The Pirates "Arrrrrrre" for Real
July 17, 2013
By Matt Zylbert
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In most aspects of life, 20 years is a long time. In others, it seems like an eternity, such as if a professional sports organization endures as many consecutive losing seasons.
A Pittsburgh Pirates fan might vouch for that assessment.
The Pirates’ extensive run of misery is so long, in fact, that it’s actually the longest such streak in the history of Major League Baseball. But it looks like one of the most undesirable runs in sports is finally about to reach its long-overdue conclusion.
In recent years, Pittsburgh has painfully teased their fans into thinking the team’s outlook was about to turn around. After all, not only were they well above .500 at significantly deep points into the season, but they were also flirting with an improbable playoff berth as well. Playoffs?! Actually, scratch that. Over .500?!
Well, in 2013, it’s safe for a Pirates fan to believe in both - yes, even October baseball - as their club sits comfortably over .500 and right in the mix of the playoff race at the All-Star break, even while residing in the best division in baseball this season. While they may have enjoyed similar positioning at around this time in each of the past two campaigns, there’s some considerable differences between this year’s roster compared to its past two predecessors - depth and experience.
Like with most franchises, it all begins with the pitching, and if you’ve been following closely, you’d be aware that the Pirates are actually No. 1 in pitching this season, owning the best team ERA (3.07) in all of baseball. If you look up and down their pitching staff, it’s easy to see why this is so, as Pittsburgh is stacked with promising young arms and established veterans to formulate a real nice mix of talent.
A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are the two elder members of the rotation, and both have not disappointed in their tenure in Pittsburgh. Burnett has looked like the ace of old that he was during his first go-around in the National League with the Marlins, while Rodriguez has continued to provide steady work ever since coming over from Houston almost exactly a year ago.
This is where the depth of the rotation that was previously lacking comes in so critically. With both Burnett and Rodriguez missing time due to injury (And Rodriguez still on the disabled list), not to mention previous rotation mainstays James McDonald and Jeff Karstens still out, the Pirates have had to lean heavily on some of their key youngsters right away, and they have not disappointed one bit. Jeff Locke is a prime example of that, as the 25-year old southpaw is 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. He was so impressive in the first half, actually, that he was named to his first all-star team, after only narrowly making the team out of spring training as the fifth starter. And it doesn’t end there.
Francisco Liriano, who has had some success before during his previous stays in Minnesota and Chicago, has contributed arguably the best pitching of his career ever since becoming a Pirate, as evident in his 9-3 record, microscopic 2.00 ERA, and 1.19 WHIP. Liriano was always considered to have ace potential, despite never really being able to put it all together, but at least in his first year in Pittsburgh, he’s been nothing short of fabulous, having registered a remarkable 10 starts in which he has allowed two runs or less in 12 tries. In other words, he’s basically been as consistent as any pitcher in baseball, making it a little baffling the left-hander wasn’t selected to the NL all-star roster. Even so, every Pirate fan recognizes his importance in helping the team sustain its first-half success.
Furthermore, former No. 1 overall draft pick Gerrit Cole was promoted just over a month ago and has given the club some quality pitching, posting a 4-3 record and 3.89 ERA through his first seven starts. With the return of Charlie Morton as well, the Pirates have more than enough starting pitching to pace them through the second half alongside rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati, which was a huge undoing for them in the past couple of seasons.
Obviously, you also need good relief work to continually close out these excellent starts, and that’s what the Pirates have had all year long. Arguably the biggest question surrounding Pittsburgh entering 2013 was how they would replace former all-star Joel Hanrahan at closer, and they’ve done just that by ultimately boasting another all-star closer in Jason Grilli, who has impressed the entire baseball world with 29 saves in 30 opportunities, along with a polished 1.99 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. He’s also holding opponents to a .176 batting average, making it even tough just to get a base-runner against him. With a nice supporting cast of Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, and all-star Mark Melancon, among others, the Pirates have had no problem providing a lead for the 36-year old journeyman, who, in turn, has seemingly had no problem closing games out.
The effort with the arms has been especially crucial for Pittsburgh, which surprisingly ranks just 13th in the National League in runs scored, but more likely than not, you can expect them to improve in that regard as the season rolls on. This is an offense that has a legitimate superstar and face-of-the-franchise in Andrew McCutchen, a couple of potential emerging stars in lead-off hitter Starling Marte and slugging third-baseman Pedro Alvarez (Who earned his first all-star berth as well), and other useful hitters like Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, and Russell Martin who know their roles and perform them well.
The Pirates are also excellent on the basepaths, which is one of the main areas that fuel them offensively. When underrated manager Clint Hurdle came over in ’11, he promised to revamp the running game, and two years later, it’s clear what a difference he has made, as Pittsburgh ranks 7th in baseball in stolen bases, led by Marte’s 28 swipes. Furthermore, they are one of just two teams in baseball to have two guys with 20 steals or more (McCutchen being the other), giving them two perennial threats on base that are always getting in the head of the opposing pitcher.
At around 7/1 odds (Bet $100 to win $700) to win the National League pennant, the Bucs have astonishing value for a club that appears poised to make a serious impact in the second half and beyond. Do they have a recent track record for collapsing after the break under Hurdle? Yes, they do. But, as illustrated, this has been a work in progress throughout the past handful of years that is now about to reach its fruition - probably in a huge way. When you have one of the top managers in the league leading a deep pitching staff and balanced lineup that are the best the Pirates have had in decades, not to mention a loyal fan-base that is fun to play for, well, you’re making a solid bet no matter what. Don’t be afraid to, as the Pirate broadcasters say after each victory, Raise The Jolly Roger. In the process, you may be raising your own significant profits. It’s highly recommended.
Matt Zylbert was actually the only baseball expert from any major sports publication in the country (ESPN, CBS, FOX Sports, Sports Illustrated, etc.) to have picked the Pittsburgh Pirates to finish in first place in the NL Central, which he did in his own detailed 12,000-word MLB Preview. He’s made it this far with his brilliant bold prediction so it’s probably safe to trust his opinion on these same Buccos to continue their excellence this season. On a personal 21-9 run with his over/unders, he should be very reliable entering the upcoming second half of the season.