The past two years have been good to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates have made the playoffs in each of the last two years which is huge considering that they hadn’t qualified for the postseason prior to that since 1992. And in 2013, the Pirates won their first postseason round for the first time since winning the World Series in 1979. Under general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates have been developing talent and more importantly they now expect to win. But things were going to be a little bit different this season being that the Pirates lost catcher Russell Martin in free agency. Martin would sign with the Toronto Blue Jays last off-season after he was so vital to the success of the Pirates pitching staff over the last two seasons. And after a slow start to 2015, these Pirates under manager Clint Hurdle now have the look of a contender.
On May 16, the Pirates found themselves with a record of 17-20 as they were a hot and cold team. But since then the Pirates have been sizzling as they are 23-11. The Pirates overall record of 40-31 has them owning the top slot in the National League Wild Card race and if it weren’t for the incredible start by the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh would have the best record on the Senior Circuit.
It’s no coincidence that the Pirates turnaround this season began when center fielder Andrew McCutchen was able to get going at the plate. McCutchen was named as the NL MVP in 2013 and he is one of the best five-tool players currently in MLB. In mid-May, McCutchen was only batting .231 as some folks feared that he lost his power when he cut his hair. But now McCutchen has been able to increase his batting average to .292 to go along with a .376 on-base percentage, 9 home runs and 44 runs batted in and as he goes, so do the fortunes of the Pirates. Outfielder Starling Marte is in his fourth season with the Pirates and he’s in the midst of his best MLB season being that he is on the verge of setting new career-highs in home runs, runs batted in and slugging perentage. But the biggest bright spot so far this season for the Pirates has been catcher Francisco Cervelli.
The Pirates acquired Cervelli from the New York Yankees last off-season as they were looking to cushion the blow from losing Martin, but they didn’t expect what they are currently getting from him. At the plate, Cervelli is batting .306 with 3 homers and 22 runs batted in 55 games; while behind the plate he is calling games for a Pirates pitching staff that has an earned run average of 2.89 which is second in the National League.
Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft by the Pirates and Pittsburgh appears to have found themselves a frontline pitcher now that they’ve taken the training wheels off of him. Cole is leading MLB this season in wins (11) and his earned run average of 2.16 is fifth as he is looking to become the first Pirates pitcher since Doug Drabek in 1990 to win the NL Cy Young Award and the first pitcher in team history to win 20 games in a season since John Smiley in 1991. After revitalizing his MLB career with the Pirates in 2012 as he went 16-10 that year, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett spent last season with the Philadelphia Phillies where he led the NL in losses with 18. But Burnett has returned to Western Pennsylvania for 2015 and his 6-3 mark with a 2.05 earned run average could earn him his first All-Star Game appearance. And you cannot forget about relief pitcher Mark Melancon who is leading MLB this season in saves with 24 as he has been lights out in the ninth inning.
The Pirates are navigating through the tough National League Central where they have to deal with the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs as they are more than holding their own which is a testament to Hurdle and his managerial skills. The Pirates are the second team that Hurdle has led to the postseason as he was the skipper of the Colorado Rockies in 2007 when they won their only National League Pennant. These Pirates might not be like the “We Are Family” team that captivated Pittsburgh in 1979, but if they could win a World Series like them, no baseball fan in the Steel City will ever forget McCutchen and crew.
Source: Piratesprospectus.com, Baseball-reference.com