312/.400/.596 line in 125 plate appearances over the last 30 days.
It might help McCutchen that he’s now got two very capable hitters in front of him, adding a lot of speed to the top of the lineup. Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte each had hits in front of McCutchen tonight, with both players also using their speed to get in scoring position with stolen bases. Polanco has a .339/.409/.407 line in 66 plate appearances to start his career. Marte had a .380/.415/.520 line in 53 plate appearances from the time Polanco arrived to tonight. He also had three stolen bases in four attempts, and added another tonight.
All of this was expected. The talent from those three players could give the Pirates the best outfield in baseball, and that could come sooner rather than later. The impact of those three at the top of the order was described by Rays manager Joe Maddon after the game.
“They do have some speed at the top of the batting order and it really impacted the game because I think it kind of took [Alex Cobb] out of his normal rhythms, patterns,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said about the outfield trio.
What really broke the game open tonight was a three run homer by Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates haven’t seen a lot of power from Alvarez lately, as his last homer was on June 3rd. He led the NL in home runs from 2012-13. The power is a big part of his game, and adding his power behind the outfield trio could be a massive boost to the offense.
“A lot of times people have been taking their chances with Pedro,” Clint Hurdle said. “He’s an important part of our offense. We need him to fire. We need him to drive in runs. That’s very good to see from him tonight.”
There have been other players stepping up lately. Russell Martin is having a great season at the plate. Neil Walker was on fire in May, and will be returning tomorrow. The Pirates are going to have to find some way to get playing time for Josh Harrison once Walker returns. Even Jordy Mercer has been hitting lately, with an .834 OPS in June, prior to tonight.
The 2014 season has been the exact opposite of the 2013 season. The Pirates now have a good offense, and their pitching has been a big question mark. They’ve gotten good starts lately from Vance Worley, Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke, and Edinson Volquez tonight. Gerrit Cole should return by the end of the week to give the rotation a boost. But the Pirates might want to consider adding a starter, both for the short and long-term. Because what we’re seeing now looks legit in the short-term, and could be the start of something that will last for the long-term. Or at least as long as the trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are together, which is for at least four and a half more years.
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