COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates have perhaps one of the hardest schedules in baseball in the month of April. The schedule is littered with playoff teams from last year, teams complete with powerful lineups and dominant pitchers.
Somehow, the team has played to a 12-9 record thus far and shows no signs of slowing down. There's no doubt that the team's recent influx of offensive efficiency is partly responsible. But it's also hard to deny that the Pirates pitching staff is currently one of the best in the game.
Any diehard Buccos fan can easily recall years past when the only shutouts being pitched were against an anemic Pirates lineup. The tables have turned as of late in a big way. The starters and relievers have combined three times in the last eight games to pitch shutouts and, as any casual fan knows, it's hard to lose a game if you don't surrender any runs. Twice in those three games, Pirates pitchers have taken a one-hitter in to the ninth inning. The team is 6-2 in that span against teams like St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
The team's combined staff earned run average now sits at 3.13, good for third best in the majors behind only Atlanta and Texas. The staff has been anchored in the front by ace A.J. Burnett, who sits with a 2.79 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 11 walks. He flirted with a no hitter April 17 against St. Louis in going hitless into the seventh inning, the same game in which he recorded his 2,000th career strikeout.
Wandy Rodriguez, the team's second starter, has pitched even better with a 1.66 earned run average. He has 16 strikeouts to only three walks and has repeatedly pitched out of jams like he did April 24 against Philadelphia, when he had runners on first and third in the sixth inning with no outs and managed to get out of the inning unscathed.
Even James McDonald has performed in an acceptable manner, pitching to a 4.12 ERA and only giving up one home run in nearly 20 innings pitched. He's proved effective, especially when escaping the first inning without giving up any runs. There's also Jeff Locke, the career minor-leaguer who landed in the rotation because of a bevy of injuries to other players. Locke has a 3.74 earned run average and most recently only gave up two hits in six innings, helping the team along to its most recent shutout against Philadelphia.
The only question mark thus far is Jonathan Sanchez, and he's a big question mark at that. Many fans have been clamoring for him to be replaced in the rotation, a move that is likely coming as soon as other pitchers get healthy. Sanchez has a 11.12 ERA this year, a result of giving up 14 runs in 11 innings pitched. Simply put, he's been horrible and doesn't belong in a major league rotation.
But there are plenty of reinforcements on the horizon. Charlie Morton is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and, according to multiple reports from the minors, is tossing some nasty baseball complete with a hard sinker. He could be back with the big league team in the beginning of May. There's also Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens, two injured hurlers who have extensive experience pitching in the majors. Either one could replace Sanchez, or any other member of the rotation who falters. And that's to say nothing of Gerrit Cole, the prospect who will likely join the team in June. It's a good problem to have when managers look down a lineup and can't find a spot to put a player.
Perhaps the only glaring problem with this rotation is its inability to go deep into games, which brings us to our next point.
For all the fanfare afforded to the team's starting pitching, the bullpen has been even better with an absolutely phenomenal start to the season. The pen and its seven pitchers currently have a 1.89 earned run average, good for second in baseball only behind Atlanta. They're holding opponents to a league best .179 batting average, a feat made more impressive given that the starters usually are exiting in the fifth or sixth innings. Indeed, the pen has given up the fourth fewest hits in the league (46) despite pitching the fourth most innings (76). The individual statistics show an even better story.
Relievers Jason Grilli and Vin Mazzaro have pitched 15 1/3 scoreless innings to start the year. Grilli is perhaps the most impressive, going a perfect nine for nine in save chances and striking out 16 batters to only four walks. In every game he's pitched this year, Grilli has never been in a position where one bad pitch could end the game.
Setup man Mark Melancon has been almost as impressive. He has a 0.69 ERA, giving up only one run in 13 innings pitched. It just so happened that the one run Melancon surrendered was a solo home run. There's also Jeanmar Gomez, who has a 0.96 ERA in 9 1/3 innings pitched, and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, both of whom have sub-3.00 earned run averages.
Much like the starting rotation, there is only one glaring fault in the pen. That would be Jared Hughes, who has a 5.79 ERA in 9 1/3 innings pitched. But again much like the rotation, there are pitchers waiting in the wings to take his place if he can't turn it around, pitchers like injured Jose Contreras or minor leaguer Bryan Morris.
The season is still in its infancy, and it's important not to get too amped up over early performances. But in the same token, the Pirates pitching staff has laid a foundation for success. And if one guy falters, there will be at least two competent reserves waiting to take his place. That's a good problem to have.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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