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.