Last night I was having a conversation with a friend on whether or not the Pirates could keep up their pace and if they would be there at the end of the 2013 season. Even though a lot of the numbers say they won’t and that things will catch up with them, my answer was that they would be. There are many different angles to this, but the Pirates have a couple of things that are different from the last two years. The first is obvious, the pitching, both SP’s and in the BP. Another big thing being overlooked is Russell Martin and what he’s meant to that pitching staff. While this entry will mostly focus on pitching, the Pirates also have a little speed, and while they’re certainly not the Cards of the ‘80’s, it’s enough to overcome some of their offensive holes by both speed on the bases and covering ground on defense.
If you were a regular reader of mine in the past, you would know that I like to talk about pitching, particularly starting pitching. Any team can overcome and hide a lot of flaws if they have it. In 2013, the Pirates are one of those teams. For those who think that the Pirates are overusing their BP….not so fast.
As a whole, the Pirates are 1st in the NL in IP by the BP with 305. That appears to be a problem until you look at the innings logged by closer Jason Grilli and setup man Mark Melancon. Grilli has 37.2 IP. Melancon has 41.1 IP. Let’s compare that against the Cards BP. As a team, the Cards have only used the BP for 230.1 IP. Closer Edward Mujica has 35.1 and our setup man Trevor Rosenthal has 40 IP. Even though it appears that Melancon and Grilli are finishing off victories for the Pirates every day, that’s not the case. So, Melancon and Grilli have just 4 more IP combined over Rosenthal and Mujica. Maybe Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has some Keyser Soze in him, I don’t know.
To go along with his catcher Martin, Francisco Liriano has to be the biggest free agent acquisition so far in 2013. Liriano is pitching like it’s 2006, when it looked like he and Johan Santana would eventually lead the Minnesota Twins back to the World Series. In 11 starts, Liriano is 8-3 with a 2.20 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and 74 K’s in 69.2 IP.
LHP Jeff Locke is 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP in 17 starts. Rookie Gerrit Cole has looked very good in his short MLB career. Locke was a second round pick by the Braves in 2006 and traded to the Pirates along with Charlie Morton for Nate McLouth in 2009. When you throw in A.J. Burnett and what he’s done in Pittsburgh, as well as Melancon, who was so bad in 2012 with the Red Sox (6.20 ERA in 2012) that they optioned him to Pawtucket, there has to be something more going on there.
I thought most of the credit would fall on the shoulders of Martin, the last catcher to win the Gold Glove Award in the NL before Yadier Molina. That’s a big part of it, but another is the Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. Every one of these pitchers attributes their success this year to the work that Searage has done with them, whether it be a slight change in mechanics or confidence. It’s something Searage has been building, and now he has the catcher in Martin to work with and help carry out his plan. Just type in Searage and Pirates on Google and you’ll find many interesting links. He’s not the new Dave Duncan, but he’s doing some good things.
Of course, the man behind all of it is manager Hurdle. He’s building this thing by putting the right pieces around him and taking chances on players nobody wanted and a pitching coach he works well with. Hurdle kept Searage as his pitching coach after he took the job in Pittsburgh (Searage had just become pitching coach at the end of the 2010 season). Of course a little credit has to go to the Pirates front office, but the Pirates have only become relevant in the past few years under Hurdle.
A lot of fans will say that the Pirates run differential isn’t enough to keep them on top for very long. Right now, the Pirates are a +46 with the best record in MLB. The last two years they’ve come undone after the ASB. I just don’t see it happening again this year. The Pirates have the pitching, but they’ve also added just enough on offense to keep them dangerous and out of extended slumps.
Starling Marte has a nice power and speed combination (8 HR/25 SB) at the top of the lineup, Pedro Alvarez is hitting HR’s (21) against teams other than the Cardinals and Andrew McCutchen is just heating up. Jose Tabata is an up and coming player that just got off the DL and Neil Walker has an OBP over 100 points higher than his BA (.349/.246). And again, the Pirates now have one of the best signal callers and pitch framers in the game in catcher Martin, who the Yankees gave up on after a down year.
Another thing the Pirates do is cover ground. As a team, they’re the 3rd best in MLB with a RngR of 19.3 (The Cards are 24th at -12). In UZR/150, the Pirates are 4th at 5.5 and the Cards are 28th at -9.1.
I could go on and on about the Pirates and what they’ve become. In short, I think they’ve become a team that will be in the mix for years to come if they stick with their current plan. It’s amazing it takes teams so long to figure out that pitching is the mainstay in this game. IMO, the Pirates aren’t going away in 2013. They have enough pitching to hang around this year (especially if Wandy Rodriguez makes it back from the DL). I still think either the Cards or Reds will walk away as the victors of the NLC, but I expect the Pirates to be in the mix until the end and at least get in as a WC. Many will continue to say they haven’t seen enough from the Pirates that would convince them they won’t have another second half collapse, but I’m saying I have. The only thing I could see that would bring down the Pirates is injuries.