When Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker — and their combined 43 home runs — departed last off-season, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to make up for the lost power with a high on-base approach. Their replacements, John Jaso and Josh Harrison, fit that mold.
Before the start of the 2016 season, Pittsburgh was also hoping Starling Marte would continue his surge to stardom, while Gregory Polanco was expected to break out and show why he was a former top prospect. David Freese was signed as a temporary replacement for the injured Jung Ho Kang. Sean Rodriguez was also re-signed. Matt Joyce was the most notable Spring Training invitee.
I, along with writer Michael Waterloo, decided to grade the offense and the pitching thus far. Waterloo will handle the pitching, while I’ll take a look at the offense.
Overall, it’s hard to argue against the Pirates’ execution of their new offensive approach. They’re third in OBP, sixth in hits, 10th in walks and 13th in runs. The home run numbers are down, but they’re still getting a power surge from Polanco and Kang, both of whom are on pace to hit career highs in home runs.
Besides, their new approach working — the Pirates have a lot to be optimistic about. Marte has become a star. Polanco isn’t far behind. Harrison is proving his 2014 All-Star Game appearance was no fluke. Even Jordy Mercer is having his best season at the plate since 2013, when he took over as the starting shortstop.
The off-season additions alone are worth an ‘A.’ Freese played his way into a regular in the lineup after initially just being a temporary starter. The addition of Joyce has been nothing short of fantastic; he’s perhaps been baseball’s best pinch hitter this year. Even Rodriguez is having a nice year, hitting seven home runs with a .830 OPS.
Adam Frazier is the lone call-up getting extended playing time, and he’s gone 7-17 with a double, triple and three stolen bases.
Not everything has gone to plan, however. Francisco Cervelli and Jaso both followed up hot starts with recent swoons.
Cervelli was batting .324 with a .823 OPS after April, but that dropped to .257 and .667 when he was placed on the 15-day disabled list in June. Cervelli had surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his left hand, and his timetable to return is still uncertain. Behind him at the catcher position has been Chris Stewart, who was below the Mendoza Line before recently going on the DL, Erik Kratz, who is hitting .080, and two games worth of Eric Fryer.
Jaso was hitting .304 with a .369 OBP at the end of May, prompting the Pirates’ marketing team to dub him “JasOBP.” His average has dropped to .273 and OBP to .354 since then, and he’s losing playing time to Freese.
The elephant in the room is Andrew McCutchen. He’s on pace for career-lows across the board, while also projected to have a career-high in strikeouts. His batting average has been hovering around its current .238 mark, with no signs of spiking. The plus side is that he leads the club with 12 home runs.
While the former MVP is struggling mightily, it’s not enough to overshadow what’s been a positive year for the offense. Players are finding ways to get on base. The additions of Freese and Joyce have been home runs (pun intended). There’s no one in the lineup who needs to be replaced, at least when everyone is healthy.
McCutchen’s struggles keep the offense from getting an ‘A,’ but everyone else’s contributions give Pittsburgh a solid ‘B+.’
I’ve been banging the drum for the past year or so, saying that the Pirates are lacking a true ace, and it’s shown this year. Gerrit Cole started the season on the disabled list, and he’s entering the All-Star break the same way he began the season.
See also: Melancon named to NL All-Star team
With 12 starting pitchers used this season, the Pirates have already surpassed the total number of starters from 2015. It’s been the Triple-A rotation in Pittsburgh for part of the first half, as Wilfredo Boscan, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have all toed the rubber for the Pirates.
Typically, having so many young guys isn’t a good sign, but with the options that the Pirates have had this year, they’re actually breathing a sigh of relief.
Jeff Locke (5.38 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), Jon Niese (4.87 ERA, 1.53 WHIP), Francisco Liriano (5.34 ERA, 1.64 WHIP), Cole (2.77, 1.32 WHIP) and Juan Nicasio (5.27 ERA, 1.41 WHIP) — the team’s starting rotation coming out of Spring Training — have all left a lot to be desired.
As a result, the Pirates are in the bottom third of the National League in starter’s ERA (4.75). The numbers aren’t fluky, either, as the FIP and xFIP come in at 4.76 and 4.50, respectively.
The Pirates’ bullpen is the only thing that gives the pitching staff an average grade, which isn’t something anyone thought they’d be hearing a month ago. Pittsburgh’s relievers have a 3.74 ERA, thanks in part to a recent hot stretch.
In fact, in the Pirates’ recent hot streak, as Richard Justice pointed out on Twitter, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, A.J. Schugel and Arquimedes Caminero have combined for 34 IP, 22 H, 0 ER, 4 BB and 33 Ks.
The cavalry is here for the Pirates, but if the team is counting on competing into October with Cole and a few rookies, they may want to start making other plans.
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