Pittsburgh Pirates in Review 7/13 – 7/26

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The Pirates have revived their once dead season with an astounding 11 game winning streak. Over that stretch, the Pirates won series victories against three different playoff contending teams.

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. The good, the bad, and the ugly for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s the theme of this series – shout out to the Italian man himself,  Francisco Cervelli, for the inspiration. Let’s jump into the week that was!

The good and the bad sections will be self-explanatory, looking at both the good and the bad of the week. The ugly will simply be a section that covers all of the other random notes of importance from the week.

The Good

Wow. The Pirates have taken a complete 180 since the last edition of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. In the course of two weeks the Pirates have won series against the Nationals, the Brewers, the Reds, and the Indians. This includes a five game series sweep against the Brewers, one of the more exciting baseball series I have ever watched. The Pirates are now 53-51 on the season and are clearly in striking distance of a wild card spot and possibly even the division.

So what exactly is driving the recent success of the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Clutch Swings

The first driving factor that has caught my attention over the last two weeks is the Pirates’ ability to put the ball in play during clutch situations. This takes two forms, the first being two out, clutch RBI swings. Perhaps the best one of this whole past stretch was Josh Bell’s walk off drive to center field against the Brewers. This swing took place during a literally thunderstorm with the Pirates down to their last out in the 10th inning.

The Pirates have also been flashing clutch swings to capitalize on mistakes that opponents have made. This is one of the best things a team that wants to compete can do. Anytime a team gives you more than three outs in an inning due to an error, make them pay. The most memorable hit that falls in this category is Josh Harrison’s three-run home run against the Indians. This swing came after two Cleveland players collided catching a pop fly in the infield, which would have been the final out in the inning. Harrison, who should not have had an at bat that inning, destroyed a ball thrown by a two time Cy Young winner.

The Outfield Trio

I told you Corey Dickerson is a superstar. Man can that guy hit the ball. In the month of July, Dickerson has a .400/.425/.829/1.253 slash. Dickerson also had a four game home run hitting streak, including a game with two home runs. Below is a clip showing some of the home runs – these balls were absolutely crushed. It actually got to the point that I felt there was a better chance that Dickerson was going to hit a home run when he came up to the plate than not.

Dickerson isn’t the only high flying performer over the past two weeks in the Pirates’ outfield, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have been hot as well. As of Wednesday, Marte is leading the NL in the month of July with 20 RBIs. This insane RBI total is not surprising given his .384/.416/.726/1.142 slash during July. Polanco is still struggling to hit for average, but did put up 7 home runs and 17 RBIs in July, as well as an OPS over .900 for the month.

With all three outfielders hitting for power, the Pirates have transformed into a team that threatens daily with the long ball. In July, the Bucs have hit 33 home runs, which leads the entire league. To put into context how drastic of a power shift this has been, the Bucs are still in the bottom half of the league for total home runs – even with an outstanding July.

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Bullpen Back-End

The back-end of the Pirates’ bullpen has been phenomenal. Felipe Vazquez has returned to his lights out self in the 9th, giving up only one earned run in his last 17 appearances. Kyle Crick has been equally impressive when pitching in the 8th inning, and has given up only one earned run in his last 17 appearances. Richard Rodriquez continues to be extremely consistent and has only given up three earned runs across his last 11 appearances (up until Wednesday’s game against the Mets). Like icing on a cake, the flame throwing rookie, Edgar Santana, has only given up one run in his last 11 appearances. Obviously, these numbers are unsustainable. But it does show that the Pirates have clearly solidified the back-end of their bullpen, which is extremely important for any team looking to make a run in the second half of the season.

The Bad

It’s hard to pull out much that is going wrong for the Pirates at the moment, but it is important to realize that the Pirates did look like this before they went on a long streak of bad baseball. At the end of the day this year’s club is extremely streaky. The Pirates have 11 shutouts this season, tied for the most in the league. However, the Pirates record is barely over .500. In April and July, the Pirates played well over .500 ball. However, in May and June the Pirates fared considerably worse. The bullpen, the starting rotation, and the batters have all shown the ability to be elite or laughable. It’s fun to get excited about this team, but will the Pirates revert back to another rough stretch?

Another question is whether or not the starting pitching will pitch well enough during the back half of the season. Even though the starters did well on paper during the most recent winning streak, most of the games were noncompetitive early. Games that are in hand early demoralize the opposing hitters and give the winning team’s pitchers the confidence to pitch aggressively. Would the starters have done as well if the bats were not unbelievably hot? I honestly don’t know, but I would say that the starting rotation is the weakest link on the team.

Keeping this all in mind, one has to wonder how Neal Huntington will approach this trade deadline. As much as I would love to see the Pirates go all in on any given year, I don’t believe Huntington will pull the trigger on any big moves this season. In fact, I could see trades that reposition compared to truly adding. In other words, Mark Melancon for Felipe Vazquez like trades. Sell off expiring contracts, but get Big league ready talent. Maybe acquire one starter or reliever for a few low level prospects. This might not be what Pirates’ fans want to hear, but it is what is most likely to happen.

The Ugly

The Pirates are excited to have Francisco Cervelli back in the lineup, but the concussion concerns are still front and center. In fact, Hurdle has flirted with the idea of having Cervelli play first base to keep the catcher injury free in the future. This is not unprecedented as many other Big League catchers have easily transferred to first base in the past.

Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson both left during the series against the Indians due to injury concerns. Thankfully, both of these injuries appear to be minor. Dickerson is out with left hamstring discomfort and seems to be sitting for precautionary measures. Marte avoided a broken hand and could return sooner rather than later as well.

The Pirates have been linked to one trade rumor this deadline. The Pirates are rumored to be in the Rangers’ closer Keone Kela. Kela is a young arm that is controllable through 2020. With a 3.42 career ERA, it is easy to see why Kela would be a valuable addition to the Pirates bullpen. This sounds like a good move for the Bucs and I hope that Huntington pulls the trigger.

That’s all for this week. Let’s go Bucs!

The Pittsburgh Pirates week ahead:

July 27th – Mets @ the Pirates 7:05

July 28th – Mets @ the Pirates 7:05

July 29th – Mets @ the Pirates 1:35

July 31st – Cubs @ the Pirates 7:05

August 1st – Cubs @ the Pirates 7:05