This is part two of a three-part series detailing keys to a Pittsburgh Pirates postseason appearance in 2019. Part one touched on the Pirates acquiring a fifth starter, increasing payroll, and seeing a more consistent Corey Dickerson.
6. The Cole Deal Becomes a Win
Before last season, the Pirates traded pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. In return, they received pitcher Joe Musgrove, among other pieces. Despite Cole competing for a 2018 Cy Young award, this trade can still be a win for the Pirates.
So what needs to happen for it to become a Pirates win?
Musgrove needs to be a reliable starter. The Pirates recent playoff seasons have consistently required four good starting pitchers. Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer can both be aces at the top of the staff and Trevor Williams fits nicely as the third. The top three are in place with the fourth spot ready for the taking. Recently, Cody Flavell took a look pitching options.
Musgrove began last season on the Disabled List and did not make his first Pirates start until May. However, it took him only 67 pitches over seven scoreless innings to clinch the win. He finished May surrendering only one earned run in 14 innings pitched.
While Musgrove suffered a bad June, he did improve as the season continued. In the second half, he walked only seven hitters compared to sixteen in the first half. His BAA (batting average against) also dropped from a .271 in the first half to .236 in the second. This helped his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) drop from a 1.38 in the first half, down to a 1.01 in the second half.
Meanwhile, Musgrove finished with a season WHIP of 1.18. For reference, Taillon and Williams also finished with a 1.18 WHIP last year, putting them among the top 30 starters that qualified.
Joe Musgrove being a reliable starter — and possibly battling his way into the top three — will make the Cole trade look much better and put the Pirates in the postseason conversation.
When a team like the Pirates will not invest in power, they need to create offense. It is difficult to create offense if runners are giving up outs on the base paths. The Pirates are constantly making bad base running decisions during balls in play.
It is tough to find statistics on runners thrown out in certain situations. However, the Pirates suffered a series sweep last year where base running played a major factor. The Pirates were thrown out six times at third base with either no outs or two outs during a three game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three of these incidents occurred in the same game.
It is taught in Little League not to make the first or third out at third base. If nine and ten year old kids can learn it, why can young adults paid to play the game not grasp this? And this is just one example of Pirates base running gaffes.
Another area the Pirates struggle with is throwing to the correct base. Over the last few seasons, a Pirates outfielder or cut-off man made a throw to home plate, without a chance of getting the runner out. While these throws are traveling to the plate, it allows other opposing base runners to move into scoring position. Outfielders need to know their strength and there needs to be better communication with the cut-off men. These fundamental mistakes are not acceptable at the professional level.
The overall lack of fundamentals is on manager Clint Hurdle. These are easily teachable moments that turn a good team into a great team. Hurdle must address these areas in Spring Training for the Pirates to make the postseason.
4. Felipe Melancon, Keone Watson and Richard Hughes
The above names look like bad combinations of celebrity couples.
However, the point is this year’s back-end bullpen arms need to be as good as the ones from 2015. The Pirates have not had automatic outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings since Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon held those spots respectively.
In 2015, the Pirates had a bullpen ERA of 2.67 and led the league in bullpen ERA. Since then, the Pirates bullpen has gotten progressively worse. Last year, they were 14th in the league with an ERA of 4.03. Hoping to improve on that in 2019 is closer Felipe Vazquez, eighth inning man Keone Kela and seventh inning man Richard Rodriguez.
The Pirates strength this year should be starting pitching. However, playoff teams have strong rotations, followed by stronger bullpens. Evident by the fact that the top five bullpens in the league last year all made the playoffs, including seven of the top ten.
If Vazquez, Kela and Rodriguez have success similar to 2015, the Pirates will be in a position to make the postseason.
PHOTO: Felipe Vazquez pitches during a game last season against the Philadelphia Phillies in July. Photo courtesy of Justin Berl/Getty Images.
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