Teams don’t go from 30-58 to playoff contenders in one clean leap and bound. It’s a slow process made of baby steps that are so small, that sometimes casual observers fail to notice they’ve even been made. It’s time for the Pirates to start taking those baby steps. Their two big building blocks, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, are in Pittsburgh. A lot of other young players that could grow into key roles — Jose Tabata, Lastings Milledge, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln, and even bullpen guys like Hanrahan and Meek — are in Pittsburgh. If the Pirates are going to get better, it has to start now.
What does that mean? They have to finish the second half with a 38-36 record or anything. It doesn’t even mean that they have to avoid 100 losses or the worst record in the league. It just means that the young players on this team have to start making strides forward. For guys like Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez that might not translate into great performances because they’re so early in their careers, but the time to go backwards is over. So how might the Pirates start moving forward in the second half?
Let’s take Alvarez for example. Since June 28th, he’s hitting .286/.340/.531 on a 35+ homer pace for a season. That’s great. It happened because he shored his swing up and stopped missing the pitches he was whiffing on in the early days of his career and suddenly, the scouting reports that pitchers had on him weren’t really valid. But he’s still striking out a ton (18 in 53 PAs over the same stretch), which means there’s something else for pitchers to exploit. How will he adjust this time around? Can he do it quicker, to avoid stretches like his first 11 games?
Andrew McCutchen is mired in what has to be the longest slump of his career, hitting just .179/.256/.269 since the end of the Cleveland series (he had a slump around the similar time last year, but it wasn’t as pronounced). How does he bounce out of this slump? Can he avoid another one? McCutchen is the guy on this team. I’m interested to see how he rebounds from the first real rough patch.
Neil Walker has been great this year, flashing good leather everywhere on the field and finally figuring out Triple-A pitching for real. He’s been pretty good with the Pirates, too, but 154 PAs he’s drawn just nine walks and his OBP is .314. Given what he struggled with in Triple-A, well, I don’t want to say I’m concerned about him but let’s just say I’ve noticed. He didn’t walk at all between June 13th and July 3rd (his first game back from the concussion), but he’s been a bit better since then. Walks aren’t the be-all and end-all of everything, but it’s also important that Walker not become a second base version of Ronny Cedeno. How he adjusts in the second half is important.
Jose Tabata has shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but he’s also looked a lot like a 21-year old at times. I love his 18/14 K/BB number for such a young guy, but I’d like to see some more balls find gaps in the second half. Not a 20-homer pace or a .300 average or anything, just progress.
Other guys, I’m watching to see if they can maintain the levels they’ve been at the last six weeks or so. Ross Ohlendorf’s 27:8 K:BB ratio since June 11th indicates that he’s slowly regaining at least some kind of form since his struggle with back spasms. Lastings Milledge is blistering the ball at a .326/.395/.528 pace since June 1st and has even found some home run power. It’d be nice to see some consistency out of both of these guys since consistency has more or less eluded them over their careers.
For Charlie Morton, I just want to see pitch his way back to the Majors. And to not explode on the mound if he gets there.
For Ryan Doumit, let’s see a 15% CS rate. Hell, I’d settle for 11%. Baby steps.
On-field progress for these players, especially the young ones, is more important than winning games right now. But if the players start to make strides in the second half, it logically follows that they’ll also win more than once every three games. I’m not expecting, or asking for, these next 74 games to be anything spectacular. But I am hoping they’ll be better than the first 88.