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Pirates

Five biggest positives from the 2018 Pirates at the All-star break

Chris Adamski
| Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 5:33 a.m.
Pirates outfielders Jordan Luplow, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte celebrate after sweeping a doubleheader against Brewers Saturday, July 14, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates outfielders Jordan Luplow, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte celebrate after sweeping a doubleheader against Brewers Saturday, July 14, 2018, at PNC Park.

At 48-49 at the 2018 All-Star break (don’t call it the “halfway” mark of the season. That was hit late last month after the 81st game), the Pirates are mediocre by definition. They’ve won a tad under half their games.

How the got there, though, is unconventional. They played better than .600 baseball through more than a quarter of the season, sitting in first place in the National League Central at 26-17 when play concluded May 17.

But as enjoyable as those 43 games were for Pirates fans, the next 45 were quite the opposite. While the winning percentage of the first 43 games prorates to a 98-win season, the winning percentage of the next 45 (going 14-31, or .311) extrapolates into a 50-112 season.

Then, just when it looked as if all hope was lost for this summer and fall, the Pirates won eight of the final nine heading into the break.

In reality, these Pirates aren’t a 98-win team. They aren’t a 112-loss one, either, and they certainly aren’t going to win eight of every nine they play from here on.

The 2018 Pirates are a mixed bag of good and bad. We’ll focus on the good for now. Here are the five biggest positives from the 2018 Pirates at the All-Star break:

The Pirates have one of the best outfields in baseball

No, seriously. The often-maligned Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, in addition to Tampa Bay Rays castoff Corey Dickerson (with an assist from rookies Austin Meadows and Jordan Luplow) posted the eighth-best wins above replacement of any MLB team (4.9). The Pirates outfield also ranks eighth in the majors in home runs (51), third in steals (39), eighth in batting average (.260), sixth in slugging percentage (.446), eighth in OPS (.769) and fifth in strikeout rate (19.8 percent).

Imagine where the numbers would be if Sean Rodriguez hadn’t started 10 games in the outfield.

The Pirates have one of the best bullpens in the National League

While it’s a little bit more of a stretch to make this point, the relievers have, on the whole, produced. Would you believe the Pirates are 41-1 when leading after seven innings? How about that they’re 40-2 when leading after eight? They’re even 39-4 when leading after six.

In short, when the starting pitchers and offense have gotten the ball to the bullpen with a lead, they have protected it for the most part. Yes, the likes of Michael Feliz and Dovydas Neverauskas and Josh Smoker have inflated the bullpen’s collective numbers, and, yes, closer Felipe Vazquez has had a couple high-profile meltdowns.

But the Pirates relievers rank fourth in MLB in strikeout rate (9.97 per nine innings), and only two NL bullpens have allowed fewer home runs per nine innings (0.89). The Pirates rank eighth in baseball in fielding independent pitching (3.65), according to fangraphs.com, an indicator of their performance regardless of defense.

The Pirates have some starting pitching depth

It’s not unusual for teams of all qualities to struggle once they need to get past their five-man starting rotation — presuming they have even five decent starters. The Pirates have bucked that trend this season: Outside of the five-man rotation that came out of spring training, Nick Kingham, Steven Brault and Clay Holmes have kept the Pirates in games more often than not. And that’s not even mentioning Tyler Glasnow (a former top prospect who’s in the bullpen) and Mitch Keller (currently in Triple-A, he’s one of top pitching prospects in all of baseball), nor is it noting how those who began the season at the “bottom” of the Pirates’ rotation (Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove) have had promising first halves.

This isn’t meant to be flippant: The Pirates have a stacked young (read: cheap) stable of Nos. 3-5 starters who have legitimate potential to form the bottom half of a contending-caliber rotation. The question mark lies at the top. About that lack of an ace …

Jameson Taillon finally is showing consistent signs he can be a No. 1 starter

As a former No. 2 overall draft pick, Taillon has the pedigree to lead the Pirates pitching staff. Through a combination of injuries, health scares, bad luck and inconsistent MLB performance, he largely hasn’t shown consistent ability to be anything more than a middle-of-the-rotation arm.

Is that changing now? The run Taillon is on since June 1 represents the first time in his 62-start MLB career that he’s gone eight consecutive starts without allowing more than three earned runs. His rates for strikeouts (8.7 per nine innings) and hits allowed (8.4) are career bests. For the season (including a rough eight-start stretch from mid-April through May), Taillon is 10th in the NL in fielding-independent pitching, per fangraphs.com. According to ESPN, only 10 NL starting pitchers have a better WAR (2.0).

Francisco Cervelli might just have been the MLB’s best offensive catcher so far in 2018

His health is a major concern (he is currently on the concussion disabled list for a second time this season), but when Cervelli is playing it could be argued that no one has been better. Only one catcher (Miami’s J.T. Realmuto) has a better OPS than Cervelli’s .839. Only Realmuto and the Cubs’ Willson Contreras have a better WAR than his 2.2. No catcher who has played as many games as Cervelli (60) has a better on-base percentage (.379) and just four have a better slugging percentage (.460). His defensive metrics are strong, too.

Of course, Cervelli’s health — and his contract (more than $16.5 million due from now until the end of 2019) — have left questions about whether he will be a catcher — or a Pirate — for long.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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