Is anyone else blown away by the fact it’s May 1st? And yet here we are, standing on the brink of summer with the Pirates holding an 11-10 record. The record is the only thing that matters in the end, but the Pirates finished April at .500 in 2007, and we all know how that turned out. Will 2009 be different?
First things first; in 2007 the Pirates scored 86 runs and allowed 106, but finished 12-12. This Pirate club has scored 101 and allowed 75. Their record actually isn’t indicative of how well they’ve played. They’re not 11-10 because they got a few good breaks, they’re 11-10 because they’ve played well enough to be 11-10. This is an important distinction to make. This team is at least capable of playing good baseball. The 2007 team went right on playing the way they did in April, and they sucked for the rest of the year. It won’t be an easy task, but if this team replicates the baseball they played in the month of April, they’ll probably be in the wild card hunt this year.
So what do they have to do to to do that? We can start with the offense 101 runs is sixth in the National League, which is awesome for a club that’s spent much of April without their two best hitters. The 69 walks they’ve drawn is second to last in the NL, but that total should increase as Doumit and McLouth see more playing time. And don’t forget that Andy LaRoche spent the first half of April without a hit and since then he’s hitting .340/.389/.489. So can the offense continue doing what it’s doing? Yeah, I think it can. It’s not going to be a great offense at any point, but it’s a fairly deep one from top to bottom when McLouth and Doumit are in it and Freddy Sanchez and the LaRoches are hitting and I think they can be average or slightly below average, which is where they are right now.
So that leads us to the biggest question. Can the pitching staff continue as one of the best in the National League? This question is either harder to answer, or the answer is quite easy and none of us want to talk about it. Indvidiually, three of the four pitchers who have played a big role in this good start look primed for a big fall. Ian Snell is carrying a 3.72 ERA with a 1.62 WHIP and a 20/18 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. If he doesn’t stop putting people on base, he’s headed right back for the sort of season he had last year. Paul Maholm has done a good job limiting the hits allowed, but his K/BB ratio is 1/1 right now and to my eye, he just hasn’t looked quite right to this point in the season. He got hit pretty hard in his last two starts, and that’s not the start of a great trend.
Then there’s Ross Ohlendorf. I need to go through his PitchFX a little more closely, but I wonder if a big part of his early success has to do with teams just not having a good scouting report on him to this point. He was billed as a power pitcher from his minor league days and he’s been a sinkerballer this year. How will things change when teams adjust to him? And Zach Duke’s been awesome, but he can continue to be awesome and have his ERA rise pretty significantly from 2.43.
Of course, the hardest question to answer is what effect the defense has on the low ERAs of the pitching staff. The defense has been awesome to this point and that’s certainly part of why Snell and Maholm have good ERAs with poor peripherals and Duke has an excellent ERA with decent peripherals.
I know this sounds excessively negative, so I’ll end with this: prior to the season started, I thought the Pirates were a 65 win team that might win 68 or 70 games if they were lucky. Now, they look like they could be a 70-75 win team. Maybe that’s not a lot of consolation, but the pitching is better, the defense is better, and the offense isn’t nearly as bad as some expected. I still don’t think this is a winning or contending team over the long haul in 2009, but it was never supposed to be. That doesn’t stop them from making a lot of strides in the right direction, and those will certainly help in building a strong team for the future.