The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team that is searching for answers right now.

If you have  all the answers then this baseball game is easy. It has to be said that a few other teams could do with that kind of insight as well, including the 2016 Fall Classic champions.
A playoff spot is already in danger of disappearing over the horizon and we haven’t reached the end of May yet. The Pirates are already 5.5 games out of the division, and the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Pirate-killers Cincinnati Reds form a division that is tougher – at least internally – than many assumed.

As of May 19, the Pirates are +3300 according to Betway Sports to win the National League Central division. The .5 game deficit in the division is  as of now replicated in the wildcard standings.

There’s promise there, that much we know. The club’s intra-division record causes much furrowing of brows. Inexplicably, the Reds lead the series 1-6 while Chicago Cubs, the reigning World Series champions, trail the Pirates 4-2. While you might expect the Cardinals to have a winning record against the Pirates, the Brewers are no longer a cakewalk.

Perhaps the question is not of promise, but of flattering to deceive?

General Manager Neal Huntington has all but ruled out early trades in April; understandably so given the season is still in its early throes. However, the calendar is about to flip  Even now, there are still 10 weeks to the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31; there is a solution but getting the answers is not easy.

Soccer fans like to quote a “game of two halves”. The Pirates is a club of two teams, performing at different levels. The pitchers are among some of the best in the majors at the moment; However, there is a worrying trend developing.

Slip, sliding away

A month ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation’s ERA was 3.41, the sixth best in the majors. It’s now 4.11 and fallen to thirteenth overall in MLB. Continue to fall and the issues with the season fall more sharply into focus.

Exacerbating the problem is the offensive game. The streak of six straight defeats is over, replaced by a run of one defeat in four games, to May 18. The Pirates need to start outweighing the defeats with streaks of wins. So far, three-in-a-row is the best achieved this season on three occasions with none since the end of April.

At its most basic, the offense is showing no sign of improvement. 2016’s Hits per Run was 1.96, the same as it is now. In the last three games, that is down to 1.4 which points not only to problems with the bat but also a current trend in baseball.

More home runs are being scored with most expectations that the bumper 2016 will be beaten by 2017. If batters are focussing on home runs, the prospects of pinch hit scores or doubles diminishes, leaving RPH falling. The Pirates record reflects that. In 2014, it was 2.1, falling to 2.09 a year on and down again thus far. It may not stay that way given there is just one quarter of the season played.

Hitting With Confidence

Enticing more from the existing roster is not just down to numbers. Andrew McCutchen nailed the fundamental issue with the Pirates hitting at the moment. After last year’s dip in form, the mental aspect of baseball came to the fore. “I thought too much last year,” he said on May 12, 2017. “You think too much, you’re not going to do too well in this game. Just trying to simplify. Whatever it takes to hit the ball, just hit it. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

“When things are going well, you ain’t thinking about crap except hitting the ball — hitting the crap out of the ball,” he continued, before finishing with,”That’s about it. They always say, ‘When you’re in the zone, what are you thinking about?’ Like, nothing. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

And that could the simple problem to be solved. How to tap into the hitters psyche and keep them focused on keeping it simple. Confidence is such a transient asset for a team to hold; it leaves quickly and is tough to recover. The Pirates have got to tap into this strength and continuing the winning streak to the end of the month will go a long way toward restoring self-belief to the roster.

When that happens, improving on last season’s 3rd place finish is achievable, as is finishing closer than 25 games behind.

Tyler Waite

Tyler is a data analyst by day and an aspiring sports writer by night. He's been a Pittsburgh sports fan his entire life, but has a special place for the Pirates. He is fascinated by the analytical side of the game, and wants to impart his analysis as both a writer and as a fan to Pirate fans everywhere.