It seems like every week I find myself tweeting something along the lines of “Imagine if you were told before the season that (insert unbelievable feat from the Pirates or one of their players)”. I was thinking about a few of those tonight, and thinking about how crazy of a season it has been so far. The Pirates are not only winning. They’re winning in the most unexpected way possible. They’ve used over two rotations worth of starting pitchers. The offense isn’t working. Their best player is following up a career year with the same production he had in the two years before that. They’re relying on pitchers who entered the season with career ERAs over 5.00.
I decided to put together a list. Some of the items below are just great things to see, and speak to the depth of the team and how it’s not just 3-4 players leading the Pirates like in the last two years. Other items below are more of a concern for the rest of the season, but it’s still impressive that the Pirates are competing despite those issues. Here are ten things that, if you heard them before the season, you’d find them unbelievable, and find the Pirates’ chances this year unbelievable.
1. The Pirates will call up Tony Sanchez, but only for his bat.
Starting with this one because it happened today. Tony Sanchez was called up, mostly because the Pirates planned on using him to DH against the two upcoming left-handers this weekend (one of those left-handers has been replaced, presumably out of fear of Sanchez).
Sanchez has struggled at the plate the last two years. In 2011 he had a .241/.340/.318 line in 402 at-bats. In 2012 he had a .251/.338/.401 line in 347 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A. His defense was good, but there were serious questions about his hitting. Those questions haven’t been fully answered, since he only has 183 at-bats this year. But he does have a .306/.389/.563 line in those at-bats.
2. Brandon Cumpton will make two starts for the Pirates in June.
Think about the starters the Pirates had at the start of the year. There was A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez, and Jonathan Sanchez. You had guys who were starting the season injured: Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens. There were guys in Triple-A who could be up by mid-season: Gerrit Cole and Phil Irwin.
Now imagine being told that even with that depth, the Pirates would need Brandon Cumpton to make two starts in the middle of June.
3. Pirates fans will look forward to the return of Jeanmar Gomez to the rotation.
Gomez before the 2013 season: 5.18 ERA in 206.2 innings.
Gomez this season: 3.07 ERA in 44 innings.
4. Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett will both miss time with injuries.
You could probably combine the last two, tell someone before the season, and they’d think the rotation was a mess. But if you told them that Rodriguez and Burnett would both miss starts with injuries along with those other two items, they wouldn’t even ask if the rotation was performing. They’d just demand Neal Huntington be fired before this mess could ever happen. Then they’d say “Trade Gerrit Cole for a proven pitcher! We’ll need it! Prospects aren’t guarantees.”
5. Andrew McCutchen will have an .806 OPS on June 22nd.
A lot of the talk I saw before the season said that if Andrew McCutchen doesn’t repeat his career year, the Pirates have no shot at winning.
6. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez will each have an OPS lower than Jordy Mercer.
You could look at this two ways. Either Jordy Mercer is doing amazing things for a shortstop, or McCutchen and Alvarez are horrible. Pirates fans have 20 years of conditioning to suggest the latter is more likely. The truth is more to the former, and Jordy Mercer actually leads the team in OPS at .834.
7. Jeff Locke will be the best starter on the team.
Let’s forget the previous pitcher issues and just imagine this as something you say in a pre-season discussion. While a lot of people are saying that Jeff Locke doesn’t belong in the majors, and won’t be anything more than a fifth starter, you respond by saying he’ll put up better numbers this year than anyone in the rotation.
And then they would respond:
8. Vin Mazzaro will provide a boost to the bullpen.
I don’t know if people are trusting Vin Mazzaro yet, but he’s been excellent out of the bullpen. After tonight he has a 3.06 ERA in 32.1 innings, and his advanced metrics aren’t much worse, with a 3.98 xFIP. But coming into the year he had a career 5.22 ERA in 286 innings.
9. Pedro Alvarez’s hitting will not provide more value than his fielding.
Alvarez has been worth 1.5 runs above average from his hitting. He’s been worth 1.5 runs combined from his fielding and his positional adjustment. Those were before tonight’s game, so they might have changed. If you would have heard that Alvarez’s hitting and fielding would have been equal value prior to the season, you probably would have assumed that the hitting was horrible. Instead, the fielding has been excellent. There’s the 13 errors, but Alvarez is making a lot of really tough plays at third, and is actually providing positive value defensively this year.
Offensively he has 17 homers, which leads all NL third baseman, and puts him in a tie for second with Evan Longoria in the majors. He’s looking more and more like a platoon option, with an .816 OPS in 169 at-bats against right-handers (prior to tonight), and a .565 OPS in 55 at-bats against left-handers (also prior to tonight). Only two of his 17 homers have come against lefties. He’s also only hitting homers, as he has just six doubles and no triples. He’s drawing walks against right-handers (9% BB/PA), but not as many against lefties (6.8%).
But the defense has been impressive. He might not be a Gold Glover like my (somewhat) sarcastic comments on Twitter after his great plays, but he’s not looking like a guy who needs to move to first anytime soon.
10. Gerrit Cole will come up for a few starts, and the Pirates might have to send him back down.
If you heard that, you’d think that Cole was a bust. Or if you weren’t so quick to jump to conclusions, you’d think Cole just got off to a rough start.
Cole has been excellent so far in his three starts. But the rotation has also been excellent and the Pirates will have an interesting decision to make soon. When Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett return they will have to find a spot on the major league roster for Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Jeanmar Gomez. With Liriano and Locke in the rotation, there’s only room for one of those guys in the rotation. If you keep Cole, then you’ll have room to send all three to the bullpen. But if you do that, then you lose your starting pitching depth, as those guys wouldn’t be stretched out. Your only backup starter would be Brandon Cumpton.
It probably won’t be popular, but the best way to keep some depth in the system is by sending Cole down. Based on how frequently the Pirates have seen starting pitchers go down, we can safely say that Cole would be back under this scenario. But if a pitcher gets injured, I’d rather have Cole as the replacement.
This is probably a topic that will be discussed a lot in the next few weeks.
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