A safe descriptor for this year’s Pirates seasons is ‘frustrating’. They’ve been excellent at times and they’ve looked like one of the worst teams in baseball for other stretches. Often enough, they’ve alternated between the two day to day. Early on, the starting pitching derailed the team, but the offense has also slumped since the end of May.
Yet, somehow the Pirates still find themselves deep in contention for the second wild card spot. Following their Left Coast series victory against the top wildcard, the Pirates sit a single game out of the second spot. They still need to leapfrog two other teams, but they’ve already passed the Mets who have troubles all their own. In a race that no one seems to want to win, I guess it doesn’t matter much that the Pirates didn’t add much at the trade deadline or that they lost five of six to the bottom feeders to start the month. Some might cite smoke and mirrors or poor performances by other teams in the race, but while they’ve been inconsistent and again, frustrating, the Pirates are in the thick of it. Despite the maelstrom of hate from fans and media alike and the poor start to the month, the team has actually gotten better with moves since the beginning of month starting at the trade deadline.
How they Got Better at the Deadline
The Pirates made four moves leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline. The first got the pitchforks out when the Pirates dealt two months of their current, elite closer for the guy who if early signs hold up might be their their next elite closer. If this reaction sounds familiar, please reflect back on the trade that landed Mark Melancon to begin with. In the end, the Pirates added a new set up guy with swing and miss stuff in Felipe Rivero, pushing long term bullpen stalwart Tony Watson to the closer role in the short run. So far, this move appears to be a push in a very small sample with Watson recording five saves in six tries and Rivero and Neftali Feliz have combined for five holds. On top of that, Mets castaway Antonio Bastardo, who was swapped out for Jonathan Niese, (more on him shortly) has also recorded two holds. That’s 12 holds or saves for every one blown save compared to a 7.6: 1 ratio for the season prior to the move. I won’t make the argument on those numbers alone that they’ve actually improved overall minus the Shark, but they’ve been up to the task so far.
On the deadline day itself, we started out with underwhelming news that the Pirates balked on the sexy controllable Tampa Rays trade bait, opting instead for Ivan Nova from the Yankees. We also learned that the Pirates traded a couple of prospects and Francisco Liriano for Drew Hutchison and a buttload of salary relief. The deal was roundly criticized as a salary dump and I, too, piled on the post deadline verbal trashing of the deal. Part of the reason why I and others were pissed at the deal was that we were holding out hope for a fixed Liriano to somehow save the rotation. The problem is, that guy likely wasn’t coming back. The early return on Nova is two effective starts that couldn’t have resembled one another less. In the first, he mixed strike outs with ground ball outs, while in the second he peppered the outfield but the ballpark held him. Two themes have carried over — no walks and wins. In evaluating the swap of Liriano for Nova in the rotation, you need to ask two questions.
- Who gives the Pirates the better chance to win in the regular season?
- Who would you rather have as your third or fourth starter in the playoff series right now?
Ivan Nova may not be the pitcher of our dreams, but his control and potential reliability may actually trump the Liriano dream.
How the Got Better by Mixing Up the Rotation
This section draws its origins well before the trade deadline and really, it’s a tale where your first plan might be your best. Juan Nicasio was signed to be a reliever. Ryan Vogelsong was signed to start. They flip-flopped the roles they were originally supposed to play when Nicasio won the Grapefruit League Cy Young award. As it often does, spring training form didn’t translate to the long haul of the major league grind and the former Rockie and Dodger found himself out of the rotation. We don’t need to go into the gory details, but let’s just say Vogelsong has earned that .250 OBP he’s currently sporting. It’s a small miracle that he’s even back, but it’s somewhat less surprising that he’s returned with a purpose. His two starts back have been stellar where he’s basically justified his paltry salary in those outings alone. He’s taken the hill first in four games for the Pirates this season and he’s combined for a 0.7 fWAR, a 0.95 ERA and a 2.25 FIP.
Meanwhile, Jeff Locke was lifted in favor of Chad Kuhl who has taken his place and looked like the sinkerballer he was billed as, posting 52% + GB rates in both starts since his return the majors. He’s also struck out 9 batters in 12 innings pitched. While he hasn’t gone deep into games, he’s showing real promise.
Combine these two moves with the Nova deal and the Pirates rotation is off to a fine start in August. Halfway through the month, they’ve posted the second best staff ERA and a combined 1.7 fWAR. While Gerrit Cole has been up and down the Pirates may have figured out the formula.
How the Pirates Added by Subtracting
The Pirates dumped two bullpen arms and the club may have gotten better for it. The first, Niese, was moved at the trade deadline for Antonio Bastardo and some money. I liked that deal in that the Pirates brought back a guy who proved to fit here for a guy who wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. From post game comments, the adjustments the Pirates wanted him to make seemed to get stuck in his head and his remarks about the Bucs shifting too much seemed like he was choking on both the pitchers mound and on the sour grapes they served on his flight back to New York. Niese may have a beef. The Pirates didn’t help him and, in fact, he got worse here. However, do you want his negative influence around the clubhouse?
Arquimedes Caminero was the Liriano of the bullpen. We all got excited by his stuff and upside and he dazzled us when he was on. However, consistency with control and overthrowing his fastball seemed to make him the bullpen’s cardiac kid. He didn’t pitch much in a close game, and while his numbers were good, it was difficult to feel comfortable when he entered.
How Benching Cutch May Have Actually Helped?
When Clint Hurdle announced he planned to stay away from Andrew McCutchen during the team’s trip to Atlanta, the move was met with skepticism that only grew louder after the team dropped two of three against the NL’s worst team. Normally, I wouldn’t even touch a sample size this small, but in the nine games back, he’s walked 11 times and struck out only six. To put that into perspective he struck out seven times in the five games preceding his timeout, and he only walked 12 times in June and July combined. So far in August, he’s posting his second highest line drive percentage and he’s hitting the ball to opposite field more than he had been. His .846 OPS on the month still isn’t the Cutch standard, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than it was.
While there is some quantifiable evidence that the Pirates are looking better so far in August, they still don’t always feel like they’re better. They’ve gone 7-5 but haven’t swept a series. The losses have been the ugly variety as they’ve yielded just one save against them this month. This mentally makes it hard to wrap your brain around this team.
However, the conditions are there for them to go on a run down the back half of the month. The bullpen doesn’t look too badly damaged and the rotation is the best it’s been since July of last summer. Cutch might be figuring out his season long slump and no one will complain if he just puts more balls in play or takes the free pass. If the Pirates get back to the hitting they had at the beginning of the season with the pitching they have now, they’re not only a wild card contender, but could sneak into the World Series conversation as well. This team and organization has talent and potential. All it took was some tweaks to set the stage.