Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug (Opening image credit, Elias Sports Bureau)
As you know by now, the Pittsburgh Pirates outlasted their division nemesis St. Louis Cardinals in a 19-inning marathon on Sunday night. While 3B Pedro Alvarez’s game-breaking home run in the top of the 19th- followed soonafter by CF Andrew McCutchen’s 2-run insurance single- will be remembered as the turning points in the game, the true star of the late evening was the Pirates’ bullpen, who helped keep an incredibly prolific Cardinals’ offense at bay for the equivalent of over 2 full games! The Matt Holliday-Carlos Beltran-David Freese meat of their lineup- which has driven in more runs than any other 3-4-5 in all of baseball- went a combined 2 for 22 during the bullpen’s twelve innings of 1-run ball, keeping the light-hitting Pirates in the game.
Pittsburgh’s 6-3 victory- at the time preserving a precarious 1-game Wild Card lead over the Cardinals- was inversely reminiscent of the 2011 team’s 19-inning morale-crushing defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, or rather home plate umpire Jerry Meals, whose epically blown call at the plate cost the Pirates the game, and inspired a litany of Meals spinoff websites.
The damage to the Pirates was monumental in hindsight. The club- 5 games over .500 at the time- lost another extra-inning game the following night to the Braves, and proceeded to drop 14 of their next 17 games. In the end, the 2011 Pirates finished 18 games below .500, a Major League Baseball record-low finish for a team that was in 1st place that late into the season. So, are the 2012 Pirates better-equipped to springboard from their 19-inning win, than the 2011 team was to withstand their gut-wrenching 19-inning loss? Here’s a quick comparison between then and now.
Place in the NL Standings: Advantage 2011 Team
The Pirates were 53-48 after the loss, compared with 13 games over .500 (67-54) after this year’s win. However, the 2011 club was still only 1 game back in the NL Central, as no team had run away with the division, as the Cincinnati Reds have here in 2012. The 2011 Pirates were further back in the Wild Card race than they are now. The 2011 Braves were 16 games over .500, whereas the 2012 Pirates- thanks to the additional Wild Card slot- were tied for the new post-season birth after their victory (again, the 2012 Braves are now in full command of the top Wild Card birth with an even better 70-52 record).
Starting Pitching: Advantage 2012 Team
The 2011 Pirates’ rotation cooled considerably down the stretch after a hot start, which propelled the club through the first 3+ months of the season.
2011- Jeff Karstens, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Kevin Correia
2012- A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Karstens, Eric Bedard, Kevin Correia (6 for now)
The differences between the 2 rotations in terms of depth, talent, and achievement is monumental. The 2011 rotation wasn’t anchored by any ace, as A.J. Burnett has surprisingly been here in 2012. Both James McDonald and Jeff Karstens have improved on their 2011 paces, while Kevin Correia is at least holding serve. Ironically, the two starting pitchers with the most consistent histories of success- Wandy Rodriguez and Eric Bedard– have been the 2012 rotation’s weak points. Still, this rotation is deeper and far more experienced than the 2011 rotation that fell apart down the stretch.
Starting Lineup: Advantage 2012 Team
Like the current 2012 club, the bats of the 2011 Pirates were generally thin, and the team finished near the bottom of most offensive categories in all of baseball. Only 4 players hit double-digit home runs by the end of the season: Andrew McCutchen (23), trade deadline acquisition 1B Derrek Lee (19 with BAL and PIT), OF Garrett Jones (16), and 2B Neil Walker (12). Already here in 2012, the Pirates have 5 players in HR double digits: McCutchen, Jones, Walker, 3B Pedro Alvarez (23), and C Michael McKenry (11).
(With 8 home runs each, C Rod Barajas and OF Alex Presley could theoretically cross that margin, but Presley is currently at AAA, and Barajas has been the worst regular in all of baseball over the past 2 months.)
Not surprisingly then, the 2011 Pirates only had 4 regulars finish with OPS’s above .800, including now-departed C Ryan Doumit. Doumit was a clear upgrade over Barajas on the 2012 club, but as became commonplace during Doumit’s career as a Pirate, injuries limited him to only 77 games during the 2011 season. The emergence of McKenry has certainly negated the sting of losing Doumit to the Minnesota Twins, even though Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle stubbornly refuses to start McKenry over Barajas full-time.
After a historically slow offensive start (we’re talking record-setting offensive incompetency), the 2012 hitters have rebounded. Four bats currently reside above the .800 OPS watermark, while Alvarez and deadline acquisition OF Travis Snider could join their ranks by season’s end. Much like the 2012 rotation being stronger due to the presence of a staff ace, the 2012 lineup is benefitting from a Barry Bonds-esque season from Andrew McCutchen, who, despite a recent “slump”, is still garnering MVP talk with a line of .352 BA, 24 HR, 14 SB, and a 1.004 OPS.
Overall, it’s still not a very good offense. The 2012 club is currently 28th in OBP, but 16th in slugging, averaging out around 22nd out of 30 clubs in Major League Baseball.
Overall Advantage: 2012 Team
With the recent surge of talent-laden clubs like the Braves, Cardinals, and Los Angeles Dodgers, the 2012 Pirates may still find themselves on the outside looking in on the playoff picture come season’s end. However, they’ve already remained in contention longer than their 2011 counterparts, and are a strong bet to at least break the franchise’s record-setting 19 straight losing seasons. This club is far, far deeper rotation-wise, and slightly improved at the plate than the 2011 club- which divebombed to 18 games below .500 in the wake of their crushing 19-inning loss to the Braves.
Whether or not this club can use their 19-inning victory as a motivational springboard to exceed their talent level for 40 more days remains to be seen. But its been one helluva’ ride so far, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 2012 Pirates, it’s not to count them out.
Thanks for reading.