Column: Pirates’ season a pleasant surprise for fan



The Pittsburgh Pirates Corey Dickerson (12) reaches second base with a double ahead of the tag from Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist in the ninth inning April 12 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

In one of Pittsburgh’s colder Aprils in recent memory, the Pittsburgh Pirates have remained hot, though it didn’t seem it would be that way just a few weeks ago.

Despite trading two All-Stars — outfielder Andrew McCutchen and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole — in the offseason, the Pirates stand on top of the NL Central at 11-6 and are one of the top teams in MLB right now.

The Pirates came into the season with a lot of questions and few solid answers. The fan base that has endured 20 years of losing seasons, a record in North American sports, was seemingly fed up with the team, calling for owner Bob Nutting to sell the team and for boycotts of the Pirates.

After breaking the streak and making the playoffs from 2013 to 2015, the McCutchen and Cole trades didn’t make much sense to a team that claimed it was competing for a World Series title.

So far, the fans haven’t shown up that much, with the average attendance of the first seven home games at 15,109. Even the home opener wasn’t sold out, which has only happened one other time in the 18 years of PNC Park’s existence. But the Pirates have done their best to give the disgruntled fan base a reason to support them once again.

McCutchen’s absence has not hurt the outfield, which remains one of the best in the majors. Right fielder Gregory Polanco has revitalized himself this year after a mediocre 2017 season, smashing five home runs and 15 RBIs, which rank him at sixth- and fourth- best in the MLB, respectively.

Center fielder Starling Marte, who was suspended last season for 80 games due to a drug violation, has been equally impressive. Marte has shown his speed around the basepaths early on, as he leads the league with three triples and is ranked fourth in stolen bases with five thus far.

One of the biggest surprises this season has been the ascendance of left fielder Corey Dickerson. Dickerson was acquired a month after the McCutchen trade and has made up for his absence and then some. In the wins above replacement statistic, Dickerson is the best in the majors at 1.5. His 20 hits and .351 average have him at eighth in the majors in both categories and he ranks second with seven doubles this year.

The offense has not only been a catalyst for the Pirates — the starting pitching has also held its own throughout April. Jameson Taillon has not only been the best pitcher on the Pirates, but also is possibly the best pitcher in the majors so far this year. His 0.89 ERA is best in the majors for starters and his nine hits allowed among qualified starts are the fourth best. He also holds a WAR of 1.1 and a walks plus hits per inning pitched of 0.69, which are fourth and seventh in the MLB, respectively.

Following Taillon is Trevor Williams, who has exceeded expectations as the second in the starting rotation. Williams is currently one of the best pitchers in the National League, as he has won all three of his starts to begin 3-0 on the season and has the 10th-best ERA at 1.93.

Rounding out the talented rotation is Felipe Vazquez, formerly known as Felipe Rivero. Vazquez was the one player on whom the Pirates actually spent good money in the offseason — with a $22 million four-year contract — and he has done well so far. Aside from giving up four runs in the first game of the season, Vazquez has not given up a point since and has shut down Pirate opponents. His five saves on the season are tied for fourth in the National League.

Though the hot start is exciting, fans should express some caution. The Pirates have played some of the worst teams in baseball in the early stages of the season. They swept the Detroit Tigers and won series against the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins, all of whom are at the bottom of their respective divisions.

While the Pirates split a two-game series with the Minnesota Twins — an AL Wild Card last year — and won a series at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, the schedule will get tougher going into the next month.

After the next two series against relatively weaker teams — the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tigers — the Pirates will play the St. Louis Cardinals, against whom they generally struggle, the Washington Nationals, last year’s NL East division champion, and an away series in Milwaukee, where they almost never win.

This difficult stretch will show Pittsburgh fans if the Pirates are contenders, or simply a team that boosted their statistics against easy opponents.