Saúl Berríos-Thomas | Layout Editor
Baseball has the longest season in professional sports. Sometimes the “dog days” of summer can get a little boring, but there is nothing more exciting than playoff races to the pennant.
The playoff picture is becoming clearer after Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles drenched their locker rooms in champagne earlier this week. The Los Angeles Angels have been a foregone conclusion to make the playoffs for the past few weeks.
The Central Division and Wild Card spots have become the most fascinating races in the league. In the American League, the Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and whoever doesn’t win the Central Division race between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals will all battle for the right to play in the one-game playoff.
In the National League the St. Louis Cardinals look to have a firm grasp on the Central Division, but the Pittsburgh Pirates are right there, should they stumble. The National League Wild Card race is the most interesting of all. As of Wednesday morning the San Francisco Giants have control over top Wild Card spot, but the other spot is up for grabs. There are three teams that have a legitimate chance at it: the Pirates, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. The Brewers and Braves are fine teams, but the Pirates are the most exciting of the bunch.
A team that just last year broke the longest losing season streak in professional sports has become a contender in a division filled with talent. The NL Central will in all likelihood house three teams with over 80 wins. That would be the only Division in the NL in which that happens, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, a system used to predict wins and losses based on simulations using a variety of stats for the players on the team.
What makes the Pirates so good? There are a number of factors that contribute to the Pirates’ playoff hopes. One look at the Pirates pitching staff tells you it is not the strength of the team. There is no current ace on this pitching staff. Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton are both under .500 this year and have missed time with injuries, combining for a record of 11-22.
What have made the difference are savvy moves by the front office to acquire pieces that provide depth where it is needed. Seemingly meaningless acquisitions like Edinson Volquez, who was thought to be done heading into the year, and Vance Worley, who hasn’t pitched in a rotation since 2012, have compiled a 19-11 record.
While the bullpen is not quite as strong as it was last year, it has been good at the top and shaky the farther down you go. Tony Watson and Mark Melancon have posted a combined 2.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). They’ve been reliable all year as stop gaps in games where the Pirates need a clean effort from the ‘pen.
The biggest reason for the Pirates’ success has been the play by their top five players. The emergence of Jordy Mercer at shortstop this season has created a middle infield that rivals any of the top pairs in the league, offensively and defensively. The other half of that pair second baseman Neil Walker has put up the 4th-best OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of all second basemen this year with an .821 mark.
Russell Martin has been one of the top three catchers in baseball this year. Martin presents a rare combination of an above average offensive player who can also play a pivotal position on defense. Martin is one of the top pitch-framing catchers in the league. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Extra Strikes metric Martin has earned the Pirates pitching staff an additional 142.7 strikes, 3rd-most among catchers. His framing has added 17.8 runs worth of value to the Pirates, which is 7th in the league.
Another player who impacts both sides of the ball at a key position is Andrew McCutchen. The centerfielder has turned in another MVP-caliber year. He has played elite defense while maintaining offensive number that rival the tops in the game. “Cutch” has maintained a .396 on-base percentage thanks to his patient approach at the plate and his ability to make contact to pair with 23 home runs. He has stolen 17 bases and been caught only 2 times.
There has been one more contributing factor to the Pirates success. A 5’8” 6th round pick from Cincinnati, who up until a few months ago was considered a career utility player. He has literally played every position on the diamond. Josh Harrison has been a phenomenon this season. His emergence has allowed the Pirates to sit Pedro Alvarez. At 200 pounds he has somehow pounded the ball for a .505 slugging percentage. He has amassed 35 doubles, 13 homeruns, 72 runs and 5.1 WAR all while hitting for a .317 average. He has filled in wherever there was a hole and played good defense at each position.
All of this makes the Pirates the most fun team to watch on their journey towards the playoffs. They are an underdog that plays hard and wins a lot of games on hustle. They may not have a stacked postseason rotation, but they do have a team that works together and wins as a unit. They will be fun to watch in September and, hopefully, October as well.