PITTSBURGH — Neal Huntington was asked on Sunday what position was most important to a successful playoff run. His answer? Starting pitching.
“You can do it without a dominant starting pitcher or two,” Huntington said. “It just becomes a little more challenging. A dominant starter loses 40% or more of the time. But when you have two of them, you increase your odds.”
This isn’t ground breaking analysis. Anyone who has watched the Pirates the last three years can tell you the importance of starting pitching. It has been the biggest factor in what has made them one of the most successful teams in baseball during that stretch. They’ve had good offense and they’ve had bad offense, but the thing that has constantly kept them in contention has been the pitching, and the better that pitching has been, the better the record has been.
This year the Pirates’ rotation finished in the top five in the NL in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and WAR. And when it comes down to the concept of having two dominant starters, they definitely had that. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano finished 5th and 12th in the NL in WAR, respectively. They also both finished in the top 15 in xFIP across baseball. Having those two could make a huge impact if the Pirates can make it past the Cubs, and having Cole can allow the Pirates to counter Jake Arrieta and make it past the Cubs.
The pitching strength goes beyond just the rotation. We’ve covered how the Pirates have the best shutdown combo in the game in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. They are a big reason why the Pirates had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year. They added Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton for the final two months, and saw guys like Arquimedes Caminero and Antonio Bastardo step up during that time. The result was that the Pirates had the best bullpen WAR in baseball over the final two months, along with the best WPA and shutdown/meltdown numbers.
“If you have the shutdown bullpen, it’s a great bonus,” Huntington said. “A shutdown bullpen means your team doesn’t need to score as many runs. A dominant rotation means you don’t have to score as many runs. You have to score to win, but the fewer runs you have to score to win, the better off you’re going to be, and the better your chances are to win.”
Of course, the Pirates can score runs. Their offense combined to finished third in the NL in wRC+ and tied for sixth (with the Cubs) in wOBA. Granted, Jung Ho Kang played a big role there this season, but they’ve seen Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison step up since Kang has gone down. It’s a small sample, but in the final two weeks of the season, the Pirates offense finished second in the NL in WAR, second in wRC+, and fifth in wOBA. With that type of production, they can still be an offensive force without Kang.
“We like what we can do on the baseball field,” Huntington said. “We can win games because of our starters, because of our bullpen, because we can hit a ball into the seats. Because we can steal some bases, steal some runs on the bases. We’ve been better defensively as of late. And our outfield defense has continued to get better. With Jordy at shortstop, he stabilized us there. We miss Kang, there’s no hiding that fact. But if we can take care of the baseball in the post-season, we believe that we can do as deep as anybody.”
It’s no surprise that the Pirates won 98 games this year. They don’t have the best group in every area, but they’ve got a top rotation, a top ace, the best closer, the best set-up man, a top bullpen group, and a top offense. That’s the recipe for a World Series winner. The Pirates don’t have an easy path, but they’ve got a team that can handle a difficult road. They’ve got the ace to counter Arrieta. They’ve got the well-rounded team needed to take down the best team in baseball. And it should be easier from that point forward, as they’ve already dominated the Mets and Dodgers this year, and can handle any American League team. They’re not guaranteed anything, but that statement also includes the fact that they’re not guaranteed to be bounced early.
This is a well-rounded team. They might have the strength that Huntington feels is most important. But they’ve got all of the other strengths as well, which means they don’t have to totally rely on just the starting pitching.
This is a Pirates team that can win it all.
**Tomorrow is the workout day for the Pirates. I’ll have coverage from PNC Park, including recaps of the press conferences with Clint Hurdle and Gerrit Cole. I’ll also have some site updates in the morning, with great news about the playoff coverage, along with some notes about off-season coverage.
**Giles: Pirates Staying Aggressive on the First Pitch. A great look from Ed Giles at how the Pirates have been seeing success this year by swinging at the first pitch.
**Pirates Winter League Preview. John Dreker takes a look at the upcoming Winter Leagues.
**Glasnow and Bell Among Top Prospects in the Eastern League. Not a surprise here, as two of the top prospects in the game would also end up as the top prospects in their league.