Fifteen victories. That is all that stands between Pittsburghers and the surfeit of Iron City beer that will undoubtedly be consumed after the most historic losing streak in sports finally comes to an end. However, do not expect the celebration to end there. This team is not only going to end their 20-year losing streak, but they are going to make a run deep into the playoffs. Let me tell you why.
In years past, the organization has become synonymous with developing homegrown talent and then shipping them off as soon as it comes time for their first big paycheck. That is not the case anymore. The team locked up Andrew McCutchen last year to a long-term deal and has developed a number of talented young players, including Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Jeff Locke. They have paired those players with older talent such as A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Jason Grilli – a trio that has somehow located the fountain of youth in the Steel City (perhaps the polluted river water outside of PNC Park?).
Anyway, despite their team’s .244 batting average (22nd in the league) and their 432 runs scored (23rd in the league), the Pirates have the second-best record in all of baseball and are in the driver’s seat in the NL Central. One might wonder how a team with such poor offensive statistics could be leading one of baseball’s toughest divisions.
Well, that has to do mostly with the incredible performance of their pitching staff (which I’ll discuss in a moment), but it also has to do with the fact that the offense is not performing as poorly as the statistics might lead one to believe. The team’s poor batting average can mostly be contributed to a lack of support in right field, as Jose Tabata and others have been absolutely abysmal this season, as well as a lack of production behind the plate. Also, the shortstop position has been virtually nonexistent for the team.
Otherwise, the guys at the top of the order (Marte, Alvarez, McCutchen, and Walker) have mostly been money. The team’s slugging percentage is also 18th in the league at .391, so when the players are getting hits, they are often hitting more than simply singles. Maximizing efficiency on the base paths has also been a strength, as the team ranks in the top 10 in both stolen bases and stolen bases percentage. The lineup hasn’t had to produce many runs in general, but when they do, their big bats can usually get the job done with clutch hits near the end of the game.
Now, let’s move on to the pitching staff, as this has been the club’s bread-and-butter thus far. With the lowest ERA and BAA in the majors, it is easy to see why the Pirates have succeeded. One statistic to note, however, is the team ranks 21st in quality starts, meaning the bullpen has been forced to pick up a lot of the slack. With the recent injury to Jason Grilli that has forced him to take a trip to the DL, one has to wonder if the bullpen is deep enough to sustain the loss of the league’s top closer for long. So far things have worked out well, but it could be multiple weeks before we see him back on the mound.
Ultimately, here is why the Pirates are poised for a deep run in the playoffs. Most importantly, they have the bats that can deliver in the clutch and a rotation that can hold up during the playoffs. After the rotation is cut down to 3 or 4 starters during the postseason, they will be able to eliminate Charlie Morton from the staff and go with Burnett, Liriano, Locke, and possibly Cole when needed – all of whom have been highly effective this season.
The team has also displayed a characteristic that will prove to be invaluable during the postseason: the ability to win on the road. As one of only three teams in the National League with a winning road record, they will not be afraid to travel to opposing ballparks in October. Throughout the season, everyone has been waiting for the epic collapse, much like the club’s previous two seasons, but they will be disappointed to find out it is not happening this year. The Pirates have the rotation depth, the shutdown bullpen, and the clutch batters to go deep into October. With another miracle walk-off home run last night, it is easy to see why this team, and city, has hope for the first time in two decades. Opposing teams should live in fear, because 2013 is the year of the Pirates.