Last Sunday, September 23 in his final press conference of the season, Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington delivered an eye opening, yet true quote which can essentially summarized the entire year for his team.
“(This club) was one win a month away from being a post season baseball team. That’s how close we are, one win a month.”
To be fair, when one considers the expectations that many had for this team entering the 2018 season, the fact that this quote is anywhere near to being a factual statement is something worth celebrating. The franchise was struggling to convince just about anyone that their goal was to compete.
Yet sure enough, they did. With less than a week left in the season, the Pirates enter their game tonight against the Cincinnati Reds just one win from solidifying their fourth winning record since 1992. Not bad for a team that many had written off months before the first pitch of the season was throw.
However, after one gets past the shock factor that this team’s success provided, it is fair to ask the question, should the fans, players or front office be content with simply winning a few more games than they lost? As Huntington continued speaking, it became clear that the answer to that question is no.
“If we figure out how to win one game a month more, we are in a very different spot as we finish this season,” said Huntington. “If we win two more games a month, then we are fighting for a division which is ultimately where we want to be because that best positions you to win a world series.”
Winning season or not, as a Pirates fan, it is hard to not be a bit disappointed about how accurate this take truly is. In a year that was nothing short of a roller coaster ride filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, it is not difficult to look back throughout the entire season and find a spot in each month where the Bucs could’ve earned those one or two extra wins. Here are the first moments that came to my mind.
April: The Bullpen Struggle was Real
Overall, the Pirates really couldn’t have done much better in the opening month of the season. They were hitting the ball better than any team in the league and getting solid starts from their pitching staff which resulted in them being at the top of the NL Central for a large chunk of the first four to five weeks. However, while spirts were high in the clubhouse, one area where things were not going well was the bullpen.
The Pirates bullpen was their obvious Achilles heel throughout all of April. Anytime the Bucs lost in the opening month of 2018 it seemed that the bullpen played a role in it. Prior to the arrival of Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez, the team really was struggling to find anyone reliable to hand the ball to in the late innings.
Players like Michael Feliz, Dovydas Neverauskas, Josh Smoker and George Kantos were simply not getting the job done. While it is respectable that Hurdle continued to give them opportunities in hopes that they would snap out of their early season slumps, the idea that neither Crick or Rodriguez were assumed to be less talented than any of the bullpen arms the Bucs opened the season with is ridiculous. Of their 12 losses in April, five belonged to a pitcher in the bullpen. It is fair to assume that had Crick and Rodriguez been on the opening day roster, that number is a bit lower.
May: Et Tu Felipe?
Pirates All Star closer Felipe Vazquez was one of the top relief pitchers in all of baseball this season, aside from the horrible 12 day stretch that he experienced in late May. From May 20 to May 31, Vazquez was living in his own nightmare, where he allowed 12 hits, 9 runs, 7 ER and 8 IR in only 3.2 innings of work over the span of six outings. Five of those six outings were also save situations. Vazquez only converted one of them successfully.
The Pirates went 3-8 during Vazquez’s 12 days of misery. In half of those eight losses, they were only a few outs away from being the winning team, rather than the losing one. Felipe Vazquez did a boat load of more good things than bad for the Pirates in 2018. Yet, had he or the coaching staff been able to minimize his struggles in late May, this team could still be very well in the playoff hunt.
June: Sean Rodriguez vs the City of Pittsburgh
By mid June, things were not going well for the Pirates. Their team couldn’t find any consistency on offense and their bullpen problems had returned. However, the issue that seemed to be bigger than anything else was the playing time that Rodriguez was receiving despite having little to no offensive or defensive production throughout the entire season.
Earlier this year, when I was new to Pirates breakdown one of the first stories I wrote was about the infamous Sean Rodriguez bobble head day. It was and still remains in my brain as one of the most embarrassing moments in recent franchise history. As the team continued to struggle, the cherry on top of everything was seeing S Rod, a player who clearly had no business to still be playing in the major leagues, continuously be put in the starting lineup, regardless of how bad he truly was playing.
Rodriguez had a slash line of .040/.200/.040 and struck out 12 times in the month of June. Though this came in the small sample size of 12 games and 25 at bats, the fact that he received playing time for a major league baseball club with those numbers is almost an insult to the game itself.
As I mentioned in my article about him in June, Sean Rodriguez is an excellent human being. However, the front office could have plucked a random middle infielder from any level of the minor leagues, threw a Pirates uniform on him and probably would have received better production. Statistically, Rodriguez’s WAR of -0.4 indicates that he lost the team less than half a game this season. Yet, when one considers all the reps he took away from younger and more deserving players who were waiting behind him, S Rod negatively effected the Pirates a lot more off paper.
July: Why Didn’t We Think of this Earlier?
Like the month of April, not much went wrong for the Pirates in July. Their offense led the league in many categories, their pitching staff began to click, the club won 11 games in a row and they were rewarded the front office making two big trades on the final day of the deadline. However, my only negative takeaway from July was actually something I wish that had happened earlier, which was batting Corey Dickerson in the leadoff spot.
Obviously, the Dickerson leadoff experiment has now run its course. However, in the opening months of the season, when Clint Hurdle was throwing anyone he could think of in the top spot of the order, including Sean Rodriguez, Max Moroff and Josh Bell, it puzzles me why he didn’t give Dickerson a shot at it until July.
When he did, the move showed immediate success. Dickerson, along with the rest of the team proceeded to mash the ball better than they had at any other point in the year. They became the hottest team in the major leagues and the addition of Dickerson at the top of the batting order arguably was what got the ball rolling.
Dickerson had success in the leadoff spot in 2017 when he was playing for Tampa Bay. This was no secret. If Hurdle knew this and the team desperately needed a productive leadoff hitter for the first three months of the year, what kept him from giving Dickerson a chance? Was it because Dickerson was the teams best hitter? Or because he wanted to keep him rested incase the club chose to trade him at the deadline? Whatever his reasoning was, Hurdle’s decision to let Dickerson be the last player to audition to bat leadoff probably cost his club a few runs that would have been very useful during their struggles in May and June.
August: Where Do I Begin?
Too many things went wrong in the month of August for me to simply choose one as the headline. We had the Clay Holmes start in San Francisco that nearly resulted in the entire city of Pittsburgh being burned to the ground. Followed by that was the decision to pitch Alex McRae in a tie game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Next there was the string of bad starts by Chris Archer that gave some Pirates fans a heavy dose of buyers remorse. There was the four game series against the Chicago Cubs where Bucs allowed just four total runs yet only were able to come away with a split. Dickerson returned from the disabled list but forgot how to hit the baseball. Then everyone aside from Adam Frazier also forgot to hit. And on and on it went.
Looking back at everything, the Pirates could have won at least four to five more games in August had they simply played half as well as they did in July. They had worked their way out of a huge hole just to climb right back in. Late May was tough and June was ugly but when Huntington examines why his team did not make the playoffs this year, he can find a good amount of answers in the month of August.
The offense was bad. The fielding was bad. The Manager was bad.
The pitching staff was excellent, but one out of four is just not good enough. Especially in baseball.
September: Too little too late
The Pirates have played pretty solid in the final month of 2018. While they let a few games get away recently, overall their biggest problem this month that has cost them games has come from injuries. I am sure if the Bucs still had a healthy Diaz, Polanco, Santana and Kela that they would have an even better record than they do now.
However in reality, that doesn’t make much of a difference. Huntington was right when he said that this club was one to two wins a month from being a playoff team; both literally and figuratively. Every team in the MLB has a few games each month that play a big role as to how their season turns out. All games count the same, yet some can have a greater impact than others.
The Pirates without question had many good moments in 2018. Even though they are not a playoff team, it is still easy to look back at a few wins each month and point out how they helped lead to more success later on.
The problem is that the Pirates had too many games this year where they simply beat themselves. Stupid decisions and inconsistency in all areas of the game led to this team finishing just shy of being a legitimate post season threat in the final week of the year.
Overall, this year was a good one for the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, if they want to take a step forward and be better next year, they cannot make the same mistakes or they will once again be one or two games short of reaching Buctober.