Are the Pirates for real?

On January 13th 2018, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded away their ace Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. Cole was the first player selected in the 2011 draft, and after making his debut in 2013 he was a regular in the Pirates rotation. After 5 solid seasons and an all-star appearance, Cole was moved on. The Pirates were left with an ageing Ivan Nova heading the rotation, and a few young arms, who were hoping to prove they could fill the void.

Gerrit Cole career in numbers w/ Pittsburgh: 3.50 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 and 11.5 WAR.

Two days later another bombshell. Andrew McCutchen, a fan favourite in Pittsburgh, was traded to the San Francisco Giants. Rumours had been rife whether “Cutch” would be moved on during previous off-seasons, however, the face of the Pirates franchise looked set to stay after trade talks always seemed to dwindle. Then earlier this year, the dreaded happened. The 2013 NL MVP was sent to the Giants in exchange for two prospects plus cash.

It was painful. It hurt. We adored Cutch.

Andrew McCutchen career in numbers w/ Pittsburgh: .291/.379/.487/.866, 39.3 WAR, 204 home runs (4th in Pirates history – behind Willie Stargell, Ralph Kiner and Roberto Clemente), 1x NL MVP, 5x All-star, 4x Silver Slugger & 1x Golden Glove.

Can you imagine the reaction Pirates General Manager, Neal Huntington, received after those deals?

Plenty of players have left Pittsburgh before Cutch, and plenty will after. That’s the way the business works. That’s how the Pirates front office works. Following the trade, we didn’t hold much hope for the season, and after years of watching sub- .500 ball in Pittsburgh, it felt like we were returning to those dark times.

The PECOTA rankings are released and they project the Pirates to finish with 78 wins. Under .500 but a lot better than our feelings reflected towards the long-season ahead.

Opening day arrives. Nova gets the nod to start the opener in Detroit. Excitement ensues as baseball is back.

The opening game is postponed due to rain. So much for the boys of summer returning.

Opening week passes by and the Pirates are 3-0 after sweeping the Detroit Tigers on the road. Like myself, some fans start to become foolishly optimistic. “162-0 season” is being jokingly tweeted by scores of Pirates fans.

The home opener at PNC Park is against the Minnesota Twins. A franchise who have some nice pieces in place and are starting to build a team to challenge Cleveland for their division. However, the Pirates get the job done and win 5-4. Jameson Taillon, who is expected to be the best chance of filling Cole’s shoes, fans 9 in his first start of the season. After being the only Pirate not to register a single hit in the opening game against Detroit, Colin Moran showed glimpses of his potential and hit a grand-slam in his home debut. The Pirates acquired the third baseman as part of the Cole trade, hoping the 25 year old could add some much-needed depth to the infield.

Fast forward two weeks, and the Pirates are sitting pretty at 11-4. This wasn’t the start we were expecting. The Pirates were surprising us! After losing their two biggest players at the start of the year, this wasn’t meant to happen. The Buccos hadn’t lost a series to date, albeit only playing the Tigers, Twins, Reds and Marlins. But three of those series were on the road, and the Pirates had also beaten divisional rivals Chicago Cubs, who were the favourites to win the NL Central again.

A big part of this early success was down to the starting pitching and bullpen. The Pirates starters had pitched past 5 innings in every game so far, the only team in MLB to do so. Even after Steven Brault had given up 5 runs to the Rockies in the next game, he still pitched through 6 innings. The Pirates went on to lose their first series of the season, to a Colorado team who didn’t have their star player Nolan Arenado through suspension. The Pirates then went on the road to Philadelphia – a team full of promising young players. A cold end to a disappointing week, as Pittsburgh were swept 4-0. A wake-up call, and a reminder that the start to the season may have just been luck.

As much as it felt like the Pirates were returning to their projected form, another series against Detroit was on the horizon. After a successful start to the season against the Tigers, this was a great bounce back series to play. This rang true as the Pirates won the series.

You can only beat what’s put in front of you, eh?

After the Detroit games, the Pirates stayed at PNC Park for their biggest series of the season so far. The St. Louis Cardinals were coming to town. The Cardinals had a mixed start to the season but the NL Central rivals were still well within the challenge for the division. Some fantastic batting and late rallies enabled the Pirates to outscore the Cardinals 17-7 and sweep them in their first series meeting of the season. However, it was the debut of Nick Kingham which deservedly took all the plaudits. Kingham, starting in his debut for the Pirates, flirted with a perfect game. He retired 20 straight before giving up a single to Paul DeJong in the 7th, with two outs. 5-0 was the result in the final game of the series, a huge win against a tough opponent.

The Pirates were then steamrolled, losing all four games in their next series to Washington. Although the Nationals are one of the best teams in baseball, they hadn’t started the season strongly. The Pirates were the hot team after sweeping a divisional rival. But even though the Pirates seemed to have turned a corner after the series loss to the Rockies and Phillies, they were back in the same position after visiting Nationals. The Pirates had lost the first four of a seven game road trip. We needed to come out the end of it still alive.

A day later the Pirates were in Milwaukee. A divisional matchup. A team who had been busy in the off-season and were one of the biggest challengers to dethrone the Cubs. They had also started the year hot. They started the series 19-14, whilst the Pirates were one game behind at 18-15. Nick Kingham was starting the series, and fans were hoping he could build on his unreal debut five days prior. He was awarded the win after another quality start, striking out seven Brewers in the process. The Buccos went on to win another series against a divisional rival.

The Pirates showed great team resolve and fight this week. Two wins against the White Sox, in which both wins had the Pirates coming back after a 4-0 deficit. But that wasn’t the biggest drama of the week for the Pirates. The Giants were due up next at home for the Pirates. The return of Cutch. A fitting tribute was laid out for Andrew McCutchen as he stepped up to bat. The crowd rose and applauded the highlight reel that was being shown to them at PNC Park. A well-loved player in Pittsburgh. But after seeing the Pirates win yet another game, it posed the question, did we miss him?

Starling Marte had taken on his centre-field position, and after missing 80-games last year after testing positive for a PED, he had returned in great form slashing .308/.366/.503. Marte also has six home runs on the year, on course to better any of his previous season tallies in Pittsburgh. Although Gregory Polanco’s batting average is currently the worst of his major-league career so far, his slugging % is at its highest and leads the Pirates with eight home runs. The biggest addition Pittsburgh made in the off-season was bringing in Corey Dickerson. His presence has provided some much-needed power into the lineup. He has started the season in spectacular form hitting .318/.356/.514. Compare this to McCutchen, who is hitting the worst numbers of his career to date. It seems like the bold move is paying off for the Pirates.

That leads us to the other departure, Gerrit Cole. Cole is having a stellar year so far. He leads the league in strikeouts (93), has a 1.75 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. Pretty great numbers from the “Cole Train”. Not many starters can boast the start that Cole has had this year. The Pirates sit 13th in the league with a team 4.07 ERA from their starters, which is a significant improvement on the previous two seasons. However, they are 23rd in strikeouts (187), which Cole has almost got half of just on his own. No other Pirate pitcher comes close to the individual numbers that Cole is putting up this year.

As part of that trade with Houston we’ve found a consistent starter in Colin Moran at third base, who is betting well at the tail end of the lineup. But we could do with the ace, he makes the difference, especially in those big games where we’ve stumbled. Plus we’ve conceded the 2nd most runs in the division, 29 more than the Cardinals. It seems a long time ago now that Houston were the butt of all jokes in the NL Central. Nevertheless, the rotation in Pittsburgh has put in plenty of solid starts in the first quarter of this season. Long may it continue.

It’s not just the outfielders who are batting at an improved level. The team as a whole is outperforming previous season’s output. The teams batting average has improved, but most notable is the extra power the Pirates have added. The slugging % is the best it’s been since 1930. Although that was achieved over a whole season, and we’re only through a quarter so far, that’s pretty impressive! Even 2015, where the Pirates had the 2nd best record in baseball, behind the Cardinals. There are much better teams this year, but the Pirates steady rotation coupled with the hot bats, are making for an exciting season.

Compare that to the pitching numbers from this season. The Pirates are pitching better than they have done over the last couple of seasons. But that’s nothing to shout about. The Pirates pitching numbers haven’t been great since they last reached the playoffs in ’15. Gerrit Cole’s best numbers were in 2013-2015 and that shows. He was an all-star in 2015 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.091 WHIP and 4.6 WAR.

I think we can safely say that we miss Gerrit Cole more than we do McCutchen, in terms of output this season. Even though the romanticist in me would love to see Cutch back in the ‘burgh!

The Pirates are 15-14 against teams who have winning records vs. the rest of the league. They are 10-3 against teams with losing records vs. the league. We’re definitely stock-piling the wins against lesser teams. The key for the Buccos has also been their performances against divisional rivals. They’re 10-3 which is by far the best record anyone else has in the NL Central. The hot bats are helping the Pirates get over the line in games, scoring 211 runs – the 2nd most in the NL and the 5th most in all of baseball.

The Pirates host the White Sox for the finale of this 2-game series before seven games against two of the worst teams in the NL. Before the Pirates host the lowly Reds in mid-June, the Buccos face a tough stretch of games; vs. Cardinals (3 games), vs. Cubs (3 games), @ Cardinals (3 games), vs. Dodgers (3 games), @ Cubs (3 games), @ Diamondbacks (3 games) with only one day’s rest through that schedule. Add to that, Josh Harrison is still on the DL, whilst both Marte and Cervelli have picked up injuries over the past week.

If the Pirates can get through that slate of games with a positive record, I think we can say with confidence that this season, the Pirates are for real.

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