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.
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