Woe is the team that plays in the NL Central anywhere but Chicago. The Cubs had a stretch in May where they went 8-12 and and dropped to a measly five games ahead in the division. However, since the last loss during that streak, they have gone on another tear in the opposite direction, winning 11 out of their last 13 and they now sit on a 10-game lead in the division.
So, the NL Central is playing out more or less as expected before the season, with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals fighting for a wild card spot as the Cubs run away with the division. The Cardinals are contending, because of course they do, they always do, what is dead may never die. The Pirates are contending because they have a smart front office who makes due with the financial realities that face their team. The way in which the Bucs are contending this year is a bit surprising, at least when compared to their recent templates for success.
Last year, Pirates hitters put up 21.8 fWAR, which was solid, but not enough to push them into the top ten, as they came in at number 11. Their pitching, however, was much better, as Pirates pitchers put up 21.7 fWAR, tied for third with the Nationals. This year, the Pirates are not experiencing quite as much success on the pitching front, as the staff has collectively put up 1.1 fWAR. That puts them in 29th place in the MLB, and they are only “bested” by the Reds pitchers, who have put up -3.1 fWAR and unsurprisingly sit 19.5 games back of the aforementioned Cubs.
While the Pirates’ pitching staff as a whole (excepting Gerrit Cole, of course) has left much to be desired, they haven’t needed to be lights out this season to keep the Pirates in the running, as the offense has been outstanding. Through about a third of their games this season, Pirates hitters have put up 12.3 fWAR, good for third in MLB, behind only the dominant offenses of the Cubs (of course) and the Red Sox. The offense is currently on pace for 35.6 fWAR, which would have been the most fWAR from an offense in MLB in 2015, so let’s explore some of the reasons why the Pirates’ offense has improved so much from last season to the present.
First up, there’s rightfielder Gregory Polanco, who is having a ridiculous breakout season. He’s hitting .308/.391/.556 with a marked increase in power, good for a 152 wRC+. His .247 ISO is almost double his number from 2015 (.125) and he’s already hit 9 home runs. In 2015, he put up nine home runs on the season. You can tell by looking at his batted ball data that pretty much every stat is trending in a positive direction over his prior two seasons in Pittsburgh. More line drives and less ground balls, a home run to flyball rate three times his rate from 2015 and more hard hit balls than ever before. His plate discipline stats show that he’s swinging at slightly less pitches outside the strike zone and slightly more pitches in the zone while his contact rates are staying pretty much in line with his prior seasons, so that’s going to produce positive results as well.
As Dave Cameron at Fangraphs pointed out about a month ago, Polanco has shortened up his approach and, a month later, it still seems to be working. His .349 BABIP is definitely on the high end, so there’s always the possibility that Polanco comes back to earth a bit, but he did have long stretches in his minors career where he was able to maintain a higher than average BABIP, so it’s also not a given. The change in approach certainly appears to have worked wonders and Polanco is riding high, with an OPS of .947, right behind Mike Trout in 11th place in MLB.
Polanco may be the Pirates’ fWAR leader, but he’s being closely followed his counterpart in left field, Starling Marte, who is also having an excellent season so far and has put up 2.3 fWAR. Marte is hitting .326/.370/.488, good for a 135 wRC+. When you check out Marte’s plate discipline stats, one thing immediately jumps out at you: his first pitch strike percentage has dropped quite a bit. His career F-Strike% is 65.8 and his 2015 number of 69.5% was particularly rough. If the league average F-Strike% is somewhere around 60%, you can see that, up to this point in his career, Marte was below average in this department. In 2016, not so anymore, as his 54.8% figure puts him below average and just out of the top 30 qualified batters this season.
It isn’t breaking news that getting behind in the count is bad news, but Marte’s ability to do so less often than ever before is certainly paying dividends, as he’s currently on pace for a 6.7 fWAR season, which would be his best season to date by far. Unfortunately for anyone who wants to believe that this is a trend that is going to continue endlessly, it should be noted that Marte’s .409 BABIP is extremely high. That being said, Marte’s career BABIP is .359, so while it would be absolutely reasonable to expect a bit of regression in that regard, it’s not as if we’re talking about a huge fluke here, just a small one.
While Polanco and Marte are the biggest contributors at the plate for the Pirates right now, they are not alone. Pretty much the whole lineup is helping the cause, no matter how much playing time they are getting. Matt Joyce may only have 90 PAs, but he’s hit .324/.467/.662 in those limited appearances, good for 1.2 fWAR and a wRC+ of 203. Sure, 90 PAs is an extremely small sample size, but that wRC+ is the best in MLB if you limit the number of PAs to 90, even ahead of David Ortiz, who is absolutely otherworldly right now.
If you continue to leave the leaderboards limited to 90 PAs, you’ll see another Pirate up there with the best in baseball, Jung Ho Kang. In his 92 PAs, Kang is hitting .284/.348/.667 and has a wRC+ of 169, which puts him in 4th place for wRC+ for all MLB hitters with at least 90 plate appearances. Kang has hit 8 homeruns in those limited at-bats, so even though he’s walking a lot less than he did last year, he’s still providing tons of value in the limited times he’s at the plate.
The Pirates are even getting contributions at the plate from their pitchers this season. Francisco Liriano is hitting .333/.333/.375 and drove in four runs to help his own cause. Gerrit Cole’s (.217/.250./391) line doesn’t look quite as impressive is Liriano’s, but he has still put up 3 runs in his games. By fWAR, these two Pirates pitchers are each at .3 fWAR for their offensive contributions. It’s not as big of a deal as some of the other things we’ve talked about, but it bears mentioning since we’re talking about offensive contributions from the team as a whole, and the Pirates have two of the top ten hitting pitchers in baseball.
You’ll notice that we’ve gotten to this point in a long article about the Bucs’ offense, even taking a moment to talk about pitchers’ offense and we haven’t even mentioned Andrew McCutchen. He certainly isn’t carrying the offense, as he has been wont to do in the past. In fact, McCutchen is having a very bad year, at least by the standards he has set for himself. His .250/.333/.435 slashline, 10.3 BB%, 23.5% K% and 109 wRC+ are all his worst years by those stats to date, and it’s not as if his .300 BABIP is crazy low or anything. As you can tell by his wRC+, it’s not as if he hasn’t been a productive player for the Pirates and he’s already put up 0.9 WAR. However, we aren’t seeing the superstar season that we’re accustomed to from McCutchen at this point.
The Pirates as a team have the highest wRC+ in the MLB at 115 and the highest OBP in the NL at .354. We didn’t even talk about some of the other regulars, John Jaso, Josh Harrison and David Freese, who are also contributing in major ways. The Pirates are having a surprising outburst of offense this season and it’s currently got them in a Wild Card spot, likely the best position that they can be in a division with the Cubs, despite the fact that their pitching hasn’t really brought much to the table. If McCutchen gets going, this could be a truly terrifying offense for opposing pitchers for the rest of the regular season (and beyond, perhaps).