Pittsburgh Pirates: The MLB's Biggest Surprise in 2011

Eli WadeContributor IJuly 1, 2011

TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 28:  Andrew McCutchen #22 and Ronny Cedeno #5 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate run during MLB action at the Rogers Centre June 28, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

At 19 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ losing-season streak is older than I am. The Pirates have been the laughing stock of the league year-in and year-out my whole life. 

Against all odds the Pirates have had surprising success in the NL Central thus far—they are just four games back of the Brewers and above .500 for the first time since 2005.

Their surprising success is due in large part to the performance of their pitching staff. 

The Pirates are ninth in the MLB in team ERA. Breakout player Jeff Karstens leads their pitching staff, and he’s quietly putting together a great year statistically—though his 5-4 record is mediocre, his 2.66 ERA tells a different story.

The Pirates rotation contains four pitchers—Jeff Karstens, Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, and Charlie Morton—capable of giving the team consistent quality starts. All four have an ERA solidly below four. 

The starters are putting the Pirates in a position to win more games, and unlike years past the bullpen has been able to close out games successfully. The best part of the Pittsburgh bullpen is undoubtedly closer Joel Hanrahan, who is 22 for 22 in save situations and has a 1.24 ERA. 

The Pirates offense has also improved drastically.

Leading the Pirates offense is Andrew McCutchen. His WAR is ranked sixth in the MLB, and he leads the Pirates in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs, and hits while sitting at second on the team in RBI. 

The offense is doing just enough to keep the Pirates over .500—they are 25th in runs scored, 23rd in home runs, and 24th in average. 

These numbers do not fit a .500 ball club, but Pittsburgh is getting the job done nonetheless. 

Pedro Alvarez—one of the Pirates’ more talented offensive players—has played in only 36 games. He is set to return before the all-star break and will hopefully spark the Pirates offense and help support the pitching staff.

Although the Pirates have improved in many areas, defense has been perhaps their largest area of improvement.

Last year the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), had the pirates last in defense. This year the Pirates are ranked ninth, clearly a major improvement.

The defensive improvement has likely contributed to the dramatic improvement in the team's pitching.

The NL Central is still up for grabs—the Pirates and Reds trail the division-leading Brewers by four games; the Cardinals, three.

The Pirates are a young and upcoming team and are working towards their first above .500 campaign in almost two decades. 

This season could mark the first playoff birth for the Pirates since losing in the 1992 NLCS.  The Pirates are set to make their best run for the playoffs in recent memory.

They are starting to turn some heads around the league, and teams are acknowledging them as a serious playoff contender once again.