The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Rolling Into The Summer

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have won 14 of their last 22 contests, and are playing as well as any team in Major League Baseball as the season heads into the summer months.

The Pittsburgh Pirates started out the 2016 season by winning 15 games in April. These 15 wins were tied for the most April wins in franchise record. Despite a slow start to the month, the Pirates have backed that up by capturing 14 victories so far in May with one game left.

After starting the month of May 0-4, the Pittsburgh Pirates are now 14-8 in their last 22 contests. This gives the Pirates an overall record of 29-21, which is good for fourth best in the National League and puts them second place in the National League Central Division behind the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates 29 wins also is sixth most in all of Major League Baseball.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have also started to separate themselves from the pack in the National League. Currently, the Pirates and New York Mets are tied for the top Wild Card spot in the National Leauge. They are three games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, three and a half ahead of Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies, and then everyone else is at least six games back.

Yesterday was Memorial Day which is always looked at as the start of summer. And tomorrow is June 1st, so in case you have not been paying attention to a calendar we have you covered here at Rum Bunter. Anyway, as the Major League Baseball season gets ready to hit the summer stretch the Pittsburgh Pirates are absolutely rolling.

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The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates have been powered by one of the Major’s best offensive attacks. The Pirates currently rank second in the Majors in wRC+ (118), second in wOBA (.345), second in batting average (.284), third in on base percentage (.357), and they are fourth in runs scored (257). The best part about the Pirate offense is that it has not been carried by just one man, but instead it has been a true team effort.

Pittsburgh’s best player, Andrew McCutchen, is off to a slow start. Well, for his standards at least he’s off to a slow start. On the year McCutchen is slashing .256/.336/.457/.793 with a .340 wOBA and a wRC+ of 115. While these numbers are not horrible, they are not up to Andrew McCutchen’s standards either. In past years, a struggling McCutchen would have sunk the Pittsburgh Pirates offense but not this year.

May 24, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) hits a two run double against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the sixth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) hits a two run double against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the sixth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates offense is being led by their budding superstar in right field, Gregory Polanco. On the season Polanco has hit eight home runs, his previous career high was nine last season, and he leads the National League in doubles with 18. Polanco’s slash line this season is .315/.393/.565/.958, he has stolen seven bags, his wOBA is .401, and his wRC+ is 156. Polanco’s WAR this season is already 2.5, after posting a 2.3 WAR all of last season, and he is budding into a superstar.

The most impressive part of Polanco’s game this season has been his improvement against left-handed pitching. Entering the season Polanco’s batting average against left-handed pitching was below .200 and his OPS was below .600. This season though Polanco has exploded against left-handed pitching posting an .837 OPS.

Left fielder Starling Marte has also been a stalwart in the Pirate lineup this season. Marte currently has a career high batting average (.326), on base percentage (.369), OPS (.843), and wOBA (.365). Furthermore, Marte is currently second in the National League with 17 stolen bases.

The Pittsburgh Pirates offense also got a huge shot in the arm with the return of third base man Jung Ho Kang earlier this month. In 19 games played this season Kang has slashed .279/.333/.639/.972, and he has already hit six home runs and driven in 18. Kang has also played a strong third base having already posted one defensive run saved.

The success of the Pittsburgh Pirates offense has been due to the successes of the entire roster at the plate. With the exception of Francisco Cervelli, Jordy Mercer, Chris Stewart, and Cole Figueroa (who only has 18 plate appearances) every hitter on the Pirates roster has a wRC+ of at least 115. The league average for wRC+ is 100.

Despite having a wRC+ below 115, Jordy Mercer has still made a lot of contributions to the offense. Mercer currently has a .277 average, a career best .355, an OPS of .702 and he has driven in 19. Francisco Cervelli still has 21 RBIs and a WAR of 0.5.

Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates offense has been rolling this season, their pitching has struggled. The Pirates currently rank 15th in the Majors in ERA (4.02), 27th in FIP (4.62), 27th in xFIP (4.45), and 29th in WAR (0.3). The biggest issue for the Pirate pitching staff has been two fold: they are walking too many batters and allowing too many home runs. The Pirates 1.20 HR/9 ranks 21st in the Majors, and their walk rate of 3.64 BB/9 is 26th.

One positive with the pitching staff though is that the back end of the Pirate bullpen has remained strong all season long. Closer Mark Melancon and set up men Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz have combined for a 2.84 ERA in 50 2/3 innings pitched, and Melancon has converted 16 of 17 save opportunities.

The biggest problem with the bullpen was middle relief, but Rob Scahill and Wilfredo Boscan have really helped to settle things down here. Scahill has posted a 2.89 FIP in nine innings pitched, and Boscan has a 2.23 FIP in eight innings pitched. If these two continue to pitch well, that will help to stabilize an iffy middle relief.

Furthermore, the Pittsburgh Pirates have help on the horizon. With the Super Two threshold about to pass pitching prospects Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl who have dominated Triple-A all season could be in the Major Leagues soon.

Jameson Taillon
Feb 13, 2014; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jameson Taillon at Pittsburgh /

In fact, I expect Jameson Taillon to be called up at some point in the next two weeks to join the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation. When Taillon is called up I would expect Juan Nicasio to be moved from the Pirate rotation to the bullpen. This is a move that should help to improve both the Pirate rotation and the bullpen.

Even though the rotation as a whole has struggled, Pittsburgh Pirates ace Gerrit Cole has continued to pitch extremely well. In 53 1/3 innings pitched Cole has a 2.54 ERA, 3.15 FIP, he’s averaging just 2.70 BB/9, and his home run rate of 0.51 HR/9 is the second lowest of his career. Cole has been the stabling presence the Pirate rotation has needed to help overcome early season struggles.

Also, both Jon Niese and Jeff Locke appear to be turning their seasons around. In his last four starts Jon Niese has a 2.45 ERA, 3.56 xFIP, and is averaging just 1.75 BB/9 in 25 2/3 innings pitched. Also, Niese’s ground ball rate has been 60.8 percent in these starts.

As for Jeff Locke, he has been more consistent than anyone wants to give him credit for this season but his last seven starts have been a solid stretch for Locke. In those seven starts Locke has posted a 3.47 ERA and 2.12 BB/9 in 46 2/3 innings pitched, and those numbers include a blow up start at Wrigley Field where he allowed six runs 5 1/3 innings pitched.

At this point, the biggest problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff is left-handed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. The Pirates co-ace has a 4.63 ERA, 5.42 FIP, 4.37 xFIP, a Major League leading 34 walks, and a -0.3 WAR in 58 1/3 innings pitched. The Pirates desperately need Liriano to solve whatever is plaguing him, because if not now matter how well guys like Jameson Taillon or Tyler Glasnow pitch the rotation won’t be the same moving forward.

So while, yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff has struggled this season they are trending upward. Gerrit Cole, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Neftali Feliz have all pitched well this season, the middle relief is improving thanks to Wilfredo Boscan and Rob Scahill, and Jeff Locke and Jon Niese have well lately. Plus, there is more help on the way.

Next: Pirates 10, Marlins 0: Stars And Stiffs

As the summer months begin, the Pittsburgh Pirates are rolling. The Pirates are once again one of the best teams in the National League, and they should only improve during the summer as Andrew McCutchen starts to heat up at the plate and the young pitchers at Triple-A arrive. Right now, the Pirates appear to be on their way to a fourth straight postseason appearance for the first time in franchise history.

So, buckle up everyone. A fourth straight summer of scoreboard watching, pennant chasing fun is on the horizon for the Pittsburgh Pirates.