The Pittsburgh Pirates just played their 120th game of the 2017 season, which means there is a quarter of the season left. This season has had it’s ups and downs for the team and fans alike, so let’s take a look at some of the good and some of the bad that has occurred since their 81st game.
Games back in NL Central: 5.0
Games back of the last WC spot: 8.5
Gerrit Cole has been been on a tear since the beginning of July. In those eight starts, he has posted a 4-1 record to along with 54 strikeouts and 12 walks in 52 innings of work. Prior to July, Cole had a record of 6-7 and an ERA of 4.51. Not only was he carrying a higher than usual ERA, but he was striking out less than a batter an inning. The string of excellent starts that Cole has put together has dropped his season ERA to 4.04 even after a bumpy outing on August 16th. They’ll need him to keep pitching like this if they hope to make a push for the division.
Another pitcher that has come on strong is Trevor Williams, who has now locked down one of the back end of the rotation spots. Williams looked particularly impressive on August 7th, when he limited the Detroit Tigers to just a one hit over seven strong innings of work. Even his last start on August 12th against the Toronto Blue Jay, while not a quality start, can be seen as a another step in the right direction. At this rate, Williams should definitely be in the mix for a rotation spot in 2018.
Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates were relatively quiet before the July 31st trade deadline, only moving Tony Watson to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Neal Huntington was able to bolster the club for this year and 2018 with a pair of moves. He brought back Sean Rodriguez, who delivered a memorable home run to start his second stint with the club. While Rodriguez is by no means a household name throughout the country, he will bring intangibles back to the club. The other move, adding George Kontos to the bullpen from the San Francisco Giants, really looks good so far. Kontos has appeared in three games since being acquired and has not given up a hit. Kontos still has two more years of arbitration before he becomes a free agent, so this move was particularly savvy for Huntington, especially since he did not have to give up any players.
It would be redundant to discuss the turnaround that 2017 has been for Andrew McCutchen…so let’s discuss his season one more time. McCutchen went from being dangled to other teams at last year’s trade deadline to now almost assuredly having his option for 2018 picked up by the club. McCutchen has a legitimate chance of matching or exceeding his career highs in home runs (31) and RBIs (96). While still producing many negative numbers in the advanced fielding metrics, McCutchen has shown some improvement. Last year his DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) was -28 and this year it is -12. He had a -18.7 UZR in 2017 and so far this year he is at -5.1. With a quarter of the season yet to be played, McCutchen could end 2017 on a very high note if he keeps this up at the plate and in the field.
Obviously since the team has a record of 58-62, not everything has gone the way the Pirates had hoped this season. Here are few of the reasons the Pirates find themselves in their current situation.
It would be unfair to assign all of the blame of this mediocre season on the absence of Jung Ho Kang, but replacing 2.2 WAR (according to Fangraphs) is not an easy task. Huntington has discussed the issue at length and more recently delivered the soberly (no pun intended) news that Kang may not be back with the club in 2018. It’s an embarrassing end to what could have been a very productive career in the United States, given what Kang did during the two years he was with Pittsburgh. But for now the team will operate as if his career in the United States is over.
Since returning from his 80 game suspension, Starling Marte has hardly been tearing the cover off the ball. In 117 plate appearances, he has collected just 26 hits and only five of those have gone for extra bases (all doubles). He is slashing just .238/.313/.287 since his return and his BABIP of .286 indicates that he is not the victim of a ton of bad luck. It was without a doubt disappointing when the news broke that he would be suspended, but that fact that he is scuffling since his return makes it even worse. Like Kang, the loss of Marte’s talents for half the season played a huge role in the team’s struggles this season.
After Ivan Nova was traded to the Pirates last year, he put up some remarkable numbers and the team signed him to a three year, $26 million contract. While Nova was never going to be able to match what he did in Pittsburgh in 2016, he has regressed some this year, especially as of late. Unlike Cole, Nova has been trending in the wrong direction since the beginning of July. He has gone 2-5 in that stretch with a 5.36 ERA. He has maintained some of the control that he showed off last year, walking 11 in 47 innings in that span, but he has struggled with the long ball, coughing up 11 since the calendar flipped from June. Given the cost of pitching on the free agent market, Nova still looks like a great deal over the next few years. But much of that depends on if he can get his numbers, particularly the home runs, under control.
For the Pirates to make the playoffs, a lot needs to start going right for the club and wrong for the other clubs in the division. They are still within striking distance of the division, however they will need to start playing much better against their division foes if that is to occur. A lot that has happened were circumstances beyond management’s control. If this team did not lose Marte for 80 games, Kang for the whole season and Jameson Taillon for about a month, they would most likely be near the top of the division.