Apr 6, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon (35) pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the eighth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates: New Season Bears Striking Resemblance To 2013 Thus Far


Apr 6, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (18) hits an RBI double against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fourth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The players will tell you they’d like to win every game, but I’d wager that every member of the Pittsburgh Pirates is pleased in some degree with their 4-2 start.

Not only does the Pirates’ Opening Week success give them an early leg up on the competition in the National League Central, the manner in which they’ve gone about their business is reminiscent of another notable team in the history of Pittsburgh baseball.

You know, the 2013 team.

It’s true, the first six games of the 2014 MLB season might as well be tacked onto last year’s results, because the modus operandi of the first winning Pirates squad in 20 years has been blatantly ripped off by a familiar band of characters so far.

This fact shouldn’t surprise anyone too much, though, if only because of the continuity from last year. For all the talk of the Pirates’ lackluster offseason, their only notable free-agent loss was A.J. Burnett.

We can argue how much the 2013 team overperformed its projections, but there’s something to be said for returning an approximation of the same core of talent that compiled 94 regular-season wins and pushed the eventual league champion Cardinals to the brink in the playoffs.

Nowhere are the similarities between last year and the first week of 2014 action more obvious than on the mound. The 2013 Pirates pitching staff finished third in MLB in ERA, second in opponent batting average, ninth in strikeouts and first of 30 teams in opponent OPS (on-base plus slugging) and home runs allowed.

(As we’ve discussed on this site before, Pittsburgh’s aggressive defensive shifting was also a huge factor in their terrific pitching numbers, so let’s lump it all together into run prevention.)

We’re just about 5 percent into the new season, but early returns are encouraging. Following series victories over Chicago and St. Louis, the Pirates are in the top 10 of all the aforementioned pitching categories except homers given up, where they are 15th.

The starters in particular have been sharp, as every member of the rotation has pitched into the sixth so far, led by Gerrit Cole‘s seven-frame shutdown of St. Louis on Friday. Francisco Liriano, who has pitched twice, owns the “worst” outing of the bunch, allowing four runs and seven hits in six innings Saturday. Charlie Morton will try to keep his six-frame shutout streak intact Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Glancing down to the bullpen, Jason Grilli may have blown a save already, but he and the rest of the relievers have pitched mostly airtight baseball. Tony Watson has yet to allow a hit, Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris haven’t surrendered a run, and neither has rookie long reliever Stolmy Pimentel. Grilli and Mark Melancon have rebounded from early stumbles.

Oh, and the offense compares pretty well to last year’s model, too. That’s not entirely flattering, as hitting was the 2013 Pirates’ most inconsistent aspect, but there are some bright spots.

Although the Bucs are 20th or lower in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, their team on-base percentage of .325 is good for 12th in MLB. Walking 25 times in six games – including six free passes for Andrew McCutchen and five for Pedro Alvarez – helps in that area.

Just three Pirates starters have an OPS above .700: Starling Marte (.823), McCutchen (.727) and Alvarez (.705), although part-timers Jose Tabata (.748) and Travis Ishikawa (.938) have also contributed. Neil Walker (.671) hasn’t been quite as consistent, but he’s come through in high-leverage situations, as has backup catcher Tony Sanchez.

That describes the 2013 Pirates quite well: stay in games with pitching and defense, and get just enough offense to string wins together.

There’s no guarantee all of that will remain in place for six-plus months, but it’s clear the long winter didn’t freeze out the Bucs’ successful formula.

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