Pittsburgh Pirates: Year in Review

Another year of baseball has come and gone for 22 cities. This one was a very noteworthy one for the beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. They gave their fans a taste of first place in July for the first time since 1992. Although they completely collapsed down the stretch, they finished with their best record (72-90) since 2004.

Instead of focusing on the huge negative that is the team’s 19th consecutive losing season, I’m going to take this space to focus on the memories that this season left me with by thanking the players. There were plenty.

Joel Hanrahan- Thank you for being the shut-down closer this team envisioned you being when they traded for you in 2009. I’d take you over Nyjer Morgan in a heartbeat.

Pedro Alvarez- Thank you for keeping it cool this year, even though it was a lost year. You took a nearly radioactive situation with your struggles and the reaction of the fan base and kept it from getting out of control. Clear your head up and come back ready in 2012. We need you.

Jose Tabata- Thank you so much for having a love for the Pirate franchise. It showed when you signed your extension this summer. You know the great history of this team and want to be a part of it. How can you not like that?

Paul Maholm- Even though this was most likely your last year with the club, thank you for being a great pitcher to watch during your time here. No matter what kind of crap you were faced with, you took the ball and tried to do your job to the best of your ability every time out. Not one complaint or excuse. It’s something I feel the younger pitchers fed off of.

Jeff Karstens- Thank you for showing in this era of obsession over power arms that a pitcher with control can get the job done too. Keep up the good work.

Michael McKenry- Thank you for making grown men cry on the night of July 8th, 2011 just by hitting a home run. Seriously.

Charlie Morton- Thank you for not giving up when it seemed everyone else had done so. One of the best stories of this season.

James McDonald- Thank you for being the lighthearted guy on the team. Your goofing around even made the 10-0 losses watchable when they cut away to you and the other guys in the dugout.

Neil Walker- Thank you for carrying this team at times when no one else could get it going. You were a catalyst all year with clutch hitting. You are a fun player to cheer for.

Andrew McCutchen- Thank you for having the breakout season that we were waiting for. You are a true “star-level” talent and it showed this year. While you faded down the stretch, you are quickly turning heads in the baseball world.

Clint Hurdle- Thank you for coming into what many consider an impossible situation and bringing hope back to this fan base. Your interactions with fans and players have meant a lot and went a long way to bringing back the positive vibes this young team desperately needed. You believed, so then we believed.

 

187 days until Opening Day 2012.

 

Halfway home

It seems like yesterday that the Pirates were beginning the 2011 season. After Friday’s game, they reached the halfway point of the season. At the time I am typing this, they hold a 42-41 record that is lightyears beyond what anyone expected. Time to give some mid-season grades.

Offense

A main goal for the Pirates in 2011 was to improve their pathetic offense that averaged just 3.62 runs per game last year. Adding Matt Diaz to platoon in right field with Garrett Jones along with Lyle Overbay to add pop at first gave the team hope that they would be able to score more and take pressure off the pitchers.

So far in 2011, in 83 games the team has averaged just 3.87 runs per game which ranks well in the bottom third of the league. The problem is the team still has poor on-base and slugging numbers.

In 2010 the team had an on-base percentage of .304. This year the number is .310. While it is a slight improvement, it is still well below the league average. The hitters are not staying patient enough to draw walks along with hits. The strikeout numbers are very alarming too. Pirate batters have struck out

The Pirates lack power too. Their team slugging percentage of .354 is 14th in the National League and down from the .373 in 2010. They have hit just 53 home runs, which puts them on pace to have less than they did in 2010.

The general guide for all-around hitting, on-base plus slugging percentage is .664 which is also 14th in the National League. What this stat shows is that the team has some of the worst offensive production in the league.

Obviously, Overbay and Diaz have been disappointments. The fact Pedro Alvarez has done very little this year along with regression from Neil Walker hasn’t helped. With the offense banged up, the team will hopefully see more production when healthy. But to this point in the season, it has been pretty awful.

Grade: D+

Defense

Another goal for 2011 was better defense. The Pirates committed the most errors in the majors in 2010 and looked like a team of little leaguers most nights. That has changed quite a bit in 2011. Take Ronny Cedeno for example. In 2010 his Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (a metric that measures how many runs above or below average a player was worth to his team based on the number of plays made) was -15, meaning he cost the team 15 runs. In 2011, turn that around to a +8 so far, meaning he has saved the team 8 runs. This is very important since the Pirates don’t score much. Ronny has been one of the best defensive shortstops in the game so far this year and has taken a ton the pressure off the pitchers. Andrew McCutchen has also seen a tremendous increase as and many members of the team have improved as well.

There still have been some flaws that these metrics don’t cover. The defense from Lyle Overbay at first has been pretty terrible, and the Pirates still don’t have a catcher that can consistently play good defense behind the dish. The outfielders, primarily Andrew McCutchen, have had a devil of a time remembering what bases to throw to and how to hit cut off men. The addition of Xavier Paul has helped out in that regard. Either way, the defense has been tremendously better than in past years.

Grade: B+

Starting Pitching

Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Gone are the days of embarrassing outings with double digit runs allowed. Gone are the days of the revolving door of starters brought in for the heck of it. The Pirates rotation has established themselves as dependable thanks to the work of Pitching Coach Ray Searage and some pleasant surprises.

Kevin Correia was signed to be a serviceable starter that would just be average and round out the rotation. He has been anything but great, keeping the team in just about every game he has pitched and is one of three pitchers in the NL with 10 wins.

Jeff Karstens wasn’t in the rotation to start the year but an injury to Ross Ohlendorf gave him a chance. He has done more than take advantage of it, as he has an ERA that ranks in the top-10 of the league. By pounding the strike zone and a little luck, he is having a breakout season.

Charlie Morton was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2010. With the help of a tweak to his motion and a new sinker, he has made a complete 180 degree change. By keeping the ball on the ground and good defense, Charlie has established himself as a good pitcher night in and night out.

Paul Maholm, my pick to disappoint this year, hasn’t done so. A lack of run support during his starts has kept his record down, but for the most part he has shown up when he takes the mound.

James McDonald was picked by many to be the breakout pitcher for the Pirates. Unfortunately, he has been inefficient during starts and has control issues from time to time. Luckily for him, he has done a very good job limiting the damage. His stats are still much better than the average fifth starter.

All in all, the rotation is the reason this team is competitive. As long as it holds up the way it has, the team will be in the thick of things in the NL Central.

Grade: A

Bullpen

Another bright point for the team. We all know how dominant Joel Hanrahan has been converting all of his save opportunities. But credit is also due to the middle relief corps. Chris Resop and Jose Veras have been very good in set-up, and Daniel McCutchen has been a pleasant surprise in his move from starter to reliever. The team still lacks a true lefty that can get outs from those batters consistently, and Evan Meek’s arm troubles have led to a subpar campaign from him. But the good has outweighed the bad, and the team’s ability to shorten games has been invaluable to their success.

Grade: A-

Management

One of the big questions for 2011 was how this team would perform under new manager Clint Hurdle. The team has looked more motivated with the new skipper, and Hurdle holds the players accountable for their mistakes much more than John Russell. There are some parts to Hurdle’s strategies that baffle me. He likes using the sacrifice bunt, a lot even though it has been proven that bunts hurt more than they help in a lot of cases. He also has a weird way of managing his bullpen. He’ll put in left-handed pitchers to face left-handed batters, but then he’ll refuse to replace them when righties come to the plate. The team has also been reckless on the bases (as Hurdle likes having runners try to take the extra base), as only the Arizona Diamondbacks have been caught stealing more. Despite this, you can’t argue with results. The Pirates are still having their best season since 1999.

Grade B+

Summary

As mentioned before, the Pirates are having their best season in over a decade despite numerous injuries and holes. It certainly made for a fun first half of the season. If the pitching can hold up, and the offense comes around, I don’t see why the Pirates can’t keep competing in the weak NL Central. The only problem I have is thinking how good this team would be if they had close to a league average offense.

Overall Grade: B+

Back at .500 (and it feels so good)

For 29 of the 30 teams in the MLB, winning as many games as you lose isn’t really the primary goal of a team’s season. For the Pittsburgh Pirates however, a vicious string of 18 consecutive seasons below .500, fans are clamoring for the team to just be respectable, let alone competitive for a championship.

Today, after beating the Astros 5-4, the Pirates are 17-17. This is the latest the Pirates have been at or above .500 since the 2005 season when they hit the mark in June.

With the team basically written off before the season started, how have they hung around?

The starting pitching to this point has carried the team. The resurgence of Charlie Morton and the consistent play of Kevin Correia has guaranteed that the Pirates will have a chance when they take the mound. After a rough start to the season, James McDonald has settled in. The bullpen has been surprisingly good.

The offense is still problematic from time to time, but they have been getting just enough to get by. Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen, two players who were expected to carry the offense, have struggled so far this year.

With that said, the question still remains, can the team keep it up? While I am a fan, I can’t see the Pirates continuing at this pace. The pitching, especially the bullpen, is due to regress. Unless the offense can pull it together on a regular basis, they will lose more close games.

With this cautious optimism in mind, I am really looking forward to the next couple of weeks to see how it plays out.