Pittsburgh Pirates Are At It Again, Leading Division Relying On Pitching, Defense, and Andrew McCutchen

The Pittsburgh Pirates have won 12 of their last 15 games after a sweep of the Kansas City Royals over the weekend. While the words “sweep of” and “Kansas City Royals” is among the top 10 most popular searches on Google over the last decade, that feat still put the Pirates into a tie for first place for the first time this season.

That streak has featured the Pirates stealing 4 of 6 from the Reds (intentional Aroldis Chapman Joke) to catch them, take 2 of 3 from the Brewers, surrounded by sweeps of the Cubs and Royals.

Last year, I talked about how the Pittsburgh Pirates reminded me of the 2003 Royals, a team that had a division lead in July and fell apart. Passionate Pirate fans took me to task for that one, probably as many complaints as any piece I’ve written here. I understand that–I’m a Royals fan, believe me. So I took no joy in the Pirates going a NL-worst 21-45 after I wrote that piece.

So, this year, we are looking at a Pirates team that is tied for first place at 32-27, while having been outscored for the year. This Pittsburgh team is much like last year, just moreso. Let me explain that ridiculous statement. They were an offensive team built largely around the talents of Andrew McCutchen, with an assist from Neil Walker and waiting on other young players to make a leap. That lead last year was largely built on pitching, though the underlying numbers showed they were due for a step back.

The positive is that the pitching is slightly more sustainable this year, better strikeout to walk rates. It is largely dependent on Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett staying healthy, and James McDonald looks far more legit than say, looking at Jeff Karstens leading the staff last year. While Bedard and Burnett are older, and Bedard has struggled staying healthy, they are an upgrade over 2011.

The offense, until the recent hot streak, has been a problem. Pittsburgh is still 16th in the NL in runs scored, despite McCutchen having an even greater year this year. Neil Walker will still provide an above average bat at second base, and the team is still waiting for others to consistently emerge. As a result, PNC looks like an even more extreme pitcher’s park in 2012, as the Pirates are 2nd best in runs allowed, and worst in runs scored.

Here’s a list of the other teams since 1996 to have a winning record on this date while ranking in the top 3 in runs allowed and bottom 3 in runs scored, sorted by run difference.

The Pirates have a worse run differential than any of them, and the bottom of that list is a scary proposition. Fourteen years ago, it was the 1998 Pirates off to a winning start based on pitching and defense, with offensive star Jason Kendall, and the pitching of Jason Schmidt, Jon Lieber, and Francisco Cordova. They finished the year with 69 wins. If the Pirates want to avoid that again, someone besides McCutchen and Neil Walker need to get hot with the bat.

[photo via US Presswire]

Because you want to see it first!

Like and follow The Big Lead today!