By: Chris Larson
If anyone would have expected the Pirates to be in a tie for first place in the NL Central come mid-May at the start of the season, you likely would have been called crazy by baseball fans and the rest of the industry alike. It's not like the Pirates didn't make two massive trades this past winter, involving two key guys, either.
Over this past winter, the Pirates said goodbye to their franchise icon centerfielder, Andrew McCutchen, who got traded to the San Francisco Giants and saw their ace, Gerrit Cole, depart town as well. Both trades not only shook up the landscape of the NL Central, but changed the entire landscape of baseball entirely. The Astros got another outstanding pitcher to add to their already impressive lute of goods, while the Giants got another bat to improve their offense.
Yes, it's only mid-May and there's a lot of baseball left to be played, but you have to be impressed by the way the Pirates have been playing and the surprise they've been. In all honesty, no one is giving the Pirates much credit, even though they are in a tie for first place, and as real Pirates say, the way they've played is enough for a "Shiver me timbers" moment.
A big reason why the Pirates have been so successful isn't because of the pitching, but rather the offense that has been there all the way to this point. The Pirates currently rank third in the NL in runs scored (208), second in RBI (199), second in batting average (.262), and third in on-base percentage (.332). Certainly impressive for a lineup that many expected to be among the worst in all of baseball and truly struggle scoring runs this season.
When you look at the Pirates hitting statistics, it's not the fact that one sole individual is stepping up to the plate every day or night and doing the most damage, but rather than the whole lineup is contributing as a team. Corey Dickerson leads the team in batting average (.317) and RBI (27), Gregory Polanco ranks first in home runs (8), while Francisco Cervelli leads the team in on-base percentage (.415) and Starling Marte in hits (49).
The Corey Dickerson trade that Pittsburgh made has really been impressive. Besides the stats mentioned above, Dickerson is batting: .317/.353/.517 over 145 at bats and has a 1.0 WAR through 37 games played so far. In addition, Colin Moran, who the Pirates got in the Gerrit Cole trade from the Houston Astros, has 33 hits, 9 doubles, 3 home runs, 21 RBI, 15 walks, and a .382 on-base percentage over the span of 113 at bats. Many around the industry questioned the return the Pirates got for Cole, but to this point it has seemed to work out in both teams favor.
On the pitching side, the Pirates currently have a team ERA of 4.08 over 366.1 innings of work or 41 games, which puts them 9th in the National League. Furthermore, the Buccos have a team Opponent Batting Average Against of .250 and a 1.31 WHIP over that span. Not the most impressive statistics of any team, but it's certainly keeping the Pirates hopes of making the postseason alive and well.
In the starting rotation, the most impressive guy has been Trevor Williams, who currently has a team best 2.72 ERA over 53.0 innings of work. Over 9 games pitched, Williams is averaging 93 pitches per start and has a 1.7 WAR. Another impressive name in the rotation has been, Chad Kuhl, who leads the team in strikeouts with 42 over 45.1 IP. Kuhl has an Opponent Batting Average Against (OBAA) of .288 against left-handed hitters, while he's got a OBAA of .247 against right-handed hitters. Kuhl's ERA on the year is 4.17, but given that he is 25-years old, Kuhl is only starting to enter his peak and can become even better over time.
Switching things to the bullpen, the most impressive reliever to this point for the Buccos has been someone you've probably never even heard of before, Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez has a 1.72 ERA over 15.2 IP with 27 strikeouts so far this season. The 28-year old righty is in his second MLB season after making 5 relief appearances with the Baltimore Orioles last season. Furthermore, Rodriguez has two primary pitches in his repertoire, including a fastball and slider, and has a 0.92 FIP on the season.
In addition, Felipe Vazquez, formerly known as Felipe Rivero, who the Pirates signed to a four-year extension this past off season, has also been impressive. So far over the span of 16.2 innings of work, Vazquez has a strikeouts-per-9 rate of 9.72 along with a 2.72 ERA and 7 saves over 7 save opportunities. Vazquez does have a high walks-per-9 rate of 3.78 this season, but has a filthy fastball that he throws 63.8% of the time with an average velocity in the mid-to-upper 90's.
Beyond all of that, the Pirates have also faired well from a defensive perspective. As it currently stands, the Pirates have the fourth fewest errors in the National League, 21 over 41 games started, along with a fielding percentage of .987 and a Defensive Efficiency Ratio of .689. To this point, the Buccos three best defenders have been Corey Dickerson out in left field, Gregory Polanco in right field, and the versatile infielder, Sean Rodriguez.
When all is said and done, who knows if the Pirates will continue playing this way and be able to rite the ship during those low times, but the way they have been playing as of late, certainly deserves attention as does the fact that they're playing this way without their two biggest assets that they had last season in Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. As they say, the best trade is sometimes the one a team doesn't make, but after years of holding back both, the Pirates have clearly made the right decision to trade both and put the franchise in a better position, which has been the case so far this year.