Last season, the Pirates surged into the All-Star break by winning six of their final seven games in the first half. They thumped the San Francisco Giants 13-2 at PNC Park the Sunday before the break and led the NL Central with a 48-37 record.
This season, they have performed better. Four players will represent the Pirates, who entered the final weekend before the break with a 54-36 record, at the All-Star game. The pitching staff is the best in baseball, but it has had to keep a struggling offense afloat.
We're not as consistent as we'd like to be," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think that's always a question." • The following midseason grades take into account the Pirates' ranking in Major League Baseball as well as mitigating circumstances.
• • • •
The Pirates score 3.87 runs per game, 25th in the major leagues, and have a team batting average of .243. Their .230 average with runners in scoring position was better than only the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners entering the weekend.
"We're not where we want to be in scoring runners from third base with less than two outs," Hurdle said. "That's been a nagging issue for us from the start of the season until now.
"You're not going to do it 100 percent of the time. I think league average is a little over 50. I believe in a 60 percent average. We're below both those numbers."
A .389 team slugging percentage, led by Pedro Alvarez and his 23 home runs, moves the Pirates slightly higher compared to the rest of baseball. When on-base plus slugging percentage is adjusted for league and park factors, the Pirates fall in the middle of the pack.
According to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, the Pirates have saved 15 runs above average with their defense, tied for seventh in baseball. They lead the league in defensive efficiency, turning 71.8 percent of balls in play into outs, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen shrink the cavernous left side of the outfield at PNC Park with their speed. For now, the team has survived the transition of Clint Barmes, a good defensive shortstop, to the bench in favor of Jordy Mercer.
Better pitching has allowed the Pirates to make better use of defensive shifts, Hurdle said.
"Those guys behind me, you just want to let the guy put the ball in play," Francisco Liriano said. "Hopefully we can continue playing like that."
The addition of Russell Martin behind the plate drastically reduced the number of stolen bases the Pirates have allowed.
STARTING PITCHING: A
The pitchers are the honors students in the class, ranking second in baseball in ERA.
Jeff Locke has led the way, going 16 games without taking a loss and posting a 2.15 ERA. Once Francisco Liriano returned from a broken right humerus, he displayed the damage his slider could do in the National League.
"Everybody sets their goals high or tries to dream big and really focus in on making something happen for yourself," Locke said. "For me it was just making the team."
The Pirates have needed 11 starters because of injuries to A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez. Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez and top prospect Gerrit Cole stepped in and held their own.
A higher-than-average walk rate and the lowest batting average on balls in play in the majors indicate the unit may regress somewhat in the second half.
Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon lead a unit that has allowed the Pirates to go 41-2 when leading after seven innings. The unit's 2.86 ERA was the second-best in baseball prior to the weekend series against the New York Mets.
"It's like a brotherly love that we have in the 'pen, and the whole pitching staff, it's unique in a sense that guys are just pulling for each other," Melancon said. "Almost more so than I've ever seen before. It's really cool."
The bullpen has had its moments. After Gomez allowed four runs in the first inning June 2 before an injury forced him from the game, five relievers -- Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Melancon, Grilli and Justin Wilson -- pitched 10 scoreless innings. The Pirates won in the 11th.
Hurdle and his staff have further refined the way they handle the bullpen in an attempt to balance the pitches thrown and innings pitched, and Hurdle also has abandoned pitch counts as an indicator for when to pull a starter.
In addition to the effectiveness of the defensive shifts, the Pirates hit cutoff men and throw to the correct base more often.
"Our baserunning has improved from last year," Hurdle said. "All the hot spots we talked about over the winter. Overall baserunning has improved. We get down the line. We've been smarter. We've made less tactical errors and decisions."
Pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas deserve credit for the performance of the pitching staff.
The offense has not come around, though, and the team still bunts more than it needs to.
FRONT OFFICE: B
The Pirates prioritized upgrading at catcher and signed Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract. Martin immediately provided a threat to potential base stealers and has eight home runs and a .344 on-base percentage.
They also brought in Liriano, Gomez, Mazzaro and Melancon and decided to give Grilli the closer's role instead of re-signing Joel Hanrahan.
Both first-round draft picks, Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire, are under contract and playing for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Pirates.
The team missed on pitchers Jonathan Sanchez, Jose Contreras and Mike Zagurski, who performed poorly before the team cut ties with them.
"Some guys have come in and gotten opportunities and not capitalized on them and the next guy steps in," general manager Neal Huntington said. "I think it speaks more to the depth that we've been able to turn it over."
Brandon Inge, who has a .208 on-base percentage in 108 plate appearances, remains on the roster in a bench role.
First Published July 14, 2013 4:00 AM