We have seen this scene before in Pittsburgh. The last two seasons, they have started off hot, building false confidence in their fan base that for the first time in two decades their Pirates were again relevant.
In 2011, they won more than 70 games for the first time since 2004, but with a 72-90 record, their losing season streak marched on to 19 straight years. In 2012, they went 59-44 from April through July, looking poised to break the consecutive losing seasons steak, but they collapsed in the end of the season, finishing 20-39. And the streak lives on.
Twenty years of embarrassment, pain, and a whole lot of losses -- that is what Pirates fans have had to endure, but this season, the Pirates are back in the spotlight in the early months of the season, and this time around, Pirates fans have reason to be optimistic that the third time will finally be the charm.
One of those reasons is that not only are the Pirates off to a hot start this season, they are off to the BEST start in the MLB. That's right, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the first team to 50 wins and are the best team in the MLB.
But how could a team that has been miserable for a generation, become the best in the league? As Pirates fans can attest, it has been a slow, long process. All of the success of the Pirates has to start with Andrew McCutchen. In the NBA, cornerstone players are more prevalent due to the fact that one player can impact a game more easily in basketball than in baseball, but with Cutch's ability to dominate all five facets of the game, he has easily become the Pirates' most valuable player over the past two seasons.
He blossomed into one of the best players in the game last season, hitting 31 home runs with 96 RBI's, while maintaining a .327 batting average. He won a Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger award last season, as well. His numbers this season, however, are not as impressive, thanks to a slow start. He has racked up 9 home runs and 41 RBI's with a .293 average. But he remains a good hitter with impact in the middle of Pittsburgh's lineup that everyone can depend on when the game is on the line. That is essential to have for a team to contend.
But what the Pirates have lacked in past seasons is other impactful hitters to surround Cutch with. And that is where hitters like Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, and Russell Martin step in. Martin has been a veteran presence on many contending teams and was definitely a smart investment for a young Pittsburgh squad. The ironic part is that the Pirates outbid the mighty New York Yankees for the right to call Martin their starting catcher.
Although Martin has become a leader in the lineup, Alvarez and Marte have paid dividends in the statistical side of things. Alvarez came on to the scene last season in a major way, blasting 30 home runs, but he already has 20 at this point in the season and looks poised to go for the 40 home run plateau. On the other hand, Starling Marte looks like Andrew McCutchen 2.0 in his second season, as he is emerging as one of the best leadoff hitters in the league. He has notched 51 runs, eight triples and home runs, 22 stolen bases, all while holding up a .287 average.
But what has made this team so special is their pitching. From the emergence of Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke to the veteran leadership of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano this starting rotation is stacked with major production. They lead the league in team ERA so it should be no surprise that they are always in a good place to win a ballgame.
Their bullpen has also had a major hand in Pittsburgh's success. Jason Grilli leads the league in saves and Mark Melancon has quickly become one of the best setup men in the majors. If the Pirates have the lead by the eight inning, you can pretty much turn the T.V. off because you know Melancon and Grilli will finish the last two innings off with no problems.
But what should caution Pirates fans to get overly excited for the third straight season is that Pittsburgh ranks 20th in runs scored. To put that into context, they rank only two spots higher than the Houston Astros. This is important because it means that the Pirates are winning a great deal of close games and the question whether they can keep that up for the long haul has to arise.
We have seen magical teams like this before that have not scored many runs, but relied heavily on their pitching to get by and make the playoffs. The 2012 Oakland Athletics are a great example of one of these teams, but that level of dependence on pitching always has its limits.
The Pirates are definitely a good enough team to make the playoffs, but that is their ceiling. They are not going to win a series in the playoffs due to their major inexperience and lack of run production. Pitching does win championships, but you also need to score runs at a much higher rate than the Astros to be a legitimate contender.
But for Pirates fans, I'm sure making the playoffs for this season would be good enough. After 20 straight losing seasons, an appearance in the playoffs would obviously whet their appetites. But this team is so young and talented that the national league has to take notice for the future.
This may not be the season that the Pirates fill the void in their fans' hearts left by Barry Bonds' errant throw in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, but like last season and the year before that, it is a step in the right direction. Pittsburgh, you have a reason to cheer on the Pirates again. Welcome back.
By: Matt Levine