Having spent most of the season before this week sitting atop the NL Central, and still boasting a 12-10 record despite just being recently swept by the Phillies, it is fair to say that the Pirates have been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far.
They have looked anything but the team many expected to nosedive after trading away their biggest name players in Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole in the offseason, with David Freese and Josh Harrison both vocal in their disdain for a perceived lack of commitment to winning from the front office.
In his Pirates season preview for this site, David Wyatt, mindful of a lack of pitching depth, predicted that hitting would be the key to any Pirates success in 2018, and so far he has been correct. With 100 runs through their first three weeks of the season, the Pirates outscored the big guns of the Yankees, Cubs and Astros.
Despite losing their best hitter in McCutchen (schadenfreude much, Pirates fans?) they are making much better contact than they did last year. Their hard hit percentage is up nearly 2%, and their fly ball percentage is up more than 5%.
As a team they’ve shown excellent plate discipline, striking out just 18.9% of the time. Only the Red Sox and the Angels have been better in that regard. Despite an almost identical BABIP, the team so far have improved their OPS by 34 points on 2017.
Much of that hitting improvement has been down to Gregory Polanco, who looks to be having the breakout season Pirates fans have been waiting for. He has hit a home run every 16 plate appearances so far this, compared to his career rate of one every 37. He has combined that power threat with excellent pitch selection (he has swung at just 23% of pitches outside the zone, compared to 35% last year), which has rewarded him with a walk rate which is more than double his 2017 rate.
Colin Moran has made a very solid start to his career in Pittsburgh, after being used as a makeweight in the deal that took Cole to the Astros in the offseason. He was batting .288/.338/.407 going into the last series against the Phillies. Josh Bell, too, coming off a strong rookie season continues to show promise.
If the Pirates are to continue to compete in the NL Central once the Cubs get going in earnest, then it is probably the pitching that will have to show improvement. Jameson Taillon, having recovered well after being sidelined for most of last year with testicular cancer has been very good, and was recently the NL Player of the Week. The rotation as a whole has been league average overall, but delve a bit deeper and there are some portents which suggest they could be due for some regression.
The home run to fly ball rate is down 4% on last year, possibly explained on by the cooler early-season weather, but you would expect that to gradually rise over the coming weeks and months. Their swinging strike rate is an MLB-worst 8.1% so far which means they are not beating enough bats.
If the starting pitching has not been too bad, the real weakness has been the bullpen. Only four teams have a worse ERA than the Pirates relief corps, and their WHIP is 7th worst in the league. Limiting baserunners has been hard so far, and will the ‘pen will have to improve if the Pirates are to keep up their strong start.
I must confess to having a bit of a soft spot for the Pirates, and I really hope they can remain in the hunt. The loss of Josh Harrison to injury is a blow, and I’m slightly fearful that the pitching might not be strong enough to keep them afloat, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Strong starts with the bat from Starling Marte, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese and Polanco have boosted them so far and brought solidity and threat to a lineup that nobody will enjoy facing. Corey Dickerson, a shrewd late offseason pickup, has been good with the bat and excellent in the field, and Elias Diaz has looked great, albeit with limited playing time so far.
From the outside, the outlook seemed gloomy for the Pirates on the eve of the season but the clubhouse looks buoyant now after a fantastic start. With only the free-falling Reds below .500 so far, it is increasingly looking like the NL Central will be even more hotly-contested than last year, when it was the Brewers who surprised everyone. Perhaps it’ll be a different surprise package who challenge the Cubs this time out, and perhaps they’ll go one better than the Brewers. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps!
Big thanks to Marcus Cleaver (@marcuscleaver) for his support in putting this article together.