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June 20, 2011

On the Beat

Pirate Treasure

by John Perrotto

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Clint Hurdle has noticed that his players have been getting a bit distracted recently. However, that doesn’t bother the Pirates' manager, even if people if in his position usually go to great lengths to avoid distractions. Instead, Hurdle thinks the distraction is a positive sign.

"I had a comment made to me the other day that the guys are a little more alive in the dugout and they're starting to watch the scoreboard," Hurdle said. "Scoreboard watching might be new and fresh for some of them. That's cool, though. It's part of the growing process."

In most situations, it would be downright silly for a team to be tracking the out-of-town scores in June. Even the Phillies, who have the best record in the major leagues, have a magic number of 85 to clinch a playoff berth.

However, the Pirates aren't in a normal situation. Despite being swept in a weekend series by the American League Central-leading Indians in Cleveland, they are 35-36. Not only is it completely unexpected that the Pirates would be only one game under .500 after a 57-105 finish last season, but it borders on historic. The team is in fourth place in the National League Central but just four games behind the co-leading Brewers and Cardinals.

When the Pirates moved over .500 last week, it marked the first time they'd had a winning record that late in a season since 1999. When that win also moved them within three games of the National League Central-leading Brewers, it marked the closest the Pirates had been to first place that late in a season since 1997. Those milestones are the result of 18 consecutive seasons without a winning record, a streak that started in 1993 and has been the longest in any major North American professional sport.

While Hurdle is willing to indulge his players a bit, he certainly isn't getting wrapped up in thinking the pennant race has started before the season has even reached its midpoint.

"I don't even pick up the stat sheet or the standings every day," Hurdle said. "I do pick up them up periodically over the course of the week just to see where things stand. But I know there is a long way to go, not just for our team but every team. I operate on the concept of being easy to please and hard to satisfy. I'm pleased with the way we've played, but I'm not satisfied. We have a lot of games left to play, and I want to see us continue to improve."

There are certainly a number of thing to like about the Pirates. One is that they need just 35 victories in their last 91 games to post their first 70-win season since 2004. Another is that they already have 20 wins on the road after going a pathetic 17-64 away from home last season.

However, the most striking aspect of the Pirates' turnaround is impossible to quantify with even the most advanced metrics. Hurdle's relentlessly upbeat personality and infectious optimism has lifted not only his players but the entire organization, as well as a fan base that has been beaten down by a generation of losing.

There’s definitely a feeling of not being overwhelmed or feeling out of place,” second baseman Neil Walker said. "There is just a real positive feeling. Even when we lose, there is no more of that feeling of here we go again. We've played better all-around baseball. You can really count on one hand the number of bad games we've played all season."

Part of the Pirates' improvement is a matter of maturing. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen has two full major-league seasons under his belt, and fellow cornerstone players Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata have one full season of experience.

"I think the mentality has been very good inside of this clubhouse," Hurdle said. "They are focused on today's game, and that is what championship teams do. And they learn from their mistakes, they honestly self-evaluate, they move forward—the focus and preparation has to be at peak levels at all times."

McCutchen said that is the biggest lesson Hurdle has imparted in his first season on the job after being hired to replace John Russell last November.

"We're focused on just the day at hand," McCutchen said. "We don't dwell on wins and we don't dwell on losses. We just get ready for the next day. That's the biggest difference I see. We just get ready for the next game. Our focus has been good since the first day of spring training."

The Pirates have been sparked by a surprising performance by their no-star pitching staff, which is sixth in the NL and 10th in the majors with 3.90 runs allowed a game. That is 1.45 runs fewer than last season, when they gave up the most runs of any major-league club.

Closer Joel Hanrahan has converted all 17 save opportunities and has a 2.50 Fair Run Average. Meanwhile, Jeff Karstens (3.98), left-hander Paul Maholm (4.06), and Charlie Morton (4.14) lead a rotation that does not have a true No. 1. Morton has been one of the most improved pitchers in the majors after posting a 6.05 mark last season.

The pitching staff has been aided by increased assistance from the fielders. The Pirates' defense is 11th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency with a .716 mark. They finished last in that category last season.

One area in which the Pirates haven't shown significant improvement, though, is offense. They are scoring just 3.71 runs a game, which ranks 14th in the league and 25th in the majors. The Pirates were 29th in the majors in runs scored last season, ahead of only the historically awful Mariners.

McCutchen (.307) and right fielder Garrett Jones (.285) are the only regulars with True Averages over. 260. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has also failed to build on to the strong conclusion of his rookie season, as he is sidelined by a strained quadriceps and has a .202 TAv in 138 plate appearances.

"It really is all about pitching and defense and finding a way to score one more run than the other team," Hurdle said. "We all know internally here we need to find more on offense, and they are all working hard to do that. But I'm not so sure that anybody can ask for more than what we've gotten out of this club right now with the personnel that is in place. That's where we are, that's who we are, and it is a matter of us continuing to scratch, claw, and play good, hard baseball."

---

Rumors and Rumblings:

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had a great line when asked if he thought the Phillies might be upset because he plucked right-hander Brian Gordon off their Triple-A Lehigh Valley roster and put him into the major-league rotation: "They got Cliff Lee. I got Brian Gordon. I don't think they have anything to worry about."… The Angels are currently on a 6,800-mile road trip that takes them from Anaheim to Seattle to New York to Miami to Los Angeles, prompting manager Mike Scioscia to say, "I don't what kindergartener figured that one out."… Speaking of scheduling, the Red Sox and Indians are not happy having to play nine straight interleague games on the road, reducing David Ortiz and Travis Hafner to pinch-hitters. The Indians asked for a different schedule after also having a nine-game interleague road trip last season, but their request went unanswered.

While hard-throwing rookie Greg Holland has pitched well out of the bullpen, the Royals still feel he could be an effective starter in the long term… The Reds are considering optioning left-handed reliever Aroldis Chapman to Triple-A Louisville on Tuesday when his 30-day rehab assignment expires… Dioner Navarro is getting what will almost certainly be his last chance to reestablish himself as a potential starting catcher, as he will see the majority of the duty behind the plate for the Dodgers with Rod Barajas on the disabled list… Interesting factoid: all four former Rockies managers wound up managing again in the major leagues—Don Baylor, Jim Leyland, Buddy Bell, and Hurdle.

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Scouts' views:

Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer: "It's going to be really interesting to see what happens if he gets to free agency. He's not a star or a guy who is going to come in and win you a pennant, but he can help in a lot of ways. He has some pop, he can play a bunch of positions, and he's a good clubhouse guy. I have a feeling he's going to cash in somewhere."

Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier: "The way he was swinging the bat at the start of the season, I thought this was the year he was going to break through and become a star. It seems like the same thing every year, though. He starts off great and then tails off. The star players play well for six months, not two."

Padres left-hander Clayton Richard: "He's not throwing as hard as he used to, and it's costing him. He does a great job of getting ahead of hitters, but then he isn't finishing them off. It's almost like he is taking something off his pitches when he gets to two strikes."

Indians catcher Carlos Santana: "I'm kind of at a loss to explain why he hasn't hit better. He has good at-bats, and he takes walks. I think he's real close to breaking out and having a real big second half. He's swinging the bat better than his stats would indicate."

Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "He has the best stuff in the game, bar none. He's still throwing 100 in the eighth inning, he's got a killer breaking ball, and he's starting to learn how to pitch instead of just throw. The best part? I don't think he's completely tapped his potential."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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