SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – I don’t believe in curses.
But I do believe in the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
If you believe in the SI cover jinx then what you saw last night on FOX might portend to more second-half troubles for the Pirates:
(Does this image portend to more second-half doom for the Pirates?)
The Sports Illustrated cover boy next week is the much deserving Jason Grilli as the preeminent American sports magazine chronicles the Pirates’ first-half as the “Strangest but Truest Story of the Summer.”
The Pirates’ bullpen is the collective face of the franchise this season. It has had as much to do with the first-half success of the team as any of the team’s components. Grilli has blown one save in 30 chances, has a 1.99 ERA, and is a compelling story, and engaging person, off the field.
But as Grilli said after blowing his first and only save of the season last month in Cincinnati: “It’s hard to be perfect.” It’s also hard to maintain the performance that typically lands athletes and/or teams on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
This is why I believe in the power of the SI jinx: it’s math.
It’s regression to the mean.
The magazine is typically profiling athletes or teams on its cover that are at the top of their game so of course there is nowhere to go but down. That’s my theory.
I expect the Pirates to regress some in the second half.
For starters it’s hard for any team to play .602 baseball for an entire season. It’s not likely for the bullpen to sustain its performance and perhaps workloads will begin to weaken it in the second half. I don’t think Francisco Liriano or Jeff Locke will fall apart in the second half — I’m the president of the Liriano fan club — but for them to repeat their first-half performances is asking quite a bit. Pedro Alvarez is probably due for another cold stretch, and the bench is thin, which would make any injury a big problem, and right field has been a blackhole of production.
Still, even with Grilli on the upcoming SI cover, even with the question of sustainability raised so often in so many corners this season, this is still a Pirates team that with limited regression should end its 20-year losing streak and make the postseason.
The Pirates don’t need to be as good as they were in the first half and having produced four first-time All-Stars it’s unlikely they play .602 baseball the reset of the season. But they don’t need to be great in the second half to advance to the postseason. They just can’t be terrible. They can regress some but they can’t crash back to the mean while the Nationals or a team in the NL West does begin to play .600 baseball.
How to avoid a second-half nosedive? Make a trade and find some second-half All-Stars.
SECOND HALF ALL-STARS
There’s no All-Star game played after the season, I’m aware of this. But if the Pirates are going to push to win 90+ games they need some second-half performances to rival the first-half production of Locke, Liriano, Grilli and Mark Melancon.
Who might be ready for a second-half surge?
How about Neil Walker? Walker’s isolated power jumped from .126 in the first half to .184 in the second half last season. For his career he has a .744 OPS in the first half and a .779 OPS in the second half. The Pirates must find some more offense and Walker, assuming he gets healthy, is a strong candidate to have a better second-half than first.
Starling Marte is another candidate. He cooled off after a sizzling April in part because of approach issues and possibly because opponents had more video and scouting data to work off of. But if Marte can counter-adjust, he has the bat-to-ball skills, speed, and pop to be a dynamic player.
Perhaps it’s tough to expect much more from Justin Wilson, who did produce a 1.89 ERA in the first half. But his FIP was 3.33 telling of some good-luck fortune on batted balls in play. Here’s the thing Wilson has been getting better throughout this season. His velocity has increased throughout 2013. He hasn’t walked a batter in July and he’s inducing more weak contact: a 15 % line drive rate and a double-digit infield pop rate in July. If there should be any issue with Melancon or Grilli, Wilson has the talent to be a competent end-game piece.
Gerrit Cole. The highly touted rookie has been very good early on, but he has the mental makeup and skill to be even better by increasing his strikeout rate. In a year with Shelby Miller and Jose Fernandez have been dominant rookies, Cole has the stuff to reach their level of performance.
PIRATES TARGETING GARZA?
The other way to mitigate second-half regression is through an addition via trade.
When most look at the Pirates’ roster they see holes in right field, the bench, and perhaps shortstop, where the club could improve via trade. But David Kaplan of CSN Chicago reported yesterday that the Pirates are one of a number of teams interested in Matt Garza. Garza is having a very good year and could be a competent No. 2 or No. 3 starter on a playoff team.
This is somewhat surprising given Garza’s cost will be relatively inflated even though he’s a rental because of the lack of quality arms expected to be available and the number of interested bidders. It’s somewhat surprising because the Pirates don’t appear to be in need of pitching.
But there’s the old adage that a team can never have enough pitching and Garza would fortify the staff and hedge against any injury issues.
I’d suspect he’d cost a top 50 prospect and another top 10 organizational prospect. Alen Hanson and a pitcher, perhaps? Pure speculation on the price but that’s what I’d imagine it to be.
I expect the Pirates to be active near the deadline with their record and depth of minor league talent. They should be linked to a number of players. Stay tuned.