, pub-3283090343984743, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 The Pirates’ Hot Start Has Boosted Their NL Central Chances
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The Pirates’ Hot Start Has Boosted Their NL Central Chances

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We’re two weeks into the 2024 season — Seoul Series excepted — so it’s difficult to take any hot start too seriously. Still, it’s a surprise that the Pirates entered Thursday with the National League’s highest winning percentage (.750, on the back of a 9-3 record), despite losing to the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Since this isn’t the kind of condition that has tended to prevail after April in recent years, we’ll zoom in for a closer look.

The Pirates entered 2024 having finished below .500 in five straight seasons and seven out of the past eight, with an 82-79 record in 2018 constituting the lone exception; last year’s 76-86 record was their best since then, a 14-win improvement over 2022. While they did not have a particularly auspicious winter, they didn’t sit still, with general manager Ben Cherington signing half a dozen players — including four former All-Stars (Aroldis Chapman, Yasmani Grandal, Martín Pérez, and Andrew McCutchen, the last of them re-upping) and a Gold Glove winner (Michael A. Taylor) — to one-year contracts worth anywhere from $2.5 million to $10 million, with a couple notable minor league deals as well (Domingo Germán and Eric Lauer). Cherington also made a handful of trades, most notably adding Marco Gonzales and Edward Olivares. The team’s biggest move was inking top starter Mitch Keller to a five-year, $77 million extension that suggests he’ll outlast all of the newcomers.

None of the additions appeared as though they would move the needle by much. At the outset of the season, the Pirates were projected for 77.5 wins and a fifth-place finish in the NL Central according to our playoff odds. Even with the Cardinals forecast for just 83.3 wins, and the division’s other three teams somewhere in between, that projection gave Pittsburgh just an 8.8% chance of winning the division and a 16.2% chance of making the playoffs. Among NL teams, only the Nationals (0.2%) and Rockies (0.0%) had worse odds.

At 9-3, the Pirates have matched their 2018 team for the most wins within the first 12 games. Not since 1992, when Jim Leyland piloted Barry Bonds and friends to a 10-2 start and a 96-win season that fell one ninth-inning rally short of a pennant, have they started the year better. In their burst of 21st-century competitiveness — three straight second-place finishes and Wild Card berths from 2013–15, with a high of 98 wins in the last of those years — they were 6-6 at this juncture each time.

Though they’re obviously not going to continue playing at a .750 clip and have benefited from winning close games — they’re 3-0 in extra innings, most notably — the Pirates do own the league’s second-largest run differential (+19, tied with the Cubs and trailing only the Braves’ +26). They’re about one win ahead of both their .651 Pythagenpat winning percentage (seventh in the majors) and their .709 BaseRuns wining percentage (second). They’ve been effective on both sides of the ball, scoring 5.75 runs per game (tied for fourth in the NL) while allowing 4.17 (first). That’s particularly surprising given that they ranked in the NL’s bottom five in both categories last year, with their 4.27 runs per game scored placing 13th and their 4.86 runs allowed 11th.

For starters, this is a very different rotation from last season, with the 28-year-old Keller, one of their two All-Stars, the only holdover from the beginning of last year and the lone standout on a unit that wound up ranked among the bottom third of the league in ERA (4.88), FIP (4.63) and WAR (6.9). None of Cherington’s moves to upgrade the unit — which ranked 26th in our preseason positional power rankings — were sexy. He added Pérez, a 33-year-old lefty, on a one-year, $8 million free agent deal, and traded for Bailey Falter, a 26-year-old lefty, last August and Gonzales, a 32-year-old lefty, in December. Keller didn’t pitch well in either of his first two starts of the season, allowing five runs (four earned) against both the Marlins and Nationals, but seemed to turn a corner on Monday, holding the Tigers to two runs in six innings while striking out nine.

More impressive in the early going has been Pérez. He made his first All-Star team with the Rangers in 2022 but regressed to a 4.45 ERA and 4.99 FIP last year, losing his rotation spot. He’s put up a 1.89 ERA and 3.12 FIP through three starts, the best of which was an eight-inning, one-run, seven-strikeout effort on Tuesday that was undone by David Bednar’s ugly performance in the ninth (more on which below). As was the case in Texas, he’s emerged as a mentor to the team’s young pitchers.

The real excitement is with regards to 22-year-old righty Jared Jones, a 2020 second-round pick who placed 62nd on our Top 100 Prospects list and made the team out of spring training after splitting last season between Double- and Triple-A. The 6-foot-1 righty owns a four-seamer that sits 94-98 mph and was clocked as high as 99.9 mph in his debut on March 30. Thanks to its vertical movement and his low arm slot, it ranks second via PitchingBot and first via Stuff+ thus far. He’s also got a plus slider that he can throw for strikes in the zone while also getting hitters to chase it out of the zone, with a curve and changeup as well. In his debut — which Ben Clemens broke down here — he struck out 10 Marlins while allowing three runs in 5.2 innings. He followed that up with a six-inning, two-run, seven-strikeout performance against the Orioles, with both runs allowed coming off solo homers by Ryan O’Hearn and Gunnar Henderson. Between the heater and the slider alone, he’s generated 41 whiffs in his two starts, and despite 30/45 grades on his command, he’s walked just two batters while striking out 17.

At the other end of the spectrum, Falter was dreadful for the Pirates last year, posting a 7.67 ERA and 6.70 FIP in seven starts after being acquired from the Phillies. His first start of the season continued the trend, as he was rocked for six runs in four innings by the Marlins on March 31, but he responded with a gem on April 6, spinning six innings of scoreless one-hit ball against the Orioles. He’s probably just keeping the seat warm for another starter, whether it’s Germán, who signed in mid-March, in the near term, or last year’s number one draft pick, Paul Skenes, who has struck out 11 while allowing just one hit and one walk in six innings at Indianapolis.

Based on our positional power rankings, the Pirates’ bullpen was supposed to be their strong suit relative to the competition, ranking fourth in the majors, with Chapman joining Bednar, the team’s other All-Star last year. The unit as a whole leads the NL with 0.8 WAR on the back of a 3.65 ERA and 2.94 FIP, but Bednar, who led the NL last year with 39 saves while posting a 2.00 ERA and 2.54 FIP, has been a mess, converting just one of four save chances after missing most of spring training due to a strained latissimus dorsi. The Pirates have twice overcome his surrendering game-tying runs in the ninth to win in extra innings, but on Tuesday against the Tigers, he completely lost the plot, undoing Pérez’s good work by throwing just nine of 23 pitches for strikes and retiring just one of seven hitters he faced. He hit two batters, walked one, surrendered three hits and four runs, and heard boos from the PNC Park crowd. Chapman obviously has plenty of experience as a closer and already has one save while throwing 4.1 hitless innings, but manager Derek Shelton isn’t ready to make a switch.

As for the offense, four positions have turned over since last year, counting the return of shortstop Oneil Cruz, who played just nine games in 2023 before fracturing his left fibula in a home plate collision. The 6-foot-7 shortstop is brimming with talent, and so far he’s hit .298/.340/.447 (110 wRC+) with a pair of homers, but he’s also struck out 34% of the time and is hitting two grounders for every fly ball — not the best use of his 80-grade raw power.

The most impactful newcomer so far is the 33-year-old Taylor, who wasn’t signed until mid-March. Not only is he hitting .375/.389/.469 (130 wRC+) through 36 PA, but his presence in center has given Shelton the flexibility to create a defensively superior alignment by moving Jack Suwinski, who made 112 starts in center field last year, to left and Bryan Reynolds, who started 112 times in left, to right. Given that Reynolds has six starts in left and four in right, and that Olivares and Connor Joe have each made four starts in right, it’s not entirely clear how Shelton plans to divide the playing time; Suwinski is the only lefty, Reynolds a switch-hitter, everybody else righties. Olivares (.321/.367/.679, 179 wRC+ with three homers in 30 PA) and Joe (.324/.444/.541, 170 wRC+) have swung particularly potent bats so far, with the former driving home the latter in a walk-off win against the Orioles on Sunday, a day after Cruz had notched a walk-off RBI in the 11th inning against Baltimore.

Reynolds (119 wRC+) and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (120 wRC+) have both been effective so far; they represent the principals at two of the three position player spots where the Pirates placed among the top 15 in our power rankings (Suwinski and the left fielders was the other). First baseman Rowdy Tellez, one of the newcomers, has hit for a 115 wRC+ as well. On the other side, Suwinksi (50 wRC+) and McCutchen (87 wRC+) have both struggled, with the former’s contact particularly poor.

The situation that most bears watching is that of Henry Davis, the top pick of the 2021 draft. Davis debuted on June 19 last year but hit just .213/.302/.351 (76 wRC+) while striking out 27.1% of the time, and what’s more, the Pirates played him behind the plate for a total of two innings, instead starting him in right field 49 times, where the metrics say he was dreadful (-9 DRS, -8.2 UZR, -5 RAA). The Pirates coaches worked with him behind the scenes last year to improve his receiving, and with a strong spring training both at the plate and behind it — not to mention Grandal’s bout of plantar fasciitis — he won the starting job. He’s caught in nine games, but has hit just .156/.293/.219 with a 29.3% strikeout rate. On April 2, the Pirates acquired 27-year-old former no. 2 pick Joey Bart in a trade from the Giants, and he homered and doubled in his debut four days later. Given that he’s out of options, the team could face a decision point with Davis when Grandal finishes rehabbing, which is expected to be near the end of the month.

Twelve games is just 12 games, but in a division whose five teams are closely clustered in talent, the Pirates’ early run has significantly improved their chances of breaking through. Per our Playoff Odds, they’ve boosted their projected win total to 81.6, with a 17.6% chance of winning the division and a 35.7% chance of making the playoffs. Their 19.5% jump since Opening Day is the NL’s largest. Particularly if Jones continues his early success, and if Skenes eventually joins him, it could make for a much more entertaining summer than usual in Pittsburgh.