Guess who has the second-best record in baseball. No, really, go on. Maybe you watch a ton of baseball and you already know. But if you’ve been distracted by NHL and NBA playoffs, the answer may surprise you. It’s a certain team that a certain charming and handsome writer not so long ago said very well might be worth watching for the first time in years. That’s right, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the goddamn Pittsburgh Pirates, are 20-9 and lead the NL Central by a game and a half.
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Perhaps all you knew about the Pirates so far this season is that Oneil Cruz somehow caused a bench-clearing staredown after injuring himself for the next four months, which fair enough is about the most Pirates thing that could happen. Which makes the Bucs’ start even more impressive, as Cruz was supposed to anchor the lineup. And yet here they are with the fourth most runs in MLB. They’ve been able to take on that loss as Rodolfo Castro has bashed the ever-loving shit out of the ball in Cruz’s absence, to the tune of a .286/.385/.468 slash line for a wRC+ of 134. Is there some air in Castro’s numbers? Of course, but his having a hard-hit percentage of 50 and an average exit velo of 91.6 means he should be a productive hitter even if he deflates a little. Pirates fans can dream about the double-play combo of a returning Cruz and Castro being up the middle at The Confluence for a long time.
The return of Andrew McCutchen
Perhaps the most feel-good aspect of the Pirates’ return to the baseball consciousness, at least for a little while, isn’t just the return of Andrew McCutchen…
…but his return to being a plus-hitter. Before getting to the numbers, only Pirates fans can know what it’s like to finally have someone like Cutch come back to them after watching so many players leave when it was time to actually make money. It was a well-worn path that had certainly beaten the fanbase down. Fans always dream of a reunion, and when they happen on occasion they’re rarely worth it, given that usually the player is well past his sell-by date. Perhaps Pirates fans feared this was just another bit of fan service, though there’s been so little fan service from owner Bob Nutting that that’s a story in the first place, but McCutchen’s play so far has assuaged those fears. He probably should have never been allowed to leave, but at least this story has a different ending.
McCutchen has rediscovered some power and on-base ways, having his best offensive season so far since he left Pittsburgh. He’s even hit into a fair share of bad luck, so there’s a distinct possibility he could get better if he can keep his walks up and his strikeouts down (and also keep getting a steady diet of fastballs).
Pirates re-signed trade candidate Bryan Reynolds
The Pirates even signed a guy! Like, their own guy! Bryan Reynolds got a contract extension, is continuing to mash, and is another who has cut his strikeouts down. The real star has been Jack Suwinski in the outfield, who is slugging .618 and has learned that baseball’s shift ban means it’s even more rewarding to pull the ball and get it in the air. He still strikes out nearly a third of the time, but a hitter can live with that when walking 16 percent of the time and crushing the life out of the ball on the rare occasion he makes contact. Suwinski was fast-tracked by the Pirates after his trade for Adam Frazier (guess that worked out), only getting a handful of games at AAA last season before getting promoted, and he’s starting to show why.
Connor Joe is the feel-good/enjoy-it-while-you-can story in right as he slugs .575 at age 30. Joe had flashed a little something in Colorado two years ago and in his fourth organization, but was a guy who flashed in Colorado in his fourth organization. Ride the wave while you can.
A solid rotation
The rotation has been solid if not spectacular, with Mitch Keller spearheading it. But with Johan Oviedo and Roansy Contreras carving out useful roles and under 25 it certainly provides a lot of excitement about what they could do, along with Keller’s ascension to a high-grade No. 2 or low-grade No. 1, especially when considering they will be joined by some more prospects like Luis Ortiz or Mike Burrows at some point.
Has the schedule helped? Sure. The Pirates have only played one team you’d consider to be playing well so far, and that’s the Astros, whom they lost two out of three to. They’ve had seven games against the Reds (5-2), six games against the Red Sox and White Sox (4-2), swept the Rockies, and just took two of three from the Nationals. But hey, good teams beat up on the remedial class all the time, it’s all you can do.
How long can it last? Well, the shitty nature of the division could extend it a little more than it normally would. The Cardinals can’t find anyone who can pitch from the start. The Cubs are hamstringing themselves by continuing to play players at 3rd, 1st, and DH who are clinically dead. And the Brewers have three starters on the shelf to go with their drive-thru offense and might jettison some players at the deadline unless they are right there. It’s a pool one can definitely float in for a long while.
Wherever the Pirates finish, the arrow is definitely pointing up. Maybe Endy Rodriguez replaces Austin Hedges at some point at catcher to multiply the fun. Maybe Cruz can return and make the left side of the infield something more than glove-only. It’s been a long time since Bucs fans could smile, and right now that’s probably enough.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate for more baseball thoughts when he gets done rooting for an Oilers-Leafs Final.