Originally posted on Bleed Black & Gold  |  Last updated 6/12/12

Pittsburgh has a buzz to it.  A buzz similar to the one the city gets in November and March every year.  Its a buzz that Pittsburgh sports fans are used to as a couple of their beloved teams gear up for their annual playoff runs.  The funny thing is, it’s June.

June?  Really?  The Steelers and Penguins don’t play in June.  So what could possibly going on?

Why, it’s Pirates baseball of course!

The Pirates, who now share the lead in the NL Central with the Reds, are the hottest team in baseball having won 12 of their last 15 games including 5 straight series wins, 4 of which came against division foes.  The recent stretch has fans believing that the 20 years of futility might finally be coming to an end, and they may just be right.  But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a deeper look at this year’s Buccos and see just how “for real” this team is.

First and foremost, the success has revolved around the pitching.  Both the starting rotation AND the bullpen have been nothing short of fantastic.  The entire group compliments each other perfectly.  The starters are going deep enough into games to minimize the use of the pen every night which has given manager Clint Hurdle a chance to use trial and error to establish who pitches in what situations in relief.  And while virtually every pitcher on the roster has been a major contributor, a few have stood out this year.  Most notably, starters James McDonald and A.J. Burnett have lead the way in the rotation while Jason Grilli and Brad Lincoln have been huge surprises out of the pen.

If you give Burnett a mulligan for his outing against St. Louis where he gave up 12 runs in less than 3 innings, his numbers border on extraordinary.  In 9 starts, Burnett tossed 60 innings allowing just 13 earned runs while averaging roughly 1 K per inning.  He is pitching like the Yankees thought he would when they gave him that outrageously huge contract years ago, and so far, that off season trade the front office made to acquire him has turned out to be a phenomenal move.  Minus that one horrendous outing against the Cards,  those are easily all star caliber numbers and oddly enough, they are actually eerily similar to those of James McDonald.

McDonald however, doesn’t have that one bad outing on his record and even though he just came off his worst start of the season (4IP giving up 3R), he still is 2nd in the NL in both ERA and WHIP as well as in the top 10 in K’s.  He has quickly turned into the Pirates’ ace and as long as he continues to locate his fastball, we shouldn’t see much of a drop off in his numbers this season.

The competitive starting pitching isn’t the only reason for the Pirates success so far though.  The bullpen has done more than carry its weight.  In fact, the Pirates bullpen has a 12-4 record, is 2nd in the Majors in ERA and saves, and 3rd in BAA while racking up 176K’s in 184IP.  Those are some eye popping numbers and when you couple that with one of the best starting rotations in the NL you have a recipe for success even with what many consider to be the worst offense in baseball supporting them.

The biggest contributors so far out of the pen are a couple of unexpected stories.  We have come to expect solid numbers from Hanrahan out of the closers role, so its no surprise he is 2nd in the NL in saves and has an ERA of 2.63, but its the turn around of veteran Jason Grilli and longtime bust Brad Lincoln that has really been the most impressive.

Lincoln, who was once considered one of our best pitching prospects, appeared to be on his last chance in the bigs as every time he got the call up from AAA he struggled to locate his pitches and was continuously hit hard when he elevated the ball in the zone.  This year though, coming out of the bullpen, his command has been spot on.  His walk numbers are down and he is getting players to swing and miss at his breaking balls.  He also has done a solid job as a spot starter when Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton have been sidelined with injuries, but his best pitching has been in his relief efforts.  If the Pirates find themselves in a competitive spot come the trade deadline, don’t be surprised if Hanrahan gets dealt for a MLB ready bat with Lincoln showing that he has the potential to be a back end guy in our bullpen.

And if we do look to move Hanrahan and don’t want to rely on Lincoln to close, we still have Jason Grilli who right now is undoubtedly one of the best relievers in all of baseball.  His turn around from being perfectly average last year has been absolutely extraordinary.  In 24IP Grilli has an ERA of 1.50 and a WHIP of 1.08 which by themselves are pretty solid, but what has been most impressive for Grilli are the 39K’s in those 24IP (1.63 K’s/IP).  Compared  to his career averages of 4.59 ERA 1.49WHIP and .77K’s/IP, this year’s numbers are baffling to say the least.  In fact, outside of Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, you’d be hard pressed to find another reliever who is even comparable to Grilli so far this season.  Turnarounds like this aren’t very common, so we’ll have to see if the small sample size will level itself out moving forward, but the way things look right now Grilli, as well as the rest of Pittsburgh bullpen, is here to stay.

This quality pitching fans have been treated to is exactly why our beloved Pirates are 5 games over .500 and tied for the division lead, but it’s important to note that the Bucs have been constantly battle tested as they have been in by far the most 1 run games this season.  27 of the team’s 59 games have been decided by just 1 run and the Pirates have posted a record of 17-10 in those games.  That record is a testament to the bullpen’s success so far and it has this club believing they are in every game.  Close games build character and that especially holds true for young teams, so having so much success in the early going can only help as this team moves into the dog days of summer and as long as the pitching staff stays on track this team will compete with just about anyone.

The Pirate’s record in close games though isn’t the only surprising record this squad is posting this season.  This team’s ability to play well on their home field has been an unexpected surprise.  In fact, the Pirates have posted one of the best home records in all of baseball this year at 19-11.  The only teams better at this point are the Dodgers and Nationals (who are mere percentage points better). The Pirates have always seemed to struggle at PNC Park over the years, but this team has finally embraced the label of a pitcher friendly park and have built a team that limits visiting offenses to a mere 2.76 R per game which is tops in MLB. As long as the offense provides some timely hitting, the success at home should be a trend that continues for the remainder of 2012.

A lot of positives have come out of the first 2 1/2 months of the season, but the question on everyone’s mind is….can it be sustained longterm?

Well, the metrics and projections suggest that the pitching is only slightly over achieving right now so I wouldn’t expect more than a small inflation there, but the real question mark is the league’s lowest scoring offense.  You’d think that the offense has nowhere to go but up, but the way things look right now, what we are seeing is probably going to be on par with what to expect down the road.

That doesn’t really give me a lot of confidence that this will be the year to end the 20 years of suffering Pirate fans have endured since their last .500 season.  Right now the team is last in the majors in runs scored (191), OBP (.278), OPS (.636) and second to last in batting average  (.224) and SLG (.358).  Not too mention the team has a -17 run differential.  Overall, those numbers are staggeringly poor and if they manage to finish over .500 with a 3.28 runs per game average then that would be the lowest total since the 1960′s for a team with a winning record.

On the plus side though, the Pirates have a few underachievers hiding in their lineup.  Pedro Alavarez has shown signs of what he is capable if he gets hot, and Jose Tabata has a lot more talent than what we have seen out of him so far this season.  Any kind of improvement for those two could be a serious boost to this anemic lineup and keep the Bucs in playoff contention, but without any of the weak links stepping up, the pressure on the pitching staff will more than likely become too much to endure.

So, back to the origional question.  Are the Pirates for real?

As things sit right now, I think so.  Last year was a learning experience for the young core of the franchise and I don’t expect the same sort of late season collapse we did last year.  Also, the pitching staff last season was more a smoke and mirrors kind of thing while this year, they are more balanced and appear to be legit.  In fact, the Pirates boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball but that means nothing if the league’s worst offense doesn’t start producing a little more.  It’s critical that the offense turns things around to ensure that this is the year that the city of Pittsburgh can finally be proud of their baseball franchise once again.




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