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.

 

Pirates Raise Ticket Prices; People Freak Out

For the first time since 2002, the Pittsburgh Pirates are raising ticket prices. Here is the new seating chart for 2012.

My thoughts?

It’s not too bad. A lot of people are complaining, although they may have a point given that the Pirates are 15-30 since the all-star break. There are still of plenty of affordable tickets to be had though. The “Upper Grandstand” make the final seven rows of 22 upper deck sections for just $10. The kids pricing will help families out as well. A family of four can attend a ball game for $32. That has to be among the lowest in all of the MLB.

Their division of pricing is confusing. Take the regular grandstand for example. The view from section 333 row R is horrible compared to behind the plate in section 316 row A. However, both seats will run you $16. My seat in 329 row B ran me $140 for a 20 game plan in 2011. In 2012 it will run me $300. That’s a pretty steep increase.

The Pirates did the right thing by keeping the dent on full season ticket holders as little as possible. Those value plans with all 81 games for as low as $399 will be available to those who renew. Good move there by rewarding their most loyal of fans by keeping their prices ridiculously low.

While I won’t complain about the $40 increase for my 20 game plan in 2012 (I will be relocating), there will still be many who do.

For those who don’t understand, I suggest taking a look at the prices of teams in similar to the Pirates (Cincinnati, Washington, Baltimore to name a few). Theirs are still more expensive than the Pirates.

So before you curse out the team for what they did, think for a second. The same people that don’t like the increases probably are the same ones that willingly shell out $8 for a 16-ounce beer at a game or $5 for a cotton candy as if that makes any more sense. I’m willing to bet the Pirates will still offer discounts (Advantage Card days, PNC check card nights) to keep the prices lower and giving fans more bang for their buck.

I suggest you save your anger for something else, such as if/when the teams signs the next Matt Diaz over the winter or if they were to discontinue Free Shirt Fridays.

The Curious Case of Pedro Alvarez

This last week and a half have been trying times for the Pirate faithful. A 10 game losing streak has sent the team in a tailspin from first place to fourth, and nearly 10 games out of the NL Central lead.

There have been many lightning rods for criticism during this recent stretch, though no one seems to have more of a storm of negativity surrounding him than third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

Some of it has been warranted. He did show up for the 2011 season out of shape which somewhat affected his performance and had much to do with his injury woes this season. His .206/.274/.300/.574 line is bad, especially for a third baseman. The Pirates were counting on him for at least 25 home runs and he has hit just three. On Friday, he turned in one of the worst offensive performances I have ever seen.

Add an error to that, and you can’t have a worse game.

However, the only thing worse than Pedro’s performance has been the reaction from fans on his struggles.

Many are calling for him to be sent down to the minors again. Even worse, others are calling him a “bust” and want him run out of town.

I think the Pirates are (Gasp!) making the right decision by playing Pedro every day out there. Here are the reasons why.

1.Small sample sizes misguide the uninformed fan.
A lot of people are freaking out about Pedro’s “lost” 2011 campaign. As I mentioned earlier, it is pretty horrible and there is no denying that. However, in no way should the Pirates give up on him. Since he was called up in June 2010, he has played 145 games in the majors, roughly one season. In that time he has hit .239 with 19 HR and 71 RBI with an OPS of .715, hardly an embarrassing stat line for a rookie season. It is complete rubbish to think that a 24 year old has hit his ceiling without even playing 162 career games yet. If we are seeing what we are in 2011 two or three years down the road, then it’s a completely different story.

2. He is still developing.
Let’s play a little guessing game. See if you can guess the players based on their statistics from their first full seasons worth of games in the Major Leagues.

Player A: .196 AVG/ 18 HR/ 62 RBI
Player B: .238 AVG/ 3 HR/ 32 RBI
Player C: .239 AVG/ 19 HR/ 71 RBI

Player A is Mike Schmitt, Player B is Brooks Robinson, and Player C is Pedro Alvarez. Many Hall of Fame sluggers struggled to hit early in their careers, but eventually found their stride. I’m not saying that Pedro will be the next Schmitt or Robinson, but there is certainly evidence out there that a breakout from Alvarez could be coming soon.

3. Playing him in AAA accomplishes nothing.
There is a second camp besides the “get rid of the bum” one that thinks Pedro was called up too early from Indianapolis and the Bucs should send him back down. The problem behind that is he has mastered hitting in the minors. In 84 games at the AAA level he has hit .295/.384/.544/.928 (AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS). In AA those numbers blow up to .333/.419/.590/1.009. Having him play against much inferior competition like that wouldn’t help him improve at all. He would become a much better major league hitter by getting reps off of major league pitching.

4. The other options aren’t much better.
The Pirates saw many faces play third during Pedro’s time on the DL. While the team won quite a few games with them, the production from this position, no matter who is playing, is actually quite poor.

Brandon Wood .236/.306/.388/.694/7 HR/24 RBI
Josh Harrison .263/.271/.305/.576/ 0 HR/ 5 RBI
Chase d’Arnaud .225/.245/.294/.539/ 0 HR/2 RBI
Pedro Alvarez .206/.274/.300/.574/ 3 HR/14 RBI

So for those who feel the Pirates would be better off with Wood or Harrison at the hot corner, the substitution would offer little to no help.

So what have I concluded here?

That there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the Pirates are better off sticking with Pedro Alvarez at third base. A lot of people may not like it, but think about this: Even if he had hit three home runs Friday night against the Padres rather than double plays, the Pirates still would have lost 15-14.

Find something else to complain about (ahem, the pitching).

2010 Topps Chrome: Impulsive Card Buying

Trips to Wal-Mart can no longer be made with making a stop at the sports card display at the front of the store.

Since I’m basically done with the Topps set for 2011, I strafed around looking for a good deal.

Those $20 value boxes with a bunch of packs from different years and brands looked good at first, until this caught my eye.

8 packs of a quality product on sale for just $12. I’ll take that.

If you are unfamiliar with Topps Chrome, it is basically a condensed version of the regular Topps (only 220 cards as compared to 660) that is printed on fancy holographic “chrome” stock. When the yearly design is good, the images pop off the cards and look amazing.

My box contained 7 packs plus one bonus pack, which really was just 8 regular packs (stupid I know). Each one has four cards. Since it’s retail, odds of getting something nice are low. This product is heavy on rookies and hobby boxes (24 packs 4 cards per pack) guarantee two on card rookie autographs. Given that this year’s class was loaded with young guns such as Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward and Starlin Castro to name a few the results could be nice.

I pulled some good rookies in mine.

Unlike the regular version of Topps, there aren’t many inserts in Chrome, but rather refractor parallels that add some extra life to the cards with a rainbow sheen in the light.

X-fractor cards look cool too.

The scans don’t do them justice. They have a kaleidoscope type stock that looks great on display.

Another gimmick is Chrome parallels of other products. I got this Carl Crawford reprint of a 2010 Topps Heritage.

The odds of getting one was 1 in 86 packs so I was happy to pull one here.

I do have a couple gripes though. For whatever reason a lot of the cards are warped.

Kind of makes them look bad, though keeping them in binder pages will fix that. The cards are not centered well either, which kind of takes away from their look.

Another thing I don’t like is how when the checklist gets cut down, a lot of teams get left in the dust. Take the Pirates for example. Only four players made the cut: Andrew McCutchen, Aki Iwamura (????), Zach Duke, and Daniel McCutchen. This came out in October of 2010. You would have thought guys like Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, or Neil Walker would have been included instead of bums like Duke and Iwamura. Plenty of great rookies make up for it however.

All in all, I can’t complain about this product. Since it got left in the dust thanks to the Strasburg-mania stir caused by Bowman it can be had on the cheap online, though it offers many of the same great young players. The cards are great for keeping in display, especially if you can get them autographed by players (my signed 2009 Andrew McCutchen rookie from this product will forever be my favorite). Some technical flaws keep it from getting my highest marks. I really hope Topps can straighten that out for the 2011 version.

Grade: B+

Trade Deadline Review: Pirates add Lee, Ludwick

It’s a position the Pirates have been waiting to be in for some time. In 2011, they would finally be buyers at the trade deadline.

Unfortunately, it became a sellers market as the deadline came near. The most coveted players, Hunter Pence and Carlos Beltran, had too high of a price tag. Those hoping the Bucs would make a big splash were left disappointed.

The Pirates were still able to make upgrades, albeit minor ones, by acquiring first baseman Derrek Lee from the Orioles and outfielder Ryan Ludwick from the Padres.

Derrek Lee

The Pirates brought in the 35 year-old bopper from Baltimore to help get some more production out of first base. Everyone and their mother knows that Lyle Overbay has been a colossal failure this year, and it certainly made sense to bolster this position.

On the downswing of his career, Lee has posted a .246/.302/.404 line so far in 2011 that is a far cry from the numbers he has put up the past decade. He has been better as of late, reaching base safely in 14 of his last 18 games while posting an average of .309 during that stretch. On the Orioles’ past road trip he hit two home runs and knocked in seven RBIs.

With the acquisition of Lee, the Pirates are looking for just that, a couple of hot months from a player with some pop. Even so, he isn’t a piece that puts the Pirates up to the level of the Cardinals or Brewers. This move was to bring marginal improvement to first base, while avoiding the firestorm that would have come with Lyle Overbay continuing to start at that position. Since they are only giving up a middle-range prospect in Aaron Baker they didn’t give up much to pick up Lee either, which is important given the team’s circumstances.

Ryan Ludwick

After the acquisition of Lee late Saturday night, I along with many others feared that the Pirates would not be able to make another move. Sunday morning, reports began coming out that the Pirates were looking to add an outfielder. Many had hoped for Jason Kubel of the Minnesota Twins, but since they are still in the AL Central race, they would not budge.

The Pirates turned their sights on Padres left fielder Ryan Ludwick. Shortly before 4 p.m. he was officially made a member of the team in exchange for the proverbial “Player to be named later”.

Like Lee, Ludwick has had his struggles in 2011. His line is .238/.301/.373 which is pretty ugly. In fact, his OPS is lower than Garrett Jones, the player he will most likely replace in the lineup.

In his defense, he is hitting .258/.300/.358 on the road as compared to .218/.302/.356 in his former home ballpark, the cavernous PETCO Park. He has been an above average defender in the outfield, something the Pirates have shown that they sorely need after the chest-pain-inducing play from Xavier Paul, Garrett Jones and Steve Pearce as of late. His 61 RBIs while playing on a team that had the worst average and on-base in the National League is impressive.

Like Lee, he isn’t a piece that throws the Pirates over the top, but just some added production so the team can stay somewhat competitive on offense. Given the woes of the team’s hitting the last few weeks, it shouldn’t be that hard. He is also a Type B free agent at the end of the season, meaning the Pirates can get a compensation pick in next year’s draft if he does not resign with the Bucs.

Review

All in all the Pirates did a fair job bringing in players that should be able to improve the popgun offense all while giving up relatively little. I would have liked to see them get a bat for pinch-hitting late in games (Jason Giambi comes to mind) or sell high on some of their relievers such as Jose Veras or Chris Resop. Can’t argue with the results though. Neil Huntington did as good as anyone could have as a first time buyer.

Pirates 3-Braves 3-Jerry Meals 1

I was beginning to hit the wall.

My eyes had grown bleary from the constant movement from T.V. to Tweet Deck for the past six plus hours.

“I have to get to bed for work tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “But I can’t miss this.”

I had made it through 18 and a half innings of the Pirates-Braves contest last night, and lived to tell the tale (actually I am pretty sure everyone did).

The events of the ground ball Scott Proctor hit in the bottom of the 19th will resonate with me for a long time. That shot of adrenaline as I saw Jerry Meals make the safe sign kept me up until four.

Having been an umpire through my teenage years, I understand the stress that comes with the job. I usually give them the benefit of the doubt knowing that their judgement is usually right.

But c’mon man.

I’ve umpped games through rain and snow, from 95 degrees to below freezing. Yet I always knew better than to call it a day early. People can sniff it out, easily and there would probably be a smashed window in my car to remind me. There is no doubt in my mind Meals wanted to get the heck out of there after seeing somewhere in the ballpark of 600 pitches.  It just didn’t matter to him.

But I’m not going to let that ruin my enjoyment of what will probably be one of the best games any of us will ever witness.

The Pirates got three quick runs at the start of the game. A big triple from Neil Walker and a bomb of a home run from Michael McKenry were the key hits. The Braves fought back scoring three of their own in the bottom of the third despite having the first two batters of the inning get out.

Then things settled down.

Both starters Tommy Hanson and Jeff Karstens didn’t go deep due to high pitch counts early. The bullpens became the stars of the night afterwards.

Inning after inning. Jam after jam. Neither would budge. There were enough escapes to make Houdini jealous.

Situations like that are what make for great baseball. Will this be the winning run on base now? Is this the pitch that ends it? How much longer can it go on?

The sideshows that went on also added another fun dimension to the game. As the stadium emptied out, a girl could be heard screaming her lungs out for her beloved Buccos before every pitch, even though the clock read past 1:00 a.m. A group of college kids attempted balancing a huge stack of over 100 souvenir cups they had collected from the nearly empty Turner Field. Hearing Greg Brown and John Wehner trying to keep themselves awake and coherent made for a classic broadcast.

Yet after the whole debacle was settled, and the venting online was made, I took a second and appreciated what I saw.

I saw two teams on a muggy night give it their all over the course of what was essentially a little more than two games. It’s unfortunate the way it turned out. I was upset that I didn’t record it, just for having in the future. The Pirates should probably release it on DVD as I don’t think there have been many more exciting games in the team’s history. I know I would buy it the second it comes out.

If anything, this game let me know just how much the revived Bucco Nation is into this team. Here it was, 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, with Twitter and Facebook crashing from all of the people commenting.

The real concern here is if the team lets it affect them in the next few games. It could, but I highly doubt it. Clint Hurdle knows these Pirates are better than that.

The best part is the players know it too.

My thoughts on the “bandwagon”

With the Pittsburgh Pirates’ success in 2011 coming out of nowhere, the inevitable fact of so called “bandwagon” baseball fans coming out of the woodwork came true. Crowds of 10,000 or so in the opening months of the season turned into capacity crowds that have the Pirates pushing 2,000,000 fans in attendance for the fourth time in team history.

With all of the bucco fever that has come about this summer, I get asked frequently: “Hey Steve, you’ve been a Pirate fan forever. How do you feel about all of these bandwagon fans?”

Well, at first I was quite upset. I liked coming to a a quarter-filled ballpark without having to worry about crowds, lines, and traffic. I think the turning point of how I felt came on July 8, a game against the Chicago Cubs.

We all know that the Bucs pulled out a resilient victory thanks to a clutch home run from Michael McKenry. But what I did take out of the game as much of that emotional win was the crotchety older gentleman seated next to me who spent most of the game complaining about all of these “bandwagon hoppers”.

After saying aloud his displeasure for seeing all of these people “who have never been to a game in their lives nor care what goes on” for the fifth time, it finally hit me. It’s absolutely stupid to not like more fans discovering a team, and even more stupid to let it affect your enjoyment of your team’s first pennant race in your lifetime.

Yes, I might have to wait in line for food a bit longer or spend some extra time in a garage when the game is over, but do you hear the crowds and the enthusiasm they have for the team? Heck, on a Monday night, fans were on their feet in the first inning trying to give their support to Charlie Morton as he tried to get out of a jam (after over two hours of rain delays no less!). Games have become exponentially more fun to go to since fans started turning out in droves. It certainly is much better than the sea of blue empty seats that became commonplace over the past decade. It can use some work (here’s looking at you Saturday night drunks and wave starters) but in time, PNC Park could be a very tough place for opposing teams to play. Just ask anyone at the game this past Friday against the Cardinals how loud it got before the bottom of the 9th.

With that said, it is quite amazing how many young people I see around the park now. This so called “lost generation” is turning out in force and showing that the past 18 years haven’t completely turned off Pittsburghers to the game of baseball. Not all have been going to games since they were three years old like me, but they aren’t stupid. They have played baseball and softball and know the game. Here’s hoping this “new generation” can keep the momentum going.

The old folks that said they would never be back, now are starting to return. Many realized the errors of their ways and admitted it. After all, like religion, there are always opportunities for redemption and coming back to the light.

So next time you scowl at the lines to get your Primanti’s sandwich or get a ticket, just remember the options: Crappy, irrelevant baseball that is more convenient or a pennant race with fans flocking to see the Buccos.

I’ll take the latter every time.

 

 

 

 

A picture worth savoring

I use words to express my thoughts on this blog, but after the doings of last night I thought a picture could do a much better job. Enjoy.

 

The Last Laugh

The Pirates-Padres game played on August 3, 2005 at PNC Park sticks out for a couple of reasons for me.

First, I got my first ball ever on my own during batting practice. Standing in the last row above the Clemente seats, Padre (and ex-Pirate) Brian Giles demolished a homer right at me. Without my glove I took my hat off but misjudged the ball. It hit off my thumb holding my hat. I was able to scarf it up, and the stitches embedded in my thumb were a cool battle scar.

The only thing I remember about the game was Brad “Big Country” Eldred hit a walk-off double in what was one of his first major league games (turned out to be the highlight of his career).

The game got done and my dad was off the next day at work. He had the briliant idea, “Let’s stay and see if we can get autographs outside the player garage.”

I certainly said yes, as I really wanted my first ball signed. We began the wait on the Mazeroski Way cul-de-sac hoping for players to stop. One by one they drove by: Darryl Ward with his tinted windows and blue headlights, Jack Wilson with his kids in the back seat, the hero of the night Brad Eldred driving a beat up Toyota pick up truck waiting for his first paycheck. Nobody bothered signing. That was until a Jeep Wrangler pulled up to the group of eight or so gathered. Down came the window, and the man behind the wheel was pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.

Vogelsong, the proverbial 25th man on the Buccos during the Littlefield era, he came to the team in a trade, along with Armando Rios, that sent Jason Schmitt to the Giants. Schmitt went on to have a very successful career including a Cy Young Award. Rios never lived up to the promise as a bat the Pirates needed to protect Giles, and Vogelsong spent the bulk of his days in the back of the bullpen as one of the many symbols of incompetency in the front office. When you checked into a game on the radio and heard Vogelsong was in, chances was the game was out of hand.

Anyway, he couldn’t have been kinder. He signed for every fan and his girlfriend sitting next to him didn’t care either (that’s usually a big reason why players don’t stop to sign after games).

When I got home, I prominently displayed the ball next to the Barry Bonds and Willie Stargell autographed balls on the shelf in our basement. It ended up being an inside joke among my brothers and dad. Vogelsong throws a scoreless inning down 7-0, that ball is now worth a whole 50 cents. 49 cents for the material, one cent for the autograph.

Ryan was let go by the Pirates following the 2006 season, having posted an ERA over 6.00 three out of the four seasons with the team. He then began a strange journey that saw him play three years for the Hashin Tigers and Orix Buffalos of the Nippon Professional League in Japan. Despite being 31 years old, an age that players usually see decline in both skill and interest from Major League clubs, he refused to give up.

After spending parts of the 2010 season as “organizational depth” in the minor league systems of the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Prior to the 2011 season he signed with the team that drafted him, the San Francisco Giants without anyone noticing.

I don’t really need to tell you the rest of the story, you probably know it already. One thing that I will look forward to on Tuesday is hearing Joe Buck announce the name of 33-year-old first time All-Star  Ryan Vogelsong. He will most likely tip his hat to the crowd, something I along with the rest of Baseball Nation should do toward him.

And Ryan go ahead and make a joke about me.

Chances are I would have given up a long time ago.

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+