Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco (25) and Josh Harrison (5) salute Starling Marte for driving them home on a two run double against the Colorado Rockies during the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
The Pittsburgh Pirates have kind of been ignored this year. They got off to a slow start -- they were 18-22 after the first quarter of the season -- and haven't spent a day in first place. So the discussion centered around the Cardinals and Dodgers and then the red-hot Mets and then the young Cubbies and then the slumping Nationals. We've been talking about Bryce Harper and the great Cy Young race and Yoenis Cespedes and Matt Harvey's innings limit. So the Pirates have flown under the radar.
The best team in baseball since May 20? The Pirates.
After blowing open a 7-6 lead with six runs in the ninth to defeat the Rockies 13-7 on Wednesday to clinch a playoff spot for the third consecutive season, the Pirates have gone 74-38 since those first 40 games. That's a .661 winning percentage. They went 17-9 in June, 17-9 in July, 19-8 in August and they're 13-10 in September. They've won 92 games with 10 games left on the schedule, giving them a chance to match the 98 wins of the 1991 and 1979 clubs, the franchise high for a 162-game season. They're going to win more games than the Mets or the Dodgers.
Their likely reward? A wild-card game against Jake Arrieta, a pitcher with a 0.94 ERA over his past 18 starts.
But this isn't about whining about the flaws of the current system, flaws the Pirates know all too well. Barring a final-week collapse by the Cardinals, they'll play in their third consecutive wild-card flip. This is about an organization that has climbed from the depths of despair to become one of baseball's model franchises, a team that doesn't panic over a slow start because it understands it has the talent and depth to compete over 162 games.
In Travis Sawchik's excellent "Big Data Baseball," a book that came out this summer that chronicles how the Pirates ended their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons in 2013, the author writes how the front office and coaching staff utilized and embraced all the data available in modern baseball to make the team better.
Of course, it goes beyond studying all the numbers. It takes a belief in your scouts who said Jung Ho Kang, the best player in Korea, could hit in the majors. It took the belief that veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett had one more good season in him. It's the minor league coordinators and coaches who helped develop the tools of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco into tools that yielded results. It takes smart trades, like acquiring catcher Francisco Cervelli in the offseason from the Yankees to replace the departed Russell Martin. It takes a big league coaching staff that suggests a little tweak in the delivery of J.A. Happ and sees him go 6-2 with a 2.28 ERA since coming over from Seattle.
All of that requires smart people making smart evaluations. But there's something else that's more difficult to define. How do you learn to win? How do you turn around a pervasive losing culture? How do you learn to compete with the Cardinals on an annual basis?
Remember, back in 2011 and 2012, Clint Hurdle's first two years as manager, the Pirates had great starts. The 2011 team was tied for first place as late as July 25. On July 26, the Pirates lost that famous 19-inning game to the Braves on a blown call at home plate. That started a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games and the team collapsed to a 72-90. In 2012, the Pirates were 59-44 at the end of July, just three games out of first place. They went 20-39 the rest of the way and finished 79-83.
Maybe the sabermetrics say it was just a matter of adding more talent. Sure, more talent helps. It helps having a cornerstone player to build around, such as Andrew McCutchen, especially since he's signed to a team-friendly contract that doesn't eat up too much of the payroll. It helps to have the No. 1 pick in the draft, select Gerrit Cole, and watch him develop into an ace. But this team did learn to win. Those 2011 and 2012 seasons were perhaps valuable lessons in that regard.
The interesting thing about these Pirates is this: What's their strength? With the Cardinals, you can point to their rotation and bullpen; the Cubs have Arrieta and Jon Lester and hit home runs. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and the Mets have all those power arms.
The Pirates? Well, let's see: They're 10th in the National League in home runs; they're ninth in walks; they're fourth in batting average. But they are fourth in the NL in runs thanks to good situational hitting -- they're hitting .277 with runners in scoring position, second only to the Giants. On the pitching and defense side: The rotation has the fifth-best ERA; the staff is fourth in K's; they don't have a flame-throwing closer. But they've given up the fewest home runs, they've turned the most double plays and they're third in fewest runs allowed.
In many ways, the secret weapon on the team is the bullpen. Mark Melancon is 49-for-51 in save opportunities as the Pirates have lost just one game they've led after seven innings. Tony Watson has a 2.02 ERA. Jared Hughes has a 2.38 ERA. None of those three are averaging a strikeout an inning, in an era when every team seems to have three or four of those relievers. Heck, the big strikeout guy in the bullpen right now is veteran Joe Blanton, who has a 1.88 ERA in 28.2 innings with 34 strikeouts since coming over from Kansas City. Throw in Antonio Bastardo and those five relievers are a combined 19-4. The Pirates win games late and they don't blow leads. That's a good recipe for postseason success if the Pirates can get past that wild-card game.
After Tuesday's win, the Pirates' celebration was rather subdued. "We've been here before," McCutchen said, adding that the club has much bigger goals in mind.
"This is just the start of things," Cole said.
Simply getting to the postseason is no longer enough for this franchise. It's a new era of Pirates baseball.