Opening day is coming up on us lightning quick. At this point we can count the days until opening day on one hand, and it’s got us giddy with excitement. Opening day is wonderful, because every team has a chance at this point, there’s excitement over the unknown headed into the year, and the atmosphere is just electric. Opening day really should be a holiday. Unfortunately for Pirates fans, every opening day since 1994 has come after a losing season, which is just downright depressing. After showing early signs of life each of the last 2 years, the Pirates have found a way to fritter the second half away, and because of that, we’re still talking about the twenty straight years of losing that we’ve had to endure from our beloved Buccos. Here are five keys to the Pirates having their first winning season since Sid Slid:
1. Starting pitching has to be more consistent. Guys like James McDonald have personified the Pirates last two seasons, with good looking first halves, followed up by crapping the bed after the all star break. It’s not enough for any of these guys to just be good half the time, you have to be able to play an entire season at a high level. Baseball has such a grueling season for a reason, it’s to weed out the pretenders from the contenders, one or two hot streaks during the season can’t get you into October, you have to play good baseball all year long.
2. More walks, less strikeouts for the hitters. The Pirates ranked dead last in the NL in drawing walks last year, drawing a measly 444 all year. In strikeouts, the Pirates had the second most in the NL, being punched out a grand total of 1354 times on the season. That’s just ugly. Even if this is the era of lots of longballs and strikeouts for offenses in baseball, those numbers are still completely unacceptable. You have to be able to get on base and put the ball in play, or else those homeruns and extra base hits start to matter less and less.
3. Gerrit Cole. Whenever Cole does get the call to the big leagues, he has the kind of stuff that could make him an ace right off of the bat. He also could behave like a typical prospect, and not fully launch on his first attempt in the big leagues. Remember Trevor Bauer? Great prospect for the Diamondbacks, but after a less than stellar first opportunity in the big leagues last year, the Diamondbacks lost their patience with him, and shipped him off to Cleveland, the poor guy. Of course, we expect the Pirates to have patience with Cole, as they well should. If Cole is able to perform up to the level of talent he’s previously displayed, the Pirates chances to have a winning season this year will improve exponentially.
4. Pedro Alvarez absolutely must take over the role of cleanup hitter for the Pirates. The Pirates aren’t asking Pedro to hit .300, they’re asking him to hit over his weight, with 30+ bombs. If El Toro can step up and do that, the Pirates will fill a hole in the lineup that has been a revolving door for years. If not, he’ll be relegated back to the five or six hole, and may not ever get another opportunity to own the spot. The Pirates need a terror inducing cleanup hitter behind Andrew McCutchen, and Alvarez has the talent and potential to be just that, but until that potential is realized, he’ll continue to drive Pirates fans insane.
5. No more Hurdle smallball. I think Clint Hurdle is wonderful, but given the team that he currently has, the best way to score runs in through getting guys on base, followed by extra base hits. Clint Hurdle has a thing for bunting like Rex Ryan has a thing for feet.
It’s that bad. In baseball, you get twenty-seven outs to score as many runs as you possibly can. Because of the limited nature of the outs you are allowed, it’s awfully hard to score runs when you waste a lot of outs by bunting runners around all the time (don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for the bunt), you are lessening your odds to score runs. One of the beauties of baseball is what a mathematical game it is. Step one in playing the mathematics of the game is taking the option with the highest probability of a positive outcome just about every time, and the way the Pirates are built, small ball isn’t that option.
There you have it, boys and girls, five keys to the Pirates finally having a winning season. Opening day is next Monday, so get your lucky jersey out, practice your Zoltan hand signs, prep your vocal cords for a lot of Ric Flair style wooing, pick up a lot of heart medication, and possibly some Jack Daniels. This is gonna be one roller coaster ride of a season, and you’re not going to want to miss a second.