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Monday, June 27, 2011
Best story of first half? Try the Pirates

By David Schoenfield

The Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t complete a series sweep of the Boston Red Sox, but taking two of three and knocking the Sox out of first place qualifies as one of the biggest moral victories for the franchise in years.

A year ago, the Pirates were a disaster. Nothing new there, of course, but even for them their 57-105 season was below standards -- the 105 losses were the most in the majors since the Royals lost 106 in 2005, and they allowed the most runs in the majors and scored the second-fewest. Considering their big offseason moves were to sign Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz and Kevin Correia, expectations were not high, but here stand the Pirates at 39-38 and just four games out of first place in the NL Central.

It’s enough to make them my biggest surprise story of the first half.

But ... can they keep it going? The Central remains wide open: The Cardinals have lost 12 of 15, the Brewers struggle on the road (15-24), and the Reds haven’t put it together (tied with the Pirates). Let’s look at four key reasons why the Pirates are a game over .500 and whether they can improve in the second half.

1. Andrew McCutchen is awesome.

According to FanGraphs’ WAR (wins above replacement), McCutchen has been the sixth-most valuable position player in baseball, trailing only Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Matt Kemp and Curtis Granderson. His defense has improved, his on-base percentage is up 35 points from a year ago, and his slugging percentage is up a bit. Last season, he was a good player. He’s become a superstar.

Likelihood to continue: Excellent.

2. The team’s defense has improved dramatically.

Last season, UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) ranked the Pirates as the worst defensive team in the majors. This season it ranks them ninth. Other than McCutchen, no individual Pirate rates as especially spectacular; they’re just solid across the board. Neil Walker and Ronny Cedeno appear improved from last season and the fewer innings Pedro Alvarez plays at third base only makes the defense better.

Likelihood to continue: Fair. Of course, the defensive numbers are tied into the next category ...

3. The starting rotation has been solid.

The Pirates are sixth in the NL with a 3.70 ERA from the rotation. Let’s take a closer look at the five starters.
  • Jeff Karstens: Currently ranks fifth in the NL with a 2.66 ERA, despite allowing 14 home runs in 84 2/3 innings. No offense to Jeff Karstens or his family, but he’s not this good. As a finesse righty with an 88-89 mph fastball, there's only a fine line of success for him. So far he’s managed to toe that line: Thirteen of those homers have come with the bases empty and he’s held hitters to a .151 average with runners in scoring position.
  • Paul Maholm: He’s been the biggest beneficiary of the improved defense, as his batting average on balls in play, .308 over his career, is at .250 in 2011. His K and walk rates aren’t really any different than his career norms. While his home run rate has dropped, it seems unlikely he can maintain a 3.21 ERA over the second half.
  • Kevin Correia: We’ve discussed him in the blog before. He’s cut way down on his walks at the expense of fewer strikeouts, but the new approach has worked. As long as he continues walking two batters per nine, he can remain successful even with his low strikeout rate. As with Maholm, however, any decline in defense will be especially problematic for him.
  • Charlie Morton: He’s not that good. Among 113 qualifed major league starters, he’s 62nd in ERA ... but 110th in runners allowed per nine. OK, he’s gotten a lot of groundballs so far and has allowed just two home runs. Call me skeptical.
  • James McDonald: He’s 112th among those 113 starters in runners allowed per nine. Until he stops walking four or five batters a game, he’s not going to be anything more than a fifth starter.

  • Likelihood to continue: Poor. Clint Hurdle has expertly managed the rotation and seems to understand their limitations. The Pirates have pitched the fewest 100-pitch games in the league and rank 14th among NL teams in innings by the starters. Even though Hurdle has done a nice job with them, I don’t believe they’ll sustain this level.

    4. Joel Hanrahan has been lights out as closer.

    Hanrahan should make the All-Star team with a 1.24 ERA and a perfect 22-for-22 in save opportunities. Hanrahan has always had the big fastball, but like Correia, he seems to have been benefited from some simple advice from pitching coach Ray Searage: throw more strikes, walk fewer guys. Last season, Hanrahan blew hitters away, fanning 12.9 per nine. He walked 3.4 per nine, which was actually way down from his previous season with the Nationals. This year, his strikeouts are down but so are his walks. He's throwing his fastball more and his slider less, and it’s resulted in more groundballs.

    Likelihood to continue: Excellent, although he will blow a save or three in the second half.

    As you can see, the Pirates will be hard-pressed to stay in the race, or even finish .500. But they’ve been a terrific story so far and, who knows, maybe they will stay in this thing and have their first .500 season since 1992. I certainly hope so.

    SERIES OF THE WEEK

    PhilliesRed SoxBoston at Philadelphia, Tuesday through Thursday

    Tuesday: Josh Beckett (6-2, 1.86) vs. Cliff Lee (8-5, 2.87)
    Wednesday: John Lackey (5-6, 7.36) vs. Vance Worley (2-1. 2.83)
    Thursday: Jon Lester (9-4, 3.66) vs. Kyle Kendrick (4-4, 3.23)

    The pitching matchups fall in Boston's favor as right now the Sox are scheduled to miss Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, although Hamels could start Thursday on regular rest if Charlie Manuel decides to move around his rotation. Beckett hasn't pitched since June 15 due to an illness but leads the majors in ERA, WHIP (0.92) and opponents' batting average (.174). Lee, meanwhile, is coming off consecutive shutouts and has allowed just one run his past four starts.

    The Phillies have struggled to score runs in interleague play, with just 17 runs in nine games against Texas, Seattle and Oakland. The Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored, but will presumably be without DH David Ortiz, although Terry Francona has mentioned the possibility of playing Adrian Gonzalez in the outfield so Big Papi doesn't sit for nine straight games. I wouldn't make the move -- you're making defense considerably worse at two positions while risking injury to Gonzalez -- but it's something to watch for.

    PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
    Clayton Kershaw
    Kershaw
    Saturday: Clayton Kershaw (8-3, 2.93) vs. Jered Weaver (9-4, 1.97), Dodgers at Angels

    There are several must-see duels this week -- including the above Beckett-Lee game, a Tommy Hanson-Michael Pineda matchup in Seattle on Tuesday that could go 19 scoreless innings, Cole Hamels-Ricky Romero on Friday -- but this one I'll be sure to watch, record or check out the replay on MLB.TV. By the way, considering the mess with the Dodgers, are the Angels now L.A.'s No. 1 team?

    Jered Weaver
    Weaver

    After "slumping" in May with a 3.38 ERA, Weaver has a 1.76 ERA in June. He hasn't allowed more than four runs in a game this season and has now gone 24 consecutive starts allowing four runs or fewer dating back to last August. Kershaw -- who had a 31-start streak of four runs or less of his own from May 2009 to April 2010 -- leads the majors in strikeouts.

    From Baseball-Reference.com, the longest such streaks of allowing four runs or fewer since 2001:

    1. Jake Peavy, Padres, Aug. 2003-May 2005: 39 starts (20-7, 2.39 ERA, 244 IP)
    2. Johan Santana, Twins, July 2006-July 2007, 35 starts (21-8, 2.60 ERA, 238 IP)
    3. Johan Santana, Twins, May 2004-May 2005, 32 starts (23-5, 2.04 ERA, 229 IP)
    4. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, May 2009-April 2010, 31 starts (9-7, 2.33 ERA, 177 IP)
    5. Josh Johnson, Marlins, April 2009-Sept. 2009, 29 starts (13-5, 3.10 ERA, 182 IP)
    5. Roger Clemens, Astros, Sept. 2004-Aug. 2005, 29 starts (14-4, 1.35 ERA, 199 IP)

    It's a good reminder of how dominant Santana was over those three seasons for the Twins, when he went 55-19 with a 2.75 ERA and WHIP under 1.00.

    THREE SWINGS
    Josh Hamilton
    Hamilton
    1. Josh Hamilton is right about one thing -- he doesn't hit in day games. He tried new contact lenses on Saturday and went 0-4 with four strikeouts (he wasn't wearing sunglasses at the plate) and Ron Washington didn't play him Sunday. Is there any truth to his "blue eyes in day games" theory? From the Elias Sports Bureau, here are the top 10 active hitters with the biggest night/day batting average differential (minimum 2,000 plate appearances):

    1. Hamilton: .333 night, .240 day (-.093)
    2. Delmon Young: .307 night, .249 day (-.058)
    3. Casey Blake: .277 night, .229 day (-.048)
    4. Denard Span: .302 night, .263 day (-.039)
    5. Michael Bourn: .277 night, .239 day (-.038)
    6. Rickie Weeks: .270 night, .232 day (-.038)
    7. Luke Scott: .276 night, .239 day (-.037)
    8. Johnny Damon: .298 night, .261 day (-.037)
    9. Craig Counsell: .269 night, .232 day (-.037)
    10. Prince Fielder: .294 night, .258 day (-.036)

    Based on this limited sample size, let's just say Hamilton's blue-eye theory doesn't quite hold up. Clearly, he does have a real problem during day games -- his split is 35 points worse than Delmon Young, the No. 2 guy.

    But what's more interesting is six of the 10 guys on the list have played primarily for dome/retractable roof teams -- Young (domes in Tampa and Minnesota), Span (Metrodome), Bourn (Houston), Weeks (Milwaukee), Counsell (Arizona and Milwaukee) and Fielder (Milwaukee). Makes you wonder if the lighting during day games in those places isn't very good. Worth a more in-depth study, perhaps.

    2. Through June 25, MLB attendance was down 325,000 from a similar point in 2010. You'll hear this hammered home all season long by baseball haters. That's about 282 fans per game. Of course, what the haters won't mention is the Dodgers by themselves are down about 371,000 -- and can you blame Dodgers fans for not showing in droves? The second-biggest drop? The Mets, down about 144,000 fans. So take out the two troubled ownership groups and attendance is up over a year ago. The biggest increases? The Rangers and Giants. And Sunday's games saw six crowds over 40,000-plus. Don't let them tell you baseball is dying.

    3. Brien Jackson, who writes for our Yankee blog, had a couple tweets on Saturday night that I couldn't agree with more. It's time the New York media (and to a certain extent, Yankee fans) realize that A.J. Burnett is what he is -- an overpaid No. 3 starter. It's time the media stops setting Burnett up for its wrath by saying he has great stuff. Burnett's a two-pitch pitcher without great command, and his fastball isn't even what it used to be. Look, Burnett's had a nice career -- 117 wins, ERA better than league average -- but he's never been a great pitcher. Yes, he led the AL once in strikeouts, but the last four seasons he's ranked 90th, 48th, 50th and 29th among major league qualified starters in ERA.

    RANT OF THE WEEK

    Entering Sunday, the quality start percentage across the major leagues was 55 percent, up two percent from last season and seven percent from 2008 and 2009. It's the highest total since 1988's 56 percent. Complete games are up, on a pace of 207 for the season, which would be the most since 209 in 2003. Starters are averaging 6.1 innings per start, the most since 6.1 in 1998.

    All this is a way of saying starters are pitching better and going deeper into games than a long time. OK, no surprise there. But few teams are adjusting to this -- most are still carrying 12, or even 13, pitchers. Managers are gaining slight tactical advantages out of the bullpen ... but giving up perhaps bigger tactical advantages with a smaller bench of position players. If starters are going 6-7 innings per start, it's very difficult to get seven or eight relievers regular work. Let's see teams cut down to six or seven relievers and carry an extra bat on the bench that you can use to pinch-hit against that LOOGY or ROOGY in the middle innings. Runs are scarce these days; having more pinch-hitters available could be a nice little edge.

    Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield and the SweetSpot blog on Facebook.

    PHOTO OF THE DAY
    Tony Gwynn Jr., Matt Kemp
    Matt Kemp has Tony Gwynn Jr. down, and he's not letting him up until the rest of his teammates can dog-pile on top. But that's what happens when you score the winning run, as Gwynn did Sunday.