The Pirates are 29-22 on June 1, in second place in the NL Central and 6.5 games back of the Cubs.
Last year at this time, The Pirates were two games worse at 27-24, in third place and 6.0 games behind the Cards and one game behind the Cubs.
In the overall picture, the Pirates are in a great spot through two months this season. Yes, there’s still a team at the top of the division running far ahead, but at least they’re only chasing one team instead of two this season. But I’ll get into why they’re in a great spot a little later in this post.
Let’s get into the point of this post. I’m going old school and a little Dean Douglas here in handing out a report card for the Pirates through two months:
Who expected this lineup to be this good? Pundits clamored in the offseason and spring about the loss of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez and where the Pirates would get their home runs from? Well who really needs the power when you’re hitting .283 (first in NL) and getting on base at a .355 clip (2nd in NL)? They have the most hits in the NL and are scoring 5.06 runs/game, good for 4th in the National League. This lineup is why the team is seven games over .500 as the pitching has struggled. The hitting has been a pleasant surprise and one that looks to be sustainable with the amount of high OBP guys in the lineup. And remember, we haven’t even seen McCutchen at his best yet. He leads the team in home runs, but still has a .257/.339/.455 slash line and a 795 OPS, which is about 100 points below his career average.
And how good has Gregory Polanco been? According to FanGraphs, he only leads the team through the first 51 games with a 2.4 WAR. But it doesn’t take a sabermetrics guru to tell you that Polanco is having one hell of a year. He was my number one key to the 2016 season in that he needs to take a step forward with his game. Well he’s done that and more. He currently leads the NL in runs with 38 and doubles with 18 and has a nice .310/.386/.556 slash line with a ridiculous 152 OPS+. He’s well above his career numbers as before this season he basically a disappointment in his development, but he’s still 24 years old and now we are seeing him hopefully put it all together.
But the Pirates haven’t sacrificed power all together. They’ve hit 50 home runs through 51 games, which is just four homers off the league average. McCutchen leads the team with nine, Polanco has eight and Jung Ho Kang has an incredible six long balls in just 20 games since returning from injury. And what about the depth off the bench? Oh, I’m getting to that.
We wrote here on the North Shore Nine in spring training that the Pirates bench had the chance to be the best depth and production we’ve seen in Pittsburgh in 20 years. And have they’ve shown how true that is through 51 games already. You want home runs? Look at the bench. Matt Joyce, probably the most blocked outfielder in the game, has five home runs and a crazy slash line of .317/.456/.635. That’s 193 OPS+ sitting on the bench! And you can’t play him anywhere besides pinch hits, DH opportunities during interleague play and the rare days off for Marte, McCutchen and Polanco. Also off the bench is Mr. Versatile Sean Rodriguez, who is tied for third on the team in HRs with six in just 77 ABs. S-Rod is posting a .986 OPS off the bench and he’s already made an appearance at first, second, shortstop, third base, left field and right field. How much of a luxury is it having a .986 OPS on the bench with the ability to play six positions? And don’t forget David Freese, who did a great job filling in at third till Kang was ready, and now sees time at first base as well to spell Jaso. Freese is only hitting .296/.374/.428 in 159 at-bats. All of these numbers will regress back down, but bottom line is the Pirates bench is loaded with options, talented bats and stellar versatility.
Starting Rotation: C
For as productive and surprising as the offense has been, the starting pitching has been just as disappointing. Six guys have made starts for the Pirates this season—Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong made just two starts. Besides Cole, the starting pitching has been average at best. They’ve already struggled at one point and been brilliant in other games.
The rotation is ranked middle of the road with 4.39 runs allowed per game and they rank ninth in innings per start with just 5.7. All of that doesn’t bode well for the rotation or the bullpen as it gets used more.
Liriano is probably the biggest surprise and letdown as he’s struggled with command or is witnessing batters overall just laying off his pitches out of the zone. He owns a 4.63 ERA and a 5.43 FIP and is walking 5.2 batters per nine. Niese has settled down after a rough start with his new team and owns a 4.42 ERA, but with a worse FIP of 5.49. He has been better as of late though. Juan Nicasio has been an up and down mixed bag of results, but it’s mostly been a struggle especially in May where he holds an awful 6.75 ERA. Nicasio hasn’t gone deep into games either, making it through an average of 5.2 innings per start due to his slow pace and persistence to throw a ton of pitches in each at-bat. And despite being hated by the yinzers, Jeff Locke owns a 4.33 ERA which was aided by his recent three-hit shutout last time out against the Marlins.
Cole is right along pace with his career numbers as he owns a nice 2.72 ERA (3.12 FIP) and while his strikeouts/nine are down just one a game and his walks are about the same, he’s getting hit a lot more often than he’s used to. Bad luck? Possibly. His BABIP is .324, which is the highest total he’s had as a Pirate. Cole is right where he needs to be, it’s the rest of the rotation that’s been the problem.
Just think where this team would be if the starting pitching was as good as they were last year? We’d be right up there with the Cubs. At any rate when I started this post saying this team is in a good spot, it’s because they’re still 29-22 with this average rotation and guess who’s knocking on the door? Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl who are all lighting up Triple-A with each start.
Here are the big three’s overall eye-popping numbers:
Glasnow: 56 IP, 2.25 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9
Taillon: 55.1 IP, 1.79 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 0.8 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9
Kuhl: 58 IP, 1.24 ERA, 7.1 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9
It’s hard to not gawk at those numbers. It’s June now, patience my friends…reinforcements are coming.
If it wasn’t for the back end of the bullpen—Melancon, Watson, Feliz, I’d fail this bullpen. Melancon has been great to this point. Another low 2.11 ERA and has converted 16 out of 17 saves. Watson struggled early on, but since then has come on strong in May. He tossed nine scoreless frames in the month of May and hasn’t allowed a run in his last 11 appearances in getting back to his ol’ elementary self. Neftali Feliz has been steady with a 3.06 ERA and even better FIP at 2.89 in 17 innings of work this season. But after that, it’s been a struggle finding anyone to rely in for the front of the bullpen and with the starting rotation only going an average of 5.7 innings, that spells trouble bridging the gap to Watson and Melancon.
Arquimedes Caminero (6.92 FIP) was a complete disaster, had no idea where the ball was going against the D-Backs and promptly hit the disabled list with some phantom injury. Kyle Lobstein struggled in long relief and had an ERA hovering around five before being sent down. Cory Luebke got his chance and imploded with a 14.73 ERA in 3.2 innings. Jared Hughes was on the DL to start the year and has only had 11 innings of work and been mediocre while he tries to find his form. Ryan Vogelsong was okay before getting drilled in the face with a pitch while making a spot start. And after that, the front office has been looking for any help from one of the Triple-A arms to provide productive innings. Rob Scahill has a 4.00 ERA in nine appearances, A.J. Schugel struggled early and hasn’t been very good and Wilfredo Boscan made his ML debut and might be the best option so far for the Bucs as a reliable arm. Boscan has a 2.25 ERA in just 8.0 innings of work.
It all starts with the starters though. The deeper they go, the more pressure and usage comes off the bullpen. The rotation should improve with the additions coming soon, but the bullpen needs to be better. You can basically bet on the Pirates to add a bullpen arm or two at the trade deadline.
Overall, I’ll give the Bucs a B+ on the season. I think the hitting is sustainable to some degree with McCutchen turning it on and the rotation can only go up once the Calvary arrives. Let’s get ready for a fun summer at PNC Park with a team trending upward.