For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an unfavorable position early in the season. They currently sit 18-20, which is actually a slight improvement over their 16-22 record through 38 games last year. They were 8.5 games out of first place at this point last year, and are currently 7.5 games out of first. They were 5.5 games out of the top Wild Card spot, and are currently 3.5 games back.
If there’s anything that last season taught us, it’s that the early season results are far from being the complete story. At this point last year the Braves, Brewers, and Giants were the division leaders, with the Rockies hosting the Dodgers in the Wild Card game. None of those division leaders ended up winning their divisions, although I’m sure Pirates fans would have been fine with the Giants and Madison Bumgarner winning their division rather than going to the Wild Card game. Even more notable, the Braves and Rockies finished below .500, while the Brewers were 82-80. And as we know, the Pirates ended up hosting the Wild Card game, and were two games out of first in the NL Central.
In short: the season is far from over.
That’s not to say that it’s good that the Pirates are in this position again. You’d definitely rather see them contending in the early part of the season, along with that late season run. And while they’re not out of it by any means, they definitely need to start turning things around. Fortunately, there are two good signs for their ability to make that happen, with both coming via tweets from ESPN’s Mark Simon.
The first good sign has been their pitching. The Pirates’ rotation has been great, currently tied for first overall in the majors in ERA, and tied for sixth overall in xFIP. Simon points out their hard hit rate, which ranks tied for the lowest in the majors. If you look at the top teams, there is a correlation among the best rotations and the lowest hard hit rates. There is also a correlation among the worst rotations and the lowest hard hit rates.
MLB pitching staffs ranked 1-30 in how often they're giving up hard contact.
Leaders: Pirates, Red Sox, Cubs
— Mark Simon (@MarkASimonSays) May 18, 2015
The big fear right now is that the Pirates rotation will fall apart when the offense finally comes around, although that seems to be paranoia based on an idea that the Pirates can’t have both working well at the same time. It’s also probably due in part to the low expectations on the rotation coming into the year. The low hard-hit rate is a good sign that the Pirates should continue seeing good results from the rotation.
But what about the offense? They were expected to be better than this, but currently rank 27th in wOBA and 26th in wRC+. But Simon has more good news, as the Pirates offense ranks ninth in the majors in hard-hit rate on offense.
Ranking MLB teams 1-30 in how often AB ends with hard-hit ball
Leaders- Indians, Dodgers
Trailers- Angels, Marlins pic.twitter.com/5QJqs3Pz8I
— Mark Simon (@MarkASimonSays) May 18, 2015
Out of the eight teams ahead of the Pirates, only one ranks outside of the top 20 in wRC+. Only one other team ranks outside of the top 15. Three of the eight teams rank in the top 10. If you switch over to wRC+, you’ve got one team outside the top 20, two outside of the top 15, and three in the top 10.
The Pirates should be better than this offensively, and the hard hit data suggests they should improve in the future. Of course, that only considers balls hit into play. It doesn’t include their walk and strikeout rates, which rank among the worst in the majors on the season. There are positive signs for each of these numbers too, as the Pirates rank in the top ten in the month of May with both their walk and strikeout rates.
If the Pirates can just get league average offense with their current pitching, they could easily get back in the race for the playoffs. And if they can put together top ten offense with their top ten pitching, then they would still have a shot at the division. This needs to happen sooner, rather than later, and preferably before the season reaches a point where the standings are a little more predictive of the end of the year results.
**Prospect Watch: Sever Looks Strong, Richard Has One Poor Inning. Also in there, a virus is going around the Bradenton clubhouse, which led to a lot of players either being scratched from tonight’s game, or leaving the game early.