Last year, the defensively dominant Pirates were able to bring forth a level of pitching aptitude that was nearly unprecedented in the majors last season. Although it would be dangerous for most teams to rely on a meager two run lead to win a game, the Pirates made a living on creating a small scoring cushion while relying on their clutch bullpen to carry them the rest of the way. However, the Pirates have once again found themselves in an early season rut as they are currently in fourth place in the NL Central Division.
While the baseball season is still young, the Pirates need to rediscover their intriguing pitching prowess from yesteryear if they hope to claim a division title and a second consecutive playoff berth.
While the loss of starting pitcher A.J Burnett to the Philadelphia Phillies was painfully ill advised, the Pirates have utilized Charlie Morton as their most reliable starter so far this season. Although Morton has had his fair share of roller coaster seasons, in the last couple of years he has developed a consistent ability to strike out one batter after the next with relative ease (31 strikeouts on the season). More importantly however, Morton’s ERA is no longer the inconsistent mess it was during his first few years in the league. In his first three years with the Pirates, Morton had a mediocre ERA of 5.31. However, in the last three years Morton has kept his once erratic pitching issues in check as he has averaged an ERA of 3.71 and is currently on pace to reach a career low with a current ERA of 3.22.
The Pirates can easily turn their season around to garner the Cinderella limelight once again, but they could just as easily shoot themselves in the foot and regress to their former mediocre selves.
However, even with Morton’s impressive improvements, the rest of the starting pitching lineup has had its ups and downs. Veteran starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez hasn’t lived up to his potential and has allowed 7.65 earned runs per game which is a career worse for the once reliable strikeout machine. Despite the perseverance of the Pirates relievers in Mark Melancon (ERA of 1.42) and Tony Watson (ERA of 1.50 and 23 strikeouts), the ineptitude of the Pirates starters has prevented the reliever’s ample contributions from being relevant in most situations.
Even with the Pirates disconcerting pitching issues, the problems with this organizations team dynamics extend beyond their incomprehensible bullpen. While the Pirates offense is by no means abysmal in terms of their adequate batting average (.248 batting average as a team, 17th in MLB), their tenacity at the plate leaves something to be desired. While the infield is significantly better at hitting RBI’s than the outfield (78 RBI’s for the infield and only 51 RBI’s for the outfield), the outfield touts a much more consistent batting average (outfield batting average is .269 and the infield batting average is only .241). As a whole, the Pirates are equally inconsistent at hitting home runs as their slugging percentage is a below average .377 (21st in MLB) while their total runs garnered this season is also unimpressive (155 runs on the season, 22nd in MLB).
While the offensively challenged Pirates have overcome this discrepancy with a top notch bullpen in the past, their lack of depth in both offense and defense has crippled this teams confidence and has allowed teams with power-hitting offenses to work them over with ease.
It’s hard to condemn that Pirates as hopeless, especially considering they were in a similar position only two years ago and were somehow able to reinvigorate themselves to end the first half of the season on a positive note. Unfortunately, that same Pirates team went through a second half meltdown and ended their season with a record of 79-83 (started second half of the season with a record of 48-38).
The Pirates can easily turn their season around to garner the Cinderella limelight once again, but they could just as easily shoot themselves in the foot and regress to their former mediocre selves. If the Pirates want rediscover the successful magic that made them a joy to watch last season, they need to avoid getting in their own way while going back to what they do best: playing sensational defense.