Now we are down to it. I am going to pass over the Reds temporarily and move on to discuss the third place Pittsburgh Pirates. So what has made Pittsburgh the feel good story in the Central division? The first ingredient to the Pirates new found success isn’t new. The Pirates have drafted and developed a number of young budding stars that form the corps of the Pirates team. Alvarez, McCutcheon, Walker, Doumit and Maholm have all been developed in the Pirates system.
The second ingredient is a cheerleader of sorts. Manager Clint Hurdle has made the young Pirates believe in themselves. I often have said that attitude is everything, and Hurdle has made them believe they are the real deal. But are they really capable of winning? Let’s take a look behind the curtain and see if they have the tools to make this miracle happen.
Pittsburgh struggles at the plate. Only belated All Star Andrew McCutcheon has a batting average about .275 sitting with a comfortable .291 batting average. His OPS is at .894 so he is good but not great. I want to draw attention to two players on this team to give a sense of how dangerous this team could become this season.
Example A is 2nd baseman Neil Walker. He leads the team with 59 RBIs, only 7 away from his total for 2010. So how could he be more dangerous than he already is you ask? In 2010, Walker’s batting average was 32 points higher and his OPS was .811 compared to his current .727. He seems to focus more when runners are on base sporting a .327 batting average. When the bases are clear, Walker seems to forget how to hit. He bats only .208 with the bases empty so he never sets up his teammates for success.
Example B is Pedro Alvarez. Pedro has a .208 batting average this year compared to .256 last years. He is far behind his 2010 OPS stats. In 2010 he had an OPS of .788, this year it has fallen catastrophically to .587. The Pirates are still working on a solution to this problem as chronicled below.
If these two players can find a way to solve these problems the Pirates could indeed become the National League Central champion.
The Pirates have committed 64 errors so far this season, tied for the 3rd most in the National League. Unlike what we saw from the Cubs there is no one player to focus in who damages the Pirates defensive front. Lyle Overbay has committed the most errors with 8 but with a .990 fielding percentage he is a solid defender. The lowest fielding percentage on the team belongs to injured 3rd baseman Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates have optioned Alvarez to AAA to see if he can improve on his hitting game in a less pressurized atmosphere but if they want to challenge for the division at the end of the season, he needs to find his bat again and his glove.
If batting is the Pirates weakness, starting pitching is without a doubt the Pirates strength. The only Pirate starter with a losing record is lefty Paul Maholm who is 6-9 with a 2.96 ERA. The starter with the worst ERA is James McDonald who is locked in at a respectable 4.42. Jeff Karstens has the best ERA at 2.55 and All Star Kevin Correia leads the team with 11 wins. That leaves the number 5 starter, Charlie Morton. Morton may be the single biggest reason the Pirates have turned their ship around this year. Last year at the All Star break (Morton was sent to the minors in May) he had a record of 1-9 on route to a 2-12 record for the season. This year he has a record 7-5 and 9 quality starts including 2 complete games against the Reds. As good as the starting pitching has been it is hard to imagine it will improve during the second half of the season so it actually could hurt them moving forward.
|Pittsburgh Pirates Relievers|
|Pirates Staff Totals||289||184||86||19||64%||30%|
|Data through 7/10/2011|
The Pirates have been consistent over the two months I have studied bull pen results ranging between a 63% and 64% success rates. Michael Crotta is in AAA, his 67% failure rate has been the toughest for the team to deal with but on the positive side the Pirates have one of the best in the League in closer Joel Hanrahan. Jose Veras has also had a successful year with a 73% success rate. The pen certainly has room for improvement but have been solid as a group.
Prospects for the Second Half
The Pirates can hang tough if their starters continue to give a strong performance. If Walker and Alvarez can improve their batting statistics the Pirates could actually pull an incredible upset and win this division.
I am a lifelong Reds fan; but living in Pittsburgh and being a fan of baseball in general, the Pirates story is a story MLB needs. The league suffers when any team loses for 18 years in a row and I have long referred to Pittsburgh as a baseball desert. This desert has had an unexpected bounty this season and they are blooming as a result of it. When you drive down the streets of town you see Pirate flags hanging in front of houses where for almost two decades all you could see were Penguins and Steelers banners. Times they are a changin’.
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