For the first time in two decades, Pirates fans won’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, satisfied with mediocrity.
If you could get in a time machine and travel back ten, five, or heck, even one year ago and ask Bucs fans what they expected out of their favorite team by the middle of August, it’s a good bet that the vast majority of them would tell you that a winning record, something that has eluded them since 1992, would be plenty to satiate even the most die-hard yinzers.
However, that is no longer the case. That’s because these Pirates have done something that the 21 teams before them haven’t: managed to stay competitive late into the season and emerge as legitimate contenders to win the NL Central. The Pirates have finally fielded a successful team, and with success comes high expectations.
Gone are the days of Kip Wells and Jason Kendall. Gone are the days when a game at PNC Park in late August meant being one of a few thousand fans showing up to watch a team 20 games below .500 for a few hours. Gone are the days of the “Here we go Steelers” chants during the 7th inning stretch. The Pirates are finally a legitimate threat, and they need to rise to the occasion and make good on these new lofty expectations.
If they are to avoid a late season collapse similar to the ones that befell the team the past two seasons, both the players and the coaching staff need to push themselves to their full potential, and that starts with the players.
For as dynamic a lead-off man as Starling Marte has been, he needs to focus on the fundamentals of his game. No, I’m not talking about watching simple pop-flys into his glove. Errors are unavoidable and are bound to happen to everyone, once in a while. If Marte doesn’t want to forfeit his leadoff spot to Josh Harrison, he needs to relax at the plate and not swing at pitches three feet out of the strike zone. When you posses the kind of speed Marte does, getting on base should be of the utmost importance.
Another Pirate who could work on his presence in the betters box is MVP Andrew McCutchen. Yes, even All-Stars can improve their games sometimes. For as much as he is touted as a big-time player, Cutch goes through periods of struggling to put the ball in play with men on base. While he has 37 hits with RISP, he also has 20 strikeouts, many of them coming late in close games. Currently, he ranks 60th in the league in leaving RISP stranded even though he is hitting .317. Even minute improvements in these areas can mean the difference between a win or a loss.
The same goes for Pedro Alvarez. Yes, he has 31 home runs, but his .231 batting average and 152 strikeouts are pitiful, even for a power hitter. 1st in the NL in homeruns is good. 31st in OPS, 139th in batting average, and 1st in strikeouts isn’t. It’s either one extreme or the other with El Toro.
Thankfully, pitching, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen, has not been a problem. If Jeff Locke can avoid being this year’s James Macdonald and return to his midseason form the Pirates will boast one of the best starting-five rotations in all of Major League Baseball. Getting all star closer Jason Grilli back from injury wouldn’t hurt either.
Make no mistake, these Pirates are for real. But if they want to reach their full potential they need to start playing like the Pirates of the future and not the Pirates of the past.
Seven more wins ‘till .500 will be a milestone and a cause for celebration, but it shouldn’t be the final goal.