It is Friday, April 26th, and the Pirates are 13-9. They're 12-4 since their 1-5 start and that 16 game run has been mostly made up of good opponents, the Phillies notwithstanding. This is a little bit different than the way things have played out in the first two years of the Clint Hurdle era. In 2011, the Pirates' flirted with .500 for much of the early season but didn't really go beyond well beyond a game or two over .500 until July, when they peaked at 53-47. Last year they started 2-1, but lost five straight after that and didn't get back to .500 until May 30th. In 2011 and 2012, the Pirates kind of snuck up on people. In 2013, the Pirates could end April in first place with a strong series in St. Louis this weekend.
So let's talk about how the Pirates have made their way to 13-9. There are obviously some unsustainable things here. The bullpen is seriously overworked right now. Justin Wilson is on pace for more than 100 innings, Mark Melancon is on pace for ~95, Tony Watson is on pace for just shy of 90. You can't ask for that much work from that many relievers. Guys are going to wear down, become ineffective, and get hurt. The pitching on the whole has been good enough, but opponents have just a .259 BABIP against the Pirates. The Pirates' defense has been excellent, but no team had a BABIP of lower than .277 against their pitching staff last year. They can't keep turning balls into outs at this rate. The offense has been a pleasant surprise. Pedro Alvarez was a non-entity until late last week while Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker have struggled, but Starling Marte and Travis Snider and Russell Martin have picked up the slack. This will eventually balance itself out, but I'm considerably more hopeful for the seasons that Snider and Marte might have after seeing their approach at the plate in the early part of this season. I thought before the season started that everything went right, that the Pirates could have an average offense in 2013. Nearly a month into the season, that doesn't seem like a pipe dream.
What's been most encouraging thus far is that this Pirate team is as fundamentally sound as any Pirate team I can remember. I mentioned the defense above, but I don't think I can mention it enough. FanGraphs lists the Pirates as the Major League leaders in John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved and seventh in UZR. Simply put, they're turning balls into outs at a rate greater than anyone in baseball except for the Orioles. As I said above, they're doing so at a rate that's unsustainable, but the good news is that this is when the Pirates need their defense the most. Obviously much of the hope for the Pirates in the latter part of the season lies in someone (anyone!) getting Jonathan Sanchez and maybe Jeff Locke out of the rotation. Once the rotation is a little deeper, the defense will have room to breath.
This extends beyond defense, though. FanGraphs rates the Pirates as the fifth best baserunning team in baseball thus far in 2013. That number doesn't include stolen bases, but the Pirates are doing much better on that front this year. They've stolen 13 bases in 18 attempts, which is a 72% success rate and much closer to the general rule of thumb break even point of 75% than they were last year. We can use TOOTBLAN (thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop, or any non-forceout out on the basepaths) to visualize the Pirates' strong fundamentals this year. They have the best TOOTBLAN differential in baseball, getting thrown out six times on the bases while cutting down 16 runners.
The point here is that while the Pirates' good record thus far is certainly a result some unsustainable things like the bullpen's work rate and the defense's extreme efficiency and Travis Snider's and Starling Marte's ridiculously high BABIPs (.405 and .459, respectively), the Pirates are also doing a lot of little things quite well. Since the rotation should have its best days in front of it, Pedro Alvarez is heating up, and Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are certain to come alive at some point in the near future, I'm not hugely worried about riding some of those unsustainable things to a good record in April. In general, though, I'm pretty happy with the general foundation that this record is built on. There's plenty of baseball ahead of us in 2013, but I feel a lot better about the Pirates now than I did when I left Bradenton a month ago.
Of course a bad week against the Cardinals and Brewers will change that quickly. If the Pirates are going to have any success in 2013, they're going to need to beat NL Central teams. They've done a nice job of that so far, but a road trip through St. Louis and Milwaukee is much different than an April homestand in Pittsburgh.