It’s easy to get caught up in the oscillations of a baseball team’s fortunes throughout the season. The lows can feel extremely low, and the highs proportionately high. The bipolarity of these feelings often manifest themselves in short time periods. The month of June (admittedly an eternity in baseball time) was a disaster for the Pirates and universally had sports media, from the smallest blogger (i.e. yours truly) to the beat writers to the national writers writing off the 2016 Pirates (pun intended…or is this the opposite of a pun since they were literally writing?), with a low point when they dropped 3 of 4 to the Giants and felt light years away from the playoff-bound squads of the past few years that began to torch opponents after the calendar flipped to June.
However, the Pirates quietly finished this June 4-2 against the playoff-contending Dodgers and Mariners. That success carried over into the month of July with the Pirates sweeping the A’s and following that up with an Independence Day win over another rival for a playoff spot in the Cards. This recent success has been a combination of a variety of components gelling into a well-rounded team. The offense has produced 53 runs over this current 8-2 stretch while only yielding 31 runs to their opponents. This 5.3 runs/game has taken advantage of some mediocre pitching and bashed them; this is obviously the most consistent aspect of the Pirates play this year and despite injuries to their top 3 catchers entering the season (Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Elias Diaz) as well as lingering issues for the CMP sundae (Cutch, Marte, Polanco) outfield, the other guys in the lineup have struck the ball well and allowed the Pirates to continue to manufacture runs.
The starting pitching has been much more in line with our expectations (which are based on previous iterations of the Pirates’ rotation that had a much different look than the current assembly). Surprisingly, you could make a really strong case that the Pirates’ current two best starters are Jameson Taillon (before the DL stint that was announced earlier today) and Chad Kuhl, simply based on the fact that neither of them have sucked this year. Jeff Locke has continued to be the inconsistent fifth starter, eating up innings and doing a highwire act to maintain his spot in the rotation that reportedly has the Ringling Brothers calling Neal Huntington daily. Jon Niese has shored up his act in his recent starts, putting in a hell of an effort today against the Cards and helping the Pirates to win against their rival. This is on the heels of four pretty bad starts, all of which the Bucs lost; Niese’s own highwire act continues as well, I suppose, but having him be productive for a time would be really huge toward turning around the Pirates season. Lastly, Francisco Liriano has still not pitched as well as I think everyone expected him to, but at least only walked 1 batter in his last start, significantly better than his unsustainable 5.65 BB/9 he’s ceded over the course of the entire season.
Returning to the peaks and valleys of a season, though, we are reminded that it’s important to not allow a single game, week, or even month to disrupt our expectations for this team. I’m certainly guilty of not following this principle; I found myself in the depths of despair after the Giants series of late June, looking up who’s going to be a free agent next year to replace the production of David Freese and Mark Melancon. Fast forward a week and a half and I’m feeling confident in the Pirates’ chances. The pitching will improve with Gerrit Cole returning to the rotation; furthermore, it seems likely that Jameson Taillon will return at the very end of his DL stint and be ready to go. (I don’t think that this DL trip has anything to do with a phantom injury like Caminero or anyone trying to take advantage of the rules; I honestly just think that Taillon might need a break after not pitching for two years and this will help prolong his usefulness this season, especially given the innings limit that he likely has.)
The biggest improvement in recent days has been the Pirates’ bullpen. Juan Nicasio fits in well there as the long man, Arquimedes Caminero has returned to the form of the fire-breathing monster 2015 version of himself, and AJ Schugel has basically been unhittable. This bullpen picking up the slack from the starting rotation is going to be huge moving forward; this is necessitated by young starters and guys trying to figure out how to make it back to the former success they’ve had.
The schedule for the past month has been brutal, and that was reflected in the Pirates’ record. After the All-Star break, the Pirates have a significantly easier road, playing 40 of their 73 games after the Midsummer Classic against teams that suck (determined at my discretion), with an especially easy stretch September 2-21 against the Brewers (3), Cards (3), Reds (4), Phillies (4), Reds (4), and Brewers (3). This has the Pirates set up well in their current form to make a run at the Wild Card. Staying even keel throughout this process is likely the smartest way to approach the Pirates, but their recent success has me feeling good anyway; I’ll ride that success for as long as possible and try to bottle up this feeling for the valley that could be coming any day now.