On the heels of a 19-41 season and an off-season which saw the departures of players like Joe Musgrove, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer, and Keone Kela, expectations for the Pittsburgh Pirates were as low as they’ve been in a long time. After securing the top pick in this year’s draft, they entered the season as the favorites to duplicate that feat. The Bucs actually came out swinging on Opening Day and beat Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs at Wrigley, 5-3. Ke’Bryan Hayes began his campaign for Rookie of the Year by hitting a long home run into the wind off Hendricks in his first at-bat of the season. The bullpen combined to allow just one run (and only one baserunner) in six innings while striking out 11 Cubs hitters. However, the fun was short-lived.
In the next game, the Pirates lineup was stifled by Jake Arrieta (the same man who shut out the 98-win Pirates in the 2015 Wild Card Game), and Hayes left the game with what turned out to be wrist inflammation. The Bucs then lost the final two games of the opening series before being outscored 30-8 in a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. After dropping the home opener to the Cubs, the Pirates found themselves sitting at 1-6. This is more what we expected.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the Pirates are 12-12 and in 3rd place in a wide-open NL Central. The series sweep in Cincinnati was the last time the Pirates lost a series:
Outside of the Tigers, it’s not like the Pirates are taking advantage of an easy schedule and beating up on bad teams. The Cubs have been inconsistent (either really up or really down) but still have a strong core, the Padres are the Padres, the Brewers are leading the NL Central right now and have pitched incredibly well as a whole (although the Pirates dodged both Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in that series), the Twins have scuffled pretty badly out of the gate but retained a solid roster, and the Royals entered their series against the Pirates with MLB’s best record (yes, even better than the Dodgers) at 14-7.
Everything hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows and pretty flowers, either. Hayes suffered a setback in his rehab and still hasn’t played since the second inning of the second game of the season. Steven Brault, the team’s top returning starting pitcher, strained his lat in Spring Training and opened the season on the 60-day IL. Chad Kuhl and Mitch Keller have been wildly inconsistent (and now Kuhl is on the IL too). Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler, the center field platoon going into the season, combined to go 9-for-65 (a .139 AVG) with 1 XBH (a Fowler double) and 36 strikeouts. Both have now been designated for assignment and cleared waivers.
So how in the world did we wind up here? There are several players who have exceeded expectations to this point, including just about the entire bullpen. Since April 9, the day on which the Pirates woke up with a 1-6 record, their bullpen has a 2.09 ERA (2nd in MLB), 0.99 WHIP (3rd), 2.72 FIP (3rd), .187 OPP AVG (24th), 79.9 LOB% (5th), 27.1 K% (6th), 5.3 HR/FB% (3rd), and 1.2 WAR (t-2nd). Closer Richard Rodriguez has been at the head of that dominance, retiring 31 of the 33 batters he has faced this year, and extending his MLB-best scoreless streak to 21 games, dating back to 2020.
Sam Howard, Duane Underwood Jr., and Kyle Crick have also been stellar out of the bullpen thus far. Howard’s 47.6 Whiff% is the highest among all qualified relievers not named Aroldis Chapman or Josh Hader, and he’s inducing ground balls at a career-best rate. Underwood Jr. was a late-spring acquisition from the Cubs that largely flew under the radar. He has thrown his changeup more than any other pitch in his arsenal, and it has a better OPP AVG (.059), SLG (.118), wOBA (.158), Whiff% (57.6), and K% (61.1) than Devin Williams‘ changeup. Crick is still dealing with some control issues and trying to regain his fastball velocity. Still, his slider, which is averaging a career-high 22.2 inches of horizontal break, allows him to miss barrels at an elite rate. Hitters are 1-for-25 against Crick so far.
JT Brubaker and Tyler Anderson have been bright spots in the starting rotation as well. Admittedly, Brubaker has been quite lucky (.236 BABIP), but in his first 4 starts (22.1 IP), he has a 2.01 ERA and a 23:5 KK:B ratio. He has made his slider his primary offering and subsequently increased his groundball rate to nearly 60%. Anderson has a 3.38 ERA and 1.24 WHIP through his first 5 starts, and his deceptive delivery from the left side allows him to generate a lot of whiffs despite his less-than-overpowering stuff. Trevor Cahill may even begin to turn a corner, as he’s been extremely unlucky (.351 BABIP) despite strong strikeout, walk, and home run rates. The difference between his ERA (7.11) and his FIP (3.25) supports this.
The offense hasn’t been spectacular (especially without Hayes), but Bryan Reynolds and Colin Moran, in particular, have been very promising. Reynolds has seemingly returned to 2019 form when he slashed .314/.377/.503 in his rookie season. After seeing a nearly-250 point drop in OPS from 2019 to 2020, he’s making consistent contact again, with career-best strikeout and walk rates, and is currently sporting a 129 wRC+. Moran has taken a new approach at the plate, only pulling the ball 27.6% of the time (previous career low was 36.2%) and is still showing the ability to make hard contact that he began to flash last season.
So what does this mean for the Pirates’ outlook for this season? Suppose the Pirates continue to compete and stay afloat and are within shouting distance of holding a playoff spot come late July, and nobody else in the NL Central separates themselves from the rest of the division. Could the front office be persuaded to make a push and find themselves buying at the trade deadline in hopes of making a run in September?
Nope. Not gonna happen.
This isn’t the same front office that sold the future for Chris Archer after an 11-game winning streak in July 2018. That trade is a big reason why the Pirates cleaned house after the 2019 team lost 93 games. Ben Cherington was brought to Pittsburgh for a reason – to tear this roster down, start fresh, and build a winning team a few years down the road. Cherington himself said that the blueprint for rebuilding this particular team is to accumulate as much prospect capital as possible and focus on developing those prospects. They aren’t going to change course just because they scraped out some wins against some good teams in April.
That’s not to say that Pirates fans shouldn’t enjoy seeing the team play well. After seeing how awful and unwatchable the Pirates were in 2020, it has been refreshing to see a roster with many of the same players performing at a higher level across the board. But it’s improbable that the Bucs can maintain this level of success for the rest of the season. FanGraphs projects only the Orioles and Rockies to have a lower winning percentage than the Pirates over the remainder of the season and that Pittsburgh will once again be near the top of the draft order in 2022 (which was the plan all along).
So enjoy this run the Pirates are on while it lasts. The future they’re building towards is a lot brighter than this.
Statistics up-to-date as of Thursday, April 29