The Pittsburgh Pirates at the break: a magical half-season

She asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I supposed the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding on to the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ’Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom … David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a completely magical half of a season. They’re 48-37, they’re in first place in the National League Central all by themselves at the All-Star break, Pedro Alvarez and James McDonald have found themselves, most of the off-season moves Neal Huntington made have born at least some fruit, Andrew McCutchen has blossomed into one of the best players in baseball, and for the first time in a long time the Pirates have gotten an extended series of breaks in their favor. It’s been fun to watch. 

So what do we do with that very first phrase — the “magical half of a season?” Because calling any part of a season magical implies some level of satistifaction with it, but a half of a season is a half of a season and when it’s the first half of a season it’s pretty meaningless. How is it really possible to reconcile both sides of that?

This is the sort of thing that I struggle with from time to time as a baseball fan. I’m the sort of person that likes to dive into the numbers and find the hidden truths buried inside of things, but sometimes I just want to write things like, “Who am I or the laws of the universe to tell Andrew McCutchen what he can or can’t do?” and believe them because it makes life much more enjoyable. When the Pirates set the all-time record for most consecutive losing seasons, I started my post off with the beginning of the “I believe …” speech from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not) because sometimes we all just need to just drop the logic and believe in something that’s improbable.

That means that we can start this half-season review with the magic. When the Pirates were in first place on July 25th last year, it required some real mental gymnastics for me to get myself excited about it. The division was playing poorly, even though I knew the Cardinals and Brewers were good teams. The Pirates were above .500, but besides Andrew McCutchen and Charlie Morton, no player that I thought was important to the future of the club was having a good season. Pedro Alvarez was terrible and actually found himself demoted to Triple-A, Jose Tabata was nearly as bad, Neil Walker was slumping, James McDonald hadn’t pitched well, and the pitching staff was a hydrogen-filled dirigible. I told myself that I had to enjoy the run because literally nothing like it had ever happened in my lifetime, but I never fully convinced myself that it was going to end well. Even then, the small bit of excitement that I allowed myself was enough to make the last 62 games as crushing for me as anything the Pirates have done since 1992. 

This year is different. Pedro Alvarez has not only found his ability to get red-hot again, but he’s taking pitches and his strikeout rate is slowly dropping and as we speak he’s in the middle of a not-white-hot-but-still-pretty-good stretch (this will get its own post later this week). He’s not a great hitter, but he’s a good one and many of the positive indicators I was hoping to see from him this year and starting to show up. James McDonald has remade himself with a slider and he’s been one of the better pitchers in the NL in the season’s first half. Neil Walker is in the middle of one of the longer and hotter hot streaks of his streaky career. Starling Marte is making the progress that I hoped he’d make at Triple-A. Andrew McCutchen has leapt into super-stardom with both feet. These are things I’d be excited about, even if the Pirates were .500 or five games under .500 right now.

They’re better than that, though, because all of the weird, flukey things that seemed to go right last year are going right again. Things like Drew Sutton bouncing all around the league before coming to lend the Pirates a couple of hot weeks at the exact time that they needed it. Things like Mike McKenry not just hitting dramatic, game-winning home runs but having a first half at the plate that’s good by any standard. Things like Garrett Jones finding his swing again. Things like AJ Burnett being completely reborn with the Pirates and Jason Grilli suddenly being a shutdown setup man and Casey McGehee being a weirdly good fielding first baseman.

The Pirates’ model for the past couple of years has been to put young players in key positions and try to support them with variously assembled odds and ends that might be good enough to bridge the gaps, should the young players come through. Most of the young players flamed out, and most of the odds and ends have been abjectly terrible baseball players. Suddenly, it’s all working all at once and the results are a roller-coaster first half that’s closed out with a crazy, fever-dream stretch of baseball where nothing makes sense but everything the Pirates are doing is working out perfectly. The last 12 games have felt more like a movie montage than actual baseball. It’s been amazing to watch because it’s helped me to remember that sometimes, baseball can be like this. I’ve spent most of my life watching bad baseball and playing in bad baseball teams. Seeing the Pirates play like this and getting occasional mnemonic callbacks to 1992 is probably the closest I’ll ever get to an actual deja vu experience in my life. It’s bizarre and thrilling and exciting in the way that sports are supposed to be from time to time, and it’s even better because it’s been so long since something like this has happened to Pirate fans. 

And at the same time, that voice is still in my head telling me that it’s a half of a season. That even though the Pirates have put themselves in a real position to contend in the second half, that there are at least as many things that could go wrong as could go right without much prompting. Andrew McCutchen probably isn’t a .360 hitter or a 40-home run guy, no matter how much he looks like one right now. Guys like Sutton and McKenry have to come back to earth and having a whole bunch of your offense come from them is probably an unsustainable model. Guys like Walker and Jones will slump again. These things are OK in the grand scheme of the Pittsburgh Pirates becoming a good baseball team over the long-term, but they’re not good for the Pirates’ hopes to contend in 2012. 

The question I find myself asking at the All-Star break is this: What do I want from this particular Pirate team? Because if you’d told me back at the end of 2010 that we’d end 2012 with 79 wins and Andrew McCutchen being a legitimate star and Pedro Alvarez being on the cusp of a breakout and Gerrit Cole on the way to bolster a pretty strong rotation and Neil Walker established as a solid big league contributor, I’d have been pretty freaking happy. That’s a legitimate option now and the idea of this Pirate team winning 79 games is suddenly a depressing one. I suppose that’s to say this: I have never, ever been a Pirate fan that’s put much stock into the idea that things would suddenly be better if the Pirates could just find a way to win 82 games. I don’t want to be the fan of a mediocre baseball team any more than I want to be the fan of a bad one. There are two things that matter: making progress towards making the playoffs and actually making the playoffs. There is not much in between for me. 

I guess that that makes me kind of Schrodinger’s baseball fan here at the All-Star break: on one hand loving every second of the Pirates’ miracle run and on the other hand, trying to figure out what the chances are that it keeps on happening and somehow not letting either one detract from the other. Here’s the best part about being 47-36; at this point, every single win makes the possibilities of Game 162 being as exciting as Game 85 much, much more probable. The Pirates are halfway home and that’s definitely different from being all the way there, but it’s a lot further in the right direction than they’ve been in a long time. As a Pirate fan at the All-Star break, you can’t possibly ask for more than that.

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.