Pittsburgh Pirates: What We've Learned from the Team's Start to the Season
Having reached the postseason each of the past two seasons only to fall in the divisional playoff round, the Pittsburgh Pirates were considered one of the early favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.
However, early-season slumps by key players and an inconsistent pitching staff have them sitting below .500 at the quarter mark of the season and looking up at the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals who already have nearly a double-digit game lead over the Pirates.
As the Pirates try to get back on track and in contention, let's take a look at what we've learned from their uneven start to this season.
Josh Harrison Is Pressing
Josh Harrison began last season as the Pirates' utility infielder and fourth outfielder.
He ended it as the team's starting third baseman, a National League All-Star as well as a finalist for the National League MVP award and was rewarded with a 5-year, $27.3 million contract.
Hoping to build on last season's performance, Harrison struggled early on and, according to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was apparent to team management that he was trying too hard to justify the money they had invested in him
Fortunately for the Pirates, Harrison seems to be coming out of his slump and is hitting .552 over the last six games and has raised his average to .255 which, although well below last season's average, is a big improvement on the woeful .213 mark he posted in April.
If the Pirates are to contend this season, they will need Harrison to stop trying to do too much and simply be the offensive catalyst that he was last season when he led the team in doubles and triples and led the National League with a .372 average with runners in scoring position.
Jung Ho Kang Has Been Worth the Price the Pirates Paid
Long known as one of the thriftiest teams in sports, the Pittsburgh Pirates shocked the baseball world last winter when they emerged as the highest bidder for shortstop Jung Ho Kang, the reigning MVP of the Korean Baseball Organization.
After coughing up more than $5 million for Kang's negotiating rights and signing him to a four-year, $11 million contract, the Pirates were widely criticized by observers like Rob Neyer of Fox Sports for adding a player who some believed would have a difficult time adapting to major-league pitching and didn't even have an established position.
However, Kang has thus far proven the skeptics wrong by batting .310 with a team-best .372 on-base percentage and has proven to be anything but in over his head as skeptics had predicted.
Although some had questioned whether he had the bat speed to catch up with the league's hardest throwers, his hard-hit double off a 102-mph offering by Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman has put that question to rest.
After just 26 plate appearances in April, Kang has been rewarded with more playing time in May as his strong start has convinced Pirates manager Clint Hurdle that he can be the player that general manager Neil Huntington envisioned.
Team Plate Discipline Is Lacking
In hitting, there's a fine line between being aggressive and impatient, and based on their performance so far in 2015, the Pirates are on the wrong side of that line.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the National League's most disciplined teams at the plate and led the league with 520 walks while registering the fourth fewest strikeouts among NL teams with 1,244.
This season, however, the Bucs haven't been as disciplined at the plate and, so far, have earned the third-fewest free passes in the league and are in the top half of the league in strikeouts.
While this free-swinging approach could be excused if it resulted in more power at the plate, that hasn't been the case so far as the Pirates have hit the sixth-fewest home runs in the league after hitting the third most last season.
The more Pirate hitters are willing to chase bad pitches, the less likely they are to see good pitches on a consistent basis, so if they are to right the ship offensively, they must show the kind of patience at the plate that was a big part of their offensive output last season.
Mark Melancon's Days as the Closer May Be Numbered
Coming off a strong performance last season in which he recorded 33 saves and a 1.90 ERA, Mark Melancon was expected to solidify the Pirates' bullpen, but his recent struggles raise the question as to whether we will remain Bucs' closer.
During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Melancon surrendered just three home runs and 19 walks, and he recorded a combined 0.92 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP).
So far this season, he has already given up two home runs and five walks through the first quarter of the season and his 1.29 WHIP is cause for concern.
In addition to his statistical drop off, the Pirates, as reported by Adam Berry of MLB.com, are also concerned about Melancon's drop in velocity, which is a red flag for a closer who relies on pitch movement and location as Melancon does.
Having watched former teammate Jason Grilli be replaced as closer and then traded last season, Melancon knows all too well how precarious being a Major League closer can be especially on a team that has playoff aspirations as the Pirates do.
If Melancon can't rebound from his early-season struggles, Jared Hughes would be the most likely replacement but Arquimedes Caminero, who routinely approaches 100 mph, could get a chance as well.
Gerrit Cole Is a Bona Fide Ace
Having gone 24 years between 20-game winners, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans aren't accustomed to having a dominating ace on their roster but it appears they've found one in Gerrit Cole.
Drafted first overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, Cole waited until 15 minutes before the deadline to sign with the Pirates for a record $8 million signing bonus, but he's proven to be more than worth the wait.
With a career record of 26-14 and having amassed almost as many career strikeouts (291) as innings pitched (304), Cole has emerged as the Pirates' ace and his $531,000 salary makes him one of the biggest bargains in Major League Baseball.
Having already earned National League Pitcher of the Month honors for April, Cole is on pace for a career year and the Pirates success, both short and long term, depends on his ability to stay healthy and their ability to keep him under contract.