It’s been two and a half weeks since Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline, when the expectations for any possibility of the Pirates making a run at a National League Wild Card spot became clear. Those expectations were specifically based on a handful of variables:
– IF Andrew McCutchen could re-gain his form as a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate;
– IF the starting rotation could stabilize itself after trading Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese, and eventually demoting Jeff Locke to the bullpen;
– IF Jung Ho Kang could break out of his funk since mid-June;
– IF Gregory Polanco could get healthy and bolster the middle of the lineup; and
– IF the bullpen could perform effectively after All-Star closer Mark Melancon was traded.
Well don’t look now, but the if’s are finally happening for the Pirates. They had a false start of sorts in their first series after the deadline, losing two out of three against the Atlanta Braves, the worst team in the National League. During that series, McCutchen was benched by manager Clint Hurdle, who said the decision was “not a white flag. This is for the greater good.”
The greater good may have yet to be completely realized, but the past two weeks have been closer to the greater good than the previous not-so-good.
McCutchen returned to the lineup in the opener for the following series against Cincinnati at PNC Park on August 5, with Jameson Taillon starting on the mound. Since that day, the Pirates have won nine of 12 games and four straight series, including a sweep of the San Francisco Giants on the road at AT&T Park.
In that same span, McCutchen is hitting .317 with a .472 on-base percentage, two homeruns and eight RBI. Kang has a slash line of .286/.464/.536 with three homers and four driven in. Polanco has driven in 11 runs with three extra base hits in nine games since being moved to the clean-up spot after being out of the starting lineup for three games with a sore shoulder.
The rotation of Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova, Ryan Vogelsong and Chad Kuhl have brought the exact stabilization the team needed, even if it wasn’t expected. The Pirates’ rotation entered Wednesday afternoon’s game as the second-best in the National League in August (3.80 ERA), joining the Chicago Cubs (1.13) as the only two starting staffs in the league with an ERA under four since the trade deadline.
The difference for the Pirates’ rotation in the past two-plus weeks is what they failed to get from their starters in the first four months of the season: depth and consistency. Each of the current five have pitched five innings or more at least twice in August, and Taillon and Vogelsong have done it three times. They have gone six innings or more eight times in 15 starts, and they’re 7-1 in those games.
By removing Liriano, Niese and Locke from the starting five, the Pirates eliminated an overabundance of walks and homeruns allowed almost instantly. The averages in walks and homeruns allowed per nine innings for the rotation so far in August are on pace to be the best of any month by a wide margin this season. Their 2.11 BB/9 is second in the league behind the Cubs, and their 0.53 HR/9 is tops in the National League. For reference, their walks per nine innings had not been lower than 2.89 in any other month this season, and their homeruns allowed per nine innings had never been lower than 1.31.
Then there’s the bullpen’s transition: they’ve gone from one of baseball’s most over-worked units in the first half of the season to throwing the fourth-fewest innings since the trade deadline. They also have the National League’s best ERA (2.70) and the fifth-fewest homeruns allowed per nine innings (0.77), and new closer Tony Watson already has seven saves in eight opportunities, tied with Seattle’s Edwin Diaz for the most in the majors in August.
If this Pirates team looks different this month compared to what we’ve seen in the previous four, it’s because they are better in a few key areas; and it’s just what they need to be going forward in order to clinch a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.