Pittsburgh Pirates: Breaking Down the Bucs' Successful Start to 2012 Season
In spite of owning the worst run-scoring offense in baseball, the Pirates have emerged as a serious contender, sporting one of the best team ERAs in baseball and a 34-31 record, good for second place in the NL Central.
There have been many reasons why this unit is performing as well as it has, but there have been a few players who have stood out above the rest, and are leading this team towards its first winning season in 20 years and a potential playoff birth.
With a team-leading 1.75 ERA and 42 K in just 25.2 innings, Jason Grilli has done everything the Pirates could have possibly hoped for out of their setup man.
Combine those numbers with a .146 opponents' batting average against, and it's clear that he has been nearly un-hittable. His 42 strikeouts are good for fourth on the team, ahead of multiple starting pitchers.
This consistent bridge to get to closer Joel Hanrahan, who has proven time and time again that he can be trusted with the ninth-inning duties, allows for the Pirates to play a seven-inning game. Their 17-10 record in one-run games has a lot to do with the tandem they have at the back of the pen.
With the tandem of Grilli and Hanrahan shutting opponents down in the eighth and ninth and the game becoming essentially seven innings long with a Pirates lead, it sure is helpful to have someone take care of the seventh inning with relative ease.
That's exactly what the Pirates have with minor-league free-agent signing Juan Cruz, who has taken over the seventh-inning role and provides a connection between the beginning of the pen and the closing pieces.
Even though his opponents' batting average is over .302, Cruz has limited the damage against him, owning a 1.99 ERA. He's also stepped in for Hanrahan three times while he was unavailable to pitch, displaying another wrinkle in Cruz's game.
A. J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett has been the MVP of the Pirates. Period.
Being the first Pirate since Doug Drabek (the last Pirate to win a Cy Young Award) to win six-consecutive starts will cause one to be ordained as such.
A.J. has done it all so far this year; overcame poor performances last year in the Bronx, overcame injury, defeated top teams, halted losing streaks, ate innings, became the leader of the rotation and helped James McDonald reach his full potential.
I didn't even mention his team-leading seven wins and his 3.52 ERA, which would be a full run-and-a-half lower had he not decided to have the worst start by a Pirates pitcher since 1930 in early May against the Cardinals, but hey, I'll cut him a break for that.
The former Marlin, Blue Jay and Yankee has exceeded everyone's expectations and hopefully is rewarded with a trip to Kansas City in a couple of weeks.
Erik Bedard has filled another need that was often a void on many recent Pirates teams: a quality No. 3 guy in the rotation. While he is just 4-7 with a 4.36 ERA, he was a victim of low run support in April, and his ERA is inflated by a couple of bad outings.
Aside from that, he has given the Pirates quality start after quality start. Combine him with Burnett and McDonald, and the Pirates actually have a top-of-the-rotation that can match up with the other big dogs in the National League.
McDonald has been something else the Pirates have sorely lacked over the past 20 years: an ace.
A deserving All-Star, McDonald has been consistently improving over his tenure with the Pirates since he was acquired along with Andrew Lambo from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel in one of Neal Huntington's best deals to date. This year, he has taken it to a whole new level.
2.32 ERA, .98 WHIP, and 78 K in 81.1 innings are all ace-level numbers, and all put McDonald near the top among all National League pitchers. The Pirates haven't had a pitcher with his kind of strikeout potential since Oliver Perez, and even that was just for one season. McDonald looks poised to succeed for years to come.
For most of the first month of the season, Rod Barajas was scuffling at the plate, and his efforts behind it were going largely unnoticed as a result.
Luckily, Clint Hurdle didn't listen to many who wanted Barajas out of the lineup and stuck with the proven vet. Barajas rewarded him for his patience by doing a total 180 with his offense during the month of May, while being a rock behind the plate.
A.J. Burnett worked with Barajas while both were in Toronto and thought he did an amazing job calling a game. He was excited to reunite with his former battery mate in the 'Burgh, and the rotation as a whole has benefited from getting to work with Rod.
Barajas' 3.41 catchers' ERA is the third best in all of baseball, and his six homers are good for fourth on the team. Barajas has been far more impressive than Ramon Hernandez, the guy who was considered the top free-agent catcher this offseason.
The most controversial player on the Pirates is easily Pedro Alvarez. Fans either doubt his abilities and view him as a potential bust, or they believe in his immense power.
So far this year, Alvarez has seemingly proven both the doubters and the believers right. He has struggled to even collect one hit for weeks at a time, and then suddenly, he will erupt for a monster week, or as we saw this past weekend in Cleveland, four homers in two days.
Whether you believe or doubt Alvarez, this team needs him to perform. So far, when he has, this team has been winning games. He leads the team with 12 homers and is second with 34 RBI.
As Alvarez matures, he will become more consistent at the plate and his batting average will climb and stay at a higher level instead of undergoing massive fluctuations. Until then, Alvarez, while inconsistent, still provides the biggest power bat on the team, one that the team could not get by without.
You wouldn't realize how much the Bucs offense struggles if you just looked at McCutchen's numbers.
With a .325 batting average, 11 homers, 37 RBI and 13 steals, McCutchen isn't just the No. 3 hitter and best offensive player, he basically is the entire offense. On pace for a near 30-30 season and sure All-Star berth, McCutchen has been a rock at the plate and in center.
McCutchen has made the necessary improvements to his game after struggling in the second half last year as he is still hitting for power while raising his average nearly 70 points. Only Matt Kemp has better numbers as a National League center fielder.
If these players keep up their current contributions to the team, they will help carry the Bucs to their first winning season in a generation and potentially to the promised land of the postseason.