Starling Marte follows through on a three-run home run off Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Kyle Lohse in the fifth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
As recently as 24 months ago, it was still both novel and somewhat cute to see the Pittsburgh Pirates winning baseball games. This was a team that, in the final weeks of the 2013 season,actually breathed a visible sigh of relief after winning their 82nd game, which ensured their first winning season since spindly Barry Bonds wore the black n' gold in 1992. This, even though the team was cruising at 81-61 entering said game. Those Pirates were a very good team that would go on to win 94 games, but there was still a fear, deep-seated and affirmed annually, that a season-closing 20-game losing streak somehow lurked under the bed.
There's nothing cute about the Pirates winning games anymore. It's what this team was built to do—this seems like a cliche, but try and figure out what this Pirates team, for instance, was built to do—and they do it. This season is young and things happen, but the Pirates have been one of baseball's best teams since recording that 82nd win. By making the playoffs in the fall of both 2013 and 2014, the Pirates join the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland A's, and St. Louis Cardinals—serious ballclubs, all—as the only teams in baseball with active streaks of playoff-making.
The main difference between the Pirates and a team like the monolithic Dodgers or the aggressively wholesome Cardinals is that, if you don't already have your allegiances established, you can feel pretty wonderful about following the Pirates as an unabashed, enthused bandwagoner. Actually: even if your major league allegiances are already established, odds are that what's going on in Pittsburgh is a hell of a lot cooler than what your local squad is futzing around with, and the Pirates hereby represent only temptation for your monogamous fan-heart. At the very least, the Pirates have a great case to be every baseball fan's second-favorite team.
What makes the Pirates wonderful is that, while they've been assembled by the most progressive of analytic minds, the players they've assembled play baseball like it's a party. To be sure, the Athletics have definitely been a party more years than not, but the A's flaunt their relative poverty, pre-gaming with Red Bull and letting the toilet flood the place. The Pirates' payroll is only $4M larger than Oakland's this year—call it a rounding error, or Antonio Bastardo And Change—but they have avoided a thrifty reputation despite pinching pennies as hard as any team in the sport.
More than that, the Pirates don't feel cheap. The Pirates' main attraction, stylistically speaking, is their outfield, which is a trio of superstars and superstars-in-development of such tantalizingly great skill that no fanbase could be greedy enough to realistically expect. The wild card, for now, is prospect of great import Gregory Polanco. Polanco has stoically hit his way to something like replacement level in his first hundred career games as a big leaguer, but he is just 23 years old and expected to be the present day weak link. (In the future, he is expected to be a regular 20/20 threat.) Most days, the other corner is manned by Starling Marte, wholaunched a home run on the first major league pitch he saw and has not quit since with the manic slugging and the uncanny, acrobatic fielding.
For just about any other franchise, the fanbase would call it a blessing to receive a gift as blissfully entertaining as Marte, and cheerfully tab him the face of the franchise. But the Pirates already have a face of the franchise, and he is in fact as many degrees better than Marte is as Marte is better than your average left fielder. Andrew McCutchen is flying, rapidly, towards having his bronzed bust in the Hall of Fame, and he has only made it look like the easiest, most graceful, obvious thing in the world to do. I have myself sat in the bleachers, transfixed, just watching the man warm up, and enjoyed it more than many actual games. McCutchen is clearly a man who moves not just through the baseball field but through the entire world with uncommon smoothness. Like Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone toiling in Michael Jordan's shadow, it feels true that McCutchen would be recognized as a generation's best player if only his generation did not include one Mike Trout.
An outfield, even one as gobsmackingly credentialed as this one, doesn't make a team go by itself. Most everybody else on the PIrates roster was once cast aside, traded for spare parts, and then lovingly coached into previously unfathomable potential. This includes the soft, quiet Radhames Liz, who is getting his first outs now as a member of the Pirates' bullpen after not appearing in the majors since 2009. This includes the saintly Francisco Cervelli, who dons the catcher's blue collar with the utmost enthusiasm. It includes A.J. Burnett, who would retire rather than pitch anywhere else.
More than anybody, it includes Josh Harrison, who came to the Pirates in a 2009 trade that sent, among others, Tom Gorzelanny to the Chicago Cubs. Last year, Harrison made the quantum leap from serviceable utility player—return enough for Gorzelanny—to dark horse MVP candidate, making a habit of wriggling out of pickles along the way.
We're coolly acclimated to projection systems now, expecting if not betting on today's quick bloomer to wither tomorrow. Harrison, gloriously, is having none of it. As he said to Bill West of the Pittsburgh Tribune: "Regression, succession, whatever—let them speak, that's what they talk about, because that's all they can talk about. I feel like this is only the beginning."
This might sound like a refutation of the Pirates' data-driven ways of doing business, but really it's not. Let them speak, Harrison says—those voices from outside the Pirates organization, the only organization savvy enough to guide Harrison into being all he could be. It's a confident way to think and a fairly bold thing to say, and it suits the Pirates fine.