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Pittsburgh Pirates

How the Pittsburgh Pirates can turn a hot start into a playoff run

Brett Barnett

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As the baseball season continues to get into full swing, the Pittsburgh Pirates have rocketed out of the gate and are showing serious signs of promise for this season and the future. At 8-2, the Pirates are off to their best start in nearly three decades, and that’s because of a lot of offense.

Before I dive into this, I know someone will say it, so let me get it out of the way. I know it’s early. Too early to talk playoffs for the 2018 Pittsburgh pirates. I’m working with what they’ve done so far, what they’ve done to prove they have legitimate talent, and who needs to perform to keep winning.

So, right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates are at, or near the top in almost every major offensive statistical category in all of baseball.

Here are the team’s current rankings, as of this writing (April 14th):

 

Stat To date MLB rank
Runs Scored 79 2nd
H 123 3rd
2B 27 6th
HR 18 7th
Total Bases 212 2nd
RBI 74 3rd
AVG .272 2nd
OBP .346 2nd
SLG .468 2nd
OPS .814 2nd

 

Of all those stats, the most impressive ones, is OBP, SLG, and OPS. If those numbers continue to stay near, or at the top of all of baseball, then the success we’ve seen isn’t a fluke.

Moreover, I wrote a piece before the season that outlined the players that needed to have a breakout/big season. Because the Pirates are so young, there are plenty of players to add to that list, but I’m going to highlight the ones that need to keep up what they’ve done.

3B Colin Moran

Moran is one of the more intriguing pieces on this year’s Pirates team. You’re all familiar that he was a piece that came over from Houston in the Gerrit Cole deal. Because the Pirates were in need of a solid third baseman and there didn’t appear to be any stellar options from within the system, this portion of the deal was a good move by the front office. Because Moran’s time at the big league level has been so limited (only 16 games with the Astros combined from the 2016 and 2017 seasons), the Pirates are relying on projections of what Moran is capable of doing.

The lefty hitting, red-beard toting third baseman got off to a sluggish start in Detroit, but has turned it on ever since. He began the season going 1 for 9 in the Pirates season opening series against the Tigers (he didn’t play the final game of the series), but he got his PNC Park career off to a bang with a 1st inning grand slam against Twins pitcher Lance Lynn. If there’s a way to cheer up disheartened fans about offseason trades and past moves, a four run cannonball is a pretty good way to do it.

Ever since then, Moran’s bumped his numbers way up, including a .911 OPS, a 153 wRC+, and a .397 wOBA. He’s also driven in eight runs. One shift we’ve seen with the team as a whole, and Moran is no exception, is the lack of walks. In the past, the Pirates have been a team that focuses on working counts, make opposing pitchers throw a lot of pitches. To this point, the low walk percentage hasn’t hindered his performance, but it may become a concern down the road. Moran’s BB% is 12.5%, which is a little over the team’s average percentage of 10.1%.

A major shift that’s contributed to Moran’s success (at least in the small sample size) was a change he made prior to his 2017 season with the Astros. Like many hitters today, Moran changed his approach at the plate. He began trying to lift the ball more, and has had tremendous success in doing so. In 2016, albeit in only 26 at-bats, Moran’s FB% was only 13.3%. Because of that, he slugged a lousy .174, with a .374 OPS. His GB/FB wasn’t much different throughout most of his stint in the minor leagues. After he made the change in approach, Moran hit the most home runs he’d hit at any point in his professional career, hitting 18 long balls at Triple-A Fresno. Prior to then, the most he’d hit was 10, which came in 2016 at Fresno. That change in approach also dramatically increased his wRC+ from 88 to 133.

This year, Moran has over tripled his amount of plate appearances from last year, and has managed to raise his FB% from 30% to 37.9%. I would imagine that number falls just short of his goal, which I would assume is at least around 40%. Regardless, if Moran’s swing change keeps playing out the way he has, then I expect his success to be maintained. Hopefully that’s true because he will have to be a key contributor for this team to compete this year, and going forward.

1B Josh Bell

In his first full season, Josh Bell made quite the splash with the organization, positioning himself to compete for face of the franchise. Bell finished 2017 with 26 home runs, an .800 OPS, a 108 wRC+, and a .338 wOBA. These numbers were good enough for Bell to finish third in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind the massive breakout year for Cody Bellinger, and the great year the Cardinals infielder Paul DeJong had.

Bell will look to build on what he did last year, and he’s off to a pretty good start. Bell has a .762 OPS, a 115 wRC+, and a .340 wOBA. His FB% is up just over 5% from last year at 36.6%. He’s also got an early season .325 BABIP. Bell also has a roughly middle of the pack O-Swing% of 28.5%, and makes contact 86.3% of the time on pitches thrown inside the strike zone.

There were defensive concerns surrounding Bell going into his first full season at first base, but he finished the season with six Defensive Runs Saved, where zero is average. With that said, his UZR at the end of 2017 was -3.2.

Bell showed major signs of power last year, when, like Moran, he far exceeded his home run totals last year than what he’d hit at any other point in his professional career. Prior to 2017, the most long balls Bell had sent sailing was 14 in 2016 at Triple-A Indianapolis. What’s been more impressive than his power numbers, however, is his ability to hit to all fields. Last year, he was a 41.5% pull hitter, and sent 29.6% to the center zone, and 28.9% to opposite field. These are acceptable numbers as they were, but it appears he’s made even bigger strides in 2018. Through 50 at bats thus far, his batted ball to the pull side (34.1%), center (31.7%), and opposite (34.1%) are nearly identical. In fact, as the numbers bear out, his hits to opposite field are equal to what they are to the pull side. This may indicate that his power numbers will recede from last year, but what it does show might be even more beneficial; on several occasions this season, Bell has taken the pitch that he’s been given and sent it the easiest way, which is most often taking a pitch and sending it to left field. One of the best examples is this clip from the April 10 game against the Cubs, in which Bell took a 93 mph two-seam fastball middle-out down the line in left for an RBI double.

Bell has already proven he has what it takes to succeed at the major league level. Now, he will have to sustain that success in order for the Pirates to compete.

LF Corey Dickerson

The Pirates were able to acquire Corey Dickerson for virtually nothing after the Rays designated him for assignment in February. The Pirates sent reliever Daniel Hudson (who didn’t stick in Tampa) and $1 million to the Rays for the outfielder. Dickerson comes in as the de facto replacement to longtime Pirate Andrew McCutchen. No, Dickerson didn’t come in to play center field, but he is the new piece in the outfield. Pirates fans will likely compare Dickerson’s numbers to McCutchen’s numbers throughout the season, and rightfully so. In 2017, Andrew McCutchen ultimately contributed 3.1 fWAR to the Pirates cause, and if he were to, in theory, perform to that standard again, that’s a fairly large hole to fill.

But it wouldn’t be a wild notion for Dickerson to make up for that production, however, as he contributed 2.6 fWAR to the Rays a season ago and made the American League All-Star team as the starting DH. Fortunately, the lefty is off to a hot start in Pittsburgh. For example, he went 7 for 17 in the four game set against Cincinnati, logging four doubles and a triple. That series helped contribute to his 1.018 OPS, 177 wRC+, and .433 wOBA. He’s also knocked one home run and nine RBIs.

There was concern about Dickerson’s ability in the outfield, and while it’s true he hasn’t looked as fluid as some other outfielders, he’s currently 1st in Defensive Runs Saved with six. Whether or not he’ll be able to keep this up throughout the season remains to be seen, but to this point, he’s been better than advertised.

The acquisition of Dickerson was one of the most exciting transactions the Pirates made all offseason. In fact, it was the only player movement that didn’t turn (seemingly) half of the fanbase against the front office. Dickerson’s start is promising, and should he keep up a high level of production, that’s another commodity you can check off the list that needs to have a big season for the Pirates to compete.

RF Gregory Polanco

Essentially ever since Gregory Polanco signed with the Pirates as an international free agent in 2009, he’s been regarded highly by the system and by Pirates fans. For the most part, though, ever since he got to the major league roster, he hasn’t panned out to his fullest potential. He had his career year to this point in 2016, but not even then did he reach what most felt was his full potential. In 2016, Polanco hit 22 homers, had a .786 OPS, a 106 wRC+, and a .297 wOBA. Those are certainly respectable numbers, but except for homers, those are all numbers that could use a 15 or so point boost. Only then would it seem like Polanco is reaching his potential.

In the offseason, we heard a lot of talk that this will be the year for Gregory Polanco, and so far, he hasn’t disappointed. Already five homers for the Pirates right fielder, a 1.009 OPS, a 167 wRC+, and a .418 wOBA. Certainly, Polanco looks poised perhaps to have the best season for this team, and the best season of his career. He knows how important of a year this is for himself, and if this team can outperform projections, it will be due in large part to his success.

SP Jameson Taillon

Taillon made his debut last season before having to miss time due to being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Before he had to take time off from baseball, Taillon was performing exceptionally well, giving us glimpses of what was in store for the future Pirates ace. In of his more memorable performances came in his first start in Boston, and then a few starts later in Chicago. He went seven strong innings, and surrendered no earned runs.

His first start back post-surgery was five strong scoreless innings at PNC against the Rockies. It was then that Taillon showed his fortitude and ability to bounce back. This season, he’s truly gotten off to a start just like an ace should. Through three starts and 14.1 innings, he’s walked two batters, struck out 16, with a 0.49 WHIP, 2.30 FIP, and a FIP- of 63.

He turned in what will likely be his best start of the season on his April 8 start against the Reds, when he threw a one hit, complete game shutout in dominant fashion. The fastball was electric, and if it wasn’t already known, made a statement that he’s the best pitcher on this team, and undoubtedly the ace. There isn’t much more to say about Taillon because it’s obvious how talented he is, and how important it is that he holds down the pitching staff. Of all the players mentioned on this list, Taillon has the best chance at having a breakout season. If he does, then it will go a long way in ensuring the Pirates are successful this season.

Note: These are his numbers prior to this line he put up April 14 against the Marlins: 6 innings, 4 hits, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts.

RP Tyler Glasnow

Glasnow is one of the more interesting pieces. Coming up through the system and dominating at every level, it was assumed that the tall righty would become the ace of the Pirates starting rotation. After finishing with a 6.30 FIP over 13 starts and 15 total appearances, the future for Glasnow in Pittsburgh looked uncertain. It was clear that sending him to Triple-A wasn’t the answer because he’d already proven how dominant he was at that level. That was due in large part to Triple-A hitters not being able to capitalize on walks and his mistakes in location. When he made it to the big leagues, all of that was exposed.

So Glasnow found himself in the Pirates bullpen to start the 2018 season, and it’s gone well. A 2.30 FIP through 6.2, with a 13.50 K/9 and a 60 FIP-. His curveball has been staggering, even impressing the likes of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. His fastball has been located well to this point, and he’s been able to largely keep out of trouble. Even when he has gotten into a little hole, he looked much better getting there and then getting through it than he did last year. Last year there were glimpses of talent, but so far it’s been a more consistent demonstration of stuff.

We’ll see where Glasnow ends up by the end of the year, but management has made it clear that they still want Glasnow to end up in the rotation. That would be great if it could work out, but it might be a case where a pitcher is better served coming out of the bullpen rather than being a starter, like Zach Britton. I would be hesitant to put Glasnow back in the rotation, and I certainly wouldn’t try to hurry it along. At any rate, Glasnow should figure to be a fairly large piece this season, either out of the bullpen or as a starter.

There were a few names I could’ve chosen out of the bullpen as guys that need to have big years, but it’s expected that Felipe Vázquez will have a big year, and George Kontos and Michael Feliz should both be able to find their rhythm. The decision of including Glasnow is a simple one: win or lose, good or bad, Glasnow is perpetually and unfailingly interesting.

The Final Hurdle

One problem that plagued the Pirates last year was a multitude of injuries. There were other issues, but it seemed like someone was hurt every time you looked up. Polanco had trouble staying off the disabled list, as did Francisco Cervelli, and Josh Harrison, to an extent. There were also terrible instances of poor luck, like Taillon having to miss time for testicular cancer (from which he extraordinarily rebounded, as if it wasn’t obvious). First and foremost, this roster will need to remain healthy. Sure, there are options from within and on the bench, should someone go down. The Pirates are stocked with utility guys, like Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez, so that will be to their benefit. In terms of starting pitching, the Pirates have already tapped into guys serving as replacements, with Steven Brault stepping in until Joe Musgrove returns from his injury.

Another positive aspect working for the 2018 Pirates so far is the clubhouse atmosphere. The team seems looser as a whole. We haven’t really gotten to see how they behave in a difficult losing situation because they haven’t lost that much, and when they have, it was in a winnable game. Everyone seems to mesh well, and that may be in part because most the guys are so young and they’re trying to find their way together. It seems that there is a good mix of rookie/young excitement and veteran presence. It should stay this way so long as the veterans don’t get restless over playing time (like David Freese or Rodriguez).

This team has shown that it has what it takes to win games. Thus far they’ve shown resiliency when faced with adversity (think the 13-10 win over the Tigers in game one of the season), and they’ve also shown that they know how to pick up hits in key situations, which has been a huge area of concern with Pirates teams in the past. They’ve also shown that big losses won’t hurt them too much, losing 13-5 to the Cubs, then coming back to take the rubber match the following day by a score of 6-1. There have been issues with bullpen relief and management in the middle innings, and that will need to be addressed. With that said, the starters have overall done their jobs, and the backend of the bullpen has faced some struggles, but it shouldn’t be enough for concern. If the Pirates make a few small pitching adjustments, and keep the offensive totals up, then this team will still be sticking around by mid-summer, and should be able to make a run for the playoffs at the end of the season.

I am from Columbus, OH, and am a fan of Ohio State. I attended East Tennessee State University and majored in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a concentration in Marketing and Journalism. I run a Pirates website called Pirates Review. I am also a reporter at The Cardinal Nation, covering the Rookie affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Johnson City Cardinals. I also work on providing players analysis at The Collegiate Baseball Network. I am a lifelong Pirates fan, and make the six hour drive to Pittsburgh as often as I can.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Interview: Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Joe Block

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Today I had the pleasure of talking to Joe Block for the latest Locked on Pirates podcast.

The Pittsburgh Pirates found a good one when they brought in Joe Block to their announce team prior to the 2016 season. He graciously granted me some time for the Locked on Pirates podcast today while the club is in San Francisco. It was a lively talk that was very eye-opening in many ways. Here ya go:

 

 

Hear Joe’s thoughts on:

  • The role of analytics and advanced stats in his broadcast.
  • The maturation of Gregory Polanco
  • The “creaminess” of the current Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen,
  • And much more!

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

LOP’s Jason Rollison on ESPN Radio’s Adam Crowley show

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Locked on Pirates host Jason Rollison joined Adam Crowley of ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh to talk all things trade deadline. Listen in as they both try to process how the hell the Pittsburgh Pirates got Chris Archer

 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

The Corey Dickerson Dilemma

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The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is LIVE. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ nine-game winning streak has re-fueled a few hot topics going around in Pirates circles.

The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is here:

 

 

Today we talk:

  • The Corey Dickerson Dilemma
  • GM Speak and why it is sometimes necessary
  • Left-handed relievers that could be available

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

Continue Reading

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