The answer given to the Trib’s Travis Sawchik from MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd sounded as simple a solution for the Pirates’ continued improvement in the second half of this season as it was for Lester Freamon to tell Roland Pryzbylewski for advice in how to take down a drug ring in West Baltimore in “The Wire.”
Follow the money.
In other words, count on the Pirates’ highest paid players to improve after the All-Star Break and perform more to their capabilities.
That result would be the exact opposite of what this team has done in the first half. The truth is the glaring reason for this team’s renewed presence in the playoff race is not due to the contributions of the higher names on the payroll, but the collective excellence of the ones near the bottom.
Simply put: the least expensive players have largely been the more valuable ones.
The five highest-paid players on the team in annual salary are (in order): Francisco Liriano, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon, Jon Niese and Josh Harrison. Three of those men — Liriano, McCutchen and Niese — have been largely underwhelming if not chronically inconsistent.
McCutchen leads the team in home runs (14), but is also on pace for career worsts in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate and strikeout rate by wide margins, respectively. Liriano has issued the most walks in the National League and Niese the second-most home runs. Harrison has been hot and cold, but still falling short in the areas where he was expected to thrive, namely his .274 batting average, 10 points below his career mark entering the season.
Melancon has been the lone efficient mainstay, tied for second in the league with the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen with 27 saves, and his 1.23 ERA is third-best of any NL reliever with at least 30 innings pitched.
But when you look up and down the stat sheet, it appears the team is getting better bang for their buck on the items they bought from Walmart as opposed to Nordstrom’s.
The man leading the team in batting average and stolen bases, Starling Marte, and the qualified team leader in RBIs and slugging percentage, Gregory Polanco, are making less than $4 million combined this season. Four men beside McCutchen have double-digit home runs this season: Polanco, Jung Ho Kang, Sean Rodriguez and David Freese. None of them will earn more than $3 million apiece.
To top it off, this team’s offense has been better in the first half than last year’s by a significant margin. They’re hitting for a higher average, getting on base more, slugging better, hitting more home runs and scoring more runs. But it’s not just about the production. The Pirates have had an unsuspected conglomerate delivering MVP-type moments at various times.
Freese paced the offense with a .379/.455/.724 slash line during the team’s last road trip when they won seven in a row in Seattle, Oakland and St. Louis. In the same recent 15-game stretch where McCutchen has hit .288 with four homeruns and 10 driven in, Rodriguez has hit .303 with four dingers of his own and 14 RBI, not to mention homering in each of his last four starts (including all three games of the first-half finale against the Cubs). Matt Joyce has hit eight home runs so far, one every 16 at-bats, and his on-base and slugging percentage would be among the league’s best if he qualified with enough plate appearances.
Jeff Locke delivered three of the rotation’s best individual pitching performances when he tossed a three-hit shutout in Miami on May 30, out-dueled Madison Bumgarner with 6.2 scoreless innings on June 20 and held the Dodgers to one run in seven innings on June 25, one of the three wins in four games against L.A. that sparked the 12-4 surge in the past two weeks.
The injuries to Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart at catcher opened the door for Erik Kratz to hit the solo homer that sunk Bumgarner that night in late June against San Francisco, and for waiver claim Eric Fryer, who has hit .400 and driven in five runs in only six games. The two have also combined to throw out four of the 10 runners who have tried to steal against them.
And what of the eight rookies who have made Major League debuts this season when called up from Indianapolis — Jameson Taillon’s near no-hitter in New York against the Mets; Adam Frazier’s pair of extra base hits to help beat Oakland on the road; Chad Kuhl’s tagging of Justin Turner at home plate after a wild pitch to keep ahead of the Dodgers and, in turn, beat Clayton Kershaw; Steven Brault’s strong four innings during a win in St. Louis; and Josh Bell’s electric first weekend in Pittsburgh — to name a few?
Picking one player as the Pirates’ first-half MVP would be easy, but recognizing this team has more than a dozen men who have provided big-time moments along the way would be more fitting.
And if the Pirates do indeed follow their big money players in the second half to another playoff berth, it will have been made possible because of the unsung heroes who did the heavy lifting in the first.