Cleveland, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez points to the sky after hitting a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Credit: David Richard-US PRESSWIRE
The Pirates were playing pretend atop the NL Central early on, but if they keep hitting even a little, then they're here to stay.
The Pirates did not have a great start to the season at the plate. The pitching has been there for them nearly from the start of the year, especially since A.J. Burnett returned to action, but the offense just wasn't cutting it for players not named Andrew McCutchen. Because of this, any dreams of the Pirates being over .500 and remaining in the National League Central race were likely long shots as of a month ago. To reiterate our look at their impressive rotation back in early June:
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.
Pittsburgh ended April with a team OPS of 618, and while they bumped that up a bit through parts of May, it fell all the way back to 609 by May 27. That's not the lowest it's been all year, thanks to early-season, small-sample awfulness, but it's the lowest it's been since that date. Since May 28 -- a 32-game stretch -- the Pirates have bumped their collective OPS up to 691, on the strength of a .271/.330/.457 line and 787 OPS, and have a +15 run differential to show for it. In essence, that "room to improve" has been filled up -- but likely overfilled, too.
The Pirates aren't going to be at that kind of offensive pace for the rest of 2012. That OPS would put them around 10 percent above the league average, and also ahead of every single team in the NL. To be fair, though, they also aren't likely to be as poor as they were prior to the outburst, and should be average or better from here on out (via OPS+, they're already there). With strong pitching and glove work behind them, average should be enough to keep them in this thing -- legitimately -- for the first time since 1992.
What made for the turnaround? McCutchen has been the constant beacon of productivity, but he started to get some help after no one could muster any early. Neil Walker was just horrific in the early season, hitting .188 without an extra-base hit for the first 10 games of the year, but his line has recovered thanks to hitting .287/.354/.409 since. As usual, his batting average on balls in play is high, but that's a three-year-old story at this point. Rod Barajas has been mostly awful, but his bat came alive in May, as he slugged .556 with four homers in the month. When he once again slowed in June, backup backstop Michael McKenry picked up the pace: he's at .234/.321/.479 on the year, more than adequate from a catcher (or anyone, as his 121 OPS+ attests). Alex Presley has also done well since a rough start, and has produced a .274/.317/.516 line since June began. Even Jose Tabata, who was demoted to Triple-A on Tuesday, had been better as of late, with a league-average 718 OPS in his 27 games since June.
Most importantly, though: Pedro Alvarez finally seems to be back. In 2010, the rookie Alvarez hit .256/.326/.461, promising for a 23-year-old in his first taste of the league. But the 2011 season was a total bust and waste of both Alvarez' and the Pirates' time. While he hit for power early in 2012, nothing else was there for him, until recently: Alvarez has hit .276/.370/.575 with seven homers and a 26 percent whiff rate since June 1. That might still sound like too many strikeouts, but for someone who struck out nearly one-third of the time in a year, you take what improvements you can get.
It might be tough to rely on the likes of Barajas, McKenry, and Presley all year long, but they just need to avoid a repeat of the first two months of the year going forward -- they don't need to carry the team. As long as both Alvarez and McCutchen show off legitimate power in the middle of the lineup, and Neil Walker can continue to do what he's done since he was moved to second base three years ago, this lineup is likely to do enough to support the the run prevention crew.
Being optimistic about the Pirates and their chances at relevance are a bit odd, but they've been slowly building to this for a while. Falling apart in the second half of 2011 obscured the fact that some legitimate progress was being made. This year, there's far less chance that a collapse is coming, as long as Alvarez can continue to recapture his days as someone people were excited about, and the pitching can stay healthy. Those are still significant ifs, but the fact there is even a chance is yet another show of progress for a team that's long been without one.