Before this story, the last time I posted here was June 18. But what seemed like a meager two weeks off for a serene vacation in Maine and Massachusetts (and New Jersey, for a sweltering day at Six Flags) turned out to be a lifetime in waiting for these words: The Pirates are the best team in baseball.
Back on the 18th, when I wrote a recap about the Pirates finally sticking it to the Reds by beating them instead of involving themselves with a childish beanball war, the Buccos were 3.0 games behind the Cardinals for first place and 1/2 game behind Cincy for second in the Central. Pittsburgh’s record was 42-29.
Since then, they’ve rattled off nine victories in 10 games. Once my vacation kicked off on Friday the 21st, the Pirates swept the Angels in Anaheim, the Mariners in a mini two-game set in Seattle and returned to beat the Brewers at PNC. The latter series is hopefully the start of a change in the next several years where the Pirates absolutely demolish Milwaukee, perhaps romping them, say, 20-0 in a game.
In the time I was away, the Pirates certainly paralleled my magical experiences. I’m back from vacation now, but am I returning to reality?
- While I was driving from just north of Pittsburgh to Maine at about 70 mph, Pedro Alvarez was driving the ball out of ballparks at a much more astounding pace. In fact, ESPN’s Home Run Tracker shows the speed of the baseballs coming off Pedro’s bat in the five homers he destroyed since June 20 averaged 106.08 mph.
Alvarez has five homers in the 10 games since my last post, which came in consecutive contests, while also sporting a scorching 1.256 OPS. But overall, the Pirates are OPS-ing .797 in the past two weeks and have clubbed 16 homeruns. The next closest teammate to Alvarez in OPS in that same span — with a comparable number of plate appearances compared with Pedro’s 45 — is Starling Marte, who has gotten back into a groove like the one seen in the early season, at an even 1.000 mark. (Here is the rest of the individual stats from the last 14 days, per Baseball-Reference.)
Pedro’s hot streak through the end of June was in line with his career paces, and the trend is becoming easier to notice with the more success other players — and consequently the team — have around him. In other words, the team is thriving in this winning streak and Alvarez is clearly the best offensive force. But although Alvarez is going to be expected to carry this suddenly elite team in the remaining months given his recent torrent mashing, June is by far his best month in his career and chances are he’ll cool off. He’s recorded an .879 OPS in June, which is good for a 133 tOPS+ — a stat that uses 100 as a base for dead average (so anything above 100 is good; below it is bad) when looking at his career OPS over the entire season.
For perspective on how dominant El Toro becomes: his tOPS+ in March/April is 60; in May it’s 88; he peaks in June at 133; then he’s still at his above-average form in July and August, with marks of 110 and 111, respectively; and Alvarez finished the season right in line with his career numbers, posting a tOPS+ of 100 in September and October.
Again, he did what he always does in June, which is the likely reason for him contributing 31.2 percent of the team’s homers and leading in OPS in the last fortnight. Throughout the entire month, his 10 homeruns account for 34.5 percent of the Pirates’ June total of 29 bombs. On the season, though, Pedro has 24.4 percent of Pittsburgh homers (20 of 82).
The odd thing is that despite the calendar change, almost nothing changes about Pedro’s peripheral stats except his power numbers. Sure, his career numbers show he consistently picks up his walk rate after the first month, but that’s no tough task when it sits at a paltry 6.6 percent in March/April. And although he bumps up the frequency of his base-on-balls, he does nothing to combat the strikeouts in any month of the season. Alvarez is the exact same player; it’s just that his HR/FB rate rises from 19-20 percent in the first couple months to above 27 percent in June before tailing off ever so slightly through the remainder of the season. (League average this year for HR/FB is 10.9 percent.) Once more of his fly balls start landing in the stands as opposed to an outfielder’s glove, everything else improves in Alvarez’s line: Fly outs become hits, which increases BABIP and helps AVG, which helps OBP, which helps OPS, which helps wOBA and wRC+, which helps the Pirates score and improves their probability of winning. (On the season, Alvarez has a 31.3 percent HR/FB — five percentage points above Miguel Cabrera, whose clearly a better overall batted ball case, and trailing only Chris Davis’s 32.6 percent figure.)
Pedro Alvarez is the single-greatest influence for the offensive output during the current 10-game win streak, but he’s going to regress a bit — probably starting today. He’s still going to post great power numbers, but not at the elite status he does in June. It’s not that other players weren’t contributing, either. Andrew McCutchen was consistent with his season numbers (.872 OPS in June; .822 all year); Neil Walker continued to show improved plate discipline (.357 OBP, 14 percent BB rate in June); and Jordy Mercer showed an excellent line-drive stroke (26.7 percent LD rate). Mercer won’t be able to maintain such a high LD rate, but those were the only other regular players aside from Alvarez and Marte who had OPSs above .700.
Marte and Alvarez were superstars in small samples in June — as any month of data is, but Alvarez shows consistency in his career numbers — while McCutchen was above-average and Walker was solid for a second-baseman. Everyone else was below-average and the Pirates still managed to score enough runs. It helps to have awesome run prevention.
And that’s exactly the best part. Aside from McCutchen not yet combusting for his summer breakout, the Pirates pitching and defense has been remarkable enough that a possible hit to the offense won’t entirely crush their current success.
- While in York, Maine, my girlfriend and I took the 40-minute drive to watch the Double-A affiliate of the Red Sox, the Portland Sea Dogs, take on the Birmingham Mets at Hadlock Field. In the meantime, the Pirates’ pitching was making opposing hitters resemble Double-A players, limiting them to a .547 OPS.
I’m not going to say as much here as I did about Alvarez, and that’s simply because Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs impeccably summed up just how dominant the Pirates’ bullpen has been. Here is the link to the article, which is a must-read, but I’ll summarize.
Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Justin Wilson are freaking awesome. Like, historically awesome. A telling quote from Cameron’s piece:
Last year, the Orioles relievers posted a +13.86 WPA, the highest mark of any relief group in baseball history. Through 81 games this year, the Pirates have a +7.42 WPA, which would prorate out to +14.84 over a full season.
Though I mentioned the staff as a whole in the lead, the bullpen is accomplishing feats like the one above, and consequently paling really any other facet of baseball’s best team. That exuberance shone through on Sunday.
- After I had spent previous nights de-clawing a delicious Maine lobster over dinner, I endeavored on my four-hour journey from the girlfriend’s house in Philly back to my Pittsburgh-suburb residence. The Pirates, after clawing out a 2-1 victory over the Brewers on Saturday night, embarked on their own extensive Sunday excursion.
Before I left the small town outside of Philadelphia in which my girlfriend lives, I wanted to catch the start of the final game of the Pirates-Brewers series. I did, seeing Charlie Morton and the Bucs fall behind 1-0 before the downpour and delay ensued. So after about an hour of playing around in a one-sided boxing match with the four-year-old brother (who had the only pair of fightin’ gloves), I set out on my long drive — not really sure what the status of the game was.
Occasionally, I’d check-in with the delay once I got bored of listening to music, then finally saw the news that the game was to start back up. Awesome. With a few touches of the phone screen, I was tuned into the resumed game with perfect audio for my long drive.
And speaking of perfect… Vin Mazzaro enters the game in the third to retire all 15 batters he faced in five innings. You know the rest of the story by now: Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson follow up Mazzaro’s work and shut the Brewers out for seven more frames.
I arrived home — sprinting from the car and leaving all the luggage and memorabilia behind — in time to see Mercer walk and Russell Martin drive in Gaby Sanchez for the win.
That I drove across the state after the game had started tells you how long of an affair that was. That I enjoyed the drive tells you how thrilling a match played out.
- While I watched the Red Sox come out as the victor in a 7-4 contest against the Blue Jays at Fenway and defend their place atop the American League standings, the Pirates were busy snagging a share of the Cardinals’ respective league title — and becoming the best team in baseball shortly thereafter.
And shortly after leaving Fenway and Massachusetts, I left for Philadelphia, then left for home. Of course, I return still being able to praise the Pirates with that prestigious descriptor. Now some more folks arriving from Philadelphia enter Pittsburgh, home of the best team in baseball, these ones charged with trying to knock the Bucs off that pedestal. I’m of course referring to the Phillies coming into town for a three-game set against the Pirates, which kicks off tonight.
You know, the Pirates didn’t lose once I left for vacation. If they should happen to fall tonight, I think I’ll do it.. I’ll take one for the team and go back to the soothing shores of Maine (below), but not only so the Pirates remain baseball’s best team.