By Patrick Brewer, Lead National League Writer
Following a three game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates are continuing to find ways to win games and are continuing to prove they are a force to be reckoned with in the National League despite various injuries and struggling players at several positions. It seems like day in and day out the Pirates find ways to win ball games against all odds. Despite injuries to Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and AJ Burnett the Pirates are still winning and still sit atop the National League Wild Card race. The Cardinals may still hold the lead in the National League Central but they, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, and San Francisco Giants should all be wary of the huge threat that the Pirates represent in the playoffs.
The Pirates have been able to maintain their position of strength in the NL Wild Card race because of their good play in all facets of the game. In terms of offense, defense, and pitching the Pirates boast numbers near the top of the league in a wide variety of categories.
To start with the Pirates have a good offense that is in the top half of the league in several categories. It certainly helps to have a perennial MVP candidate like Andrew McCutchen batting in the middle of the lineup on a daily basis. The Pirates currently sit at 11th in the league with a wRC+ of 99, 15th with a WOBA of .310, and 15th with an OPS of .711. Based on these numbers the Pirates have had an at times middling offense that has overall been able to be good based on clutch performance. This is a team built to provide enough offense while the real strengths lie in the pitching staff and in defense.
In terms of the pitching staff, the Pirates have one of the stronger pitching staffs in the league led by Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett with a strong back-end of the bullpen led by lights out closer Mark Melancon. The Pirates are second in the league with a 3.24 ERA, 6th in the league with a 3.46 FIP, and fifth in the league with a 3.53 xFIP. The Pirates strong pitching has been dominant all year and has more than made up for their sometimes streaky team hitting.
Beyond the pitching staff and offense, perhaps the most important part of the Pirates success in years past has been their defense. When the Pirates front office remade the team a few years back in an attempt to win on a budget, the main focus of improving the team fell on improving the defense to save runs and make the team more efficient from top to bottom. This overhaul has worked over the last few years nearly to perfection. Surprisingly however the Pirates have succeeded so far this season despite defensive numbers that have paled in comparison to recent years. The Pirates currently sit in the bottom five of the league in UZR, UZR/150, and defensive efficiency. Despite this uncharacteristically poor performance defensively the Pirates pitching staff has still had great success this year and the offense has done enough to keep the Pirates near the top of the league.
More so than anything the Pittsburgh Pirates have thrived on contributions from many unlikely players. Obviously Andrew McCutchen has continued to be the player that we all knew he was. McCutchen is 8th in the league with a wRC+ of 154 and has a slash line of .301/.398/.513 which are all good for top twenty in the league. Beyond the usual stellar production of McCutchen the Pirates have once again gotten sterling production from smart free agent acquisitions and other important role players.
First off, Starling Marte has had a bit of a breakout season with a wRC+ of 120 and a slash line .285/.340/.441. These obviously aren’t MVP numbers but with McCutchen batting behind him this type of production for Marte is a welcome addition to the team. On top of Marte, the Pirates are getting another consistent year from Neil Walker who has a slash line of .274/.330/.432 while providing consistency at second base on a daily basis.
As it has been in more recent years, the real strength for the Pirates has been in smart free agent acquisitions. This starts with the acquisition of little known Korean player Jung Ho Kang. The Pirates got a great deal on Kang with a four year contract worth only 11 million given the lack of interest for other teams. The Pirates took a bit of a gamble with Kang but it has payed off completely. Kang currently finds himself near the top of the rookie of the year discussion with a slash line of .293/.368/.453 with a wRC+ of 134 in limited playing time. With the injuries to both Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, Kang has played full-time in recent weeks and has only improved his production. Beyond Kang, the Pirates signed Francisco Cervelli (.307/.372/.432) to replace Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett (3.06 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 135.1 innings before his injury) to bolster the rotation behind Cole and Liriano. Both players have had great success and have led the Pirates to the top of the league this year.
So as it stands the Pirates pitching staff has been fantastic, the offense has been good enough, and the defense has been pretty bad overall. Are the Pirates current numbers and production enough to push them into the playoffs and give them a serious chance at a World Series championship? The Pirates still have some serious question marks with the injuries to their entire left side of the infield and the injury to A.J. Burnett. But if the Pirates can dodge these bullets and get into the playoffs at 100% they do have a serious chance at giving the rest of the National League a run for their money and even winning the World Series.
Patrick Brewer is the Lead National League writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on Twitter @PatrickBrewer93, or join in the conversation @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.