For a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 1992, this is not insignificant. For a franchise that has had so much trouble evaluating and developing young talent, and made some incredibly mind-boggling trades (hello, Matt Morris), it practically seems like a miracle that the team's young talent is finally sticking in the big leagues and starting to compose a tenable 25-man roster.
Even Pedro Alvarez, the struggling former first-round pick in ownership of a .703 OPS through 775 career at-bats, has finally looked like he's coming around, hitting two home runs both Saturday and Sunday. Combined with young stars like Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates look to have the makings of a viable offense.
McCutchen, in particular, is developing into an absolute stud. Showing an increasingly-rare combination of speed on the basepaths, defensive prowess in the outfield and power in the batter's box, McCutchen is becoming one of the premier talents in Major League Baseball.
But it's really the pitching staff that has spurred the Pirates turnaround. Relying heavily on talented-but-oft-injured veterans A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh's pitchers have put up a 3.51 ERA, good for seventh overall in MLB. The staff has been led by the 27-year-old former Dodgers prospect James McDonald, who has been nothing short of a revelation by keeping his WHIP at 0.98 and opponent's batting average at a paltry .196 through 81 1/3 innings pitched.
Of course, this isn't the first time in recent years that the Pirates have shown promising signs in the season's first half. In fact, as late as July 25 last season, the the Bucs were in first place in the National League Central, and were seven games over .500 on July 19.
So forgive (the few remaining) Pirates fans for being a little skeptical of the team's competent start to the 2012 season. And it does beg the question as to whether Pittsburgh is playing over its head, or if that young talent is finally starting to gel into a competitive baseball team.
The answer to this question is in the numbers, and Pirates fans probably won't be too pleased with those indicators.
While it is true that the Pirates are starting to put together an impressive collection of talent — imagining McCutchen, Jones and Alvarez in the middle of their lineup should scare NL clubs going forward — the team is absolutely playing over its head. The numbers tell the story of a club ready to fall back down to earth.
Over a portion of a season records can easily lie. Of course, wins and losses are ultimately all that matter, but if you're trying to predict the team's play going forward, run differentials do not lie, and the Pirates find themselves with a negative-22 run differential, putting their pythagorean win-loss record at something more like 30-35, rather than their actual mark at three games above .500.
So, the Pirates have been a little bit lucky, and have clearly been bolstered by a 17-10 record in one-run games. But the reality of the situation is more grim than even their run differential might suggest, since the team has been banking on so many players who are either playing far and above their career stats, or have a history of injury.
McDonald is the poster child for this group, as there's nothing in his major league career that suggests he's capable of putting up the kind of Cy Young numbers he's shown so far over a full season. Granted, McDonald was highly regarded when he came up with the Dodgers, but he was never able to stick there, and in 2011 — his first season as a full-time starting pitcher — he posted a bloated 1.49 WHIP, allowing the opposition a .349 on base percentage.
Right now, the Pirates own a lot of young talent in their lineup, and players like Jones and Jose Tabata are only going to get better. The pitching staff, however, is another story.
Pittsburgh may have done a good job of cobbling together a rotation to get through 2012, but none of their five starters figures to play a big long-term role for the team. Beyond McDonald and the veterans Burnett and Bedard, the rotation is filled out by 31-year-old journeyman Kevin Correia and non-prospect Brad Lincoln. The team does, of course, have the highly-touted right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon in the minor leagues, but the club really should hope their learning curve can catch up to the offense, which is further along in its development.
So, while the future for the Pirates might be cautiously bright, the 2012 season is probably not going to be remembered as the beginning of a dynasty at PNC Park. Everything's backwards, as a talented offense comes into Monday ranked dead last in baseball in runs scored, while a ramshackle pitching staff leads the way for a club three games over .500.
The Pirates time will arrive in the coming years, but that's a recipe for regression in the second half of 2012.
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