What a difference a year makes for these Pittsburgh Pirates

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The 2015 version of the Pittsburgh Pirates are once again surging in September. Having played their way to the second best record in all of baseball, and having caught a few breaks along the way, the Pittsburgh Baseball Club finds itself only 2.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals – a deficit that was unimaginable as recently as a week ago.

What a difference a year makes.

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On this date last year the Pirates found themselves in a dogfight of a different kind, clinging to the second wild card with a scant 1.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. We now know that the Brewers were at the tail end of an epic collapse, yet on September 13, 2014 nothing was certain. The Brewers would go on to a record of 5-8 on games after this date. The Bucs would surge with a 10-4 record, which was still not enough to catch the Cardinals. Thus, the Pirates were relegated to the first wild card. We all know what happened after that.

The differences in this team year-to-year go much deeper than their respective records. But, that’s as a good a place as any to start. At this point last year the club had a record of 78-70. This year’s version is already eight games better despite the 2014 team having seven games in hand.

Instead of dwelling on the sour note that was the end of the 2014 season, let us instead take a look at how far the team has come in one year. Last year saw the emergence of Josh Harrison and Starling Marte. It also gave us the long, slow descent of Pedro Alvarez. Fast forward one year later and the Pirates offensive attack is among the best in the game. With the departure of bench coach Jeff Banister  and catcher Russell Martin (or rather his +.400 OPS) in the off-season, one would not have been surprised if the Pirates’ hitters took a step back. Under the guidance of Jeff Branson, however, the Pirates have done anything but. Consider this – the ’14 Pirates at this point had a runs per game of 4.24, while the ’15 version has a slightly better figure at 4.25.

As we recall the slow start to the Pirates offense this year, this becomes an even greater achievement. Coupled with integrating Jung Ho Kang and dealing with injuries to Harrison and Jordy Mercer, one can easily see the marked improvement in scoring runs. (For more on Branson’s impact, I highly recommend checking out Dejan Kovacevic’s column over at Dkpittsburghsports.com) Overall the 2015 Pirates lineup is much more dynamic and productive. The presence of Kang and Aramis Ramirez behind Andrew McCutchen gives the Bucs a legitimate power trio while the top of the order in Gregory Polanco and Marte can set the table more often than not. With Francisco Cervelli and Neil Walker manning the lower part of the order, the Pirates make opposing pitchers work. There are no easy outs in this lineup. Compare this to last year’s model which had to rely on meaningful contributions from Ike Davis and Travis Snider for long stretches. All of this without mentioning the horrendous depth – or lack thereof – that was on the 25-man roster.

Next, let’s see how this year’s pitching staff stands up against its previous incarnation.

Next: What happens when a strength gets strengthened?