Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the hottest team in baseball.
The Pirates were within striking distance of the Brewers and Cubs for the top spot in the National League Central and many considered them a buyer at the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline. On July 21, the Pirates soundly defeated the Colorado Rockies and it appeared alongside their easiest part of the schedule the Pirates could continue that momentum and take the division lead come early-August.
Who could blame a positive thinking Pirates fan? The Bucs were 49-48 and after the Rockies series traveled to San Francisco, San Diego and hosted Cincinnati.
What a difference the last couple weeks were. Instead of talking the playoffs, the Pirates struggled. The Pirates are in the midst of another slump last week, turning in a 2-4 week with series losses to the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds. The team can be blamed for many, but the main reason is the lack of chemistry. In the two wins, they soundly won. In three of the four losses, they were close without great hitting.
To further more doubts on the direction of the organization, the trade deadline saw no major splashes. Obtaining a pitcher like Sonny Gray or Yu Darvish was not on the radar, but the Pirates basically stayed pat in the pennant race, only acquiring 40-year old journeyman Joaquin Benoit from Philadelphia while saying “adios” to bullpen staple Tony Watson to the Los Angeles Dodgers for prospects. The trade deadline and the week were sore spots to the season, but not all was entirely lost this past week for the Pirates.
It’s Singles Week in Pittsburgh
One of the biggest concerns last week was the inability to get extra base hits during the week. In the last six games, the Pirates collected 44 hits. A respectable number, but only 20 hits were distributed in their four losses and an average fan can average out that it is will not continue a hot streak.
What I’m trying to explain is that the Pirates simply could not drive runners in with their lack of power. Only 11 of the 44 hits were extra-base hits. Yes, 33 of the team’s hits were singles. David Freese had a respectable .364 average last week, but all seven of his hits were singles. Adam Frazier improved his batting average with seven hits in his last five games, but six of the hits were singles.
If a fan wants to take “singles” as “a lonely relationship status”, look no further than Chris Stewart, Josh Harrison and Francisco Cervelli. Max Moroff had more hits (a single) those three Pirates combined (Harrison went 0-9 and the Pirates catchers went a combined 0-22)! Even John Jaso broke his weeks-long slump with a base hit against the Reds on August 3.
Take away Andrew McCutchen’s home runs and the number goes down to just seven extra-base hits by the rest of the team. You can have solid starting pitching and their chances of winning baseball games would not be strong. As a matter of fact, the lack of production has the makings of a team that will not be a .500 club, let alone a playoff contender.
Cutch continues to happen
It seems like I’ve been typing every week about the glory of McCutchen. McCutchen continues to be a bright spot for the Pirates and last week was no different. Out of the team’s five home runs, McCutchen hit four (including three in last Sunday’s 7-1 win against the Padres). Out of the Pirate’s 18 runs batted in, McCutchen drove in seven of them. His monster week improved his batting average to .294, above his career average of .292. I don’t think anyone saw this coming after his sub-par offensive performance in the first two months.
The pitching had some Khul performances
Terrible “dad-joke” type headline, but the best starter on staff last week was Chad Khul. He was the only pitcher to have two starts last week and in 12 1/3 innings and allowed two earned runs and eight hits in that span. He mixed the speed of his pitches yesterday and it resulted in his best performance of his young career. Khul went seven innings and the Reds could not score a run on him. His ERA dropped to 4.53 and is actually lower than Jameson Tallion’s 4.74.
To go along with Khul, The “Cole Train” appears to be running smoothly again as the Pirates ace stopped the Padres momentum on July 30 to collect his ninth win on the season, allowing one run and striking out eight batters over a seven inning outing. Cole’s overall ERA is under 4 for the first time since May 27.
Worth noting is that in the month of July, Cole had a quality start in each of his five starts while maintain a tidy 2.25 ERA. It was widely critiqued that Cole needs to pitch like an ace for the Pirates to stay afloat and that is what Cole has done this month.
Also an unsung hero in the rotation is Trevor Williams. He did not get out of the sixth inning in the Pirates 5-2 loss last Wednesday, but pitched well enough for the Pirates to at least make a splash in the game. Williams posted a July ERA of 3.86, which is a respected number for a player not in the starting rotation.
Slumps are plenty
This piece can’t be all sunshine and rainbows. Players like McCutchen, Cole and Khul kept the Pirates from a tailspin, but there are players that will need to find ways to improve in order for the Pirates to obtain an overall winning record.
Starting pitcher Jameson Tallion was heralded as the best pitcher on the staff, but like every young pitcher will have hurdles to jump over. After last week’s 9-earned run outing in San Francisco, Tallion could not shake off that game and the slump stayed with him in an 9-1 loss on August 1 against the Reds.
Tallion allowed eight earned runs and did not make it past the fourth inning and watched Billy Hamilton and Jesse Winker hit home runs off of him. Weeks ago, Tallion had the lowest ERA in the rotation and after his last two performances he now owns the highest.
The Pirates starting catchers this week combined to hit 0-22 with no walks. So Cervelli and Stewart went to the plate and produced NOTHING in the last six games.
It is great that Gregory Polanco is back from the DL. He is a strong presence in the outfield, but offensively anyone that had the “9” next to their name failed to produce offensively last week. Polanco, Frazier (in right field), Jaso and Jordan Luplow combined to get two hits. Both hits were by Frazier and (you guessed it) were singles.
The bullpen had an opportunity to make a statement on August 2. The Pirates were tied 2-2 and called for the newly acquired Benoit to pitch the seventh inning. Benoit allowed a home run and was credited as the losing pitcher in the 5-2 defeat. Nicasio pitched a scoreless eighth inning, but used up many pitches. Felipe Rivero had a rare off-night and allowed a 2-run home run to Adam Duvall in the ninth inning to increase his ERA to 0.99 on the season.
Opinions of the Week
Initially I was angry over the lack of movements at the trade deadline. The Pirates had opportunities to land a power hitter for the bench or a quality bullpen arm. Just like every season, the Pirates love their prospects too much to make a deal. In hindsight, if the Pirates were not truly thinking about contending this year it was the best choice. It is a true disservice to a guys like McCutchen, Cole and Harrison who has seen the highs and lows of the club and genuinely want to win in Pittsburgh.
Watson will be missed for his class and demeanor; it was necessary to move him before he left for free agency. Watson is now a Los Angeles Dodger and if the Pirates don’t make it to the playoffs (which is likely) then I hope Watson can help them win a championship. Watson is one of the good guys in baseball.
Tyler Glasnow has been a hot topic recently. Glasnow is putting up video game numbers in Indianapolis once again, posting an undefeated record while maintaining a 1.46 ERA. I’d like to see him get called up, but not as a long reliever. I think despite Tallion’s slump he stays in the rotation. Cole and Nova stay in the rotation because there is a lot invested in their arms. Kuhl and Williams have done really well this month and would be disappointing for them if they were demoted for Glasnow. Is Glasnow ready for another call-up?
As a result, I think he stays in Indianapolis until either Kuhl or Williams regresses or if any pitcher goes on the DL. Glasnow will only be valuable to the team if he is starting.
Cervelli has not played in the last two games and I don’t know if it was injuries or he was mired in a slump but there was no news on his absence as of this writing. I am guessing a little bit of both, but am leaning towards a slump. I expect him to play a significant role against the Padres.
Wade LeBlanc played a crucial role in the Pirates 9-1 loss on August 1. They called him in the fifth inning to pitch and he threw three scoreless innings. He kept the relief pitchers away from the game and that was the best case scenario in the blowout. My thoughts and prayers to LeBlanc as he was on the bereavement list.
While Khul and Williams pitched well beyond expectations, Nova had rough performances. Nova has been inconsistent with his location and is getting hit. Nova is a solid No. 3 starter and at a great price, but will need a strong couple month for the Pirates to have a respectful season.
Who had the second most extra base hits for the Pirates last week? It was Jordy Mercer’s three doubles. Mercer had a rough week at the plate with only four hits total. Mercer did not score on any of those three hits, more proof that the Pirates need to produce offensively.
Win or lose on August 4, I think the fans will be the winners when Chicago performs live after the game. I grew up listening to Chicago and feel they are a band that inspired some of the sound we hear today. The younger fans, if they stay for the music, are going to be impressed.
The Pirates continue their home stand with a three-game series against the Padres. Nova, Cole and Tallion are scheduled to start. After hosting the Padres, the Pirates will play the Detroit Tigers in a 4-game home/home series.