First Pitch: Are the Pirates Turning Things Around?

A week ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates won 6-5 against the Toronto Blue Jays in dramatic comeback fashion. I asked at the time if that was the spark they needed to turn things around. It was too early to tell that at the time, and one week later it is probably still too early to call that win a turning point. But quietly, the Pirates have put together a nice run, going 5-2 in the last week. That would have been 6-1 had it not been for a blown save on Monday against the Giants.

One week after that big win against Toronto, I ask: Are the Pirates turning things around?

They got in this hole thanks to a really bad stretch of losing. They went 4-15 from April 11th to May 1st. To counter that, they will need one really big stretch of winning, or one more smaller stretch like we’ve seen in the last week.

Aside from the winning, there are some encouraging signs lately that help support the idea that the Pirates are turning things around. First, there’s the starting pitching. Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton came up big this week, each going eight innings to lead the Pirates to back-to-back wins. I’m not about to say that the rest of the rotation will start doing the same thing. I’m not going to predict a repeat from Cole and Morton. What I will point out is that the rotation is capable of more.

At the moment, Cole, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and Brandon Cumpton (who should be the fifth starter) all have an ERA higher than their xFIP. The only person with an ERA lower than his xFIP is Morton, who has a 3.45/4.28 split. The starting pitching should be better than this. It was expected to be better than this, especially from Liriano, Cole, and Morton.

I think the rotation can go up from here, because I don’t think this group is full of number three and four starters like the numbers indicate.

The next big thing is Starling Marte. Since moving out of the leadoff spot, Marte has been on fire. He’s hitting for a .342/.390/.526 line in 38 at-bats. The strikeouts, which were at an alarmingly high rate in April, have dropped to a respectable rate in May. The walks have also dropped back to his career norms, but the lack of walks is acceptable with the return of his hitting, and especially the return of his power.

As for the leadoff spot, somehow during this time the Pirates have gotten a .387 average and a 1.137 OPS from their right fielders, with Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, and Josh Harrison all chipping in. I’m more confident in Marte continuing his success than the trio of right field options.

Pedro Alvarez is another guy who is heating up, with a .785 OPS in the month of May. Ike Davis can be added to that list, with an .873 OPS so far this month. Neil Walker is on fire, with an OPS of 1.086.

In April, the Pirates were pretty much just getting offense from Andrew McCutchen. They were getting nothing before him, and nothing after him. Now they’re getting offense from the number one through six spots. I don’t know if all of those players will continue producing, but I do expect most of them to do better than what we saw in April. Just like the pitchers, I don’t think the offense was as bad as we saw. They’ve got some room for improvement.

The Pirates still have an uphill battle. If they want to get to 86 wins (which will probably be needed for a Wild Card spot), then they will need to win at a .559 pace the rest of the season. There are eight teams in the majors that have that winning percentage or better, so it can be done.

Last year the Pirates had a lot of success by limiting the cold streaks. They didn’t lose more than four games in a row. There was only one ten game stretch where they won fewer than four games. Obviously that hasn’t carried over to this year. They eliminated the horrible losing stretches last year, which led to 94 wins. They were also capable of getting hot and winning 11 out of 13, 9 out of 11, and 9 in a row. This is largely the same team. None of those winning stretches came with Marlon Byrd or Justin Morneau. The 11 out of 13 happened before Morton and Cole joined the team. The nine game streak was without Burnett. Only one of those big streaks came with all three pitchers.

This team has shown that they can get really hot, much like they’re doing right now, and win a lot of games in a short time span. They did it several times last year. We might be in the middle of one of those stretches right now. While I can’t say that the offense we’ve seen lately will continue on a consistent basis, I can say that this team is capable of getting hot all at once like this, leading to those strong stretches. The Pirates are going to need at least one of those stretches to get back in the mix, and that’s not including what they’ve done in the last week.

They dug a deep hole in April, but it’s not impossible to climb their way out of it.

Links and Notes

Pirates

**Which Edinson Volquez Will the Pirates Get Going Forward?

**Travis Snider and Russell Martin Suspensions Upheld

**Pirates Add Brent Morel to the Active Roster

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Sadler Has Rough Return to Indianapolis; Mathisen Stays Hot

**Minor League Schedule: Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow Pitch Tonight

**The Best Gift Ngoepe Update, Ever

**Prospect Highlights: Gregory Polanco Strikes Again, Mel Rojas Jr. With Walk-Off Hit

2014 Draft

**Draft Prospect Watch: Brandon Finnegan Returns, Luke Weaver Throws Seven Shutout Innings

 

First Pitch

  • Wow this rotation is a mess no matter how you cut it. Volquez is still volquez which basically means he stinks

  • Tim, a question. With Marte now hitting in a spot that makes more sense for his skill set, the RF’s are batting leadoff by default. Polanco has shown an ability to take a walk and is obviously a base-stealing threat. When he comes up, do you think he slides into the leadoff spot? To me, that seems like the best alternative. Even Barry Bonds batted leadoff during his first few years with the Bucs.

    • I could see him leading off when he comes up. That’s what they did with Cutch and Marte.

      • When that happens, I think they should move Marte to the second spot and drop Walker to 5th, unless Walker is still tearing it up when Polanco comes up.
        I think Marte would do very well hitting ahead of Cutch, seeing more fastballs and being able to draw walks and bunt with Polanco on ahead of him.

  • Morton and Cole’s starts were encouraging because we know they can do that on any given night. However, Liriano continues to look off. Volquez is looking more and more like what most fans expected. Cumpton is probably an average #4. Wandy is probably toast. The BP isn’t lockdown, and even Watson and Melancon look very human.

    By OPS, the offense is above MLB average at only 2 positions: CF (2) and 2B (3). It’s around average at 3B (14), P (16), LF (17) and RF (19). It’s below average at 1B (22), C (28) and SS (30/last). Overall it’s 20th in MLB.

    This is pretty simple: Marte has to stay down in the order and continue to produce there. Mercer has to get to middle of the pack in offense for SS. Hurdle has to keep getting lucky in playing RF roulette. Any further production from C would be a bonus.

    Just within the division, it’s hard to argue that the Bucs rotation is better than anyone else’s, including the Cubs. That’s the first thing that has to change. Cole should be fine. Morton… the only thing that keeps him from being very good is himself. Liriano needs to be at least a .500 pitcher. He’s not looking like it. Cumpton is a #4. Hopefully he continues giving quality starts, but to expect more is folly. If Volquez continues to stink, what does Neal do? There’s nothing at AAA that makes me feel particularly comfortable. Certainly not Locke, nor even Irwin or Sadler, although the latter may have to be that option.

    In the offseason, Neal said there’s no role for a healthy Karstens here. If Karstens is healthy, the situation has changed. I can’t find any news on his progress or the results of his showcase back in February. Anyone know anything?

    • mysonisnamedafterRoberto
      May 10, 2014 2:16 pm

      I wonder if moving Mercer up to the lead off position would change his approach at the plate and maybe get him back on track. I feel he can hit well for the SS position and if he can recapture his performance from last year he would be one of the better 8th spot hitters in the league.
      Hitting 8th is one of the more difficult position to hit. Pitch selection is limited with the pitcher behind you. In the 8th hole, I feel you have to be aggressive. Going after the first pitch is best, because it maybe the best pitch you see all at bat.

  • They are definitely turning things around, even during the losing skid they were beating themselves… I think you could make a case that Walker has been the MVP so far… and lately the Harrison/Snider/Tabata top of the lineup has looked great… along with that Marte seem much better suited for the 5 or 6 spot in the order….
    I want to see what Lambo can do in RF, but do you think he can hit Leadoff… I know not the traditional guy, but Snider has looked better in the leadoff spot than anywhere else, taking walks, big RBI single the other day, tripled to the gap… I don’t want to move Walker out of the 2 hole… if Mercer picks it up he could be a good fit there

  • pilbobuggins
    May 10, 2014 8:47 am

    I agree with that tim. Just one thing i’d like your opinion on. Flip- flopping pedro and marte.while marte may not be suited long term in the four hole he imo would be better than pedro. Pedro’s power I think would be better suited in the 5 hole where his frequent strikeouts would’nt hurt the offence as much. What do you think?

    • I’m not Tim, but I like having the sequence of switch-hitting Walker, righty Cutch, lefty Pedro, righty Marte, lefty Davis 2-6.

      • thats a great point,going LRLR in the lineup is not only to guard against the lefty out of the pen late in the game, it is much easier for a pitcher to start cruising when facing the same sided hitters in a row, making a potcher constantly throw to different sides of the plate is an effective strategy against any starting pitcher

        • It’s made a huge difference in the production, IMHO. It makes the opposing manager at least think about handedness when in April it was an easy, easy call. Glad Clint figured that out- better later than never.

  • lonleylibertarian
    May 10, 2014 8:41 am

    Excellent column Tim – and I really hope you are right – I stand by my criticisms and concerns – but Friday night’s win
    was big. Lost in the celebration are a few concerns – Morel looked lost in his PH appearance – Cole would have been a
    better option at that point. Liriano continues to get hit – last year he seemed to have a lot more swings and misses. The HR was more the pre 2013 Liriano – and the 2014 version – not what we saw in 2013 – but he competed and kept the Bucs in the game.

    Perhaps the best news for Pirate fans is that the Cards of 2014 are not the Cards of 2013. Carpenter has just one HR. Holiday and Adams are at 2 each – they really seem to miss Beltran – and who knows where they would be without Perralta.

    I have been a big advocate of putting Tabata in the leadoff spot and giving him a couple of weeks to win – or lose the job. Snider can spell him – and be the LH bat off of the bench – he is affordable in that role. Strangely that puts me in the camp of keeping Lambo at AAA for a couple of weeks while the Tabata experiment plays out.

    Getting Martin back should be a plus when it happens – hopefully soon

    The next 8 games are going to be crucial – 15 and 20 could turn into 21-22 or 17 and 26.

    • Travis Persinger
      May 10, 2014 10:52 am

      I think there’s more to worry about for the Pirates than a struggling AAA player getting a cup of coffee during a 3 game series. His struggles should be no surprise, he’s been bad in AAA at the plate.

  • Liriano,looks like a #3 pitcher this year and has never had 2 good years ina row. Bullpen still a concern to me. But I’m pretty optimistic about the bats

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