The Pirates are Starting to Get Recognition For Being a Special Team

The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the hottest teams in baseball right now. They’ve gone from being just another team in the mix of mediocre Wild Card contenders, to a team that is surging to the front of the pack and sitting in the driver’s seat for home field in the Wild Card game. After starting the month with a four game losing streak, they have gone 14-3, including taking two of three against one of their top contenders for the Wild Card, the Milwaukee Brewers. Sure, the rest of it has been an easy schedule against the likes of the Cubs, Phillies, Cubs again, and Red Sox. But a 14-3 run is special, no matter who you’re playing.

It’s not just winning, though. This almost feels like destiny. How else can it feel when Mark Melancon puts runners at first and third with no outs and a one run lead, then gets out of the jam after the runner at third base is hit with a chopper down the line, ruling him out before he can get back to the bag?

Or what about three days later in another 1-0 game, when Tony Watson makes a bad throw to first base, allowing Rickie Weeks to reach safely, but leading Carlos Gomez to stray off the bag and commit one of the biggest TOOTBLANs of the year. Rather than having runners at first and second with no outs, or even a runner at second with one out if Watson makes the play, they had a runner at first with one out. In a one run game.

Then there’s the fact that the Pirates have the most productive trio of players in the National League in Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, and Josh Harrison — or as I call them, the MV3. All three have stepped up during this stretch to provide big hits.

It seems that everyone is taking notice. Today there were two links about the Pirates and the special run that they’re making. The first link comes from Richard Justice at Sports on Earth. Justice gives a recap of how the Pirates got here, from the hiring of Neal Huntington, to the hiring of Clint Hurdle, to the Andrew McCutchen extension, and most importantly, finding a group of players who didn’t accept losing and believed the Pirates could be champions. It’s a good summary of how they got here, while also recognizing how good they’ve been all around lately.

Then there’s Mike Petriello at FanGraphs, who notes that the Pirates’ pitching has turned around. He points out how the Pirates started the year with a horrible pitching staff, but have turned things around, despite the fact that they didn’t really make a big addition to the pitching. A big factor has been the switch from Pedro Alvarez to Josh Harrison, and an increase in ground balls in the second half. As Petriello puts it: “More grounders, less Alvarez, more outs.”

The Pirates didn’t make any big additions to the pitching staff, but they did add John Holdzkom and John Axford. Holdzkom was signed out of indy ball this summer, and Axford was a straight up waiver claim. Neither pitcher was expected to boost the bullpen, but that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The rotation has also improved. Vance Worley was added to the rotation since their early season struggles. Francisco Liriano has looked like an ace in the second half. Gerrit Cole is pitching well. Petriello notes that the Pirates have the fifth best strikeout percentage in baseball over the last month, with the highest groundball rate in the same span.

The Pirates already had a great offense this year, thanks to the MV3. The pitching staff is coming around now, and this looks like one of the most complete teams in baseball at the moment. Add in the magic they’ve been receiving, and this team looks special. With the playoffs coming up, I can’t think of a better time for everything to come together.

Analysis

  • Good article Tim. One thing though. the MV3 should be the MV5. Russell Martin is by far our defensive MVP all the time. Without him this team isn’t a playoff team. The Pitching staff couldn’t do what it is doing without him. But there are two other guys on the offensive side that are just as responsible for this successful season as Cutch,Martin and Harrison. 1st Neil Walker. who has been there all year long hitting behind Cutch with his 20 HR season which would be probably around 25 without an emergency appendectomy . He made up for that power we we lost from Pedro’s rough season This guys a top 5 hitting 2nd basemen in baseball not to mention he has some of the best numbers on the team with RISP. He’s pretty clutch. Not to mention he hits from both sides of the plate and did it well this year after so many ( I won’t mention names) said he couldn’t hit right handed.) #2 Starling Marte who has been far and away our best hitter through this outstanding run. He’s obviously turned a corner at the plate. The improvements are obvious. I could name a team MVP this year. All of them could make a case

  • This reminds me of a few years ago when the Rockies had an ungodly winning record in September that propelled them to the World Series. I have been telling people for some time that there will be a World Series played in Pittsburgh by 2017. It may come early. This team is doing everything right, and when the DH is needed it will be Snider at DH and Polanco in RF, improving the defense.

  • After the two decade losing streak, it has been great to watch back-to-back playoff seasons. But to keep some perspective the Bucs have not even won a division title, let alone a playoff series. If they lose in the early rounds of the playoffs again, nobody will remember this as anything other than a reasonably good year. “Special” teams generally win more than 88 games.

  • I know some people will disagree with me but Neal Huntington deserves some recognition. He’s been with the Pirates for 7 years now and took the forgotten team and now has created a winning organization. Only time will tell if he can continue making most of the right moves but he deserves some credit in changing the way it is in Pittsburgh.

  • Let’s get those bats going again tonight!

  • The team has its flaws – first base being the biggest – but they do not quite and seem to always bounce back when it seems they were ready to crumble.

  • lonleylibertarian
    September 23, 2014 1:51 pm

    Shame that they don’t have a better defense – the pitchers they have are not being helped out by a good plus defense. Pitching to contact is a lot better idea with a strong defense behind the pitcher.

    • Agree…according to metrics, Walker is a statue.

      • Yeah and according to WAR Steve Pearce is more valuable than Andrew McCutchen! Just like Twain said about damn lies and statistics!

        • This is false. McCutchen 6.4 WAR, Pearce 4.8.

          And is your point that Walker DOESN’T have poor range? Because he does.

          • for this year only Pearce 5.99 Cutch 5.92. interesting

            • Presumably you are citing Baseball Reference’s numbers (which as of today have Cutch ahead of Pearce, 6.1 to 6.0). Fangraphs is much more accurate with respect to defense (it uses UZR, BBRef uses Total Zone, which has higher error bars, particularly if we’re only talking about a few hundred innings in LF and 1B. I would stick with the Fangraphs.

              BTW, Pearce also gets the benefit of being compared to an historically awful crew of left fielders. Fangraphs ran an article last month on Alex Gordon, a good-not-great LF who, because LF is historically weak this year, has a ridiculously high defensive WAR that makes him look like the second coming of Rickey Henderson.

              I know that supports your original point, so kudos there.

              • the gist is that somewhere, somehow, you can find a stat that supports whatever argument you would like to make. My take is that Walker’s defense is adequate, reliable and good enough for me. And yes, if need be, I can find some statistic to support that 🙂

      • I still see Walker moving to first or third, as soon as next year. He is too injury prone for second and Hanson will be there sooner rather than later. I can’t see them going with either of Davis or Alvarez at first next year. They could really save some money (for Martin or pitching) by trading both Davis and Alvarez this offseason. Of course Walker’s value may never be higher than now so he could be shipped out as well. I do think it would be difficult to trade Walker from a PR standpoint. I would be surprised if Walker doesn’t have a first baseman’s mitt in Bradenton come February. He could be the backup if Hanson and/or Bell is not ready in June. They could sign a defense first middle infielder, which they need to do even if all things remain unchanged, to play second if Walker goes to first and that player would assume the utility role when Hanson is ready. I think Harrison has to stay at third. Lots of options.

    • Pirates pitchers (starters + bullpen) are 29th by FIP WAR, but 17th by RA-9 WAR (actual run prevention), and have the 5th largest positive gap between the two.

      Team UZR isn’t everything the Pirates rank 27th, but are somehow 5th by team DRS (DRS includes a pitcher and catcher fielding component), and neither include shift plays. The Pirates rank 10th in BABIP against, .288, this is despite having the heaviest ground-ball staff in the league, ground balls are more likely to be hits than fly balls.

      I like the defensive numbers, they are certainly better than errors and put outs, and it would be nice if the Pirates could have gotten some better performances at a couple positions, but I really don’t know how to judge their overall team defense.

      • lonleylibertarian
        September 23, 2014 6:19 pm

        Good post Andrew – of course there is an offsetting advantage to ground balls – VERY few of them turn into Home Runs – think the Bucs are in the top 5 in HRs allowed this year. I know the BMTIB has invested a lot in analytics – and that the defensive component of WAR – FG or BR are greatly flawed and lots of folks are thinking about how to get this part of WAR better – but I wonder if Cutch might be sold on a shift Left Field – he gives up a bit in position adjustment – but would gain by being a bit like Alex Gordon – a whole lot better than the Matt Holidays and Mark Trumbos that roam NL left fields

        • I wouldn’t try to conclude anything based on Snider numbers too few opportunities, however I have noticed that most Pirates corner OF have better rating in LF than RF, it could be some bias in the ratings and how they handle PNC’s deep left field but that is just a guess.

          Ideal world, McCutchen moves to LF, I think singles fall in-front him because the Pirates don’t want extra base hits and have all their OFs play deep. But his arm is below average, and Marte is very likely a defensive upgrade, hard to see it happening, Jeter has played SS until he retired even though he is terrible defensively.

  • Whether it be destiny or dumb luck, it is fun to watch. The Pirates biggest problem is that even if they beat the Giants in the WC game, they will have to go into Washington to beat a team that is somehow even hotter (and probably better to begin with) than the Pirates.

    • Ya gotta beat good teams to advance in the playoffs. It can happen.

    • I think the Bucs match up well with Nats. Season series easily could’ve gone 5-2 Bucs if not for a couple blown saves. Werth kills us and Rendon is hot, but I’d be more worried about facing Kershaw twice.

      Speaking of Rendon, Bucs (and others) passed on him due to his ankle injuries – he was a possible #1 pick who slid to #6. Seems he’s answered his critics. He’s been worth 4 WAR more than Cole past year and half.

  • It is a special team. Yet despite going 14-6 in September, they’ve still lost a half game to the Cards. So not quite special enough!

    • Please check Liriano’s stats against RH hitters.

    • And please check the SF Giants record vs LH SP.

      • SF does better vs LHP than RHP. And that’s including Kershaw. Once you take Kershaw out, it’s much more obvious that you want to pitch a RHP vs Giants. Add to that, Liriano’s individual stats vs SFG are significantly worse than the aggregate LHP, with or without Kershaw included.

        • I just checked yesterday and ESPN said they were 13-19 vs LH SP. Am I mistaken?

          • I believe it’s 28-29 v LH SP. That includes five losses to LAD (Kershaw/Ryu).

            However, Giants’ BA, OBP, SLG (OPS) all significantly higher vs LHP than RHP. I can’t dig into the data to do crosstabs, but I’m going to guess a few of those wins were late inning comebacks vs. bullpen. Much the way the Bucs are an “8th inning team”, the Giants are a 7th inning team.

            If you believe a pitcher’s W-L record is still a significant stat, then go with the W-L record. If you believe the component stats and peripherals are more important, go with the batting stats. I’ll choose the latter.

  • While those three deserve an enormous amount of credit, let’s not forget that since the all star break, Marte has been as hot as any of them!

    • Absolutely! I was thinking the same thing. I could not understand why Marte was not even mentioned in the article. Marte has been the best player in the whole league the last 6 weeks.

  • I appreciate the sentiment but feel like we’re getting a bit ahead of our selves. Let’s finish strong – get the bats working again and try our best to make sure that any one game playoff is happening in Pittsburgh.

  • True karma. I realized after the around the horn triple play that this was truly a magical season. Reading that the last two of these played out during the 1979 & 1971 seasons, combined with the overwhelming success of another AL team that puts us in line to do what we did those years one more time. A true hat trick. I was speaking with an Orioles fan last week and they seemed to poo poo the thought that the Pirates had any chance to even get to that plateau and knock off the Orioles this year was ridiculous. But then, were we not underdogs those two years? Pirates in seven.

  • You can see the maturation taking place, this team reminds me of the 70’s A’s teams, they could beat you 1-0 or 15-0. This team has learned to stay the course and figure out how to win games that they might have lost in the past. I don’t know how far they will go, but I know how far they can go and that is to the WS.

  • in the last 7 games only 6 runs scored against the Pirates

  • Tim: Excellent article, and the Pirate success is well deserved. Starting with the failure of Wandy Rodriguez and hitting problems the first few months, this team was provided every opportunity to fail this year. It continued with Pedro and Francisco Liriano having 1st half problems and Morton having problems lately and probably being lost for 2014, but overall, they have overcome adversity and somebody has always been there to step up. Some new heroes to go along with the old standbys of ‘Cutch and Neil Walker, and the hitting has just continued to get better and better – JHAY, Martin, Mercer, Snider, and Marte to name a few. All of this while the pitching righted itself and is getting stronger as the season nears an end. I love it when a good plan comes together!

Menu