Along with the Kansas City Royals, pre-Kurt Warner Arizona Cardinals, pre-Chris Paul (and eventually post-Chris Paul) Los Angeles Clippers, and everything there is to say about Cleveland as a home to professional sports, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been dutiful members of a club nobody with any sense of self-respect willfully applies to enter.
I was five years old when the Pirates last tasted a meaningful inning of baseball, losing to the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of a brutal National League Championship Series. (Whatever the opposite of “never having to pay for a meal in Pittsburgh again” is, that’s Stan Belinda).
They’re aligned not only with failure, but a depressing lack of hope or expectations. The Pirates don’t squander leads so much as show up to the ball park already trailing before the first pitch is thrown. Consistent mediocrity is their World Series.
Last season they appeared to turn things around before a late season collapse ruined their Cinderella story. But so far this year they’re at it again, turning 20 years of poor fortune around the old fashion way: with pitching. Pittsburgh’s staff currently boasts the second best team ERA in baseball (3.17). They’re sixth in walks, fourth in home runs, eighth in strikeouts per nine innings, and have allowed fewer hits than anybody.
Three hurlers in particular have all excelled in roles that are either brand new or rediscovered. They are A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli, and Jeff Locke. And if Pittsburgh is to make the playoffs for the first time in two decades, all three need to continue pitching with brilliance.
Let’s start with Grilli, the battle-tested, grizzled closer who’s yet to actually fight any battles of meaning. Including the Pirates, Grille has pitched for six Major League Baseball teams. In his only season with the Chicago White Sox he went 2-3 with a 7.40 ERA in eight starts, effectively ending his prospect as a professional starter. He was 27. From that point on he was a journeyman reliever, compiling five saves in his entire career heading into this season. Today he’s 36, leading the National League in saves and games finished. According to Baseball-Reference, he’s fifth in Win Probability Added. Grilli is good.
Next up is a curveball throwing story of redemption. The book on A.J. Burnett has always been he’s an immense talent with unpredictable results. Two years ago, at 34 with his ERA at 5.15, Burnett was one of the biggest busts in baseball, highlighted by his gargantuan New York contract. He was allowing nearly 1.5 home runs per nine innings and battled through numerous pitch to pitch inconsistencies from inning to inning and start to start.
But this season he’s been as good as ever. Burnett is currently utilizing his curveball more than any pitcher in baseball, according to Fangraphs. Over 31% of his pitches break, and only New York Mets phenom Matt Harvey boasts a curveball with higher average velocity (Burnett tosses his just over 82 miles per hour).
Behind this pitch, which he’s really developed throughout the course of his career, Burnett has become Pittsburgh’s ace, striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings and 94 overall (both lead the National League). He isn’t a Cy Young candidate or someone who’s assumed entire control of all his skill (he walks too many hitters and holds a 3-6 record), but Burnett’s current 3.22 ERA is the lowest of his entire career.
A more stable pitcher is all Burnett needs to be, and so far he’s made leaps and bounds to become that guy.
The final piece of the puzzle is a nationally unknown left-hander named Jeff Locke. The 25-year-old came into this year with 10 starts under his belt, spread out over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
In 2013 he’s lost only one of his 11 starts, posting a 2.25 ERA that’s good enough for fifth best in the National League. He’s had trouble walking hitters, but leaves 83.5% of all guys who reach on base, which is 11th best in all of baseball, per Fangraphs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been a team worth meaningful discussion in a very, very long time. But thanks to their efforts and a potentially integral 29-year-old Francisco Liriano—striking out 12.1 batters per nine innings the Bucs might actually have something to say as the summer months drag into the fall. What might happen should the injured Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeanmar Gomez, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton return to contribute before seasons end? They just might have something to say as the summer months drag on into the fall especially when considering Gerrit Cole could be added very soon.
The Pirates might finally be able to exit the club they’ve desperately tried to leave for years.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. He’s also been published at ScoreBig and The Classical. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina