April in review: Pittsburgh Pirates still in hunt
The first month of the baseball season is nearly over, and there are multiple storylines developing that will carry into the summer. One of the more surprising stories comes out of Pittsburgh, where the Pirates are playing competitive baseball and don’t appear willing to slow down anytime soon. After their loss to the reigning champion San Francisco Giants on Thursday, the Pirates sit at 11-14, fourth in the NL Central, but only 2.5 games back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals. In what figures to be a wide open division race for most of the season, the Pirates are keeping pace with the more established, veteran-laden squads. Let’s take a look at what has been the strengths and weaknesses of the team so far.
Undoubtedly, the strength of the team throughout the first month has been the pitching staff. Through 25 games, the staff is 12th in the majors with a 3.83 team ERA. The team has 12 quality starts from its starters and is averaging nearly a 2:1 K-BB ratio. The most impressive player of the group has been the resurgent Charlie Morton, who is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA through five starts. After a disastrous 2010 season with a 2-12 record and 7.57 ERA, Morton figured out how to keep his movement pitches down, and is, in turn, puzzling hitters. Kevin Correia (3-2, 3.48 ERA) also is pitching well for the Pirates, as is Paul Maholm, who gave the team seven quality innings in earning his first win on Monday against the Nationals.
The relief pitching, thought to be a weakness as the season began, has turned out to be the strongest part of the pitching staff, thus far. On the season, the bullpen has pitched to a 2.58 ERA with seven saves in 11 opportunities. The group is headed by the two-headed monster of Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek. The team is using Meek in hold situations, and he has done more than his part in keeping leads for Hanrahan, who is tied for third in the majors with seven saves. If the bullpen can continue to hold leads, it will take pressure off the starting rotation as the season progresses.
The weakness for the team, so far, has been the middle of the batting order, specifically, Pedro Alvarez who has not lived up to the hype surrounding him prior to the season. Projected to be the anchor of the line up, he is currently hitting a measly .202 with one home run and seven RBI, and he has dropped to seventh in the batting order. He’s not getting on base or providing the power the team needs at this point. He is playing solid defense at the hot corner, however, which has taken a little pressure off of him. Andrew McCutchen has also performed below expectations, hitting .202 with only three stolen bases.
The Pirates have managed to stay competitive due to their pitching staff, even though their two most talented offensive players have not yet found their groove. Expect that to change. Alvarez and McCutchen are too talented to stay in slumps for much longer, and the rest of the order will benefit when they pick their game up. May doesn’t appear to be too challenging on the schedule, as the team has series’ lined up against the Padres, Astros, Mets, Nationals and Cubs. The only tough series will be weekend road tilts in Milwaukee and Detroit. The team also has received solid contributions from Jose Tabata and Chris Snyder. If they continue to produce along with the pitching staff — and if Alvarez and McCutchen come around — the Pirates will be in good hands throughout May and into June.