SAN FRANCISCO – The Pirates aren’t collapsing.
They are six wins from 82. They’re coming off a West Coast road trip where they have won more than they lost. And they’re 98 percent likely to be playing in at least the wild card game. But they’re increasingly playing like a team that’s not going to win its division.
No, they’re not collapsing – they’re plateauing.
A plateau is a fitting geographic analogy for this team.
A plateau is an elevated portion of earth and the Pirates’ raised their level of performance and expectation in a remarkable first half of the season. But plateaus, of course, are flat and the Pirates are 25-24 since July 1. That’s not a small sample. They’re 11-12 in August, though that’s included 16 road games.
No, they’re not collapsing but the ability to prevent runs has slightly declined, Jeff Locke has regressed, A.J. Burnett has not been as sharp in August, defensive efficiency has ticked down, and the offense often remains a liability. The Pirates are at a plateau. It’s enough to get them into October, but beyond that they need another source of elevation. Do they have it?
.500 baseball from here on out will give the Pirates 92 wins and a wild-card berth, but it won’t win the division.
9. Four Pirates baserunners reached against Ryan Vogelsong on Sunday in eight shutout innings. Andrew Lambo reached twice. Look, Vogelsong was a fine pitcher in 2011 and 2012. He can locate. But he entered with a 6.75 ERA on the season. He was sitting at 87 mph with his fastball. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle raved about the team’s collective opposite-field approach earlier in the week. And the approach was better for a game or two … but then it was absent Sunday.
Three pitchers lacking dominant stuff: Ian Kennedy, Tim Lincecum and Vogelsong dominated the Pirates on the trip.
We can talk about the approach, the staff, whatever, but at the end of the day it’s about talent and the Pirates are just lacking there. They have five days to make an addition before Sept. 1.
8. What all three of those pitchers have in common is this: good location plus quality changeups. As James Santelli noted, that is going to make its way onto advance scouting reports.
7. There’s nothing wrong with Andrew McCutchen. He leads baseball in August batting average and is playing his best baseball at the most crucial time of year.
I labeled Russell Martin as my midseason team MVP but McCutchen is quite simply the team’s best player, the team MVP, who can impact a game so many ways. Unlike a year ago, McCutchen is having a great second half.
6. One thing that would help is getting Starling Marte healthy and back atop the order. Marte told me after the game Sunday that he would have further tests down on his right hand Tuesday morning. He was not sure how long his DL stint would be. He has a strain of the ligament that attaches his right finger to his hand.
5. The other thing that can really help this offense is Garrett Jones getting back closer to his 2012 level. I think he’s going to get better, I think we saw improvement on the trip – the home run Thursday and the opposite field liner Sunday – and he’s also suffered from some bad luck as he has cut his strikeout rate in August. He’s the best internal hope for offensive improvement.
6. You can certainly question Hurdle’s decision to leave Burnett in the game in the eighth when he was over 100 pitches and gave up a lead-off single. It would have been a significant discussion point had the Pirates actually produced a run that’s why I didn’t touch on it in my game story.
5. Burnett said he threw one changeup in his start Sunday. He said he also threw only one changeup in his previous start in San Diego. It’s amazing to me that a guy who has been in the majors since 2000 has really never developed a changeup or a third pitch – and yet he’s had significant success.
But how good could Burnett be with a third pitch?
The damage against him Sunday came via Pablo Sandoval batting lefty.Brandon Belt, a lefty, had the other extra base hit.
4. I’ve rarely seen a Pirates pitcher book it down the first baseline. Is this an organizational precaution to avoid a blown hamstring or something like that? Burnett could have beaten out that double play bunt Sunday had he been running.
3. The Pirates are resting Gerrit Cole again, though Cole indicated he thought the extra rest negatively effected his breaking ball earlier this month. There has been some talk of resting Jeff Locke. But perhaps it is Burnett that needs the extra rest. After all, he’s the senior member of the group and he faded last August and he’s faded some this August. Perhaps Burnett should have a start skipped or moved back? Burnett indicated he is not feeling 100 percent fresh.
2. Staff a ce, Charlie Morton
Did that get your attention? He’s been the Pirates best and most consistent pitcher in August. And while I probably would recommend starting him as a Game 1 starter, he’s entrenched himself as one of the three best starting rotation options for the Pirates.
1. Gerrit Cole is honest and straight forward in his appraisals of his work. I like his competitive spirit. But you wonder if he’s being too much of a perfectionist at times, if he’s struggling to stay in the moment, looking at some of the body language during his last start in San Diego.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 43-to-5
Morton’s groundball-to-flyball ratio over his last five starts. Incredible. In August, Morton’s sinker has been a rough approximation of that of an in their prime Brandon Webb and Derek Lowe.
HE SAID IT:
“They gave me a joke of a Pone League ball. Is that really what they threw back? I guess that’s my first home run ball. It’s not the ball Lincecum ball threw, that’s for sure.
-Tony Sanchez on not getting his first home run ball. He told me he has made contact with the possessor of the ball on Twitter.
MODEST PROPOSAL OF THE WEEK
Bat Neil Walker lead-off against right-handed pitching. The Pirates’ second baseman has a .371 OBP against right-handers.
NON BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION
San Diego. Go there. That is all.