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Kovacevic: Pirates' best stars being left behind?

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

If you want one way to sweetly summarize where these Pirates stand on this Sunday that sends them off to the All-Star break, you'll probably strike out.

Way too many things have gone right.

Way too many involved.

But here's an attempt at doing exactly that, anyway: Four players — Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jeff Locke, Jason Grilli — will embark for New York to be feted among Major League Baseball's finest, all eminently deserving. And yet, a compelling case can be made that the team's best position player, best starting pitcher and best reliever won't be going.

It's amazing, really, but difficult to dispute.

In order ...

Starling Marte

Start with the leadoff guy, naturally.

There's a formula called the Elias Ratings, compiled by the thick-rimmed glasses at Elias Sports Bureau, that takes four popular all-encompassing player measures and rolls them into one. Kind of like those election polls that average out other election polls. And it takes into account bat, glove, arm, speed, anything statistically trackable.

As this is being typed, Marte ranks No. 13 among all National League position players, second among outfielders. Higher than anyone on the Pirates.

When Elias asked the computer two weeks ago to spit out what the All-Star starting lineups should look like Tuesday night, Marte was joined by the Reds' Shin Soo Choo and the Phillies' Domonic Brown.

As if you needed to hear all that, right?

What's counted most for the Pirates is that Marte, in his first full year at leadoff, has given the franchise its first real impact atop the lineup since Skinny Barry.

As Clint Hurdle put it, “The kid was challenged with this role, and he's come up huge.”

Among all of the majors' leadoff men with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, Marte ranks No. 2 in runs (59), No. 3 in hits (101) and home runs (9), No. 2 in steals (27) and fourth in OPS — on-base plus slugging percentage — at .789.

Tried running those numbers past the kid before Saturday night's game with the Mets, in the context that he, too, could have been an All-Star.

“I don't care,” Marte said. “We have great players going there. They deserve it. I know how I'm playing right now. I know the team is winning.”

Francisco Liriano

With all due respect to Locke, a stirring surprise, Liriano has pitched at a height rivaled by only one man in the majors, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.

And by the time Liriano logs enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — he's 14 shy, thanks to missing the opening month with the broken non-pitching arm — he just might be in a class by himself.

He's been that good.

Among all pitchers with 75-plus innings, Liriano ranks No. 3 in ERA (2.00), 10th in strikeouts per nine innings (9.39), and he's got 80 strikeouts overall against 28 walks. And if it's looked easy, you might also appreciate that he has yet to intentionally walk anyone and has allowed one runner to steal.

All kinds of doubt accompanied Liriano to Pittsburgh, which is why the Pirates signed him to a heavily incentive-based contract. Four of his previous five seasons saw ERAs of 5-plus.

But now …

“That's the 2006 Liriano out there,” pitching coach Ray Searage said.

That, of course, was Liriano's brilliant breakout with the Twins, ended by elbow surgery that threw his career out of control.

“This season has meant a lot to me,” Liriano said Saturday. “I've struggled. I've been hurt. It's been great so far. Hopefully, it will finish how I want.”

Mark Melancon

Someday, he'll close again. Just ask.

“I'd say that's always a goal,” Melancon said. “Any bullpen guy would tell you that.”

For now, he'll settle for being quite possibly the best reliever in any role anywhere.

Yeah, Grilli's got a stronger claim by simple virtue of being the closer. I respect when players tell me no out is tougher than the 27th. And you don't quibble with a 1.99 ERA, 0.86 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) and, of course, those 29 saves in 30 chances.

But the eighth isn't much different when looking at how most of the Pirates' victories have gone. Which is to say, they get through the seventh with a lead, and it's lights out: 43-2, to be precise.

Among all relievers with 40-plus innings, Melancon's 0.81 ERA ranks No. 1 in the majors. Best in baseball. By nearly a full run ahead of second-place Steve Delabar of the Blue Jays. Four total runs in 44 appearances.


He's also struck out 46 and walked four.


His 0.81 WHIP ranks fifth and, in the closest parallel to Grilli, he's been entrusted with 27 leads and held all but one.


That this man is not an All-Star — never mind Marte, Liriano and maybe Russell Martin, too — is the most powerful statement anyone could make about these 2013 Pirates.

“It's a special, special group, and it's so cool we have so many guys going and we still had so many others in the conversation,” Melancon said. “But the biggest thing is that we win the World Series. That's the ultimate goal, the only thing that matters.”

OK, I take it back.

What's more powerful than hearing people with the Pittsburgh Baseball Club use the term “World Series” as anything other than a punch line in July?

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