The Pirates in June: an improbable return to relevance

On May 31st, the Pirates got smoked by the Dodgers. The 12-2 loss ballooned Brandon Cumpton’s ERA up to 6.85. The Pirates were 25-30 and Pirate fans were attempting to talk ourselves into May being a good month due to the Pirates’ 15-14 record, though that meant ignoring their 111/137 run differential that month. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Gerrit Cole would go down in his next start with shoulder problems, Neil Walker was ten days away from appendicitis, and the day after Walker went on the disabled list, Francisco Liriano joined him with an oblique injury.

We could run the June tale of the tape further. The Pirates played 27 games in June and 12 of them were started by pitchers who would have been classified as more or less replacement value in spring training (Cumpton made five starts, Jeff Locke made four, and Vance Worley made three). Pedro Alvarez only hit two home runs all month. Starling Marte didn’t get a hit in the month until June 9th. Jason Grilli imploded and finished the month with another team. I could go on and on and on, and you would get the picture: in June, you could look at a bunch of details from June and understandably think that it was the month that the Pirates’ season fell apart.

Except here’s the thing: the Pirates went 17-10 in June, which was good for the NL’s third best record (unfortunately, the only two teams with better June records were the Reds and Brewers, which, yeah). Since the Pirates are off today, let’s take a couple of minutes to appreciate just exactly how this happened.

Obviously it’s fair to say that the offense carried a big portion of the load here. The Pirates’ 128 runs scored was fourth in the NL behind their aforementioned two division rivals and the Rockies (who had the NL’s worst record this month). Andrew McCutchen hit a borderline unbelievable .343/.410/.686 with 12 doubles, eight homers, and 72 total bases this month. Even after he cooled off of his torrid six-homers-in-ten-games stretch to start the month, he hit .299/.356/.463 in his final 16 games of the month. McCutchen wasn’t alone in the outfield, either. As I mentioned above, Starling Marte didn’t have a hit in June until June 9th. From then until the end of the month, he hit .361/.409/.492 with five doubles and a home run. Gregory Polanco made his debut on June 10th and hit .338/.416/.441 in his first 16 games before slumping a bit against the Mets this weekend. The Josh Harrison Magical Mystery Tour didn’t slow down, either. He hit .317/.358/.465 in June, despite doing a bunch of position hopping during the month. And Pedro Alvarez? The guy who only hit two home runs all month and who Pirate fans seem to be throwing into every imagined trade as a toss-in? Pedro Alvarez hit .299/.396/.483 in June. We can even keep going down the lineup: Russell Martin hit .271/.440/.357, Jordy Mercer hit .267/.299/.436, and even Clint Barmes had a .333 OBP this month. Basically, the Pirates are a threat to score runs from the top of the lineup to the bottom right now (uh, save the pitchers, who continue to be embarrassing hitters by all standards except for the ones applied to the Mets’ pitching staff), and it’s really something that’s fun to watch.

Of course, focusing solely on the hitting doesn’t quite give the pitching its due. Brandon Cumpton had a 2.97 ERA in June and the Pirates won four of his five starts. Jeff Locke had a 2.54 ERA in June and the Pirates won three of his four starts. Vance Worley had a 1.74 ERA in June and the Pirates won two of his three starts. I know that ERA and team record in starts isn’t necessarily the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, but what these guys were basically tasked with doing this month was to take the mound every fifth day and give the Pirates a chance of winning. They made 12 starts and the Pirates won nine of them; that’s more than the Pirates could’ve possible asked for from that trio at the start of the month.

Of course, the schedule helped the Pirates tremendously. Of the Pirates’ 17 wins, 14 came against the Cubs, Padres, Rays, Mets, and Marlins (I was hesitant to include the Marlins, who are a decent team, but they had a really bad June). The Pirates played two full series this month against clubs with winning records — the damn Reds and Brewers again — and they went 2-4 in those two series. Wins don’t come with style points, though. The Pirates had an easy schedule in June, but they had plenty of other factors piled up against them. They still managed to win enough games to keep pace with the two other teams in the division that won like crazy, and that’s what was most important this month. July will be here soon, the season is more than halfway over, and the team that lost 15 of 19 at one point in April is 42-40, in wild card contention, and seemingly starting to get healthy. There’s plenty of baseball left and obviously having Cole, Walker, and maybe even Liriano back isn’t a guarantee of anything. It’s not a bad position to be in, though. For much of the season’s first six weeks, it seems like the Pirates were in danger of sliding quickly into irrelevance. Their run in June means that July will have some meaning.

Image: Linda Tanner, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.