The most consistent reason for the Pirates failing to finish over .500 since 1992 has been an inability to get outs. Pittsburgh pitching staffs have made a practice of failing to miss bats, and have instead been composed of pitch-to-contact arms that had to rely on incompetent defenses to do the work for them. That's a recipe for failure, and the main reason why, even last year, when they were over .500 mid-season, it was hard to believe the good fortune would continue.
Over the last few seasons, the front office has started to change that, bringing in pitchers who could actually miss bats every now and again. First, James McDonald was acquired in exchange for Octavio Dotel, in a trade that looked great at the time, and has only improved with age. Then, this off-season, the Pirates filled the holes left by free agency with the signing of Erik Bedard, and a trade for A.J. Burnett. While these two might seem like cast-offs to other organizations, there were reasons why they could be of use to Pittsburgh.
The result? The Pirates are one game over .500 heading into Thursday night's contest, and it's thanks to their defense and pitching staff both succeeding simultaneously, for the first time in what seems like forever:
|Year||Pirates K/9||League K/9||Def. Eff.|
(Defensive Efficiency measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs; Pittsburgh's league rank is shown in parentheses.) The last time the Pirates were over the league-average in strikeouts per nine, Jason Bay was a rookie sensation, there was still hope for Daniel Cabrera to find the strike zone, Barry Bonds was still leading the league in just about anything the opposition would allow him to... it was a different era. To hammer home how different, the Pirates managed this feat thanks to Oliver Perez, who struck out 11 per nine and posted a 2.98 ERA in 196 innings.
Other than Perez, just one Pittsburgh starter was above the league-average, and that was Kip Wells (7.5 per nine). That was enough to surpass adequacy, though. In 2006, the only other time since that they've at least matched the average punch out rate, Ian Snell and his 8.2 per nine were the driving force. The lack of a .500 record isn't the only dry spell the Pirates have been dealing with over the years.
They've jumped a full strikeout per nine from 2011, though, with the league seeing a 0.4 increase themselves. The rotation isn't perfect, but it's doing its job:
With the exception of Correia, the staff has looked good. Charlie Morton could stand to strike out more hitters, but at least he's limited his walks to counter the lack of swing-and-miss. Burnett's numbers look great, but they're also misleading: half of the 24 runs he's allowed all season came in one 2⅔ inning appearance in which he was shelled. Leaving aside that start, Burnett has a 1.89 ERA in 52 innings, thanks to six quality starts in eight attempts and a 2.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Bedard is almost always excellent when he's healthy, and he's made his 11 turns in the rotation this year. If he's on the mound, he's going to produce. Combine those two with McDonald, who has been one of the top hurlers in the majors in 2012, and you've got yourself the makings of a productive rotation, something the Pirates have only been able to dream about the last decade-plus.
While not everyone in the bullpen has been pulling their weight with strikeouts, Joel Hanrahan (11.6), Jason Grilli (15.0), Brad Lincoln (9.3), and Juan Cruz (8.7) have all done their share to prop up the Bucs' K/9.
It wouldn't be a Pirates team without problems, though, and the lineup is the culprit this time around. It figures that, in the first year the defense and pitching were actually in a state to help the Pirates win, that all of the non-Andrew McCutchens on the roster would simply forget how to hit. Unlike in 2011, though, there's room to improve here that's actually within the team's reach: if the bats who are capable start to perform as they can, this is a Pirates team that might actually stick around in the NL Central.