For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn't follow through on the promise of their surprising early-season success.
That statement might seem premature, given that the Pirates are three games away from the second wild-card spot in the National League. That's not an insurmountable margin with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
But Pittsburgh not only has to overtake the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals for that remaining wild-card bid. The Pirates now also have to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks, each of whom are close behind the Bucs in the NL wild-card standings.
Though the Pirates have a favorable schedule down the stretch—matched up against opponents with a combined winning percentage of .472—their play in August and September has dug a hole that is too deep to escape. The numbers say it's possible, but Pittsburgh is not going to make the playoffs, which will extend its postseason drought to 21 years.
How did it come to this? How did the Pirates collapse yet again in the second half of the season, flirting with the possibility of playoff contention only to serve up crushing disappointment?
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Andrew McCutchen is an easy target for blame. After carrying the Pirates to the NL Central lead and emerging as a candidate for NL MVP, the star center fielder slumped badly in August and pulled his team down with him.
In 124 August plate appearances, McCutchen hit .252/.347/.346 with two home runs and 13 RBI. Following up a July during which he hit .446 with a 1.249 OPS, the skid was dramatic.
But to pin the Pirates' slide solely on McCutchen would be misguided. He had one bad month. (It remains to be seen how his September will turn out, but he appears to have turned himself around.)
If not for his stellar performance from May through July, Pittsburgh likely wouldn't have joined the NL playoff race. Because of that, McCutchen could still win the NL MVP award despite his late-season slump. Voters will surely consider how the Pirates would have fared without him.
Slumping Is Contagious
McCutchen wasn't the only player who fell off his impressive early-season pace.
Pitcher James McDonald looked like a NL Cy Young Award candidate in the first half of the season. In 17 starts, he compiled a 9-3 record and 2.37 ERA. He had a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.97 and struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings.
After the All-Star break, however, McDonald regressed significantly. In 11 starts since MLB's midseason hiatus, he has a 6.91 ERA and a WHIP that escalated to 1.69.
Another pitcher who couldn't maintain his first-half productivity was reliever Jason Grilli. Grilli was an improbable success, posting a 1.87 ERA in 35 appearances and striking out 54 batters in 33.2 innings. But in 23 second-half appearances, his ERA has been 4.74.
Other players have slumped badly in September. Pedro Alvarez has had a solid season overall, hitting 27 home runs with 73 RBI. But in 43 plate appearances this month, he's hit .143 with a .510 OPS.
Travis Snider, who was supposed to be one of Pittsburgh's key trade-deadline acquisitions, has hit .083 in September with no extra-base hits in 14 plate appearances.
Neil Walker was one of the Pirates' best hitters alongside McCutchen, but he hasn't played since mid-August due to an injured right hand.
The only player who picked up his game to help compensate for McCutchen's slide was Garrett Jones. In the second half, he's hit .299 with a .915 OPS.
Jones' major improvement was in his pitch recognition at the plate. His on-base percentage went from .290 to .362. That was the second-best on-base mark among the Pirates' regular hitters after McCutchen.
Unfortunately, not enough players on the Pittsburgh roster stepped up along with Jones to help the Pirates stay competitive in the NL Central and wild-card playoff races.
This shouldn't begin a slide back into mediocrity for the Pirates. Each of their significant contributors will return next season. And if general manager Neal Huntington can make some solid additions to the starting rotation and outfield, Pittsburgh should have an improved roster.
Expecting top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon to break through to the major leagues next year might be premature. But there will be quality mid-rotation starting pitchers that can be acquired through free agency or trade that could slot in nicely behind A.J. Burnett in 2013.
Huntington also has to pick up the corner outfielder he didn't get at the trade deadline (Snider showed he's still a work in progress, regardless of what upside he has). Perhaps he can pull off the deal for Justin Upton that he couldn't get done during the season. Help will be available on the free-agent market as well.
During the All-Star break and in subsequent weeks, one of the questions I was frequently asked concerned the Pirates and whether or not they would take a second-half dive like they did last season.
I stuck up for the Bucs, believing that their pitching would keep them afloat while Alvarez and Jones would give McCutchen enough help in producing runs. Obviously, that was wrong.
Pirates fans have to swallow disappointment for the second consecutive season—or 21st, depending on how far back you choose to take this.
It's really a shame, but this club should compete again next season. The roster just needs more help to overtake the other top contenders in the NL Central and give Pittsburgh a great team to go along with the beautiful PNC Park.
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