The Pirates are in first, but that’s not their ceiling

Barring a September of absurd upsets, these past weeks and their biggest storylines have begun to define the MLB playoff picture: the Detroit Tigers have won 12 straight, and the Atlanta Braves have won 13. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been rejuvenated in the second half with an 18-3 run, which is only a little better than the Kansas City Royals’ 16-4 stretch. All of these teams except for the Royals are in a comfortable first place for their division – in fact, their recent streaks have brought them to an average division lead of greater than nine. Seemingly, the only genuine division race remaining is within the Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers’ recurring fight for the AL West, where the A’s lead by half a game.

It’s been argued that the NL Central remains an open door as to who will win out; last year’s division champs Cincinnati Reds are within three games of the consistent St. Louis Cardinals, who are – almost astonishingly – trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates by four games with less than 50 games remaining. In fact, the Pirates currently have the best record in baseball after winning their fifth straight. This ground has been unprecedented for them since 1992, and skeptics are quick to say that no lead is safe for the former divisional laughingstock when dealing with the Cardinals.

However, that may not even matter: if they lose the lead, their 221-217 record under Clint Hurdle indicates that they can, at the very least, maintain a .500 record pace that can still ensure a wild card spot. And once they’re in the playoffs for the first time in over two decades, they may be the scariest squad coming out of the gate – for a number of reasons. Here are some factors that would play into a Pittsburgh Pirate World Series run.

THE ROTATION: Pittsburgh’s pitching has been the best in the league, by far: the team 3.07 ERA is .18 points better than the runner-up, and .67 points better than the NL average. If the playoffs were to start today and the Dodgers, Braves, Reds and Cardinals joined the Pirates in the playoffs, then those four teams would be facing Pittsburgh pitching that they’re hitting a combined .235 against.

Not many would have guessed two years ago that A.J Burnett would be aiding a Pittsburgh Pirate playoff run.

Not many would have guessed two years ago that A.J Burnett would be aiding a Pittsburgh Pirate playoff run.

The rotation is bolstered by a combination of peaking veterans and young talent that hitters are yet to get accustomed to. A.J Burnett, in his second stellar season as a Pirate, should be their Game 1 starter in any series, as he has finally found a steady control of his repertoire at the age of 34 – his current WHIP of 1.197 is the lowest it has been in six years. Additionally, he is the only starter with any postseason experience.

Burnett could be backed by either two or three additional starters in the playoffs, as the Bucs have the incredible depth to take any one of their remaining starters over the other. First-year Pirate Francisco Liriano has been reborn this season, and his 2.02 ERA only trails Clayton Kershaw for league-best. Fellow left-hander Jeff Locke is being somewhat upstaged by his veterans in his first All-Star season, but his also-remarkable run makes it near impossible for any other team’s second and third starters to match up with him and Liriano. Veteran Wandy Rodriguez is coming off a two-month stint on the DL and would likely compete with rookie headliner Gerrit Cole for either a fourth spot in the playoff rotation or an insurance spot in the bullpen. Again: Pittsburgh has these options.

THE ‘PEN: It should at least be noted that the current Bucs bullpen has notched a 17-6 record this season, and have had a big role to play in the Pirates’ many late-inning dramatics this season.

Jason Grilli is more than a feel-good story of the traveling veteran who’s finally found a home: before straining his flexor muscle, his 14 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was fourth in the league amongst starters. He’s vowed that he’ll be back from injury, but even if he isn’t, Pittsburgh doesn’t have much to sweat: lefty Mark Melancon has surrendered just five runs in 54 innings this season, and has already made the seamless transition to Grilli’s closing job.

THE BENCH: The Pirates lineup is, for the most part, healthy. Travis Snider is yet to return from a toe injury, but his .219 average is not as missed when his replacements – Alex Presely and Jose Tabata – combined are hitting 56 points better. Infielder Jordy Mercer has filled in for both Neil Walker and Clint Barmes at points of this season, and his reliable glove – as well as .335 OBP – makes him a great fill in late innings or as a pinch hitter. An even better option to pinch hit is Gaby Sanchez, the former All-Star first baseman who is slugging a career .499 against lefties. The top of the order – Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez – produces like clockwork, but the reserves do little to harm that process.

THE COACH: Hurdle may have had only one winning record during his nine years with the Colorado Rockies, but it happened to be a part of one of the greatest late-to-postseason runs in history.  Hurdle’s Rockies ran a 20-8 September in 2009 to consecutively sweep both the NL Division Series and Championship Series. While they were overmatched and effectively swept in their first World Series against the Boston Red Sox, the Rockies came onto the map with Hurdle, Troy Tulowitzki, timely pitching and little else otherwise. Hurdle now has the reins of a squad that is head and shoulders above the league in pitching, healthy and complete from the first to sixth hitter and in possession of the obvious pick for this year’s NL Most Valuable Player. If Hurdle plans to repeat – and complete – his historic run, expect him to ride on the shoulders of one of the league’s most well-rounded players…

ANDREW McCUTCHEN: A lot of people called for McCutchen’s earning of last year’s MVP trophy; the simple truth is that Buster Posey was the only person who deserved it more than he did. Statistics aside, Posey became more than a player for the San Francisco Giants in their championship season. League-leading hitter Melky Cabrera was suspended in the midst of a pennant race, and Posey picked up the offensive load, all while commandeering the most physically-demanding position and catering to the then-best pitching staff in the league. Even if the Giants had lost in the Divisional Series, Posey was worth more than value during that time; he ensured the team’s success.mccutchen

An MVP isn’t measured by their success, but by the success of their teammates. This is not McCutchen’s best individual season – his 7.6 offensive WAR last season was incredible – but it has been the best individual seasons for both Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. Marte has 41 extra-base hits at leadoff this season while only walking 22 times, mostly because pitchers can’t pitch around him in fear of McCutchen or Alvarez driving in multiple runs. Marte is still on pace to score over 100 runs. Alvarez flexes anywhere between cleanup and the sixth spot in the lineup, and barring situations where he has led off the inning, has batted with runners on base in 62 percent of all of his plate appearances this season. His OBP increases in these situations, and 76 percent of his runs batted in have during these plate appearances. So, Alvarez doesn’t produce unless someone is on base, and Marte doesn’t get on base unless he’s pitched to, and Marte isn’t pitched to and Alvarez isn’t given opportunity unless McCutchen does what McCutchen does.

mccutchen presely

In simpler terms:  a healthy McCutchen is on pace for 175 hits, 25 homeruns, 90 runs batted in, 100 runs and 35 stolen bases – but there’s a good chance he won’t lead his team in any of these categories. Last year, McCutchen was the star of a one-man show. This year, he’s costarring in a block-bluster. If he learns from Posey and continues to give as much as he gets, McCutchen and his team may be holding up two different trophies in November. Scary, isn’t it?

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