The Pittsburgh Pirates have improbably won nine straight games, vaulting the team to a record of 51-30, the best in Major League Baseball. Despite a lack of run production this season, the pitching staff has been lights out and the Pirates have managed to play their best baseball in years.
But don’t be fooled by the streak and their record. This won’t last for long unless the Pirates’ bats can heat up a bit. The team has a very young pitching staff that has managed to play way above their heads so far this season and are the primary reason that Pittsburgh has won so many games, but it isn’t likely that they’ll be able to sustain their current level of play for much longer, and I’ll be more than happy to explain why.
Only one of their five starters has an ERA above 3.00. Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole has a 3.70 ERA but he’s 4-0 nonetheless. Ace Jeff Locke has spearheaded the rotation, posting a 7-1 record to date with a 2.06 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 67 strikeouts. Francisco Liriano is 7-3 with a 2.23 ERA. Even Charlie Morton is pitching well through four starts, as is Jeanmar Gomez, who is undefeated with a 2.76 ERA through eight starts.
But this is an anomaly. Morton and Gomez are not excellent pitchers and they will slow down. Locke, in his second year in the majors, and Cole, in his first, are not going to finish the season with perfect or near-perfect records. Wandy Rodriguez should be back soon, but he wasn’t pitching great when he hurt his elbow after 12 starts.
My point is that the Pirates’ pitching numbers will not remain where they are right now. They rank first in team ERA at 3.11 and first in opponent batting average at .225. But the team’s batting average on balls in play — or BABIP — is .265. This statistic is typically a good indicator of a team that’s overachieving, and .265 is a way-above-average BABIP and will be next to impossible to maintain.
The Pirates excellent pitching has bailed them out this season, as their hitting numbers are not all that impressive. Their 320 runs, .241 batting average. .307 on-base percentage, and .392 slugging percentage all rank no higher than 19th in the league. They’ve won 30 games by two runs or less out of their 51 wins. That isn’t a recipe for long-term success.
Closer Jason Grilli has converted on 27 of 28 save opportunities and has a superb 1.72 ERA, contributing strongly to their success in a lot of those close games, but the Pirates rely too heavily on a very young pitching rotation to be expected to finish the season atop the league standings.
You would expect these wins to be coming at the hand — or bat — of Andrew McCutchen, but his .292 average with nine homers and 42 RBIs, although solid, don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet. Pedro Alvarez is hitting for power this season, blasting twenty bombs so far to go along with 53 RBIs, but it’s tough to expect him to hit 40+ homers in a season as his most was 30 last year (albeit it was his first full season).
Besides the two of them, there have been no major contributors on offense. Starling Marte is batting .288 and leads the team with 90 hits and 52 runs, but he has just 26 RBIs. Unless guys like Marte, Russell Martin, Garrett Jones, and Neil Walker can pick up the pace when the pitching staff inevitably slows down, this team will struggle to win their division and win games at the rate they have been lately.
A friend of mine who is a Pittsbugh native and a Pirates fan tweeted yesterday that having the MLB’s best record still hasn’t sunk in. My advice for him: Hurry up because they won’t have it all that long.