Now that we're to the All Star break, try this on for size. The Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League, the top Cy Young candidate is a 37-year old who has been devastating with the knuckle ball, and the standings are dotted with surprising teams who are over .500 like Cleveland and Baltimore while disappointments loom in the form of Detroit and Philadelphia.
However, through all that, one team has managed to start taking over the headlines of Major League Baseball after being dormant for 20 years. That team resides up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can say the starting rotation has had quite a bit to do with it. A.J. Burnett has been a golden find at the front of the Pirates rotation, and James McDonald has had a break-out year. You can say the bullpen has been stout with Jason Grilli holding the fort, and All-Star Joel Hanrahan shutting the door.
The Pirates would ultimately not be on top of the NL Central in the first place if it wasn't for the favorite for Most Valuable Player: that would be outfielder, Andrew McCutchen. With all due respect to Joey Votto of Cincinnati and Carlos Beltran of St. Louis, the Pirates offensively have literally been carried for a large part of the year by the speed, pop, and dreadlocks of McCutchen.
The chant itself hasn't been around long. The first time I heard it was in a series a few days ago against Houston. During the broadcast, it was mentioned that Pirates faithful at PNC Park had only been chanting "MVP" for McCutchen's at bats only a couple of days prior. Now though, the chant is gaining more and more steam as it should. Why? Let's hit the way back machine to build the case for this Pirate as we stand near the middle of July.
In April, the Pirates were a losing team- in all of their losses in the month, they had scored three runs or fewer. They were setting records offensively, and not the kind you want to set. By the time the first month of the season ended, the Pirates were mired just below .500 at 10-12. Then, the calendar turned to May.
McCutchen still continued to carry the offense for the Bucs. He raised his batting average like the Pirates raise the Jolly Roger after home wins. He collected 8 multi-hit games, and 31 overall hits while raising his average 29 points. That wasn't all though. While Garrett Jones was starting to slump, Pedro Alvarez was hovering around the Mendoza line (.205 average) with 57 strikeouts, and there was little to no production throughout the rest of the line-up, McCutchen still continued to do it all. However, it all translated to more wins- 15 in the month of May.
All of a sudden, the Pirates have now been about as hot as the weather throughout the country. The bats are getting better. Drew Sutton has been a nice addition of late to the order. Neil Walker is hitting around his usual average. Alvarez has shown the power he's capable of producing more consistently than he has, and Jones has been a big improvement from the first two months to the early part of the summer.
The one constant through it all though has been McCutchen. Yes he has fewer home runs and RBIs than Beltran who has also had to deal with injuries around him. Yes, Votto has a slightly higher WAR (wins above replacement). Both can have cases built, but it comes down to a couple of simple factors. McCutchen has been for a big chunk of the season, a big spark for what was formerly a laughing stock in baseball.
Here's another statistic for you- wins. The Pirates are 9-5 against the Cardinals and Reds in games McCutchen has appeared in. He has collected a hit in 11 of those 14 contests.
Also, even through all the better days in the line-up, they just recently got out of last place in on-base percentage. The Pirates are also 25th in runs scored, and have a team batting average of .243. McCutchen's numbers couldn't be any more different, which suggests how much of the Pirates offense he really has been.
Of course you need pitching, and Pittsburgh has gotten that. Their staff has held up pretty well, and they have a stable back end of the pen. You need to score at least some runs though, and that's where the value of McCutchen has come in. Andrew ranks 1st in the National League in batting average, 2nd in hits, and 5th in RBIs. He also has an on-base percentage of .411, which is over 100 points more than his team's average.
Take McCutchen's production out, and it emphasizes the following- guess what team in the Majors has played in the most 1-run games to this point of the season? If you said the Pirates, you'd be correct. 34 of their 85 games have been decided by a single run, and they are 19-15 in those contests. McCutchen has scored or driven in a run in 19 of those 34 games with 11 of those being wins.
In a city with a historic football franchise, and an upper level hockey franchise, that "third team" in Pittsburgh's relevance scale has shot their stock way up. The only question is, "Are they here to stay?" They certainly could. Unlike last year when the Pirates were threatening the NL Central before the bottom fell out in late summer, they have an easier rest of July to set them up for the final two months. Pittsburgh doesn't face a winning team after the break until they play the Reds August 3-5. That's right- they don't play a team that is currently above .500 until then.
However, Pirates fans aren't too concerned about the future. It's been 20 years since they've had a winning record. Right now, they're enjoying the ride. Why not? Still, if you think this is just a mid-season feel good story, I'm here to say it may extend a little longer even than you think, with the possibility of a little hardware to add to the collection. After all, doesn't Clint Hurdle deserve some consideration for Manager of the Year as well?
There have been great team stories such as the Nationals, and excellent individual stories like R.A. Dickey. Still, with the Pirates now on top heading into the All Star break, and now having a steady captain guiding this ship over much calmer waters than how off course this organization has been over the past two decades this is a story that has already and will continue to capture the baseball world as long as it lasts.
LOCAL BASEBALL OBSERVATIONS:
Let's take the Louisiana flavor of what's going on in the first half of the year with some players. With Ken Trahan's Hometown Heroes feature every Wednesday on sportsnola.com, you can keep track of all players from across the state or who prepped at Louisiana colleges, and what they're doing in the Major or Minor Leagues. Here are some observations I have though about some guys born in the Pelican state.
-Continuing with the Pirates theme here, Alex Presley (Monroe, Louisiana/Neville) is currently on the disabled list with a concussion after making a diving attempt at a fly ball in left field several days ago. It's a hiccup for Presley who had just started to come back around after his batting average dropped to as low as .220 on May 15th. Since then, Presley got his average back up to .242. Now his bat had improved before the injury, and he does offer a fair option when at his best near the top of the order.
-Speaking of great stories, how about Wade Miley? The Hammond native, and former Southeastern stand-out has been a steady hand for the Arizona Diamondbacks rotation. There were doubts before the season that Miley would even make the Major League squad. His response? An ERA just a shade over 3.00 and becoming the lone Diamondbacks representative for the All Star Game on Tuesday night. Since being inserted into the starting rotation, Miley has worked deep into games. He has failed to make it to the 6th inning only once in 14 starts, and also has solid command of the strike zone.
-Ryan Theriot has been an underrated cog in the San Francisco Giants offense. He has collected a hit in 24 of his last 32 games. While not drawing a lot of walks, Theriot also doesn't strike out as often either (24 in 207 at bats). The Baton Rouge native sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with the likes of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Melky Cabrera in the same line-up, but Theriot has held his own for a Giants offense that has hit for average pretty well, but has struggled to score runs.
-Andy Pettitte's return to baseball, and to the team with the best record in the Majors has had its share of ups and downs, but a fractured ankle has landed the Baton Rouge native on the disabled list for two months. With the timetable, he should return in time for the final month of the regular season, but from what Pettitte has shown thus far pre-injury, he could be a pitcher who returns to his status as a reliable second starter in the postseason as long as that rotation gets healthy again.
-I have a question that may be premature. Is Johnny Giavotella a 4-A player? For those who haven't heard of that term before, it's used to describe a player good enough to go through the minor leagues, but one who can't stick at the Major League level. It's still too early to tell for sure. Giavotella got the call to the Kansas City Royals earlier this season, but struggled with consistency at the plate before getting optioned back down to AAA Omaha again. The former Jesuit and UNO star has torn up minor league pitching, and has done it again this year by batting .321 with 8 home runs and 38 RBIs. Two calls to the Major Leagues have resulted in short stints though, and he didn't make the Royals roster out of Spring Training. There's still plenty of time for this young man to make that final push to a long term career in the Majors, but if this trend continues over the next couple of years, the answer to this question will become very clear. If I had to guess though, I'd say Giavotella is a regular Major Leaguer within two years or even possibly less than that. He's shown some flashes at Kansas City, but hasn't quite put it all together yet.
-Luke Montz recently celebrated his 29th birthday with a bash- literally. The Lafayette native playing for the New Orleans Zephyrs hit 2 of the Z's 7 home runs in a 9-5 win on Saturday against Oklahoma City. Montz has had very little Major League experience, but he's hitting for very good power with 18 home runs on the season. Montz has a great opportunity to clear his previous high for home runs in a season (22 in 2011). That's if he doesn't get called up. The Marlins have struggled for all the money they dished out, and their catchers in John Buck and Brett Hayes have really struggled this season.
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