The Unlikely Rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Mike SalvatoreCorrespondent IIIJuly 25, 2011

Has hell frozen over? The Pirates are in first!
Has hell frozen over? The Pirates are in first!

Eighteen years.

That is a long, long time.

In the last 18 years, we have seen three presidents take office, the advent of smart phones, Vanilla Ice’s rise and (hard) fall and two recessions.

It has also been 18 long years since the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record.

To put this more in perspective, Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick from the 2010 MLB Draft was not yet born the last time the Pirates had a winning season.

There are a litany of reasons the team has struggled for so long, but in an age where parity and competitive balance are evident in nearly every professional sport, it’s quite baffling and amazing to think about the Pirates’ long history of futility.

The 2011 season figured to be no different for the Pirates, as the team was just coming off a 100-loss season with largely the same roster returning for another go around.

Then a funny thing happened: The Pirates started winning games. No one thought much about the team initially, but as the calendar nears August, not only do the Pirates have a winning record, they find themselves in first place.

Take a minute to let that last sentence sink in.

So, how in the hell are these guys doing this?

Yes, Andrew McCutchen is the real deal, but he can’t be doing it alone right? The Pirates have been so bad for so long that perhaps all of their high draft picks are finally realizing their potential similar to what happened with the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2008.

Nope. All of the highly-touted draft picks, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, just to name a few are either battling injuries, been demoted to the minors or both.

So, maybe it’s the pitching?

There is some truth to this as the staff has been much improved this year, yet no one seems sure how. Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens (yes Jeff Kartsens) are the staff “aces” and while each boasts impressive earned run averages, their strikeout numbers are the lowest in baseball. This means that the batters are putting balls in play, which is fine, but it will only be a matter of time until the numbers regress to the mean.

This means the defense has improved, right?

Yes, it has—significantly in fact. The Pirates were one of the worst defensive teams in baseball last season, yet this season they rank in the top five in the National League. Usually a drastic improvement in a category such as defense would lead to an overhaul in the clubhouse or at least a new defensive philosophy.

This didn’t happen either. As mentioned earlier, the Pirates have the same players, playing the same positions, with the same alignments!

What the hell?

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year’s edition of the Pirates compared to previous models is manager Clint Hurdle. Hurdle has brought a winning attitude to the club—he took the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007—and has them genuinely believing they will win the division this year.

What the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing this season is defying reason. The team is competing and winning games with the same personnel that have been losing for years.

Maybe they will be a one-year flash in the pan like the Kansas City Royals were several years ago, or maybe the team is finally coming together and rallying after years of frustration.

Whatever the reason, it will make for a fascinating end to the season as the Pirates figure to be all-in this year, and the National League Central Division is theirs for the taking.