Pittsburgh Pirates: Realistic Expectations for the Rest of the 2011 Season
Ask Men Magazine recently wrote an article revealing "five things that will surprisingly attract her." The number 1 answer was “scars.” Yes, scars! Personally, I was taken aback with that answer. Then I remembered, it’s July 15th and the Pittsburgh Pirates are 1 game out of first place! There is nothing that will surprise me anymore.
Yes, the same Pirates who many experts predicted to finish second to last, only to surpass the Houston Astros. The same team whose legitimate free agent pickup in the offseason was a pitcher who had a 5.40 while pitching his home games in the Grand Canyon that is PETCO Park. The same team with a bunch of kids, a new manager who was a hitting instructor last season and an owner that many believe does not know the difference between a bullpen or a ball point pen.
Those Buccos are 47-43. The first time they will run out of the dugout to begin play after the All Star break over .500 since 1990.
They have accomplished a lot thus far. The Bucs have put an end to many atrocious streaks and are only 1 of 4 NL teams to be over .500 at the break after finishing the previous season with 100 or more loses since 1933.
Expectations are high for the second half of the season as PNC Park has not been this consistently full since….well…never. Will the success continue and lead the Pirates to October ball for the first time in nearly two decades? I will break down each component of this team and determine if this is real or just smoke and mirrors.
Note: This does not take into consideration possible trades General Manager Neil Huntington might finalize.
Starting Pitching Staff
This is not even debatable. The Pirates starters are the reason why they are near the top of the NL Central. In fact, if the lineup was not hovering around .230 for the first two months of the season, the Buccos could have justifiably won a half-dozen more games.
All good things must come to an end.
The staff’s 3.62 ERA currently is fifth-best in the National League. Led by Jeff Karstens (2.55 ERA) and Paul Maholm (2.96 ERA), both pitchers have impressive glamour statistics for starting pitchers.
The sabermetrics tell us that those numbers are bound to go north.
BABIP = This statistic calculates a player’s batting average of balls hit in play or a pitcher’s batting average against of balls hit in play. Home runs are excluded.
Karstens, in 2011, has a BABIP of .240 (.280 for his career) and Maholm has a BABIP of .253 (.307 for his career). The MLB average is right around .290. Greg Maddox, for example, had a career BABIP of .286. It is a certainty that both of their BABIP will increase in the second half.
Karstens is also stranding an astonishing 88 percent of runners. The league’s average is right around 70 percent and his career average is a lot closer to the latter number.
Jeff will not sink in the second half. He has the ability to pound the strike zone harder than Erislandy Lara pounded Paul Williams’ face (was that the worst judges’ decision ever? Or am I the only one who still watches boxing?)
If Karstens keeps his pitch count low, it will give him a chance to win. Do not be surprised if his second half ERA is a run higher than his 2.55 first half ERA.
Maholm’s second half potentially could be worse. His homerun to fly ball ratio is three percent less than his career average. His groundball percentage is down. He is stranding more runners than he usually does. If Paul continues to pitch the way he has this year (and he has pitched remarkably well), the home runs will go up and the stranded runners will go down. It is just bound to happen.
The most worrisome statistic for the Pirates is the number of innings pitched. All five starters are on pace to pitch the most innings they have in a major league season in their respective careers. How will this staff hold up when they have thirteen games against the Cardinals and Brewers in August? How will they hold in late September?
Only time will answer that question, but this staff is much deeper than just Maholm and Karstens. James Mcdonald has an ERA of 2.95 if you exclude his first four starts. Charlie Morton comparisons to Roy Halladay are warranted. Kevin Correia is now known as All Star Kevin Correia.
Even if the staff’s ERA is a half run higher in the second half of the season, the Buccos will still have an opportunity to win a lot of games.
A six-man rotation might be the answer to keep the ERA right where it is at. Brad Lincoln is currently on fire and Ross Ohlendorf pitched four scoreless innings in his first rehab assignment. It’s worth a serious consideration.
The Bullpen and the Hammer
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Joel Hanrahan is pretty good. No statistics need to be stated. With Hanrahan, teams have 24 outs to beat the Pirates.
The rest of the bullpen is rather average and probably a set up man away from being among the NL’s best. Jose Veras has electric stuff, but would be much more valuable as a 7th inning guy. If Evan Meek and could return the All Star form, then this bullpen would have no holes.
Joe Biemel will start the second half of the season on the major league roster and will bring that left handed specialist every pen needs.
Chris Resop is a poor man’s Veras who is quickly tipping into the dreaded overrated category in Pittsburgh. His emotion and determination to win cannot be questioned. His flat 94 mph fast ball can be questioned. He will soon pitch his way into a career high in innings pitched as well.
His recognizable moment of 2011 came when he struck out the side in our Nation’s capital on July 1st. An inning in which he continuously missed his mark. Resop left a fastball belt high, right down the middle at 93 on the gun for Jayson Werth. If the 126 million dollar man had his focus on the baseball diamond and not the fans booing him, he would have belted Resop’s fastball. Do not expect Resop to be anything close to dominant in the second half.
A bullpen is all about finding the perfect roles for players and Resop is not a 7th inning guy. If Meek performs well and Clint Hurdle is able to insert Resop, Daniel McCutchen and Chris Leroux in certain situations, this bullpen will continue to shut the door on opposing teams.
The Young Bucs Lineup
Inconsistency has plagued this young lineup much of the first half of the season. A strong final month elevated the team’s batting average to a respectable .247. Should we expect the average to continue to rise?
With Andrew McCutchen in the lineup, it is a safe bet. ‘Cutch, as of today has the third highest WAR (wins above replacement) in the majors. The two players ahead of him, Joey “Bats” Batista and Jose Reyes are currently hurt. A notorious slow starter, Andrew will put up even better numbers in the second half. Expect him to finish the season with 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, around 100 RBI and an average on the plus side of .300.
Of course the lineup needs production throughout and not just from Cutch 22. A return of Jose Tabata solidifies the lineup as the fastest in the National League. I expect Huntington to make a trade for a power bat in one of the corner outfield positions, but if he does not, then Alex Presley will move to right and Tabata will play left.
Many Pirate fans want Chase d’arnaud to be the everyday shortstop which maintains even more speed in the lineup. He realistically could hit 20 percentage points higher at the plate than Ronny Cedeno, but do not be surprised if he ends the season with 10 more errors than Cedeno would at short. It is a tougher decision than most people think.
Without any trades, Pedro Alvarez might be the key factor to the success of this lineup. With Lyle Overbay being a dud, and probably released soon, the Buccos desperately need a bat with gap and homerun power. Alvarez was assigned to Triple-A Indianapolis following his return from the DL. He will have a short stint down there to build his confidence and work out some kinks. If the Pirates trade for a power third or first baseman, then they will have the luxury of being patient with Alvarez. If they do not, this lineup will be screaming for power and Alvarez at least has the potential to bring that.
A return of Ryan Doumit allows this lineup to have more of a hitting threat from the catching position. Mike McKenry has done a tremendous job holding down the fort, but Doumit is a switch hitter with more pop.
The lineup will be more balanced heading forward. They should put up better numbers too. The Cardinals and Brewers both have better bats right now which means the Pirates are at least one bat away from keeping pace with them. Does anybody know Michael Cuddyer’s phone number?
The city of Pittsburgh is buzzing with excitement over the recent success of the Pirates. That exhilaration will stay for the rest of the season as the Buccos will win a considerable amount of games.
The starting rotation will regress, but will still give the Pirates an opportunity to win a lot of games. James McDonald will have a very impressive second half of the season. If Ross Ohlendorf or Brad Lincoln could give the Pirates a 6th starter who has an ERA between 3 and 4, then this rotation will be just fine.
As long as Joel Hanrahan is healthy, then the bullpen is legitimately solid. A healthy Evan Meek would be a pleasant surprise, but it cannot be counted on at this point.
The lineup should improve. Andrew McCutchen possibly could play himself into the MVP discussion with a big second half and "the Pittsburgh kid" Neil Walker is on pace for over 100 runs batted in from the 2nd base position.
The lineup is still not as talented as the Cardinals or the Brewers. Milwaukee now has a two headed monster in their bullpen with the addition of K-rod. They also have a pitcher in Zack Greinke who is poised for a splendid rest of the season.
The Pirates have Clint Hurdle though. A perfect manager for a young team. He is not afraid to mix things up, bench star players or confront an umpire multiple times a game. His managerial style has enabled the Bucs to win games in many different ways. They have blown teams out, came back to win and closed the door while holding onto small leads. Hurdle alone is worth a few extra wins.
This season is and will be a success for the Pirates. Unfortunately, they have no room for error and with minimal regressions from the starters, they will fall just short of the playoffs. They will finish the season with 82-85 victories as they will play .500 ball for the remainder of the campaign. All of this could change by the trade deadline and maybe this team is too naive to realize their inexperience should catch up to them.
They have proven a lot of people wrong to this point, so why not prove one more wrong along the way and march into October.
Even if they do not reach the postseason, Hurdle will have this team leaving it all on the field. Blood, sweat and tears will define this young team moving forward.
Plus, chicks dig scars.