Jun 14, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) celebrates his three run homer run in the fourth inning against the Miami Marlins with first baseman Gaby Sanchez (17) and right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

What Do We Make Of The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates So Far?

With 69 games down and 93 to play, the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates have been quite difficult to pin down.

Is this a good team playing below its level? A bad team playing over its head? An average team doing about what we should’ve expected?

I could’ve made a case for all three of those options at certain points over the first 11 weeks of the season, although I’m starting to lean toward a fourth categorization: a middle-of-the-road club with a good bit of variance built in.

It doesn’t take a professional prognosticator to determine that the Pirates are about as close to the league median as possible. With a record of 34-35 as of Monday, they are far from out of the playoff race, but they couldn’t be considered a favorite to return to the postseason for the second year in a row.

Baseball Prospectus gives the Pirates about a 19 percent chance of playing into October, while FanGraphs is more optimistic at 32 percent. Either way, that sounds about right with two teams (Washington, Miami) slightly ahead of them in the wild-card standings, one team tied (Colorado) and another just behind (Cincinnati). That’s a good-sized group Pittsburgh has to outplay to make the playoffs, saying nothing of the two squads currently holding the wild-card positions (St. Louis, Los Angeles).

However, one could argue the Pirates have as good of an opportunity as any of the other National League contenders, if only because of their potential to improve.

As we’ve already seen in the past few weeks, these Bucs are as impressive offensively as any version of the team in recent vintage. While the Pirates’ slugging percentage of .395 is seventh in the NL, their on-base percentage of .333 is second behind only the Rockies, who happen to play half their games at Coors Field. (Pittsburgh’s team batting average of .260 is also second to Colorado.)

Apologies to the power fans out there – and I’m one of them – but getting on base takes precedence over everything else. The Pirates have done that an an elite rate, and the runs are starting to pour in: Pittsburgh averaged five runs per game while going 5-2 over the past week.

Jun 12, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jared Hughes (48) pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Also exciting? The first six MLB games for Gregory Polanco have shown what could lie ahead for the top of the Pirates order. With Starling Marte starting to trend upward and Andrew McCutchen hitting as well as anyone in baseball, we’re seeing the makings of an explosive trio that should make the offense click for years to come.

With Ike Davis proving competent in the cleanup spot and Neil Walker expected back from an appendectomy before the end of the month, the bats shouldn’t be a huge concern for the foreseeable future.

The Pirates’ pitching, on the other hand, hasn’t delivered anywhere near the production it provided last summer. No matter whether you look at traditional measures like earned-run average (3.82 is 12th in NL) or metrics that attempt to remove defense from the equation like fielding-independent pitching (FIP), the Bucs’ hurlers are near the bottom of MLB.

However, this past weekend in Miami brought some optimism in that area, with starters Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley throwing at least seven effective innings apiece. For a team that’s gotten the fourth-fewest innings from its starting pitchers among NL clubs, that was a reminder of what the Pirates have been missing this year.

Unfortunately, nearly every member of the bullpen showed some form of weakness in south Florida, even the stout Tony Watson. The Pirates lead the league in blown saves with 13, and that doesn’t even count Friday’s ninth-inning meltdown, which wasn’t a save situation.

Since it’s the day after the U.S. Open, I’ll make a golf analogy: the Bucs have been hitting a lot of greens but not sinking as many birdie putts as they would expect. Because of that, it feels like they should be a bit higher in on the leaderboard.

I mentioned the Pirates’ potential for improvement earlier; pitching is where they figure to get a bump as spring turns to summer. Assuming Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano can return to health in timely fashion, the starting rotation still projects as above average.

As for the erstwhile “Shark Tank,” bullpen efficacy is notoriously volatile from year to year, but it’s difficult to imagine Pittsburgh’s relief struggles continuing to this degree.

The 2013 Pirates demonstrated how helpful a strong start could be, as they surged to the top of the NL table after a scorching June and played roughly .500 ball from there. This year’s team has shown itself to be quite different, so it’s fitting they’ll have to reverse last year’s pattern to once again be a contender.

Tags: Pittsburgh Pirates

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