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Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Sustain Their First Half Success?

by Photo of Kenneth Teape

The Pirates are the surprise team of the first half… again. Can they keep it up after the All-Star Break?

Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Sustain Their First Half Success?

In this article…

The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the most storied franchises in baseball. They have had great players such as Roberto Clemente, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Honus Wagner wear their colors. Barry Bonds even started his Hall of Fame worthy career in Pittsburgh. But the Pirates have been mired in a state of purgatory since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season. Since then, the Pirates have been the laughing stock of the MLB as they have not registered a winning season since; the best record they have had in the past 20 seasons was 79-83, which they have done twice (1997 and 2012).

Last year the Pirates looked poised to finally break through and finish with a .500 record at worst. After reaching a season-high 16 games over .500 last season on August 8th, the Pirates imploded down the stretch run. They finished the season a dismal 16-36, made up of seven losing streaks of at least three games. It was a disappointing end to a season that had started so promisingly.

Currently the Pirates are sitting a half game behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the lead in the NL Central with a record of 53-35. It has not been talked about as frequently as it probably should be. Perhaps this is because of the skepticism people have about the franchise, especially with the disaster that happened last year. 

But this will be the year the Pirates will end the streak and get it done.

What makes this team different from past versions? One person responsible for the turnaround is Russell Martin. He has stabilized the catcher position for the Pirates, a spot that has been a revolving door in Pittsburgh since Jason Kendall left. Martin came in and provided some pop in a lineup position that has been a barren wasteland in recent years. He also provides great defense and leadership on the field as he has controlled this pitching staff as well as anyone could have asked for. Martin calls a good game and knows how to get the most out of his guys. His signing was the last piece to get the Pirates over the hump and is a reason why the Pirates pitching staff has been outstanding.

Through the season thus far the Pirates pitching staff ranks first in ERA (3.14) and Batting Average Against (.226) and third in WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched at 1.19). The leading force to this has been a dominant bullpen duo: set-up man Mark Melancon and closer Jason Grilli. Melancon leads the MLB with 24 holds on the season and Grilli leads the NL with 28 saves, blowing only one. The two have combined to give up only 13 earned runs in 80 innings with a 0.83 WHIP. They have appeared in 43 and 40 games respectively. That's a high number, but it is hard to not go to guys throwing the ball so well.

The starting rotation has not been slouching either, as a good combination of veterans and youth have given the Pirates a solid core. Veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano have both had stints on the DL this season but have been dominant when on the mound. Both have been sort of reclamation projects for the Pirates, as Burnett had a tumultuous three seasons in the Bronx with the New York Yankees but has been solid at the top of the Pirates rotation. Liriano has battled all types of inconsistencies stemming from injuries and lack of control. He had four seasons with an ERA north of 5.00 but has an ERA of 2.20 with the Pirates this season. Both Burnett and Liriano have had success because of their ability to strike people out. In 94.1 innings Burnett has 102 strikeouts; in 69.2 for Liriano he has racked up 74. The more telling stat for the pitchers with great stuff but the inability at time to control it has been their limiting of walks as they have 37 and 2 respectively.

Young guns like Jeff Locke and top prospect Gerrit Cole have helped the backend of the Pirates rotation and have stepped up big time replacing injured players. Not much was expected from Locke coming into the season but he turned in a stellar first half with a 2.15 ERA, behind only reigning and perennial Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw’s 1.89 ERA. Locke has also been the only Pirate pitcher to not miss a start this season. Unlike Locke, Cole came up to a lot of fan fare. Coming into the season he was ranked as the seventh best prospect in all of baseball and has thus far performed as one. Getting the call-up because of an injury, Cole now looks poised to stick in the majors for the long haul. He has more than held his own against major league hitters thus far and is should only get better. The performances of his and Locke have helped offset the losses the Pirates have had in the starting rotation to James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez.

For as high as the pitching staff is ranked the Pirates lineup is a polar opposite. They rank 24th in runs scored with 342, 23rd in batting average at .243, 22nd in on base percentage at .310 and 20th in slugging at .390. By looking at the stats it is easy to see that the Pirates offense at times can be anemic; but at the same time they get the job done when they need to.  One game that stands out is an extra inning win in Los Angeles against the Angels. The Pirates were down 6-3 heading into the ninth inning but came through big time scoring three in the ninth then four in the 10th to take home a 10-9 win. That is not a game the Pirates would have won last season or at anytime over the past 20 and showed how resilient they are.

The growth and development of the Pirates is another reason why they should sustain their success this season. They were able to overcome a slow start by Andrew McCutchen, who is up to a .303/.373/.486 slash line with 18 stolen bases because other players are finally offering some support. Pedro Alvarez looks like he has finally figured some things out to being a major league hitter, launching 22 home runs and knocking in 57 runs thus far on the season to go with a respectable .249 batting average. Like McCutchen, Alvarez has turned around a slow start and has really started coming on as the weather warmed up, batting .180 in April but posting averages of .225 in May, .309 in June and .321 so far in July. He will be joining McCutchen, Locke and Grilli on the All-Star team this year.

Another player that has helped carry the offense is rookie Starling Marte. He has taken the starting left field spot and ran with it from opening day. He is as exciting as any player on the base paths as he has 16 doubles, eight triples and 27 stolen bases already to go with nine home runs.

The Pirates also have good depth on their bench with capable players like outfielder Jose Tabata, first baseman Gaby Sanchez and utility player Brandon Inge. The Pirates have not been able to give help to their big guns in recent season but now possess players that give manager Clint Hurdle some flexibility and options to play with his lineups.

Pittsburgh is set-up well currently to make a run at the NL Central Division title or at worst a wildcard spot. If they are able to trade for one more arm in the bullpen to take some of the pressure off of Melancon and Grilli and another bat in the lineup to give a little more pop it would cement them atop the baseball hierarchy. Some names to keep an eye on are Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain and first baseman/right fielder Adam Dunn and Chicago Cubs reliever Kevin Gregg and left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

Even if they don’t make any moves, Pittsburgh Pirate fans will see their team play October baseball, ending their losing ways this season by finishing over .500 and making the playoffs.

Let CHARGED.fm find you the best Pittsburgh Pirates tickets for this season!

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