The 2017 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates has not gone to plan at this point, to say the least.
With still 122 games remaining on the schedule, the team certainly has enough time to turn the season around. It will be an uphill battle for sure but the next few weeks are going to be pivotal for the club. That being said, let’s take a look at some of the high and lows from the first quarter of the season.
Games back in the NL Central: 5.5
Games back of final Wild Card in NL: 5.5
Even though the team’s record is much worse than expected, there has been some bright spots on the team so far. Josh Harrison has clubbed five home runs already this season, surpassing the four he hit in each of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He’s also walking a little more than he did last season (3.9 percent of the time as opposed to 3.4 a year ago). His offensive boost can really be seen in some of the advanced statistics: his wRC+ of 124 is much better than the 87 he put up in 2016 and his wOBA of .361 is crushing the .301 he had in 2016. Harrison’s value to the team and ability to move around the diamond is more apparent this year since some key pieces are missing from the puzzle.
Since coming over from the New York Yankees and resigning with Pittsburgh for three years, Ivan Nova has been as good as advertised. Sure, his BB/9 has gone up to .66 from the ridiculous .42 he compiled after the trade, but that figure for this year so far still puts him in with the best in the league. While his ERA of 2.48 is lower than his FIP of 3.35, Nova is still one of the starting pitchers that the team, and fanbase, has been able to count on since joining the club.
Josh Bell appears to be blooming into the power bat that the Pirates were hoping he could be when they drafted him. This season he has clubbed eight home runs so far from both sides of the plate. Not only that but his BABIP of .256 is below what was projected, so Bell very well could have some more hits coming this season. If there was one area of Bell’s game that had management concerned, it was his defense at first base. But so far this season Bell has done a fine job at first, committing just one error in 261.2 innings, good for a .996 fielding percentage. So if Bell can continue to hit like he has this season while getting better at first base, the Pirates may be in good shape at this position for years to come.
Another pleasant surprise in the early 2017 season is David Freese. While it is a small sample size of just 83 plate appearances, Freese’s numbers are all very encouraging at this stage of his career. He is walking 13.3 percent of the time (as opposed to 9.1 last season) and he has cut his strikeout rate down to 186.9 from 28.9 in 2016. His ISO of .171 indicates that he is hitting for a decent amount of power this season, and Freese’s ability to play both both corner positions in the infield makes him a very valuable commodity.
One reason that this team finds itself in the position that it is in is because of events that transpired off the field. The team has been without Jung ho Kang for the season up to this point because he was unable to secure a work visa. He was unable to secure his work visa for this season due to his most recent DUI (and third overall, if you are scoring at home). His suspended prison sentence was upheld in a South Korean court on May 18th so more than likely he will not suit up for the Pirates this season. One has to consider that his entire career with the Pirates (and probably in Major League Baseball) could be over as well.
Then in the third week of the season, news broke that Starling Marte tested positive for a banned substance and would be suspended for 80 games, dealing yet another blow to an already power starved lineup. Disappointment and anger aside, Marte’s suspension and Kang’s inability to come to the United States means that the Pirates will play the majority of the 2017 without two of their top three players in WAR last season.
The Pirates were dealt another, and much scarier blow at the beginning of May when it was announced that Jameson Taillon was treated for suspected testicular cancer. Taillon was one of the most promising young pitchers in the game and had overcome a number of other injuries before finally being called up to the Pirates last season. Obviously Taillon’s health and well being are the biggest concern here, but it now appears that the Pirates will be without one of their top of the rotation options for the foreseeable future.
On the field, the team has seen a few players who were counted on to carry the team play at a subpar level so far this season. Gregory Polanco has just one home run in 135 plate appearances, which is on pace to be nowhere near what he did last season (22 home runs in 587 plate appearances). His BABIP of .290 is right around what he did last season, so it’s not like he is unlucky this season. However, the ISO of .118 is concerning, as it indicates he isn’t hitting for as much power has he did in the past (while his ISO of .205 last season was most likely an outlier, he is still below the .125 mark he put up in 2015).
It also appears that Andrew McCutchen’s decline is very real. He is slashing just .214/.286/.393 so far this season, which is actually worse than the .256/.336/.430 he compiled last season. With a BABIP of .225 McCutchen may be getting unlucky when it comes to where some of his balls in play land, but the numbers are still troubling. The plan this offseason was to move him out of centerfield, but Marte’s suspension resulted in McCutchen moving back to his usual position. However, with the team unlikely to exercise his option for 2018, it will come as a surprise to no one if they try to move him at the trade deadline. This will be especially true if the team continues to play sub .500 baseball.
There is still plenty of time for the Pirates to turn the season around and get back into the discussion for the division or a Wild Card spot, but it will not be easy. So far this season, 2017 has just felt like it’s not the team’s year, whether it be because of poor play on the field or a bevy of off the field incidents and illnesses that have removed key players from the roster. Check back in 40 games to see how the Pirates are doing at the halfway point of the season. Hopefully that review is a little more positive than this one!