Last night I declined to go out and partake in extracurricular activities so it gave me some time to sit back, watch the Pirates, and think about how the season has gone so far. I think it has become pretty clear where the Pirates are going from here, they don't have a very good pitching staff and unless they fix that up it is going to be really hard for them to be true contenders.
Before the season started I think that most people knew that the starting rotation was going to struggle to some degree. Instead of a more solid commodity like A.J. Burnett there was Edison Volquez. I think most weren't expecting to get anything in the first half like Jeff Locke gave them last year and while I was a little more optimistic about Wandy Rodriguez than most I still didn't think he was going to be more than a decent number four. Gerrit Cole seemed like the guy that was going to anchor the rotation but after that you had no idea what you were going to get.
I think what also was a huge problem in the minds of most Pirates fans was the offense. Last season the offsense got off to a pretty horrible start and while they did alright down the stretch they still weren't overly good. They had Andrew McCutchen, the home runs from Pedro Alvarez, and a bunch of question marks from game-to-game in 2013.
To start 2014 the Pirates figured to be dreadful at first base and right field and not much better at shortstop with Jordy Mercer being more of an unknown than someone you could count on. I mean it wasn't going to be tough to be better than Clint Barmes, but being better than Barmes doesn't necessarily mean you are 'good' offensively.
As we enter the third week of June I think we are starting to see that this Pirates offense is much, much better than people thought it was going to be and as we sit here today the Pirates offense is one of the best in the National League and respectable among the top offenses in baseball.
As of baseball played through June 13 here are where the Pirates rank in Major League Baseball in some of the bigger offensive categories. It must be noted that these numbers do not include pitchers hitting since you can't compare AL and NL teams batting with those included since one side has a designated hitter and the other doesn't.
Average: .263 (7th)
On Base: .338 (2nd)
Slugging: .406 (12th)
wRC+: 111 (4th)
wOBA: .330 (4th)
BB%: 8.7% (t-10th)
K%: 19.5% (t-13th)
That is a pretty good offense. The Pirates aren't scoring a lot of runs as they rank 17th in the league with 271 runs but they are getting on base and giving themselves a chance to score runs. A few years ago I talked a lot about how the Pirates really struggled to get guys on base and they were striking out way too much. Last season they improved in that area and this year they are right around the middle of the pack in strikeout rate and they rank second in the league in team OBP.
I am not going to lie, I am a little surprised that the Pirates were that good at getting on base but when you look at the Pirates hitters they have four regulars with a .350 or better OBP and they have six regulars with a .330 or better OBP. That is how you get the offense started. Five different players that have at least 100 plate appearances have better than a 10% walk rate (McCutchen, Alvarez, Russell Martin, Ike Davis, Travis Snider) after only having three guys in that situation last season (McCutchen, Martin, Gaby Sanchez).
The Pirates offense has their struggles. They are a below average team with runners in scoring position (96 wRC+) but they are more of a middle of the pack offense in that regard. That is a little better than I thought they would be as for many games I seem to remember them leaving a small country on the bases.
The Pirates also haven't been getting a lot of extra base hits. After last night they have the third fewest doubles in the league (100) and rank near the middle of the pack in both triples and home runs. All hits are not created equal and I would sure love for the Pirates to find the gap a little more often but I would rather have singles than no hits at all. If you are putting guys on base then you are doing something right and in my opinion it is only a matter of time before you are going to start to score those runs.
The Pirates have been helped out by much better pinch hitting this season than they have had in the past. Over the last three years here are the slash lines for the Pirates pinch hitters:
Pinch hitting happens a lot more in the National League than the American League so for an AL team the numbers of your pinch hitters might not be overly important but in the NL it is pretty significant. Last season the Pirates led the league with 287 pinch hit plate appearances so raising your average by over 100 points over a few years is significant in that number of at bats. The Pirates bench has gotten better and when you are able to add players like Gregory Polanco that will push guys like Josh Harrison back to the bench where they can be a very good guy to come off the bench late in games to pinch hit.
I started talking about the offense a little more in depth on Twitter last night and a sense I got from people was that guys like McCutchen, Martin, and Davis were really carrying the load. I actually don't think that is very true. Sure, McCutchen has been nothing less of a monster this season and Davis has been way better than I expected in taking over the big portion of the platoon but guys like Gaby Sanchez (121 wRC+), Neil Walker (130 wRC+), and Harrison (125 wRC+) have been more than carrying their weight for this offense. Obviously Walker is out for a few weeks but when he comes out you are going to have a really good base for an offense when you include Martin (134 wRC+) into that offense. Add on to that Alvarez who despite having some rough patches can change the game on one swing of the bat and has drastically cut down his strikeout rate (23%) and has actually been hitting pretty well in June (.302/.400/.465). Even Jordy Mercer (.311/.333/.467) has turned it up in June.
So far this season the Pirates have 28 games where they have double digit hits (42% of games) after having 58 such games last year (36%). Turned into 162 game season the Pirates are on pace to have around 68 games with double digit hits.
You can say what you want about this team and where you think it is going but one thing you can't say about the Pirates this year is that the offense is holding them back, because that would be a lie. When Walker comes back you can say that this team is better than last year's team. If the Pirates get their pitching figured out and get some consistency there they are going to be a true contender in the NL Central and in the National League. The offense is fun to watch and that is something you haven't been able to say in Pittsburgh for some time.