The Pittsburgh Pirates, Baseball's Hottest Hot Topic

PITTSBURGH - JULY 10: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is congratulated by teammates Alex Presley #44 and Neil Walker #18 after hitting a three run home run against the Chicago Cubs in the third inning during the game on July 10, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

It seems like all anybody wants to talk about right now are the first place Pittsburgh Pirates. So let us talk about them!

The Pittsburgh Pirates began the season 1-0 with an Opening Day win over the Cubs. That put them in a tie for first place in the NL Central. They lost their second game, dropping out of first place, and remained out of first place for quite a long time, as has been their custom. On June 10, the Pirates lost to the Mets 8-1, and while they were still hanging around .500, they were 6-1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals. At that point the Pirates were somewhat interesting on account of their competence, but they weren't a big story.

Now they're a big story. Since that loss to the Mets, the Pirates have gone 20-12. Last Friday, they reached a tie for first place. Monday, they claimed sole possession. As of this writing, Pittsburgh is a half-game up on second-place St. Louis and Milwaukee. As anyone will be happy to tell you, this is the latest in a season that the Pirates have had sole possession of first place since your mother was born, and their resurgence has taken the nation by storm.

Just look at the front page of ESPN.com. Not the front page of ESPN/MLB, mind you. ESPN/main:

Piratesespn_medium

Bam. Pirates! People just want to talk and read about the Pittsburgh Pirates and what's going on in the NL Central, and I'm no different from them. So what I'm going to do here is talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and what's going on in the NL Central. The points that follow are only loosely connected, as this is less of a thesis and more of an assortment of thoughts that I have, but they all have one thing in common: it's July 19, and the Pittsburgh God Damned Pirates are in first place.

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Let's say you've been overseas. And not just overseas - overseas somewhere without any internet or access to the news. Let's say you've been living on Verlaten Island. You just got home today, and unpacked your things, and fired up Twitter. The second thing you do after returning home from Verlaten Island is fire up Twitter to get caught up on baseball. This is what you see:

Among the eighth-inning types the #PIrates are looking at: #Orioles' Uehara. #MLBless than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Welcome to our new baseball world, where the trade deadline is approaching, and the Pirates are looking to buy. Obviously they're not dumb enough to sell the farm for a quick-fix upgrade, but they're poking around for stretch-run help. Koji Uehara is a really good reliever who could be of some use. They've been linked to Carlos Beltran and Hunter Pence, among others. I remember reading a few articles several weeks ago suggesting that the Pirates should buy at the deadline just for the psychological significance of the act. Now they're looking to buy because it could mean something in the standings. The right player could even push them to the playoffs. Or maybe they do nothing, or maybe they make a trade that doesn't work out, but the point is that they're in this position for the first time in, what, ever?

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Tucked inside one of those ESPN articles linked on the front page:

Pirates1_medium

This is a ridiculous question. For one thing, it suggests that there are people in charge of the bandwagon. It suggests that there's a bandwagon board of directors whose approval one must be granted before gaining entry. For a second thing, it suggests that fans who gave up on the Pirates during their two-decade slump were somehow wrong to do so. One should never be so arrogant as to judge the fandom of others. And for a third thing, is it a ship, or a bandwagon? Don't mix your metaphors!

Curious about the current results of the poll, I placed my vote, and:

Pirates2_medium

It's encouraging, in that two-thirds of the respondents are open to the idea of greater, broader fan support. It's discouraging, in that one-third of the respondents are not. But then, who was voting in this poll? It couldn't have been just the fans who stuck with the Pirates the whole time, because there were more than 17 votes. Presumably a lot of the voters were people who're aboard the bandwagon, and they're not going to vote against themselves. These results mean nothing! They are impossible to interpret!

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Something a lot of people don't realize about the Pirates is that they've had trouble keeping their catchers healthy. At the end of May, Ryan Doumit fractured his ankle in a home plate collision. At the beginning of June, Chris Snyder hurt his back and had to have surgery. The Pirates have cycled through seven backstops on the year, which is a sign of their desperation.

And yet, since Snyder went down, the team has gone 20-14. The pitching staff's ERA has dropped from 3.51 to 3.20. The bulk of the catching action has been given to a 26-year-old nobody named Michael McKenry, and if he's in any way been a problem, the team's play hasn't reflected it. The Pirates' hottest streak has taken place with the regular catchers on the mend.

It makes you wonder about the old saw that a team's catcher is its captain. The Pirates have played their best baseball without their two projected catchers. Either those catchers are secretly mediocre, McKenry is secretly great, or it's all just a bunch of nothing. I'm going to side with the nothing.

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The neatest thing about the Pirates' success, of course, is that it's come completely out of nowhere. They aren't the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who were easier to see coming. Any analyst worth his salt had the Rays pegged for a breakthrough season of some sort. But the Pirates? Everybody knew the Pirates were rebuilding and on the right track, but nobody thought they'd actually be good. Not yet.

The numbers backed that up. This projection from February put the Pirates in the NL Central basement. This more thorough projection from the end of March put them ahead of the Astros, but behind everyone else. Coming into the year, the Pirates looked like a team that would win 65-70 games, or maybe 75 if a lot of things broke right. In other words, they were supposed to be the Pirates. A more individually interesting team of Pirates, but still, overall, the usual Pirates.

And here they are, less 2008 Rays and more 2010 Padres. They're in first place with one star and a good closer. It's because of the makeup of their roster and the seeming smoke-and-mirrors success of the pitching staff that still I don't think anyone actually believes in them, but they've gotten this far, and the improbability makes it more fun. Those 2008 Rays had Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and Scott Kazmir, among others. At any given point, you could look at them and think "Yeah, that makes sense." The Pirates still don't quite make sense, which is the biggest part of their charm.

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What are some of the things that, before the year, you would've figured would have to go right for the Pirates to stand even the slimmest chance of hanging in contention?

You probably would've looked for a breakthrough year out of Pedro Alvarez. You would've wanted some progression from Jose Tabata. You would've wanted trade acquisition James McDonald to step up and lead the rotation. You would've wanted free agent signee Lyle Overbay to get on base and drive in runs. And you would've wanted Evan Meek to serve as a shutdown guy in relief. Given those things, and a few others, then maybe - just maybe - the Pirates would hang around.

Well, Alvarez has done nothing and been hurt. Tabata's been fine, but he hasn't been better and he's hurt, too. McDonald has an 85 ERA+, which is easily the worst among the starters. Overbay has an 88 OPS+, down from last season's 105. And Meek has missed most of the year with shoulder problems. Plus, as previously mentioned, both the team's catchers are injured.

Read that paragraph, and only that paragraph, and you'd assume that the 2011 Pirates are caught in a nightmare.

Instead, they're 50-44, and looking down at the competition.

Right now, there is no better story in baseball.

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