Monday, June 25, 2012

Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Won't Have Another Back-End Collapse in 2012

We're three months into the season and, just on paper, this Pittsburgh Pirates' season looks a lot like last year's Pirates season. 70 games in, the Pirates are a heady 38-33, good for a winning percentage of .535. A .535 winning percentage may not look like much in other cities, but around here we can get downright giddy over that, almost drunk with success.

And yet, many people are are teetotalers, dour prohibitionists abstaining from the Pirates grog. The sense I get is that folks are waiting for the other cleat to drop. Right on their foreheads.

Last year, at 70 games in, the Pirates had their heads above water hovering around .500 ball and month later, they were sitting pretty at 53-48. Of course, 19 innings deep in Atlanta, Jerry Meals happened . Everything turned to crap after that and your Buccos lost 22 out of their 31 next games, at one point dropping 10 in a row. What I keep hearing is, let me know how they do in the back-half of the season, implying subtly, or not so subtly, that they will have another August swoon and everything will turn to excrement all over again.

I'm here to say -- stop worrying. Give in. Drink the Kool-Aid. Drink deep. Get on the Bandwagon -- not just your pinky toe, but all of you. Here's why:

1.  BURNETT and J-MAC (which sounds like a 70's TV cop show -- "Burnett and J-Mac:  Two partners who couldn't be more different, except that they love to catch bad guys. Thursdays on ABC!"). I admit it -- I wasn't all that fired up about the Pirates brass signing 35 year old A.J. Burnett from the Yankees. In his three seasons with the Yankees, his ERA was 4.04, 5.26 and 5.15, respectively. Except for one notable game, Yanks fans hated him. While I don't put that much stock into the feelings of New York fans, my gut feeling was that the Yankees and their All-Star batting order (with matching price-tag) might be able to put up more than five runs per game routinely, but my Pirates were not. Not by a long shot.

Turns out, I grossly misunderestimated the guy. He's turned into the thing the Pirates lacked last year -- a stopper. Burnett is the guy who, in the midst of a four-game swoon, takes the ball and says, "Look, these guys aren't getting more than one run off of me and we're gonna win this fucking thing." Who knew A.J. Burnett was that guy? I don't even think Burnett knew he was that guy. But he is and I think it's something Pirates fans will come to appreciate when they hit a rough patch, as all teams do.

This is to say nothing of the effect Burnett has had on young James McDonald. J-Mac has good stuff including a pitch that just drops of the edge of the earth, but he was wildly inconsistent. One start he'd go for seven stellar innings and in the next start he'd look like Josh Fogg on a bad day. For whatever reason, or however it happened, Burnett has helped J-Mac become a complete pitcher, one on the cusp of greatness. Oh, these are good times for fans who like to watch skilled hurlers.

2. CUTCH. Andrew McCutchen is one of those rare players who I feel lucky to get to watch. The guy is simply electric on the diamond. There may be others who are faster, but I don't know of any other player who is as fun to watch run as Cutch. Sitting in the stands at PNC Park and watching him go from 1st to 3rd on a single is like seeing Blondie at the Mudd Club or the Beatles at the Cavern. Okay, that's probably a wee bit hyperbolic, but the point is that he, like Blondie or the Beatles, is so memorable.

Just when you think he's hit maximum speed, he turns it up another notch. He can hit for average (.345) and hit for power (13 HR, 45 RBI, and a slugging pct. of .586). He closes the gaps on fly balls so quickly that he robs opposing players of potential extra base hits regularly. Of course all of that was true of McCutchen last year, too, but I think that both the success (in the first half of the season) and the misery (in the back half of the season) have helped him this year. In short, I think that psychologically his is prepared to carry his team from time to time (as he did through much of May) and he also knows what he needs to do in order to do that. There's real power in that kind of knowledge and, like Burnett, I think that 'Cutch will find a way to put his team up on his back when they need a lift.

3. SCHEDULE. Last year, in the back half of the season, the Buccos played the Houston Astros (stinky) nine times and the Chicago Cubs (stinkier) just seven times. This year, they have the Cubs (even stinkier than last year) 13 times after the All-Star break and the perpetually stinky Astros 10 times. Outside of the division, they get to play the bad stinky San Diego Padres six times (as compared to just three meetings last year) Add to that, they had to face the soon to be World Champ St. Louis Cardinals 13 times in the 2nd half of the season, but this year they only get them six times. In sum, the 2nd half of the Pirates schedule was a veritable murderer's row last season whereas this year, um, not so much. This is not as hard as parsing Proust, after all. The Pirates face more bad or mediocre teams to finish the season. All they have to do is beat the teams they should beat to keep chugging along towards their first winning season is two decades.

4.  PITCHING DEPTH. Earlier, I referenced the Jerry Meals game. While many have posited that game destroyed the delicate Pirates psychologically, I don't think the disappointment of that game was what sent the team careening into a tailspin, so much as the fact that the team was worn out, particularly the pitching staff. That 19 inning game came five games into a stretch of 20 days without a day off. The pitching staff was stretched to the limit by the Meals game and something as simple as a scheduled day off might have helped them hit re-boot. Instead, they never recovered until much later in August.

The Pirates are situated better this year with a better rotation (with Burnett and McDonald as 1 & 2  are a huge leap over Correia and Maholm as 1 & 2). The staff is rounded out nicely with Eric Bedard and Kevin Correia (right where he belongs as the #4 starter) and Brad Lincoln holding down the fort for the injured Charlie Morton (gone for the year) and Jeff Karstens. The good news is that Pirates announced Karstens will start tonight against in Philly. If he is the same Jeff Karstens we saw through most of last season, the braintrust Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle can go to a six-man rotation during stretches like the one the Pirates are in now. [See what I did there? I actually referred to Pirates coaches as a 'braintrust' and I did it WITHOUT irony.]

5.  JEAN PAUL SARTRE. What do you have to lose by climbing aboard and enjoying the ride for however long it lasts? The ability to say, "I told you so?" Son, that's no way to live. Having fun is more important than being right. My experience is enriched by allowing myself to give a shit. And let's face it -- it's all about me. Games are more fun to watch. Stats are more fun to parse. Maybe the Pirates will go down the drain like last week's spray tan. If that happens, what do I lose? Really? What does it cost me? A few months of actually caring? That would be a bad thing because ...

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that the Pirates finish the season playing meaningful games in August and September. I, for one, want to be a part of that.
Jean Paul Sartre, noted Existentialist and Pirates fan

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