Time to start believing in the Pirates

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
11:42
PM ET




Actually, it's now 53 runs after the Pittsburgh Pirates finished off the Houston Astros with an 11-2 victory on Monday night. On a day when Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds complained about not getting enough All-Star recognition, the Pirates -- who began the day just one game behind the Reds -- quietly accepted their two All-Stars, then went out and whupped up on Houston.

After all, the Pirates are seeking something bigger than All-Star berths.

Wait, did I just write that sentence? As Pirates fan and ESPN.com correspondent DJ Gallo told me Monday night, "I have no idea what's going on. But I like it."

OK, we've been here before. A season ago, the Pirates were tied for first place in the National League Central with a 53-47 record. And then came that devastating 19-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves. And then came disaster. Including that loss to Atlanta, the Pirates went 19-43 the rest of 2011, collapsing to yet another losing season, of which the count is getting to be too many to tally at this point.

So why should we believe in the Pirates this year? Should we, yes, like the Pirates' chances to stay in the race?

Andrew McCutchen

On Monday, McCutchen went 4-for-5 and scored three runs, raising his season line to .354/.407/.600. He's absolutely in the first-half MVP discussion along with Joey Votto and David Wright. If you want to bring put up the "most valuable to his team" line of thinking, it's hard to imagine where the Pirates would be without McCutchen. After all, this is still a lineup that is 15th in the NL in runs scored and last in on-base percentage. The Pirates have scored just 297 runs and McCutchen has scored 50 of them and driven in 52 of them.

You may remember that McCutchen had a terrific first half in 2011 but slid to a .216 mark in the second half. But there's reason to believe McCutchen's improvement is real and sustainable. As Buster Olney detailed recently, McCutchen spent the offseason retooling his swing. McCutchen studied the swings of hitters like Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez and decided to open up his stance a bit. As Buster wrote, "Now, as a pitcher begins his delivery, McCutchen's swing mechanics are triggered. He raises the bat in his hands; he lifts his left leg slightly and then plants his front foot. His weight shift, from his back leg into his swing, is smooth and powerful, and he fires his bat through the zone."

This is the new and improved McCutchen and he can carry the offense.

James McDonald

McDonald improved to 8-3 with a 2.45 ERA after allowing two runs in seven innings on Monday. With five walks, it was far from his best start of the season, but he gutted out a solid effort after walking three hitters in the first inning. Like McCutchen, McDonald is a different player this. His slider, which he rarely threw a year ago, has given him a third solid pitch with his fastball and curveball. The fastball/slider combo helps set up his curveball and hitters are batting .096 against the curve.

Are there some red flags when you dig into the numbers? Maybe. His batting average on balls in play is .240 and his home run rate is down from last season. But it's also true he's keeping the ball down in the zone. He may not post a 2.45 ERA over his next 16 starts, but he's a good pitcher, would have been a worthy All-Star and I believe he's for real.

The rest of the rotation

There was an obvious reason everyone expected the Pirates to fall last year: the rotation was way over its head. At the All-Star break, the rotation had a 3.62 ERA -- even though it was last in the league in strikeout rate. Those categories rarely mesh over 162 games. A collapse was inevitable, and sure enough the rotation posted a 5.04 ERA after the break. This year's rotation has a 3.96 ERA and while it's still not a big strikeout rotation -- despite the additions of A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard -- it's performing at the level its numbers suggest: a 3.93 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 4.01 xFIP if you like the advances metrics. There's even room to upgrade over current No. 5 starter Jeff Karstens. Burnett has won eight straight starts and is lining up as a solid No. 2 behind McDonald.

Pedro Alvarez

Don't look now, but Alvarez is ... maybe actually productive. Yes, he's hitting .231 and his OBP is just .303, but he's run into enough fastballs to hit 15 home runs. If he can come close to replicating his June numbers -- .262/.354/.571 -- the Pirates have another legit middle-of-the-order bat with McCutchen.

The bullpen

The secret strength of the team. The Pirates' bullpen began the week with a 2.73 ERA, tied with the Reds for best in the NL. Besides All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, veteran Jason Grilli has been outstanding, with 48 strikeouts in 30.1 innings. The Pittsburgh starters haven't racked up a lot of innings, so the Pirates will continue to rely on their relief corps.

Look, maybe there's reason to worry about the offense. But it has been improving. After a .617 OPS in April and .618 in May, the Pirates had a .785 OPS in June. They actually led the NL with 39 home runs and 146 runs during the month.

So, yes, there are reasons to believe this club is not your 2011 Pirates ... or your 2010 Pirates ... or ... well, you get the idea.

These are the 2012 Pirates and it's time to jump on the bandwagon.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Michael BournDaniel Shirey/US PresswireAs Michael Bourn knows well, what leadoff man doesn't love coming home?

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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