July 7, 2011
Currently the Pittsburgh Pirates are in uncharted territory with a record above .500. As it is well known, the Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992, yet not many are picking up on the story. When they are picking up the story, either they do not have their facts correct (see ESPN) or choose to make fun of the team. This however is the truth behind the Pirates. Let's take a look at how they are getting it done.
1. Pitching: Pitching has been a huge reason why this team has been unable to compete. Pitching Coach Ray Searage deserves a lot of credit for helping many of these pitchers reach their full potential.Leading the starting rotation is Kevin Correia. Correia was a free agent and was doubted immediately by many Pirates fans. It was a bargain signing which seemed suspicious and when it was announced that he would be the ace of the staff, many, myself included doubted Manager Clint Hurdle's decision citing a poor Spring Training and the loss of his brother over the course of last season. Already he has proven that he is capable of the job, and being a road warrior has won 10 games, placing himself amongst the leaders in the entire league. Correia is one of the many surprises that currently dons the Pirates uniform, and General Manager Neal Huntington looks pretty good right now for making this signing.
Paul Maholm also has been a big part of this team. Maholm may not have the wins, and he definitely does not have spectacular stuff, but he always gets the job done. Maholm keeps the ball on the ground and with the fielding being much improved (more on that later) Maholm has a great ERA and statistics however he unfortunately has not received the proper run support. Maholm has been a big part of trade talks, but if he does stick with the team, he has been nothing but consistent and could definitely help the team contend in game after game.
Perhaps the biggest makeover has come from Charlie Morton. Last season, Morton experienced his lowest of lows and in an interview with me earlier this year, he suggested that he was tipping his pitches. This spring, Searage and Jim Benedict, who is affiliated with the Pirates suggested that he throw sidearm and that began the improvement in Morton. His delivery now resembles Roy Halladay's and much like Halladay relies heavily on the sinker to get the groundball outs. While Morton's control at times can get erratic and his walk numbers are up, the wins are up and more importantly the confidence, something which seemed to vanish is on the rise. Morton will have to stay consistent if he wants to remain successful and much like a story pitch a good beginning, middle and end to each start of his.
Jeff Karstens has always seemed to be the odd man out. From being off of the 40-man roster to Triple-A to the bullpen, Karstens has been everywhere and still not had a definite role. Somehow though, he always seems to make it onto the roster. Coming out of Spring Training, Karstens was back in his familiar role as a long reliever in the bullpen. After Ross Ohlendorf got injured, he had his chance again and has made the most of it. Karstens is pitching with a purpose, and seems motivated. He is not doing anything extraordinary, but having pitched against and defeated the Phillies and Red Sox, he knows what he is doing. He has made some adjustments on the mound and now seems to have a winner's mentality. The next step is to work on being more successful with that pitch count, and if he can do that, then the sky is the limit with him.
2. Winning on the road- Last season, the Pirates were only able to get 17 wins on the road, and obviously when you play 81 total road games, that is not an acceptable number. Already this season, Manager Hurdle has the team performing on the road and winning more than they are losing. 21 road wins may not seem like a lot, but when you have already surpassed your road victory total from last season, it is an accomplishment.
3. Defense- Last season the defense was abysmal. Ronny Cedeno, Pedro Alvarez and pretty much the entire Pirates infield just was not performing up to snuff. This year, everything is much improved. Neil Walker who was stellar last season, has raised his game, the third base position has been filled nicely by Pedro Alvarez, Brandon Wood, Chase D'Arnaud and Josh Harrison. Lyle Overbay has been fine at first although early in the season struggled. Andrew McCutchen has been doing well in center, but needs to work on throwing to third as he tends to overthrow. Jose Tabata's defense also has improved quite a bit.
4. Managing- Clint Hurdle has made a difference in this team. Last season, John Russell appeared to the public as a man who did not care and showed no passion or emotion. Hurdle is not afraid to ask an umpire for an explanation on a play, and already has been ejected twice this season. The players say that he is everywhere and the change in atmosphere is refreshing for this team, and I believe that they got away with more under Russell. Obviously a manager does not officially change a win value, but he can change the player's attitudes, workouts and ability and if the team trusts their manager and finds inspiration, then the team is more likely to find success.
The team is starting to get some support now from fans that did not support the Pirates at the start of the season, and already have more sellout than all of last season. This season has provided the fans with some hope, especially since they are only a few games out of first. Despite all of the injuries and a lack of offense on many occasions, their pitching has kept them in the race, and if that stays, they could be dark horse contenders for the NL Central crown.
Zac Weiss is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.