Pirates’ hot start brings back memories of 2013

Is the 2023 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates for real? As I write this, the team is in second place in the National League Central Division with an astonishing 13-7 record. Picked fourth or fifth in the division by most experts, per Baseball Reference their record exceeds their Pythagorean record of 12-8, defying not only the so-called experts but sixth-century Ionian Greek philosophers as well. Their 13-7 record is good for a .650 winning percentage, a 105-win pace for 2023.

However, pacing is for horse racing and has little application to the long major-league baseball season. Surely the Pirates will hit some rough patches, as do even the best of all baseball teams. For now, the present four-game winning streak and stretch of 12 wins in 17 games has conjured up thoughts of 2013 for Pirates fans. That was the year the Pirates began a string of three consecutive wild card appearances.

Theater of the absurd

There is a seriousness and a dedication to winning and playing solid baseball that could not be detected in the three previous years, when their combined record was 142-242. Those years saw first baseman Will Craig allow the Chicago Cubs’ Javier Baez get into and then escape an absurd rundown between home plate and first base, Ke’Bryan Hayes called out for missing first while rounding the bases after hitting a ball over the fence, Rodolfo Castro‘s phone popping out of his back pocket as he slid into third and Hayes reaching into his pocket for sunflower seeds as opposing runners raced around the bases.

The Midas touch

It’s said this is the year we find out about Derek Shelton as a manager. The conventional wisdom says one can’t judge a manager until he has a good team. That, of course, is nonsense, but let’s postpone that discussion for another time.

Shelton’s tendency to constantly change lineups from one game to the next is one Pirates fans have found maddening. They don’t mind so much now that the team is scoring runs and winning. Everything Shelton has touched has turned to gold so far in 2023. On April 10, Shelton wrote Ji-Man Choi’s name on the lineup card in the fifth spot against Houston Astros pitcher Framber Valdez. To say the least, the choice was a head-scratcher. The left-handed-batting Choi, now in his eighth year in the majors, was 1-for-17 entering the game and had just four career home runs against left-handed pitching. The sixth-year man Valdez, himself a lefty, had given up only five homers to left-handed batters in his career. Yet Choi took Valdez deep for the lone Pirates highlight in an 8-2 loss.

More examples of Shelton’s Midas touch abound. On Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds, Connor Joe and Jack Suwinski touched up starter Luke Weaver for back-to-back homers in the first inning, giving the Pirates a quick 4-0 lead. Weaver surrendered only one home run in 26 games in 2022, none in his last 23 games. For Suwinski, it was his fourth homer in four games.

The new Lumber Company?

At times, the Pirates have resembled the old “Lumber Company” of the 1970s. Earlier this week in Colorado, the Pirates scored 33 runs in sweeping the three-game series, including two 14-3 wins. Joe, acquired from the Rockies in the offseason for a minor league pitcher, went 5-for-14 in the series with five runs scored and a big triple. Fans in attendance at Coors Field had to be crying in their Coors thinking about that trade. The middle game of the series saw Suwinski go deep twice. On April 7 in their home opener against the Chicago White Sox, the Pirates exploded for 13 runs, including Bryan Reynolds going 3-for-5, 1 HR, a triple and 6 RBIs, while Castro, Ji Hwan Bae and Jason Delay combined for 10 hits in the bottom third of the order.

Surely, the reason for the constantly changing lineups during the three previous seasons was due to Shelton trying to learn his young team. This year it’s due to the fact he can only start nine hitters in a game. Yet every position player on the team has been deserving of playing time. So far, six men have started in the outfield and four have started at second base. Of course, the injury to Oneil Cruz that necessitated Castro moving from second to shortstop has had something to do with the shuffling at second. Bae has been an irregular regular, starting on most days while bouncing between second, shortstop and center field.

Not your father’s baseball

Shelton’s analytically driven batting orders are a constant reminder that today’s baseball is not your father’s baseball. The number two hitter as contact hitter who moves runners has gone the way of the fax machine. Until Cruz’s injury, he was consistently in the leadoff spot. The next three spots, for the most part, have been occupied by Reynolds, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Santana. This has put most of the team’s power in the first four spots of the order. The fifth spot has been manned by Joe or Canaan Smith-Njigba, who bring high on-base percentages to the table. Speedy Bae has mostly occupied the eighth spot, placing him in front of the power hitters after the Bucs have gone through the order once.

Shelton hasn’t been as creative in his bullpen usage as he was last year. Then again, he hasn’t had to be. Last season, David Bednar was often brought into games earlier when the game hung in the balance. This season, perhaps because of last year’s back injury, he’s been used in a conventional closer’s role, pitching in the ninth inning in save situations. Colin Holderman has been a reliable eighth-inning man. The runs he surrendered against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday were the first against him in 2023. The seventh inning has been in the capable hands of new acquisition Dauri Moreta, Rule 5 draftee Jose Hernandez and even Duane Underwood, Jr., previously an innings-eating long reliever.

“I didn’t come here to lose 100 games.”

The big story, of course, is the return and resurgence of McCutchen, presently batting .290/.395/.548, 4 HR and 9 RBIs. Rejuvenated as a Pirate (gee, who could have predicted that?), he’s playing as if he’s found the fountain of youth. Tied 4-4 against the Astros on April 11, “Cutch” was called upon to pinch hit with one on and one out in the home half of the ninth. His sharp single to left field set the stage for Bae to win it with a long home run. On Jackie Robinson Day in St. Louis, McCutchen led off the 10th inning with the first leadoff two-run homer in Pirates history to beat the Cardinals, 6-3. Just as importantly, he has the young Pirates having fun and believing in themselves. “I didn’t come here to lose 100 games,” he told local ATT Sportsnet.

Reynolds, Bae and no ordinary Joe

The second-biggest story of the year is how Reynolds has produced after his trade demand. He’s hitting .291/.314/.544, 5 HR and 17 RBIs. Besides the aforementioned six-RBI day against the White Sox, he also had a two-homer day at Fenway Park on April 3, helping defeat the Red Sox 7-6 en route to a three-game sweep.

Bae and Joe have become instant fan favorites. Bae has made spectacular catches in center field not seen since McCutchen’s prime. He surprised with an opposite-field homer over the Green Monster in the 4-1 April 3 win in Fenway. His stat line, a mere .228/.302/.368, belies his value, as it seems he’s been part of plenty of rallies. Meanwhile, Joe sits at.340/.421/.640, 2 HR and 8 RBIs. Yes, it’s a bit early to speak of averages. Legendary Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince used to say they were meaningless until the batter had 100 at-bats. Even so, better for the Pirates that Reynolds, Cutch and Joe are hitting what they’re hitting rather than, say, .140.

On the mound

All of this is not to say it’s been all offense behind the Pirates’ hot start. The pitching staff should also be given its due. The Pirates have gotten at least six innings from its starters for the past 10 consecutive games. Given the Opening Day assignment, starter Mitch Keller failed to build on last year’s strong finish and looked anything but a staff ace. He promptly righted himself in his next start at Fenway, pitching seven innings, allowing one run in a 4-1 win. On the previous day Roansy Contreras, himself a future staff ace, combined with three relievers to hold the Red Sox to five hits, also for a 4-1 win. Then there was Johan Oveido, replacing the injured JT Brubaker, combining with three relievers to shut out the White Sox on two hits for a 1-0 victory. Vince Velasquez got into the act, beating the Cardinals 5-0 on April 13, also with the help of three relievers.

However, Velasquez remains an enigma, pitching spectacularly in two wins and poorly in two losses, with a 5.12 ERA. Starter Rich Hill isn’t quite on track at present, either, with a 5.57 ERA, allowing seven homers in 21 innings. It could be quite an interesting summer in Pittsburgh if these two veterans can right themselves, or at least hold down the fort for the expected arrival of prospect Quinn Priester later this year.

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