Forasmuch as we have learned so far from this baseball season about what the Pittsburgh Pirates are as a potential playoff team, more attention has been paid recently to what they are not, and it’s easy to understand on the most basic of levels.
But to provide perspective, I invoke the lyrics of Kanye West, words that may describe this team perfectly: “Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
The Pirates are not in first place in their own division. That belongs to the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, the Pirates are a team on pace to win 75 games by the end of August, a team with the third best record in baseball (69-47), and a team in position to host the National League Wild Card Game for the third straight season, which would make them the only team in MLB history to do so.
The Pittsburgh nine are no longer the team they were in the first half, when the triumvirate of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett was the nucleus of the second-best starting rotation in the game. Burnett is currently on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his elbow. Liriano hasn’t been great, but good enough to win three of his last four starts. Cole is still among the game’s leaders in wins, but has lost four of his last six starts and batters are hitting .271 against him during that time. And now with Burnett’s injury, they are left to the trio of Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ and Jeff Locke to collectively tread water.
The Pirates are, however, a team with a bullpen that has won 16 consecutive decisions, something that hasn’t been done since 1909. The trade deadline acquisitions of Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria, along with recent improvements by Arquimedes Caminero and Antonio Bastardo have created the best back-end group of Neil Huntington’s tenure as general manager, and arguably, the best in the game right now.
The Pirates are not a team that made a “splash” move at the trade deadline. But they are 10-5 since then, including 8-3 against the other four teams that currently hold playoff spots. They are not a team with a winning record in their own division, but they have a 30-28 record on the road, a .672 winning percentage at home and a .590 winning percentage against teams that are .500 or better.
The Pirates are not a team with eight everyday regular starters in the field. Manager Clint Hurdle is shaking up the situation at catcher, starting Francisco Cervelli in games that Gerrit Cole pitches instead of the preferred battery of Cole and Chris Stewart. Hurdle is also still weighing his options at first base, even considering career third baseman Aramis Ramirez as a potential option moving forward.
But they are a team that has renewed their faith in a couple of their Opening Day starters. During the month of the July the prevailing sentiment was that right fielder Gregory Polanco should’ve been sent down to Triple-A to fix his hitting struggles, and first baseman Pedro Alvarez should’ve been at least platooned against left-handers, if not replaced. The organization eventually decided to stay the course with both men, and both have thrived since those decisions were made.
In the past 30 days, Polanco is hitting .318/.380/.527 with four home runs and 14 RBI. Alvarez has surged, hitting .329 with team highs in home runs (seven) and slugging percentage (.645) in that span. He is now on pace to hit 25 home runs by season’s end, possibly ending the discussion of whether his bat is worth enduring his defense, if only for six or seven innings at a time every night.
The Pirates are not a team that has played good defense as of late with two of their best infielders, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, on injury rehab. They have been, however, a better team on offense without them, scoring 4.85 runs per game in the second half of the season as opposed to 4.05 per game in the first half.
The Pirates are not considered heavy favorites to win the World Series; their 6.9% probability is only the sixth-best in the game per Fangraphs. But they are a team that has won six of nine series against current divison-leading teams, and they have scored seven or more runs in the finale of each of their last four series against National League playoff teams.
No, the Pirates are not a perfect team by any stretch. But few championship teams in the modern era have been.
And given that their success so far this season has actually outweighed their shortcomings, perhaps everything they are not has made them everything they are.