This is all Austin Meadows’ fault, clearly.
Since the rookie outfielder was called up for the Pirates’ May 18 home game against the Padres, Pittsburgh has lost 10 of 13, falling from first place in the National League Central to fourth as June begins. They have since started the month by splitting a pair of games with the Cardinals.
In all seriousness, while Meadows has been downright dynamic in his Major League Baseball debut, most of the rest of the Pirates have let each other down. Meadows aside, only fellow newcomer Joe Musgrove could be said to be performing at his best over a terrible two weeks in the standings.
Even on a Thursday night in St. Louis that had the look of a feel-good comeback, the Pirates couldn’t close it out. Specifically, Felipe Vásquez couldn’t close out a three-run ninth-inning lead, continuing a disturbing trend of decreased velocity and erratic command.
Bullpen blowups will make everything about a baseball team seem gloomier, but even if the Pirates hadn’t squandered four late-game leads during this slump, they’d still be showing obvious signs of decline from an encouraging start.
Details aside, though, the stumble down the standings — 6.5 games behind the division-leading Brewers as of Sunday morning — has essentially cancelled out the headway the Pirates made over the first seven weeks of the season.
Per FanGraphs’ projected standings, the Pirates are on track for an 80-82 finish at this point, with just a 14.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s not hopeless, but still illustrative of how damaging an abysmal two weeks can be, even in the context of a six-month season.
So that’s the ‘what.’ What about the ‘how?’
The Pirates’ offense has undoubtedly fallen off over the past two weeks, ranking eighth in the National League in Weighted Runs Created (96), 11th in on-base percentage (.300), seventh in slugging percentage (.421) and 14th in walk rate (6.3 percent).
Pretty much anything can happen in half a month, but that’s a decline from where the lineup was as of the middle of May, ranking second to the equally-surprising Braves in essentially every offensive category.
Entering this stretch, the Pirates’ pitching was roughly average, with the bullpen performing slightly better than the rotation. Overall, the boys on the mound haven’t been terrible during this slump, but they are in the bottom half of the league in ERA (4.66, 11th) and xFIP (4.23, 12th).
So there are the component parts to the Pirates’ tumble. I wrote in the spring that the Pirates’ depth would have to carry them because they had precious little star-level potential, outside of perhaps Starling Marte and Jameson Taillon.
A similar concept applies to the two sides of the ball. That scintillating start for the offense aside, the Pirates are probably not going to be carried by the lineup or the rotation or the bullpen or the defense for months at a time. The way I see it, they need extreme consistency to compete for the playoffs.
Like all sports, baseball is a game of streaks and slumps, but bad performance combined with some bad timing has pushed the Pirates much closer to where most outsiders thought they would be at the start of summertime.
Whether you consider those first several weeks of the season truly wasted depends on one’s point of view. Corey Dickerson and Francisco Cervelli will certainly carry some hard-earned confidence into June, as will Musgrove and Tyler Glasnow.
As for most of the others, they face the challenge of getting right for the meat of the schedule. At least they’ll be doing it together.