Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Can Keep This Run Going
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't going anywhere.
Following tonight's loss to the Chicago Cubs, they sit 13 games above .500, a game out of first place in the N.L. Central. But unlike last season, where they stayed in the playoff race until August due to the Brewers and Cardinals playing close to .500 ball, the Pirates are very much here on their own merit.
In addition to being one game behind Cincinnati, the Pirates are two games behind Washington for the best record in the National League and only three games behind the Yankees for the best record in all of baseball. They currently hold a comfortable 2.5 game lead in the Wild Card race.
The Pirates' record is no fluke, either: The only team behind the Bucs in the National League standings who has a better run differential than Pittsburgh is the St. Louis Cardinals, who have the best run differential in the National League.
The Pirates have earned their way into playoff position, and there are several reasons to believe they can stick around.
The Pirates Have Legitimate Star-Power
The Pirates currently have five players on pace to average close to or greater than four wins above replacement this year, according to FanGraphs. These five players are on pace to combine for over 27 wins above replacement this year. They are the Pirates' core and the primary reason for the team's current success.
Andrew McCutchen remains the Pirates' superstar, posting MVP-caliber numbers through the Bucs' first 94 games. He leads the majors in several categories, including batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS.
Cutch is joined on offense by Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, two other home-grown Pirates who are each playing much closer to potential than they have in years past. While Walker has not posted the gaudy home run totals of McCutchen and Alvarez, his .365 on-base percentage and solid all-around play at second base are a big part of the Pirates' success.
After struggling throughout the first month of 2012, Alvarez has turned his season around and his emerged as a classic power hitter. His low on-base numbers are offset by the potential for a 40-home run season, and Alvarez is improving as the season progresses.
James McDonald and A.J. Burnett lead the pitching staff, and each player's solid front-end numbers are supported by strong peripheral statistics. McDonald has struggled in two starts following the All-Star break, but he remains a reborn pitcher this season following the addition of a slider.
Aside from one terrible start against St. Louis early in the season, Burnett has put up No. 1 starter numbers. He is generating more ground balls than ever and his walk rates are down significantly. Burnett has matched his on-field production with his leadership in the clubhouse.
These five players can keep the Pirates in the playoff race despite small variances in the performance of the supporting cast.
The Offensive Resurgence Is No Longer a Fluke
Following the Pirates' league-worst offensive performance in April and May, it was easy to write off their June resurgence as a few lucky weeks. But it's almost the end of July, and the Bucs are still tearing the cover off the ball.
According to David Manel's excellent Return to Average column, the Bucs have now scored only a few runs less than league average over the entire season. Role players like Casey McGehee and Mike McKenry have stepped up to eliminate easy outs at the bottom of the Pittsburgh lineup. Stopping the Pirates is no longer as easy as stopping McCutchen.
The Pirates are likely to cool off soon, but that simply means they will stop playing like the best offense in all of baseball. There is room for them to sleep while still maintaining a league-average offense or better.
Jeff Karstens Solidifies the Top Half of the Rotation
One of the Pirates' concerns going into the All-Star break was a lack of reliable starting pitching options behind James McDonald and A.J. Burnett. Jeff Karstens has significantly eased that concern.
Since returning from injury, Karstens has maintained the spectacular control numbers that paced his 2011 breakout season while slightly increasing his strikeout rate. Karstens has often been susceptible to home runs, but so far this year he has been very good at preventing them.
If Karstens regresses and starts giving up more home runs, he will be closer to a league-average pitcher than an ace, but that is still reliable production from a No. 3 starter. With two aces in front of him, Karstens can help the rotation become more consistent.
Infield Defense Has Been a Surprising Strength
The Pirates' strong pitching performance this season has been aided by pitching in front of one of the best infield defenses in baseball.
As expected, the Pittsburgh defense has been paced by Clint Barmes and Casey McGehee, two veterans who have provided more value with the glove than the bat this year. While Barmes in particular has been so poor offensively that even his outstanding defense cannot offset this, the two players have provided considerable defensive value.
The defensive performance of the other two Pirate infielders was much less predictable. When the Bucs drafted Pedro Alvarez, expectations throughout the industry were that he would eventually have to move to first base. Yet he has thrived at third this year, performing well above average despite the distractions provided by his inconsistent start to the season at the plate.
And then there's Neil Walker—a converted second baseman for whom the experiment has worked out perfectly. Walker's athleticism profiles very well at second base, and he has shown legitimate range while emerging as a premier defensive option. His bat profiles well at most positions, but at second base he is a potential All-Star.
Help Is on the Way
The Pirates are good enough to compete for a playoff berth as currently constructed, though like their competition the Bucs have several flaws. Yet general manager Neal Huntington has been very active in trade discussions thus far in an effort to plug some of the team's holes.
The Pittsburgh farm system is rich with high-end talent, enabling Huntington to make a splash if we wants to acquire a player with several years of control like a Justin Upton. Recent improvement in the second and third tiers of the Pirates' system will also enable Huntington to chase rentals.
And if the Pirates do not find perfect trade matches, internal help is available as well. The Pirates have an available solution to three of their biggest needs: corner outfield, No. 5 starter, and bullpen depth. Starling Marte, Jeff Locke, and Bryan Morris have all shown that they are virtually ready for the majors. If an opening arises, these players are capable of chipping in.
The Schedule Is Very Friendly
The Pirates' 54-41 start to the season has come against what is by far the more difficult portion of their schedule. Going forward, they will reap the benefit of the challenging games they have always played.
Over a third of the Bucs' remaining 67 games are against the Cubs, Astros, Padres and Rockies, the four worst teams in the National League. According to Buster Olney, only the Reds have an easier second-half schedule than the Pirates. This bodes well for the Pirates' Wild Card chase.
The Bucs' current stretch, which features nine consecutive games against the Cubs and Astros, can help put some significant distance between them and their National League competition. But even if they scuffle a bit in the next two weeks, the Pirates will have plenty of opportunities for easy wins down the road.