First Pitch: Two Positive Signs That the Pirates Will Contend This Year

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.

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.

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.

**Top Performers: Dodson, Sampson, Sadler, Mathisen, Meadows, Hanson

**Adrian Sampson: The Best Prospect Who Could Crack This Pirates Rotation

**New Top 200 Draft Prospects List From Baseball America

**Morning Report: Wyatt Mathisen is Hitting Great, But There’s Still Work to Do


  • Christopher B
    May 21, 2015 4:09 pm

    An interesting note the offense, they have been hitting against a big called strike zone, sitting at -18 runs, tied for the ninth largest zone. I would imagine, since that should be largely independent of the team more pitches which have been called strikes on Bucco batters will be called balls, further helping those walk and strikeout rates, and ultimately the offense.

    On the other hand, the Bucs have also pitched to the biggest strike zone in the Majors (+64 runs), which helps explain their pitching. That should regress less than the offensive zone since it is driven by pitch framing, an actual skill which both Stewart and Cervelli possess in spades.

    Of course, I also suspect the Pirates have just had umpires with, on average, larger zones so far this year, since that contributes to both observations.

  • And the pitching implosion from the top three is starting tonight with Liriano looking putrid.

  • Tim….your optimism was good for what ailed me this morn. 🙂

  • The next ten games will be a good indicator of the pirates direction, then ten more,then ten more ect.. It sure would be nice to not win four and then lose four, win four lose one, win three lose one ok, not four on four off.

    • They are at home and need some W’s badly – they better come out like their hair is on fire.

  • This data suggests there is validity to what I’ve been saying about Pirates and cluster(bad)luck. I’m hopeful the pop up double by JHay to set up the first run Sunday is a sign their luck has turned around.

    • Scott: Bad luck could be a part of it. Another factor is that the team made a lot of changes in personnel and position changes since 2014 ended, and it takes time to get everyone on the same page. But, a Team wRC+ that is 27th in MLB is more telling than anything we can imagine. I would hate to think how far down we would have been if it was not for the great beginning turned in by our Rotation and Starling Marte. Kang and Rodriguez are also well above average.

      • Forgot to mention the pitiful job from our BP so far in 2015. I checked Win Probability and Watson is No. 3 – Excellent. Melancon is No. 38 which is above average, and then the next guy is Jared Hughes at No. 248, then Caminero at 257, Bastardo at 261, and Scahill and Liz are beyond those folks. When you figure that there are 29 other teams, it means that each team has at least an average of 8 guys better than our 3,4,5,6, and 7 guys out of the BP. Oh, Axford is No. 10, and Pimental is No. 212.

    • I was playing with some numbers this morning, Scott, and found that if Harrison was getting line drives to fall at the same rate as he’s done for his career he’d be hitting .274.