SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Morning folks.
Before we get started I wanted to let you know that my personal All-Star break is starting early and will be extended.
Before I interviewed for this position in the spring, I had planned an overseas trip with my wife. Because the excursion was already paid for when I interviewed for this position, because if it didn’t happen I’d sleep on the couch for approximately 1.2 years, we are going to be gone for two weeks as we tour London, Paris and northern Italy. I’ll return to Pirates coverage after the All-Star break.
It’s difficult to give up this story for two weeks, but better to be away now rather than in September when the story could really become interesting.
(If I spot Giancarlo Stanton in Paris I’ll ask him if he’s heard any buzz about ESPN’s trade idea sending him to the Pirates)
And how good of a story is this?
Has there been a better first-half one in franchise history?
The Pirates reached 50 wins before July 1 first for the first time in their history – a history in the National League that dates back to 1887. We’ll see how they do while I’m away, but there’s reason to believe this year is different, that the Pirates should end the longest losing streak in North American pro sports and perhaps achieve much more.
This will be my final blog post for two weeks, a post that is something of a hybrid Monday Morning Mop-up duty/Interim report card…. Thanks for the interaction here to date. I look forward to returning for what should be a fascinating second half of the season.
STARTING NINE: FIRST-HALF GRADES
Pedro Alvarez was booed in late April at PNC Park as he was in the midst of a horrific slump and another one of his common stretches of inconsistency. But Alvarez has turned his season around with a career-best month of June, hiking his home run total to 20. He might never be worth the No. 2 overall pick, but he’s a third baseman capable of consistently hitting 30+ home runs and there’s value in that. Starling Marte has also been inconsistent for a second year every day player but he’s been more good than bad with a .809 OPS, .288 average and 22 steals. Andrew McCutchen hasn’t had an MVP caliber first half, but he has cut his strikeout rate and if his power returns – it’s been showing signs or returning– he could have a monster second half.
There are concerns.
The Pirates’ right fielders entered the week 15th in the NL in OPS. It’s an area where teams typically play a power bat. Shortstop had been another blackhole. Is Jordy Mercer really an everyday player? He’s shown promise but the sample size is small.
The Pirates are 10th in the NL in runs per game (3.95) and 11th in OPS (.699). Improvement is needed.
STARTING PITCHING: The Pirates’ starting pitchers are allowing the second fewest runs per game in the National League (3.40). That’s impressive but it’s made more impressive by the number of starting pitchers the Pirates have used (11).
A.J. Burnett is having a career year. Jeff Locke has had a shocking breakout (though I’d bet his ERA finishes above 3.00). Francicso Liriano is enjoying a bounce-back season and Gerrit Cole has shown control of a 100 mph fastball. Wandy Rodriguez’s forearm tightness could give the team’s depth a long-term test, and the Pirates staff will likely regress to some degree in the second half, but there’s no doubting this staff is deeper and more talented than last year’s. I think the staff lacks a true ace, the type that you’d want to start Game 1 of a postseason series – Cole might be that guy in time – but for now it’s a deep an effective unit.
RELIEF PITCHING: Pirates closer Jason Grilli has blown just one save. Mark Melancon has been one of the game’s best setup met and Justin Wilson is a rare asset: a set-up lefty who can touch 100 mph. The team is second in the NL in bullpen ERA. While the bullpen has been great in the first half workload is a major concern. Grilli has shown signs of fatigue, Melancon says he’s ready for a break, and the concern is the second-half grade could be much worst than the first.
DEFENSE: The Pirates lead baseball with a .717 defensive efficiency, which is the rate of turning batted balls into outs. The Pirates have an elite defensive combo in left and center field. Russell Martin has made a major impact with his arm, pitch framing and sequencing. But the Pirates lack projected gold glove winners in the infield.
What’s the difference?
The Pirate are employing a league-high rate of shifts and have really embraced new age thinking on defense. The lack of elite infield defenders make me question whether the defensive efficiency is sustainable but it’s been excellent to date.
When a team wins 51 games in a half of a season it’s difficult to be too critical to any one area. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is an interesting guy. He’s gone from an old school type of manager to one who really embraces defensive shifts and platoon situations. Hurdle was perhaps too slow in going to Mercer at shortstop. Hurdle will roll out the questionable lineup decision now and then. Still, he’s pulled more correct levers than incorrect ones. Ray Searage’s pitching staff has been great. Hitting coach Jay Bell’s offense has been lackluster for most of the season but Alvarez has made real adjustments. Can they get more from Neil Walker, Travis Snider and others?
This was a group that was embattled entering the season for various reasons that have been well documented. But the front office had it’s finest offseason to date. The signings of Martin and Liriano have been impact ones at relatively low costs. The team stole Mark Melancon in the Joel Hanrahan deal. Cole’s debut suggests the Pirates made the right decision with the first pick in 2011. (Some thought Dylan Bundy or even Trevor Bauer should have gone first). The system has had a good year from top to bottom with Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham emerging as serious pitching prospects. Yes, five years of losing under Neal Huntington gives fans pause. Yes, the signing of Jonathan Sanchez was a miss. Yes, the team has holes like in right field. But it’s been a big year to date for the front office.
GRADE: A –
FIRST HALF PIRATES MVP: Russell Martin
His .757 OPS is not elite but above average for a catcher. His ability to control the running game is a plus. But where I’ve become a big believer in Martin is in his hidden value. He’s been an impact player.
STAT THAT MIGHT ONLY INTEREST ME: 94.8
Average miles per hour of Grilli’s fastball on Saturday, which was a welcomed happening for the Pirates since Grilli appeared to be showing some fatigue and had been given a lengthy break. The Pirates can’t afford a Grilli breakdown which would really test bullpen depth and effectiveness.
HE SAID IT:
Grilli on being an All-Star (he should be) in New York:
“If I’m there, I want to play,” Grilli said. “I want to get that experience. Both of my grandfathers were huge Mets fans, so that would be pretty cool. It would be like a big, Italian wedding for me.”
I’ve never been to Europe. In the next episode of Monady Morning mop-up duty I hope to have an assortment of Old World recommendations. If you have any London-Paris-Lake Como-Florence recommendations please pass them along.
As always, thanks for reading.