The Pirates certainly aren’t off to the start most of the fans hoped for. As I write this on Monday, they sit in last place in the division three games out of first place. The offense is moribund and the defense has been so bad in important positions that people aren’t even talking about defense at unimportant positions like first base. That and the first baseman, Josh Bell, is one of the few people actually hitting.
On top of all that, they’re starting to rack up games missed by key players. David Freese, Adam Frazier and Jameson Taillon (more on him later) are on the DL while Starling Marte and Jung-ho Kang are on the SL. I leave the “S” up to your interpretation. There are a number of correct answers.
Yet, they find themselves only three games out of first place in the division even if they are in last place in the heavily clustered NL Central at the moment. There are some indicators that should give some hope. I’m not huge on Pythagorean, but based on run differential, they’re worse than their current record indicates by only by a single game. The rest of the division isn’t keeping the Pirates in it by underachieving either, as the Reds would be a division best 18-12 meaning they should be about four games better than the Bucs. Thankfully, in the real world, it’s much closer. Through thirty games no one in the division seems to want take control, and if someone had, Pittsburgh could be in real trouble already. If they played in the NL East, they’d already be seven out.
While the defense has been lousy, the pitching has helped balance out the suck. The Pirates staff has a 3.78 ERA, just .01 behind the Cardinals, and their ERA lines up pretty well with their peripherals. Interestingly, the Cardinals quality on the mound has been negated by poor defense as well, as St. Louis has the second worst UZR/150 to only Pittsburgh. Generally speaking, run prevention separates the men from the boys in the NL over a 162 game season and at the moment, the Pirates allow the fourth fewest runs per game. Only the Padres and the Giants score fewer runs per game in case you were wondering.
There isn’t much to be hopeful at at the plate, though. On the positive side, Josh Harrison has regained some of the power that allowed him to post a 5 WAR a few years ago. His .192 ISO would be the best of his career if he can continue at this pace. After a slow first couple of weeks, Josh Bell has started to assert himself at the plate. He’s striking out a touch more than I would expect, but his gap power is showing signs that it will turn into home run power more consistently. The now injured David Freese’s performance pretty much rounds out the nice things I have to say.
Many would look at what Andrew McCutchen has done so far and be disappointed, but really this is a fairly typical spring for him. No one’s ever confused him for Mr. April and 3 of his 8 opening months were worse than this year’s for Cutch. His worst April was 2014 and he rebounded to lead the league in OPS and finish third in MVP voting. He posted a .734 OPS in the first month of the season and he has a career .762 to open the season. You can’t look at what has happened so far this season and suggest Cutch won’t rebound, but they will need him to catch fire in the summer months as he’s done in his career. If he can, the Pirates could turn their offense around quickly.
Gregory Polanco has also struggled, but he’s off in some key areas from his career norms. For one thing, he’s striking out less and walking more. One would think that would lead to more success, but he’s generally making worse contact. Over his career, roughly 30% of the balls he’s put in play or over the fence have been hit hard. That number has dropped to just over 20% this year. As a result, his OPS has halved in the early going compared to his entire 2016. He’s also putting the ball on the ground about 9% more often then he has over his career. It’s possible that there could be long term issues here, but it’s more likely just a slump. While his numbers dipped in the second half of last year, he still made very heavy contact. He may not have a great season, but I think he’s a strong candidate to rebound at some point.
It seems like just yesterday, but Starling Marte has already served 20% of his suspension for PEDs. While it stinks that he’s gone, he will still play roughly half the season. He’ll be back on July 18 which really doesn’t feel so bad. I don’t expect to see Kang in Pirates uniform this season unless the Bucs move some home games to Busan. Of course, they wouldn’t play a few games in San Juan last year because of a few mosquitoes, so I’m not sure they’ll want to get that close to Kim Jong-Un.
The rest of the division is loaded with question marks as well. The Cubs might win the division by attrition and Rizzo will likely rebound. However, Javier Baez appears to have gone back to flailing at the plate and Ben Zobrist has gone back to aging. Their pen has been good, but their rotation is looking a bit shaky early on. The Cardinals rotation has overall been solid while the pen hasn’t lit the world on fire. Meanwhile, Randal Grichuk, Jhonny Peralta, and Stephen Piscotty’s struggles at the plate, in the field, or both make the Pirates issues with Cutch and Polanco look like small potatoes early. Those three have combined for a -.9 fWAR. The Reds have a nice core of bats around Joey Votto, but I do think Zack Cozart will come back to Earth a little. Their pitching staff makes you scratch your head. They’ve allowed the seventh most runs in the NL and almost a third of those games have come against the teams in the bottom three in runs per game I mentioned earlier. The Brewers have a lineup perfectly constructed for the joke that is Miller Park’s outfield, but you have to imagine the league will eventually adjust to Eric Thames. Their pitching doesn’t inspire much hope, even with the Pirates 2016 bullpen, and their rotation appears to be a collection of #4’s.
The Pirates could be in really bad shape right now, but thankfully, they’ve had some luck on their side mixed in with the more obvious bad luck. The pitching is looking good especially the front half of the rotation. With Monday’s late news that Taillon had surgery for suspected testicular cancer, that could hamper the front of the rotation for the foreseeable future. I could get into Kuhl and Glasnow, but that might be a piece to itself. The hitting stinks, but there are internal options who could and should preform better. On top of that, the Cardinals and Cubs have underperformed even if the Reds and Brewers have done better than expected. The division can be had by anyone who would like it. I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if the Pirates continued to struggle, but they’re certainly right in the thick of things.