There was little secret to the stunning turnaround for the Tampa Bay Rays last year. Their defense improved dramatically and their pitching hit full stride. The Pirates came into this year following four straight seasons of either 94 or 95 losses. They made a determined effort coming into this year to focus on pitching and defense and both are currently clicking.
After tonight's 3-2 win over the red hot Marlins, the Pirates have given up 42 earned runs in 14 games or three runs per game. Since they are scoring 4.5 runs per game, that's a good way to start with an 8-6 record. Will the team hold up for the long haul and end their sub-.500 ways? If they were winning with offense, it would be easy to discount that possibility. But good pitching is a great way to move forward.
The first thing the Pirates did was hire Joe Kerrigan as their pitching coach. Say what you will about how much effect a coach has on a ball club, but Kerrigan immediately focused on two things. First, after watching video of last season, he noticed that the Pirates never challenged anyone inside. Secondly, they didn't pound the strike zone. Kerrigan was the pitching coach for the Expos and Red Sox when a kid named Pedro Martinez did a pretty good job of doing both.
He also ramped up the pitcher's conditioning so they wouldn't wilt as the season and the games went along. Whether it's the program or the pitchers that are making the difference is debatable, but you cannot debate the results.
Last year, the Pirates finished with a 5.10 ERA. They were 16th in the league in walks, hits and consequently, runs. So far this year, they are fifth in the league in walks and are first in the league in earned runs.
It starts with the rotation. Last year, the only starter with an ERA+ over 100 (league average)was Paul Maholm. This year, every starter is over 100. And even their most uneven starter to this point, Ian Snell, has an ERA of only 4.24. If he can get his control straightened out, he will be okay too. Maholm has become the ace of the staff and he's been unhittable so far. He's not a big time strike out guy (none of the starters are), but his WHIP is a fantastic 0.968 and he is only giving up 6.1 hits per nine innings.
Zack Duke seems to be back to the form he flashed a few seasons ago and is 2-1 with a 2.95 ERA. Ross Ohlendorf has been a big surprise and though he is a hard luck 1-2, he's only walked three in 18 innings to go along with only 17 hits. Karstens had a rough first start but shut down the Marlins effectively on Tuesday night and won his first game of the year.
Some times, you have addition by subtraction. Last year's Bucs had too many starts by the likes of Matt Morris and Tom Gorzelanny. A top five of Maholm, Duke, Snell, Ohlendorf and Karstens is very competitive and can keep them in games all season long.
Relief pitching is by and large improved as well. The biggest plus is a full season of Matt Capps as closer. He's already started four for four in save opportunities and seems very competent. John Grabow is an important man in the bullpen and had a very good year last year with a 2.95 ERA in 74 appearances! That's a lot of games. Grabow is perfect so far this year and hasn't given up a run in six appearances. Jesse Chavez has been a nice addition and has a 1.50 ERA in five appearances so far.
The rest of the bullpen has been a bit of a mess and Tyler Yates, who had a decent season last year has had a rough start in particular. Three guys won't get it done all year and they will need help from a couple of others at least. But at least, when the team is ahead in the game, they have a nice set up at the end to close it out.
Pirate fans should be excited. This has been a lot of fun so far this year. It's a lot more fun than losing nearly every night. At least they are in most of their games and an 8-6 record is nothing to sneeze at. Do the Pirates have a shot at the division? No. But they do have a shot at being a decent team and an outside shot at playing .500 baseball or better.
As the Rays proved, fielding is a big part of pitching well. And defensively, the Pirates are holding their own very well. Sanchez is way above league average at second. The LaRoche brothers are both above league average at first and third. Morgan, McLouth and Moss are all above average in the outfield, though when Craig Monroe starts out there, they lose something but gain power at the plate.
Surprisingly, Jack Wilson is playing below league average (at least in range factor) and the team struggles defensively behind the plate. But the defense seems to be a strength and not a weakness and should help the team stay competitive.
There is a good feeling about this team. And it's been way too long since we've been able to say that about the Pittsburgh Pirates.