The Pittsburgh Pirates lost their seventh game in a row tonight. Call off the rest of the season. The collapse is starting. And all of the other things that are said any time the Pirates go in a slump.
Of course we could also look at how the Milwaukee Brewers lost seven in a row in early July. One month later, the Brewers find themselves in first place in the NL Central, sitting 2.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, and currently riding a five game winning streak. It’s almost like a seven game losing streak in a 162 game season DOESN’T mean the end of the season.
So what does this losing streak mean?
For one, it means the Pirates are probably going to play poorly when they’re missing their MVP, their starting second baseman, and their starting shortstop at various times. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jordy Mercer were all in tonight’s game. However, Mercer missed the previous four games, McCutchen missed the first six games, and Walker missed three of the six games. Tonight was the first night the Pirates had more than one of those guys in the lineup during the recent losing streak. It was also the first time all three were in the lineup since August 1st.
As I pointed out earlier today, a big problem the Pirates have had this month has been a result of these injuries. These injuries, plus the struggles from Pedro Alvarez, mean that Michael Martinez, Brent Morel, and Jayson Nix have gotten more starts for a contender than players like Martinez, Morel, and Nix should be getting. Now that these players are returning, that will be changing. Martinez already went down to make room for McCutchen. Morel will probably go down tomorrow when Gerrit Cole returns. And Nix probably won’t be on the roster once Clint Barmes returns, which could be next week.
Going forward, the lineup is going to be looking a lot better, although it didn’t do well tonight. The bench is going to be looking a lot better as well. That leaves the pitching staff.
The Pirates have seen some struggles lately from their rotation. Prior to blowing up tonight, Francisco Liriano had been looking like an ace since the All-Star break. Charlie Morton had struggled before going on the disabled list. Vance Worley has had two bad starts in a row. Jeff Locke has had some issues lately, although his 3.94 xFIP since the All-Star break suggests he shouldn’t be this bad.
Unless you’re a top of the rotation pitcher, you’re going to see a bad stretch at some point during the season. In the Pirates’ case, they are seeing a few different bad stretches at the same time. I don’t think these struggles will last from Worley or Locke. I think if Morton comes back healthy, he will also get back on track. If Gerrit Cole returns tomorrow and looks like the 2013 Gerrit Cole, then that would be a big boost in the short-term. In the long-term, I think the rotation will be fine. I’m basing that on how they looked for two months, along with their advanced metrics, and not how they’ve looked for the last few weeks.
The bullpen has been an issue this season, and one I’ve written about several times over the last few weeks. The Pirates need middle relief help to keep games close, or get leads to their late inning guys. They added John Axford, but it’s too early to tell whether that will be enough. They did see some additional problems this week. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been two of the best relievers in baseball this year. However, they blew back-to-back games last week, which only added to the Pirates’ struggles. I don’t know if the middle of the bullpen is fixed, and I think that’s a real concern. But I’m not concerned with Melancon or Watson based on those two games.
In summary, the Pirates have had the worst month you could imagine. They’ve seen a lot of important players go down with injuries, which has put bench players in starting roles, and Quad-A players on the roster. They’ve seen several of their starting pitchers slumping at once. They’ve seen their two best relievers blowing saves. They’ve seen the middle relievers continue their struggles.
The injured players have almost all returned. I don’t think the starting pitchers will continue to slump. I don’t think Melancon and Watson will continue blowing saves. The middle relief might struggle, but the Pirates have had those struggles all year, and they were contenders up until the point when McCutchen and Walker went down. Maybe that’s not just a coincidence. In fact, it would be ridiculous to call it a coincidence that the Pirates’ slide started after these two players went down.
Fortunately, the other teams in the NL have issues, and that means that the Pirates are only two games back in the Wild Card race, even with their recent struggles and losing streak. So they’re not exactly out of the playoff race. They’ll get a boost going forward due to a healthy lineup and a better bench. I don’t think the pitching staff will continue to struggle the way it has the last few weeks. Overall, I don’t think this is the start of a collapse. I think it’s just a case where everything that could go wrong, went wrong, and did so all at the same time. The fact that the Pirates are only 7-11 this month, and have only lost seven in a row is pretty amazing when you consider those circumstances.
Links and Notes
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.