Pirates: Beyond Numbers and Wins, Hot Start Is Still Impressive

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IApril 25, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 13:  Adam LaRoche #25 of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches a third inning home run with Nate McLouth #13 while playing the Houston Astros during the Pirates Home Opener at PNC Park April 13, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Yes, I know.  It's a long season.  You have to play 162 and win at least 82 to have a chance (unless, perhaps, you're playing in the AL West) at glory.

And yes, I also know statistics rule baseball with an iron fist.

But let's take a look beyond the numbers with the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates and recognize some things that make this 9-7 start all the more astonishing and impressive.

The numbers tell the tale of the rejuvenated pitching staff.  There's not much need to dig deeper there to be impressed, but there is something more about this year's staff.

They're confident again.  Last night, Ian Snell got into some early and mid-inning trouble, but he never looked like he'd lost it on the mound.  Instead, Snell looked determined and resigned to digging himself out of his own hole.

Look through some film of last year's performances and find me a Pirates pitcher without a sizable lead who looked like they were sure of themselves.

You see it everywhere.  Every pitch, every windup, every pre-pitch sequence of around-the-mound fidgeting.  It's more than encouraging to see a group of guys who have struggled to get outs in past years taking the hill ready to handle adversity.

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While the hitting is still spotty and inconsistent, several players have surprised early on.

Obviously, everyone is impressed that Adam LaRoche has finally seen fit to join the team for the first month of the season.  LaRoche gets a raw deal (and rightfully so) for his early-season struggles, but not so this year.

LaRoche is hitting near .300 over halfway through the season's first month (in which he previously carried a .117 career mark), but what is more impressive is what he's hitting.  He's seeing the ball very well.  He's not swinging at bad pitches as often and he isn't chasing tailing pitches very often either.  He's drilling the ball. 

Another surprise is rookie catcher Jason Jaramillo.  Touted much too often (and probably unfairly) as a defensive catcher, Jaramillo has been a wonder with the bat.

While he won't out-perform Ryan Doumit, he's proven more than capable at the plate.  As for his defense, it has been spectacular, too.  The Pirates may have pulled off a steal with this guy.

Nyjer Morgan and Andy LaRoche are travelling opposite paths right now.  Morgan had a forgettable spring and a hot start before some recent cooling.  LaRoche had a torrid spring followed by a regrettable start and some recent hitting.

Either way, these guys are proving more and more to be the real deal.  LaRoche's average, while still below .250, is still over 200 points higher than it was during the season's first week.  I'd be restrained in my judgement of him until we see if he's really on track or not.

Another great aspect of the Pirates' overall game that hasn't gotten much attention is the fundamental side of baseball.  The team has been excellent on the basepaths and, for the most part, defensively.  Having great defense and baserunning will help your pitching staff enormously.

Now, with any unexpected success comes obvious questions. 

Not the least among them is how long the pitching staff can maintain success.

I've said before and I'll keep saying that Joe Kerrigan was a more important acquisition for the team than any single player could have been.  His impact has been visible all over the place. 

The Pirates will go exactly as far as the pitchers carry them.  They won't blow anyone away offensively, especially without Doumit for 8-10 weeks.  The pitchers will be relied on to carry this team.  So far, they've done an admirable job.

Another question deals with the offense and how well it will perform over a full season.

The unquestionable weak links in the lineup (disregarding Jaramillo, who hasn't been a weakness anyway) have to be Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss.

I was, to be honest, surprised that Moss won a starting spot (even in a platoon) with his mediocre spring numbers.  He hasn't done much to improve anyone's hopes hitting around the Mendoza line and failing to look comfortable at the plate.

LaRoche has come around to some degree and I believe that is more of what we can expect consistently from him.  Once his power manifests, we might have one devil of a good ballplayer.

Unless the team benches or totally replaces Moss, there will likely be a continued hole in the offense and some unanswered questions.

The Moss situation perfectly dovetails with the next question.  How long will it be before we see Andrew McCutchen roaming the outfield at PNC Park?

If Moss can't find his bat and Craig Monroe and Eric Hinske fail to distinguish themselves, it shouldn't be long.  McCutchen was probably ready coming out of spring training and is certainly itching for a chance to hit major league pitching.

He would easily be an upgrade over Moss and likely also over Monroe or Hinske (particularly defensively and on the bases).

The final pressing question is exactly where this team will finish the season and if it will end its stretch of futility.

The Pirates are probably more likely to finish above .500 than they are to clinch any playoff spot in 2009, but they certainly are putting themselves in place early to at least be in some discussions.

As for where they slot into the NL Central, it's hard to imagine the Cubs hanging around .500 for long and the Cardinals look legit.  The Reds are in about the same boat as the Pirates, but don't seem to have the pieces in place the way Pittsburgh does.

Third place isn't that far out of reach.  If this team can keep winning two or three out of every five, third place would be a disappointment.


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