PITTSBURGH — September has been a busy month in Pittsburgh sports. Pitt got creamed by Penn State. The Steelers are inventing new ways to fill the middle of their weeks with drama. The Penguins are returning to the ice.
And then there are the Pirates, playing out the string in relative anonymity.
In the first three games of the team’s final homestand, playing against the moribund Kansas City Royals, the team announced an attendance of 34,955 — total. That’s an average of 11,652 per game, and judging by the amount of empty seats at PNC Park, even that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.
People have tuned out, and that’s a shame, because they’re missing a lot.
It’s not just that the Jekyll-and-Hyde 2018 Pirates have flipped the switch back to good by winning 11 of their last 14 and five straight. No, that should probably have been expected by the way things have gone for the club this year.
But there are real developments that have not only improved the Pirates fortunes this September, but will have impacts on 2019, as well.
So if you’ve tuned out of September baseball, here’s what you’ve been missing:
JAMESON TAILLON IS WHO WE THOUGHT HE WAS
Taillon in September: 3 starts, 19 IP, 1.42 ERA, 21 Ks, 3 walks
Tuesday, Taillon set a career high with 11 strikeouts against the Royals, using his four-seam fastball high in the zone and his big-breaking curveball to devastating effect. Take a look:
Jameson Taillon, 82mph Curveball and high 94mph Fastball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/8JSvtN4jXe
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 19, 2018
There was a time, not all that long ago, that the Pirates’ pitching philosophy was being brought under serious scrutiny. After Gerrit Cole was traded to the Houston Astros, the former Pirates ace had a career year, and the common thought process was that the Pirates’ emphasis on a two-seam heavy approach and a failure to feature his curveball had been holding Cole back while he was in Pittsburgh.
And yet, here’s Taillon, throwing gas at the top of the zone, a big, beautiful curveball down in the zone, and making Kansas City look like a Double-A squad.
Any fear that the Pirates were going to waste Taillon’s talent with an out-dated pitching philosophy should be thrown squarely out the window.
Oh yeah, and he’s still got that two-seamer.
Jameson Taillon, 96mph Two Seamer (low/foul) and 83mph Curveball (bounced 3' in front of the plate/swinging K). pic.twitter.com/4rF2CeiwLM
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 1, 2018
And he’s added a slider with a whiff rate of nearly 15 percent.
For maybe the first time since he’s been in the majors, Taillon looks every bit like the potential ace the Pirates thought they were getting when they drafted him in the first round.
ADAM FRAZIER IS A MAJOR-LEAGUE HITTER
Remember when David Freese said that one day Adam Frazier could win a batting title. At that point, the young Frazier was hitting near .300, and Freese didn’t look all that far off.
Then, Frazier went into the kind of slump that can derail an entire career. When he was sent down in late June, he was hitting .239/.323/.355. Then he went to Indy and was even worse, hitting .223/.289/.298. When Frazier was recalled to the majors, it wasn’t because he’d earned it, the Pirates had just run out of available bodies.
But since returning after a month in the minors, he’s hit .322/.375/.541. On the season, he now has a 119 wRC+, the third-best amongst Pittsburgh regulars.
Frazier still doesn’t really have a position where he’s above-average in the field. But the old adage that you find a place for the bat that plays remains true. If he qualified, his wRC+ would be third-best amongst NL second basemen, seventh amongst right fielders and sixth amongst left fielders.
That’s good enough that his so-so defense won’t keep him from contributing, and he’s also shown some improvement. For the first time, his UZR/150 at second base is positive this year — 4.3 after being -15.5 last year.
PABLO REYES IS A REAL PROSPECT
There was a point during Spring Training this year when a bunch of the Pirates top prospects all got sent to minor league camp and Pablo Reyes was still there.
The thought amongst most of the writers was that the Pirates had simply forgot to cut him.
But apparently the Pirates saw something nobody else did in Reyes, who entered the season basically viewed as a non-prospect because of the Pirates treating him as a utility player in Double-A.
Maybe the Pirates just wanted to get out ahead of what they saw as Reyes’ eventual role anyway or maybe even they were surprised by his performance, but after hitting .289/.341/.435 and stealing 13 bases in 110 games with Indy, Reyes has hit everything in sight in the majors to the tune of a video game-like 205 wRC+.
Obviously, that’s impacted by a small sample size, but his Triple-A numbers seem legit and unlike Frazier, Reyes really can play good defense just about anywhere on the diamond. The Pirates homegrown replacement for Sean Rodriguez is here and it woudn’t be crazy to see him start 2019 in the majors.
THE PIRATES MIGHT HAVE THE BEST BULLPEN IN BASEBALL
Felipe Vazquez blew his first save of the second half on Tuesday, snapping streak of 24 consecutive saves converted. It’s been an impressive second half for the Pirates closer, who has played even better than his All-Star firs half. In addition to his saves, his 2.55 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in the second half has stabilized his season-long numbers after an early-season hiccup.
Behind him, Keone Kela (0.98 WHIP), Kyle Crick (1.14 WHIP), Richard Rodriguez (1.06 WHIP) and Edgar Santana (1.11 WHIP) all have even better numbers than Vazquez in the second half.
That’s an impressive group, and they appear to have the ability to shorten games to the point that the Pirates no longer need to focus on quick outs for starting pitchers and allow them to chase strikeouts.