In last Wednesday's What You Need to Know, Daniel Rathman wrote of the Pirates, "It finally happened." Rathman wasn't talking about James McDonald being designated for assignment, but, rather, the Pirates ensuring their first non-losing season since 1992. This is the big story in Pittsburgh, of course, but all big stories comprise smaller stories, some of which are likely to go unnoticed if/when the Pirates clinch a postseason berth. Before the Steel City is overwhelmed with joy, let's give those finer details the attention they deserve.
Story No. 1: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Put simply, the best teams tend to have the best luck. Whether fortune manifests itself through one-run wins, late-inning comebacks, or good health depends on the situation. Often, as Patrick Sullivan, formerly of Baseball Analysts, noted last week, the surest way to pick postseason teams is by taking the preseason favorites and assume those with the healthiest rotations will advance to October. The Pirates are an exception. They trail only the Orioles in starters used this season (12 to 14), and could finish the year with just two pitchers having started 30-plus games.
Injuries have hit the Pirates' rotation hard throughout the year; if they desired they could fill a rotation with pitchers who spent time on the disabled list. A.J. Burnett missed a few weeks with a strained calf while Francisco Liriano (broken arm), Charlie Morton (Tommy John surgery rehab), Wandy Rodriguez (strained forearm), and James McDonald (strained shoulder) all were sidelined for at least a month—and that's without including Jeff Karstens, whose bum shoulder prevented him from appearing in more than two minor-league games. The Pirates rotation is close to 100 percent heading into the final weeks, but that was not the case all season.
As a result the Pirates tapped into their organizational depth. Some of the extra starters were top prospects, though a few weren't even surefire big leaguers—who can forget Jonathan Sanchez's time in the rotation, and what advice can he give the rest of us? That reality intensifies what the Pirates have accomplished; they haven't benefited from perfect health, yet they've made it anyway.
No one batted an eye when the Pirates acquired Mazzaro last November; the move failed to make a Transaction Analysis piece, and Mazzaro's comment in the annual concluded that the trade "should tell you all you need to know about how teams view him." The Gomez acquisition, which took place in January, was more of the same: No TA entry and an annual comment sparse in praise. So how should we react knowing Mazzaro and Gomez combine for 144 innings, a 3.06 run average, and a 1.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
How the Pirates have deployed Mazzaro and Gomez matters, too. Clint Hurdle has used the pair as long relievers; Gomez averages 5.9 outs per relief appearance and Mazzaro is at 4.1 per himself—two of the highest rates in the league, among relievers with 20-plus appearances. The duo has, in a sense, served as an extra starter, one with superficially great results and acquired at thrift shop costs. Invariably, these are the sort of moves that can look brilliant only after the fact, and truthfully both deals could be irrelevant in six month's time. Yet Mazzaro and Gomez's contributions are tough to ignore given Pittsburgh's success.
Story No. 3: The Captain
When the Pirates signed Russell Martin during the winter, to a two-year deal worth $17 million, they might not have envisioned this. The veteran backstop has missed time due to injury, but he's having one of his best offensive seasons: his .267 True Average ranks 11th among catchers with 300-plus plate appearances. Add in Martin's skill behind the plate, both in handling a staff and receiving the ball, and he's been a marked upgrade over Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry.
Knowing Martin has played well should make the postseason hyperbole easier to swallow. Because Martin has postseason experience, he'll appeal to television broadcasts as the team's de facto leader. Add in other small things, like Martin starting games at third base and right field, and the ultimate team player tag is in place as well. Were the Pirates to win the World Series, then Martin could match Ivan Rodriguez's perceived reverence—in Detroit or Miami, take your pick.
Story No. 4: A Lieutenant and His Parrot
Neil Walker has been an underrated player for years; a switch-hitting catcher-turned-second baseman who does a little bit of everything offensively. He's not a star talent, yet he's the kind of player who stands in the background on championship-level teams. Walker is having his best season, according to WARP, and continues to improve defensively.
Yet, as good as Walker has been, the real up-the-middle surprise in Pittsburgh has been his double-play partner, Jordy Mercer. Clint Barmes entered the season as shortstop, but has surrendered the job since Mercer arrived in mid-June. Though the young shortstop's recent struggles have opened the door for Barmes to reclaim playing time, his mid-season contributions should not be forgotten.
Story No. 5: Two More from the Trove
Francisco Liriano's turnaround has received plenty of attention, and Jason Grilli graced Sports Illustrated's cover along with a headline that read The Strangest But Truest Story of the Summer—an expose on how Gary Sheffield became his agent, no doubt—but Charlie Morton and Mark Melancon deserve some love, too.
Morton's Roy Halladay impression raised his profile two years ago; he's since missed time due to Tommy John surgery. This season Morton has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio to a career-best 2.74, and his pitches remain tough to lift (batters have hit a home run every 18 innings). Meanwhile Melancon, another Neal Huntington trade acquisition, has recovered from a poor stint in Boston by posting a 0.87 ERA and a 7.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio—numbers that compare favorably to Fernando Rodney's 2012 marks of 0.60 and 5.07. To think, he might not be the team's best story.
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