2015 Pittsburgh Pirates: Why they’ll win the NL Central

Vernon Law

Vernon Law is one of two Pirates to have won the Cy Young Award, both in pennant-winning years. Law won for the 1960 Pirates, and Doug Drabek 30 years later. Law’s came in his ninth major-league season, having missed two to military service, at the age of 30. Law won 20 games with a 3.08 ERA and pitched an NL-best 18 complete games; his 271.2 innings ranked fourth. He tied for sixth in the MVP vote; Pirates were 1-2-6-8-12-20 in the vote (Dick Groat, Don Hoak, Law, Roberto Clemente, who was none too pleased with his place, Roy Face and Smokey Burgess). Law won two more games in the Series, Game 1 by 6-4 and Game 4 by 3-2, and had a 4-0 lead in Game 7 until the Yankees scored one in the fifth and four in the sixth. Law was 18-9 with 20 complete games in 1959 in 266 innings, and after being curtailed by arm injuries following his Cy Young season, he was 17-9 with a 2.15 ERA in ’65, and was named the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year. Law received MVP votes four times: 23rd in ’55 (10-10, 3.81, eight complete games, one save); 19th in ’59, sixth in ’60 and 17th in ’65. He received Cy Young votes only in 1960. Nicknamed the Deacon (Law was ordained in the Church of Latter-Day Saints), Law was a capable hitter. He had 12 home runs in his 17 seasons, and knocked in 12 and had six extra-base hits in ’58. Law’s son Vance was an infielder for five teams from 1980-91. Career numbers: 162-147, 3.77 ERA, 2,672 innings, 1,092 innings, 119 complete games, 28 shutouts, 13 saves, 101 ERA+, .720 OPS against, 2.011 walks per nine innings, 96th-best all-time, 26.2 WAR, 49 Hall of Fame votes in seven elections from 1973-79, though never more than 2.4% of the vote.

On deck: Gerrit Cole was the first pick of the 2011 draft and Jameson Taillon was the second pick of the previous draft. Neither has disappointed, apart from Taillon’s 2014 injury, but neither may be the best young pitcher the Pirates produce. That may yet be Tyler Glasnow, the 152d pick and first of the fifth round in 2011. Glasnow is 6-foot-7 and 21 years old and as stingy yielding base hits as the Pirates once were with big contracts. In 274 minor-league innings, Glasnow has given up 151 hits; in his last two seasons of Class A he’s given up 128 hits in 235.2 innings with 321 strikeouts and ERAs of 2.18 and 1.74, the kinds of numbers in the majors worth mega-contracts. Opposing batters have hit just .171 and .141 against him the last two seasons. Glasnow also improved in two areas last year: control of the strike zone — he walked fewer (57-61) in more innings (124.1-111.1) and control of the long ball — he allowed fewer home runs (3-9) in more innings.

Trivia: Who was the winning pitcher in the deciding game the last time the Pirates won a playoff series (2013’s wild-card game doesn’t count)? Answer below.

What he said: Former Pirates catcher Russell Martin: “I never felt as appreciated as I was in Pittsburgh, by the fans, by the organization, by my teammates.” What he meant: “Until the Blue Jays showed me the money.”

Outlook: The Pirates won 88 games last year and made the playoffs as a wild card for a second straight season after missing them for 20.

They lost to Madison Bumgarner and the Giants, but as it turned out, they weren’t alone.

That won’t be an acceptable result in 2015, which shows what a little winning can do to your perspective.

There’s a sense the Pirates are ready to surpass the Cardinals in the NL Central. Here’s the but: they already have, except in the standings. The Pirates scored more runs than the Cardinals last year, outscored opponents by more, hit more homers, stole more bases and gave up fewer earned runs.

They did everything but win more games than the Cardinals, because the latter were 32-23 in one-run games and the former were 31-29, and because the Cardinals won 11 of the 19 the two played against each other. That more than accounts for the two-game differential in the standings.

That could be good fortune, or it could be something structural. If it’s the former, it’ll be harder to replicate.

If it’s the latter, the Pirates spent the offseason trying to correct it. They moved Pedro Alvarez off third base, where he fielded badly and hit worse (25 errors, 18 homers), to first, which, manned by Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, has been mostly a deficit in the lineup. They allowed Martin to leave — at $82 million, who could blame them? — and replaced him with Francisco Cervelli, a potential regular in search of a team. And they finally addressed the lack of offense at shortstop, signing Korean Jung Ho Kang to compete with Jordy Mercer, who hit lefties, which puts him a level above Clint Barmes, who didn’t hit anyone.

Kang homered Tuesday in his second spring training at-bat off Marco Estrada; hopefully nobody told him almost everyone homers off Estrada, who led MLB by allowing 29 of them last year.

What the Pirates really need is for Kang or second-year outfielder Gregory Polanco to get on base at the top of the order because Starling Marte (33 walks, 131 strikeouts) probably won’t unless he gets hit by a pitch (17 times last year). The player who does that better than any other Pirate is the player who does everything better than any other Pirate. Andrew McCutchen walked 84 times last year; no other Pirate walked more than 59 times (that was the departed Martin) or 57 times (and that was the departed Davis). McCutchen can’t bat first and third.

The Pirates could use baserunners, good health for Cervelli, who’s never played more than 93 big-league games (especially with Chris Stewart behind him), an encore from Josh Harrison, who outperformed his previous best OPS last year by 138 points, and more depth in the bullpen.

None of those are terribly likely. They’ll have to do with the game’s most athletic and potentially best outfield, a deep reserve of minor-league pitching and a better bench. And that should be enough.

Trivia answer: The winning pitcher in the last postseason series the Pirates won was Grant Jackson, who relieved starter Jim Bibby in Game 7 of the 1979 World Series. Jackson entered with two on and two out in the bottom of the fifth, trailing 1-0, and retired Al Bumbry on a flyout. He retired seven straight before walking two in the bottom of the eighth, which brought on Kent Tekulve for the final five outs of the Pirates’ 4-1 win. The Pirates, as they did in 1971, spotted the Orioles a 3-1 Series lead before winning. Jackson was a big reason why, pitching 4.2 scoreless innings over four games. For his career, Jackson was 3-0 in the postseason (1-0 for the Orioles) with a 2.55 ERA over 17.2 innings.

Team song: Charlie Parker: Now’s The Time

This entry was posted in baseball, spring training capsule and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s