Grading the Pirates in the first half

Only Andrew McCutchen could act blasé about his 1.096 on-base plus slugging percentage in June, a month that included eight home runs, 12 doubles and a .343 batting average. Considering he's a career .321 hitter in June, though, can you blame him?

"Honestly, nothing new to me," McCutchen said. "I've done it before. It starts to heat up, starts to warm up, I start to warm up a little bit. Just feeling good with where I am and I want to keep trying to continue to get better."

As McCutchen heated up, so have the Pirates, who went 17-10 in June to dig themselves out of an early hole. With three games remaining before the All-Star break, they were 47-44, only 41/2 games out of first, yet in fourth place in a supremely competitive National League Central.

In April, they didn't pitch well and didn't hit well. Then their on-base percentage jumped, their rotation improved and they went 37-26 after leaving the ballpark May 1 with a 10-18 record.

"I think it's a bit of everything," McCutchen said. "The offense is doing a good job but our starting pitching has been pretty lights-out for quite some time now."

Today we grade McCutchen and the rest of the Pirates as they reach the All-Star break.

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The following grades are based on the team's performance in relation to the rest of the National League and Major League Baseball for the first half of the season. The statistics are through Wednesday's games.

Offense: B+

Their 4.04 runs per game ranks sixth in the NL, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Their .296 on-base percentage after April ranked 13th, but after leading the league in each of the next two months, at .347 and .350, their .333 OBP is first in the NL.

They are hitting for power, with 79 home runs good for fifth in the league and a .387 slugging percentage ranking sixth, but also being patient. Their 307 walks and 8.7 percent walk rate are both third in the NL.

"I think a lot of it has to do with our one-two-three guys, us three getting on base and just creating that opportunity for four-five and so on to have the opportunity to drive us in," said McCutchen, referring to Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and himself.

Defense: C-

A strength for the team last season, the Pirates' defense has regressed in the first half of 2014. They rank tied for 25th in the majors in fielding percentage and 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating, a statistic that attempts to measure how many runs a defender or team saves or allows.

Nobody in baseball has more errors than Pedro Alvarez, who despite having the strongest arm in the infield has experienced problems throwing to first base. The missed throws usually come when he has time, not when he has to scramble to make a play.

Their 69.6 percent defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play turned into outs, ranks 10th, and their 15 defensive runs saved -- a similar statistic to UZR -- ranks seventh.

Rotation: C-

Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez have held down a rotation that ranks 11th in the league with a 3.75 ERA after injuries forced Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole to the disabled list and the Pirates released Wandy Rodriguez. Morton's 1131/3 innings and 3.10 ERA lead the staff among those who have spent the whole season on the active roster.

Recently the starters have improved, and the improvement came with Liriano and Cole on the DL. They began pitching deeper into games and in the past 30 days had a 3.11 ERA that placed them fifth in the league.

Pressed into action because of injuries, Jeff Locke has rediscovered his form from the first half of 2013. Locke, pitching with a healthy back and side and able to complete his between-start conditioning program, has a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and has only walked six batters in 492/3 innings.

"We pitch better now because we're more aggressive in the strike zone and throwing some quality pitches," Volquez said.

Bullpen: C

The Pirates blew 14 saves in the first half of the season, tied for the third-worst mark in the majors. The bullpen's 3.40 ERA puts the unit smack in the middle of the rest of the NL. The 2.66 ERA in April and 3.03 mark in May were good, but the unit's 4.61 ERA in the past 30 days is the worst in the NL.

The team traded Jason Grilli after removing him from the closer's role due to ineffectiveness. His replacement, Mark Melancon, has saved six games since gaining the job. Setup man Tony Watson assembled a tremendous first half that earned him a trip to the All-Star game. He struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings and had a 0.84 ERA.

The unit worked hard, pitching the fourth-most innings in the NL, but Hurdle said the relievers were getting adequate rest.

"And with [Ernesto] Frieri available now, I think we're in a very manageable place," he said. "I don't have any red flags."

Coaching: B

Hurdle and the coaching staff made improved offensive efficiency the main focus of spring training and the lineup has shown results. Pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant to the general manager Jim Benedict transformed Volquez from one of the worst full-time starters in the league last year to a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.

The rotation can partly attribute its recent trend of pitching deeper into games to a meeting in which the coaches stressed the factors that made the pitchers so effective in 2013: Pitching down in the zone and inducing contact early in the count.

"I think the whole group has been doing that," Volquez said. "Making contact, make guys swing the bat."

Hurdle has found ways to keep Josh Harrison's hot bat in the lineup. He has not been burned by a quick hook of a starter, nor by leaving one in too long, though sending the struggling Ernesto Frieri to the mound with the score tied this past week rather than Melancon resulted in a walk-off loss. Hurdle rolled the dice with Frieri the following night, with the bases loaded and Matt Adams at the plate, but Frieri got out of it.

Front office: A-

The Pirates acquired first baseman Ike Davis, a good on-base guy with a history of hitting for power, for a minor league right-hander and an 18-year-old pitcher who, despite being a second-round draft pick, is far from a sure thing. They also traded a reliever -- Bryan Morris -- for a compensatory draft pick and the accompanying bonus money.

They used that money to sign second-rounder Mitch Keller and supplemental-round selection Trey Supak, both high school pitchers, to over-slot bonuses, and to convince 11th-round high school pitcher Gage Hinsz to sign. Knowing high school shortstop Cole Tucker wouldn't make it back to them at No. 39 overall, they chose him in the first round. They believe that because he's a year younger than the rest of his draft class, in addition to his defensive prowess at shortstop and developing bat as a switch-hitter, they got good value with the pick.

The team did not call up Polanco, their top prospect, until an emergency appendectomy forced Neil Walker to the disabled list. By doing so, they might have prevented him from becoming eligible for Super Two arbitration, but deprived their lineup of his production. The attempt to sign him to a long-term contract in spring training, before he ever appeared in the majors, illustrated their belief that he was ready.

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Follow Bill Brink on Twitter at BrinkPG. Also, stay current on the team throughout the day by checking out his posts on the Pirates Blog. Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.

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