Pittsburgh Pirates: 5 Keys to Getting Back into the MLB Wild Card Race
A month and a half into the season and the Pirates sit at a better-than-the-record-shows 16-18. The Pirates have won their last two series in a row and five of the ten so far this season with a four-game split against the Braves.
Now you may look at that and basically see they should be about .500, which should be the case, but the Pirates grueling nine-game road trip near the beginning of the season saw them pull out only three games and lose six, which put them behind the 8-ball to start.
Since that point, the Pirates have crawled to a very respectable 13-12 record and have shown signs of promise whether that be in the starting rotation, the bullpen, defensively or even the bats.
What do the Pirates need to do to continue making a push to get back into the race? The simple answer is win, but I will be examining five different things that the Pirates MUST do.
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No. 5: Andrew McCutchen
The face of the Pirates and franchise cornerstone, Andrew McCutchen, has been red-hot in the month of May after a solid April. Currently, he is boasting average clips of .339/.403/.496/.899 (average, on-base %, slugging %, OPS). Adding to those numbers are three homers, 13 RBI, seven doubles and a triple.
In the last seven days he is hitting .524 with all three of his homers in that period of time. It's certainly no coincidence that the Pirates are 4-2 in those six games.
For the Pirates to continue to drive back into the race, they certainly need McCutchen to continue to deliver on the promise he showed that caused the Pirates to draft him high and ship out (at the time) an All-Star in Nate McLouth just to bring him up.
McCutchen is one of only two Pirates (Neil Walker the other) hitting above .250, so the Pirates offense has been going as 'Cutch has been going. McCutchen must keep this rate up, .300-plus of course, not .524, for the Pirates to continue to contend.
No. 4: Continued Development from Pedro Alvarez
When camp broke at the end of spring, the Pirates faithful were visibly frustrated when Pedro Alvarez was named the starting third baseman for 2012 following a spring training performance that would've made hitting the Mendoza line look nice.
The start of the season wasn't too kind for Pedro as well when he struggled to get any kind of production in the early goings, but then, mid-way through April, he seemed to find his power stroke. He currently leads the Pirates in home runs (7) and RBI (16) mid-way through May. But he also leads the team in strikeouts (37).
Early in the season, Alvarez showed signs of hope that his power stroke returned by hitting long outs to the deepest parts of the park in left field. Eventually that turned into a home run, and once he hit his first, he kept hitting them. As soon as he went on a home-run drought, the average and hits went down as well.
Over a 12-game stretch, Pedro had hits in 10 games from April 21 against St. Louis through May 4 against Cincinnati. During that stretch, Alvarez raised his batting average from .067 to .260 and his on-base percentage .097 to .305. Since then, he has had just two hits in 25 at-bats to drop his average to .214 and OBP to .282.
At one point in the stretch, Pedro had a seven-game hitting streak, a stretch of three straight and five of six games with two hits. He also had five homers in that stretch and three in a four-game period.
Pedro has started to struggle recently, however, hitting just .095 with only one RBI in the last six games, while striking out 11 times.
Alvarez does have the ability, but he needs to get more consistent. Stretches like these, both the high and the low, have shown that he is still young, but continues to develop. Something needs to knock him out of the slump, and I think a long home run would do just that.
No. 3: The Starling Marte Factor
Following Starling Marte's surprisingly early departure from Pirates camp in the spring as he was turning in a very impressive performance, many started speculating when he would come up and return to Pittsburgh.
It currently appears that management is content with Tabata and Presley currently rounding out the outfield with budding, household name, Andrew McCutchen, anchoring the fort. But that does not mean we won't see Marte finally make the trip to Pittsburgh.
As of May 14, Marte has been solid in Indianapolis, but not spectacular. He is hitting .268 with two homers, 11 RBI, a handful of steals and extra base hits and the big number 26 strikeouts to only seven walks. The plate discipline was one area Pirates management wanted him to work on, and it still appears to be off.
The quicker he learns to manage the strike zone, the sooner his blazing speed will be occupying the outfield grass at PNC park.
No. 2: Run Production
If the Pirates want a jubilant scene like this one in a game against the Rockies in April, the Pirates need to score some runs.
Prior to the games of May 14, the Pirates have scored the fewest runs in baseball (97), and if you take out a series against the Cardinals and the last game against the Braves, the Pirates have scored just 72 runs in 30 games.
The Pirates are averaging just 2.85 runs per game. Downright dreadful production. The Pirates have shown promise with those 25 runs they scored in a span of four games. But they've also been on the wrong end scores like 2-1 and 3-2.
They've been held to one or fewer runs in 12 games, going 0-12 in that span. The Pirates have been shutout five times this year.
If the Pirates score just two runs in a game, they are 16-6. Talk about a shocking number.
To put these numbers into perspective, the only team the Pirates are within a single-game striking distance of are the San Diego Padres at 109 runs so far. The league leaders in runs scored, the Rangers, have an additional 98 runs on the Padres making the Pirates 110 runs off the leader's pace thus far.
The Pirates also have the fewest hits in baseball (243) with 251 being the next lowest. They also rank bottom five in doubles (52, 26th), total bases (377, 29th), RBI (91, 30th), team average (.222, 28th), walks (73, 30th) and extra base hits (77, 30th).
The Pirates, simply put, MUST SCORE RUNS. You cannot continue to expect to win low-scoring affairs each game you play. Scoring just two runs cannot continue to allow you to win at a 16-6 clip. Eventually the pitching will falter, and you will struggle.
No. 1: Continued Dominance in Pitching
Raise your hand if you would have said on May 14 that the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates would have the best two pitching staffs.
Really? No one?
Shocking to say the least, the Nationals (2.73) and the Pirates (3.15) have the two lowest ERAs in baseball.
The Pirates are led in the rotation most notably by James McDonald and Erik Bedard. But the rest of the rotation, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett have all shown signs of dominance and weakness.
The bullpen has also been a bright spot for the Pirates as lefty reliever Tony Watson leads the team in wins with three, while Brad Lincoln (0.63), Juan Cruz (0.64) and Jared Hughes (1.53) have been pitching lights-out ball from the pen.
Pirates fans can not expect the pitching to continue this well even with a really deep pitching squad bolstered by Bedard and Burnett this offseason. What happens when that drop-off happens?