On the surface, the Pirates had a solid, normal looking month of April, finishing 15-9. This is the kind of good start to the season that has eluded the Pirates in recent years. It’s the kind of month that a playoff contender should start out with if they have plans on doing well this year.
But the month of April was anything but normal. Everything and everyone you thought would be good had a little bit of a struggle, while everyone that you thought might be a liability were a strength.
On a macro level, the Pirates finished April offensively on top of all of MLB with a team triple slash line of .293/.378/.448 for an OPS of 826 and a wRC+ of 122. For you, my loyal readers, I went back and found that no Pirates team had a better single month than the Pirates had in the month of April since August of 2007, when the Pirates hit .287/.353/.483 (836 OPS). Their out-of-nowhere monk-like discipline at the plate has spread like wildfire throughout the lineup. This tweet from Pirates’ announcer, Joe Block, says it all about their newfound on-base ability:
— Joe Block (@joe_block) May 1, 2016
However, with that same view from 30,000 feet, the Pirates had a very disappointing month with regards to pitching. Collectively, the staff had a split of 4.10 ERA/4.67 FIP with a K rate of 8.21/9 IP and a BB rate of 4.27/9 IP (4th worst in MLB). It’s even worse when you break it out for just the relievers, as they finished with a 4.36 ERA/4.84 FIP and a BB rate of 4.57/9 IP (also 4th worst in MLB). The bullpen was supposed to be a bulwark of this team, but as of right now they are a liability from top to bottom and have collectively contributed -0.8 WAR.
If you start to parse through the individuals, it’s even more striking (both good and bad). Because the Pirates have somehow discovered this font of plate discipline, nearly everyone has walk rates far above their norms. But check out some of these individual lines, starting with players that we thought may have struggled a little bit:
- Jordy Mercer — .318/.394/.412 — his career April line prior to this season was .181/.248/.189, so yeah, this month has been quite a revelation for us to watch. Against lefties, Mercer has seen time at leadoff this year, which makes sense due to his career splits against them (.327/.383/.493).
- Gregory Polanco — .302/.404/.500 — it sure seems as if we are witnessing the start of the anticipated breakout season by the Pirates’ latest cornerstone player. In a season where virtually everyone has drastically improved walk rates, Polanco is the poster child with a 15.2% walk rate, as compared to his career rate of 9.6%.
- Sean Rodriguez — .333/.444/.800 (4 HR’s) and Matt Joyce .379/.526/.759 (3 HR’s) — I’m putting these two together, as both of them were pretty awful last year with the bat, but both got out to white hot starts in April in part-time roles. The bench was looking a little shaky prior to the start of the season, but now it may be one of the strongest and most versatile benches in all of baseball.
The only Pirate batter that struggled in April was, bizarrely, Andrew McCutchen with an overall line of .226/.339/.441 that would have been even worse if not buoyed by his monster two games in Colorado. Knowing that April is historically his worst month, this bodes well for McCutchen going forward.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for the Pirates’ pitching staff. The working theory was that the rotation was going to be strong with Cole and Liriano and then held together with chicken wire between Niese-Nicasio-Locke. But both Cole and Liriano have yet to fully hit their stride.
- Gerrit Cole — 2.78 ERA/2.76 FIP with a 2.38 BB/9 rate and just a 7.54 K/9 rate. The surface stats look fine, but Cole is not Cole just yet. Cole was set back in spring training with his rib injury and missed his first turn in the rotation in the regular season, so perhaps he’s still working the kinks out. But clearly the Pirates need a return to 2015 form by Cole if they want to get where they want to go.
- Francisco Liriano — 3.86 ERA/5.35 FIP with a 5.46 BB/9 rate and 9.32 K rate. As of right now, it seems as if teams are really hammering into their players to lay off Liriano’s slider, as his walk rate is over 2 more than last year. There’s been some rumblings that Liriano is playing hurt, but his velocity is right where it should be. I think he’s just not locked in yet.
It was portrayed that the trio of Niese-Nicasio-Locke would be a tire fire all year, but each have been good overall, with Nicasio turning in some dominant starts at times. The bullpen though…
I could list all of them, but that would be overkill. Instead, let me focus on the 7th-8th-9th inning contingent of Feliz-Watson-Melancon:
- Neftali Feliz — 4.91 ERA/3.80 FIP with a very low 68.6% strand rate. Yes, the FIP says better days are ahead, but Feliz needs to step his game up a couple of notches all the way around.
- Tony Watson — 3.55 ERA/5.83 FIP with a low (for him) 76.3% strand rate and an absurdly low 34.3% groundball rate (career 43.2% rate). Watson is plagued by poor control, as his 4.26 BB/9 are far above his career rate of 2.53 BB/9. Take solace in the fact that April is habitually Watson’s worst rate and he gets locked in after that.
- Mark Melancon — 2.61 ERA/3.26 FIP with a really low groundball rate of 42.9%, compared to a career rate of 56.1%. When your whole thing is to generate groundballs and you’re not doing that, that’s a problem. Melancon’s key metrics (ERA, FIP, BB/9, HR/9) continue to head in the wrong direction from year-to-year over the last four seasons. I wasn’t particularly upset when it seemed like the Pirates might have traded Melancon in the past offseason, but they didn’t and now I won’t be terribly upset when he departs via free agency after this year.
The takeaway from all this is that things never go according to plan with baseball. Not only is there variance from year to year, but there’s variance from month to month, so what we think we know about the 2016 Pirates from April may not hold true the rest of the year.