Since we are at the “official” half way point of the Major League Baseball season, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at one of the most surprising stories of this season, the Central Division leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, you read that sentence correctly, The Pirates are in first place in the National League’s Central Division.
After they have played 85 games so far this season, the Pirates have won 48 of those games and lost 37. That puts them 11 games over 500, a crisp .590 winning percentage actually, and a single game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, How did the Pirates get to this point? Are they for real? Will the National League’s MVP come out of Pittsburgh this season?
Out of the great stories of this season, is the breakout season of outfielder Andrew McCutchen. If he continues on his current pace, McCutchen could feasibly win the Triple Crown. What is the triple crown? Well, it is when a hitter leads their league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. At the halfway point of the season, he is first in the National League with a .360 batting average, he is tied for fourth in home runs with 18 and he is tied for third with 60 runs batted in. Toss in 14 stolen bases out of 18 attempts and you have a lock for a 30 home run/ 30 stolen bases season, with a very real chance at a 40/40 season.
The offense doesn’t end with McCutchen however, as there are a few players have a great season for the Bucs. For the first time in many years, the Pirates have more than one legitimate home run threat as Pedro Alvarez has gone deep 16 times and Garret Jones has added 12 big flies of his own. Run producing has been well balances as well as Alvarez has also drove in 50 runs, Jones has chipped in 37 ribbies and long time Pirate Neil Walker has 41 RBIs. It is not just the hitting that has developed this season however.
How important has been the addition of starter A. J. Burnett? After he was cast out by the New York Yankees, I felt that he was going to have a good year in Pittsburgh. I actually told a friend of mine before the season started that I would not be surprised to see him notch 15 wins this season for the Bucs. Being a Canadian and watching the Blue Jays a lot, I got to see A.J. pitch in a large market and behind an “Ace” in Roy Halladay. There was no direct pressure on him to be the main guy in the rotation and he flourished. He did win 18 games for the Blue Jays back in 2008 and also has 10 seasons of 10 or more wins in his career. This season A.J. has given the Pirates a true “Ace” as he has a win-loss record of 10-2, an ERA of 3.68, struck out 79 hitters and only walking 33. He flourishes in a market where the spot light doesn’t shine too bright on him and Pittsburgh has supplied that.
There is another starting pitcher having a great year in Pittsburgh as well, as James MacDonald has put up maybe even better numbers than Burnett. So far this season he has achieved a win-loss record of 9-3, an ERA of 2.37, 100 strikeouts and 42 walks. His All Star calibre performance has given the Pirates two studs in the starting rotation and two chances to win every time they pitch.
The Bullpen has also been tremendous for this team. The Pirates have three solid middle relievers in Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes and Juan Cruz. All three have appeared in over 30 games this season, have atleast one save, an ERA below 2.78 and more than twice as many strikeouts as they have walks. The true anchor in the bullpen though is closer Joel Hanrahan. Enjoying a Cy Young finalist type of season, he has provided the Bucs a means to nail down close games they may have lost in seasons past. Sporting a 4-0 win-loss record, an ERA of 2.38, 23 saves out of 26 opportunities, 35 strikeouts and 18 walks….he has been lights out!
There is something special going on in Pittsburgh with their baseball team. No, I do not just mean that they are doing “The Zoltan” hand gesture from the movie “Dude Where’s My Car?” Although it has caught on with the team and fans like wildfire and is now more recognized for the Bucs willingness to employ it than the movie.
The tale of the Pirates does mirror that of the city’s hockey team to some extent but the Pirates are at the far end of the spectrum for their lack of winning seasons than the Penguins. All the young talent that the Pirates have been stockpiling from the results of disappointing seasons are starting to mature and meld into a winning team. Adding quality veterans has aided the process and has balanced out the team. They are a real threat and will punish any team that over looks them this season.
Arrrrrrrr. Hold on tight ladies an’ gentlemen. They be raisin’ th’ Jolly Rogers an’ settin’ sail t’ take what they want!
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