Manager Clint Hurdle can find evidence of improvement this season in areas other than the National League standings.
Hurdle said recently that he sometimes interacts with a panhandler near PNC Park. Once the man discovered who Hurdle was during his first season as the Pirates manager in 2011, the man weighed in.
"He said, 'You guys are no good, you'll never be any good,' " Hurdle said.
"We started playing some ball. He said, 'You guys aren't that good. You know you're not that good.' "
This season, as the Pirates surged in June to a 48-37 record and first place in the National League Central at the All-Star break, the tune changed slightly, Hurdle said, to "You might be OK."
"How it translates out there," Hurdle said, pointing to the clubhouse, "is what's important. Our young men are walking better now, they're talking better. They believe in things they still can't see. There's been some increments of tangible evidence put together."
The Pirates used dominant pitching to overcome a severe lack of offense the first two months of the season. The offense has recently started to hit, covering for the slight decline and injuries to the pitching staff.
The midseason grades found inside take into account the Pirates' ranking in Major League Baseball, as well as injuries and recent improvement or decline.
The offense began the season with failing marks, scoring 58 runs and hitting .228 with a .282 on-base percentage in April. Those all ranked near the bottom of the NL. They improved slightly in May, but took off during June, scoring an NL-best 146 runs and hitting .268/.329/.455.
"Once you start hitting, you start getting some confidence," Alex Presley said. "You see other people hitting, it gives you confidence to see your teammates hitting. I wouldn't say it's just a physical change, but we've been waiting it out for the first portion of the year, waiting out our chance to bust out offensively."
Their 4.06 runs per game ranks slightly below average in the NL, though their .300 on-base percentage is tied for last in the league.
Their fielding percentage, an imperfect and subjective statistic, ranks the Pirates in the middle of the pack. Their Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive metric that quantifies how many runs a player or team saves or allows on defense, puts them just outside the top third of Major League Baseball.
Garrett Jones' defense in right field has improved, and Casey McGehee has been solid at first base. Jose Tabata's shaky outfield defense contributed to his recent demotion. The fact that the Pirates have thrown out only 10 percent of potential base-stealers lowers their grade.
Starting pitching B-
The starters have a 3.94 ERA this season, but their 2.69 ERA in April helped the team finish the month 10-12 despite the offense's 2.63 runs per game.
A.J. Burnett and James McDonald assembled half-seasons that put them in the conversation for All-Star berths, going a combined 19-5.
"I think the environment has been conducive for where A.J. is at this point in time in his career," Hurdle said. "I think his mindset is good coming in and wanting to be the staff ace."
Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard have maintained the integrity of a rotation that lost Jeff Karstens for two months and Charlie Morton for the season.
Relief pitching A
The Pirates are 41-0 when leading after seven innings, thanks in large part to the work of Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan. Grilli has 54 strikeouts in 332/3 innings and a 1.87 ERA. Hanrahan, the All-Star closer, has 23 saves. Jared Hughes and Tony Watson also help give the bullpen a major league best 2.63 ERA.
"I think one thing [is] on everybody's mind right now, and that's just to win games," Watson said. "It doesn't matter individually what you go out there and do. Somebody doesn't do their job that night, somebody's going to go out and pick you up. It's been a fun ride so far."
Hurdle navigated the early portion of the season without a productive offense and handled the loss of two starting pitchers for extended periods of time. He changed the way he used his relievers, the idea being to limit their appearances and keep them fresh, and the bullpen has performed well so far.
"We're fighting, we're scratching," he said. "The pitching played a significant role through the first two months and we played good defense. Now the calendar month's turned over, we're in a much better place offensively. We're connecting the dots from the top of the lineup to the bottom. I won't say by any means that they're doing things I didn't think they could do."
Front office B
The front office signed its star player, Andrew McCutchen, to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension, ensuring he will not become a free agent until 2017 at the earliest. In addition to securing one of the best players in the game, the move displayed a willingness to spend money to the fans.
General manager Neal Huntington signed Rod Barajas in the offseason and traded two minor leaguers for Burnett and cash. The duo has impacted the team on and off the field, devoting time and energy to molding McDonald into an ace in addition to stabilizing the rotation and adding power from behind the plate.
"When you can bring experienced men in, that have just about seen it all, they've got some skins on the wall, they've done some things in this industry which are significant, it helps," Hurdle said.
McGehee, another offseason acquisition, improved his hitting in June and has played good defense at first.
Bedard, another free-agent signing, has regressed after a solid start, and Clint Barmes, signed to a two-year, $10.5 million contract, is hitting .204 with 58 strikeouts and four walks. The organization also cut ties with Nate McLouth, whom they brought back during the winter.
The team selected Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, the best player on their draft board with the eighth overall selection and maneuvered within the new bonus rules to save about $600,000, according to Baseball America, to try to sign him by Friday's deadline.
First Published July 12, 2012 4:00 AM