(Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Winning streak led by hot hitting
The Pirates had their seven game winning streak snapped on Friday night in a game where their offense was only able to produce two runs. With great pitching for most of the season so far, the Pirates were able to put together their recent winning streak by having their offense start to produce up to their potential. Early season offensive scuffles had the team floundering below .500 through 40 games played on the season, but strong production from key impact hitters in the lineup allowed the Pirates to get right back into the race. The April struggles of Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison were the key factors to consider with the Pirates outscoring their opponents but being unable to produce a winning record until recently. During the Pirates recent seven game winning streak, each of their starting pitchers earned a victory to accompany strong efforts in each of those games. Throughout the winning streak the Pirates were able to outscore their opponents by a combined 29 runs, as the team put all their best attributes on display. While the Pirates have yet to find the consistency necessary to overtake the Cardinals in the National League Central, a further look at their accomplishments will help to determine whether or not that is possible for them.
Defense, pitching and offense
With Pedro Alvarez switching defensive positions, from third base to first base, the Pirates infield defense has seen some significant changes this season. Alvarez has slowly worked his way into playing solid defense over at first base, but not without significant mistakes in the transition process. By attacking balls hit where the second basemen can field them, and some uncertainty about when he should cover the bag, Alvarez has given away some outs that are recorded at a high rate by more experienced first basemen. Meanwhile on the other side of the diamond, newcomer Jung-Ho Kang has gotten plenty of playing time at both shortstop and third base for the Pirates. Kang has shown off an impressive arm and a good glove to help convert a high percentage of ground balls into outs, but his transition from playing in the KBO has not been mistake free. In the outfield, a blooper where Polanco tripped at Wrigley Field before getting to a shallow fly ball, has been the defining moment for defensive mistakes made there. However the Pirates outfield like their infield, possesses plenty of defensive range that has led to some highlight reel plays being made by each of their three outfielders this season. The Pirates defense has made their fair share of mistakes early in the season, but as they round into midseason form they have been able to put their talent on display quite frequently during the team’s recent winning streak.
Overall the efforts of the Pirates pitching staff have been brilliant throughout much of the first two months of the season, with their top three starting pitchers all striking out batters at a significant rate. Gerrit Cole has emerged in the running for the National League Cy Young Award with his early season efforts, while A.J. Burnett has made use of his sinker to give the team quality start after quality start.
. Charlie Morton has made his return from late 2014 hip surgery, to make two quality starts, earning two victories while recording most of the outs via the ground ball. While both Vance Worley and Jeff Locke struggled in the absence of Charlie Morton, Worley has now been sent to the bullpen as a long reliever and Locke has managed to improve his pitching efforts some. Strong starting pitching has been complemented by a solid bullpen, but that area of the team has not been without struggles. Mark Melancon had to work through early season dead arm to return to his recent form that has largely been in line with his production over the last two seasons. Other than allowing an opening day three run homerun to Todd Frazier, Tony Watson has been nearly automatic as one of the most dominant eighth inning relievers in the game this season.
The Pirates early season offensive efforts were the biggest reason for the team being below the .500 mark after 40 games played in 2015. The combination of size, speed and strength among the Pirates position players translates well into offensive potential, to go along with their strong defensive capabilities. Significant struggles through the first month of the season for both Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen, left the Pirates offensive contributions to come from Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez. While those three did their jobs well in April, it was not a consistent enough effort to earn wins in a high percentage of the ballgames that were available for the taking behind strong pitching. The strong contributions of Korean star Jung-Ho Kang, combined with Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen contributing at a strong rate, has led to the Pirates recent hot streak. The youngest player in the Pirates starting lineup in Gregory Polanco, has experienced the most peaks and valleys so far through two months of the season, but his efforts have been strong enough to earn plenty of at bats at the top of the order this season. Despite losing Russell Martin during the off-season, the bottom of the Pirates order has been anchored by consistent strong production from catcher Francisco Cervelli.
What is the ceiling for this team after recent hot streak?
The Pirates recent hot streak puts the team in position to meet their spring training goal of winning a National League Central Division Title. While they currently sit six games back of the St. Louis Cardinals who have played their best baseball in April and May, the Pirates have been able to overtake the Chicago Cubs in the division standings to move into a second place tie. With a great pitching staff that is generating ground balls and strikeouts at a very significant rate, this Pirates team appears poised to make a third straight postseason appearance. The top four pitchers in their starting rotation have pitched as well as any other top four around the game of baseball through the first two months, with Gerrit Cole’s efforts appearing to be very sustainable based on his peripheral stats. The Pirates offense is likely to continue the recent trend they have established over the last few seasons, where cold starts have stabilized into strong efforts throughout the summer months. From 2012 through 2014, the Pirates have produced some of the best records in baseball throughout the months of June and July. In 2015 they now head into those warmer months of the season above .500, with the opportunity to meet their goal of establishing themselves as the best team in the National League.