First Pitch: These Pirates Can Win It All

PITTSBURGH — Neal Huntington was asked on Sunday what position was most important to a successful playoff run. His answer? Starting pitching.

“You can do it without a dominant starting pitcher or two,” Huntington said. “It just becomes a little more challenging. A dominant starter loses 40% or more of the time. But when you have two of them, you increase your odds.”

This isn’t ground breaking analysis. Anyone who has watched the Pirates the last three years can tell you the importance of starting pitching. It has been the biggest factor in what has made them one of the most successful teams in baseball during that stretch. They’ve had good offense and they’ve had bad offense, but the thing that has constantly kept them in contention has been the pitching, and the better that pitching has been, the better the record has been.

This year the Pirates’ rotation finished in the top five in the NL in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and WAR. And when it comes down to the concept of having two dominant starters, they definitely had that. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano finished 5th and 12th in the NL in WAR, respectively. They also both finished in the top 15 in xFIP across baseball. Having those two could make a huge impact if the Pirates can make it past the Cubs, and having Cole can allow the Pirates to counter Jake Arrieta and make it past the Cubs.

The pitching strength goes beyond just the rotation. We’ve covered how the Pirates have the best shutdown combo in the game in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. They are a big reason why the Pirates had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year. They added Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton for the final two months, and saw guys like Arquimedes Caminero and Antonio Bastardo step up during that time. The result was that the Pirates had the best bullpen WAR in baseball over the final two months, along with the best WPA and shutdown/meltdown numbers.

“If you have the shutdown bullpen, it’s a great bonus,” Huntington said. “A shutdown bullpen means your team doesn’t need to score as many runs. A dominant rotation means you don’t have to score as many runs. You have to score to win, but the fewer runs you have to score to win, the better off you’re going to be, and the better your chances are to win.”

Of course, the Pirates can score runs. Their offense combined to finished third in the NL in wRC+ and tied for sixth (with the Cubs) in wOBA. Granted, Jung Ho Kang played a big role there this season, but they’ve seen Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison step up since Kang has gone down. It’s a small sample, but in the final two weeks of the season, the Pirates offense finished second in the NL in WAR, second in wRC+, and fifth in wOBA. With that type of production, they can still be an offensive force without Kang.

“We like what we can do on the baseball field,” Huntington said. “We can win games because of our starters, because of our bullpen, because we can hit a ball into the seats. Because we can steal some bases, steal some runs on the bases. We’ve been better defensively as of late. And our outfield defense has continued to get better. With Jordy at shortstop, he stabilized us there. We miss Kang, there’s no hiding that fact. But if we can take care of the baseball in the post-season, we believe that we can do as deep as anybody.”

It’s no surprise that the Pirates won 98 games this year. They don’t have the best group in every area, but they’ve got a top rotation, a top ace, the best closer, the best set-up man, a top bullpen group, and a top offense. That’s the recipe for a World Series winner. The Pirates don’t have an easy path, but they’ve got a team that can handle a difficult road. They’ve got the ace to counter Arrieta. They’ve got the well-rounded team needed to take down the best team in baseball. And it should be easier from that point forward, as they’ve already dominated the Mets and Dodgers this year, and can handle any American League team. They’re not guaranteed anything, but that statement also includes the fact that they’re not guaranteed to be bounced early.

This is a well-rounded team. They might have the strength that Huntington feels is most important. But they’ve got all of the other strengths as well, which means they don’t have to totally rely on just the starting pitching.

This is a Pirates team that can win it all.

**Tomorrow is the workout day for the Pirates. I’ll have coverage from PNC Park, including recaps of the press conferences with Clint Hurdle and Gerrit Cole. I’ll also have some site updates in the morning, with great news about the playoff coverage, along with some notes about off-season coverage.

**Giles: Pirates Staying Aggressive on the First Pitch. A great look from Ed Giles at how the Pirates have been seeing success this year by swinging at the first pitch.

**Pirates Winter League Preview. John Dreker takes a look at the upcoming Winter Leagues.

**Glasnow and Bell Among Top Prospects in the Eastern League. Not a surprise here, as two of the top prospects in the game would also end up as the top prospects in their league.

  • I’ve heard a lot of people asking if this season is a success if they lose the WC game. As if this game is a vaccuum on their season, and it’s not fair to acknowledge that the Cardinals maybe had an even more impressive season… of course they did… which is why the Bucs are in a WC game. So, yes this season is a success. A huge success as all parts of the business were contributing to great play all year.
    Others are complaining that more $ from Nutting would have made the difference. This is most stupid statement ever. How many teams in Baseball this year have 98 wins? How many are paying over $100 million? Exactly, $ do not equal wins. The only thing money buys is talent… which may or may not lead to wins. Congratulations to the organization for a great year finding wins, which is what matters most.
    Lastly, Just getting to the playoffs is really the goal for teams – what happens in the playoffs is really about the players and the managers. If you’ve won 98 games you have all you need to win it all as Tim mentions. Taking it to the end and winning it all is about special chemistry, some luck, some amazing nerves, some incredible energy, some gut feelings, some science and research, some combination of all of everyone’s work and a little bit of karma. Hopefully our team has that special mix, they’ve worked for it, they are as deserving as any, and yes they are a success.

    • Very well said. Now, let’s enjoy the game. I believe we are all guilty of wanting to be correct on a Pirate philosophy we forget the best part of it all…watching and sharing what is a truly great experience to share with friends and family.

      Secondly. If the faithful need a chant to shake Arietta may I suggest “Air Head” Air Head” Air Head”. Slightly edgy and it flows well.

  • It all comes down to who gets the close pitches. I am a huge Pirates fan obviously, but I feel like they have not been getting some of the pitches that their opponents have. One pitch here and there changes every thing.

    • Jeff Nelson is calling the NL WC game. According to the records, the home team has a 13-3 record when he is behind the plate. In his games K’s were well below average, and walks were about average. Is there a relationship there or not? Who knows?

    • This is where the fans can step up and make a difference. Get on those umps when a close call doesn’t go our way!

  • 2014 Pirates > 2014 Giants

    That Pirates team also could have won the WS.

    The 2013 Pirates had the Cards on the brink, but lost the series to a worthy League champion.

    I like our chances against every team we may face if we make it past Arietta. I don’t like our chances in the WC game. Assuming Arietta pitches as he has, Cole needs to match Arietta’s performance and force the Cubs to win with their bullpen.

    Can the Pirates beat Arietta? Yes. They have faced and beaten Scherzer and Kershaw this year. They have a 5-1 record against the Dodgers and a 6-0 record against the Mets, two teams with good staffs. The Pirates can and have beaten great pitchers. Unfortunately, they have not yet solved Arietta.

    The cliché is true: The Pirates cannot look past their next opponent. The cliché also applies to the Cubs! They are not the masters of Gerrit Cole!

  • I would feel a lot better about tommorow and moving forward with Kang…To me, they are going home tommorow if Cutch doesnt hit. And Vita Bella needs to throw someone out on the basepaths.

    • Everyone needs to hit. They need to knock Arrieta off his game early.

      • Goes without saying. Cutch has a .687 OPS over the last two weeks. He specifically needs to get it going Wed.

        • He spoke with confidence in an interview last night…making the point that the Pirates know what to expect with Arrieta. They certainly have had ample time to break down the film of their at bats against him this year. Quite a few of the national wags are picking the Bucs based upon their playoff experience.

        • I’m with you on this one, Arthur.

          These are the game where the face of the franchise needs to step up. Comes with the territory.

  • When do the Pirates have to set their playoff roster?

  • Aramis or Josh at 3b?

    I go with Josh and the hot bat. He can hit anyone when he’s hot.

    • I agree but neither has hit him at all. Matter of fact, have a look at this link. We most definitely have a big challenge ahead. Go BUCS.

    • We have to start the best defense possible and JHAY gets to more than ARAM.

      This is going to be a coaching decision, but is it time to possibly change the approach with Arrieta? Very few of our RH hitters like to be right up on the plate and that feeds into his ability to paint that outside black or throw Curves that break outside or out of the strike zone. Toes over the line against a guy throwing 95/96 has it’s obvious drawbacks, but it might shake him just that little bit. The LH hitters seem to do better when they wait to see the pitch longer and use the whole field.

      When the Cubs agreed to pay Lester $15 mil of his bonus and a $15 mil salary for 2015, I did not think that would be enough to get the Cubs in the race. But, Arrieta has been the difference between a .500 team and a team that won 97 games and is in the WC Round.

      • I think the Rookies-lead-the-Cubs narrative is way overblown, personally. Without a doubt, pitching is what has put them ahead of schedule. They bought seven wins this winter with Lester and Hammel, and got another seven wins by turning around Arrieta. That’s more value than twenty(!) clubs got out of all their starters, combined.

    • A-Ram is better off the bench too.

  • Any team that wins 98 games in a season has to be considered a team that can win it all. Both the Pirates and the Cardinals improved their number of wins by 10 in 2015, and they have been the two most consistent winners in the game over the past 3 years – the Pirates averaging 93 wins per season and the Cardinals averaging about 95.5 wins per season.

    Although the wins came, I never felt like the Rotation was that “set” to win consistently. Cole was strong from Day 1, but Liriano was inconsistent. I never expected the year we got from Burnett, and although Happ was a personal favorite of mine from when he pitched with the Phillies, I think it is safe to say nobody expected him to do as well as he did after the trade deadline. Morton and Locke both had their positive moments, but were pretty much inconsistent throughout the year. The BP started rough, but were very strong from May through the rest of the year, and trade deadline guys like Soria and Blanton helped tremendously.

    Martin left to FA, Harrison and Mercer struggled, but in came guys like Francisco Cervelli, and Jung Ho Kang, who became instant fan favorites. ARAM had some big input into the offense and it seemed that even though the Pirates did not have many games where the offense was complete, somebody always stepped up with a little bit better than normal when others were down. ‘Cutch still led the team, but there were others helping along the way. Check how many hitters had over 50 Extra Base Hits – if memory serves me, ‘Cutch was over 60, and Marte, Polanco, and Walker were over 50 – those are huge numbers.

    2015 was a true Team Success.