The Pittsburgh Pirates began the 2014 season in a fashion rather unbecoming after they finally ended professional sports’ longest losing streak with 95 victories last year and pushed the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals to five games in the 2013 National League Division Series.
By May 20, the Pirates were 8 games under .500 at 18-26, 8 games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and 5.5 out of a playoff spot. The team looked listless as their playoff odds plummeted daily.
But nearly two months later, the Pirates are back in contention after posting one of the league’s best records since early May. They won 15 of their last 22 games before the break and own a record of 49-46, placing them 3.5 back of Milwaukee and only 3 games out of the playoffs.
Three players will represent Pittsburgh at Target Field tonight in Minneapolis, Minn., in the 85th rendition of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. And they are the three with whom the Pirates’ recent surge has been closely tied the most.
Andrew McCutchen’s two home runs Saturday night in Cincinnati will be looked at over and over for the next week as one of the primary reasons he is the starting center fielder for year’s National League All-Star team.
After all, it was the first time in franchise history a player hit a game-tying home run and then the game-winner in the same contest. And his performance in those two at-bats–especially after the Pirates blew a four-run lead the night before–is certainly worthy of that attention.
But look back at a game five days earlier, when the Pirates faced their former ace A.J. Burnett in the final game of their series with Philadelphia on July 6. Burnett struck out the first two hitters he faced, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison, on seven pitches and appeared prime for a dominant outing.
In stepped McCutchen, who grounded Burnett’s 1-2 off-speed offering deep in the shortstop hole that was fielded by third baseman Cody Asche. McCutchen sped down the first-base line to beat the throw over and keep Burnett from a perfect first.
Neil Walker followed with a single and Russell Martin drove the two home with a two-run double off Burnett that wouldn’t have been possible without McCutchen’s hustle.
“That’s my game,” McCutchen said. “I go up, hit a ball on the ground and I have an opportunity to do something with it. That’s what I use my legs for and that’s what I’m going to always be like.”
That’s also why McCutchen is the league’s Most Valuable Player, and his team’s success is so closely tied to his performance. Hence, it’s no coincidence the Pirates’ best months came when McCutchen played his best baseball.
|Month||McCutchen OPS||Team Record|
At the break, McCutchen leads the Pirates in batting average, runs scored, home runs, runs batted in and OPS.
And, the center fielder ranks second in the National League with a .995 OPS and a 4.9 WAR headed to the All-Star Break.
McCutchen’s fourth selection to the All-Star comes by fan vote and he will start for the first time. National recognition is the final step in his emergence as a superstar, and general manager Neal Huntington sees his cornerstone finally receiving much-deserved attention.
“As I’ve said a hundred times before, when your best player is your hardest worker, you’re in a great spot as an organization,” Huntington said. “It’s so much fun to see the national fans begin to truly recognize what a great player and what a great person he is.”
There’s no doubt McCutchen has been most integral to the Pirates’ fortunes this season. But when it comes to the team turning itself around and returning to winning ways, Josh Harrison is nearly on his teammates’ level.
When the 2014 season began, it was clear from the get-go Gregory Polanco would not arrive in Pittsburgh for at least two months. So, the door was open for someone to cement himself as worthy of playing time–and certainly not a demotion–by the time Polanco assumed his mantle as the starting right fielder.
Jose Tabata and Travis Snider seemingly stood in front of the beckoning doorway with their arms crossed, insistent on not crossing the threshold.
Harrison, who always has believed he could produce on an everyday basis if given the chance, sprinted through the door, slammed it behind him and became a fan-favorite along the way.
When Clint Hurdle finally turned to Harrison as the Pirates’ regular right fielder, he started 19 of the team’s 29 games in May and finished the month with an .844 OPS. We waited for the floor to fall out and Harrison to return to his regular production as a mid-.600 OPS guy he was the previous three years.
Instead, he just kept hitting and making diving plays in the outfield.
“I knew given the opportunity to play I could go out and just do what I do and you know, everything else takes care of itself,” Harrison said. “I don’t really worry about other things except for going out and doing what I do. I’ve been blessed to play this game and I just go out and have fun.”
His passion for the game was on display no greater than when he hit the dirt multiple times to duck under tags during a rundown June 27 in the 10th inning against the New York Mets.
He didn’t score after reaching third, so instead delivered a walk-off double in the 11th inning.
After the team’s beginning to the season, the People’s Right Fielder jolted the Pirates to their first winning month of the season despite falling seven games below .500 in early May.
Harrison was just as important as McCutchen in the Pirates’ successful June that vaulted them back into contention, posting a .317/.358/.465 line in 24 starts.
Meanwhile, since Polanco debuted, Tabata was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis and Snider has made just 31 plate appearances.
There’s obviously a slight caveat with Harrison’s appearance as an All-Star, being that his manager was selected by NL All-Star skipper Mike Matheny to the coaching staff. And one has to believe Hurdle was in his ear about adding Harrison to the roster, especially considering Hurdle’s experience managing in the 2008 Midsummer Classic that lasted 14 innings.
“If you look at the All-Star Game and you think about having a guy that adds value in so many different places, and I’m one of the few guys that can speak to ‘What if it goes 15?’” Hurdle said. “What value can he bring? Whether it’s speed, it’s all over the place. This is a wild card.”
Of course, that isn’t to say Harrison doesn’t deserve the honor and recognition. He’s been worth 2.1 extra wins in starting just 53 of the team’s 95 games this season.
Despite a shaky finish to his first half in Cincinnati, Tony Watson was the rock of the Pirates’ bullpen in the first half.
It wasn’t absurd to expect the relief unit to see a slight drop-off in performance after the insane way it pitched a season ago when it posted a 2.89 ERA and was worth 3.9 WAR.
But to expect the implosion of Jason Grilli, inconsistency from nearly every member of the ‘pen, 15 blown saves and a 3.42 ERA? That steep of a decline is a bit unexpected.
As for Watson, whose ERA dropped as low as 0.84 before allowing three runs Friday, his incredible success wasn’t quite as expected either.
“I think it’d be disingenuous of me to say that we thought he’d roll out there with a sub-1 ERA at some point,” Huntington said. “But what’s most impressive at some point is the command of the fastball, the velocity of the fastball, the deception of the fastball. The changeup that he’ll mix in right or left and the breaking ball’s continued to get better.”
Huntington has watched the reliever develop since shortly after he was chosen in the ninth round of the 2007 draft, months before Huntington was hired as the organization’s general manager. Watson was transitioned into the bullpen during his 2010 season at Double-A Altoona, where he posted a 1.73 ERA in 34 appearances.
“He’s very intelligent, he’s very gifted and he’s also incredibly dedicated to his craft,” Huntington said.
He’s only gotten better since he became a reliever, and that dedication has helped him continue to improve after he finished 2013 with a 2.39 ERA in 67 games last season. Watson finished his last season with the sixth-best ERA among all left-handed relievers.
Watson’s pitched in an average leverage situation of 1.82 (entailing high-leverage, FYI), recorded 22 shutdowns against just 5 meltdowns and added 1.67 points worth of win probability–tops among Pittsburgh relievers, seventh among all in the N.L.
“You look at it and you’re not surprised that he’s having a good season,” Huntington said. “We’ve had some guys in the past that have had great off-seasons but you don’t know that they’re going to be able to replicate it.”
Watson said his offseason was a “fun” one because he spent it at Pirate City, working alongside starters Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton to carry over their success from 2013 into the next season. Most valuable to Watson was having the eyes of pitching coach Ray Searage and Triple-A pitching guru Jim Benedict on his bullpen sessions.
“If you’re home, your mechanics might be out of whack and you might get in bad habits,” Watson said. “They saw things right away, you fix them, then you just go on to the next bullpen, then carry that into the spring.”
With Grilli’s departure, Watson is now a part of the late-inning tandem Hurdle will turn to when he needs a lead protected. While he laments the loss of one of the bullpen leaders, Watson likes knowing his role is cemented.
“Any time that you have an idea when the phone might ring, it helps,” he said.
And with Grilli’s departure, Watson also filled the role vacated on the Pirates’ “leadership council.” One would think his qualities of “fearlessness” and “commitment to being great”, as Huntington puts it, might have something to do with that.