It's shocking unto itself. The fact that Jeff Karstens currently owns the second-lowest earned run average in the National League. The 28-year-old slender right-hander doesn't cut an imposing figure on the mound at 6'3" and a mere 185 lbs. But, this season, he's shocking all of baseball with a record of 8-4 and a 2.34 ERA in 20 appearances (16 starts)—including a complete game against the Houston Astros, using only 83 pitches.
He broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 2006. He was decent, if unremarkable that year, going 2-1, 3.80 ERA in eight games (six starts). The following year he was quite disappointing at 1-4, 11.05 ERA in seven games (three starts).
So far, there's no indication that might suggest he was a standout hurler waiting to blossom. However, one of the scouts for the Pittsburgh Pirates apparently saw something that made the Pirates re-structure a trade with the Yankees in July of 2008 to include Karstens and fellow pitching prospect Daniel McCutchen. The deal already included pitcher Ross Ohlendorf and outfield prospect Jose Tabata heading to PNC.
Going the other way to Manhattan were left-handed reliever Damaso Marte and veteran outfielder/first baseman Xavier Nady—a deal that was hugely unpopular in Pittsburgh at the time.
Fans saw the move as nothing more than an annual salary dump by the ballclub in exchange for a fistful of nobodies. Considering what Karstens and McCutchen have meant to this year's surging Pirates team, July 26, 2008 was indeed one of the luckiest days in the lives of both players.
Another lucky day happened last season when then-manager John Russell fired his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan and replaced him with Ray Searage. Clint Hurdle kept Searage in place and it's paid off in spades for the pitching staff.
While the drama of this year's season still has a way to go before completion, it does call to mind one of the other most shocking seasons in Pirate history—the battlin' Bucs of 1960. The team shocked the baseball world, not only by winning the National League pennant that year, but also by humbling the mighty Bronx Bombers in the World Series, thanks to a series-ending home run by a 24-year-old second baseman by the name of Bill Mazeroski.
It is highly shocking that the Pirates are above .500 at this late date in the season, especially since the last time the Pirates finished .500 or better was 1992, when they won the NL East title. However, the Pirates aren't just a winning team again. They've been flirting with first place for the last 10 days—this is just one season removed from losing a major league-high 105 games in 2010 under John Russell.
In 1960, they were just three seasons removed from one of the worst eras in team history, when they lost 63 percent of the games they played from 1950-1957. Included in that miserable stretch was a major league-record 112 losses in 1953. Danny Murtaugh replaced Bobby Bragan in 1957 and the Bucs began the climb to respectability, finishing second in 1958 and fourth in 1959. MLB had only 16 teams in those days. The 1960 Pirates also ended a 33-year drought of World Series appearance.
Comparing the Teams
The parallels don't end there. Both the current and the 1960 teams had similar team structure. Both teams were built on speed and defense. Neither team had a whole lot of power.
Dick Stuart led the '60 team with 23 homers. He would hit 35 for the '61 Pirates and two more 30-plus seasons for the Boston Red Sox in '63 and '64. This year's Pirates are led so far by the speedy Andrew McCutchen (14 HRs).
The 1960 team pitching was paced by Vernon Law's career year, whose 20-9 record earned him the Cy Young Award at a time when only one pitcher in all of baseball won each year, instead of one winner in each league like they do today. Bob Friend added 18 wins of his own, with an ERA of an even three runs per game.
Jeff Karstens has been an extraordinary starter, but by no means is he a one-man show. Kevin Correia's 11 wins earned him a 2011 All-Star nod and he was the first pitcher in the majors to hit double figures in wins this season. Neither team would amount to much without a strong bullpen. The 1960 club had Elroy Face as its dominant closer. Joel Hanrahan fills that position on this year's squad.
Both teams had good clutch hitters at second base. Maz collected 64 RBI for the World champions in '60. His best mark would be 82 RBI for the '66 club. Neil Walker already has 62 RBI for this year's team. Maz, it must be remembered, usually hit in the No. 8 slot much of his career, while Neil has hit in slots No. 2 to No. 5 this season.
In the Garden
The outfield for both teams was anchored by two of the best center fielders to ever play the game—Bill Virdon in '60 and Andrew McCutchen this season.
Both teams relied on solid play off the bench. The '60 squad had guys like Jayson Werth's grandfather, Dick Schofield (who hit .333 in a reserve role), Gino Cimoli and Hal Smith (whose homer in Game 7 of the World Series tied the game and gave Mazeroski a chance at being a hero).
This year's Pirates have been riddled with injuries, but kids like Xavier Paul, Brandon Wood, Alex Presley and Michael McKenry have stood in the gap. Both Clint Hurdle and Danny Murtaugh have reputations of getting the most out of everybody—especially in key situations.
Clint Hurdle will be the first to tell anyone who bothers to listen to his voice that the Pirates are just going day to day, trying to have fun, while believing in themselves. Whether they win the pennant or fade during the last third of the season, it's been a real treat to watch this young team jell and get better. The 2012 season will mark 33 years since the last Pirates appearance in a World Series. Mere coincidence? Meaningless? You decide!