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Out of the Gate

Despite trailing the Cubs by a wide margin, the Pirates have done a much better job getting out of the gate this season.

A lot was made about the Pirates 18-22 start a year ago and how they would have to improve early to compete in the NL Central. Now after Thursday’s win over the Braves, they are 22-18 and are on pace for 89 wins.

Since the second Wild Card was added, no National League team has won 89 games and missed the playoffs. Currently they are tied with the Mets for the second wild card and are 6.5 games behind the Cubs for the  division. While the number seems daunting, they were down 9 to the Cardinals at this point a year ago, and they made that a race to the last week of the season.

Concerns about the offense have been put to bed. They’ve scored 192 runs through 40 games, good for 4.8 per game. Last year that number was only 4.3. The team OPS has jumped from .719 to .789. And yes, for all the talk about how this team had “no power” and that they would miss Walker and Alvarez, they have hit 38 homers and are on pace for 154 (a 10 percent increase of last season’s 140).

The pitching has been a different story. The team combined for a 4.49 ERA coming into play Wednesday, which is in the bottom 10 in all of baseball and a far cry of the 2015 staff. The middle relief core of Caminero, Hughes and company have not been as reliable as they were a year ago, and the back end of the rotation has drawn plenty of groans.

So the record is one thing, but is this team in a better place than it was after 40 games in 2015? Is this offense sustainable?  Will the pitching turn around?

It’s all possible. Sorry, there are no straight answers in baseball. But if you’re playing the percentages, the offense should continue to out produce the majority of the league (their combined wRC+ is 115, good for second in all of baseball). Opting for a high OBP lineup tends to be more consistent as well.

The pitching is another story. Going based on fWAR, Pirates’ pitchers are the second worst in baseball, totaling -0.3 as a whole. Their combined strikeout and ground ball rates are close to league average, but walking close to four batters a game and having 14.6 percent of fly balls leave the yard is tough to work around. The league average usually hovers in the 9-12 percent range, so that number could go down without any drastic changes. We’ve seen guys like Liriano change their style to issue less walks, but it’s too early to tell if it is a change for the better.

The good news is the well discussed group of starters in Indianapolis should be eligible to be promoted soon. Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl have combined for a 1.62 ERA, and at least one member of the AAA cavalry should be coming once the super 2 deadline passes in two weeks. Promoting one of them and moving a starter to the bullpen help both the rotation and the once feared Shark Tank.

For example, booting Nicasio to middle relief would probably benefit him. The first time through the lineup this year, batters have a .701 OPS against him. That figure jumps to .955 the second time through. He’s pitched out of the ‘pen before, so he could give them a boost to hold leads in the sixth and seventh.

Again, most of this is speculation. The bottom line is fans wanted this team to get a better jump out of the gate, and they have done just that. What has worked so far should continue, and what hasn’t been going there way (like that horrible home run rate) is not beyond fixing. The rust has been shaken off, and if a few more bounces go their way, they can get back to competing for the division and not just a wild card.

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