Okay, so my descriptive overview may be somewhat of a misnomer, because in any sport, the team from the year before is going to be different from this year. You have natural turnover of players and coaches, and some of the ones do stay either regress or get better from the year before.
In any case, even though it’s still early, it’s pretty clear that the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t the same team that surprised many in 2013 by ending their North American major pro sports record 20-year losing season streak by winning 94 games and coming within one game of the National League Championship Series.
This shouldn’t come as a shock. Many experts expected the Pirates to regress somewhat in a crowded NL Central in 2014, especially since the Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun back. That isn’t to say that last season was a fluke, but it appears that this may be a case where the Bucs may have to take a step back before taking a step forward.
Let’s start with the offense. The Bucs are near the top of the NL in home runs–a rather surprising number when you factor in that hitting is one of the team’s weaknesses. Andrew McCutchen has been on fire lately with home runs. Pedro Alvarez has been pulling his fair share as well. Despite that, many of their home runs have been solo shots, and after 22 games have a -4 run differential. If they had players on base for a few of their home runs, they would likely be into the +20s on run differential. Even manager Clint Hurdle has made a point of this.
Then there’s the supposed strength of the team: pitching. The thing is, the last few years pitching has dominated Major League Baseball, so whether that should be a strength relative to other teams is debatable. But the infield fielding has been dreadful, especially at catcher. I’ve attended four games at PNC Park so far, and in each of those it seems whoever is catching is struggling, especially on nights when regular starter Russell Martin isn’t playing. About the only strength the Buccos have had behind the plate has been catching players stealing. Hey, at least the outfield has been fielding pretty good.
At 9-13 at this writing, it is still too early to write off the Pirates 2014 season as a loss. The team does have four more games to go before they even play someone from outside of their division–their first 26 games are home-and-home series with the entire NL Central–and the team’s next five games after that happen to be Interleague games, another strength of the team from last season. They also start playing more non-divisional NL opponents. Aside from another home series with the St. Louis Cardinals and another trip to Milwaukee, the Pirates get a break from the NL Central in the month of May.
But one thing is clear: if there is a team from either league I wouldn’t expect back in the playoffs this year, it’s the Pirates. They should return to winning in 2015. Sometimes, you have to take a step back before moving forward.