The Pittsburgh Pirates are leading the National League Central.
Andrew McCutchen is a key performer as the Pirates make a playoff push…
The storyline seems like an anachronism, but yes, the Pirates hold the best record in the National League. Veteran players like McCutchen and young breakouts like Jack Suwinski have led the Pirates back to relevance with a thrilling and unexpected start. Let’s take a look at five notes from a wildly bewildering April.
Five Notes from the Pirates’ First Month
Oneil, Oh No!
The Pirates’ hopes for an exciting season took a massive hit in early April as Oneil Cruz suffered a fractured ankle on April 9th. The athletic young shortstop will miss about four months, a disastrous outcome for a team that expected him to be the centerpiece of their season. His talent would be difficult to replace, but there is still hope he will return in August.
How have the Pirates fared in his absence? Rodolfo Castro, 23, has been the stand-in shortstop. He had barely played in more than 100 games before this season. His 103 OPS+ last season would be enough to represent a fairly average player. Perfect for filling a lineup spot in case of injury, but certainly not the star power that Cruz represented.
Castro decided to challenge that narrative. In nearly all facets of the game, Castro is having a career year. He is walking more, striking out less, and hitting for more power. A lot more power. His barrel percentage nearly doubled from 6.7% last season to 12.5% this year. His hard-hit percentage is sitting at 50%.
According to BaseballSavant, he is significantly outperforming his expected batting average. However, one other statistic that showcases his improvement is his performance against breaking balls. His batting average against these pitches (.176) is still poor, but when he does connect, he is hitting for more power with a .509 expected slugging.
Veteran leadership. Clubhouse presence. Call it what you want, but the team leaders are performing on the field, too. Andrew McCutchen made it known that he is here to play winning baseball, not to reminisce over the past. He’s made good on that sentiment with a 125 OPS+. His five home runs are second on the team, behind only Jack Suwinski. Oh, and the 36-year-old hasn’t been afraid to steal some bags, too.
Carlos Santana is also having a renaissance. He has been a below-average hitter for three straight seasons. Yet this year, he has a 115 OPS+. Santana has always been known for his plate discipline and is on pace for his best season in this regard since 2019.
And, wait, what? He is three for three in stolen base attempts. For context, Santana is in the 17th percentile for sprint speed. That statistic definitely required a double-take.
How about some pitching, too? Rich Hill is the oldest pitcher in the majors at 43 years old. He has given up two or fewer runs in his past four starts for a 1.93 ERA over that span. His pitching profile this season is just as strange as the Pirates surprising record. His fastball velocity is in the 1st percentile. That’s, uh, not good. While his fastball might not be whizzing by hitters anytime soon, his arsenal adds to the intrigue.
BaseballSavant has seven different pitch types listed for Hill. He has given up a lot of hard contact and has very little swing-and-miss in his game. He might not be throwing bullets, but it is entertaining to watch a player like Hill post up so many consecutive good performances.
Suwinski for the Fences
The most prolific young player on the roster is Jack Suwinski. His team-leading six home runs are a product of his improved plate approach and ability to make harder contact this season. He was a hard player to pin down as a breakout player after his rookie season certainly flashed some potential. But in 2022, he struck out at a 30.6% rate with a terrible expected batting average.
Moving into 2023, his walk rate has jumped up five points, but he still struggles with striking out too often. At the moment, that is only a weakness to work out, not a fatal flaw. Oddly enough, he does not chase outside the zone much, but his strikeout rate is still so glaring given his high whiff rate.
Suwinski has the 14th-best OPS in the league at 1.011. This pace might not be reasonable to expect by the end of the season, but his incredible power numbers are a sign of a breakout year. Not only has he improved his power and plate discipline, but his speed and athleticism are a key part of his role in the team. He has already stolen five bags and his defensive abilities have added value to his overall body of work.
The offseason drama with Bryan Reynolds was a major talking point surrounding the Pirates. Would they trade away another fan favorite? The rumors had been swirling for quite a while, but a franchise-record deal was done to keep Reynolds in Pittsburgh.
With his future secured and the fans appeased, Reynolds has continued to perform at his best. His 149 OPS+ would be the best of his career. What can’t Reynolds do at this point? His walk rate and defensive numbers are mediocre, but he hits for power, hits for average, and snags a few bags along the way. He has already racked up 23 RBIs at the heart of the lineup. As the Pirates look to keep surprising, it will be largely Reynold’s responsibility to provide a consistent presence as other players might cool down from this blazing start.
Let’s Kick It Up a Notch
The one major criticism of the Pirates’ early campaign is their lack of fierce competition. They lost a series to the Houston Astros (1-2) and won a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers (2-1). The series against the Dodgers was certainly impressive, outscoring them 14-3 in the final two games. There are many more stellar performers than listed in this column, such as Connor Joe and David Bednar. It is understandable to assume this overperformance is due to the easy schedule.
But now the Pirates face off against the Tampa Bay Rays, the only team with a better record in April. The story is obvious that the Rays are the much more deserving, talented team. How will the Pirates react?
The Pirates are already one of the feel-good stories of the year. It will take a lot more than one month to convince everyone that they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. It starts with series like this. How do they handle the Rays? How do they bounce back if they lose? Do they have the depth to push forward if players regress from such an incredible start? The division is more contentious than expected heading into the season. Pittsburgh is playing exciting baseball again and it just might be real.
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