A.J. Burnett was in the midst of his seventh quality start of the season Sunday but, oddly enough, it didn’t seem like the Pirates had the best chance to win the afternoon’s game. He had pitched four shutout innings and was matched every step of the way by Chicago starter Jake Arrieta.

It was easy to think the Cubs held the upper hand, even in a scoreless game. The Pirates were swept in St. Louis two weeks ago, featuring three one-run losses. They had games decided in the late or extra innings Friday and Saturday. Plus they were riding a four-game losing streak.

But then something strange happened. Confronted with a situation in which they could influence the game in their own favor, the Pirates capitalized in a way uncommon to the team’s performance as the 2015 season nears the quarter-turn this week.

Josh Harrison doubled with one out in the fifth and Francisco Cervelli wasted no time in slapping a single to right and providing run support for his battery mate, giving the Pirates a 1-0 lead. To boot, Pittsburgh added two runs of insurance in the eighth to secure a 3-0 win that capped a seven-game road trip in which the Pirates went 3-4.

A large component of the Pirates success in the last two seasons was that they seemed to do exactly what they needed to do when faced with the exact moments in which a big hit or pitch was required of them. Whether a walk-off error or home run, the Pirates found a way to do what was necessary to win ballgames.

Aside from the late-inning runs Sunday, the inability to make plays in many high-leverage or “clutch” situations this season has plagued them.

It’s not a skill or aspect of the game immediately quantifiable, call it the “clutch factor” if necessary, but one that obviously impacts baseball games. For what it’s worth, the Pirates performance in “clutch” situations as measured by FanGraphs (which determines the stat by evaluating play in high-leverage situations) ranks third-to-last in the National League at -0.45.

Of course, the Pirates low offensive numbers overall this season don’t help anything in that department. Common logic holds a player won’t be much more or less successful in any specialized situation than his overall numbers indicate and that’s the case with the Pirates.

Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison just recently pulled their averages up over the Mendoza line and the team’s .300 on-base percentage is only better than the Phillies and Brewers who each also happen to have lost more games than any other team in the NL.

Moving forward, an area the Pirates can begin capitalizing on is not letting their excellent starting pitching go for naught while it lasts.

Look no further than Burnett having now started eight games and allowed exactly eight earned runs. Despite a 1.38 ERA, he owns a 3-1 record and the Pirates are just 4-4 overall in those eight games.

When a starter delivers quality starts in seven of eight outings (and was two outs away from one in his first start of the year) a team’s ledger should be tipped in a positive direction. But the team’s performance in Burnett’s excellent starts, as well as those of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, highlights victories left unclaimed by the Pirates this year.

Pittsburgh’s three top starters have already posted 17 quality starts in 23 outings while Liriano and Cole each own sub-3.00 ERAs to complement Burnett’s mark, which ranks second in the majors.

Overall, the Pirates are 10-13 in the outings by their three best starters. Ideally, the starts from those pitchers should give the team a better chance to win, and that cannot be wasted as the Cubs and Cardinals have already established themselves at the top of the division.

The rotation should become more formidable when Charlie Morton re-joins it, assuming he’s now healthy and returned to the form that earned him a new contract before last season. Either way, if the Pirates were to win three of every five games they play, that would put them on pace to finish around 90 wins.

It’s not a perfect plan, but taking advantage of some of baseball’s best starting pitching would be a good start toward the Pirates playing their way back into contention.

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Has Control Issues in Return

**Looking at What Went Wrong in Luis Heredia’s 2015 Debut

**Zack Dodson Trying to Put it All Together in Contract Year With Pirates

**It Looks Like Charlie Morton is Replacing Vance Worley in the Rotation

**Draft Prospect Watch: Kaprielian Flashes No-Hit Stuff Against a Strong Lineup

**Morning Report: Tyler Glasnow Returns to the Mound

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  1. The pirates offensive woes can be summed up easily, any time someone gets on base the next guy invariably swings for the fence on every pitch near (and sometimes not) the strike zone. On the rare occasion, as in the 3-0 win over the cubs, when the next hitter/s

  2. The pirates offensive woes can be summed up easily, any time someone gets on base the next guy invariably swings for the fence on every pitch near (and sometimes not) the strike zone. On the rare occasion, as in the 3-0 win over the cubs, when the next hitter/s try to make contact walah an rbi what a frickin concept. Make contact get a hit to drive in a run versus swing away and go sit down. The pirates are at a fork in the road, which way they go will be decided in the next ten games.

  3. The longer AJ keeps up his incredible 89% strand rate, the more painful it’s going to look when he inevitably starts letting those runs in, because law of averages suggest they’ll come in bunches.

    So we’re skipping Worley and pitching two lefties vs. Twinkies, even though Minn hits LHP better. I’m assuming Chuck will be inserted between Frankie and Locke and make his first start next Monday vs. Miami?

    Anyway, with Harrison and Cutch hitting again, runs will come.

    • I read on triblive that Chuck is making his first start on the 24th against the Mets. The 20th would make sense though but I think they are giving him another AAA start tomorrow so he still goes on 5 days rest.

  4. Nate: Excellent article. The 2015 Pirates are a sleeping giant and could take charge of their own destiny at any moment. They have a continuing problem of not being able to take advantage of the situations presented, and that type of thing tends to even out over the length of a season. Our hitters are starting to make more consistent contact rather than the strikeout barrage that was April, and the BP can’t do anything but improve on the first quarter of the season.

    Hated to see the Marlins can Mike Redmond. Any team with a need for an intense and motivated BENCH COACH? Still young enough to communicate like an older brother with a strong Catching and Hitting background.

    • Well this has been common with the Pirates over the past few years, when our pitching is at it’s best, our hitting has been at its worst. This was true last year and the year before as well unfortunately. Our clutch season last year was led by Russell Martin and Josh Harrison Josh has been horrid until the past week and Russell is gone, so we will have to see if things change. The only person whom has maintained or layed up to tough situations has been Marte

      • Tough to not mention Cervelli in “tough” or “clutch” situations after the last week he has had. Quality batting average and he has come up pretty big with RISP lately, being one of the only hitters im excited to see with men on base. Along with Marte.

        • Luke/Y2: And if you look at the hitting stats, many of the newbies are right up there with Starling Marte – Sean Rodriguez, Jung Ho Kang, and Francisco Cervelli. The key to all of this is maintaining the strength of the Rotation while improving contact and attention to situational hitting.

          • Situational hitting can tend to be pretty variant, as there was a week stretch early in the year where we only seemed to hit with 2 outs and a man on. Now we cant get that break open hit. The talent on the offense is there.

        • Point taken- but that’s really recent, and quite honestly as bad as he’s playing defensively, (specifically referring to his inability to actually catch the ball and his horrid throwing) he really isn’t breaking even. That being said you can say Stewart has been really clutch as well, but his throwing has actually been worse than Cervelli’s

          • Cervelli is throwing runners out at a roughly 30% clip, so about middle of the pack for starters so far this year and generally slightly above average area most years. He hasnt been playing bad defensively, as he rates as one of the best pitch framers early on, has roughly an average arm and seems to block well.

            Cervelli isnt Russell Martin on defense, but no one is. Thus far statistically, Cervelli has been slightly better than Yadier Molina on offense (so pretty solid) and at least average overall on defense.

            Cervelli has made losing Russell Martin far less painful than it could be, but a few poor plays at home plate seem to make him a bad defensive player regardless of his overall body of work.

            • Luke- he definitely has gotten better over the last week or two, earlier in the season his throwing accuracy was horrible at best. Some really slow baserunners, running on him recently (st. louis for example) has inflated his % of caught stealings lately. It seems that Stewart has inherited that lately, he’s been throwing worst than Doumit lately, the game he had against the Cubs was one of the worst defensive outings i’ve ever seen. One thing you can’t deny, is that Cervelli he drops very clean pitches way too often, (i’ve been counting 4-5 a game on pitches in the strike zone or borderline) but I will admit he is good at blocking. I refuse to give catchers credit for framing, to me that is as much the pitcher as the catcher, its basically junk science so lets not talk about that.

              • You cant diminish what he has done in the last 2 weeks when speaking of such a SSS. Because you basically are saying that his first 2-3 weeks werent good, but the recent 2 week good play is less key.

                Also, stop saying Cervelli drops clean pitches. He is factual a top 5 catcher in the game at framing pitches, so he is statistically gaining us more strikes than almost any other catcher. That automatically makes any attempt at “he cant catch this or that” bunk. The one area where its most clear that Cervelli is good is framing, your either lying or your eyes arent caring to see something.

                • Or you literally do not watch the games and just pour over worthless stats all day looking for meaning….Do me a favor. Watch the next 5 games he catches, every pitch, count the pitches he literally drops. Do the same the next time Stewart catches, then…..let me know. By the way, he (cervelli) dropped 3 more clean pitches yesterday before coming out for Stewart after getting hit in the head, and I missed at the first 2 innings too by the way.

                  • I give, i’ll call you next time i need to know the reality behind something and i wont look into “stats” since they are way less reliable than you. Drop me your number and ill be able to save time by not looking up the actual stats that show the quality of a catcher on defense. You insult me for no reason and act like you know it all. All im saying is, stats arent worthless. Its like listening to a member of congress talk about scientific data.

                    • Luke- when I point out my opinion about something is based off of something that is not statistically driven, and you try to use statistics to show me i’m wrong, you just don’t look real smart. I realize that my assertion that Cervelli’s defense stinks simply because he drops balls and makes bad throws is illogical, so fine, you can argue that he is a good catcher for X or Y reason, but you can’t argue with me that my reasons are flawed, because they are based off of fact that you cannot dispute. If i think Cervelli sucks because he drops on average 4.7 clean pitches a game (hypothetically, this isn’t a real stat) you can’t argue that he doesn’t drop those pitches, you can only argue that it doesn’t matter. Its opinion, take your garbage framing stats elsewhere because they are bunk- and that is MY opinion. I am completely neutral to Cervelli and Stewart, I can see the flaws and the good things of both their games, whereas you are speaking more of a fan. That’s fine, just keep it straight.

                • Keep in mind- i’m not saying Cervelli is a bad catcher, but he needs to catch the damn ball.

            • I was talking about him dropping pitches constantly, not even about the plays at home plate which are really bad…… he just really has trouble catching the ball in general. It’s not a good trait for a catcher.

              • http://www.baseballprospectus.com/sortable/index.php?cid=1820288

                FiveThirtyEight did an article about Yadi falling off the map in framing, and included stats looking at framing (so catching the ball and things like “dropping” pitches and losing strikes as a result”).

                Cervelli is the best in the league to date at framing pitches and saving the team runs. 40 extra strikes, nearly 6 runs. So far, Cervelli rates as top 5 in both framing and blocking. Im not being snarky or rude, but you are just factual wrong by saying he has trouble catching the ball….because his ability to catch the ball well is currently better than any other catcher this season.

                • How can I be factualy wrong? In 30 years, I’ve literally never seen a catcher drop so many pitches and i’ve watched 1000’s of games. Whether or not he gets a called strike or not is not based on him catching the ball. And no matter what you say, i’m not giving a catcher any unmitigated credit for pitch framing because i believe strongly that the pitcher earns that at least equally as the catcher, and will believe it until proven differently.

                  The only thing you can really show with even a low degree of confidence is that pitcher A threw to 2 different catchers and catcher A got more balls called strikes than catcher B. In that sense, you can say whom is better at pitch framing, but you still run the risk of not having enough data that way to be statistically significant. You cannot take this correlation outside of that and have it be statistically viable because the pitcher himself is too large of a variable, and so is the umpire calling whom may be more predisposed of calling one pitch versus another. You are introducing way too many variables which are being ignored currently in the name of trying to value catchers and quite honestly its ridiculous and everyone that buys into it is well on that same path of ridiculousness, or at least…..ignorance.

                  • You kinda prove that you dont care to see the other side of the argument when you admit you dont “believe” in a catcher getting credit for framing (even though its proven somehow some catchers do better than others). So thats just refusing to even acknowledge that somehow 2 catchers on the same team can have drastically different framing stats while catching the same rotation.

                    You also clearly point out that: “whether or not he gets a strike called or not is not based on him catching the ball”. Which means you think he doesnt catch the ball well, but dont care to see a link between catching the ball well and framing pitches. So its possible that Cervelli just doesnt catch the ball well, but is the best in the game at framing pitches. Logically, thats not gonna end well for you.

                    Im willing to debate some things, but not when you just come out saying you dont believe the realities of catcher framing and dont see a link between framing and being a quality catcher at catching the ball. The rest doesnt matter at that point, because you dont “believe” the basis of my point even though its been written on a TON and has been proven that some catchers gain more strikes than others….for some crazy reason.

                  • the fact that you end by calling other ignorant after basically saying “hey man, i dont trust those stats. my eyes have experience and those guys doing research into the stats of catchers and framing are too darn ridiculous”. Its not some crazy theory that hasnt been studied, i acknowledge that its still relatively new but you act like its voodoo science.

                    • Luke- it is voodoo science. I have already pointed out specifically why framing numbers are trash, i’m not getting into it again. Do me a favor, find some way to get the numbers for Greg Maddux’s personal catcher with atlanta, tell me how he ranked in pitch framing those years.

                    • …..or Tom Glavine….. or Livan Hernandez’s catcher the day in the playoffs he stuck out 18 batters with 12 curveballs outside the zone back in the 90’s…….giving credit to the catcher would be EXACTLY what the current way of quantifying framing stats are created, and in each case, it would be horribly wrong

  5. Cluster luck is a two-sided coin. Pirates are on a run of bad luck, but it will turn. Luck always changes. Eventually.

    Based on their run differential they should be 21-17. That’s more indicative of winning % this team will end with than the one they’re sporting now.

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